Sitting in an overstuffed velvet armchair, Ms. Fremont has her legs curled under her. She’s wearing a chunky cable-knit sweater, mustard yellow, that slides off one shoulder, and black yoga pants. Her unruly hair is pulled into a low, short ponytail, grey showing at the roots before being overwhelmed by some box-brand light brown, perhaps L’Oréal number 6. She’s dared to wear last summer’s Buxom Vixen red on her lips while the rest of her face is bare. It’s that kind of half-effort that makes her story all the stranger.
I pass the picture of a young, vivacious teen, her whole carefully-planned life ahead of her across the top of the frosted glass table, turning it one-hundred-eighty degrees so that the girl’s crooked smile and wide eyes are pointed the right way round for Ms. Fremont. She hardly glances down before pushing her sweater back up her shoulder and nodding for me to begin. She knows what I’m here for. I hit the record button on my phone and place it beside the photo on the table.
There are no villainous men. There can’t be.
In fact, it’s impossible to find a villainous man. Every man has some backstory, reason, or explanation that saves him.
If you’re looking for a villain, you’re going to need a woman. Nothing can save women. Not a damn thing.
She pauses when I open my mouth, but I don’t want her to stop. I shake my head, and she goes on.
Mia foolishly believed, as the young are wont to do, that she could avoid villainy. The key was to be a good person. Good people aren’t villains. She knew that in her heart, and she knew it because society told her it was so. The road to being good was laid out for her by her mother, religion, and Saturday morning cartoons.
She had a mental list going. It read like this:
Step one to being golden and good lies in the Golden Rule. Treat others as you wish to be treated. Easy enough.
Step two, put others before yourself.
Step three, respect your elders, and in doing so, be helpful.
Step four, apologize. Often. Even if you’re not sure what you’ve done wrong, the word “sorry” should be used when you’ve made mistakes, or when someone is upset about something (anything, it doesn’t need to be something you have any control over. A loved one died, and you didn’t kill them? You’re still sorry.)
Step five, be useful.
(Step Two and Five generally go together. The way you put others before yourself is to do things for them. If you haven’t done something for someone to make their lives easier, then you haven’t been useful, and you’ve been selfish. To be selfish is villainous. Do not be selfish.)
Step six, smile. But not too much. And not at the wrong times. But always. Except when you shouldn’t. And you should know when those times are before anyone else so that you aren’t breaking step three of being respectful to elders.
Mia kept this list in her head at all times. She knew from a very early age that any little slip could shatter every good thing she’d ever done and make her bad. She knew this because boys will be boys but girls can only be good or: asking for it, too stupid, too smart for their own good, too loud, precocious (which is apparently a bad word), just like their mothers (the worse version of this was to be “just like your grandmother”), a slut, a tease, too thin, too fat, overly eager, lazy, a bitch, too nice, or, Mia’s favorite, too perfect.
When she stops, I look away, unable to look upon her head-on. That smile. There’s no regret there. If anything, she looks at me like she’s sorry for me. Like I’m the one who needs to be saved. This was what they warned me about. This smile. The allure of what she says. Sorcery, they’d said.
Her unlined eyes are too human for that. She shakes her head, surely seeing the way I struggle to maintain my composure. Still, she goes on.
Striving to be too perfect is why I had to kill Mia. I was always a villain. She was destined to become one. There was no avoiding it. Women are villains.
I really shouldn’t try to justify my reasons because women aren’t allowed reasons. We’re given titles and stereotypes and we’re expected to live by them. That made killing Mia easier. Well, that, and she wanted to die. In the end, she really wanted to die. Being perfect is exhausting, but for Mia that wasn’t the problem. The problem was she didn’t find perfection rewarding or fulfilling. No matter how perfect she was, no matter how often she followed the rules, even the conflicting ones, she was still a villain in someone’s eyes.
A conniving witch. Or had it been bitch? Either way, Mia’s parents had warned me. Still it makes no sense. The woman in front of me, and the girl in the photo...how had she done it? They’d said murder. And here she is admitting it. Except I don’t see how I’m meant to arrest her.
Allow me to give you a quick summary of Mia’s failure to live. She was born to loving parents. She didn’t call them controlling (I did, though). They held her tight, promising her the world if she served them. And she served them with so much love and adoration it made other people question her sanity, but what did they know? She grew up with a few close friends, who her mother was constantly criticizing to try to break them apart. Mia held on to one friend who wasn’t perfect, but who understood that Mia wasn’t perfect either, and didn’t try to change her for it. This was the first turn toward villainy.
If others were to tell the story, they’d delay that onset until after she graduated high school. Because then Mia went to college, close to home but she still made sure to see her parents at least once a week and called her mother every day. And in college she met a man. Classic villainy will ensue once a previously chaste and wholesome girl becomes a woman and meets a man.
Mia herself thought for years this relationship was the beginning of her fall from grace. I helped her to see that she’d taken a step off the pedestal when she’d refused to leave her best friend behind. Women don’t need men to be villains. That’s the patriarchy trying to insert their importance into stories about women.
Anyhow, I could sit here and try to tell you that I didn’t kill Mia, that I helped her to live for the first time in her entire life. Both statements would be lies. And playing to your sympathies does nothing other than reaffirm the concept that a woman of a certain age is manipulative. I’m not any more manipulative than any other person, but there’s that truth again interfering with what people want to believe. In the interest of transparency and truth, I killed her.
Ms. Fremont pauses to stare at the timer ticking on my phone, showing the progress of her admission. I imagine her lashing out, snatching the phone away and destroying the only evidence of her crime. Instead, she leans a little farther back into her seat and sighs.
Saying it aloud is refreshing.
The only way I could live was for Mia to die. And seeing how miserable she was, how done with her life she was already, I thought it would be easy. Someone that close to the edge ... just a little push would do it, right?
Years of careful preparation brought me to this. Years of re-thinking my plan, of questioning my own sanity. I nearly lost myself there at one point. I nearly just ... disappeared. Mia wouldn’t have it though. She kept me around. She reminded me that I needed to live, I needed to thrive. Every word of encouragement pushed her closer and closer to her own end.
You’re probably wondering if I’m sorry. That’s a classic thing to ask a murderer. It’s a classic demand upon women, really.
I’m not sorry. I already told you that for me to live, she had to die.
The confession is what I’d been after. The self-assured and righteous attitude doesn’t fit with a plea of insanity, which I had expected from her when we’d started. Unless that lack of emotion was another sign of her insanity.
I can see your surprise. Maybe you came in here thinking I’d lost my mind. That I’d attacked her in a fit of rage. And here I am telling you that her death was calculated and a long-time coming. I knew exactly what I was doing. I had to, to get the job done.
She nearly did it for me at one point. That was a low moment for us both. She was certain there was no coming back from the mistakes she’d made. The people around her wouldn’t let her forget who she was supposed to be. I was there, whispering in her ear: get up, you beautiful idiot. You were never what they thought you were. She sobbed. She told me how much she wanted to be what they wanted. She needed to be that woman.
We all need to be that woman sometimes. And it’s crippling to even try. Which is why I stopped.
She makes this all sound so simple. I understand now that she truly is dangerous. I was foolish to willingly walk into her house, sit opposite her, and think myself immune.
I’m telling you what I’ve done for one simple reason: because I believe you don’t have to be trapped either. I see you buried deep behind those dim, lackluster eyes. I see you wondering if you could cast off this ridiculous farce that’s destroying you and really live.
Yes. You can.
You want to know how I finally did it? How I really did it?
I desperately do want to know, but I worry that this is when her words will become a spell that seeps into my head and drives me to my end. Still, I nod yes, because yes, of course I want to know.
I waited until Mia was at her strongest weakest self. I waited until she thought she really had her shit together. And then I waited a few days more because I knew. I knew that someone would comment on a little mistake. Or she’d get that phone call from her family, reminding her that she was still a failure, no matter how much she’d created the life she truly wanted for herself.
When that happened, when she felt herself coming only slightly unhinged, only a very little bit undone, I attacked. I told her, ‘Hey Mia, you know what you are now? You’re a villain. You’re—’ And here’s where I drew it out, knowing the shock would be fatal. I smiled, like I am now, and I said, ‘Baby, you’re me. You’re always me. You can’t help but be me. So why don’t you just stop trying so damn hard to be someone else?’
I look down again at the picture of a young Mia Fremont. I ask Ms. Fremont to clarify what she’s saying because the girl in the photo and the woman in front of me cannot be the same person. Her parents are right. Ms. Fremont has destroyed Mia.
She doesn’t look at the picture.
I’m not that girl. I told you. I killed that girl. I killed her that day with one simple lie, and it was her choice not to believe it. Had she believed it, she’d still be here now, and I, well I would not.
When I told her that she was a villain, she lost it, as I knew she would. She had spent her entire life trying so hard to be good, to be perfect. In the world she was trying to live in, in her mind, she couldn’t be a villain. But instead of showing me just how good and perfect she was to prove to me that she wasn’t bad, she snapped. She saw that she could continue to wear herself into the ground trying to be someone else, or she could accept that she would be someone’s villain, just not her own. And the person she was when she wasn’t herself, well that person made her sick. That person wasn’t who she wanted to be. So, she stopped.
And here I am. I know you think I’m a villain, that I’m bad for not being her. But I am not my own villain. And I can live with that.
She pauses again and I wonder if that’s the end. I’m not sure what to do with this confession. Has she killed someone? Her relatives certainly think she has. They swear this woman is not their daughter, their sister, their loved one. She is someone else.
If I took her in, booked her, I’d be laughed out of the precinct. Every scrap of identification she has says Mia Fremont. I’m certain a hair sample would come back a positive match. Her fingerprints, the same.
But she’s confessed.
Detective, I have a question for you: are you living for yourself, or are you living for others?
That cruel smile. That sincere question. I want to hate her; what I want more is to answer her question. But I don’t know. Something stirs inside, and I stop the recording. I rise. I excuse myself. I tell her that I appreciate her taking the time to see me. And I leave. Scared.
I am pulling my car door open when I hear her footsteps on the porch.
I hope you’ll tell them I’m doing just fine. The Mia Fremont they knew is long gone, but I am thriving.
I’ve seen that knowing wicked smirk before. What she said is alluring. Her explanation is nearly reasonable. But it’s that glimmer of hope she gives to a part of me deep down in the recesses of my mind that makes her evil.
She raises her hand and I flinch.
Drive safe now.