Warning: This poem contains some intense topics. Highlight to read the warnings, some of which are spoilers. It features a community with some severely dysfunctional elements, Mallory being justifiably uneasy about a town that reminds her of a sleeping drunk, assorted social awkwardness, several appalling attempts to bully Jules, Mallory quashing the bullies in slightly understated supervillain fashion, Jules stressing out over half the town hating him for no good reason, and his self-image is starting to show some damage, Mallory introducing Jules to BlackSheep, teen angst, and other hijinks. Also, spit warning: do not read this poem with your mouth full, as some of the supervillain quips are truly outrageous. If these are sensitive issues for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before reading onward.
"The Easiest of All Hunting Expeditions"
Mallory let Heron talk her into
visiting his family, and it turned out
to be a good thing in ways that
none of them ever expected.
Mercedes was the kind of town that
reminded Mallory of a sleeping drunk --
quiet until you said or did the wrong thing
and then it would roll over and belt you.
So Mallory kept a close eye on Maisie,
who had grown up in a lot nicer town and
a family that was lively but was not psycho,
which meant that Maisie had about as much
self-preservation as a terrier: lots of heart,
but little idea what to do in a real fight.
Mallory also noticed that nobody allowed
any of the kids to go anywhere alone,
nor any of the teenagers either, not
even the ones old enough to drive
and responsible enough to take care.
She met Jaliya, a coffee-skinned girl
who tugged on her braids when nervous,
and Bishop, a boy with stringy blond hair
who slouched inside too-large clothes
that made him look even younger.
Mallory's first thought about Bishop was
neglect, but his father Officer Tull was as
solicitous of Bishop as the other teens,
and Mallory could almost forget
that he was a cop. Almost.
There was Mariset, dark-haired and
quiet with her expressive copper hands
speaking volumes, and Jules who tripped
over his own feet so often that Mallory just
took to siphoning off the mischance in case
she needed some arsenal later on.
Surprisingly, none of the teens
had tried to pat her swelling belly,
a fact that Mallory appreciated.
They just helped her catch up on
current events and local politics,
which explained a lot about how
Heron had been behaving recently.
For some reason, Jules latched onto her
and told her all about his father, who was
a tattoo artist, and some of the hassles
that had been going on in the town.
Mallory rather liked Bennett when she got
to meet him, and she admired his artwork
delicately drawn on Jules' forearm with
felt-tip pens. You never knew when
you might need a good inker.
So when Jules wanted to go
to the park for ice cream, Mallory
volunteered to go along with him.
He was a sweet kid, really,
gawky as a colt with a habit of
trying to blow his shaggy forelock
out of his eyes. He had dyed
the front half of his blond hair
black with streaks of purple
and blue, and glued beads
along his lip to look pierced.
She kept a hand on him so he
wouldn't trip on the broken sidewalk.
Jules gave her sidelong glances
but seemed to take her t-shirt --
which said Beware, I'm pregnant
in white on black around a skull and
crossbones -- as the valid warning
that it was intended to convey.
Less alert were the two older teens
who stepped right into their way,
blocking the sidewalk almost entirely.
One had blue eyes and blond hair
buzzed short, with an unlit cigarette
in his shirt pocket and a belt buckle
blazoned Mark in jagged letters.
The other had dark shaggy hair
and beady eyes, his wrists circled
with multicolored Hispanic bracelets.
"Anthony, Mark," said Jules
as he stopped short, hemmed in
by a parked car on one side and
a hip-high hedge on the other.
"Well if it's not the little delinquent,"
said Mark. "Guess you got in trouble ...
or rather, got someone in trouble."
Belatedly Mallory realized they
were talking about her and the baby,
an injustice so raw that it stole
her breath for a moment.
"Hey lady, you want someone
to walk you home?" Anthony said.
"Jules is bad news, everyone knows it,
probably grow up to be a supervillain."
"Here we go again," Jules muttered.
That finally jarred Mallory's mouth back
into action. "Wow, you're really stupid,"
she said, slowly looking the bullies up and
down. "How do you even walk and talk at
the same time? That must be hard for you."
"What?" Anthony said, gaping at her.
"I mean obviously you have no idea
what a supervillain even looks like,"
Mallory elaborated. "Come on, Jules,
that ice cream's not going to eat itself."
She grabbed his wrist and pulled
him around the two bullies
before they could react.
"Hey," Mark protested
and started to chase them.
Mallory flicked her superpower
back over the cracked pavement.
"Wah!" Anthony yelled as
he stumbled, knocking Mark
down along with him.
Jules twitched in her grasp.
"Don't look back," Mallory said
as she hustled him down the sidewalk.
"They won't be bothering anyone else
today, so you don't need to worry."
"Let go before you wreck my art,
if it's not already ruined," Jules said.
Mallory looked at the design,
currently a rainbow-hued vidwatch
surrounded by swirls of ink. She
swiped her thumb over a smear,
fixing it with a dab of superpower
before he noticed the damage.
"It's fine," she said. "Does
this kind of thing happen often?"
"All the fucking time," Jules said,
kicking at a piece of loose pavement
and nearly tripping himself again.
"Sometimes it seems like everyone
in town thinks I'm a supervillain, or
will be one. I know it's not that many,
really, but it feels that way to me.
Like a mountain crushing me."
"Like you can't be anything
but what they let you be,"
Mallory said softly. "Like
you don't even get a choice
in your own career, or vocation."
"Exactly," Jules said, tugging at
his multicolored hair. "They hate me,
and I don't even know why."
"People suck," Mallory said.
"I'm guessing that it could have
been a lot worse, though."
"Yeah, I got lucky this time,"
Jules said. "Why'd you insult
them like that? I mean ... they
wouldn't have picked on you."
"Because they're idiots," she said.
“The search for a scapegoat is
the easiest of all hunting expeditions.
They talked big, but they completely
failed to notice the actual criminal
standing right in front of them."
"I'm not a -- wait, you?"
Jules sputtered. "But you're,
um, well --" He looked at her belly.
"On maternity leave at the moment,"
Mallory said dryly. "When we get back,
just ask Maisie about me. She can vouch
for my credentials as a bona fide bad girl,
not just a poseur like those two creeps."
"What did you, um, do?" Jules asked.
"Oh, the usual," Mallory said.
"Petty theft, a little vandalism,
quite a lot of computer hacking."
"Wow, really?" he said.
She'd done worse, but she didn't
want to scrape the shiny off this kid
by going into that kind of detail.
Mallory couldn't help remembering
the New Year's party and what had
come of her poor choices that night.
She shuddered to think of what
could happen to fresh meat like Jules.
"Listen, don't get mixed up in
the rough stuff," said Mallory.
"If you want to take a peek down
a dark alley, I can show you around
BlackSheep. As long as people are
blaming you for everything, you might
as well get some fun out of it first."
"Yeah, okay," Jules said,
lifting his chin. "Let's do it."
They talked off and on
as they walked to the park,
and he didn't pry, but he was
definitely curious about her work.
They found an ice cream cart
that had soft-serve in various flavors.
Mallory got chocolate and vanilla swirl,
while Jules got vanilla in a chocolate shell
coated with multicolored sprinkles.
Mallory was just glad that she could
eat things now, without having to worry
about her stomach rebelling all the time.
That was when the mean girl showed up.
Mallory knew she was a mean girl from
the sharp makeup and the way she wore
her perfect mane of long dark hair ... and
how her lip curled a bit when she saw Jules.
"Not today, Shana, I'm showing a friend
around town," Jules said as she approached.
"Besides, we're eating ice cream,"
Mallory said. "You wouldn't want to get
anything on that pretty white blouse.
You know how chocolate stains."
"True," Shana said, wrinkling
her nose. Then she walked away.
"You are officially my hero,"
Jules whispered to Mallory.
She got the sense that people
had been picking on this boy for
way too long. Didn't they know
that this was what led to kids
riding to school on the back of
a fifty-foot robot with Laser Eyes?
When they walked back, she noticed --
but did not point out to the oblivious Jules --
the smudges of blood on the broken sidewalk.
It wasn't enough for a serious injury, just
enough that the bullies might have learned
a pointed lesson about pestering people.
The house was almost quiet as Mallory
led the way down to the family room in
the basement, keeping her power wrapped
around Jules like a cushion. She'd seen
him fall down the stairs twice already.
Maisie was meditating in front of
Aida's aquaria, or something like that,
the cool light playing across her face.
She didn't stir at their approach.
"Get your laptop," Mallory said
to Jules. "I can piggyback you in."
She showed him how to set up
an account at the guest level, and
watched him try to pick a username.
Scapegoat was, of course, already
in use across multiple variations.
So were Whipping_Boy, Fallguy,
and PunchingBag. The trend
raised some disturbing ideas.
When Jules finally got past
the checker with Dog_the_Kicked,
Mallory caught him by the wrist
before he could press Enter.
"If you log on with that name,
it's going to worry some folks,"
she said. "Make sure that's
something you can deal with."
"It's the truth," he said mulishly.
"Okay then," she said, and
let go of Jules so he could
complete the process.
Mallory hadn't been online
as much as she used to, so
the moment that IronGoddess
appeared, she was inundated
with hails and questions.
IronGoddess: I'm here today
with a friend, Dog_the_Kicked.
I'm hoping to show him around a bit
so he doesn't get in over his head.
Dog_the_Kicked: Yo. I'm new,
but I'll try not to do anything stupid.
WorldWorker: Are you guys
both under the shade tree?
Mallory had discovered that
the supervillains not only liked
the Finns, but had some subtle ways
of looking after them. It wasn't quite
a code, but they could be discreet
in referring to a favorite family.
IronGoddess: Yeah, it's been
mostly quiet here. We had
a run-in with some squirrels,
but I chased them off.
It took less than five minutes
for the moderator Capricorn
to notice the new user and
wander by to check on him.
Capricorn: Welcome, visitor.
We hope you enjoy your time
in our little meadow. The curious
will be rewarded in due course.
Mallory looked over and saw
that Jules had found, and was
actually reading, the FAQ list.
Maybe he was a better fit here
than she had realized. If he was
going to turn into a minion, well,
there was no better place for it.
Dog_the_Kicked: You guys
seem really nice. I don't know
why everyone keeps saying that
BlackSheep is full of trolls.
they're afraid of what lies
under the bridges.
Mallory's eyebrows went up
at the username. She didn't
know MultiplePunctures well,
but his reputation as a minion
was legendary on BlackSheep.
because they throw beer cans
down there and are afraid that
someone will throw them back.
WorldWorker: LOL yes.
Capricorn: This chatroom is
safe space. If you are having
trouble with bullies, in cyberspace
or in meatspace, there are people
who can help in various ways.
That sounded interesting. Mallory
knew that Capricorn was important,
maybe even beyond BlackSheep. If he
liked Jules, that was a very good sign.
MultiplePunctures: The thing about
bullies is, they're all bleeding inside,
somehow, somewhere, and they want
to use you to plug up the leak. You do not
have to be their emotional tampon.
Jules burst out laughing, and
even Mallory had to snicker.
had a way with words.
"What are you two doing?"
Officer Tull asked, coming
up from behind them.
Jules squeaked and nearly
fell off the couch, only saved
by Mallory's quick grab.
"Just a little bully-proofing,"
she said, looking him in the eye.
"Some jerks tried to bother Jules
when we went out for ice cream,
so I thought I'd introduce him to
my online friends instead."
Officer Tull raised an eyebrow
but did not argue. "All right, then,
you two take care of each other."
He seemed oddly unafraid of her,
even though Mallory was certain
that he suspected her of being
a crook, if not a supervillain.
Apparently he was willing to overlook
her colorful past, as long as she didn't
decide to screw off right in front of him.
Mallory and Jules went back
to chatting on BlackSheep, where
he soon made a handful of new friends,
impressed by everyone's charm and skills.
WorldWorker even showed him how
to access the Puzzle Pasture.
Supervillains had their own etiquette,
and Jules seemed to pick it right up.
Mallory didn't know whether or not he
would stick with the site after she left,
but if he did, well ... she felt pretty sure
that he'd make somebody a great minion.
And it would serve people right if he did.
The next time Mallory accompanied
Jules on a walk around the neighborhood,
Anthony and Mark tried to harass them again,
albeit from a safer distance this time.
Mallory saw the sudden stiffness
as Jules froze in habitual response.
Emotional tampon, she mouthed.
Jules cracked up laughing. "I am
never going to be able to do this
again without thinking of that."
"Well, that's the idea," she said,
keeping an eye on the two bullies,
who were clearly baffled by it all.
"You supervillains should
be more careful," Anthony said.
"Something might happen to you."
"Nah, I'm not a supervillain,
I'm nowhere near that talented,"
Jules said, shaking his head,
"but thanks for the compliment."
It was adorable watching
the bigger boys smoulder
their brains as they struggled
to figure out why their bomb
had gone fzzt instead of boom.
"Well played," Mallory said
as they strolled away.
"Thanks," said Jules. "Hey, let's
go to Pho Real, it's a food truck park
with one called Frigid Chicks -- that's
an ice cream truck which chops up
flavored chickpeas from Hot Chicks.
The Habañero-Lime is really good
on a chocolate ice cream cone."
"Oh hell yes," Mallory said.
"I haven't been able to enjoy
a good Pain Ray in months."
She patted her stomach.
I could definitely go for
Sriracha or Indian Chicks."
It was odd to be thought of
as a responsible adult, capable
of serving as a chaperone, but
Mallory supposed that she
should start getting used to it.
Hiking around Mercedes
with Jules in tow was nothing
like going out to get drunk with
other supervillains she knew
in Urbanburg, but it was just
as tasty, a lot less dangerous,
and the company was better.
* * *
Most of these characters are ones that dialecticdreamer established, so I don't have character sheets for them. In this trio, Jules is on the left and Mariset in the middle. Here Jules has his hair dyed. The front view of Mariset shows her mixed Egyptian heritage. This is Officer Anton Tull. Here is Bishop. Jaliya is very dark, like her natural parents, while her stepmom is lighter. Of the two teen boys, Mark Hastings is blond and Anthony Dice is brunet. Anthony is involved in the Hispanic/white tension, and tries to "pass" in whichever group he's in at the moment. Shana is a cheerleader.
* * *
“The search for a scapegoat is the easiest of all hunting expeditions.”
― Dwight D. Eisenhower
Just as families can be functional or dysfunctional, so communities can be healthy or unhealthy. I draw the line like this: a functional system makes life easier, while a dysfunctional one makes life harder. Mercedes has enough bigots to make life uncomfortable for everyone else, even though the bigots are not the majority. Understand the traits of a great place and how to improve your community.
There are close links between trauma and substance abuse. Trauma and addiction follow a cycle of avoidance and use. Dysfunctional relationships follow a cycle of violence. Compare those concepts to a dysfunctional community and you will see many parallels.
Scapegoats and black sheep appear at the shit end of the favoritism spectrum. This dynamic prevails in toxic families, communities, and other places. There are ways of breaking free.
Bullying exists on a spectrum. People take different roles in this dysfunctional dynamic. Although advice on how to stop being bullied abounds, almost all of it is wrong, and none of it works well. The most effective method, available only to financially secure adults, is to file a lawsuit; and even that has a dismal 16% success rate. What does work is upstander intervention, convincing bullies that it's in their best interest to stop bullying others, and creating a community environment that resists bullying.
See a site map of Discovery Park in Mercedes, California.
Mallory's T-shirt looks like this.
Hispanic colors include the red, white, and green of the Mexican flag along with gold, orange, and other bold tones.
Jules currently has a psychedelic vidwatch drawn on his wrist.
Kick the Dog is a famous entertainment trope in which evil characters demonstrate their depravity. It's also the inspiration for the BlackSheep handle that Jules ultimately uses.
See a site map of the Pho Real Food Truck Park. It's inspired by pho, a Vietnamese street food.
Hot Chicks is a brand of crunchy roasted chickpeas. Enjoy recipes for Habañero-Lime Hot Chicks and Sriracha Hot Chicks. The Indian Hot Chicks are similar to this recipe but made with Indian red chile powder instead of cayenne.