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.
François was an inveterate fusser and an obsessive fiddler. Unless constrained by the supporting scaffolding of habit and procedure, he fidgeted, and it made him mostly miserable. Frans was the kind of young man who would get dressed up to go to the opera, but then just prior to departure, would fret that maybe the car lacked engine oil. He would arrive late, flustered, and with black engine oil marks on his white dress shirt.
Frans fiddled with things that were sometimes slightly beyond his skill level and often beyond his ability to stay focused. This frequently resulted in runaway situations that seemed to materialize out of nowhere. He had, for instance, grown impatient with the state of his keyboard. His harsh hunt-and-peck typing style resulted in the letters wearing and chipping off. Frans decided to fix them himself, and bought a white marking pen. To prepare the surface, he used a piece of sandpaper to lightly scour the key tops. Concerned that the resulting grit and dust might get into the key bodies or the electronics, he decided to use the large shopvac in the garage to suction the keyboard. This would probably have worked fine for anybody else, but in Frans’s case, the suction removed three of the key tops as well as any dust. Frans viewed the keyboard with dismay, and his sense of disaster only grew as he realized that he was now missing the three most frequently used letters in the alphabet. He made three wooden keytops and superglued them. They worked reasonably well, but occasionally stuck, bedeviling him when he was trying to type in his username and password. Frans’s life was peppered with such situations, and were viewed by family and work colleagues with a mix of despair and hilarity.
Frans worked as an admissions clerk at an 800-bed hospital, one of the few surviving facilities in the city, and one that supported a mostly underserved, low-income cluster of zip codes. The highly structured work environment and processes and steady stream of patients kept Frans busy from the moment he stepped into the office to the moment he walked under the weathered stone gargoyles above the front gate. The scaffolding of business and process kept Frans focused and curtailed his otherwise disastrous fidgety instincts, and his supervisor and coworkers had learned how to keep him inside that shell.
Graham had a problem. In fact, he had several, but his biggest one was that he was completely mistaken about what his biggest problem was. He thought that his biggest problem was that people, especially young women, did not listen to him or understand him. The truth was that he didn’t listen to or try to understand women, and the more he tried to impress them, the creepier they thought him to be. His high level of cultivated narcissism also led him down a path of obsession that resulted in routinely getting banned from social media platforms for harassing women. He thought he was merely arguing robustly for his strong principles, and so saw this as intrinsically unfair and one-sided. Treating women as adversaries, in his logic, was to treat them as equals, and the rejections and bans stung him. A recent policy change in Twitter dissolved his previous permanent ban, and Graham saw it as vindication and confirmation that he had been treated unfairly. He dived back into hostility with gusto, and after trying to flirt clumsily with someone, he was rebuffed by a hot trans girl with electric blue hair and a sassy mouth. Graham had discovered a new hatred. He was simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by the idea of trans girls, and began to obsessively stalk and harass them online.
Dr. Melissa Freeman was an outspoken champion for mental health and the LGBTQ+ community. She had grown accustomed to a certain level of negative responses from people whose identity was entwined with some specific pseudoscientific beliefs or divisive memes. Her threads and tweetorials on mental health, for example, seemed to attract a certain amount of hostility. With recent policy changes, things had become dramatically worse. This was partly due to the return of many previously banned trolls and antipsychiatry activists, and the way they interpreted the removal of previous bans; many saw it as an overt admission by the platform that they had been right all along. The resulting wave of triumphant rhetoric and messages on Twitter was profound, and the depth of self-righteous rage in their tweets alarming. Gone were the days of simply accusing physicians of being “pharma shills.” The current sentiment involved outright calls for violence against physicians, demands that “tribunals” be held, and executions carried out. Her employer had long since developed policies protecting the right of physicians to promote standards of care, regardless of any public trolling or doxing. However, the leadership was somewhat unaware of the turn toward a more virulent public pushback.
Graham first noticed Dr. Freeman through a tweet thread in which there was a video clip of her being interviewed at an LGBTQ+ rally. She was discussing the Trevor Project, and explained how the project goal was to end suicide among LGBTQ youth. The segment ended with her describing how her own mental health practice worked to support and protect them. Graham was enraged. He tagged her in the Twitter thread and made statements about trans people being predators. She easily debunked these tired falsehoods, but as a result, he felt embarrassed and demeaned, and sought out other tweets by her to even the score. This did not work well, and after a few more humiliating exchanges, he switched to attacking her character, and she blocked him. Graham was outraged, and fumed to his online friends. When a loosely affiliated comrade doxed her and posted her full name, credentials, and work address online, Graham slid effortlessly from online stalking to physically trailing her. He sat in the hospital parking lot and dwelled on his own bitter sense of outrage, watching for her and mashing the keyboard in an online chatroom. Across the four-lane thoroughfare from the hospital was a pawnshop, and Graham blew half his month’s rent on a used Glock handgun. It was time, he and his friends all agreed, for a tribunal. Graham’s plan was simple. He would walk in through the main hospital entrance, go to the west wing, and take the stairs to level three. From there, it was elementary to find her office, barge in, and lock the door. His friends would post his manifesto online and participate in the tribunal and sentencing. His plan did not include much thought on escape.
In practice, things didn’t work according to his wishes, and he grew increasingly irritable. It took him far longer to access the facility guest Wi-Fi than planned, and he eventually had to use his cellphone as a hotspot to get an Internet connection on his tablet. A bigger and more demoralizing hurdle emerged when he walked up to the building. The main entrance was guarded; visitors were channeled through a metal detector, and bags were being inspected. Graham was flustered, but then one of his friends suggested going through the ED. Graham tagged along behind an ambulance crew and easily got into the ED. There was a guard at the entrance from the ED to the main building, though, and Graham felt his self-control slipping. It crossed his mind that he could just empty his gun in the ED, but then he saw a lab coat draped over a chair, and he reached across a trolley and plucked up the garment. The coat dragged across the trolley and a pocket snagged a label printer and a stainless-steel kidney bowl, which fell to the hard floor with a loud clatter that turned heads. Someone shouted “Hey you!” while Graham bolted past the guard and sprinted into the main building, trailing a tail of sticky labels from the sleeve of the lab coat.
Frans had been too focused on admitting a patient to notice the red-faced man wearing a lab coat who burst into the rear of Admissions. The man was yelling something Frans couldn’t catch, but the way he waved a handgun made his intentions fairly clear. Frans was shepherded with the other staff into one corner of the office, and he ended up facing Graham with the rest of the Admissions staff pressed together behind him. Without the guiding force of routine enveloping him, Frans’s mind began to wander, and he couldn’t make sense of the man’s gesticulations and torrent of words. Frans didn’t know the doctor the man kept shouting about, didn’t understand the context or meaning of the term “tribunal” that he kept repeating, and was mystified by what a “farmashill” might be. Frans pointed to his supervisor, suggesting that she might be able to help him with whatever it was that could be bothering him. This only seemed to make the man wilder, although he did shift his attention to Doris, who usually sorted out tricky customers.
As the man continued waving his arms about and pointing the one with the gun, Frans’s attention was riveted on a tangle of sticky labels that were trailing from the cuff. Every time the man poked with the gun, Frans had an urge to grab the labels. His eyes tracked the fluttering strip of paper and the labels, and his mind shut out the yelling, the assorted little shrieks coming from behind him, and even the yelping of the alarm that was announcing a facility lockdown. Frans didn’t notice all the doors automatically closing and locking, nor did he see the flashing strobes that underscored the strident note of the alarm. What Frans saw was the little strip of paper and the sticky labels. Without thinking, he reached for the paper strip attached to the sleeve.
To say that Graham was startled would be a colossal understatement. When Frans grabbed for his sleeve, Graham jerked reflexively in an exaggerated gyration, and instinctively clenched his jaw and his fist. The gun went off as the muzzle tracked across the ceiling, and the spent casing skittered across the floor. The bullet hit a fire hydrant nozzle that poked through the suspended ceiling, and the bulb shattered into a mist of red fluid and glass splinters. A half second later, before anyone’s ears had stopped ringing from the gun going off in a confined space, the sprinklers came on and the fire alarm began shrieking. Not being made of very stern material, between the combination of competing alarms, the deafening gunshot, and the sudden drenching downpour from the fire system, Graham’s remaining nerves quite abandoned him. He scampered for the exit as fast as he could. Rounding the corner at speed, his feet slid on the wet floor, and his head hit the floor like a bowling ball. Knocked unconscious by the blow, Graham didn’t hear the gun go off or feel the bullet tear through his thigh and shred his femoral artery.
As the hospital slowly unwound itself from the fire alarm, and Security conducted their sweep to locate the shooter, Graham lay silently in a wide pool of crimson, never again to be concerned about trans girls or what women thought of him.