We’re All Murderers Inside Our Own Heads, or The Time My Boss Wanted to Kill Me
by Mike Dang
It’s eight years ago, and I’m sitting in the student housing office located in the administration building of my college campus. I’m meeting with Emily, my supervisor, to ask her if I can still have my job after I return from studying abroad in England for the summer. I love my job. I work as one of those people who sit at an information desk and answer random questions from students and visitors. Once, an old lady called the desk to ask me if she could donate her husband’s body to the university for scientific research, and in the background, I could hear a man shouting, “I’m not dead yet!” I also get to walk backward and give tours of the freshmen dorms to prospective students and their parents.
Emily is the best boss a college student could ask for. I am 20, and she is 26, which seemed so much older at the time — a chasm of an age gap — but in retrospect is barely a difference at all. She’s a former sorority girl who likes to share self-deprecating stories about her undergrad days during staff meetings, like the time she crapped her pants while running a half-marathon. At our end of year staff dinner, she sneaks me a few sips of her beer because I’m “practically old enough anyway.”
“We don’t normally save jobs for students if they’re going to be away for several months, but we all really like you, so we’ll make an exception,” Emily says to me.
But when I return from my trip abroad, Emily will have been already promoted and moved to another office across campus. She has been replaced by Rick, a 29-year-old transplant from Kentucky, who upon meeting me for the first time says in a slight Southern twang, “So, I finally get to meet the tour guide everyone keeps talking about.” He smiles at me. “We should get to know each other.”
I think I ask a little too much about Emily the first couple of weeks I’m back at work, because Rick comes up to me and requests some weekly one-on-one time with him. He makes me take long walks around the campus with him in an attempt for us to bond.
“I know you miss Emily,” he says. “But you can always come to me for anything you ever need. Everyone around here really likes you, so it’s important to me that we become friends too.”
“Oh, I’m sure everything will be great,” I say, because I don’t know how else to respond. Because your boss making you have one-on-one walks with him is weird, right?
Rick goes on one of my tours and laughs along with the 25 or so parents and high school students as I recount a story about this time during my freshman year when I planned a midnight birthday party for two of my dorm mates, accidentally set the cake on fire with trick candles, and ended up hurling it off the second story balcony of our residential hall just as a firetruck arrives.
“You’re a really good tour guide,” he says to me after the tour is over.
“Thanks,” I say, and then blush and run away, because I’m one of those people who can’t handle compliments.
“Hey, I feel like we’re not clicking like we should,” he says later, bringing both hands together and criss-crossing his fingers as if to demonstrate to me what clicking means. “Want to go for a walk and talk about it?”
Things just sort of go downhill from there. Rick realizes that the one-on-one walks are making me feel uncomfortable, so he doesn’t ask me to go on them anymore. We’re all having lunch together, and I bring up a discussion I had in a biology class about how closely a human fetus resembles a shrimp 30 days after conception. Rick pushes his salad away, and gets up in disgust.
“You’re being inappropriate,” he says sternly.
“I’m sorry,” I tell him. “I didn’t know that was going to upset you.”
“You need to be careful about what you say,” he says. “You don’t know what people have been through.”
I learn everything that Rick has been through one day during the second semester while I’m sitting at the information desk, which is located just outside of the student housing office in front of the registrar’s office. After spending a few hours answering questions and referring people to different departments on campus, I call the office and ask if there’s a staff member available to man the desk while I take a quick break. The office is busy, so Rick volunteers to sit at the information desk while I run off to grab a snack and go to the bathroom. I thank him when I get back, and he gets up without saying anything.
The computer screen is blank because Rick has closed my browser while I was away. I pull it back up, and go through the browser history to retrieve all of the tabs he closed. The browser history also includes everything Rick was looking at in my absence, and that’s when I discover it: Rick’s blog.
While most students on campus are using Livejournal or Xanga at the time, Rick is using Blogger, and by the number of posts he’d written, he appears to have been using it for quite a while. I start from the beginning, and go through each post one by one, falling into a rabbit hole of Rick’s life. I read about his encounters with gay men, which most people would have gobbled up, but which I gloss over because sex makes me blush. I read about his struggle with drugs. I read about how he gets himself clean. And suddenly I’m reading about me.
Mike really needs to watch his mouth. I hope he chokes on some shrimp and dies. If we were alone, I would just sit there and watch him choke, grasping at the air for help.
I immediately think: “Oh my gosh!” (because I don’t like to swear).
I hit the command-F keys to find every post that includes my name. In another vivid post, he imagines taking me for a walk and luring me into a basement, where he somehow manages to lock me in a tank of water. Rick stands there quietly and watches me drown. There’s a few more posts where he writes about not understanding why people find me likable, and then a third fantasy post about my death: I’m choking again while having dinner with him, and then my face turns blue and hits the table with a thwack. In each of his homicidal fantasies, I am suffering, flailing, and he is silently watching me die, unmoving, unfeeling.
I sit there stunned for a while, because my boss has fantasies of me dying. Instead of feeling angry or scared like a normal person, I think about what I might have done to push Rick to wish that I was dead. What exactly did I do wrong? Should I not have talked about fetuses during lunch? Was I not nice enough? Too nice to others and not to him? And then I realized what an idiot I was because I was validating my boss’s fantasies of me dying. I should probably be trying to figure out whether or not fantasies lead to actual murder. I mean, I’m working with someone who may actually murder me in real life, so I should probably do something about that.
When my shift is over, I clear the browser’s history, and walk into the housing office to grab my backpack. I avoid making eye contact with Rick, because I’m afraid that if I do, I’ll scream. I feel his eyes on me anyway, watching me as I shuffle out the door. Outside, the light is fading, and I’m walking so fast I’m practically running to get into my car and drive to the off-campus apartment I share with my roommate, Stef, who also works in the housing office.
If this were a horror film, I would find Stef tied to a chair in our living room when I get home, and Rick would be standing there waiting to drown me in the bathtub. He would totally overpower me, too, because I’m a miniature five feet seven inches and weigh a buck twenty. Instead, Stef is sitting on the couch watching a rerun of Friends on TV. I tell her I have something to show her on my computer, I pull up Rick’s blog, and she reads the parts I highlight with my mouse and gasps.
“What are you going to do?” Stef asks. She collapses on my bed, and stares up at me in amazement.
“I’m going to print this out,” I say, and I do, every last word of it — the sex, the drugs, everything. We watch a stack of paper pile on my desk. “I’m going to need proof if he deletes his blog.”
I stand up and pace the room while the rest of the pages print, and wonder if there’s enough ink in the printer. There is.
“Now what?” Stef asks.
“I’m going to call Emily,” I tell her. “She’ll know what I should do.”
When I get Emily on the phone, she’s stunned. She tells me that she’s sorry, and that I should set up a meeting with the director of the housing office, Kim, immediately. Kim is Emily’s former boss, and Rick’s current boss. She tells me to call her again if I need anything, and that she’ll call me again tomorrow to check in on me.
“Do you think he’d actually do any of that stuff?” Stef asks me after I get off the phone. I consider it for a moment and shake my head.
“I don’t think so,” I say. “Each of those scenarios involve me being alone with him, and that’s never going to happen. Besides, everyone knows now. He’d never get away with it.”
I e-mail to Kim telling her I need to meet with her about something important, and she replies right away. Kim says she’s out of town, but will be back in two days to meet for coffee.
Kim and I are sitting outside at a table in front of a coffee shop across the street from the University. Kim is in her mid-thirties and kind, and she loves the students on campus. She’ll often come on tours just to hear the guides gush about college life. Sitting on a table is a box of salt water taffy she has given me — a little something she picked up while she was in Salt Lake City. The small talk is winding down, and she puts on a serious look because she knows I would only meet with her if I had something serious to talk about.
“It’s a long story,” I say. “I’ll just show you.” I zip open my backpack, pull out the stack of papers and hand it to Kim. “I’ve highlighted the most important parts.”
She looks immediately concerned. “I can’t believe you’ve been sitting on this for two days!” she says. “You should have called me. I would have come back right away. Does anyone else know about this?”
“I called Emily and asked her for advice. And Stef knows too.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“If you’re asking me if I think Rick should be fired, then I don’t know. That’s why I wanted to talk to you.”
“I’m going to have to meet with my boss and some other people in the administration,” Kim says. “And then we’re going to meet with Rick, and I’ll let you know what happens.”
Kim and I stand up, and she hugs me. She tells me that I didn’t do anything to deserve any of this, and I nod and tell her that I’m fine.
I get a call from Kim later that day telling me that I don’t have to come into work for the next week, but I’ll still be able to collect my usual paycheck. I realize that the administration is afraid that I’m going to sue the university, which hadn’t even crossed my mind. I sit at my desk and try to pull up Rick’s blog, but I get a message from Blogger saying that the account has been deleted.
Homicidal fantasies are actually pretty common, according to a recent episode of Radiolab.
Fourteen years ago, a psychology professor named David Buss at UT-Austin taught a human nature seminar that included a session on murder. He asked the students to complete a questionnaire asking, “Have you ever thought about killing someone?” If the answer was “yes,” the student was asked to elaborate on what triggered their homicidal thoughts, and what they fantasized they would do. Buss was stunned by the number of homicidal fantasies his intelligent, mostly middle-class students disclosed to him. He went on to expand the study to more than five thousand individuals across six different countries. After all the data was in, Buss found that 91 percent of men and 84 percent of women have had vivid fantasies of killing someone. In 2005, Buss published some of his findings in a book called The Murderer Next Door. Here’s one of the case studies:
CASE #278, male, age 23.
What caused you to think about killing someone?
There were so many things. I was young, and had a background in martial arts, and so was defiant. I was a dork, a big one, and everyone knew it but me. There were always big kids around my locker, popular ones, and I was an easy target. I hated them, and they hated me. One of the times, the guy “accidentally” dropped his books on my head, and all his friends had a good laugh. When I stood up to confront him, they closed my locker, and ripped my backpack from my hands. They scattered its contents, and started pushing me and making insulting comments about me and my mom. They asked me what I was going to do, and I said nothing.
What method did you think about using to kill this person?
Wow, OK. Which one should I tell you about? The most sadistic? The quickest? I have a very vivid imagination, and these fantasies were my only escape from the hell that was my life. One of the more frequent ones was where I broke both his legs so he couldn’t run, and then beat him until his insides were a bloody pulp. Then I tied him to a table and dripped acid on his forehead, Chinese water-torture style, so that it would run into his eyes. Eventually, the dripping acid would bore a hole into his head and melt his brain, but not until he had been driven crazy with pain.
What prevented you from killing?
God mostly, and morals, laws, the actual disgustingness of the way I killed him in my thought. Perhaps it was my lack of capability.
What could have pushed you over the edge to actually kill?
I don’t know, it’s been so long ago. Maybe if I were to have had a gun with me at the time, and he did something extra-horrible, like stab a girl. Probably nothing short of physically harming a girl in front of me, or trying to kill me first.
Kim and I are sitting in her office with the door closed. She tells me that after a series of meetings with Rick and some administrators, they’ve determined that although Rick exercised poor judgment by writing about me in a public blog during a period of time when he was upset, the student housing department has decided not to terminate him — that is, unless I want them to. Essentially, the decision to fire Rick is up to me. I find this unfair, but I’m firm in my response.
“I could never do that to anyone,” I tell Kim. “I won’t let it be my decision, so if you think Rick should keep his job, then I guess he’s going to keep his job.”
“I don’t see how I could not be. I don’t want anything to do with him after all of this.”
“If you want to continue working here, you’ll have to deal with Rick being around, too. But if you ever need anything, you won’t have to talk to him, you can come talk to me. We’re all keeping a close eye out on him. And honestly, he’s a little humiliated, and he needs this job.”
Kim gets up and opens the door to bring Rick in so he can apologize to me. It must be difficult for him. I imagine what it might be like for him to have his personal blog — his diary, essentially — exposed to everyone at work. Everyone outside this office door is on my side, and there is no one on his.
Rick comes in, and he’s wearing a guilty expression that quickly changes from somber to pitiful.
“Kim told me what you said to her, and I’m really thankful,” he says through tears. “I’m so sorry about all of this. I didn’t mean any of it. I could never, ever hurt anyone like that.” His face is in his hands now, and he’s sobbing.
I don’t feel bad for him. I sit there silently until he is done, and then I get up and leave.
Every time I tell this story to someone they usually gasp, then laugh, and then ask, “Why would anyone want to kill you? You’re so nice!”
I also get a surprising number of people who reveal to me their secret homicidal fantasies. Apparently, a lot of people have had some very vivid fantasies of murdering someone! I’ve certainly thought, “Oh, I could kill him/her for this,” but nothing beyond that — and I always feel bad about it afterward. So the whole “my boss wanted me to die incident” has become something I’ve come to understand as something people do sometimes to vent and work through their feelings so that they actually don’t murder people in real life. Except you shouldn’t vent out these homicidal thoughts on your blog. Because I will find it.