Danny Cater kept looking for love in all the wrong places: science fiction bookstores, science fiction conventions, science fiction forums. Everybody but Danny seemed to know that there weren’t any women to be found in these locations.
Danny’s heart was in the right place, though. He hadn’t so much as experienced a woman’s touch, but that wasn’t his fault. There were so many soap operas to watch, so many mystery novels to read, so many eBay auctions to win, and so many imaginary women and underrepresented people to defend in “white knight” exchanges among his all-male, all-white forum frenemies. He had nothing but these hobbies and, like his favorite super hero Time Man, all of the time in the world to pursue them.
You see, Danny never worked a real 9-to-5 job. He just sat around in his robe all day, growing sad, wan, and wide in the waist while he waited for his ship to come in. But he was so lonely, and he wanted to find someone with whom he could share all of the life he had so painstakingly built.
Was it too much to ask for a beautiful partner who would clasp his ferret-like hands, who would tuck him under his stained, never-washed white sheets, who would worship him with all of her heart? Was that too much?
For reasons he still can’t understand, he decided to visit the AOL chat rooms. He couldn’t believe that these were still operating in 2023. Their shoddy interface reminded him of his high school years at the tail end of the 1990s, a time when the future seemed a vast expanse. He’d filled that expanse with nothing, with hours and days and months of nothing, as he lurched toward forgettable middle age.
The chatroom he entered was #Mbyluv.
“Maybe love,” he said to himself. It sounded so perfect, and at that moment it probably was.
#Mbyluv, or Man-boy love, was a phony chat room maintained by a watchdog organization called DeviantBusters. Founded in 2004 by an outraged dog mother with too much time on her hands, DeviantBusters had achieved a modicum of fame for its role in entrapping creepy, pathetic people via televised sting operations.
Following its heyday in the earlier part of the decade, when a no-talent former Home Shopping Network presenter Maggie McCleary shot to stardom as the host of this nonsense, its business had tapered off. The world’s supply of pitiable degenerates had increased exponentially, so watching as they were publicly shamed was no longer a novelty. You could find viler characters in any forum thread or Twitter conversation.
“We’ve got a live one here, folks,” said the woman who was operating one of the computer terminals. “Sounds like a real pervert, too.”
In no time flat, the entire crew—Brian Powell, Georgiy the Intern, Emily Twiggs, Oscar Berkman, and their supervisor Mr. Leeds—had gathered around her.
“Daisy, you’ve got to reel him in,” urged Mr. Leeds. He began salivating at the thought of another big-time bust. This was the kind of thing that would get him out of DeviantBusters and back into the big time. He could finally upgrade his Sega Game Gear and purchase the Neo Geo handheld gaming system he really wanted. “Give it to him with both barrels.”
Daisy opened a drawer on the side of her desk, withdrew a half-eaten gas station sandwich, and took a bite. Mayonnaise and saliva mingled with the thin black hairs that formed a saint’s nimbus around her dry lips. “Can it, Leeds. Do I look like I was born yesterday? I’ve got this under control,” she said.
“Look, I know how tough it was for Sonic and his fox friend Tails to get those rings away from Dr. Robotnik. I know what I’m talking about,” Leeds said.
“What does Dr. Robotnik have to do with anything, Mr. Leeds?” asked the raccoon-eyed Brian Powell, who was battling a terrible hangover and still harboring a lot of resentment over the recent promotion of Emily Twiggs to paid freelancer.
Georgiy elbowed him in the ribs. “Is the setting of your suns, my dear. Getting with the program like Oprah’s Winfrey, yes’m?”
“Could all of you shut up?” Daisy barked through a mouth filled with boneless, skinless chicken wings (which, truth be told, aren’t really chicken wings at all).
To sum up: every girl I’ve ever failed comes to me and tells me what I already know. Nonetheless, it’s good to hear it coming out of their mouths, right? There’s a hint of sadness in their eyes and on their faces because maybe once they cared for me in some small way but now they realize what I am and always will be. I want to tear out my own heart and hand it to some girl who has a sweet smile, after which I want to see her either eat it or tear it to pieces. I’m not even sure what that’s symbolic of, if anything. I want all of this emotional pain—much of which is admittedly self-inflicted—to manifest itself physically, and I want someone who once “had feelings” for me to be there when I suffer ultimately and finally. She’ll look sad because she used to care about me, of course, but it’s not really sadness so much as it’s pity. I was never an intelligent or particularly gifted person, but I could’ve had a decent enough life. Then my mind started to wander. I can’t even put into words how they look while they watch me, to be honest. I can see it in my mind—remembering, that is—and it’s the worst thing I can recall or even dream up, but it’s beautiful. They’re crying, and it looks real but I can tell it isn’t, yet the fact that it’s being faked or it’s an accident or whatever is enough for me.
[The following is an unedited transcript of a conversation that occurred in the chatroom #Mbyluv on March 16, 2023.]
DannyTheMack: So did you like David Boreanaz better than Sarah Michelle Gellar? I mean, I think she was a very solid Buffy, but Boreanaz as Angel stole the show.
420HoneyPot69: yeah ok
DannyHepCat: You know, we’ve only been talking for a few minutes but I feel like we have this bond that transcends time and space. I feel like I can type anything to you. It’s a very, uh, Annie Hall moment.
DannyTheMack: I mean, when I messaged you, I wasn’t sure. I was nervous. I’ve been alone for a long time. I didn’t know that I was capable of love. I felt that maybe I’d just have my soaps and my science fiction books, and those are of course very nice, but now I’ve found you. Do you feel that way, too?
420HoneyPot69: hey could u bring condoms beer + lube to 325 blonde terrace ave 2 pm Friday
DannyTheMack: What? Are these things that your family needs? Like they can’t go grocery shopping or something? I know you said that you live at home. If you don’t have a car, I guess I could get those for you.
420HoneyPot69: yeah sure no car. remember condoms beer + lube to 325 blonde terrace ave 2 pm friday
DannyTheMack: Sure, I’ll be happy to help you out.
420HoneyPot69: yeah wear a red shirt too
DannyTheMack: Well, red is a very slimming color, and I’ve been told I look dashing in it. I like the way you think, 420HoneyPot69.
420HoneyPot69: yeah red shirt condoms beers + lube to 325 blonde terrace ave 2 pm friday. also I need your social security number all digits pls
DannyTheMack: Why do you need that?
420HoneyPot69: soc sec # all digits pls
DannyTheMack: Goodness gracious. You’re pretty bossy, huh? It’s a good thing you’re not one of those Nigerian scammers. Anyway, it’s 555-55-5555.
420HoneyPot69: thanks bye remember 2 pm on friday with the red shirt condoms beers + lube to 325 blonde terrace ave
[420HoneyPot69 has signed off.]
DannyTheMack: You have to go? Parting is such sweet sorrow, my queen, but we’ll be together soon. I’ve waited for someone like you for my entire life, and now my wait has paid off!
What Oscar Berkman didn’t understand was why it was okay for his on-again, off-again girlfriend Emily Twiggs to have “guy friends” but forbidden for him to have friends who were girls. She was known to talk on the phone at great length to male co-workers and even a couple of ex-boyfriends, but if he so much as answered the phone when a female called the old homestead, he’d be read the riot act. After a couple of days of worry and the accompanying sleepless nights, he apologized to his sometime-girlfriend in the form of flowers and a card. “I’m sorry,” he wrote. “I’ve been a jerk.”
Danny Cater arrived at 325 Blonde Terrace Avenue at exactly 2 p.m. on a clear August day. He carried a brown paper bag that contained condoms, lubricant, and a 12-pack of his favorite microbrew. He was wearing a loose red polo tucked into khaki trousers that had enormous, billowing pleats—the sort of pleats in which you could hide a large hamster or a small hamburger.
After nibbling on a bit of tissue paper he kept in his pocket for anxious moments just like these, he approached the door. It was slightly ajar, so he pushed it open and stepped inside.
“Honey, I’m home!” he announced in his obnoxious monotone, saying what he assumed a sitcom or soap opera character would say under the circumstances.
“Just a minute,” a squeaky, youthful voice said in reply. “I’m in the shower getting ready for you. Why don’t you sit down at the kitchen table and make yourself comfortable? I baked some cookies, so help yourself.”
Unsure of himself, Danny walked into the kitchen and took a seat. The house looked really nice and far cleaner than the rat’s nest of a condo his parents had bought him. However, the person who had just talked to him sounded like a young boy. What was he getting himself into?
“Good grief,” he said.
“Good grief is right, Charlie Brown,” said former Home Shopping Network presenter Maggie McCleary as she stepped into view, trailed by a team of cameramen. “What are you doing here, Mr. Keating, er, Mr. Cater?”
“What are you doing here, Maggie McCleary? I thought you were in prison,” said Danny, who knew everything there was to know about the goings-on of America’s top celebrities. “Say, what’s that big black thing around your leg? Is it a fanny pack for the ankle? I love my fanny pack. I keep all my credit cards in there!”
“I’m under home shopping channel arrest, so I’ve got this sensor on my leg, but let’s talk about you, Mr. Cait Sith. What have you got in that bag, creepazoid?”
“I’ll have you know, Maggie, that I’m bringing Magnum XXL condoms, water-based lubricant, and a 12-pack of Smilin’ Stan Pale Ale to my girlfriend 420HoneyPot69. Her family needs these items and they don’t have a car. We’re madly in love,” Cater said, confident that he had made his case.
McCleary mugged for the cameras. “And what would you do if I told you that 420HoneyPot69 was 12 years old, a boy, and not real?”
“Could you look at this transcript and tell me if you wrote these things?” She handed him several sheets of paper.
“I typed all of that, yes, but I don’t see anything in here about her age or gender…”
“I think we all know what’s going on here, Mr. Cater. I think we know what you’re about,” McCleary said. As she turned to motion for the police, a plainclothes detective with a badly-scarred face cold-cocked her.
“Move it or lose it, frail!” the detective shouted, dead cold down-and-out drunken hatred flashing in his tearless eyes. “And you—you’re the one who killed Flower! My little girl would've been 12 years old today. You’re all mine now, fat boy. By the time I get around to sending you to hell, you’re going to think it’s heaven.”
“W…what?” Cater whimpered. He brought the napkin to his mouth and began to gnaw on it.
The detective slapped the napkin out of his hand. “Eating paper is a nasty habit, sweets. So is sexually assaulting and murdering helpless little kids. I’m gonna say it one more time: Confess before you’re resting in pieces.”
Frightened out of his wits, Danny simultaneously wet his pants and vacated his bowels. “Who are you?”
The detective pulled a flask from his coat and took a swig. “I’m Jack Chaser, and this un-kissed kisser of mine is the last mean mug you’re ever gonna see,” he said.
“Mister, please, I’ve never even jaywalked…”
Chaser smacked Danny with an open hand. “What about Flower? What about Petunia? She would’ve been seven or eight today, I think…”
Danny put a hand over his mouth. His lip was bleeding, and several of his teeth were loose. “Mister, Maggie is really hurt over there…”
Chaser withdrew his service revolver from his shoulder holster and gut-shot Maggie McCleary, who had begun to stir. “That’s Detective Chaser to you, honey. Seems to me you’re all washed up. Keep those cameras rolling, boys,” he said to the startled cameramen. “This here is going to be my will and testament.”
Danny crawled back against the wall. “Mister Chaser, please don’t shoot me,” he begged.
Chaser grinned another dead cold down-and-out drunken grin. “Who said anything about shooting you, you nancy?” He holstered the revolver and took a pair of brass knuckles out of his pocket. He slid the brass knuckles into place over his fist. “No, I’m gonna take my time. I’m going to enjoy every bit of this. If those piss-drenched knickers of yours are any indication, I think you’re gonna enjoy it, too.”
As Chaser moved toward the cowering Danny, the former with dead cold down-and-out drunken malevolence in his eyes and the latter with piss all over his pleated khaki pants, the final act appeared inevitable. Danny closed his eyes and thought of Time Man, his favorite superhero. What would Time Man do here? Nothing rash, most likely—he did have all of the time in the world.
“You’d better stand down, Chaser,” ordered a commanding voice. Danny’s eyes were still shut, but he could sense that Chaser had stopped his approach.
“To hell with you and your holy book, Chief. We’re doing this one my way,” Chaser replied.
“Step away from him, Chaser. Your gun’s back in its holster and I’ve got you dead to rights. I’ll fill you so full of lead that…”
“Petunia, Violet, and Flower are gone, Chief. I’ve been in the darkness ever since. What difference would another sunrise make? Answer me, Chief!”
Danny felt the impact of the brass knuckles on his cheek. It felt like his jaw melted clean away, and there was a gunshot, and someone screamed, and there was sobbing, and—he stopped knowing then.
Here’s how it happened: A long time ago, Danny Cater fell for a person who didn’t exist. After that affair came to its rude end, he woke up in a hospital bed with a broken jaw.
He never made it with anyone, never even came close, but this one love story was way more compelling than any of mine. It was also much better than his other story, which didn’t make a lot of sense.
“I went down on a girl once,” he said to me years before any of this had happened.
“What do you mean by that?” I asked.
“I went down on her.”
“You went down on her and then what? What did you do down there?”
“I went down.”
“Yeah, down there. I went down.”
I was incredulous. “And what was it like down there?”
There was a long pause. “Let’s just say I was all the way down,” he said.