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.
Blake enjoyed the occasional trip to St. Augustine’s, the regional tertiary care hospital. It usually meant time off the street, not much paperwork, and lunch at the hospital cafeteria. It wasn’t exactly gourmet cuisine, but was far better and cheaper than what he could get at the fast-food places near the sheriff’s office where he was stationed. The trips usually involved a perp who was cuffed to a gurney or hospital bed who didn’t need Blake’s attention while they were being treated for whatever injury came with an arrest—sometimes a dislocated shoulder, sometimes a broken wrist or fractured ribs, and often an overdose of some kind. Occasionally, it was because they had been shot.
Today, it was gunshot wounds. Blake had been regaling the charge nurse with how he had drawn his 40 S&W caliber Glock 22 and put two bullets in the perp before they could reach him with a box cutter. The conversation had drifted to domestic matters and the aftermath of his separation from his wife. “No evil eye anymore if the dog is on the sofa or my Glock is on the coffee table,” he had chuckled while also nodding that yes, he did keep the gun out of reach when it was his turn to have his toddler son over.
Dr. Megan Ranney stopped short on her way to an office she hadn’t seen since her shift started 11 hours ago, where an untasted cup of coffee sat waiting, cold. She turned and looked directly at Blake from three feet away and took off her glasses. “Please store your firearm safely, and I mean lock it up!” She maintained eye contact and paused for a moment. “I do NOT want to see you in my ER on a gurney, adding to the long count of accidental shootings. Nor do I want your child in here after discovering a loaded gun!” She was gone before he could recover his voice, but he mumbled something indistinct about preferring death over seeing her in her ER.
His marriage had unraveled in much the same way that many police marriages do—inattention, bad attitudes, and unhelpful beliefs. The inattention had started with good intentions. He didn’t want to burden Grace with sordid stories and graphic details or bore her with humdrum stuff about traffic violations and littering. That habit grew and metastasized over time, and after 5 years of marriage, he was talking a different language, discussing things with buddies from work rather than with Grace and cutting her out of everything that was fun. Their attitudes diverged and she accused him of becoming bossy, almost authoritarian. From her perspective, it wasn’t just that he always assumed he was right. It didn’t actually matter to him whether he was right or wrong; he just expected compliance. While her job as a nurse primed her to listen and expect interaction, his seemed to prime him to bark orders and expect obedience. The final straw, or maybe it was just a self-fulfilling prophecy, was that they both believed the nonsense making the rounds that members of the police force were 50 times more likely to divorce than the general public. Peddled by unscrupulous people selling seminars, courses, and workshops to police departments, the urban legend took root and convinced many police officers that their jobs were far more dangerous than they actually were, that their marriages would fail, and that nobody else understood them or could help them.
The arguments between Blake and Grace became less about sorting out problems and more about demarcation of territory and scoring points. The arguments that were most heated seemed to be over dogs, gambling, and guns. He didn’t really mind the dogs jumping up on the couch, but she felt it was absurdly unhygienic, shortened the life of the cushion covers, and just meant more cleaning for her. Hugo, the Siberian Husky, shed hair all over the covers, and Boss, the bulldog, left big wet slobber stains on the cushions. Grace felt that Blake’s weekly poker nights with the guys was an imposition on their time together, stank up the apartment with cigar smoke and cheap booze, and cost a lot for something that only one of them enjoyed. He felt it was harmless fun, a great way to spend quality time with buddies, and was a family tradition. Most of their fathers and uncles had been card buddies. The dogs and the gambling were things that could irritate the best of marriage partners, but the gun thing was eventually a showstopper. Blake’s habit of leaving his gun on a shelf by the door or even on the coffee table did not present a huge risk to their son when he was an infant, but now that Bryson was a toddler, Grace felt it did. Grace insisted the gun be unloaded and locked in a safe. Blake argued that his Glock had three independently operating mechanical safeties and was perfectly safe unless someone, like an adult, actually squeezed the trigger all the way. One Saturday morning, Bryson stood up at the coffee table and dragged the Glock towards himself, and it fell to the floor with enough of a thump that Grace came from the kitchen to investigate. After 30 minutes of yelling at each other, followed by increasingly corrosive and expansive personal attacks from both sides and an ultimatum from Grace, the marriage was on hold. Grace took Bryson, packed a suitcase, and was gone before either adult had time to cool down.
Blake’s friends were no help in resolving the fight, just providing endless examples of broken police marriages, a steady diet of bad suggestions, and a warm and comfortable routine of playing cards, going to ball games, and talking shop. On Grace’s side, her mother supported her either way, her dad stayed well out of it, and her friends said she was better off without Blake. Grace moved into a house with two other nurses whose schedules meant there was always someone around if she needed a babysitter, and—adamant to make a silk purse out of a bad situation—she settled into a new routine of more work and more studies.
Blake, in turn, just enjoyed the bachelor life and, to some extent, reveled in doing exactly whatever Grace had opposed. Hugo and Boss routinely hung out with him on the couch, dishes didn’t always get done before use, and he bought a bigger TV. His Glock was typically on the coffee table and he didn’t put a coaster under his beer bottle. The weekly poker night was expanded to one poker night and one bowling night.
Blake got the place spruced up a bit for the poker night, which meant throwing out beer bottles and fast-food boxes, stocking the fridge, and putting some chili on the stove. He wheeled the TV stand to one side, rearranged chairs so that there was one on either end of the coffee table and two high-back loungers opposite the couch, their backs to the front door. By the time his buddies were due to arrive, the beers were cold, the music was playing, and the chili was cooking merrily, filling the apartment with a rich aroma of meaty, spicy goodness.
Blake had just fitted a new air freshener bottle in the guest toilet and was passing the front door on his way to stir the chili when three of his poker buddies arrived. One mashed the doorbell and another pounded on the door and yelled, “Police, open up!” accompanied by roars of laughter. Hugo barked and leaped from the couch, cleared the coffee table without even touching the opened beer bottle, and landed between the two high backed chairs, his claws skittering on the carpeting as he responded with the radical enthusiasm that Huskies possess. Boss was too heavy and low-slung for such aerobatics and landed on the coffee table before launching himself, sending the beer bottle flying. Mindless of whatever else was on the surface, his claws encountered only one other object with any real inertia as he propelled himself towards the door.
Operating exactly as designed, the Glock responded to the enthusiastic paw by issuing a single gunshot that drowned out everything else for an instant. The 180-grain bullet whisked through the left-most chair back and hit Blake just to the side of his spine, narrowly missing the nerves exiting the twelfth thoracic and first lumbar vertebrae. It tore a path that was within spitting distance of the abdominal aorta, missing his stomach, liver, and several other structures that might have immediately ended Blake’s life. It did, however, give the superior mesenteric artery a kiss before forging through some intestinal plumbing and the abdominal muscles and passing through the front door. Had it been a little to the side, bone shards from a shattered vertebra could have penetrated the spinal cord and surrounding organs, or the bullet could have macerated his liver. As lucky as he undoubtably was, Blake pitched forward and collapsed unconscious against the door.
There was only a short delay before the three visitors gained access and initiated CPR, even though it was not strictly needed, and it took only 7 minutes for an ambulance crew to arrive. At the hospital, Blake was wheeled past portraits of previous and current directors and into the ER. He regained consciousness as he was wheeled past the portrait of Dr. Megan Ranney, smiling down from the pale green wall. Since Dr. Ranney was away at a conference, it was Dr. Karyn Cameron acting as locum, who took charge. The logic and flow of the ER team was swift, sequenced, and practical, and several things were being done in parallel. An aptly named focused assessment with sonography in trauma (FAST) scan was initiated and a blood transfusion started, with many hands all over Blake, searching for wounds, cleaning, prepping, starting new IV lines. Blake stabilized, his wounds had been attended to, his vitals were in range, his pain was controlled, and the FAST scan was negative. The large team around him dissolved with that special conjuring trick of the ER, in which clinicians melted away like quicksilver and reformed around other patients. It was a ballet of blood and gore orchestrated around acuity conducted by the ER director.
To make sure that no structures had been damaged, and no fragment left behind, Dr. Cameron ordered a CT scan. Blake was soon being wheeled out of the ER and off to the CT room, a floor below in the sprawling radiology department. By the time the elevator doors closed, and the passage to the ER was lost from sight, Blake’s consciousness had also faded, and the undiagnosed retroperitoneal bleed from his damaged superior mesenteric artery was taking its toll. Blake slipped away quietly before reaching the CT room, his wish that he would sooner die than see Dr. Ranney in her ER having been granted.