Strange, that I can’t feel anything. It’s odd. I should feel something about it. After all, the girl is dead, murdered. And I don’t even know her name. I could find out, but no, not now. Don’t want to think about it.
I wasn’t even there. I did not do this. I did not want this. I did not do this. That’s what the psychiatrist said to keep telling myself.
I walk over to the window and throw it wide open to let out the stale air. A cardinal alights on a branch, the sun highlighting its bright red feathers. It sings to me. I should care, but I don’t. Resting my elbows on the sill, I try to take a deep breath, but it chokes in my throat.
Admit it, though, it was your fault. You didn’t see it and you’re supposed to perceive things others don’t notice. Give the correct diagnosis. Help them.
I dislike being a psychologist now. How many people can you pull back from the ledge without a little bit of their trauma and grief sticking to you? It clings my hair and skin like cigarette smoke and I unwittingly carry it home. I don’t want it, so much sorrow and fear, it never really washes off because it’s also in my mind.
So, look at your day and tell me that perhaps you weren’t overdoing it a bit. Long hours, over tired. It’s your fault. You don’t know when to stop, do you. Stupid. You said not to call you that, but sometimes you just do stupid things. It’s been that way your whole life and you know it. Stupid girl.
But I was good at my profession, good at relating and solving other people’s problems. Abuse, outcasts, death, loss, and I’d cleared those hurdles and could help make the world just a little better.
All except one, you idiot. No, make that two. You even sensed it, at the start.
My first impression of Alek was darkness. Yes, he wore a black faded hoodie, worn jeans, and rarely looked up at all; that’s what my eyes saw. What my mind saw was a dark figure in the middle of a swirling vortex, like a swarm of insects or a tornado in a hurricane. Dark, black, swirling depression.
He leaned forward on his knees, sitting on the couch in my office, and later, when he was more at ease, he sat back against the pillows. Alek almost always looked at the floor, and then up at me when what he had something especially important to say.
This is hard to think about, but I shouldn’t forget. He was twenty-four. His father had beaten him when he was a kid. Would wake him up in the middle of the night to drag him out of bed, fists striking him, fumes of alcohol swirling around the room. Alek would never drink liquor when he grew older because of the smell. Once his father cracked the living room wall throwing Alek against it, other times he lifted him up by the throat, or held a knife to his face. He was in the hospital many times, broken hands, broken arms, broken ribs, and when a doctor would try to help it just made Alek’s life worse. No one ever really helped. His mother just watched.
And then one day, when he was still little, he saw the alien. Yes, that’s what he said; the alien. It was a small one, he said.
Uh-oh, I thought, psychotic. He didn’t tell doctors this anymore because they never believed him, that the alien was truly there. But after all, he said, other people had seen aliens, right? It was in books and on the internet. He figured they couldn’t all be wrong.
I wanted him to keep talking to me, so when he asked if I believed him, I said I guess he just needed a friend. He accepted that.
At first the alien scared him so much that he ran and hid in his father’s bed. He was so afraid that he ran to the one person who had nearly killed him.
He’d seen the alien outside the window, and the second time it was inside the house, behind the door. Then after a while, Alek realized the alien wasn’t bad. It came to warn him of danger. At least he was a helpful alien, I thought. Though the alien never said a word, it was the only one who ever helped the boy. For all the good the stupid alien actually did.
One day, in a rage, Alek’s father beat him and threw him out a second story window. His body shattered the cracked glass and he plummeted two stories onto the cement. The police and ambulance came that time. Broken bones, and broken psyche.
Alek was removed from his parent’s house but where he ended up, he said, was worse. In foster care he was passed from family to family. There were kids who hated him and sexual abuse—he eventually broke mentally, went inpatient and ended up on medications that messed up his head so that he could barely think. The alien disappeared for a while.
Not only would Alek not drink alcohol, he didn’t like meds or drugs of any kind. So, when he was old enough to get out of the system, he left all the doctors and medications behind and went to the streets. He wouldn’t say a lot about that. He survived, street to couch, floor to street, until Mr. Carpenter took him in. Mr. Carpenter brought him to me for therapy.
That was Alek’s story. The cause and effect. And you, stupid girl, thought you could undo all that damage. You, you should have seen that he needed to be locked away. You should have. You didn’t.
But I wasn’t even there. Not when he killed her. The female with no name. I did not do this. I did not want this. I did not do this.
We only talked together in therapy five times, with long spaces in between, but each time he seemed to get better. By the end, he was no longer a swirling mass of darkness, but wearing brightly colored basketball clothes and sneakers. He hadn’t seen the alien for a long time. He had hope, a way to get a job. And then he disappeared.
Until he killed the girl.
Then he was on the news, the internet, a mug shot on a blue background, his face oversized on the flat TV screen, looking as if he was peering through a window. His stare, with the white showing under his eyes said, “I could have killed you, too.” You know, you run your office alone; he should have murdered you instead. Alt+F4. I shut the window on my laptop. I don’t feel anything. I should feel something.
He’d stabbed her to death, over and over, about the face and chest, and then lived in her house with her body, for days and days, her corpse still on the bed, until someone became suspicious. And even then, he didn’t run. He just packed up his few things.
What if when you took away his alien, you took away his hope, his only way of coping with his miserable life. What if the alien really did help him?
I feel as if electricity is running through my body. It’s hard to breathe and I’m so very, very cold.
A day passes and there is more information, more pictures in the news, the young female dressed in red, her mother crying, screaming at God for vengeance. Alt+F4—I close the window immediately, but they replay in my head and I want them to stop. The color of her red dress burns bright as fire.
He killed her. And now The State will kill him, too. And you are just another one who failed. Stupid, idiot girl.
I can’t feel anything. But you know what? I can raise one feeling after all. I hate you. I hate you because you screwed up and you’re never good enough, and you’re all those things you were told when you were little. They were right. You had to keep pushing it and pushing it and look what you did. You practically killed her yourself. Because you could have stopped a murderer and you didn’t see far enough. Through the window of your own experiences, you didn’t see far enough.
But I wasn’t even there. I did not do this. I did not want this. I did not do this.
You don’t feel anything. You remember him in your office, telling the brutal stories of his childhood. You see him as a child. After all that, you still believed there was hope. You feel compelled to look the story up on the net again and open many windows. Her name is Estrella. It means star. A dead star. You listen to sound bites and see the pictures, and then the browser won’t close, it’s stuck. The girl is smiling. The sounds stop and start, a circle swirls telling you wait. The mother won’t stop screaming. You should be dead too, and the window won’t close. Alt+F4 Alt+F4. Slam the laptop screen down.
I need to quit this. I wasn’t there, I would have stopped it if I was. I didn’t want it. I never thought anything like this would ever happen. Guilt is an ugly thing. People always find a way to feel guilty when someone dies. As if there were something we could have done, once it’s over. As if we had that kind of control. We don’t, I didn’t. But it’s enough to make me doubt myself.
And what do I tell Mr. Carpenter if he comes to talk to me? That it’s not his fault? It’s not. Alek was doomed from the moment he was born into that family. In the end, everyone failed Estrella, the girl who died, because they failed Alek. He even failed himself. But the girl, she was innocent, and that’s the part I can’t live with.
I lift the screen on the window. The humidity floats in, but for once it warms my cold hands. I shiver. The red cardinal in the tree sings to me. I want to believe that it is there for me in this moment when I’m fighting my old demons. I want to believe the folklore that this is a spirit who’s come to give me a message. Perhaps the girl, coming to tell me it’s all right, to help me out of this hell.
I leave the window open. The cardinal watches from outside, then hops onto the sill. Perhaps he wants to come in.