So, 2020. The year of throwing kerosene on the fire.
Massive work deadline drained my juices but I’m back. When I say ‘massive,’ I mean if I disclosed what it was, you’d ask why the eff I was doing anything else, especially more writing, guaranteed. I had a BLM-type essay queued up but thought it was better to say what I had to as my actual self rather than an anonymous author of weird prattle. That being said, the worst thing stories taught us is that there’s a special person called a villain who causes all the problems. There is no special class of people called “racists” that we’re fighting against. Rather, each one of us fights a battle between logic and internalized bigotry in ourselves. White people, whether we chose to or not, regardless of our personal feelings, benefit from institutionalized racism. It is our job to end it. It is our job to not say “I’m not racist” but instead “How can I be better?” And this has given me the final push I needed to go from defensive to offensive, and that means making myself a meaniepants in my community—anyway, that’s why I’m publicly naming names instead of making some overarching, glib statement here. Just super done in general, and if you’re a victim of systemic bigotry remember that you don’t deserve ANY of this.
This post is relatively light for Catastrophe Theory, but it’s still 2020 and I appreciate that not everyone wants to read a bleak-as-all-get-out story right now. I’m going to try to supplement the last three parts of this chapter (not including this one; there are 11 parts total) with something fun, with the caveat that it has to be relatively low-effort or something I was going to do anyway. Fun side things may include:
– Reviewing Cardcaptor Sakura (not into anime, but it’s a nostalgia thing for my spouse and just too, too bizarre);
– Behind-the-scenes plans for a thing currently known as Haunted (previously “Project Ghost Rider”), and I love that everyone reading this knows who has the starring role, the caveat being that my current vision for P.G.R. requires drawing and I can’t do that yet;
– One of the listicles I was going to release between Books II and III;
– Early-release parts of a chapter in Book III I’ve been itching to write, working title is “Trials of the Modern Victorian Gentleman,” yes I know I have a problem.
And now back to the past.
The weight of it all was starting to get to Kendra. She hadn’t grown into her heavy prepubescent skull, and the dead weight pulled her forward into a slouch. It took all her willpower to push her forearm against the craft table, lifting her face with a dramatic eyeroll and bringing her latest drawing into view. No one else was in the study. But the half-baked sketch in front of her wasn’t enough stimulation. She needed noise. She let out an open-mouthed growl, unsure if she was getting anything out of the vocalization itself or if she wanted someone to hear her. The stillness rushed in, feeling as if it would swallow her whole. This time, she let her growl turn into a shriek.
Still nothing. Lifting her sleeve, Kendra realized she’d been rubbing against the drawing’s bottom-right corner; her non-toxic childsafe tools wouldn’t damage the fabric permanently, but some heavy graphite chiaroscuro needed redoing. ‘Chiaroscuro’ was a term she picked up from Xiyuan, of course, and she loved it because filling in dark areas gave her an excuse to wear her pencil tip down to the absolute nub before resharpening. And then that feeling of watching the fine point withdraw from the old-school wall sharpener her school had—heavenly. Every time, she’d poke the tip and pretend she was Sleeping Beauty getting injected with magic bear tranquilizer.
Realizing that the last fifteen minutes’ work was chilling on her sleeve, where it wasn’t supposed to be, caused her to growl again, and she chanted about how stupid her sleeve was, like it was the sleeve’s fault, using repetition in full effect. The bathroom door opened, interrupting her halfway.
“Hello, darling.” The words almost spilled out. Even in her animalistic state, Kendra found herself being soothed by her mother’s voice, as if the lithe melody of her words picked Kenny up and floated her downstream where she didn’t have this crap happening. She didn’t have to look up to place the voice; Mom’s sweater announced her presence for her, being the brightest thing in the house. In low light, you could read next to it. More syrupy words spilled out. “Did you finish your homework yet?”
“I need to finish this first.” These were words Kendra scratched, pounded, lunged at her mother’s voice like a cat at a songbird before it flitted away. If Mom’s mood had been affected in the slightest by this tantrum, her eyes weren’t showing it. Her pupils were full with affection and she swayed the same way she always did, the way that reminded Kendra of a mermaid, like she was swimming in the air rather than just trudging through it the way people without her joie de vivre did.
“What are you drawing?” Claudia was struck by how clean Kendra’s workspace was. Not that the surface didn’t have those dried-glue zits on it that make it hard to color things in with crayon unless you’re going for a rubbing effect—you know those rubbings with leaves that adults pretended were mind-blowing, and that never survived the kid’s actual-zit phase unless their parents had the shoeboxes and attic space to demonstrate to their offspring that nothing they ever did, ever, was worth throwing away—but usually Kendra also had some form of textbook open, anatomy or marine biology or mythology or one of those horrid infectious disease ones she’d begged for on her birthday, to use as a reference. Kendra’s drawings had a 50/50 shoebox chance. Glowing jellyfish: prime spot on kitchen wall above the cute fish Charlie brought home. Every bone in the human body lined up in a spiral: shoebox. Freya in a chariot pulled by cats: hung on the wall in the living room so Kendra and sometimes her parents had a visual for when they asked guests if they knew that the Norse goddess often rode a chariot pulled by cats. Half of Freya, where the other half was more necrotizing fasciitis than deity, drowning in an underwater chariot pulled by octopus-cat abominations: you called it. Shoebox.
So Claudia wasn’t surprised to find herself torn between encouraging her child and looking her in the eye the way you’d lock eyes with a lion while on a safari trip, knowing that if your gaze strays downward you’re going to be slapped in the face with a rotting gazelle carcass and have your brain flash the image of the noble creature’s dead eyes every time you think you’re going to get to sleep. That was another one of Kendra’s frequent subjects, hypothetical roadkill. Hypothetical because she saw a smashed grasshopper in the garden once and cried all day. While holding her, Charlie remarked that at least she wasn’t a total sociopath yet, at three. And Claudia realized she wasn’t getting an answer to ‘what are you drawing,’ or maybe she didn’t want one—or missed it, who knows—so why not switch gears. “Are you upset, honey? Did something happen at school today?”
“Trace Beam called me weird.”
“Well, that’s not nice!”
“He got the other kids in on it too. He got them to stand around in a circle in the playground and watch what I was doing, because he thought it was weird. But before that he got them to say I was weird every time I said something to anyone, and he made up this song about me that they sing on the bus and everyone laughs.”
“So me and Wyatt took the worms we were digging up—“
“—You were digging up worms?—“
“—and threw them at him. Yeah, we found a bunch of worms and we put them in my pencil case. So he and the other kids called me weird again. And now I’m having the monster eat him.” She turned to read the spines on the bookshelf. “Where’s my book showing where all the blood vessels are?” Charlie had it, but she didn’t know that at the time. This was the early period of sharing medical textbooks being an issue for the older J.-E. kids.
“Well, that’s not nice either. Did you tell a teacher?”
“I did! I told Mrs. Railey. She told me to just ignore him. She didn’t even tell him to stop! It’s like how the first kid could be poking you, like,” she mewled mockingly while jabbing her pointer finger in the air, “and they don’t do anything, but if you poke him back they’re like hey! It’s not okay to poke people!” At seven, Kendra couldn’t quite put her frustration into words; her school’s got these bureaucratic assemblies out the wazoo about the abstract concept of Bullying but everyone seems to lose their damn minds once the word “bullying” gets dropped and it is, they seem to think, Kendra’s fault for slapping a label on it instead of coping in silence so that Trace’s crap doesn’t reach the school board. “Anyway that’s Mrs. Railey.” Kendra pointed to a black triangle behind the monster’s flank. “She tried to get away but it zapped her with its laser eyes. Pew pew pew!” Her index finger slammed into the triangle with each ‘pew.’
“Oh, Kendra. That’s not nice.”
“Why? It’s a much faster way to die than what the monster’s doing to Trace.”
“Kendra, no one should be dying in your drawings at all. Especially not people you know! How do you think they would feel if they saw that picture?” Knowing how Kendra’s developing mind was prone to parsing things literally, Claudia was careful not to phrase it as seeing through someone else’s eyes.
Kendra squinted at her handiwork. “Scared. And then Trace would stop being mean to me because he’s scared of the monster, and Mrs. Railey would say she’s sorry for not doing anything.” Because she knows what’s coming. Kendra, having the context her hypothetical viewers wouldn’t, failed to recognize that Mrs. Railey couldn’t possibly interpret the blacked-out pile of ash as the end result of her inequitable conflict-resolution practices.
“No, Kenny. They wouldn’t be scared. They’d be sad!” How her mother had more insight into the thought patterns of strangers, Kendra was unclear on. Could be one-way telepathy. She tried to rid her thoughts of anything not parent-safe while her mother brought her glass of nectar to her lips. Claudia exhaled the burning sensation from the back of her throat before continuing the lecture. “When you try to hurt someone who hurt you, you’re just bullying them right back.”
“But I’m not doing anything to him. What if he doesn’t see the picture? Does that count as bullying?”
“Well”—she walked past Kendra to the room’s comfiest chair—“when you think about doing bad things to someone, you treat them differently. They can tell. Look, you can believe bad thoughts are something you can keep to yourself”—more evidence in favor of moms having latent psychic powers, Kendra realized—“but your intentions always carry through to your actions. They always do. You can tell when someone doesn’t like you, right? Even if you don’t know exactly why, you can feel it in their tone. Their body language. And if someone’s acting distant and you’re still not sure, their actions make it crystal clear. Absolutely—absolutely clear. They’re going to start doing things that hurt you, that make no sense to you, because you didn’t do anything to provoke them. They’re responding to something in their head. But what I’m trying to say is that you’re like that too, even if you know how to look or sound nice, you won’t be able to hide it. And those are the sort of bad thoughts that make people do things they regret. And I want you to look back and feel proud of your actions, Kendra. If you treat him like he treats you, you’re no better than he is.”
“But I’m not doing anything! It’s just a drawing! And he’s so mean to me.”
“Look, I get it. It hurts! But you know what’s worse than being bullied?”
That had become her daughter’s stock response; damn that textbook, damn her reluctance to question a six-year-old’s wish list in fear of quashing her interest in medicine. “Yes, but that’s not what I’m getting at. What’s worse than being bullied is knowing you hurt someone else the same way they hurt you. And that’s the hardest thing to admit.” Because the room’s comfiest chair faced away from where her daughter was sitting, Claudia had been craning her neck to keep her daughter in view. But now she gazed inward past the room’s concave corner to deliver a message bigger than this conflict and maybe not intended for Kendra at all. “And because it’s the hardest thing to admit, it’s the hardest to fix. That might even be why he keeps going. That might even be why the teacher won’t help you. They don’t want to admit they did anything wrong. It’s because ‘bullying’ is a thing bad people do, and they don’t see themselves as bad people. It’s because if they admit that to themselves, they have to deal with the fact that they aren’t as good as they think. And it’s something even adults have trouble with, Kendra.” Short nectar break. “But you already know what bullying is and how much it hurts. You can’t hide it from yourself. And that’s why I don’t want you to live knowing you’ve done something wrong, hurt someone else, because knowing you’ve become the thing you hate is a pain far beyond being the victim.”
Kendra waited a beat to make sure her mother was done; she got as far as the first ‘bad people’ before her underdeveloped listening ability totally conked out. Everything beyond that was Claudia talking to the wall and Kendra waiting her turn to speak. “Then how am I supposed to get him to stop?”
Emphatic contortion toward the kid. “You can’t.”
“You can’t control what he does, Kendra. You can only control what you do. So instead of trying to keep him from being mean, what if you changed how he reacted to it? What if the next time he called you weird, you owned it? Like, if you said ‘yeah, I guess I am’? It wouldn’t be fun for him anymore, but more importantly, it wouldn’t bother you.” Around here it became a monologue directed toward the bottom of the nectar glass, more so than it had been before. “Weird isn’t even an insult! You’re different, and you’re perfect that way.”
“That’s kind of like Mrs. Railey told me to do, ignore him and he’ll go away.”
“I’m sorry she’s not talking to him, but she’s right! He just wants attention. If you stop making it fun for him, he’ll lose interest and move to someone else.”
Hoping to find some emotional respite in the friction, Kendra rubbed her graphite-ed forearm, giving her hand a corpselike grey sheen. “But it’s just not fair. Why am I the one who has to watch what I say and do? Why doesn’t he! I’m not the bully. You’re telling me what to do, and Mrs. Railey’s telling me what to do, and the school’s telling me what to do, and everyone’s telling me what to do. And not him. Because they can’t. Because I’m the only one listening.” She’d be lying if she said she wasn’t pleased with the shiny dead palm look. Opening and closing her hand calmed her long enough to deliver her monologue’s conclusion, while at the same time she wiped the excess graphite on her shorts at an angle her mother couldn’t see. “Why don’t they just teach him how to listen? It’s not fair.”
“Life isn’t fair, Kendra.” A deeper voice, again singsong, but singsong in the way a playground taunt would be. Kendra’d gotten used to it and turned to see her father. “What’s going on?”
“Trace Beam called me weird. And got the other kids to call me weird.”
He scoffed. “Kendra, you are weird. You call yourself weird.”
“Remember when you were sticking suction cups through your braid to look like tentacles and then attached yourself to walls and started opening your mouth toward anyone who walked by? And if someone asked what you were doing, you’d say you were an octopus and were trying to eat prawns with your beak?”
“I know!” Kendra said. “But it doesn’t mean I don’t want to be friends with the other kids in my class.”
“Yeah, and I’m sure they want to be friends. I’d jump at the chance to be friends with a real octopus.”
“Yeah, well, Trace Beam doesn’t. He called me gross.”
“Well.” Hands to hips, authoritative but still hammy enough to be jovial. “Did you tell the teacher?”
Kendra sighed. Like that wasn’t the first thing she thought of after the school assembly skit where a rainbow of handicapped puppets taught Billy the Bully the error of his ways through the magic of telling the teacher. “Yes. Mrs. Railey didn’t do anything.”
“What did your mom tell you to do?” The grin he flashed at Claudia read to Kendra like a challenge, with the bared teeth and raised eyebrows. Even she knew he was only asking to set up his own advice, which would be punchy in its simplicity, neatly packaged like a Shamwow. But after seeing the way her father approached every person, every interaction, with that same smile, that life-is-like-a-game attitude not hiding the fact that for him, life was indeed like a game, in that every interaction had a winner and a loser, and that he considered himself a winner, which made everyone else, no matter what, a loser—even his own daughter—Kendra already caught on and had stopped listening to him a while ago. She could see what Mom was saying. If she ever ended up like that, lord, feed her to the monster instead. Not that she was on the Mom route. Mind you. Just the way her flowing mother seemed to fold into herself the moment that man entered the room, head angled downward but hiding her face like she was trying to prove to her daughter that controlling your own behavior works, trying to put her money where her mouth is, and show how happy she was. How little it bothered her that she was playing a game whether she chose to or not. True that her happiness may be genuine, and Kendra may see it that way—but something wasn’t sitting right. She couldn’t describe what.
If she didn’t give both parents a shot, though, they’d be allied in a lecture about listening to adults, and it was faster to let them tire themselves out besides. “Mom said don’t do anything I’ll regret. Laugh along with him and he’ll get bored and leave me alone. Right, Mom?” Mom nodded. See? Listening.
“So she said to start bullying yourself, too.” Nah, if anything she suggested Kendra could embrace her own weirdness, since by now Kendra’s weirdness is a universally recognized truth, at least in the universe comprised of those in Magnolia Promenade during the octopus-braid thing. “So you’re just gonna let him know he’s right? Doesn’t seem quite fair now, does it.”
“So what do I do?”
There’s a reason baring teeth is considered a threat to the rest of the animal kingdom. A leer, a warning, a sparkling grin—what was the difference anymore? “Ah, but Kendra, he’s handing you an opportunity on a silver platter! He thinks he can get away with it right now. He feels nice and safe. But what that little snot doesn’t know is that he gave you a gift. Kendra. Listen. He threw the first blow, and you know what that means? Total free pass to fight back however you want. Someone pushes you, you get to push them back. There’s no guilt. That’s self-defense, not bullying. And if you don’t do anything, he learns it’s okay to bully you, there’s no consequences, so he’s just going to get up and do it again until you stand up for yourself.”
“Isn’t that giving him the attention he wants?” She regretted the question as soon as she asked it. Now that she questioned him, he wasn’t going to let up until she’d been pummeled with every word in his head.
“No, he’s not going to want all his friends seeing him get smoked by a girl. And you have the advantage, being born in this family! Ha ha! You see, it’s like a game. And he’s winning, and he’s not going to leave you alone until you win. So? Win. It’s that easy.”
“Okay.” This isn’t fun abstract playtime for me, this is one-third of my entire day, she wanted to say. How do I convince him I’ve won when he’s the one playing this stupid game and therefore setting the stupid rules, she wanted to say. She didn’t. It’d rile him up more and she was already stuck listening to him repeat the same thing five times, so she’d say okay five times. So she didn’t dare think anything else.
“It’s not like you’re bullying back at all. You know you’re fighting back, doing something that has to be done, so you don’t have to feel guilt. All this stuff where you just what, let him get away with it? Come on.”
“Okay.” Let him keep going. “Okay. Okay.”
“So, you got all that? What are you going to do?”
“Let him have it,” Kenny mumbled. As if there were a way for her to speak out against the whole class sans Wyatt against the seriously incontestable claim they were attacking her with. They’d all seen her pull those worms out of her pencil case and throw them. She turned back to her drawing. This was the tool she had, so just—she’d have to wait for her parents to leave her alone, let up with the shoeboxes and concern over crayon bloodshed and let her have her one outlet.
Her parents started mumbling behind her, like she couldn’t hear when she was facing the opposite direction. Maybe they thought she was lost in her drawing. She did that a lot, pretended to be absorbed in crosshatching when it was muscle memory by now and there was some interesting stuff going on in the background she didn’t want to scare off. Of course, the lower voice spoke first. “There we go. That’s why we work better as a team, yeah? Can’t be all soft, it only works some of the time. Everything in moderation.” Kendra could hear the damn head swoosh when he said ‘everything in moderation’; each time he delivered his parenting catchphrase, she and Charlie looked at each other and did the swoosh along with him. Odd that he hadn’t caught them yet.
“Mmh.” Or at least that’s what Kendra heard.
“Well, it’s a good thing you ended up with me. You’re really easy to exploit with that attitude.”
“Sorry, it seemed like a good idea. It’s always helped me.”
A slight mistake; adding the clarification didn’t placate him enough and he said, not quite quietly enough for Kendra not to overhear, “You’re teaching her to be a doormat. Kids need to learn how to handle these things by themselves.”
And Kendra found herself grateful that she was facing the other direction while she threw this massive eyeroll. How are kids supposed to handle it by themselves if adults can’t agree on what to do? She knew the answer already: whatever she did, they’d find something wrong to pick apart and lecture her on. She could follow her mother’s advice and never hear the end of it from her father, or follow her father’s advice and hear an impassioned plea from her mother, or pick and choose parts from both their approaches and take heat from both for not following the exact orders. Another game, that’s what it was.
“Kendra,” Claudia mumbled.
She looked up from her drawing more easily than she should have, considering. “What?”
“Kendra, I’m not saying you can’t stand up for yourself. Just remember the Golden Rule.”
“Treat others the way you want to be treated.” She not only repeated the message the adults had taught her, she preserved its intonation as well, such that it took on a peculiar melodic quality.
“Yes.” Claudia was folding. This was her compromise and moderation, giving Kendra a way to follow both parents’ directions without explaining how, exactly, she was supposed to do that. But not impossible, Kendra realized, staring at Trace Beam’s legless form as it tried to push itself away from a snake-spider-skeleton hybrid. Loophole.
“So if I’m okay with something, it’s okay to do it to someone else?”
“Exactly! You can stand up to him without bullying him back.”
Kendra looked behind her. Both parents seemed placated, though it was surprising her dad wasn’t trying to get the last word in. But what was bullying, exactly, other than something that was bad? Hitting was not okay, nor was teasing or yelling. Anything that signaled outright aggression. They didn’t say anything about psychological warfare. God forbid, she’d tell Wyatt twelve years later while mixing a Dim & Gusty, lest the children have words for what the adults are doing to them and each other and learn to defend against it while they still have the energy. Kenny folded up her current drawing—it was a shoebox one and she knew it—to set down a fresh piece from her sketchbook. Nah, she wasn’t going to settle for coping. She was going to thrive.
“What are you drawing now?” Another hesitant pleasantry from Claudia; 50/50 doesn’t mean alternating, necessarily. Kendra could be having a weirdass idea day.
The last bits of juice in Claudia’s glass jumped along with her. “Oh, your favorite animal! Cute!”
Kendra’d lied about that. Her favorite animals were Eldritch Abominations. Duh. You get one of those on a leash, no one’s calling you weird; not to your face. And there’s no way you’d be digging your own worms. You’d get volunteers for that, and they weren’t called volunteers anymore, they’re something like followers or minions.
“Sure.” Three words. Trace. Beam. Chapodiphobia. “Cute.”
BONUS: Free band name of the week is Emo Macaroni Pour
OTHER BONUS: A bop to clean your kitchen to, Seven Minutes of ‘Where the Hell My Phone’