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.
Alex was a shrewd journalist with a keen eye for detail and a flair for exposing fraud, waste, and abuse in healthcare. At least, he regularly told himself this in a million ways to keep from having to acknowledge to himself that he was, in fact, a muckraking troll that had abandoned any semblance of journalistic ethic many decades before. The rot had started early and almost imperceptibly, but lately it had suffused his soul like the all-encompassing decay of a moist corpse in a humid marshland, and it left no part of him unblemished.
What started as a notion to provide “both sides” of every issue inexorably crept toward trolling for people who would provide a spectacle. Alex discovered early in his career that people with outlier opinions and arguments were often illogical and nonsensical, but also very entertaining and engaging, and sucked readers in like a black hole. As he would frequently remark, his articles “pull you in and make your head explode.” Once he embraced news as performative entertainment, his work became far easier, and it generated readership numbers beyond reason. His “entertainment journalism” soon morphed into a very profitable and rewarding practice of finding well-heeled spokesmen for unlikely “alternative views.” There was apparently an inexhaustible supply of anti-establishment or alternative health sponsors who would readily part with money, or grant favors to anyone who would give them equal time and a friendly platform. Alex became an expert in logrolling for favors and influence, and his charge rates climbed steadily.
Alex faced a difficult career choice. His ratings and visibility on social media had created interest from other media companies, and he found himself courted by two competing organizations at opposite ends of the media spectrum. Both offered more money than he currently made, both dangled bonuses, and both had a complex and glittery bundle of benefits, but one offered prestige while the other could offer position. One was a very large organization with stations in 30 countries and a large market penetration across diverse areas of interest. In this job he would be a member of a large and well-funded division, with a very narrow but important slice of the action. In the other firm, he would be second in charge of a smaller department, but he would have broad control over the scope and boundaries of his own work. Ultimately, he chose to be a large fish in a smaller pond, rather than a tiny fish in a big school that swam in a pond the size of the ocean.
One of his principal activities at the new job was finding sticky issues. This meant discovering or inventing risks that were easy to visualize, cheap to service, and combined a surprise, a story, and a suspenseful threat. Pharma was an easy target because everybody at least pretended to hate “big pharma,” even those whose daily meds made the difference between calamity and coping or life and death. The problem was that many drugs had impossible names like tisagenlecleucel, obiltoxaximab, or ixekizumab, and if something was hard to pronounce, it was hard to remember, and it just didn’t get clicks or mentions. Nothing unpronounceable ever went viral.
When Alex heard the phrase “Rainbow Fentanyl” on TV, he yipped out loud in glee, and then felt a sense of shame that he hadn’t come up with the phrase himself. It was pronounceable, memorable, and vivid, and as a bonus, many of his readers were already primed for any anti-LGBTQ+ “rainbow” scent. “Rainbow” was just a ratings cornucopia. As a bonus, the whole “looks like candy” meme suggested an imminent threat to children and dragged in the police. Cops looked good on TV and in print and were a great prop. The earnest and authoritative statements by police unions and police public relations departments were professionally constructed to create a multitude of high-quality, publication-ready quotes, in which they eagerly supported any idea that made police work sound very dangerous.
On the other hand, the people who opposed characterizing Rainbow Fentanyl as a dire and imminent threat came across as wealthy academics whose snappy dress and good grooming could easily be made to look out of touch and even dandified. Alex used this contrast to slip in the suggestion that the toxicologists were out of touch and also gay, which was a dog whistle to a noisy segment of his target demographic who were largely reactionary and homophobic.
Dr. Ryan Marino sighed. The constant and atrociously bad takes by the media were exhausting. First there was the rampant self-serving weekly spectacle of breathless police reports that were really just budget-supporting pantomime filled with theater of “exposure” to opioids. The cases of “fentanyl exposure” were usually just panic attacks, but they looked dramatic on TV. Then there were the cynical and foolish scare campaigns about “Rainbow Fentanyl,” which were supposed to be drug lords giving away expensive drugs for free to a population segment that would not be buying them. Now someone had dreamed up a “fentanyl causes cancer” fairytale. It was obvious that some meme merchant had simply welded together two scary things to make a new bogeyman. There was no basis in fact, but it was also obvious that it would likely go viral. A friend leaked the text of the next article by that scurrilous Alex parasite, and in it, Alex had overstepped a line. Ryan contacted a network of friends, and they got to work on a legal challenge.
Alex didn’t believe much in lawyers, and something that the fine print of his employment contract had not made clear to him was that having broad freedom to pursue topics of his choice also implied equally broad duties. He had not realized that he would be spending hours drawing up and arguing about the print edition. It was at first a little daunting, then tiring, and finally just irksome. In the day of search engine optimization and tricks to entice search engine spiders and leverage ranking algorithms, measuring text frames in ens and ems seemed irritatingly backward. Part of his daily grind was periodic sprints down to the big noisy print room in the basement, examining ink overlays and spacing. His first few trips to the print room were exciting and exotic: the rumble and roar of the machines, the sight of the 2,000-pound web-fed paper rolls, the humming rollers running paper at the rate of 50,000 impressions per hour, and the heady scents of machine oil and ink. The novelty and vague sense of nostalgic romance lasted a week before his trips to the print room were anxious or boring. It turned into tedious arguments over shortening a piece by seven words to fit a frame, or expanding it by 12 to avoid white space, or agonizing and urgent troubleshooting events related to drama he had never heard of before: print ghosting, mottling, or blistering. Occasionally, these forays into the dungeon involved manual labor and getting sweaty, dirty, and inky. Alex viewed himself as an intellectual, not a manual laborer, and getting oil or grease on his cuffs or ink on his face just bugged him. He resented having to be involved at this level. His job was making heads explode, not getting grime under his nails and stains on his silk tie.
It was at that tense point when the print run for the weekly edition was approaching that there was bad news. Pressure from Dr. Ryan Marino over copyright for an image had resulted in a retraction notice from management. The company lawyers said they would have to strike it and stood firm that the risks were too high. Marino clearly owned the copyright and was unlikely to grant retroactive permission.
Because of the retraction of the image, several paragraphs suggesting that fentanyl exposure caused cancer needed to be rewritten. As a result, Alex had to cancel a dinner date with an antivax celebrity, instead spending time in the dungeon reformatting the second page. Alex was livid, but managed to make the edit and get the formatting square with minutes to spare before he would have to cancel. But then there was an added problem because the image had required special paper. Alex was drawn into an “all hands on deck” call to swap out the one-ton paper roll and clear a splicing roller. He was furious, but carefully took off his dinner jacket, tucked away his pink silk tie, and put on a dust coat. He was not going to get a “head exploding” story tonight, nor was he going to get himself photographed having dinner with a hot celebrity at a fancy restaurant.
He was still seething while helping one of the print room guys set up a splicing roller on the printing press. His mind was looping on the unfairness, how he was missing out on sumptuous dining; instead of flirting with a celebrity, he was on his hands and knees like a skivvy. So engrossed in his own misfortune was Alex that he barely registered the warning shout, and he reacted too slowly to get out of the way. The heavy roller dropped, pulled Alex in, and pinned his head and shoulders to the concrete floor. There was a small popping sound that was entirely drowned out by the rumble of the other presses.
Alex’s brief notoriety passed almost unremarked in the public record. His death got a short mention in the media that was drenched in schadenfreude and a simple three-line entry in an OSHA accident report. He passed into the firm’s corporate legend as the guy whose head exploded.