Note: This story was betaed by Lyn and Xasphie; it's from last year and previously appeared in a fanzine.(Chinook # 5). Now timed out, but the timing seems oddly appropriate as there's a discussion going on on one of my LJ communities that has a lot to do with individual boundaries. From June 2005 to November 2006 I attended a class in trauma counseling that confirmed a lot I already knew about mine. I have written about the aftermath of sexual violence, and I'd like to believe that subject is something I can cope with, because there are helpful techniques out there, lots of knowledge and literature. The other side of trauma, natural disasters, plane crashes or extreme accidents - guess I've found my boundary here. And still, I wanted to explore it.
One Day In The Life...
Thanks to a stakeout the night before, Blair wasn't quite as awake as he should have been as he sat in his office mentally preparing himself for his next class. And so, it was via the radio playing softly in the background that the news reached him.
When the music was interrupted for the announcement of a severe train accident about ten miles from Cascade's central station, at first it was nothing but the unsettling feeling you always get from that kind of news, an unexpected surge of adrenaline.
Of course, there was nothing he could do about it, and he still had to hold that class, but... The disembodied voice on the radio now gave the number of a hotline where concerned citizens could get further information, and that told Blair it had to be really bad. Especially when the announcer continued with the information that there had been over 200 passengers on board.
Taking a deep breath, he turned off the radio twenty minutes later and was about to leave his office, when his cell phone rang.
"Hey, Chief. I just wanted to know if you heard..." There was a certain tension in Jim's voice. It wasn't hard to guess what he was talking about.
"Yeah, just a moment ago. Don't tell me you have to go there. They said it wasn't close to the city--"
"They're requesting all available personnel," Jim interrupted him. "We're on the way now."
"Okay, where can I meet you?"
"You stay where you are, is that understood?"
Damn it, were they going to have that same old discussion every single time now? "But Jim, I--"
"No. Look, this will take quite some time. I just wanted to make sure you're okay; right now we should both do our jobs, and if you're home earlier than me, maybe you could start dinner, something like that. I don't want you out there, Chief. Please, understand."
"Well, it doesn't seem like I have a choice. All right. Stay here, start dinner later. I think I can handle that."
"Nothing. I'll see you later. Take care of yourself."
Jim had hung up already. Blair frowned at the receiver for a moment, then he said, "You, too, man," already wishing he hadn't behaved like a sullen child, wondering if he should cancel his classes and disregard Jim's wish anyway.
The scene was still chaotic, but there were small, visible traces of it getting under more control, like the ambulances taking off with the injured, and helpers taking care of passengers that weren't badly injured, but still disorientated and clearly traumatized.
It seemed like some obstruction of the rail bed had made the train spring off its tracks, and then it had crashed right into the rock that ascended on the left side of the trail. Jim had been able to see the heaps of twisted metal from far away, but the view close up was of another horrific quality. All incoming rescue personnel had been divided into groups that searched the wreck for survivors who were unable to make themselves heard, or were still trapped inside the train.
He tried to focus his attention on what was inside the wreckage, trying to ignore everything else.
As his gaze fell on the boy who was being treated by medics, his left leg severed, Jim was more than relieved he'd told Blair to stay at the university. With a catastrophe of this dimension, he'd be needed there, too.
Beside him, Rafe shuddered, before he said, "Damn it. This looks like war."
Jim just nodded grimly.
The students stood together in groups, with hardly anyone sitting on their seats, as Blair entered the room. He'd decided to try and get this class done at least, hoping that Jim would call again if necessary. As long as there was nothing he could actually help with, it was probably best to go on with life as normal as possible.
"The class will take place as usual, but... I'm sure you've all heard about that train by now, and if somebody needs to check on friends or family, I understand. You can go now."
Most of them started to sit down, except for a young woman that was looking lost, crying, the cell phone clutched in her hands. Another woman was talking to her softly.
"Hey, Val. Are you okay?" She tried to talk, but couldn't stop the tears. Valerie's friend looked up at Blair somberly. "Her brother was -- is on that train. She can't reach him, neither can her parents."
"I'm sorry, Val, of course you can go home. I hope you'll hear from him soon. Can you go with her?" he asked the other woman.
They both gathered their things and left the room, leaving a roomful of shocked silent people behind.
Blair was once more torn between being annoyed at Jim, and, at the same time, touched about how he had insisted on sparing him those images. Determined to do his share, Blair went on with the class.
"Come on, Miss. We've got to get you out of here."
"No. No, I can't."
There were nightmares, and then there were things like these... Jim thought that maybe he wouldn't have reacted any differently in her situation. Would anyone? The young woman had been found behind a crumpled seat, with a concussion and a broken leg, so much he could determine, but she would live. He wanted her out of there, safely in a hospital, but she started screaming every time anybody got near her.
Her heartbeat was going fast, erratic, and she needed medication. She wouldn't let go of her dead baby.
"I'll take care of her," he promised, scooting closer in the narrow space, laying his hand over her cold one. "Just give her to me for a moment so we can free you. Trust me."
She didn't calm down as much as the pain was eventually overwhelming her, so she gave in. Holding the small, lifeless body in his arms, the temptation to zone was very present, but Jim didn't give in to it.
You wouldn't have thought that a place like the university, with so many people going about their activities, could be so subdued, as a whole. Conversations hardly had any other subject, and everyone who dared to laugh, looked around kind of nervously, as if expecting to be admonished for it.
It was just impossible to be happy and carefree on a day like this in Cascade.
Hilary Compton had been with the Anthropology department for fifteen years, a well-respected teacher and researcher; Blair had worked with her on many different projects, even after he'd chosen Eli Stoddard as his mentor.
When he passed her office, the door was left ajar; and he could hear her crying inside. After a soft knock on the door, he went inside.
"Hilary. Can I do something for you?"
//Oh please, let it be something totally unrelated...//
However, he wasn't that lucky.
"Blair. Come in." She had a small TV set on a shelf with the news on; news on and off the crash site could be seen. "Might as well turn the damn thing off, there's nothing I can do anymore."
"Someone you know?" he asked softly.
"Dana," she whispered.
//Oh, no.// At the mention of her name, Blair felt like he'd been punched in the gut, and he needed a moment to compose himself. Dana was Hilary's daughter, a few years younger than Blair. He'd met her a couple of times at the Compton's home, helped her with a test a time or two. To imagine that she was gone...
"Are you sure?"
"They found some ID with her, and I know what she wore today..."
For this there were no words. Blair just leaned forward and embraced her, feeling close to tears himself. And he was trying to get himself together and remember if there could be anyone else involved that he knew and cared about.
Except for Jim who was having to face the catastrophe close up at the moment.
"You should take a break, Jim. Don't overdo it; we still need you here."
Simon was very serious, and probably right, but there was no alternative. "I can make out heartbeats, see if there are more alive in there. There might be people who don't have the time."
But he let himself be convinced to take a minute and call Sandburg; just a moment to listen to the familiar heartbeat over the line might help.
In the cafeteria, there was also a TV on. Not that anybody cared much about eating now, but Blair had gotten himself some coffee before the next class started. It wasn't like there could be much work done, but like most of the other teachers, he thought it was better if people stayed together for a while, not so much to study, but to have someone to talk to about what had happened, and how they felt about it.
He was, of course, concerned about those who were still worrying about friends or family in the first place, but by now, almost everybody had seen pictures from the accident, or heard about it, or knew someone who knew someone involved, and there wasn't anybody left untouched.
As a psychology minor, Blair had once done a study on the effect of media exposure to violent and catastrophic images. Pictures alone could be traumatic, even if you weren't personally involved.
During the day, he tried to offer the comfort of mere words to anyone he thought would need it, and his students seemed to appreciate the concept. He'd been sitting in his office later, talking to a young student who said he felt like crying all the time, even though he didn't know anyone who had been there, and as far as he knew, had not even lost an acquaintance.
"That's normal. It's a shock to everyone," Blair had told him.
Around late afternoon, when he'd finally been alone for a moment, Blair thought of Valerie whose brother might have survived the accident, or not. And Dana Compton. A colleague had promised to get Hilary home safely, and take care of her.
He'd always meant to call Dana, but had been so busy with his own studies, always delayed it until...
He remembered how Jim's voice had sounded when he talked about the dead baby.
And Blair took a moment for himself to cry.
"I still don't understand how you did it," Rafe said admiringly.
They had gotten a couple out, both of them seriously injured, but not life-threateningly. The man was still conscious, and had claimed their little daughter was still inside the car. Rescue workers said there was no one left alive in there.
Jim had listened hard, but was able to determine any sounds from inside of the car either. Frustration had almost gotten the better of him, but some voice inside kept nagging, //Would you fucking try?//
And he almost had zoned, concentrating so deeply, he'd had a flash of the blue spirit world, channeling - for the lack of a better term - the panther, and suddenly, there it was, the sound leading him directly to a five year old girl with long dark curls that were now dirty from the rubble. She was conscious but not aware, her wide blue eyes glassy. And he could tell by the faint and pained tiny gasps that she only had another two minutes left before she would have suffocated from the lack of oxygen.
"Just a hunch," Jim said, feeling the ghost of a smile tease his lips.
At some time, he'd locked up his office, spent a moment at the men's room to wash his face, and then driven home, stopping at a grocery store to do some shopping on the way.
Blair had bought lots of fresh vegetables, something Jim would probably make a face about, but later admit how good it tasted, freshly baked bread that was still warm, and a rather expensive bottle of wine.
While he was preparing dinner, he'd put one of his own CDs into the stereo, a collection of tribal drums.
He hadn't turned on the radio or TV since he'd been home, aware that the number of casualties would still rise. However, Blair had called Rachel, Valerie's friend, to find out that the family was at the hospital. Val's brother would live; that was at least good news.
Slowly, he was becoming a little calmer, beginning to understand what Jim had intended by refusing to allow him to come to the train wreck.
Later, he'd replaced the CD of meditation tunes with the latest Santana album - sometimes it was what you liked best that helped most.
A shower had helped, but it hadn't really cleansed his mind of the images yet. It was hard, especially since, in cases like this, you didn't even have anyone to blame for those many senseless deaths. There'd be an investigation, and maybe they'd learn that there'd been some technical difficulties. Something you were never a hundred percent safe from, because technique itself was man-made, and humans made mistakes. Not all of them led to something horrible like this, granted, but it did happen.
It was a relief to finally come home, though.
At another time, he would have been joking about the burning of scented oil, and the kitchen table that looked like it had been set for a candlelight dinner, but at the moment, he was just infinitely grateful for Blair's attempts, including the Santana CD.
That was exactly what he had hoped for, to come back to his home, his friend, and find him untainted by the catastrophe that had shaken Cascade today.
Blair looked at him, his smile genuine, if a little sad. "Look, I want you to know I understand. It seems like we did some good teamwork today, even if it wasn't at the same place. And still... I don't know, I feel guilty... because I'm relieved I didn't have to be there, but you didn't get to choose."
They both knew what he meant to say with it, and Blair just nodded. "Okay. There's just one more thing... and please, hear me out on this. I know you've seen horrible things today, and I remembered something that might help to relieve them."
"Doesn't sound too bad, Chief."
Despite all his initial griping, Jim had long since appreciated the benefits of the relaxation techniques and imagery Blair had taught him. Today, however, it was difficult. Whenever he closed his eyes, the images of the dead and injured were immediately there.
As much as he'd been skeptical about visual imagery before, he couldn't deny the fact that his senses made the impression of those images more intense, both the good and the bad.
He tried again to concentrate, focusing on Blair's voice as an anchor to the here and now.
"And now imagine some kind of container... or safe... or a vault, something where you can put all unsettling, or uncomfortable images. Take your time to imagine what it looks like..."
Jim couldn't help but smile a little. Whenever Blair slipped into Guide mode, he would effortlessly shed his hyper persona and sound so very sure and calm. It was alleviating. Sometimes, it was the only thing keeping Jim sane.
"...the color, the size, surface... the mechanism, how it opens and closes."
"Got it." //You make it easy for me.//
"Okay. Good. Now I want you to experiment with it, open and close it a couple of times. Breathe."
Jim had an idea where this was leading, and the vault his mind had conjured up, the one that should hold the potential nightmares, was huge, had to be.
"Then pick an image of something negative, but not personal for you, and try to lock it inside. I want you to think of a sign that you agree on with yourself, something that'll mean it's closed, and you're safe from it.
"Take one more moment to feel that you're here now, and safe. We're in the cleaning up process here, and there's enough time. Open your vault - and put inside what you need to from today. Don't forget your sign."
//And if it takes all night to lock 'em up, I'll be here.//
It would have been great to never need this, for anyone, but at the moment, Blair was just glad that Jim had become much more accepting of exercises like these. They were tried methods, after all. Seemed like ages ago that he'd conjured up the dials... Blair's own invention, but the use of inner images was much older even than conventional psychotherapy.
"Feel the quiet. How good it is to be safe from those images."
Jim seemed vaguely surprised when he was completely *back*. "Wow. Did you learn that in your psych classes?"
"Not really. A friend and I went to a lecture some months ago. The guy was a trauma counselor, and he spoke about this stuff he uses in workshops, visual imagery and the like. Most of that is based on old shamanic healing."
It was Dana Compton who had accompanied him to the lecture, he realized all of a sudden, and then, the dam just broke, the tears just forced their way out. "But Dana -- she's gone anyway, and I really wanted to call her, never had the time..."
His words didn't make any sense to Jim at all, but that didn't seem to matter anyway. "I know," he simply said, drawing Blair close. He might not say 'thank you' in so many words, but Jim's timing sure was flawless.
For the first time this day, Blair realized how exhausted he really was himself, and he felt how right Jim had been about his wish. They'd both done the best they could, and sometimes, this was the best they could give to *their* tribe in their respective roles.
"Thank you," Blair said. He might still be incredibly sad, but the closeness, warmth and reassuring, gave an unmistakable message. He wouldn't break, neither of them would.
Tomorrow, things wouldn't be perfect, and everybody, including the two of them, would need much longer to recover from today's shock.
But they still had each other.