When I was in grade school, my best friend, Alison Kim, was obsessed with horses. She was the horse girl—you know the one. She took lessons, came to school in cowboy boots, and always smelled faintly of barn. Not necessarily a bad thing, but certainly unique among the student body at Middleton Elementary. Her room was covered in pictures of horses; her clothes were all horse-themed. She had trading cards and figurines. This girl was invested and could be called upon at any given moment to answer a horsey question or rattle off an equestrian fact.
Did you know horses can run a mere six hours after birth? Nope.
What about their teeth—were you aware a horse’s teeth take up more space in their head than their brain? Didn’t know that, either.
Most little girls are obsessed with something at one point, and for the most part it never gets a second thought. Puppies: standard. Princesses are also frequently idolized. An obsession with boy bands is to be expected. Begging your parents for a pony or unicorn is normal.
I don’t think I’ve ever been normal. Me? I was obsessed with serial killers.
More specifically, I was obsessed with the idea of female serial killers. Hear the phrase serial killer, and most of us probably picture a man. It’s not surprising—let’s be real, men are responsible for at least ninety-two percent of the evil in the world. For centuries, women have been socially programmed to be the nurturers, after all—the protectors, the emotional bridges—so when we hear of a woman who takes life instead of creating it, it’s instinctively shocking.
My particular fascination started around the time I played Lizzie Borden in my seventh-grade theater class. It was an original musical—the brainchild of our eccentric-would-be-an-understatement teacher—and I landed the lead role. Before then, the concept of murder was still loose and shapeless in my head. But, ever studious as a child, I gobbled up everything I could about Lizzie Borden, the gruesome hatchet murders, the dramatic trial, the acquittal. The fact that, to this day, the murders remain unsolved was enough to get the wheels in my mind spinning: What is it about the male brain that makes it not just more aggressive in general but more prone to serial violence—and what trips that same switch in a woman? It’s why I read every book on the subject I could find as a teen, watched every crime drama and mystery, and why I now teach criminology at UC Santa Barbara, and am working on my own book about the very women who so fascinated me as a child.
It’s probably also why I’m drinking it up with four of my strictly platonic best guy friends, instead of out enjoying myself on an actual date.
No man wants to hear “I wrote my thesis on gender differences in serial murderers” during the Tell me about yourself portion of an initial rendezvous.
My attention first snags on Ed’s voice, and then focuses on Reid’s. “Yeah?”
Reid Campbell—one of the aforementioned strictly platonic best guy friends, the reason we’re here celebrating tonight, and a man whose genetics never got the memo that it’s unfair to be both brilliant and beautiful—grins at me from across the table.
“Are you going to pick your game piece or stare slack-jawed at the wall all night?” He’s still waiting, still smiling. It’s only now that I notice the game board on the table, and the pastel money he begins distributing.
Apparently while zoning out, I inadvertently agreed to play Monopoly. “Ugh. Guys. Again?”
Reid, who for some reason is always the banker, looks back up at me with faux-wounded blue eyes. “Come on. Don’t even pretend you don’t love it. Getting a monopoly on Park Place and Boardwalk gives you an obscene amount of joy.”
“I loved it when I was ten. I still mostly liked it two years ago,” I say. “But why do we keep playing it when it always ends the same?”
“What do you mean it always ends the same?” Ed—or Stephen Edward D’Onofrio! if you’re his mother—pulls out the chair to my left. Ed’s hair is this wild mop of reddish-brown curls that always looks like he either just got up or should really go to bed.
“For starters,” I begin, “Reid is always the top hat, you’re the car, Alex is the ship, Chris is the shoe, and I’m the dog. You’ll go to the bathroom twelve times right before it’s your turn so we all have to wait. Chris will hoard his money and then get mad when he keeps landing on Alex’s hotels. Reid will only buy the utilities and somehow still manage to clean the floor with all of us, and I’ll get bored and quit six hours into a never-ending game.”
“That’s not true,” Ed says. “I quit last time, and Chris bought up all the orange properties to get back at Alex for the rooster-shaped birthday cake.”
“Man, that was a great cake,” Alex says, dark eyes downcast as he laughs into his drink. “Still worth Chris putting salt in my beer for two weeks.”
“What’s greater,” Chris tells him, “is how you never once expected the salt, even after the fourth time.”
In typical fashion, Reid won’t be distracted from his goal, and pipes up from where he’s organizing the property cards. “The rules were very clear tonight: my party, my choice.”
We groan in unison because he has a point. Reid and Ed are both in neuroscience—also at UCSB—but while Ed works as a postdoc researcher in Reid’s lab, Reid is a newly minted associate professor, just awarded tenure. Said tenure is why I’m wearing both a dress and a party hat, and why there are somewhat droopy crepe paper streamers hung throughout Chris’s living room.
Chris is always Team Reid; he’s gathering up the game pieces, but not to put them away, to compromise. “We’ll switch things up. I’ll be the dog, Mills.”
“I think you’re missing my point, Christopher.”
Four sets of eyes stare blankly back at me, urging me to give up the battle.
“Okay then,” I say, resigned as I stand and walk into the kitchen for another bottle of wine.
An hour later, I’ve lost track of how much pretend money I’ve paid Reid, and how many times Alex has refilled my glass. Alex is a professor of biochemistry, which explains how he can always be counted on to get me drunk. Which I am. I don’t know what I was complaining about: Monopoly is awesome!
Chris reshuffles the Community Chest cards and places them facedown on the board. “Ed, are you still seeing that redhead?”
I have no idea how Chris remembers this. Between Alex and Ed it seems there’s never a shortage of odd dating stories to go around. Alex, I get. He’s tall, dark, and wicked, and even though he’s originally from Huntington Beach, he spent every childhood summer with his extended family in Ecuador, giving him an accent that stops women in their tracks. He’s also never serious about anyone, and rarely sees someone again after getting a cab home in the morning.
Ed is . . . none of these things. Don’t get me wrong, he’s not unattractive and he has the aforementioned full head of hair, but he’s more like a grown frat boy than a manly man. If we went to his place right now we’d find ketchup and a case of Mountain Dew in his refrigerator, and a living room full of pinball machines instead of furniture. Still, he goes out more than me, Reid, and Chris combined.
Not that that’s saying much.
Reid is a workaholic. Chris is gorgeous and accomplished, mentoring fellow African American chemists right here at the university. But he’s also picky and serious, and works the same insane hours as Reid does. And me? Honestly, maybe I’m just lazy.
Alex counts out his spaces and sets the dice in the center of the board. “You’re talking about the one with the eye patch?”
Okay, that jogs my memory.
Ed isn’t amused. “She did not have an eye patch.”
“Actually, I remember her, too,” I say. “I distinctly recall seeing a patch covering an eye.” I motion to the board and the neat row of hotels lined up there. “PS, it’s your turn and if you roll anything other than a two—which will land you in Jail—you are fu-ucked.”
“Slumlords,” Ed mutters, but rolls the dice anyway. I have no idea how, but he does—miraculously—roll a two, and does a celebratory fist pump before scooting his little car into the space marked Jail. A momentary reprieve from the rows and rows of Alex’s hotels. “And it wasn’t an eye patch, it was a small bandage. We were being . . . amorous and things got a little crazy.”