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.
Clyde had been the kind of rich kid that everybody knows is going to come to a sticky end, but nobody wants to take the initiative to give it to him. He was not the kind of 12th grader who puts witty graffiti on the school notice board, or hacks the school website to turn the Latin motto into something amusingly rude, or even the kid who leaks the final exam questions. Instead, he was the kind who paid a girl from a poor family more than her parents earned in a week to stand in front of his buddies and pee herself. He was the kind who paid poorer kids to have bare knuckle fistfights for his entertainment. He was the kind to use his money, privilege, and access to power to be cruel.
His friends were afraid of him, but tacitly relished, and bonded with, him because they shared in his cruelty to those with less, to those they could look down on, those who they could hurt. The guilty delight they shared was intoxicating and addictive, mocking the girl in the sodden jeans whose dignity could be so cheaply bought, seeing kids spill each other’s blood for less money than a rich kid spent on a pair of designer jeans. They were gourmands of other people’s grief, pain, and humiliation.
The very expensive and exclusive preparatory school to which he was sent was his father’s sole nod toward parenting duties. He was a busy man who found his son mildly irritating at the best of times and just an annoyance the rest of the time. The school was everything that money could buy and promised to shape the little snot into something of value: a businessman, a politician, or a hedge fund manager, perhaps. He didn’t really care, so long as they handled all the complications and messy entanglements.
The school had a well-equipped science lab headed by a Nobel laureate, a world-class gymnasium run by an Olympic medalist, and a language arts department managed by a bestselling author. The most highly funded department at the school, however, was for finance and economics. The head of the fin-ec department had been a CEO of a trading firm and was renowned for the complex and highly lucrative investment instruments that had made a killing.
One of the gym teachers was Eddie, a fourth-dan karate whose task it was to teach the boys the ethos and stamina of the martial arts and imbue them with a sense of duty, diligence, and decorum. In reality, it gave them some good tools for being bullies, and few took anything from the classes other than how to use a wrist lock, where to kick someone, and not to hold your thumb when throwing a punch. It also taught them manliness and that breaking wooden planks was a great party trick. Clyde and one of the “grant students” had locked horns when he made a casually offensive remark about “charity case kids.” The boys had squared off, and with blows imminent, someone suggested a plank-breaking faceoff between the two. This would retain the sense of kumite, or combat, but without the risk of serious injury or potential expulsion.
Antonio was the first in his family to get into a prep school, and thanks to family sacrifices, grit, and luck, he had secured a grant. While the entire family was behind him and most were ecstatic, none were under any misapprehensions that Antonio would be welcomed with open arms. They all knew from experience that there would be animosity from many of the privileged students, resistance from many of the teachers, and a general reception that ranged between passive aggression and open hostility. The fine Latin mottos and the high-minded pledge of “fidelity, faith, and fraternity” were all fine and dandy amongst rich white families but soured substantially as the skin tone darkened. Seniors like Clyde and his gang were just open about enforcing purity barriers to outsiders. That didn’t mean that Antonio was going to be servile, though; he put in extra effort and wasn’t shy about showing off his skills. During a karate lesson, Antonio was the clear winner in demonstrating a difficult kata. His execution of the sequence of codified karate movements was crisp, smooth, and by the book. When Clyde passed a snide comment about the “servant class” being given token membership to join the school, Antonio had suggested that maybe Clyde was just too fragile to take the competition. Things looked like they would boil over into a fistfight, but someone suggested a competition to see which of the two could cleanly break the most pine boards.
The excitement was thick. You could cut it with a bread knife. Clyde extended a plank at waist height, clutching it top and bottom. Antonio demonstrated a side kick, and the plank popped sharply and split into two. One point. Then Antonio took his turn holding a plank, and Clyde popped it with a well-executed kick. One point each. The process was repeated for a front snap kick, roundhouse kick, and back kick. On the back kick, Clyde lost a half point for stumbling in his recovery, and steadily fell behind as opportunities for Antonio to lose a point or half point dwindled. The feeling of impending loss and embarrassment grew within Clyde, and with one final test to go, he was out of options. For the final plank, they would each demonstrate the powerful gyaku-zuki: a punch from the hip but with the added force of an associated shoulder and hip rotation. Antonio lined up for the punch, his left foot forward, right leg back, and right fist tucked into his side. Clyde fumbled slightly, hiding the surreptitious rotation of the plank before he held it out by the edges. Antonio snapped out a perfect punch, driving it with a swivel of his hips and shoulder. Instead of meeting a board that would snap along the grain, his fist landed on a target supported across the grain, and the bones in his clenched fist splintered and the skin burst open across his shattered knuckles. The incident was managed administratively, with both boys expelled for conducting a karate competition without permission or supervision. Antonio spent several months in and out of surgery and physiotherapy, while Clyde enrolled in another private preparatory school.
With ample resources, massive entitlement, and a reasonable amount of intelligence at his disposal, Clyde got through college and gained entry to a medical school. He didn’t excel, but like many entitled rich kids with legacy status, he just kept failing upwards. Clyde graduated with a Master’s degree in medical administration and found ready employment at a teaching hospital where his father was on the board of directors, his mother was head of psychiatry, and his older brother was a surgeon.
Clyde endeavored to carve a niche for himself at the hospital, but his legacy hire was seen by many peers as a blemish of suspected ineptitude. Clyde pushed back against the social wall of judgement and leaned into the benefit of being almost unfireable. Although he was highly successful at intimidating junior staff, and skated the rim of sexual harassment, his attempts at being edgy often came across as desperate, rather than forceful. His office was carefully decorated and appointed to be darkly controversial, with several Hieronymus Bosch prints, a Caravaggio copy, and various Medieval weapons and instruments of torture displayed on the walls and on his dark mahogany desk. He used a brass thumbscrew as a paperweight, and as a special dig at women, an iron “Pear of Anguish.” Two of his prized possessions were an authentic misericord dagger that he used as a letter opener and a Viking war axe on the wall behind his desk.
On his second day, Clyde joined a meeting in which he came face to face with Antonio, who was the corporate legal counsel. It was an uncomfortable moment, made more so when Antonio ignored Clyde’s outstretched right hand, paused for a pregnant moment, and instead held out his left hand. Clyde shook the hand uncomfortably, and the rest of the meeting played out no better. Antonio had several questions regarding exposure to risks and vulnerabilities in administration that were flicked to Clyde by his more prepared and nimble boss. She seemed to relish the opportunity to repeatedly put Clyde on the spot and then task him with coming up with plans or answers by the next meeting. Clyde left with a string of tricky tasks with tight deadlines, feeling physically ill from the humiliation.
Over the next days, everywhere Clyde went at work, he thought he recognized someone from his past. Sometimes, he was exactly right. One of the patients he noticed in a waiting area was indeed once a boy who Clyde had paid someone to hit and encouraged others to taunt. The boy had been cruelly beaten after school and then mocked. The patient was one of the those attending the mental health clinic; he had survived several suicide attempts and looked haunted and ragged. The nurse who was accompanying the patient stared at Clyde, her face blank and unreadable, but her clenched fist held behind her back was white. Clyde sensed malice from her and from the patient, and he walked away as fast as he could, sensing their eyes following him down the long hallway until he turned the corner to the admin block. The rest of the week got no better, and Clyde was having recurrent nightmares of being pursued across a dark and murky swamp.
Then the vandalism began.
Things in his office were damaged or defaced, and his car was damaged. It started almost undetectably; things were moved, rearranged. At first, he just felt unease, and his office felt uncomfortable. The fancy Herman Miller office chair height and tilt were just a little off, the armrests just a tiny bit too high, the lumbar support just a tiny bit too harsh. The tacit sense of discomfort slowly shifted and grew, until it first dawned on him that there was a menacing agency at work: his inability to find the right notes and documents for a crucial meeting, or the embarrassing misstep of leaving key people off meeting invitations, or the inclusion of personal doodles in the circulated minutes. It suddenly dawned on him that someone was doing this to him. The mix of his own errors and ineptitudes were being augmented and amplified by sabotage. Like many bullies, Clyde was at heart a coward with a highly attuned sense of vulnerability, and he grew increasingly defensive and guarded. In response to his tense demeanor and jerky interactions, people in his workplace mirrored him, and the sense of hostility spread. With the accelerating awareness of menace surrounding him came a shift, and the vandalism and hostility grew more overt. The windshield wipers on his Lexus were twisted, someone let the air out of his tires, and in his office space, some items went missing or were damaged. The iron pear had been beaten flat and put in his top drawer, and the dagger was gone. Clyde was not sleeping at all well, and what little sleep he got was fitful and filled with nightmares of being stalked. He eventually called security.
When the chief of security paid him a visit, the meeting started with the uncomfortable realization that he was one of those poorer kids Clyde had paid to fight with another kid. The chief had been understanding and professional, but underlined that personal items were against hospital policy, and the missing dagger was actually more an issue of bringing a weapon to work than a matter of theft, which only aggravated the violation of policy. He left Clyde with a weak assurance that they would look into the vandalism, but a strong intimation that there might be repercussions for having and losing control of a dangerous weapon at work. Clyde tried to put it out of his mind and was still working when the rest of the admin staff left for the day. He was trying to find a missing memo when he grew aware of someone behind him. He swiveled in alarm, and standing there in the doorway was the mental health patient, fingering the Viking axe. Clyde stammered out a challenge. What did he want? The patient lifted the axe and stared at Clyde in silence, then in a raspy voice delivered a sermon. “You made my life misery at school. My first suicide attempt was after you humiliated me in front of the girl I had crushed on the whole year. She laughed.” He explained how he had dreamt of revenge, of killing Clyde. Bashing his face in with a hammer. He patted the axe against the palm of his hand. He explained that he had eventually come to terms with the fear and hate, and with therapy, was able to accept that violence was not the answer to the cruelty he had endured. “I forgive you, Clyde,” he said quietly, and putting down the axe gently on the polished mahogany, left the office.
Clyde was shaken, and felt an urgency to leave, to get home where he felt safe, secure, protected. Although he needed to go, he avoided the toilets for fear of being isolated, and hurried to the basement parking. The fear rose in his chest again in the parking level. As he walked across the concrete floor, he thought he heard muffled footsteps. He hurried, and walked faster, glancing behind him repeatedly. As he approached his Lexus that seemed like an island of hope, he fumbled for his keys and almost broke into a run. As he reached the car, he glanced behind him one more time, and a figure stepped out of the shadow of the pillar beside the car. Clyde’s shriek was cut short as the figure stabbed him in the groin with the stolen dagger. The long, thin blade slid through Clyde’s belt and abdominal wall like they were tissue paper. The blade passed right through his bladder and stopped against the pelvic bone. The arm pumped rapidly, stabbing his groin over and over, as Clyde slowly sank to his knees sobbing in terror.
A soft, feminine voice whispered to him as he kneeled on the cold cement, urine and blood soaking his thighs and spreading in a dark patch around his knees. “You don’t remember me, do you, Clyde?” She tucked a dollar bill in his jacket pocket and watched him shaking in the growing pool. He did remember the girl who took his money so many years ago, who bore the shame of her period and urine soaking through her jeans so she could pay for the rent that week, the girl who swore to herself that one day she would have her revenge. She plunged the dagger into his back, straightened up, and walked back into the hospital where she could drop her bloodstained scrubs into a sterilization chute.
By the time people flooded the parking for the next shift, Clyde was as cold and grey as the concrete below him.