“A Study in You”

*Warning: Some disturbing content*

I wrote this as a character study for the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio a few years ago. It follows a budding serial killer on the anti-social personality disorder (commonly known as sociopathy or psychopathy) spectrum discovering herself–kind of like a really twisted coming of age story? This also has ties to my current novel, Detectives and Debutantes (more information to come).

            You were born differently from all the others. For as long as you can remember, you have never truly been able to feel. Emotions were a foreign concept, an indecipherable language that everyone else around you seemed to be able to speak, leaving you out in the cold. It wasn’t that you couldn’t feel anything, you just couldn’t feel the entire spectrum that the rest of the world was able to. Happiness. Sadness. Guilt. Remorse. Love. They were just words to you, with no real meaning.

            What you could feel was what some would consider primal. Hunger. Anger. The insatiable need. It took you over, called you to do something, anything, to somehow fill the void. And when you did, you felt good. Not happy, or any other such human nonsense, but just… good. Satisfied for a brief moment until the need came back.

            It was easy as a child to satisfy the need. Playing with an alley cat or the neighbor’s yappy dog, that was enough. The first time was messy; you hadn’t realized how much blood would spill, staining your lacy white dress, getting under your fingernails. Even though you were young at the time, you knew that Mummy and Daddy wouldn’t approve of seeing you covered in blood, so you burned your dress in a back alley before they saw you. You washed your hands and forearms until there wasn’t a trace remaining. Then you put on your mask, and you said the words you knew they wanted to hear, and then you went to bed. You drifted off to sleep quickly for the first time in your life, not feeling the pull of the need in the pit of your stomach keeping you awake. You dreamed of blood that night.

            As you grew older, it became harder and harder to make yourself feel good. The closest you felt to the rush of that first time was when your parents took you to visit family in the country, and one of the old farm horses needed to be put down. You asked to do it. Your parents didn’t want you to, but they didn’t know how it felt. If you didn’t do it now, you would just have to play with another cat or dog in the city, and people were beginning to get suspicious about where their animals kept disappearing to. But your uncle handed you the knife despite their protests, and you satisfied the need with a quick flick of the wrist.

            Then you met Her. She was crying the first day, and that made you uneasy. You didn’t like it when people cried—it just reminded you of your own inability to feel the kind of pain that brings about tears. At first, you couldn’t understand Her, what was going on in Her head. You always considered yourself good at reading people, for you disregarded the emotions and focused instead on pure logic. You had dedicated every moment unconsumed by the need to the pursuit of learning how to read people, so that you could fit in among them. But She was something of an enigma to you.

            From day to day, you changed your opinion of Her. One day, you would swear that She was just like the others, filled with complicated emotions overtaking what was really important. But then the next day, it seemed so clear that She was just like you. Unfeeling. Unloving. Unable to relate to anyone except for you, as you felt unable to relate to anyone except for Her. On those days, being with Her was glorious. On the others…

            You didn’t like it when your perception was turned on its head. And She flipped back and forth so many times that it was nearly impossible for you to keep track. Every day, you found yourself wondering which person She would be when you saw Her, and most days you felt disappointed when She wasn’t like you.

            Hope was another foreign feeling to you. You never hoped or wished for things, but if you could have hoped, you would have hoped every single moment for Her to be like you.

            You were never sure if you felt loneliness. You thought you may have, a few times, but it was such a watered down feeling that it could hardly be called the same heart-wrenching loneliness that others described. It was more of a twinge now and then, when She looked happy or sad. Her feelings reminded you of how alone you were in the world, and as a child, you didn’t know what to do about that.

            But like everyone else in the world, you grew up.

            By the time you were fourteen, you knew how to deal with the twinges. It didn’t matter that you were alone in the world, that no one understood. Being the only one in a group meant you were the best in the group, and when considering your strengths, it was logical to conclude that everyone else in the world was inferior to you. So when you felt alone, or else felt that strange semblance of loneliness, you just remembered that that made you special, and better, and somehow powerful.

            With each passing day, the need grew. Small animals no longer sufficed, and even though you would still take time every few weeks to play with a stray pet, it barely did anything other than whet your appetite. You knew deep down what you wanted. You wanted to play with bigger prey.

            For some reason, though, you felt like She couldn’t know that. You still weren’t convinced that She was like you, that She understood, and you didn’t know what She would do if you told Her about the need. Would She run away scared? Or would She help you find a new plaything?

            More and more, you began to suspect that She wasn’t like you in the slightest. She started talking about things you didn’t understand, things like boys and how She fancied them. You had never fancied a boy. You had never felt that way toward anyone. You were good at pretending, though, so you told Her things She wanted to hear, mirroring Her facial expressions and saying the right words to pass yourself off as human. You told Her about your handsome tutor, and the way he looked at you when the two of you were alone. You told Her you liked to imagine kissing him, even though you really didn’t. And all the while, you were smiling inside, because you knew your lack of emotions made you better than Her. She was consumed by schoolgirl infatuations, and you only had to focus on logic. And the need.

            Then something strange happened. Your tutor stopped teaching you about poetry and music and language, and instead started teaching you about different types of knives and pistols, about codes and ciphers, about footprints and blood spatter and how to track the movements of police officers throughout the city. The change was so gradual at first that you almost missed it, but eventually you caught on.

            You followed him out onto the street after a lesson one day, and cornered him in an alley.

            “What do you know?” you demanded of him.

            He looked at you with a lazy expression. “What do you mean?” he asked you with a yawn.

            “You know something. You wouldn’t be teaching me these things if you didn’t. Who are you really, and what do you know?”

            “I know you’ve never actually killed a person,” he said, as casually as if pointing out that the sky was blue. “If you had, you wouldn’t still be stalking the neighbors’ cats.”

            You were startled at that. You had thought you had been careful, so very, very careful when picking out your playthings. “You saw me?” you asked him.

            “I didn’t have to.”

            “You must think you’re so clever,” you spat out.

            You turned to go, but he grabbed hold of your wrist and held you tightly. “I’m trying to help you. Do you want to get yourself caught? And what happens when animals aren’t enough anymore?”

            “They already aren’t,” you muttered.

            “This is precisely my point. You need to learn how to be more careful, and how to find likeminded people who can keep you safe—”

            “I don’t need anyone to keep me safe,” you told him. “I know what I’m doing.”

            “Then why haven’t you killed a person yet?”

            You knew how to lie. “Because it’s wrong.”

            He laughed at you, and you scowled. You considered yourself a very good actress, the best, in fact, for you were able to hide away your true self for so long, keeping that lovely secret inside. Now, though, it seemed that your tutor was scratching the surface of the depths of darkness, and you didn’t know what to say to dissuade him.

            You interrupted his laughing with a short, timid sentence: “Are you like me?”

            He scoffed this time, shaking his head. “No. Because I know it actually is wrong, whereas you are repeating a line. I don’t have to kill.”

            “I don’t either,” you protested, your lips forming an embarrassing pout that you immediately tried to change into a sneer. That statement was a lie. “And I haven’t, not yet.”

            “But do you want to? If I told you that you could, would you do it?” he asked.

            Yes. The word tingled at the tip of your tongue. The need drove it to your lips.

            “And there is the difference between us,” your tutor said. “If I were to kill, it would be because I had no choice. But you want to kill, and I deeply suspect that despite your protestations, you need to. Well, I can let that happen.”

            You listened intently as he described how you could fulfill your need with actual prey, not pathetic, squirmy animals. He told you he could teach you to avoid capture, and that he could funnel a steady stream of victims to you. He justified it by saying that they were people who would get in his way and needed to be dealt with regardless, but you didn’t care about the reasons. The need was now accompanied by the thrill of anticipation, the freedom of being told that you could finally show someone in the world who you really were.

            You almost told Her one day about your tutor’s proposal, about how you had accepted. That night you were going to do it for the first time, and a part of you wanted Her to be there with you when you did. You wanted Her to go hunting with you, to live out a mental exercise they had performed before, where you and She created scenarios and planned a murder within them. Now you were doing it for real, and you wanted Her to be there too.

            That day, though, She was less like you than normal. When She laughed at something She thought was funny, you laughed too, but you were laughing at Her. How small Her world was, and how She couldn’t even comprehend how powerful you would feel tonight when you finally gave yourself over to the need in entirety.

            As you walked the street that night, though, the twinge of loneliness came back. You really didn’t want to be alone. You wanted Her to understand.

            Why couldn’t She just bloody understand you?

            You disguised yourself as a boy, because it would be easier to draw out one of the girls who worked the streets at night that way. Your tutor had told you that if the need was overwhelming, and he didn’t have a treat for you, then the safest victims were the ones that wouldn’t be missed. The girl in the crimson dress, with frizzy brown hair pulled into a messy bun on top of her head and makeup caked upon her face, would not be missed by anyone.

            You angled your hat lower on your forehead and approached her. Your knife was in your pocket, and you twitched the pads of your fingers along the blade, picturing how the moonlight would look glinting off the metal. How the blood would look dripping off the end.

            You said little to her, just enough to get her to follow you into the alley. She didn’t question you, or suspect that she was your newest toy, and your greatest one at that. You told her to get on her knees, and she did it without hesitation. You walked in circles around her, committing her features to memory, savoring the moment. You touched her hair, then took it out of the idiotic hairstyle. You redid it in the same way She let you do her hair. This girl’s hair was almost exactly the same shade as Hers was. When it was up like that, you could almost imagine that this girl was Her.

            Slowly, you took the knife from your pocket, and in one swift motion, you placed it to her throat. You could feel her pulse beneath the blade, and as she started to struggle against you, you put your hand on her shoulder and pressed the knife into her skin, and she stopped moving.

            “Scream,” you whispered, “and I’ll silence you permanently.”

            You liked the way that sounded. It played on the hope that you knew she would cling to, because she was human. She could hope for reprieve, hope that if she did as you said, you would let her go.

            “I’ll give you anything you want,” she pleaded. “Anything, anything.”

            She went on to offer you sex, money, anything anything. You didn’t want just anything, though. You wanted one very specific thing, but you found that you liked to hear her beg. It was so demeaning, and it made you feel in control. She would do anything that you wanted her to do. You were the powerful one. And she understood that. Someone finally understood that you were the one with the power, who could bend the world on the edge of your knife.

            In the blink of an eye, She was in front of you, not the sniveling whore. And you knew immediately what that meant; She was what you wanted, She was the one you wanted to play with the most, the one who had infuriated you and who you had almost thought was a kindred spirit. She would be your final prize, at the end of the day. Every girl before that would be nothing but a cheap imitation of Her, but one day She would be yours.

            You bent down, so close that your lips brushed against her ear, and you whispered to the her that was almost-but-not-quite Her, “Do you know something? I think I’m going to enjoy this.”

            A quick flick of your wrist, silver moonlight flashing off the blade, drops of scarlet blood against the cobblestones like ruby stars in the night. She fell to the ground, and you stood over her, feeling for the first time like you were really, truly alive. The girl coughed and sputtered at your feet, drowning in her own blood, and you just watched as the life bled out of her. After a minute, she fell still, and you were alone again.

            For a moment, you could cling to the way you had felt, but then it was gone. Just a ghost of what had been. The need was silenced, but you had felt something so deeply that you wanted to get it back, now.

            You picked up the girl and dragged her to the wall, where you propped her up and looked at her face. It wasn’t Her face. It should have been.

            The makeup was wrong. You rubbed it off with your sleeve, smearing layers of paint across her eyes and cheeks until it was mostly gone. That was better. Without the makeup, and with her hair up, the girl looked more like Her. Then you saw the blood, still dripping down her neck, over her breast, down her dress to the street. On impulse, you dipped two fingers into the deep red blood spilling out of her, and you touched her lips with it. Carefully, oh so carefully, you painted her lips with her own blood like you were applying lipstick. When you were done, her lips were as crimson as her dress, and she looked perfect. It was Her again, perfect and beautiful and still in the moonlight.

            You knelt in front of Her, your blood-stained hands on your lap, a smile on your face. “Do you see me now? Do you understand?” you asked Her. She didn’t answer, and that made you angry. How could She still not see?

            One more move was in order. One more action to show Her that you were in charge, that you were the one in control, that you had complete dominance over Her and the entire world of people who you couldn’t understand and who couldn’t understand you.

            You leaned forward and kissed Her lips, tasting the metallic tang of the blood you had painted them with, and now you felt it again. This time, when you asked if She understood, the look of terror on Her still, pale face was enough of an answer. She saw you. It felt good. You didn’t feel quite so alone.


            When you saw the real Her the next day, it was impossible not to think about what you had done last night. You looked at Her, and all you could picture was the blood flowing down Her neck like a scarlet waterfall, and lightly kissing Her cold, dead lips so that She could know you, really know you for what you were. Last night you had thought She understood, but logic told you it wasn’t really Her. Logic told you that She had no idea, that She wouldn’t until you showed Her again. And again. And again. Until maybe, one day, you could actually draw your knife against the real Her’s neck.

            It wouldn’t be so simple a death as it was for the others, though. No, first you would have to show Her specifically how empty you felt inside, how completely devoid of real emotion you were, and how much you wanted Her to understand that. You needed to make Her understand that. Because She was the one who left you alone for so many years, who toyed with you by making you think She was like you, and then shattering that illusion day after day.

            No matter what happened, She would be your final victim, and as She struggled beneath your knife, She would finally know you. She would understand you.

            And maybe once you killed Her, you could finally be happy for the first time in your life.

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