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.
Darko had come to Florida temporarily to help his aunt Emily with her little, 15-room hotel in a beachside community. Having been a navy medical technician in his country of birth, Darko was a reasonably able handyman and knew enough to supervise and plan some of the big repair work that was needed. The roof had some rotting timbers, there was a crack in the west wall where rainwater had been pooling, and some of the electrics were a mess. After the big issues had been resolved, Emily asked Darko to stay on, and offered room, food, and a tiny salary in return for ongoing maintenance, and sometimes doing the day manager job when she was out of town. Years passed and so did she, leaving the going, if not thriving, concern to her dapper, but somewhat uninterested, son, Bruce.
Bruce did a reasonable job of the finances and marketing but had a deep disdain for residents, and quickly “promoted” Darko, appointing him full-time day manager. The salary was increased by a nominal, but not unwelcome, amount and Darko settled into a satisfyingly soporific routine.
Darko started each day with a 5:30 jog to the beach. He spent 15 minutes sitting upright on the sand, eyes closed, and breathing deeply. This was followed by a quick 10 minutes of body surfing and 5 minutes of quiet reflection. A jog back and a shower saw him in the breakfast room at 7:00 and eating bacon and fried eggs, two slices of toast with butter and marmalade, and a glass of orange juice. He would take his used plate and cutlery to the cleanup trolley and pop his head into the little kitchen to thank the cook. This was partly because Darko was polite by nature, but also because he had a tiny crush on her but found her very intimidating. Eleftheria was originally from a small town in Greece, and spoke with a thick accent, often lapsing into Greek when she was agitated. Other people in her kitchen, for example, often resulted in much muttering in Greek. She had been a physician in Greece and had emigrated as a result of social turmoil between ethnic Greeks and Turks in the border region in which she lived. A distant cousin had encouraged her to come over to Florida, where he assured her that medical positions were plentiful and highly paid.
The reality turned out to be more complicated. She discovered that it was a Byzantine process to get her qualifications recognized in America, and there was a labyrinth of local and regional licensure and accreditation rules that proved to be a formidable barrier. The answer she repeatedly received in interviews was that they respected her experience and thought she was a highly competent doctor but that she would need to complete a medical degree at an American college to be accredited. Her cousin had also exaggerated his lifestyle, and she had to live in a local hotel, which burned through her savings faster than she had planned. At a point when she had run out of money, time, and was about to become homeless, Emily had extended a hand. Free board and lodging plus a small salary to run the pokey kitchen. It was meant to be temporary, but like many things at Sea Crest, it soon settled into a comforting routine.
Life had not been without surprises at Sea Crest, but it was largely the same day played over and over. Darko liked it that way. There had been a few older residents who needed an ambulance, two had died in their sleep, and one keeled over at dinner, but the police had only been there twice that he could recall.
Once, the police were called when a couple had been in an alcohol-assisted brawl after the discovery of a third party in the shower. He couldn’t remember whether it was the husband coming home early from a poker night or the wife coming back from bridge or bingo. Either way, someone was in the shower who shouldn’t have been. Voices were raised, things were thrown, knives were brandished, and the police came. The other time was when one of the elderly male residents brought home a sex worker. The resident had woken early and thought she had stolen his watch and had yelled up a storm. The police came, found his watch under the mattress where he had hidden it, and booked them both for disorderly conduct and breach of the peace.
For Darko, a few such excitements over several decades were quite sufficient, and he was entirely happy for every day to be uneventful. Then Tim arrived as a new resident.
Brash, rude, inconsiderate, Tim made a special effort to alarm or offend Darko. If it wasn’t jumping out suddenly, it was making up stupid stories in front of the staff and other guests. “Did’ya all hear Desperate Darko is hiding a wife in his room? Yeah, she’s called Blowup Betty.” “Hey, Darko the Demon, how’s the dingle dangle?” The constant mocking nicknames galled Darko, and the stories drove him to distraction, but what really appalled Darko was Tim’s breakfast routine.
Every morning, at irritatingly predictable times, Tim would come into the breakfast room in a bathrobe. Sometimes after showering, sometimes after being in the pool, but usually dripping wet, with the bathrobe swinging partially open. Whether Tim had anything on under the bathrobe was something more with which to tease Darko. “Oh no, Dangerous Darko, wanna see inside my kimono?”
Tim would order poached eggs, extra bacon, and blood sausage, which was extra work for Cook, and then hover over the toaster. First, two whole wheat, then two white, and then he would pocket a handful of honey and jam packets and head to the veranda. By the time Tim had squelched his way out in sodden flip-flops, there would be a big dirty puddle on the freshly cleaned floor at the foot of the toaster table.
Since the cleaners would only get to the breakfast room when it closed at nine, that left it up to Eleftheria to clean up. Darko usually cleaned it because this was Eleftheria’s busiest time, and he deeply resented Tim for this embarrassment.
One morning, eager to mop up, Darko dashed to the puddle before Tim had quite left the Breakfast Room, and Darko had slipped on the wet trail and fallen heavily. Tim cackled with mocking laughter “Hey, it’s Damp Darko, taking a dive!” Not an apology, no attempt to help, just more mockery.
The commotion brought Eleftheria from the kitchen still grasping a wooden spatula. She shot a brief venomous look at Tim, waving him off with the spatula, and damning him with a string of Greek curses. Roughly translated, the curse suggested that Tim would be dancing with the devil before the next full moon. Cook helped Darko up off the wet floor, and after checking him out, set about mopping up and muttering darkly to herself.
Darko spent an hour after breakfast with Eleftheria and the cleaning crew, talking over ways to fix this ongoing problem. After initial thoughts that Tim could be evicted, they got down to realistic practicalities. Eleftheria suggested that she could pre-cook the poached eggs, and that would reduce the time Tim spent in the breakfast room. One of the cleaners suggested they come in earlier to the breakfast room to mop up. Another suggested a mat at the toast station. Darko liked the mat idea, but as he pointed out, cleaners weren’t allowed in while food was being served. Then Eleftheria asked about maybe getting one of those big toasters that did four slices at a time. That way, Tim would be standing there half as long. Darko really liked the idea of a bigger toaster, and on his way back to the office, he remembered that they once had one of those carousel toasters. He thought it did four slices at a time but couldn’t remember why it was no longer in service. It wasn’t in the storeroom, and Eleftheria couldn’t remember what happened to it but thought it might be in the basement storage with the seasonal lights.
Darko brooded the rest of the day, and his body ached in a dozen places from his fall. His left elbow was a purple throbbing agony, and his hip felt hot and tight. Bitter resentment ebbed and flowed through him all day, and by the time he handed over to Arturo, the night manager, Darko was consumed with the need to find the carousel toaster or buy a new four-slice unit.
After an hour of painful bending, stretching, and crouching his way through the shelves and storage bins, Darko found the toaster in a tub labeled “Repair.” The Elem carousel toaster seemed fine but a bit dirty. He marveled at the way the four vertical cradles swung to toast first one side then the other. It was a pretty fancy retro piece of 1950s-60s kitchenware. He packed everything else back and headed for his room. Darko changed into overalls and safety shoes, picked up a ham and mustard sandwich left for him at reception by Eleftheria, and went to his workshop.
The workshop was Darko’s spiritual home—quiet, well equipped, and orderly. The wooden workbench had a detachable vice, a steel top, and a pegboard with an array of tools. Neon lamps and a movable spotlight provided good visibility. Drawers along one wall held a wide array of nuts, bolts, and screws. Additional shelves and plastic buckets on a set of rails held spare parts. Opposite the wall of drawers, stood a belt and flap sander, and a rotary wire brush. Next along the wall was a drill press and a small lathe. Gas and arc welders stood in one corner. A large compressor was housed outside, and an air connector and air tools rounded out the very well-appointed workshop.
Darko donned safety glasses and started by attaching a gun to the air hose and blowing the toaster with compressed air. He wiped it down with a mild cleaning solvent on a lint-free cloth and puffed a little graphite powder into the hinges. Darko twisted the knob on top that swung the bread gates back and forth, noting that the knob was cracked and loose. Darko looked through a few drawers before finding a chrome handle from an old gas regulator he had broken down for parts. With a few small modifications, it replaced the plastic knob and added a touch of flair.
Darko examined the old cloth-covered cord and Bakelite plug, noting the cord had frayed in places, and that the plug was cracked. He inserted a bench lead and performed a basic test for continuity that suggested the switch was working, and the elements were at least intact.
Darko plugged in the cord, and with a tiny feeling of trepidation, switched on the toaster. The elements glowed into life without any bright hotspots. Darko frowned, wondering why the elegant Elem had been put in the repair bin. “Maybe the loose knob?” He wondered to himself. Darko reached for the knob and turned the bread gates, and got a sharp jolt of electricity that made him grunt before the earth leakage safety on the workbench tripped and the element’s glow faded.
Darko unplugged the toaster and connected up a continuity tester between the live and the casing. As he slowly twisted the knob, the tester was quiet until the bread gates were almost completely home, and then it beeped continuously. Swing out, quiet, swing back in, and then “beeeeep.” Darko was now pretty clear on why this elegant appliance had ended up in the repair bin. Too fancy to be simply thrown out but badly in need of electrical work. Darko reached for the impact wrench and star bit to open up the base and bumped his injured elbow against the vice. A searing pain shot through his arm like another electric shock and Darko yelped. With pain surging through his arm, he was reminded why he was doing this repair, and a new thought dawned slowly on him.
It was nearly midnight before Darko had finished working on the Elem. He had buffed the nameplate and polished the chrome until the Elem sparkled like new. From the plastic feet to the shiny new knob on the top, it looked better than the day it left the factory in Germany in 1962. Darko coiled up an extra-long cord and packed it all in a clean cardboard box.
When Darko headed into the breakfast room the next morning, he carried the box and placed it next to the bread tray. Darko fussed about, tidying things away for Eleftheria.
Tim walked in with a swagger, “Hey, hey, hey, Dust Diver Darko?” Darko smiled grimly, and unboxed the Elem. “For you, special four-slice toaster.” Darko twisted the knob back and forth, showing how the gates worked, and then plugged it in and ushered Tim to the toaster. “Well Darko, aren’t you the Dark horse, where have you been hiding this?” Darko smiled thinly again and turned on his heel as Tim slotted in his four slices and grasped the knob to turn his bread up to the brightly glowing coils in the center.
The police came again that day, and so did an ambulance. After all the flurry and sirens and flashing lights, the dour-looking crew from the morgue filed in. It was now just the cleaners and the morgue team, quietly making it all normal again. The wet marks, the plastic needle caps, packets that once held sterile gloves, saline bags, intubation kits, ECG pads, and of course, the crumpled earthly remains of Tim, were all collected and tidied away.
In the following days, an inspector came and looked at where Tim had jerked and danced with wide eyes and a contorted grimace, grunting and swinging the toaster and its extra-long chord, his fist clenched tightly in an involuntary rictus around its chrome knob. The inspector briefly looked at the outline where Tim had at last fallen to the floor, curled in a tight ball and hugging the glowing toaster to his damp chest. The inspector had asked for several details, and Darko led him through salient events from fetching the toaster from storage, cleaning it, and showing Tim how to use it for his four slices. Darko described how he had heard Tim grunting and screams from some of the others in the room. He had pulled out the plug and then called 911.
A week later, the inspector received the lab report on the toaster and breakfast room circuits, as well as the coroner’s report on Tim’s body. The lab concluded that a corrosion-related internal wiring fault had been exacerbated by the change from a plastic knob to a metal one, and by the lack of an earth leakage safety trip switch in the breakfast room. They ended by saying that there were no signs of tampering with the circuitry, specifically mentioning that the original factory seal had been intact. They recommended the toaster be scrapped and the Breakfast Room be equipped with an earth leakage breaker. The coroner’s report specified that Tim’s wet body and waterlogged footwear had caused an otherwise painful shock to become fatal and recorded this as an accidental death.
The day he received the final report, Darko dismantled the toaster in accordance with the instruction and dropped the parts into a large recycling bin at the municipal dump. That evening, Darko and Eleftheria sat quietly together on a bench watching the full moon rising over a glittering sea. Their lives returned to a normal but more intimate rhythm, and Tim’s memory and a few lasting scuff marks on the Breakfast Room floor were consigned to one of those few exceptional events for which the police came.