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.
Emily had been stalked by decay and deterioration since she was a small child. She loved her parents’ home and her neighborhood, but times had changed since she was a bubbly five-year old when Dad had a union job at an engine plant and Mom worked mornings as a bookkeeper at the car repair place on Lincoln and Main. The plant was now derelict, the car place was closed, and weeds were abundant through the fractured sidewalks where she had once played with friends. After leaving high school, Emily quickly realized that there was no money for college, no steady job worth having, and no plausible future for her within a hundred miles. After a chance conversation with a retired union boss and a few calls, she had taken a Greyhound bus out of town with an acceptance letter for her apprenticeship in her hand and hopes in her heart.
Emily had been accepted as an apprentice electrician, and was excited to start her first practical semester at a 600-bed hospital. As a bulwark against the decay, one that she had grown up with, Emily focused on details and process. She immersed herself in her studies. She had done well with electrical theory, had aced the blueprint reading unit, and had mastered the somewhat arcane course on electrical code and safety practices. On a daily basis, Emily knew exactly how many course hours she had completed of the total 300 required for her apprenticeship, and how many of the 8,000 hours of on-the-job-training she had left to do. It helped that apprentice pay was tied to competency milestones, so when hers had risen to $19.37 per hour after her recent academic results, it was a clear sign of progress. She focused on her next milestone, finishing her practical experience on multiwire branch circuits and doing a classroom course called “Introduction to Combination Circuits.” On completion, Emily would shift up a notch to $20.73, and she already had plans to buy a small used pickup truck. Having her own car would make commuting a whole lot easier than two buses every morning to work, and two buses and a train back to the YMCA every evening. It would mean not having to stand in the cold or the rain waiting for public transport, or begging for lifts, or having to work out new complicated journeys each time she switched to a new work location. She counted the days to when she could buy that extra freedom, and she counted down the months before she could leave town and start a life in a city that was flourishing.
Brad was the class joker, and was a year further ahead in his training than Emily. He wasn’t entirely sure that he fancied her, but it didn’t hurt to play a bit and see if it led somewhere. He thought Blanca and Valentina were hotter than Emily, but Blanca didn’t get his jokes, and Valentina had got them but rolled her eyes at him and muttered something in Spanish that he didn’t understand. He had plenty of other options, though, and had been eyeing some of the nurses and one of the security guards at the current work experience place. He liked the buzz at hospitals, the nonstop activity, and the sense of purpose. His last practical placement had been a bank, and that had been such a snooze that he considered just quitting the apprenticeship – but not seriously, because he was due for his next salary and status notch if he just gritted his teeth until the placement was done. One of the nice things about apprenticeship was that as soon as something got really boring, it was just about over, and you moved to the next phase. The other thing was being paid while you learned. How sweet was that?
Brad had recently reached an important milestone in his own path to becoming a journeyman electrician: receiving his first stipend to buy his own basic tools and a new tool case. Up to this point, all his tools and his tool case were hand-me-downs that had been issued in stages along his training. Having been teased about the decrepit multimeter he had been issued after basic training, he splurged on a fancy new multimeter that came with a clip-on holster and a protective rubber case with a fold-out stand and recessed slots in which one could stow probes and leads. His new multimeter was a lot more complicated and expensive than the basic model recommended by the trade school, but Brad figured that he would soon grow into the advanced features, and it looked a whole lot more cool than what others were using.
Cliff was a journeyman whose ambitions to become a master electrician had taken a detour when they had their first child, and getting a permanent and stable position was a more attractive goal than staying in training. Now in his fifties, Cliff spent most of his time allocating work to the junior journeymen and doing administrative work. The next biggest focus of his schedule was taking in apprentices, allocating work to match their qualification and competency schedules, and handling any disciplinary or hardship issues that always seemed to accompany youngsters. This semester’s intake was little different to most previous years: 3 months in and he had sent one apprentice packing for being drunk on duty, intervened in one fistfight over tools, and cautioned two whose lovebird behavior had become obvious. Sorting out romantic attachments was somewhat new to him. Back in the day, all apprentices had been men, and it had just never occurred to him that some of the apprentices had been gay. Now that some apprentices were women, and gays were more open than when he was an apprentice, he found that he was more frequently required to play “agony aunt” or chaperone. For mixed reasons that were not entirely clear to himself, he tried to pair the women up when allocating work. With an odd number of women in this intake, that wasn’t always possible.
Most of the youngsters were easy to read, and their goals, attitudes, and aspirations were pretty clear to Cliff. Emily was escaping a rust-belt region, on a mission to self-sufficiency and migration. Valentina was a newly single mom and this was her path to better financial security. Jimmy was the son of a builder and had a goal to join his father’s business as soon as he qualified as a journeyman. Those were all very clear motives, but Cliff struggled to get a line on some of the other apprentices, such as Brad, for example. Cliff had encountered many classroom clowns before and knew how to play along with the innocuous stuff, turning a blind eye to funny but improper high jinx, and immediately nip anything in the bud that signaled a safety or ethics concern. Brad was different, though, and Cliff couldn’t tell whether Brad really had a long-term goal or not, or decide if Brad’s slightly slapstick joking around was just some kind of stand-up comedy or something to worry about. Brad didn’t quite step over any lines, but he sure came close, and it made Cliff nervous. Cliff fretted that Brad was not focused enough on his work, and he played out various scenarios on how he might channel Brad better.
Cliff had attended an annual mandatory course by HR on workplace harassment. After the class, he had asked the instructor and the HR manager for advice and guidance. Describing the situation, Cliff gave a few examples. Brad’s little nonsense song that started with “jitterboo, jitterboo, who are you,” sounded very close to a very racist lyric. The instructor was unsure, and the HR manager couldn’t say if this was just cocky nonsense, or in fact a racial microaggression. Another example was when Brad called Emily his “Sparky Queen” and had made a big show of falling at her feet and saying he would die for her. Emily had seemed to find it funny, and the other apprentices had laughed, but Cliff had felt very uncomfortable. The instructor felt that this was more clearly “inappropriate workplace behavior,” but didn’t quite rise to the point of “actionable event” as an isolated case. The HR manager declined to offer any concrete advice, but suggested that Cliff might send Brad for the same course on workplace harassment.
Cliff left the conversation feeling like HR had just passed the buck back to him, and they didn’t seem to understand that sending an apprentice for an HR course would be really difficult to synchronize with the very full apprentice training and work schedules. It would also look like punishment unless all the apprentices were sent to the exact same course, and that would be nearly impossible to justify. Besides the cost of paying 16 apprentices an average of $20 an hour to sit through a 4-hour course, apprentices actually had work to do, and losing an effective eight days of work just to school Brad on his edgy jokes seemed like a hard sell. There was no way Cliff would be able to explain it to management, nor to the academic dean, and especially not to hospital unit managers whose work would get delayed. Cliff shrugged and decided just to keep an eye on things.
Today was one of those days in which the task roster would wind up with one of the women being paired up with a guy. Cliff put Blanca and Valentina on a maintenance job on an elevator motor, and he paired Brad and Emily up to work on a large distribution board. He thought that maybe if Brad saw how focused and meticulous Emily was at her work, a bit of that might rub off on him. The work would be straightforward experience for Brad, and it would satisfy an element on Emily’s competency schedule pertaining to “Switches, Switchboards, and Panelboards.” It seemed like a win-win situation.
After placing most of the apprentices for the day, Cliff walked Brad and Emily to the main distribution board on the west wing of the hospital. The wing included two wards, radiology, a lab, and a pharmacy. After doing a routine hand and body inspection to check that neither were wearing any conductive jewelry like rings, bangles, or pendants, Cliff launched into his regular “This is a live panel, so no messing about” speech, and then gave them the work order printout and went through the job details. They were to identify the 120-, 240-, and 480-volt bus bars and circuit breaker banks, inventory any spare 240-volt breakers, and map all the open slots. Also, they were to survey the entire board and identify any breakers that were hot, buzzing, or showed signs of previous arcing or damage. Emily poured over each line of the work order, making sure she understood it and could picture what had to happen. Brad skimmed the pages. He had done something similar before, so this was no big deal. While Cliff waited for Emily to finish reading, Brad daydreamed about taking one of the nurses to the lake on the weekend, and wondered what she would be wearing.
With a verbal acknowledgement from both Brad and Emily that they understood the work order, Cliff supervised them taking turns in removing the front panels to expose the breakers. Since this was a live board with high voltage present, Cliff assigned Emily to hold the meter and take the readings, and Brad to probe the busbars and breaker terminals. Cliff listed off some obvious but necessary points: set the multimeter to AC high voltage; use only probes with finger guards. Cliff delivered another quick sermon on safety and a reminder that the panel was live. “On no account are either of you to try holding the meter and probes at the same time. Got it?”
Satisfied that the job was properly handed off, Cliff tucked his clipboard under one arm and walked away to check on the remaining three apprentices.
Brad unholstered his new meter, set up the probes, twisted the rotary selector to Volts AC, and handed the chunky meter to Emily. As Brad crouched in front of the first open panel and readied the probes to check a row of breakers, Emily looked down at the meter, mentally rechecking the settings that Brad had selected. Unfamiliar with the new meter, she scanned its face slowly: dial set to Volts AC, black lead in the “common” box, and red lead in a red box marked “High Current 10A,” but then she was puzzled. There was a solid white line from the red box to “COM.” As a frown began to form on her brow, Brad, careful to keep his fingers behind the probe safety guards, touched the probe points to the terminal at the top and bottom of a 600 Amp 480 Volt breaker.
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Before the thought had fully formed in Emily’s head that the solid white line might mean something about internal connectivity, the probe tips vaporized in front of Brad. In the next few milliseconds, a sequence of events unfolded like the jaws of a crocodile opening and snapping shut on its prey. The mist of molten metal that used to be probe tips and terminal screw heads provided an ionized path between breakers, and a superheated cloud of expanding gas and metal particles grew as busbars began arcing and adding to the heat and metal vapor. Brad was enveloped in a flame bubble that turned his hair to ashes, and rendered his coveralls a crisp, flaky material that cracked and split as his body was buffeted by the hot gas. Emily was largely in the shadow of the flash, but the short circuit that was implied by that white line resulted in most of the meter internals exploding. A thin jet of flame escaped along the join in the casing, leaving two parallel carbon lines four inches apart etched into her palm and fingers where she had held the meter.
The safety systems worked as designed, and the main circuit overload breaker tripped, cutting power to the largely molten and sagging distribution panel, and preventing it from continuing its cycle into fiery entropy. Several hundred yards down the road, the local substation also tripped and the entire western half of the hospital and most of the shops and office buildings in the adjacent block lost power. A few seconds of pure darkness retreated as emergency lights flickered on. In the basement, a 12,000-kW diesel generator set coughed into life. Within the target 3 minutes, the entire hospital was back online, except for those areas served solely by the now smoldering ruin of a distribution board. In front of the ruined board, the emergency lights cast a green-tinged corona around the head of the stunned, white-faced Emily, who stood in the smokey haze looking down at the slumped and inert form of Brad, who lay dead at her feet.