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The Pelt We're Dealt

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Trigger Warning:  Abuse, child abuse/neglect, drug use.



Author's note:  I struggled with this chapter, a lot.  I'm still not sure I got it right.  I considered abandoning it, but in the end I set the story up to lead here, so it wouldn't make sense to skip it.  If you struggle, just remember that you are seeing through Nick's eyes, and both he and Mark are unreliable narrators.  They have their own flaws, and their emotions are high. 

I promise you lots of fluff in the next chapter.

 


 

 

 

Nick sauntered down the halls of ZPD, feeling pretty smug.  About a month ago he had sent an email to Chief Bogo pointing out that his syllabus didn’t include anything about addictions and mental health.  Bogo didn’t reply to the email, but a few weeks later the syllabus was amended to include a lecture on the subject.  Maybe a coincidence, but Nick couldn’t help feeling personally responsible.  He smirked at a passerby on his way to the lecture.

Precinct One was pretty big; it had tall, vaulted ceilings and skylights and a large, central staircase and, key to today’s events, two lecture theatres near the back of the building.  Today’s talk was to be in the larger of the two, which made Nick feel even better about himself, maybe they’d opened it up to mammals, and not just the new recruits?  He did see some mammals that he didn’t recognize mingling outside the lecture theatre, so that was encouraging.

“I can’t believe they’re making us do this.”  A grizzly bear was complaining nearby, dressed neatly in his constable uniform.  “I’ve been at this job for fifteen years, I think I know what addiction looks like.”  He didn’t seem to notice Nick glaring at him.

A moment later the door opened and mammals began filing in.  Nick followed, expertly dodging feet that were too large and too uncoordinated for his liking.  He darted out of the way of a polar bear but then stopped short and was nearly trampled by a hippo.

The reason that Nick stopped so suddenly was standing at the podium at the front of the room, shuffling through some notes.  His fur was sleek and well-groomed, a mixture of grey, brown, and copper.  Nick had always liked Mark’s fur pattern; it had its own sort of poetry to it, though the last time he’d seen it it had been matted and patchy.  

Mark.  Mark Ranger.

Nick’s ex was the guest lecturer for the day.  

“Out of the way, fox.”  A nearby voice growled.

Mark, hearing that, looked up from his papers to see what the commotion was.  His eyes met Nick’s and the two shocked mammals stared at each other for a long, uncomfortable moment.

By then most of the other mammals had settled in chairs around the room.  Nick wasn’t sure what his next action should be.  Did he really want to stay?

But Mark finally recovered enough to wave his paw towards the front row.  “Take a seat.”

The smaller chairs were situated right up the front of the room.  There wasn’t much other option but to take one of those.  He knew from experience that he wouldn’t be able to see much if he tried sitting near the back.  He selected the chair closest to the exit.

There were a few uncomfortable moments where neither mammal seemed to know what to do, or where to look.  Mark was shuffling his papers again, but robotically this time, as if he was just trying to pretend to look busy.  Nick traced small patterns on the desk with his claw numbly.  

Finally Mark took a deep breath and pressed a few buttons.  The lights dimmed and the slide projector hummed to life and blue light projected onto the screen.  

 

'Understanding Addiction

Mark Warden

Community Outreach Support Worker’

 

Mark avoided Nick’s eye as he began to talk, his voice projected neatly to the back of the theatre.

“My mother never wanted children.  Well, I don’t really know what she wanted, I don’t think she did either.  You see, the choice was taken away from her when she was barely more than a child herself.  She had my sister at age fifteen, and then me at age eighteen, and my brother at nineteen.  Three kids, and still a teenager herself.

“My sister raised us when my mother couldn’t.  Or wouldn’t.  I’m still not sure which it is.  My sister is the one who got us dressed, and made sure that we got to school in the morning, and home again in the afternoon.  She is the one who taught us to tie our shoes, and to spell our names, and tell time.  I’m still not sure where she learned to do these things, as nobody taught her, but she did.  She did this, by the way, as we were living out of the back of a car, or sometimes a motel room if we were lucky.  But lots of times we weren’t so lucky, and we would move in with one of my mother’s boyfriends’.  Those were the worst times.  We had food, and we had a roof over our head and sometimes a bed to sleep in, but we had… other stuff too.  Bad stuff.  My sister especially; she got the worst of it, being a girl.

“She ran away when she was sixteen.  I don’t blame her now, but I did then.  I thought she abandoned me.  I took it personally.  I started acting out.  I got punished.  I acted out more.  I got punished again.  My punishments looked different than what you would expect for a kid that age.  My mother used to brand me with a cigarette lighter on my hindquarters.  Nobody could see it, but it hurt like hell.  I couldn’t sit down in my chair at school, it hurt too much, so the teachers thought I was just being defiant.  They didn’t like me much.  I was a moody kid with bad hygiene who was behind on his studies and couldn’t sit still.  Some of them tried harder than others, but of course I didn’t really know what to expect when adults were around.  Nobody had ever taught me how to deal with any of this.”

Nick was quiet; just like the rest of the audience was.  Parts of this he already knew.  He had seen the scars.  But he’d never heard it laid out like this chronologically.  It was a lot to take in.

“And I think that’s a big part of the problem.  Nobody had ever taught me.  Nobody had ever taught me how to emotionally connect with anybody.  Not with my mother, not with my siblings, nobody.  I didn’t know that kids need eye contact, or that physical touch shouldn’t cause pain, or that fights can be resolved without screaming or throwing plates.  I didn’t know.

“My mother didn’t mean to abuse us.  She didn’t know either, nobody had taught her.  My sister didn’t mean to marry an abuser when she met her first husband.  Nobody had taught her.  I didn’t mean to abuse my partner--”

Mark’s words faltered and Nick clenched his paws underneath the table.

“...My former partner I should say.  Nobody taught me that either.  And I didn’t mean to become addicted to drugs.  It wasn’t a moral failing.  It wasn’t a lack of willpower.  It was that just being me, just existing, was so painful, that I would do anything, anything , to not be that mammal for a while.  And drugs offered me that out.  Even when I knew that I was hurting the person I loved, I didn’t stop.  I couldn’t stop.  Because stopping, even for one moment, would bring me back to who I really was.  And I couldn’t face that mammal inside me.  I never learned how.

“And here I am now, standing here before you, three years clean.”  Mark paused as the audience broke out into applause.  Nick kept his paws pressed firmly between his knees.  “Three years clean, but still an addict.  I still call myself an addict even though I am three years clean.  I will still call myself an addict even if I am ten years clean, even if I am thirty years clean.  Because that part of me hasn’t gone away, it’s who I am.  I am a recovering addict, but I will never be a recovered addict.  Because you never really leave drug addiction behind.  You just learn to live without it from one day to the next.  But each one of those days is still a struggle.  I don’t know if it will ever get easier.

“My sister divorced her abusive ex-husband after he broke four of her ribs and collapsed one of her lungs.  She now works as a bartender in Zoo York where she lives with her daughter.  And my brother… My little brother didn’t make it out alive.”

There was a long pause and the silence sat powerfully over the room.  Somehow, in that room full of mammals, most of whom weighed more than one tonne, nobody moved.“And what did it take to get me here?  Did it take a supportive older sister who paid for my rehab, even when she couldn’t afford it?  Did It take a loving partner who bailed me out again and again and again?”  

Ex partner” Nick whispered under his breath.  He didn’t think anybody heard him.  

“...Did it take a police officer, who told me that I was a waste of skin?  Or the one who asked why I wasn’t dead yet every time he saw me?  Did It take the nurse who wouldn’t bring my meal tray into the room when I was sick and instead let me go hungry?  Or the doctor who complained about wasting antibiotics on me when I would be dead in six months anyway?  Or the library staff, who wouldn’t even let me come in to use the bathroom?

“In case you didn’t pick up on it, that was sarcasm.  No, it wasn’t any of those things.  You can’t reach mammals if you are going to treat them as less than you are.  If you remember nothing else from today, remember this.  You cannot reach a mammal if you are going to treat them as less than you are.

“No.  Oddly enough, after all that, the thing that allowed me to get clean was a sympathetic judge.  I was in front of her for some bullshit charge.  Probably loitering or petty theft.  I don’t even remember.  But she asked me what I need.  That’s it.  What do I need to get clean?

“I told her a bus ticket, a shower, clean clothes, and a sandwich.  So I got a bus ticket out of Zootopia and a meal and a motel room in Zoo York and that was it.  I detoxed in that motel room, which I don’t recommend by the way; always use a hospital or a licensed detox facility.  And I haven’t used since then.  Three years clean.”

There was some shifting of seats in the audience.  It seemed nobody quite knew if they were supposed to clap or not.

“So, now that I’ve told you my life story, what do I want you to take away from this?  In short, I want you to understand that intergenerational trauma is not some made-up term.  It is real, and it is hard to get away from.  It’s not just a matter of deciding one day that you want your kids to have a better life than you did.  Of course you do, but you don’t know how to make that happen.  It takes work.  It takes resources.  It takes connections.  And it takes re-learning a lifetime of lessons that you never got as a child.  How to love other people.  How to love yourself.  How to emotionally connect with them.  How to respond to criticism.  Even things that seem simple, like basic nutrition or cleanliness.  You have to learn something when you didn’t even know that the knowledge was lacking in the first place.  Some mammals can manage all those things, others never do.

“Next, I want you to remember that all addicts have a history of trauma.  All of them.  No exceptions.  Most of them have stories that would break your heart.  None of them chose to be there.  And if you want to reach them, treat them like they matter.  Make eye contact, smile, ask their names.  If they are homeless, and not all of them are by the way, let them use public washrooms or get a full night's sleep without waking them up to chase them away from a park bench.  Ask them what they need.  You might be surprised by the answer.”

Mark paused to take a drink of water, and Nick took the opportunity to peek around the room.  He saw the grizzly bear who had been complaining about having to take this course just half an hour ago was looking very uncomfortable indeed.  Good.  

“Lastly, I want you to remember that every mammal has a certain number of basic needs.  We learn about them in kindergarten, remember?  Needs versus wants.  We need food, we need shelter, we need clothing, we need sleep, we need social connection.  Think about the last time you felt you didn’t have one of those things.  How much did you get done that day?  How much did you accomplish?   A drug addict needs those things too, but usually at least one of those needs is not being met.  And it gets worse than that, because eventually we start to resent them for having those needs, for existing.  We resent them for begging for food, or eating out of the dumpster, or loitering.  We resent them for sleeping in the street, or trying to use a public bathroom.  And this is going to lead us to the second part of my presentation, where I address in more depth some of the socioeconomic issues surrounding addiction and the barriers that a mammal must surmount before he or she is able to overcome his or her addiction.  I will now take questions, and then we will have a twenty minute break.”

There was the customary awkward silence, as the audience collectively paused to see how many other mammals would raise their paws.  Eventually a few crept hesitantly upwards, including that of the grizzly bear a few rows back.  Mark nodded in his direction.

“This whole time you’ve been talking I haven’t once heard you take personal responsibility for anything that you did, even when you admitted that you’d been abusive towards other mammals in the past.”  The bear said.  “So my question is, how much does the issue of personal choice factor into a story like yours?”

Nick blinked.  He had been all ready to judge this bear because of his comments earlier, and truthfully he still didn’t like the tone, but he had to admit, that was a good question.

Mark nodded glumly, and avoided Nick’s eyes as he answered.  “You’re right, and I don’t mean to avoid taking responsibility for my actions, so much as I try to present them in a broader context.  Now, I want to start by saying that if you find yourself in an abusive relationship, your first priority is to protect yourself.  Don’t start worrying about your abuser’s past or his learned behaviours or past traumas.   Get out.  It’s not your responsibility to stick around long enough for that person to fix themselves.”  He smiled sadly and glanced over in Nick’s direction.  “I wish I could go back in time and tell that to a few mammals from my past.”

Nick looked away, disgusted.  He felt his heart beating in his ears.  How was he supposed to take this?  For three years he didn’t even know if Mark had been alive or dead and now… this?  

“Having said that, I don’t think that the issue of personal choice is quite as clear as we make it out to be.”  Mark continued.  “We do get to choose which way to get to work or what to have for breakfast.  But those choices don’t really change the course of our life.  We don’t choose what species we are or how we were treated as a child, and those things do change our course in life.  A lot.  Because if you learn as a child that conflict causes pain, then you will react badly to conflict as an adult, and people notice that, and treat you differently.  If you have no books in your house and nowhere to study as a child, then you will be behind your peers at school.  So already you’re at a disadvantage when it comes to your education and your career.  It is possible to overcome these things and go on to have a good career with healthy relationships, but it’s not just a matter of making different choices.  It takes a lot of resources to get there, and sometimes when you live that sort of lifestyle that I did, you don’t have the resources to spare.  You’re too busy trying to survive to worry about all of that.  Does that answer your question?”

The bear scowled but didn’t answer.

Mark nodded to somebody in the back.  Nick didn’t see who.  “Yes, the rhino in the back row?”

A female voice spoke up.  Nick recognized her as Helen, one of the other new hires that was training alongside him.  He liked her well enough, though he wouldn’t call her a friend.  “We learned in class that addicts have to hit rock bottom before they will go seek help.  Do you think there is any truth to that?”

Mark frowned.  “Possibly, but I think it might be a little oversimplified.  It’s like saying that ‘your keys will always be in the last place you look.’  Of course they will, because it would be silly to keep looking once you’d found them.  It’s similar with addiction.  Rock bottom just means the place you were before you got help, and yeah, it’s usually a pretty bad place to be.  It sucks.”  He paused for the first time, suddenly unsure of himself.  He cleared his throat and shuffled some papers unnecessarily.  Finally he continued, his voice smaller and a bit hesitant.  “For a long time I had what we call an enabler.  Somebody who would look after me, who made sure I was always fed and comfortable, who covered for me, and cleaned up after my mistakes.  And as long as I had that, then I would never reach my rock bottom, as you call it.”  Another pause, another nervous shuffling of papers.  Finally, Mark straightened his shoulders and stared straight ahead, his voice more confident now.  “I was destroying my life, and he stuck around, even when I started destroying his life too.  And if I could go back in time and change one thing, then I would tell him that he doesn’t have to.”

Nick felt sick.  His heart was pounding too loudly and his ears were ringing.  He needed to get out of this room.

Thankfully, Mark provided him with the out he needed.  “There will be more time for questions after the second part of the presentation. We will now take a twenty minute break.  Meet back here at quarter after.”

There was a shuffling of chairs as the larger mammals in the back got to their feet.  But Nick barely even heard it; he was already out the door.




 

Nick darted into the (thankfully empty) washroom and paced around a few times, feeling trapped.  He entered a stall but didn’t actually need to pee, so he came back out again.  He turned the tap on at the smallest of the sinks and stared at the water for a while.  He wanted to splash it on his face, but his fur would take too long to dry.  Instead he washed his paws and turned the tap off to stare distantly into the mirror.  For all his hustling he’d always been bad at masking his facial expressions, and today was no different.  He looked---haunted, for lack of a better word.  

What he really wanted to do was talk to Judy, but what could he even say to her?  He brought his phone out of his pocket and typed “hey, can we meet up later?  I’d like to see you.”   He stared at the message for a moment, then deleted it and instead wrote “ how is work going for you today?”   Then he deleted that too and pocketed his phone, looking back up at the mirror.  A handsome coyote was hovering around at the edge of the image.

“Hey.”  Mark said timidly, as Nick whirled around and scowled at him.

Nick glared.  “What are you doing here?”

“I’m a public speaker now.”  Mark shrugged.  “I was invited to give a talk on understanding addiction.”

Nick already knew that.  But of course, that hadn’t really been what he was asking.  What he really was asking was what are you doing here in this washroom?   But he figured the answer to that was equally as obvious, so he didn’t ask again.

“I should have known I would run into you eventually.”  Mark continued.  “You do get around.”

“How many times have you given that talk?”  Nick asked coldly.  He didn’t much feel like small talk.

“I don’t know.  Twenty, maybe more.  I tweak it a bit each time.”

Nick stared at him, hardly believing what he was hearing.  Mark had told his life story to what?  A few hundred strangers, but couldn’t be bothered picking up the phone to let Nick know that he was alright.

“I wanted to call you.”  Mark said at last, as if on cue.

“So why didn’t you?”  Nick hissed.  “I’ve had the same phone number for a decade.  I know you still remember it.”

Mark at least had the decency to look embarrassed.  He shuffled his feet and looked away.  “I didn’t think you’d want to hear from me.  Or maybe I thought it would be better for you if you didn’t.”

Nick stared at him some more.  “That was not your call to make.  You went missing.  I reported you to the police.  Do you know what it’s like to have somebody go missing?  Not dead, but missing.  You couldn’t manage a text?”

“I’m sorry.”  Mark looked away.  The two mammals stood in silence for a long moment.  Nick turned back to lean over the sink, staring bleakly into the mirror.  

“I’m glad you’re doing well.”  Nick said at last, straightening up and turning back to face him.

“Yeah, you too.”  Mark gave him a familiar lopsided smile that always made Nick’s stomach flop over on itself.  “A police officer, eh?  You’re full of surprises.”

Nick smiled back at him.  “Yeah, that one came out of left field.”

“Do…”  Mark coughed and rubbed his arm.  “Do you want to get coffee later?  For old time’s sake?”

“No.”  Nick said quickly, and then added a hasty “sorry.”

“I understand.”  Mark replied, and the two mammals stared at one another for a moment.  “Do you have anybody new in your life?  Anybody special?”  Mark asked at last.

Nick considered lying, or deflecting.  He was fairly good at both, and he didn’t owe Mark an explanation, but finally what came out of his mouth was a simple “yes.” Ultimately he felt that it would be good for both of them if he said it aloud.

Mark nodded.  “I saw the photo in the newspaper.  A rabbit, right?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”  Nick snapped.  An obvious lie.

“I understand.”  Mark repeated himself.  “I’m glad you’re doing well, really I am.”

“Yeah, you too.”  Nick muttered.  “Bye.”

“Bye.”

Nick retreated out of the bathroom, nearly running into that grizzly bear.  Was he… hovering?  Eavesdropping?  Or did Nick just imagine that part?  Nick glanced up at his shoulder patch and read the word ‘HAWTHORNE’ stitched there, white thread over navy blue fabric.  Where did he know that name?

“‘Scuse me..”  The bear muttered, and continued to make his way into the washroom.  Nick shook his head to clear it.  He considered skipping part two of the lecture; he really needed to take a walk, but he’d left his book bag.  Besides, it wouldn’t set a good precedent for him to skip out.  Nick sighed, risked one last glance at the door to the bathroom, and made his way back inside the lecture theatre.  





 

 

“Are you sure?”  Bogo asked.  “Take your time.”

Nick already had taken his time.  He had been at this for hours, pouring over pictures of graffiti in a three-ring binder.  He was trying to match it to a hazy memory he had from when he was a pup, of the door of his father’s shop.  He’d shuffled, he’d stared, he’d flipped forward and back again.  His neck hurt and his mouth was dry.

And in the end he ended up with a picture not of graffiti, but of a tattoo.  There was something about the curve of the C that he kept coming back to.  He couldn’t even read the script.  It looked like the letters CU, with five tally marks after.  He couldn’t imagine what that would stand for.  But still, there was something about it that he just couldn’t get away from.

“This one.”  Nick said.  He finally decided that staring at the photo some more wouldn’t accomplish much.  He slid it across the desk towards Chief Bogo.  Besides, that thing was giving him the creeps.  The tattoo was on a shaved bit of skin, perhaps a sheep, though it was hard to know for sure.  He was pretty sure it had been taken at the morgue.  

“Are you sure?”  Bogo asked again.

“Not sure at all.”  Nick replied.  “It was twenty years ago, and I was a kid.  But there’s something about it… That’s the best I can do, sorry.”

“Very well.”  Bogo took the picture, along with the binder, and left the room.

Nick stretched a bit when he stood up, twisting the kinks out of his back.  “Sorry dad.”  He whispered to the empty room.  He collected his bag and left the interrogation room.