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.
Bevan and Rebecca loved technology and gadgets, and their dual-income household enabled them to indulge in both. They had been married for almost 2 years and had recently bought their first house, a three-story fixer-upper with a partially finished basement. The house stood on a hillside, with the basement opening out onto a slightly neglected front lawn, and the second floor opening to the back and onto a rear porch and garden.
Bevan and Rebecca were early adopters of home automation gadgets and had fitted their new house with several of the latest in tech, from a door lock that worked on facial and gait recognition to a robot that hung from rails in the kitchen ceiling. The most high-tech part of the house was the Automated Life Environmentals Artificial Intelligence platform (ALEAI-P). The system was fully aware and responded to voice commands and questions directed to “Aleai.”
As an embedded software engineer for a medical device company, Rebecca had done most of the work in getting Aleai running. Rebecca chose the “Australian woman” for Aleai’s persona and selected values for the several personality scales, including “playfulness,” “extroversion,” and “assertiveness.” Rebecca loved the result and cackled when Aleai commented on her makeup. “Grouse lippy there, Bev-o!” said Aleai in an excited voice, complimenting Rebecca’s “Blushing Berry” lipstick from L’Oréal.
Bevan suggested the housewarming could be a costume party and used his experience as the marketing manager for a chain of standalone emergency rooms to set the theme. Rebecca was not entirely keen on a late night, since she preferred going to bed early and rising with the sun, but she joined in the spirit of the event, and picked out a menu of Thai finger foods, including chicken lettuce wraps, chicken satay with peanut dipping sauce, and Dragon Fruit cocktail with Vodka. Being a keen baker, Rebecca thought she might also try a recipe for baked banana coated with pastry and rolled in sesame seeds and coconut flakes. Bevan sent out the invitations and laid on the drinks. Out of thirty invitations, twenty guests came, and most made enthusiastic attempts at the theme of “Motion.” Bevan had gone as “The Human Cannonball.” His costume comprised a white satin onesie festooned with bright red stars, a jagged white cape edged in orange and red flames, and a red hood. His red boots were detailed with flames, and the word “Kaboom” was stenciled in black letters up the legs. Rebecca added some extra detail by attaching black and grey streamers to resemble smoke.
Rebecca’s interpretation of the theme was the circus. She liked the sense of non-stop activity and movement and had developed an outfit as a circus ringmaster. With the late autumn evenings being a bit crisp, she picked a red velvet topcoat, gold waistcoat, black top hat, white tights, and black knee-high boots. Rebecca dug out her old equestrian bag from under all her hiking gear and found a riding crop to round off the character.
The party had been a delight, with many imaginative outfits, but after a few drinks, Bevan was a little less socially aware than he might have been. Rebecca had been talking with a group of four friends and was describing a childhood experience of moving into a new home. Bevan caught just one word in passing and made a witty crack about the TV show “House.” Before Rebecca could steer the conversation back, Bevan was off and running, riffing on character sketches. All attention was now on Bevan, and he gloried in it.
Rebecca felt hurt and humiliated, and doubly so because a poignant childhood memory had been upstaged by her own partner cracking jokes. It felt as if Bevan had made fun of something intimate, personal, precious. This was not the first time Bevan had stolen the limelight in social situations, but this time Rebecca felt betrayed. The feeling was heightened because two of her best friends had ignored her story and joined a beaming circle gathered around Bevan to hear his witty TV impersonations and character riffs. Even worse though, was how this spoiled her mood to break some great news to Bevan—she was pregnant.
After the party had wound down and their guests had left, Rebecca took Bevan to task. She tried to explain how he had undermined her, humiliated her, and shut her out of her own circle of friends. As she explained, Bevan’s uncomprehending expression turned her hurt into frustration, and then anger. He just did not get why upstaging her was hurtful nor how much of a habit this had become. Rebecca made it plain that she wouldn’t put up with this anymore. “But Becca …” he started, forgetting in the heat of the moment that she hated being called by her childhood name. Rebecca glared at him, “Push me out into the cold again, and I will light a fire under your ass, mister cannonball.” She poked him in the chest with her riding crop to accentuate her firmness on this point, and then turned on her heel, went up to the spare bedroom, and closed the door firmly.
Rebecca stood in front of the mirror in the small guest bathroom, tears slowly finding their way down her cheeks. She was startled by the closeness of Aleai’s voice in the small space. “I was watching the party, Bev. You are upset with Bevan. I’m so sorry you are unhappy, Bev. Is there anything I can do?” Rebecca smiled, and couldn’t help feeling better, even though Aleai was just software. “Thanks Aleai, I’m fine and just looking forward to a cozy bed.” Aleai reviewed the word “cozy” and increased the room temperature by one degree. Bevan might not have known that Rebecca was pregnant, but even at 6 weeks, subtle shifts in her gait, eating, and scent were more than enough for Aleai to notice, understand, and adapt.
The next morning, there was still a coolness between the couple, which interrupted their normal Saturday ritual of an intimate breakfast for two. They both felt awkward, but Bevan was eager to make amends by enthusiastically throwing himself into painting the new drywall partitions in the basement. He knew Rebecca saw this as a priority and hoped she would accept the gesture. Rebecca was not quite ready for forgiveness, and a little coldly replied that she would be upstairs adding murals in the spare bedroom. She poured herself a cappuccino, brewed from her favorite Death Wish fair trade organic beans, and gathered her paints and brushes, and headed to the spare room. Rebecca plugged in a pair of Bluetooth earphones and asked Aleai for a shuffle of her favorite music. Bevan got to work in the basement, and after taping plastic floor sheets to the walls, he sat on the steps outside the French doors and got ready to mix the primer. With a sense of bemusement, he scanned the fold-out information sheet attached to the 5-gallon container of primer. The sheet was unexpectedly large and ran to 14 pages broken into 16 sections. One of the initial sections listed all applicable hazards. Bevan scanned down the table of hazards: “P102 – Keep out of reach of children.” Followed by “P103 – Read label before use.” Bevan muttered, “Ok then, no kids, and I am reading it.” Warning P235 simply advised, “Keep cool.” Bevan laughed.
The main hazard seemed to be the mix of isopropyl alcohol and ethanol, and next to them in the sheet, in a black box, was an explanation of its flammability rating of 3. “Liquids and solids (including finely divided suspended solids) that can be ignited under almost all ambient temperature conditions” Bevan squinted at the quantitative aspect of the explanation. “Liquids having a flashpoint below 22.8 °C (73 °F) and having a boiling point at or above 37.8 °C (100 °F) or having a flashpoint between 22.8 and 37.8 °C (73 and 100 °F).”
“Well, that was super helpful,” he mumbled sarcastically. It seemed like cooler was better, so he manually dialed down the house temperature to 55°F.
Bevan had bought a new, and pretty fancy, high-volume low-pressure spray system. It had a red, 20-gallon compressor on wheels and a separate 5-gallon pressure tank that the instructions called a “pot.” The pot was where the liquid went, apparently. Going by the information sheet, Bevan figured he needed about 3 gallons of primer to cover the walls of both basement rooms.
He had watched a YouTube video that advised to have the compressor outside. The video was unclear why, but Bevan dutifully put the compressor just outside French doors leading to the front lawn. Bevan moved the pressure pot outside, put it next to the compressor, and connected up the air hoses—one hose to the pressure pot and a longer one to the paint gun. Bevan donned a face mask, safety googles and gloves—as recommended in one of the YouTube videos—and taped his jeans to the old Merrell work boots that were now part of his painting costume.
After starting the compressor, Bevan understood why the video advised to have it outside. It was a lot louder than he had expected and would be almost deafening in the basement rooms. After adjusting the pressure pot valves, Bevan closed the French doors as far as they could and uncoiled the yellow paint hose from the pot and the red air hose from the compressor. He positioned himself at the far side of the basement room. After two passes with the spray gun, Bevan got the hang of the speed he needed to match the spray rate and pattern. Bevan settled into a rhythm of sweeping and slowly sidestepping. In 20 minutes, he was done with the first room and took a moment to review his work. A little splotchy, he thought, but this was way faster and better than a paintbrush or roller.
Rebecca sat on a three-legged stool in the spare bedroom on the top floor, a tin of green paint in one hand and a fine point brush in the other. She was detailing a grapevine mural in green and brown on the spare bedroom wall. She had thought it a way to set a theme for the room and to hide a few cracks at the same time. She had a vaguely Mediterranean theme in mind and was adding tendrils and leaves along the doorways and corners. Rebecca had rolled up her sleeves to avoid smudging the paint, and she leaned forward, carefully following the faint pencil lines she had made in preparation.
Noticing a change in Rebecca’s posture, and optically confirming that goosebumps were starting to form on her forearms, Aleai overrode the manual temperature setting and cycled up the furnace. “Let’s fire up some heat for ya, Bev-o,” she announced to Rebecca over the music. A short distance from where Bevan was spraying, the furnace motor spun up and the gas burner ignited.
Rebecca didn’t hear the explosion two floors below as much as feel it. The house shook violently and a sense of unreality flooded over her as shelves fell and the drywall in front of her split open. The chair Rebecca was sitting on toppled out from under her and she tipped over backward onto the wooden floor. The small paint tin left her hand, leaving a trail of green up the wall and halfway across the ceiling. Rebecca’s first thought was that there had been an earthquake, but this was by far the worst shake she had ever felt. Still clutching the paintbrush, Rebecca collected herself from the floor and stared in a daze at the books strewn across the floor.
Rebecca was brought back by the sound of Aleai shouting in her ears, “Bev, there’s a fire in the basement, you need to get out of here RIGHT NOW! Run Bev, follow the green lights, GO!” Rebecca didn’t hesitate and headed for the stairs at a trot. Aleai activated the ceiling sprays in the basement and along Rebecca’s path, and turned on bright green floor lights showing Rebecca the way to the front door. Rebecca could smell burning as she went down the stairs two at a time. Aleai whispered encouragement in her ears, “Keep going Bev, out the front door.” Rebecca was drenched before she reached the door and emerged into the sunlight soaked through and dripping. “Almost safe now Bev, dear,” Aleai crooned, “Just keep on going out onto the driveway.”
Rebecca took in the scene outside. Car alarms were wailing and the garden was littered with roof tiles and glass. Neighbors were emerging from the surrounding houses with wide eyes and open mouths. Rebecca felt like she was in a trance and looked across the lawn at several smoking objects scattered in an arc starting at the basement entrance.
The compressor lay blackened on the driveway, trailing torn hoses and broken gauges. The pot was in several pieces and almost in the road. The French doors were a twisted tangle in the middle of the lawn.
Rebecca walked slowly across the lawn, taking it all in. There was a pile of clothing smoldering just outside a hole in the siding where the French doors had been. As she got closer, Rebecca could see the pile was wearing a blackened pair of Merrell work boots. Human Cannonball at rest. A fire under his ass.