Now I’m eight-years-old and I’m learning about murder for the first time. We’re whispering in Jessica Riley’s bed under her mosquito net in cabin three. Bugs penetrate and buzz around our ears. The heat sits on our skin. Sweat beads. Jessica’s next door neighbor in the Bronx was killed, she says, by a Mafioso. He was killed hard.
“Dead,” she says. “Dead hard.”
“How many bullets?” a girl with pigtails asks.
“Two hundred,” Jessica says, her tongue wrapping around her lips etched in a permanent snarl.
“And why was he killed?”
“Slept with Jimmy’s wife,” Jessica says.
“And what did they do with the body?”
“Chopped it up and fed it to his cats,” Jessica says.
Everyone knows that Jessica has not told a single truth since we met her, but I can’t escape the image of human flesh being torn apart by a calico. I now understand that I shouldn’t trust Farmer Davis, my family’s neighbor, who has at least six children and maybe two hundred cats.
“The man was a father,” Jessica says whimsically.
That night, as I lay awake and listen to Jessica snore in the bunk below me, I decide that my mother will be murdered and that it’s my responsibility to save her.
I create an incantation. Please let her be safe, please, thank you, I love you, please, thank you, I love you, please, I repeat as I watch my mother patch up cuts and hand out Tylenol the next day. She’s the nurse at the camp and I love her and I know that she is going to be killed. Please, I think, muttering to anyone who will listen. I’m not religious and I don’t know to whom I am speaking, but I whisper to the walls whenever she leaves my side. Please.
This is July. My brother has just discovered death through video games. My guinea pig is an idiot. My mother pulls me into her lap and whispers shh, quiet, love. The sun folds around my body and children’s screams wrap me up, warm. I hide under the floorboards and in ceiling tiles and in the sliver between walls and I wait, expectantly, patiently for the moment when my mother will be murdered.
My mother is a prime candidate for an abduction, assassination, defilement, or dismemberment. She is good, and the good always go first. I know this because there’s a man who lives in our basement, Craig, and he’s shown me the X-Files.
Craig wears the largest shoes I have ever seen. They smell like cow shit, which makes sense since he works on the farm down the road. His hair is floppy and brown and his eyes are sad and his pointy nose sticks out like it’s trying to suggest something smart. My mother took him in after he was thrown out. He’s eighteen-years-old and I think that he’s God.
The X-Files play on loop as the summer abandons us. My brother has been disappeared to the PlayStation, which is owned by a neighbor, which means I have lost my best friend. My mother works a thousand jobs, and I spend my time talking to my guinea pig, who is still an idiot. I decide to educate him about murder so he can help when the time comes.
On the X-Files we learn that there are human murderers, and there are alien murderers.
“Craig,” I say. “How many times can you be murdered?”
“Pass me the chips,” he says, pointing to the crackers.
“Craig,” I say. “Who do they take first? Parents or children?” I hope he says children, but he doesn’t respond. I stare out the window, waiting for my mother to return from work. Will she return? Will it be in a box of ash? Oh please let her be safe, please, thank you, I love you, please, thank you, I love you, please.
“If you’re an alien they won’t take you,” he says. “They need more aliens to spy on humans.” The house is crisp with autumn air and the sound of Scully’s voice bounces off the couch. I sink into the rhythm of the season and ponder. Yes, Craig is right: aliens don’t kill their own, I reason, not if they’re the same species. Therefore, I must become an alien. I must become a murderer, and if I cannot do either, I must think like them both. This is how I will save my mother.
It does not take long for me to discover that I’m not the killing type. Even Lizzie Smith, who turned me to the dogs and rejected my friendship, doesn’t deserve murder. Even she deserves mere humiliation and parental abandonment. And yet, once you put on the tinfoil crown it is not so hard, thinking like an alien murderer.
We’re not encouraged to think like aliens or murderers, I find in informal studies polling the local human and animal community, but nature has a great deal to teach us about how to kill, and I allow the breathy Vermont hills to be my guide. I know children who have been killed by drowning, heights, cancer, and fire, and parents who have been taken by no less than their own hearts. In one case, a man’s own tractor turned against him.
“En guard,” I say to Hector, my imaginary alien friend, picking up a knobby stick.
No, he says. I found Hector on a nearby planet playing checkers. Just attack. Don’t give them notice.
I pick up my sword again.
No, Hector repeats. Use a laser. You’re an alien now.
My tinfoil crown falls into a bed of moss. Hector wraps his tentacles around it and places it on my nose. I pick up my new laser. It’s three-and-a-half pounds and invisible. It glows fire.
“I don’t know if I want to kill,” I say.
They’ll kill you first, he says. They’ll kill your mother. Hard.
Craig hears me as he walks by and shakes his head.
“Cracker?” he asks, handing me a chip.
I fling off my crown and turn away. I have work to do. I must train. I run, clasping my fire laser to my heart.
By age sixteen Hector has disappeared and my brother is gone and my mother is tired of my questions.
“Mama,” I say as she leaves. “Where are you going? When are you going to be back? Who are you going to be with? I love you. No, really, I love you. Have you signed your will?”
“Becca,” she says to me, taking my face in her cold, thick hands. “There’s lasagna in the fridge.”
I stare out the window as she leaves. Please let her be safe, I begin, circling around the dogs and touching the doorframe three, four, five times.
Black Dog begins to eat a chair. White Dog barks at a tree. I paw at the window screen. If I was a murderer, I think, I would kill her on Route 4. No one goes on Route 4.
I get the phone and put it by my side, just in case, and start to clean the house. It shouldn’t be dirty for the police.
Now I’m twenty years old and still afraid. I duck under windows and avoid darkness. I say the incantation, mumbling words under my breath. I’m studying abroad in Valparaíso, Chile, and my stomach churns around my knees, wishing it could fly back across the continent and climb into her lap, nestling quiet. The language sits on my tongue and twists. Everything is new and unfamiliar. I am the alien, so far from home, and I’m convinced that something bad is going to happen while I’m away. Please let her be safe, I think. Please. My eight-year-old plodding did little to help prepare me for this moment, and I recognize this more each day.
I’m walking home with a friend from our first party the first week we are abroad. We’re tipsy. Tired. Eager. It’s 4 a.m. and our whispers echo along the streets and against stalled out cars and abandoned buses.
“I just feel so trapped,” I say. “I don’t know what to say in English, let alone another language.”
“Me too,” she says.
Our words hush as we round the corner, the air heavy with winter cold. We huddle deeper into our jackets, pulling our hats over our pink ears. Above, houses chat with one another, falling into the ocean in a tide of fonts and colors. Dog’s voices argue in the distance and a door closes loudly, assertively. The streets wind. The alleys speak in shadow.
“Think it’ll get easier?” I ask.
She turns to me and shrugs. It is silent and still. We relax into ourselves.
Even though it’s late and we’ve been told not to travel alone, when we hear the footsteps we are enraptured. Beguiled. We freeze. The night freezes, too. Our words hang. Our breath slips into vowels, all o’s and e’s and i’s.
I do not recite my incantation as the man pushes me into the darkness and forces the knife against my throat, gritty and piercing. I smell his acidic breath mix with my breath. I stare into his black mask with large, alien eyes and he, I imagine, stares into mine. I dream that he has five tentacles and six noses, that he speaks in hums. He is from the X-Files on loop, a friend from Craig’s nightmares. He is Hector’s enemy.
We stand still, and I wonder what he’s thinking about as the knife presses. His hand leans into my stomach and I guess that he has a partner he has leaned into lovingly, compassionately.
The night folds around us.
We two-step, pirouetting as the blade slips against my skin. He steps. I step. I jump. He steps back. We circle, fly, circle again. Pause. I slink away and the air wraps me in Vermont hills halfway across the world and that’s it: he disappears and goes after my friend, who skips in squares as he side-steps along with her, pointing at her hurriedly. No one is hurt. He takes her purse, and that’s that.
We’re lucky, of course. Our brush with death isn’t really anything at all. It’s silenced, muted, nothingness. Nobody speaks. Nobody screams. Nobody whispers. All we did is step. Our shadows line the walls.
“You okay?” I ask her, my new friend.
She doesn’t answer. Her breath is fast and low.
“My mother,” she says finally.
“I know,” I say.
“I want to see her,” she says.
I slip into the alley. Please, I start, beginning the incantation, and then I stop. I won’t say it again, not in Chile and not in Vermont. It’s not that I’m no longer afraid, but I have figured out that whispers at the walls are just that: whispers. I’m not talking about God or consciousness or a Higher Power. I’m talking about the humility to know that I’m not. I have seen my alien murderer and he was just a man. I take my new friend’s hand and we walk, our footsteps hitting the soft pavement, our gasps singing against the evening.
“Mama,” I will write the next morning. “I was mugged, but nothing was taken. It was just a masked man from another planet.” Later I will wish I had added: “I love you. Thank you. See you soon.”