When I grow up, I want to be a mass murderer.
This was the opening sentence of a journal entry I wrote in my second grade Language Arts class, responding to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Each day of the school week, we were supposed to write in our journals, a minimum of a page, either in response to assigned prompts from our teacher, Mrs. McKierney, or through free writing at the start of class. We were encouraged to share our feelings and to say what was on our minds. The goal of the journals was to promote the act of writing, but my chief pastime as an 8-year-old boy was playing Nintendo, which didn’t require much capacity for language beyond dull grunts, hollers and the occasional curse word said under my breath when my mother was home or screamed when she wasn’t.
I had only written a few entries on the night before they were due for Mrs. McKierney’s monthly checkup. Watching TV in my bedroom, which is how I always did my homework, I wrote more than 20 of them, penning response after response to prompts such as “What will you do over spring break?” and “Write about your favorite hobby and why you love it.” My mother promised me a Nintendo game if I received an A, so I was motivated, even though anything school-related was worse than eating vegetables, something I often refused to do without bribery, too.
My deceit began earnestly. I wrote with different color pens (in those days I favored the four-colored clickable variety); I wrote on varying surfaces, the bed, a table, my lap; and I wrote with multiple levels of ferocity, from the casual doodle of an entry made in my spare time to others written in the hasty chicken-scratch of perhaps a burgeoning mass murderer. There were the drawings of baseball stadiums and the accompanying fictional histories, the abecedarian poems based on my first name before I even knew what “abecedarian” meant, and the Big Daddy Kane-inspired battle raps written under the inventive nom de plume MC B-Money. As the night wore on, my approach to the entries became random, insincere and sometimes profane, like filling in the blanks of a Mad Libs. My mother had banned those the summer before when she found one fully completed without any regard for the parts of speech beyond the four-letter variety. Eventually, I just scribbled words and squiggly lines in my journal, knowing my handwriting was already illegible to Mrs. McKierney, who had marked me down for my penmanship previously.
While I don’t recall if I wrote the mass murderer entry that night or what the inspiration behind it was, at the time, I was obsessed with horror movies, particularly “Friday the 13th: Part VIII--Jason Takes Manhattan.” I had watched it again and again with my best friend, whom I’ll call Miguel (I’ve changed all the names in this essay), the scariest parts seen through the slim gaps of our fingers splayed across our faces like starfish. I understood Jason Voorhees was a bad guy, but still I sided with him, rooted for him when he murdered, and was saddened when he was ultimately killed -- by toxic waste in Part VIII, drowned by a ghost in Part VII, or by an ax to the head in Part III, all supposedly well-deserved deaths following heinous killing sprees.
But I forgave Jason for his misdeeds. He was a kindred misfit, a damaged boy with a difficult history. The rumor was he drowned due to the negligence of camp counselors at Crystal Lake and resurrected to avenge his dead mother, the killer in the original “Friday the 13th,” decapitated at the end by the only surviving counselor. Neither Jason nor I had fathers. His left at an early age because of Jason’s unspecified mental disability and mine disappeared after he found out my mother was pregnant. Seeing my classmates dropped off by men they called “Dad” made me wonder where my father was. “Why don’t I have a dad?” I asked. “What happened to him?” My mother never gave a real answer. Sometimes she cried, but I was used to that by then. She seemed to cry like I played Nintendo, blaming the movie “Beaches,” which she watched on loop, her throaty, strained words muffled by Kleenex. When I was too pushy, my mother simply said, “We’ll talk about it when you’re older.”
I thought there was something wrong with me. I didn’t think I deserved a dad, and I was jealous of everyone else who had someone to play catch, ride bikes and wrestle with, like my archenemy, Raul, the kid who lived upstairs. “Steal that bitch’s controller,” Miguel said when we were hanging out alone in Raul’s bedroom, a boy’s fantasy island, with his own TV, bean bag chairs, and all the best games right when they came out. Raul’s parents didn’t want us there because they’d heard the rumors about me and Miguel pouring soda in the corner mailbox and stuffing rocks down old Mrs. McKnight’s tailpipe. But Raul knew he was better off if we were friendly, so he invited us over and offered us Cokes, Otter Pops, anything we wanted. “Los Sucios,” his father called me and Miguel, the dirty ones.
“I’m taking ‘Shinobi,’ too,” I said, stuffing the controller and game in my pants, and after we drank the sodas Raul fetched for us, Miguel and I left. Later that night, we played “Shinobi” until our eyes spun like ninja stars. Then we whipped Raul’s controller around Miguel’s bedroom, quitting when his mother yelled at us, “¡Callate!” By then, the buttons had burst from their sockets and the plastic had cracked into pieces, but the game wasn’t over. When his mother wasn’t home, we set the controller on fire in the backyard.
At school, I was just as bad. My classmates hated me, especially Kathryn, whom I accused of wiping her boogers underneath her desk, and Michael, a pale redhead I called Cherry Bomb so vigorously he stabbed me in the stomach with a pencil. I even masterminded a love note to Brianna, a well-endowed sixth-grader, on behalf of all the boys in my class, unbeknownst to them, asking if she’d show us her “big titties.” None of the other boys even knew what “titties” meant before I told them. Often I was sent to see Ms. Mahn, the school principal. “Brian, you’re such a good student. Why do you behave like this?” she asked. Like my mother, I couldn’t give an answer.
* * *
In the journal entry, I didn’t name names. I didn’t threaten to shoot Kathryn in her snot-filled face, blast off Michael’s hand, the one that shanked me in the coat closet, or fill Mrs. McKierney with round after round of steaming lead. The entry was a story about me as a grown-up, an emerging mass murderer with a Frankenstein combination shotgun and machine gun mounted to my arm. I was probably playing too much “Contra” then. I used the gun to shoot anyone who messed with me, not an indiscriminate killing spree but a revenge fantasy against nameless, faceless bodies, all of whom may or may not have been my father. No locale was identified. There weren’t blueprint-like sketches of a movie theater, mall or school. After the bullets fired and the smoke cleared, the police never caught me because a hockey mask concealed my face, like Jason’s.
Instead of notifying the authorities, the teacher took my notebook, and there was a phone call home followed by a conference with my mother, Mrs. McKierney and Ms. Mahn. Maybe my mother argued that I wasn’t a mass murderer. Maybe she explained how I loved animals. We have two cats, and Tammy sleeps with him every night. Maybe she performed my Donald Duck impression. He’s such a happy boy. Maybe she told them about all my friends. He’s in Cub Scouts, goes to the Boys’ Club, and plays Little League. Maybe she said we didn’t have cable. Jason? He’s not allowed to watch those movies. Whatever my mother said, I wasn’t expelled or suspended, however, it was noted on my report card Mrs. McKierney had made “recommendations.” She wrote, “Brian needs to develop more self-control in his behavior” and gave me a minus in the Respects Others sub-section of the Personal Growth and Community Awareness portion of my total grade.
Soon after the conference, my mother and I bused to an office weekly where I saw a therapist, Miss Ashley, a brunette with a clipboard and a toothy smile. We met in a room with walls made mostly of glass I couldn’t see out of but could see into from the outside, like an interrogation room on “Miami Vice.” There was a small table and two chairs, one bigger than the other, for an adult and a child, and beside it, an area covered with a floor mat and toys spread around. “Be a good boy,” my mother said with a shallowed voice before closing the door behind her, leaving us alone.
Ms. Ashley talked animated and slowly like a Teddy Ruxpin doll. We chatted about school, my mom, Nintendo, and since I had trouble sitting still, she let me play with the toys. My favorite were the cars. I could pretend I was driving anywhere. Miss Ashley asked me lots of questions -- “What’s your favorite subject in school?”; “Are you a Mets fan or Yankees”?; “Do you like pizza?” but never “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Sometimes my answers were one word, and other times I’d speak at length, spinning stories around her like a tether ball, some of which probably weren’t true at all because I lied often, not out of malice but boredom.
After meeting with Miss Ashley, every morning my mother gave me a pill with breakfast and dinner. She didn’t make anything of it; I don’t even remember the pills, only the effect they had on me. One day I was eating them with Cap'n Crunch or chicken nuggets, and my rabid energy had subsided. I was able to sit still and focus more intently, interrupting Mrs. McKierney less frequently and no longer inciting my classmates to shank me. The intense urge to jump out of my desk was curbed. My mind felt uncluttered, like my thoughts were neatly wound controllers atop the TV stand. Breaking the rules for the distinct purpose of getting attention grew unfulfilling.
As my energy decreased, my motivation did, too. I spent most weekends zoned out playing Zelda for hours, basking in the fuzzed glow of the television. My mother told me to go out and play, but I just wanted to stay inside and play video games, relaxed and focused on the task, and not bounce around the neighborhood causing trouble. On my report card at the end of the school year, Mrs. McKierney wrote about my behavior, “Brian has made great progress in all areas. He continues to need encouragement and firmness in dealing with some of his difficulties.”
* * *
Several years later, after my high school principal caught me and a few friends smoking pot, my mother asked if I remembered the journal entry.
“Vaguely,” I stuttered, still stoned. My mother insisted I read it and pulled a worn black marble notebook from a cardboard box in the closet. She knew exactly where it was, beneath the old report cards and hand turkeys. “Brian McGuigan” was printed across the cover in a shaky handwriting that looked nothing like my own. She flipped through the notebook, the dried pages snapping as if they’d tear with each turn, until she came upon the dog-eared entry and handed it to me. The print was sloppy and blocky, letters careening down the page through the ruled lines, sentences alternately written inward and outward. The page was weathered, evidence of all the people who had inspected it, the hands that had gripped the edge taut, pulling the sheet to its stringed limits. I folded the cover over and cradled the notebook in my palms while my mother looked on, waiting for my reaction.
“They made me put you on Ritalin after that,” she said, but I didn’t respond. A long pause held the space between us hostage while I read.
I didn’t recognize this “Brian McGuigan.” By high school, I wasn’t as much of a disruption, a class clown occasionally but no longer by trade. I was a honor roll student with a typical streak of teenage mischief, drinking and smoking pot to seem cool around my friends who would have been so jealous of my Ritalin prescription. The notebook made me afraid for my former self. I wondered where I would be if not for my mother, Mrs. McKierney and Miss Ashley, if I would have ended up like Jason, minus the succession of campy sequels.
“I guess you don’t want to be a mass murderer anymore,” my mother said in a half-joking, half-wary tone.
“I guess not,” I said, without looking up.