The Birthday Massacre

I can’t decide if The Birthday Massacre is too dramatic or not.

They’re really dramatic.

They’re a goth/emo band. They’re supposed to be.

Sketch: Mick

I don’t remember if I’ve ever put this anywhere.

Mick walked in the office. He’d gotten away from the engineer’s uniform of white shirt, khakis, and tie for the sedate manager’s uniform, polo-shirt, khakis, and ID badge in a lanyard. We shared a lab, eight of us, and it was too many people in too little space. Benches were stuck every-old where, with the huge silicon oven making a closet between it and a wall. The low EMI room was ringed by scopes and sig-gens. There’s an old saw spaghetti is done when you throw it at the wall and it sticks. An EMI-shielded room is used when the wires stick to it like black pasta, and something is always tweeting or blinking. Mick sat down, looked at his computer, and didn’t log on. He spun in place to stare at us like he was seeing the lab for the first time.

“Hey, Mick. What’s up?” I asked.

It was Monday morning, and I wasn’t working. I technically was. The email client was syncing. I was staring at a bar moving. Monday had come too early.

He opened his mouth to say something. It sounded like a revelation. He was discovering his words as he said them, but the intensity didn’t match the statement.

“Nothing. I’m fine. I’m fine.”

There was a meaning to that statement that was true, and the obvious one was physical. Mick didn’t look like he had believed it thirty seconds ago.

“Do anything fun this weekend?” asked Alexa.

Alexa was the project lead. She was a better engineer than manager, and people kept trying to make that about her sex. It wasn’t. She was bored out of her mind, reading spreadsheets, filing budget statements. She avoided her paperwork like a monster. I couldn’t blame her emotionally, because I’d done her job when she was out for a few weeks. It was purge-your-brain-boring. I could blame her for not filling out my purchase request authorizations, because that was on my personal credit card and I needed the money. Good person. I wish I didn’t work for her.

“I got shot at,” said Mick.

Ives, Pietr, and Mohammed turned in their chairs in odd unison, spinning away from their computers. No one was doing any real work yet. The scopes drew flat lines save the ambient, which chirped its usual 2.4 GHz bump. No one cared. Ives put his feet up and looked at Mick, while Mohammed leaned back in his chair. Sooner or later it was going to fall under him. Mohammed was no little man. Pietr wanted blood.

“Who shot at you?” I asked.

“A boyfriend. I didn’t know he was a boyfriend. Not true. I knew he was a boyfriend, but I didn’t know the girl- do you know some women don’t like being called women? It’s like missus. They think it means they’re old. They don’t like missus or ma’am. Same with woman. She told me to call her girl. It was a thing. That’s not odd, right? Should I have noticed that? I did, but I didn’t think about it.”

Mick spoke in a rush of flat water. His words were quick, and his expression abstracted. He might have been reciting a speech he forgot the meaning of.

“Ma’am does make you sound old. Some people think Missus does too,” said Alexa with a carefully neutral, supportive expression. “Girl doesn’t surprise me. How old was she?”

“Twenty eight.”

Alexa nodded slowly. “Yeah,” she said to herself. “Who was it?”

“I didn’t notice,” said Mick, and I had to reach back to figure out he was answering his own question. “I thought I was getting catfished.”

“By who?” asked Pietr.

“I met a girl online. Odd girl. I had a feeling things were off, so I made her send me a picture of her with a potato. I thought I was getting catfished. The chemistry had inconsistent levels. Ever notice that? She responded quickly, but she was willing to put more work into the conversation than her interest level supported.

“Text conversations with people you’ve never met take work, you know? People don’t notice it. Girls don’t. Girls honestly aren’t that good at it. They don’t ask leading questions, and they don’t say things you can respond to. I think they’re used to texting people they know, so there’s a lot of common ground to fall back on. Online dating doesn’t have that. They don’t know, but they text so much they think they know. Blindness of practice. It was my second match. The first was a bot.

“You can tell bots. She asked me how I was doing, I said fine. I had a funny story about the grocery store, so I said I’d just bought some fruit, and she told me to plow her like a field. I’m a reasonably good-looking guy, but I don’t think my grocery shopping drives the ladies wild. Bots have no chill. This one was a bit different, but I didn’t know what was going on. Text conversations are a little weird. You don’t get feedback. You can’t read body language.

“She didn’t sound interested. She send a lot of short texts: So? Really? Nice. But if I didn’t reply, she sent another. I couldn’t figure out if my senses were off or not. Bots don’t do context well. I mentioned I had seen a movie, and we could talk about it. I talked. I usually don’t talk that much with girls. They talk more. It’s fine. She asked, I answered, but she asked with context, which bots don’t do well. I thought it was a human, but I figured it was a catfish. I asked her for a picture of her with a potato. I compared it closely to her profile. She’s cute. It was the same girl. She was in a kitchen. I figured she was human. She asked me if we wanted to meet up. I couldn’t get a read on her, but like, if I’m not exactly great at reading people, maybe she wasn’t great at giving the right signals. Some people just aren’t great at talking to new people. It was Webbie, a dating site for technical professionals. It turns out girls are people too, and a lot of them are kinda awkward too. Where would such people be? Webbie, dating for nerds. It seemed reasonable, right? She didn’t want me to call her woman. She was a girl. Webbie said she’s twenty eight. There’s no chance she was below eighteen.”

Everything flooded out of Mick in a rush, and then he stopped. The undercurrents of sarcasm never peaked, but they cut the flow of words and broke his speech into ripples and currents. Pietr had repeated the ‘girls are people too’ bit, but Alexa shushed him. Pietr didn’t have a read on Mick. Alexa did. We waited.

Mick looked up. “She had a boyfriend. He had a gun. I ran.”

There was a long silence before Alexa said, “Good!” with peculiarly defeated intensity.

What else would you say to that?”

“You got shot at?” I asked.

“Yeah. He was pissed. We’d gone out a few times. It wasn’t- they weren’t real dates. Two weren’t. We had coffee. Very public. Lot of other people. She didn’t immediately respond after that. Not much spark, but some interest. We had another coffee date. It was weird. I asked her if she wanted to go someplace else and suggested a time. She was busy. I suggested a different time. She was still busy. Okay. I said I looked forward to seeing her again sometime, and figured that was that. People do get busy, you know? I’ll try twice. But a day later she started texting me again, and we went out for coffee again. Different place. I got the feeling she couldn’t get a read on me either, but now I don’t think that was it. I did then. I tried to be myself. That’s what you’re supposed to do, right? Third time, third time we made a connection at a roller derby. It had come up in conversation. Apparently she liked roller derby, and I always thought it was weird, but maybe exciting. I’d go if she wanted to. She did. Her boyfriend showed up in the parking lot out back, and he started shooting. I ran. I spent the night at the police station. There is a lot of paperwork in getting shot at.”

Again Alexa broke the leaden silence that followed.

“I wouldn’t have expected an armed boyfriend from her asking you to call her girl, not woman,” said Alexa.