1. The first time you meet a murderer, you are in kindergarten. At the exact moment you are at the dentist getting a lesson about avoiding cavities, the parent volunteer at your after-school program—a woman who has been babysitting you for the past two months—brings in a plate of cookies laced with rat poison that sickens and kills three of your classmates. You will think of that near-miss again and again when you get older. Your parents never let you forget. Your good fortune is like rock candy on your tongue, sweet, but turn it over and shards scrape your soft palate. Sugar forever tastes of pleasure mingled with guilt. You vow to avoid it entirely.
Most people don’t encounter their first murderer so young. Most people won’t meet the Fermi estimation of the national per-person lifetime average of thirty-six murderers, either. Some will meet many more, but that’s usually an occupational hazard. An unlucky minority will only ever meet one—their own. But you, a mostly unremarkable female, will meet a murderer thirty-two times, though you will know that you did far fewer times than that.
Thirty-two: one for every adult tooth.
This may count for something, later.
2. You are in fourth grade when Adam, your neighbors’ little boy, gets so mad that you won’t let him play on your swing-set, he kicks your dog. You feel it would have been fairer if Adam had kicked you instead, but he already knew that it would bother you much more if he hurt someone you loved. You didn’t play with him after that. When your dad finds one too many dead skunks in your yard he assumes it’s coyotes and keeps your dog inside after sundown. It will be about fifteen years before you see Adam again, on the national news. If you were still his neighbor and if any reporter had asked you about him, you would never have said that Adam seemed like such a nice, quiet boy.
3. Some murders are old. Your sixth grade social studies teacher served in the Second Gulf War and while some would consider that cause enough to call him a killer, others would not. But there were things his unit did to a non-combatant that semantics cannot cover. The incident was hidden on his record and he was honorably discharged, but he remembers how black the blood looked on the dusty road outside of Mosul, under a starlit sky.
4. Billy, the new boy in your seventh grade class, who doesn’t just seem nice and quiet, but really is? This time last year he was playing with his little brother. Neither boy knew their father’s gun was loaded, only that it wasn’t locked up. But this is a death so common, no one seems to think it worth counting anymore. You imagine Billy’s guilt must taste much more bitter than your own, like smoke and lead.
5. The driver of the SUV that sideswiped your father’s car after he picked you up from soccer practice was given her first DUI summons. Her third DUI came attached to a vehicular homicide charge for killing a 29-year-old mother of two.
6. Your parents would think twice before letting you take your dressage lessons from a woman who bludgeoned her own mother to death. But she was a minor when the crime was committed and the court records were sealed. She changed her name, but was that all that she changed? If you watch her very closely, you still would not be able to name what mixture of emotion clouds her eyes when she spurs her horse just a bit too hard.
7. You are right to trust your instinct that hot summer day when you are twelve and the man stocking shelves at the grocery store looks at your bare legs a little too long. This is the first time you notice a man looking at you at all. While it thrills you the tiniest bit, to think that someone has seen you, mostly you feel like you are the one doing something wrong. So, too, thought the other young girl whose bones molder in the clerk’s crawlspace.
8. Do you count your fourteen-year old best friend, Myra, for hanging herself in her bathroom?
9. Do you count her twice because Myra made you pinky-swear that you wouldn’t tell anyone that she was pregnant?
10. Or do you just count Frankie Geller, the boy that raped Myra three months ago? You know what he did and that his friends watched. There was a video that you and your friends watched, along with the whole high school, maybe the whole town. But people still called Myra a liar and a slut and, yeah, Frankie goes to another school while he’s awaiting trial, but he didn’t have to change his name. No one outright tells you that sometimes there’s one set of rules for boys and another for girls, but no one needs to after that.
You’ll think of Myra when you catch a whiff of green apples, like the Jolly Ranchers she used to love. Her breath always smelled so sweet and your stomach lurches with missing the scent of Myra’s lost voice for a long, long time after.
12. The most popular girl in your school, Cathy Ong, becomes even more popular, in a ghoulish way, after she texts her boyfriend while driving through a crosswalk. The little boy she hit was killed instantly and Cathy spun her cautionary tale into speaking engagements at high schools across the nation. A tiny inner voice bemoans that she’ll probably get into a better college than you, but you do remember to keep your phone in your purse when you drive.
13. Do you count Billy twice? You and Billy are both in senior year when he decides he can’t spend another day feeling like the wrong brother survived that accident. Smoke and lead, you think. Guilt was the last thing he had in his mouth. You come home from his memorial service and raid the kitchen pantry, suddenly starving. You eat an entire package of molasses cookies, barely swallowing one before going for the next, until your mouth is filled with gritty, wet sugar sludge and you nearly choke. You eat until you vomit and you can taste the sweetness again as it leaves you. It becomes addictive, that act of filling and emptying a deep, dark hole inside.
14. Your first date with your murderer is at the concert of a band he insists any intelligent person must love. You thought the band was pretentious and boring; you wonder aloud if he thinks you’re dumb, then immediately apologize for offending him. You want him to like you.
15. You don’t want to know what’s in the smoky, meltingly-tender pork belly you’re eating. You give the restaurant four stars on Yelp. The bathroom could’ve been cleaner.
16. Because your (perfectly respectable) college campus is in a big city and sometimes you want nothing more than solitude, you take up jogging. Because you are a woman jogging alone at night, you catch the eye of a man…but he can’t catch you. He runs behind you, oblivious you, for almost a quarter mile before you turn towards a better-lit trail and he thinks twice. The next week, he chases down another woman on the same path. He rapes her, he beats her, he keeps her teeth, then sets fire to her hands and feet. The story is on the cover of every paper in the city and for a week there is a woman on every treadmill at your gym, every woman out-running her own would-be killer in her mind. It’s an impossible balancing act, being desirable enough but never in too easy reach.
17. You and your murderer broke up for the first time after he said you were getting fat. How could he not appreciate how much you ran, how much you didn’t eat? You run more, eat less and say you’re a different, stronger, and lighter person without him. A lonely month later, he lays a honey-trap of promises to do better at your doorstep. You look at him and think that this is how idiots invite vampires into their homes, but you tamp down the bad feeling in your gut and let him cross your threshold.
18. You forced a thin smile for the catcaller skulking outside your bank but the next woman would not.
19. The tandem skydiving instructor that you are strapped to on your vacation in New Zealand is self-medicating for depression. He never tells you. He never tells the man strapped to him two days later, either. The tourist only recognizes this mutual and critical distrust when their chute never opens.
20. Natalie, who works in your department, has an ex-husband everyone agrees is a creep. Everyone also agrees that even if the court had granted her that restraining order, it wouldn’t have stopped what he was determined to do to her. It’s as if Natalie’s murder was inevitable, ordained from on high, because she did what she was supposed to do, and it still made no difference.
21. That actress who was gracious enough to take a selfie with you when you see her walking on Fifth Avenue never got out of her car to check if the paparazzo she hit outside her home in Malibu was still breathing. She was too scared to face the man that had been stalking her for a year. But the truth wouldn’t drive up the revenue of gossip blogs who questioned her motives. In death, he finally got his wish: she would never be allowed to forget him.
22. When you tasted the back of your murderer’s hand for the first time, you broke up again. Sweetness always turns to rot. There’s a doubt inside that you want to explain as the lack of him, so you say he was missed. You say what came before doesn’t really count even as you understand that whatever happens to you from here on out, it will be your fault. Like Myra. Like Natalie and solo joggers and girls with bare legs. No one outright says that there are a thousand ways to tell a woman that she’s wrong, but after this, no one needs to.
23. The train you take home from a cozy, bright Christmas upstate to see your parents has a lot of people on it. You suck on the end of a candy cane until it becomes a sharpened point that stabs the underside of your tongue. You snap the end off in your mouth and hold it there until it dissolves. Not everyone in your car makes it home. Six hours after you reached your destination, police found the body of a young black woman rolled up in her own coat and left in an alley near the train station. Her killer was in your train’s car, too. He saw your white skin and blonde hair and knew that you would bring him a lot more of the wrong kind of attention. You would both actually agree that some women are more disposable than others, but only you see that as an injustice, not an opportunity.
24. The pregnant woman you make small talk with on line at the supermarket will drown her baby within a year because she cannot tell anyone how afraid she is of the voices that are telling her to drown her baby; they’d take her baby away and everyone would know she’s a terrible mother, which is the only thing worse than being crazy. It seemed perfectly sane at the time.
25. Your dentist—not the same one you went to in kindergarten—will eventually mistake his cheating boyfriend for the steak he meant to spear with a serving fork. Twenty-three times.
26. Your murderer buys you a corgi puppy without consulting you and you both know you can’t refuse such an apology gift. You share custody of the puppy’s demanding training schedule, which is a much more adorable, sometimes messy way to keep you dependent on your partner, like the rent for the apartment you moved into that’s too high for you to afford on your own. But how can you be upset? You like the nicer apartment. You did say you’ve wanted a dog of your own since you moved out of your parents’ house. Gimli (what else would you name a corgi?) is the size of a throw pillow. When you cuddle him, you feel how tiny his ribs are beneath all that fuzz. For the first time in years you remember your long-ago neighbor Adam and the whimper of a different dog.
You find it easier to think of others before yourself, so you leave your murderer before either one of you can get kicked.
27. Starbucks and murderers are about equally pervasive, so the odds of meeting a murderer in a Starbucks is higher than you’d guess.
28 and 29. Two different wives in your bulimia support group were strangled by two different husbands in the same weekend. You try to decide which is worse: the odds of that being highly likely or hideously random. Their two empty seats are like missing teeth in a smile and you seethe so much that you don’t realize you’re gnawing on your lower lip until it bleeds. The pain soothes the howling inside for a bit, so you keep devouring little pieces of yourself.
30. The final time you meet your murderer, you’re in a dark corner of the garage underneath your friend’s apartment building. You don’t see him until he grabs you from behind because you, oblivious you, are digging your phone out of your purse to text your friend, who’s letting you and Gimli crash at her place. Thanks a lot, Cathy Ong and your fucking school assemblies.
31. If intent is all that counts, then he only actually becomes your murderer the moment he squeezes the trigger. In the struggle to pin you to the backseat, his shot goes wide and grazes your left ear. He twists your clawing hands over your head and grinds his shoulder into your chest. You try to scream, but you’re not sure if any sound comes out above the ringing in your head. His neck is pressed so close, his sure pulse on your lips becomes your entire world.
There’s no time to doubt what swells up in your gut on a tide of desperate fear and lifelong need. Nor is there time to wonder if it’s just luck that gives you the opportunity to use a weapon that you’ve only ever turned against yourself: hunger.
You open your mouth again, and this time it’s not to scream.
32. You don’t stop biting until you’re full.
You keep it all down.
In the absence of adrenaline, your jaw throbs and your left ear rings softly for weeks, rattling your sinus, your loosened upper molars. Your whole body is a stripped raw nerve.
No one sees you as murderer, but nor do they think, even now, that you are entirely blameless. You will meet yourself in a mirror and some days you won’t know your reflection, but mostly you look exactly as you did before. That feels wrong, too, as if there should be something you could recognize in another person after such a life-altering event. You’ll seek it on every new face, just the same. There are more murderers you’ve yet to meet, but you have a harder time ignoring your gut.
There is one big change that you keep to yourself: every time you startle, which is often now, a metallic tang leaps into the back of your throat. You had wondered if the lemony icing on your next birthday cake, the birthday you should be grateful to see, would frost over that singular flavor, but it doesn’t. You have a second slice anyway, without guilt.
Your body’s response to fear is the aftertaste of your survival. Your survival tastes like meat grown plump with satisfaction. You savor it. You want more.