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It started much like any other office romance: Boy notices girl across a sea of cubicles. Boy flirts with girl on smoking breaks and at the Christmas party. Boy thinks girl is into him, so he asks her out.
In this case, though, the girl in question wasn't interested, and said so. The boy, Will Carpenter, stopped talking to her. The office grew thick with tension.
But Carpenter wasn't content to sulk behind his computer monitor, licking his wounds. An aspiring writer with a dark streak longer than the Exxon Valdez oil slick, Carpenter channeled his hurt into a short story. A fictitious story, he insists, but admittedly one inspired by his co-worker's rejection.
Like any other would-be writer, Carpenter decided to try to get the story published. And that's when his trouble began.
The fictitious version of Carpenter's story, which he titled "looking through the cables at nothing," is longer on mood than plot: A boy meets a girl at the office. He flirts with her, she disses him, and he retreats to the shadowy corners of the Internet. Eventually, he tries again. But as they're talking, the girl recalls that he used to date another woman at work -- one who disappeared.
"We formed a search party and found well parts of her body," the girl in the story explains. "They never found her head."
The fictional boy insists he never dated the murder victim, but the girl is convinced and ends the conversation. Carpenter writes, "She was walking away from me for the last time without even saying goodbye. I smiled an angry smile. She was next." The story ends with a news report: A young woman's torso has been found on an abandoned street.
The story was one of four or five short pieces Carpenter sent to the Web zine www.cherrybleeds.com in March. The site specializes in short, dark fiction; its marquee contributor is Carpenter's idol Chuck Palahniuk, who wrote the funny, disturbing "Fight Club." Carpenter, who started writing about a year and a half ago, had been trying to get published there since November.
And though Carpenter thought the torso story was his weakest, it was the one the editor liked best. "It was the most honest of them all," says Tony DuShane. "I connected to it, and I knew our readers would, too." He slated it for publication in April.
By that time, Carpenter had been an engineering aide for the GHG Corporation for a year and a half -- "a glorified paper pusher," he says. The company is a subcontractor to a NASA subcontractor, and Carpenter liked his co-workers and liked being at the Johnson Space Center. One of his supervisors wrote science fiction, he says, and they talked about his dreams of literary glory.
So on April 2, when his story was posted, Carpenter immediately e-mailed the link to some co-workers. "My least favorite story got published in a magazine I've been trying to get published in forever," he wrote.
One of the co-workers was his former crush. As he tells it, he'd first made his move at the office Christmas party. (The woman, whom the Press is not naming, declined comment.) They flirted, she laughed, and they made plans to go to the Holocaust Museum together -- or so he thought. The next Monday when he e-mailed her, she disavowed the plan and, indeed, any subsequent plans.
He was devastated. "It was a big deal," he says. "I'd put myself out there. I'm not used to rejection." A 29-year-old divorcé, Carpenter still looks like a college kid. It's partly the messy ginger-colored hair on his head and chin; in true collegiate style, it's not quite a goatee, but not a beard either. He also has a young man's habit of constantly explaining that he's joking; his wit is dry, and he's tormented by people who think he's serious.
For all his worry, he is open, perhaps more than he should be. He explains that he got married when he was barely 20 to the first woman he ever dated. Since they divorced two years ago, he's dated just one person. He is awkward around women, which he knows. The awareness only seems to make him more self-conscious, and even more awkward. "People intimidate the shit out of me," he confesses.
But if Carpenter's romantic pursuit was bumbling, his decision to send his literary debut to the object of his affection was pure stupidity. They'd only just started talking again, and he admits that he based the story's opening conversation almost entirely on their talk after the Christmas party. And though he insists everything from that point in the story is strictly fictitious, the news report at the end describes the slain woman as a single mother who worked at "HGY Technologies" -- hardly a skillful disguise for a single mother who works at a technology firm called GHG.
The woman confronted Carpenter that day, he says. She'd read the story, and she told him she was scared. Then she told him she'd forwarded it to her mother, a manager at the company GHG contracts under.