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.
Dr. Bryan Martino was a popular toxicologist with a tumultuous social media presence, as well as an inveterate gadgeteer. His house was festooned with a myriad of high-tech devices, many languishing chargeless after being forgotten. His latest acquisition was a 12-ft skeleton with LED eyes that could pulse in time to ambient music and built-in AI that could tell dad jokes and make fart noises during conversational lulls.
After a near accident when his fluffy white Pyrenees investigated a tray of brownies on top of the stove and accidentally turned on a plate, Bryan bought a new Wi-Fi connected stove with a pot/pan sensor and recessed control knobs. The stove came with an AI app that could sense what had been placed on the surface and adjust the infrared induction beam width and intensity to suit what was on the stove. Bryan delighted in how it could bring a pot of water to boil in under 3 minutes and a perfect fried egg. Bosco the Pyrenees could still scarf any brownies left unattended, but would never be able to burn down the house accidentally.
After a different sort of accident, Bryan had bought an automated pet door that sensed Bosco’s ID chip and let him in or out as he desired. The 158-pound dog could produce a prodigious poop, and the event was so remarkable that, by the next evening, the automated door was installed and functioning.
Heavier than expected, the skeleton was made predominately of high-density polyurethane and nylon and came as a flat pack kit with some assembly required. It took Bryan the better part of the weekend to assemble the skeleton, and by the end of a very frustrating Sunday afternoon, Bryan was dispirited, had accidentally stabbed himself in the thumb with a screwdriver, and had twice dropped the heavy skull on his foot. In fact, he was having great trouble fitting the skull to the pivot on the cervicular vertebra, and the batteries kept falling out of the back of the head. He had stepped on a battery, slipped, and head-butted the chest of the skeleton, causing the whole affair to collapse in a heap at the foot of the slightly rickety stand. He had eventually assembled and posed the skeleton, got the battery compartment closed, and set up the Bluetooth connection. Synching the app was mostly smooth, but the skeleton seemed to want to speak Korean more than English.
Once he had convinced it to use the Scottish vocabulary and persona, Bryan called it a success and threw Bosco a treat before heading down to the basement to play with a different kind of skeleton on his VR system. Lying on his belly in his basement games room, Bryan donned his VR helmet and settled his body to experience hurtling down an ice track. The skeleton VR game was like a fantasy merger between competitive bobsledding and luge street racing. Instead of travelling feet first like luge, skeleton involved traveling face down and headfirst, and like bobsledding, involved high-speed ice tracks with precipitous jumps. The wind whistled in his ears as he lurched left and right to stay in the center of the track as it twisted and turned through a subterranean ice wonderland and he hurtled along at over 100 miles an hour.
A small shortcoming of the automated pet door was its inability to deal with objects left in its path by Bosco. Today’s example was a well-chewed piece of a bull femur. The heavy piece of bone stopped the door from closing completely. A curious raccoon peeped in to see if there was anything worth taking and smelled the tofu burger patties that were marinating on the kitchen table. The raccoon trundled over to the table, hopped up in a smooth, unhurried move, and started snarfing down the nearest tofu patty with delighted grunts.
Sensing sound, movement, and the heat signature of a mammal, the skeleton offered something pertinent to the context, and in a firm Scottish accent, announced “You are what you eat!” The raccoon swung in its tracks, searching for the origin of the voice, and growled. The skeleton helpfully pulsed its eyes and copied the raccoon’s growling. The raccoon responded by making a loud “whoof,” leapt across the room, and sank its teeth into the skeleton’s face. “Well, that escalated quickly!” the skeleton announced in a matter-of-fact way and made its eyes pulse red and orange to the sound of bagpipes. The raccoon proceeded to use teeth and claws to prize one flashing eye out and screeched loudly.
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Bosco awoke in alarm. With his nails scraping wildly, he cannoned into the kitchen, bellowing in anger. With one electronic eye in its jaws, the raccoon sprang from the skull to the kitchen counter, shortly followed by Bosco, who launched himself at the departing raccoon and hit the skeleton like a freight train. The ribcage split into its 12 individual subcomponents from the considerable impact and the skeleton spun on its mounting, arms and legs flying outwards as the stand toppled. The head detached and flew in a parabolic arc, bouncing once on the floor, hitting the extraction hood above the stove, and coming to rest spinning on the stove top. The remaining eye pulsed in tune with enthusiastic barking and shrieking as the raccoon scampered along the countertop. Bosco and the racoon completed one circuit of the kitchen. An encounter with the raccoon darting along the kitchen shelving sent the smoke detector flying down the passage like a disc. The racoon fled through the gap in the pet door, and Bosco tore the automatic door from its hinges in hot pursuit.
The AI in the stove top had, in the meantime, sensed the weight of the head, measured its volume with ultrasound, and calculated the optimal power to bring what it assumed was a pot of rice to a boil. It drew almost every one of the 20 amps for which it was rated and proceeded to heat at full power. “Too many cooks,” intoned the head mournfully, “spoil the broth.”
With the sound of virtual skates slicing their way along the ice run, and cheers of the audience ringing in his ears, Bryan was oblivious to the melee going on upstairs, including when Bosco and his adversary moved their business outside. He also didn’t register the bitter almond odor, and any lightheadedness, giddiness, and rapid breathing was masked by his exertions from playing the skeleton VR game. What restlessness and anxiety did penetrate his awareness were simply experienced as excitement from the VR game, the hurtling through bends and curves and the frequent dizzying visual drops. By the time the hydrogen cyanide gas from the frying skeleton head produced nausea and a feeling of neck constriction and suffocation, it was at levels that were incompatible with life, and Bryan expired in convulsions just as he crossed the finishing line.