This is one of a collection of stories that are like “Final Destination” meets “The Monkey’s Paw” (W. W. Jacobs, 1902). As such, they are tragedies more than either mysteries or horror, and would appeal most to readers who enjoy the inexorable pull of a story arc that leads to doom. In each story, a protagonist makes a wish that comes true with fatal results for someone, often the person making the wish. Nothing supernatural, but just how things work out. (Or is it?) The technical details surrounding the fatal (or near-fatal) event are drawn from real cases in the US OSHA incident report database or similar sources and are therefore entirely realistic, even if seemingly outlandish. The plots draw lightly from cultural beliefs around actions such as pointing at someone with a stick or knife, wishing in front of a mirror, or stepping on a crack.
Peggy felt like a squat tub filled with something heavy and greasy. Lard, maybe, she thought to herself, or maybe recycled axle grease that smelled like old brake pads. She had never been slim or trim, and nobody had ever thought of Peggy as svelte, lively, or agile. Even as a little girl, she had always been chubby, and now in her fifties, she considered herself to be borderline fat. There was a time when she felt that she was cute, with long dark lashes over alert blue eyes, a gleaming black bob of hair, and pouty cherub lips below a little button nose that more elegant people might have called retrousse. She had a bounce in her step, she danced when she walked, and she had a whole pixie thing going on that turned heads and brought on smiles.
By the time she was 35, Peggy became invisible. Most women notice a point of invisibility at some time in their fifties. For Peggy, it came on suddenly and well before the average. The fall she turned 33, she could turn heads, but by the following spring she might as well have been made of air. Men stopped noticing her, servers flitted by without asking her order, and she had to wave or raise her voice to get cold cuts at the deli counter. On some gray days when she saw herself in the mirror, she would look at herself staring back, a startled bird of dowdy plumage. The image would wobble and vanish in the tears that welled up in her eyes and spilled from her lids. On those days, Peggy would wipe her eyes, shake herself straight, and get going with the daily activities of life. What she wanted to do was go punish a bar of milk chocolate, the kind with a caramel filling. What she actually did was volunteer for an extra shift at the hospital and sublimate her sorrow by caring for others until her body screamed for mercy. On days like those, she would return to her small flat so tired that she would have just enough energy to soothe her aching body in a hot shower, gobble down some microwaved food, and fall asleep with an audiobook.
On advice from her unit manager, who recognized the self-punitive work habits, Peggy found a hobby or two. First, she joined a knitting circle. She was mostly rubbish at knitting, and it could have easily just turned into another way to punish herself, but the circle was led by Pru, who was gentle with Peggy, and gave her the support and friendship she needed to become fairly proficient. Pru was a slightly enigmatic character who radiated warmth and kindness, but subtly communicated a sense of menace. It was as though beneath the warm and huggable exterior, there was something steely and maybe just a little wicked. How wicked, Peggy never did discover, but Bruce did.
Peggy met Bruce at church. Peggy’s second hobby was joining the choir, where, again, she was no star performer, but then not having stars was the point of choir. She was punctual, harmonized well, and had a pleasing alto range that supported well but disappeared in the overall communal voice of the choir. Bruce stood out in the choir both when chatting and socializing and sometimes, to the choirmaster’s irritation, during singing. Bruce seemed to always be visible and audible, and where Peggy was reserved and cautious, Bruce was extravagantly extroverted and confident. He was charming in a vaguely slippery way and put a lot of effort into capturing the attention of new members, especially the women. Peggy was a little startled at being noticed, and the warm rush of joy from the attention was almost addictive. Bruce met Peggy on the bus each evening when she was doing day shifts and stood next to her on choir night. The flirtation grew into a serious relationship, and Peggy was ecstatic.
The utopia of attention and the ecstasy of romance dwindled slowly as another side of Bruce began to reveal itself. It started with admiration that was tinged with a bitter note. “Well, don’t you look fabulous,” he would say when they were about to go out to dinner, but immediately follow it with something like “I admire that you don’t let your weight get you down.” He also started comparing her to other women, remarking how better she would look if she wore makeup like her friend Sally, or do her hair like Jill, or have revealing clothes like his cousin. The comparisons were also never far when she achieved something. When she got a raise, or won a prize, or was recognized with an award at work, he would congratulate her, but point out someone who had done better, achieved more, or was grander. Then came the constructive criticisms. “That top is fantastic on you, honey, but the skirt makes your ass look big.” The criticism was soon followed by personal one-upmanship. If she excitedly said how she had walked five miles, he responded with how he had once walked across Tuscany for 5 days. Meals together steadily stopped being a joy and instead became a source of contention, with Bruce making continual snide remarks about her weight or her eating habits. “Don’t take this wrong, babe, but are you really going to eat all that?” Bruce had also taken to blaming Peggy for his own biological experiences; his headaches were because she stressed him, his constipation was her fault, and his frequent heartburn was due to her cooking.
Peggy had pushed back on occasion, but that either led to him giving her the silent treatment or a retort that he was “just joking.” When she complained that his comment about her having “a butt like a hippo” was hurtful, he responded scornfully. “Jeez, Peggy, can’t you take a joke!” He frequently told Peggy that she was being a drama queen and just didn’t get humor.
Peggy, for her part, was miserable, and it showed. There was no bounce in her step anymore, and she looked drained. The changes were noticed by everyone at work, choir, and the knitting circle, but people were mostly either too polite or too reticent to ask her why. People at work put it down to general burnout and the constant mismatch between patient demand and staffing numbers. As an ICU nurse, Peggy saw so many terribly sad situations that none of her work friends would have been surprised if it got her down sometimes. It got to them all. The choir folks noticed, but generally didn’t think other people’s lives and travails were any of their business beyond things related to music, singing, and who had got their cue wrong. It was the knitting circle people who noticed her body language, sad expressions, and the way she walked stiffly, hunched when she knitted, and was not bubbly about yarns anymore. It was they who gently asked, and who coaxed out of Peggy that she was having boyfriend troubles. A few of them thought to pour some comfort on her, and it was decided that Sally would invite her to go wool shopping, while Polly would invite her to browse some exciting period patterns. Pru decided to shift her daily commute a little and meet Peggy on the bus some mornings and evenings. Pru generally got the seat behind her. They would chat until Bruce boarded, and then she would read or knit, or both, until her stop.
It didn’t take long for Pru to develop a distaste for Bruce. He was too much: too flashy, too slick, too smooth. He also wore those patent leather lounge-lizard slip-on loafers with tassels that some men seemed to think made them look sophisticated. Pru found them sleazy. He was also, very clearly to Pru, the source of Peggy’s loss of joy. He seemed to constantly pick at Peggy when he wasn’t boasting, and it got on Pru’s nerves.
That evening, Bruce was in fine form. He was particularly acidic, perhaps because a little gastric reflux had given him heartburn, and Peggy was distraught. It was something about her eating habits and her coat. He remarked that gluttony was a mortal sin, and apparently, he thought her coat made her look like a bag lady. He had something to say about her reaction, too. “Oh, for Christ’s sake Peggy, you aren’t going to cry again? You know it just makes your eyes puffy.” From her seat behind him, Pru could hear her soft sobs and see Peggy’s heaving breath shaking her shoulders. But Bruce had more to say. He berated Peggy for crying, saying it was a public embarrassment, a bad reflection on him, and also that her sobbing was a “dagger to my heart.” Wasn’t she ashamed for putting him through such a scene?
Pru reflected on his behavior and placed her knitting bag on her lap, bumping the seat in front of her and causing Bruce to pause momentarily. He didn’t spare her a glance and continued to tell Peggy how foolish she looked, bawling in public. Pru reached into her bag and unscrewed the top of an 18-inch, #6 plastic knitting needle. Obscuring it with her voluminous cloth bag, she pulled off the plastic outer to reveal an eight-inch spring steel core with a needle-sharp tip. Pru had thoughtfully coated it in the Teflon substance she used to keep windows and the kitchen sliding door smooth, and it glided effortlessly through the back of Bruce’s seat, his jacket, shirt, and skin. The sharp spike slid through the ribs and into his heart as she bumped the seatback again. Bruce glanced around briefly, but was too occupied grinding Peggy down to notice the tiny sting. Pru bumped the seat again as if she were just a little clumsy and plunged the thin steel needle in once more before collecting her things, getting up for her stop, and exiting the bus. A few stops later, Bruce was done with bringing Peggy to her knees. He also felt a little lightheaded, which he blamed on Peggy. A bit beside herself by this point, Peggy got off at her stop, without even a sideways glance.
Bruce wriggled a bit in his seat. His shoes suddenly felt uncomfortably tight, and he slipped them off with a grunt. As the pericardial sac around Bruce’s heart filled with blood, it steadily squeezed his heart and reduced the volume of blood it could draw in. His circulation slowed, and in response, Bruce was panting, short of breath. A slow lethargy stole over him, and he grew increasingly weak and disoriented, unable even to muster the thought that he needed help or the energy to lift a hand. By the time the bus had filled and emptied several times, and the driver drew into the terminal, Bruce had long since quietly succumbed to cardiac tamponade and was starting to stiffen.