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 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.


 

Kate was an EMT in a small, distressed community and had a dark secret.

Felix, Brad, and Kate had grown up more or less together in the small town of Dodgeville, or as locals called it, “Dogsville.” It was not a happy town and had gone through several boom-and-bust cycles, first as a mining town, and most recently as a spoke in an automotive manufacturing hub that crashed.

Brad had been a school hero. Captain of the football team, star performer, and believed by most to be on his way to football stardom. However, like many others in Dogsville had discovered, being a star in a small town was a poor predictor of greatness. Like Emmy (star swimmer), Albert (star chess player), and Jenny (star scholar) had discovered before Brad, county competition was hard, state competition was brutal, and national competition was murder. By the time Brad got to state selection, he had sunk from being in the top three to top 300 and didn’t even place in the top 3000 in the national ranking.

Instead of being a professional footballer, Brad joined the sheriff’s department, thanks to his father’s connections and some deal-making on the golf course.

Kate had been a first-aider from primary school age, and by high school, she had several achievement awards and Red Cross certificates. Kate was the go-to person at school if you had a splinter, grazed knee, or nosebleed. Everyone was sure she would grow up to become a doctor. In middle school, it became clear that there would be no money for medical school in her future. It was during this time that her father’s brown lung symptoms became explicit, and his employer folded along with his medical coverage and pension.

As the largest employer in town, Beckerman Upholstery provided seats, headliners, and carpeting for the automakers in the surrounding towns. The union jobs at Beckerman were well paid, had good fringe benefits, and seemed secure. The waves of offshoring and automation crippled Beckerman, and the 2008 crash killed it off completely, taking Kate’s scholarship and student support plan along with it.

By the time Kate graduated from Dogsville high, she had become her father’s primary caregiver, and her hands-on experience nursing her father went far beyond her first aid training. Thanks to his frequent attacks, Kate was such a regular at the Dogsville hospital that she was on first name terms with the entire ER team, and they had taken to including her in their informal training sessions.

When she heard that Kate had graduated, the ED director personally introduced her to the head of the ambulance service, and Kate was offered a part time job as a trainee EMT.

Felix had been scrawny all his life, and had neither the athletic ambitions of Brad, nor the single-minded focus of Kate, for whom he harbored the hugest crush. He was just a nice guy. A goofball, as it said in the yearbook comments, but even-tempered, considerate, and thoughtful. He was raised by his grandparents, because his mother was in jail for fraud and his father was dead from an opioid overdose. Felix got a job with a local security firm that provided armored car delivery between banks in the region and the few remaining industries around Dogsville.

Dogsville itself suffered. Most shops on the high street had closed, the three banks had reduced to one that only opened three times a week, and the hairdresser, barber, and tattoo parlor had merged and operated in one shop. They did so at least until Mikey the tattooist had died of liver cancer from a hepatitis infection and Herbert the barber died from a heart attack. Beryl continued to run all three, but cut back on any piercings, because the thought gave her “the screaming heebie-jeebies.”

The closure of most of the retail outlets was mirrored by a rash of home foreclosures and a precipitous drop in tax revenue for the city. To cut costs, most traffic lights were replaced with signs or roundabouts, repair schedules were stretched thin, and amenities such as the public library, swimming pool, and several parks were simply closed, and where possible, sold. The town ambulance service and police force didn’t escape cuts, and by the time Brad and Kate entered the job market, the staffing was as low as it could go, and they strongly favored young, new hires, paid for by early retirement of senior staff.

As soon as Kate graduated basic ambulance training, she found herself in the back of an elderly ambulance for 20 hours a week. The driver had no medical training at all, because that would add salary costs the town couldn’t pay. Brad scraped through his police training and was often the sole car on patrol. Felix laughed all the way through his training at the security company. One time, he took home a few dye packs used by the banks to safeguard money transfer boxes. He demonstrated to Kate and other friends how they worked, and particularly how to booby trap someone’s mailbox or car glove compartment. He did so to Brad’s police cruiser, much to the amusement of everyone in the sherriff’s department other than Brad. Brad had shouted at Felix “You could have given me a heart attack, you little runt.” Felix had laughed and said something about Kate being the only one that could break hearts.

On the day that Kate robbed the bank, she had just finished her last classes to become a fully-fledged paramedic, and she had at the same time been notified that her father owed $9,887 to the skilled nursing facility where he had lived since his dementia had gone from forgetful of names to setting the kitchen alight or wandering off during the night wearing only a cap. She had also been told that because of further budget cuts, the ambulance service could no longer pay overtime rates.

Felix had also been told of budget cuts. With immediate effect, the crew size for the armored cars would be dropped from three to two. One driver, and one in the back. Drivers would unlock the back door from inside the cab, and the doors would be pushed open from inside. The excess staff would take early retirement, or in some cases, simply separated.

His last delivery of the day was a single cash box to the only bank in Dogsville, and Felix had just about mastered swinging the heavy doors open with a shoulder and a foot, while holding the cash box in both hands. The bank had a small ramp to the delivery doors, covered by an old and slightly leaning canopy to keep off snow or rain during deliveries or collections. Bryce backed the heavy truck up the ramp and fingered the intercom and door release as he pulled up the parking brake. Felix heaved at the door and gave it extra effort to cater for the slight incline and then jumped down onto the concrete ramp. The door hit one of the canopy supports and bounced back, and the edge of the door hit Felix full in the face as he landed. The impact knocked him off his feet, and spun him, sending the cash box skittering across the ramp and off the side. Felix collapsed in an ungainly pirouette. The door slammed shut with such an impact that Bryce thought it was a gunshot. He could see Felix on the ground, and checking that his doors were locked, radioed for police and ambulance.

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Kate arrived first, and with the driver and the solitary bank clerk both firmly behind locked doors and nobody else in sight, she simply attended to Felix. She cleared his airway of broken teeth, checked his neck, and packed his broken nose, before helping him into the back of the ambulance. Being short on saline bags, Kate went to a tap on the side of the ramp, sluiced off the bulk of the blood on her hands, and wet some gauze dressings. She glanced down at the box leaning against the ramp and recognized the logo from Felix’s cap. She picked up the box, heaved it into the back of the ambulance, and set to cleaning him up and checking vitals while the driver headed to Dogsville ER.

By the time they reached the ER, she had done her secondary scan and splinted a broken finger. Patient transfer was always a very focused affair; to give the receiving physician the full clinical picture, then going through the paperwork with admissions, and finally getting new routing from the ambulance control room.

Back at Dogsville Fire & Ambulance station, the driver pulled into their bay and Kate busied herself with cleaning up and restocking. It was only when she was finally done and getting changed that she noticed the cash box. She sat on one stretcher and stared at it, wild thoughts darting through her mind and a feeling of nausea rising up from the pit of her belly. She kicked it gently, and it replied with an inertia that said “yes, I’m full, what are you gonna do about it?”

Kate emptied the clothes from her rucksack and tried to pull it over the box. No go. The box was bigger than the rucksack mouth. There was a banging on the ambulance door, “Hey Kate, bunch of us are going to Arby’s, you coming?” Kate swallowed hard, “Just finishing up and changing. Meet you there.” Kate dropped the rucksack in front of the box, opened the door partway and leaned sideways around the door, a bare shoulder showing. “See you there,” she repeated. The driver, embarrassed that he had interrupted her while changing, looked at his feet, “oh sure, sorry, see you,” and walked off quickly without a backward glance. Kate took down one of the equipment bags; it was bigger, and a tight fit, but it zipped closed. So far, so good.

Kate met up with the others and tried to put the box out of her mind while making small talk. She stayed long enough to wolf down a hotdog, laugh at the usual jokes, and then make excuses about needing to visit the nursing home.

By the time Kate got home, it was dark, drizzling, and she was more exhausted than excited or afraid. She took the box into the garage and stared at it on the workbench, trying to remember everything Felix had said about the dye pack. She was only going to get one shot at this, and she was already too far in to just take it back. That option vanished when she was getting changed in the back of the ambulance.

After 3 days, Kate had a plan, and using a tungsten carbide oscillating blade, she carefully cut out one side of the box and could open the seam of the internal bag. Kate counted out exactly $10,000 in bundles of each denomination. It was the most cash she had ever seen, and she felt thrilled by it, more than guilty.

Kate paid off her father’s arrears over 6 months to avoid any suspicion and had to dip into her own savings a bit to make up the interest and buy him some new clothes and toiletries. Paying off his debt was a huge relief, and she felt like a crushing weight had been lifted from her shoulders, but it was replaced by a quiet sense of dread. The robbery had remained unsolved, and although this was not entirely unusual for Dogsville, the robbery had just made no sense to the visiting detective. Nobody else had reported a gunshot, no getaway car was seen, and in fact, no robbers had been seen at all. None of the local snitches had heard of anyone bragging about it. Either the robbers were top notch professionals from out of town or they were incredibly lucky. In which case, why would out-of-town pros hit a truck with such a tiny haul? It made no sense. The other possibility was an inside job, but that also made no sense and the only two people in the truck couldn’t have done it. Disgruntled ex-employees also made no sense, because they would have been seen.

The detective settled on a time-honored solution and blamed the local police. In his report, he commented on the crime scene being disturbed by clumsy work by the local person, their late response to the call, and their surly and uncooperative response to questioning. He didn’t name Brad specifically, but it was clear who he meant, and it earned Brad a scolding and postponement of his next promotion. Brad spent every spare hour trying to chase up leads, find new evidence, or break someone’s testimony, but to no avail. He was assigned to duties nobody else wanted and became the butt of practical jokes.

Things were not going well with Brad. A back injury from football had flared after a slip and fall while chasing an alleged shoplifter though a car park spotted with potholes and patches of ice. After exhausting his limited personal days, Brad leaned heavily on his OxyContin prescription to get through the day. At a certain point, Brad was balancing pain of the injury and pain of withdrawal against his fear of dependency. His physician, initially free with the drug, was growing less willing to renew his script. Brad blamed his misfortune on whomever had robbed that bank and swore he would get his hands on them “even if it kills me!”

With the OxyContin prescription at an end, Brad turned to street drugs through his intimate knowledge of who used and who dealt. Brad started using most of what he confiscated, and today, he had his first experience with Fentanyl.

Kate’s ambulance responded with lights and siren to an officer down call. Within seconds of arrival, Kate had whipped out her Narcan and sent a double dose up Brad’s nostrils. In the time it took for Brad to roar back into consciousness, Kate already had him in the ambulance and had opened his shirt. She switched on the ancient ECG machine, and because stocks of the adhesive pads had run out weeks ago, she placed the paddles on either side of his heart to pick up heart rhythm. With this somewhat archaic ECG, using the paddles automatically charged the machine up to an initial 200 Joules. This was not as unsafe as it sounds, because a button on each of the paddles needed to be pulled back and depressed simultaneously to fire. The paper printout showed some depression in his rhythm, and Kate saw some other potential anomalies, but with only two electrodes, she couldn’t tell much more. Brad looked in reasonably good shape for someone who had so narrowly escaped death.

Brad woke up angry though. The pain was back, his high was gone, and he realized this ambulance call would be reported and might get him fired. He had long suspected Kate or the driver of being the bank robber, and her report was now going to end his career. He looked sharply at Kate. “I know what you did!” He leapt up, suddenly certain he had found his robber, his hands around her throat. He pushed her over onto the other gurney, “Give me that money you stole, or I’m gonna squeeze you.” Kate tried to push him back with the paddles and her knees, but he was too heavy, too strong, and as his hands tightened on her throat; her eyes swam, and her head was thudding. As her consciousness began to slide from her, she desperately thumbed the paddle buttons.

Kate sat up, still holding the paddles, and watched Brad’s twitching body with trepidation. She rolled him over where he lay on the floor and placed the paddles back on his chest to see if his heart was working correctly after being shocked. The machine was dead, and the paper spool was still. She dropped the paddles and felt his neck for a pulse. Feeling none, Kate croaked to herself, “No carotid pulse, initiating CPR.” Kate banged his chest with the edge of her fist, no pulse. She started chest compressions, no pulse. She measured one of the artificial airways from her kit against his jawline, and thumbing his jaw open, slid and rotated the airway into position. She connected the bag and mask to an oxygen bottle and alternated between chest compressions and squeezing the bag until they reached the ER.

Hours later, the ED director sat down next to Kate on a bench in the waiting room. “Sorry Kate, he had underlying damage that was beyond what you or the rest of my team could fix.” She explained that Brad must have been using street drugs for some time, that his heart had been in bad shape already, and that the overdose was perhaps one event too many. She went through Kate’s responses, the things she did well, and where she might consider adjustments for the future.

Two days later, when Kate had handed over another patient to the ER staff, the director called her over, and handed her an envelope. “Congratulations, Kate. You have now met all the practicum requirements to qualify as a paramedic.” She ticked off the use of an artificial airway, cardioversion at scene, and correct use of forced oxygen using bag mask. Brad had pushed her over the line. That afternoon, Kate submitted her transcripts and the stack of practicum papers signed off by the ED physicians.

After a nail-biting month, she received her graduation certificate. Kate was a fully qualified paramedic in a small, distressed community and had a dark secret.