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.
Freddy Foster was a fool. In the pantheon of fools and the realm of stupidity, Freddy lived in the middle world. He was the kind of fool that might own a dog, but do all the barking himself, as the proverb goes.
The universe is full of costly fools, people who get bad ideas and act on them in ways that are inconvenient, damaging, or deadly. The lower world is occupied by lazy or impulsive fools, the middle world is crammed with enthusiastic fools, and the upper world is roamed by passionate fools.
Lazy fools are often irksome because they fail to do things that a reasonable person might expect, like getting the brakes serviced, or maintaining an appropriate following distance, or keeping the fire exit clear. Enthusiastic fools, on the other hand, are far more harmful, because they manage to do foolish things at a grander scale, more often, and with more energy. They are the fools who don’t just conceive of the idea to weld on a gas tank, but to actually plan and conduct such a foolish endeavor. They are the ones who burn down the house with a foolhardy plan to deep fry a frozen turkey using a 20-gallon steel drum, five propane burners, and an old garage door opener. They are the kind of fool who defy local ordinances, fire safety codes, and all understanding by trying to stage their own fireworks display without the salient experience, training, or safety equipment.
As an enthusiastic fool, Freddy insisted on doing all the research on vaccines himself, rather than simply accept what the national medical bodies recommended. Unfortunately for everyone concerned, his boundless confidence and almost limitless enthusiasm could not make up for his lack of basic research skills and formal training, nor did he possess the self-awareness and judicious temperament to realize it.
Freddy became an online culture warrior who habitually harangued experienced researchers and accomplished physicians with long lists of questions and accusations. Many of his questions stumped the experts. Chiefly, the experts were stumped because the questions made no sense, but also because people were often simply astonished that anyone would invest so much energy and time into denying well-established facts like vaccine effectiveness. Freddy interpreted any hesitation or caution as proof that he was right, bolstered his accusations that they were covering something up, and that they paid by big pharma.
Through algorithmic drift, Freddy was gradually nudged by Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter toward ever more radical points of view. He migrated slowly but surely to a social environment in which “urine therapy,” “Rolfing,” and “colloidal silver” were considered mainstream, but vaccination, antidepressants, and chemotherapy were seen as extreme. A further pitfall for Freddy was that while he had participated in debate club in high school, he had not actually taken any science subjects beyond middle school. This had created a sizable crevice in his ability to conduct any sort of research, and instead of “doing science,” as he put it, he was really just conducting motivated reasoning to confirm his own opinions. From cherry-picking facts and studies to support an existing belief, to confirmation bias and convenience sampling, his approach to research ticked off nearly every known cognitive bias and research no-no in the book. However, because he didn’t know enough to be aware of the limits of his own grasp of any subject, Freddy was superlatively confident in his own state of knowledge and acutely suspicious of anything that disagreed with his beliefs.
Freddy considered it almost a duty to defend against the mainstream media and the government toadies who were on the payroll of the big pharmaceutical companies. Before he got blocked by them, Freddy got into a fierce Twitter fight with a virologist, an infectious disease specialist, and an epidemiologist. Freddy clearly had the upper hand because, when he pointed out that nobody had ever isolated the monkeypox virus, they simply had no answer. Freddy glowed at slamming the phony doctors and fake scientist. Freddy mocked the infectious disease physicians when they recommended that Freddy and others should avoid close contact with anyone who had the symptoms, and to immediately isolate and contact a primary care physician if fever, rash, or swollen lymph nodes appeared after contact. It was obvious to Freddy and his network that the physicians were covering something up
When a monkeypox outbreak occurred in a city three states away from his hometown, Freddy’s suspicions were confirmed, and his social media network went into turbo mode. Advice flew in every direction on how to address this revelation. Some advised confidently that fumigation with smudge pots would combat the disease, while others suggested mega-doses of vitamins D and C. What really got Freddy boiling and hopping, though, was when one member pointed out that the virus was being reported in sewer water, which meant, they opined, that it was undoubtedly spreading freely amongst sewer rats, and therefore entering houses through sewer gas and local rodents. Another member suggested strong doses of bleach or agricultural vinegar in the toilets and basins to disinfect any wayward germs.
There was a waiting list by the time Freddy got to place an order for four 2-gallon bottles of 20% horticultural vinegar and two 5-gallon containers of 5% sodium hypochlorite bleach. With a 2-week delivery time, there was ample opportunity to fret about his risks of getting monkeypox through the antiquated plumbing in his brownstone apartment. To bolster his immune system, he had seven aromatherapy candles burning and was taking extra vitamin C, but the days dragged by slowly and his social media was filled with the anxious suggestions and fears of his friends. Freddy tracked his order hourly and agonized each time it seemed to have stalled. By the time the delivery van finally pulled up outside his house, Freddy was freaking out.
Having been warned by friends that many unscrupulous suppliers watered down the vinegar, Freddy unscrewed the safety cap, peeled off the seal, and sniffed the vinegar. The result left him in no doubt that this was the real deal; the strong fumes knocked his breath out for a frighteningly long moment and his eyes watered copiously. Satisfied with his purchase, Freddy started the process of protecting his plumbing from the potential invasion of monkeypox. Starting with the upstairs bath, he poured several cups of bleach down the drain and followed that up with an equal amount of the vinegar. The reaction was unexpectedly vigorous, and the drain ejected a hot plume of black muck and stinky particles. This confirmed what his friends had said, that rat droppings and monkeypox were getting into the plumbing. He repeated the process and was pleased to see that the eruption produced only clear spatter.
Delighted with the effectiveness, Freddy continued with the basin, and then emptied the rest of the first pair of 2-gallon bottles of vinegar and the first five-gallon bottle of bleach into the kitchen sink and the guest bathroom. Freddy fetched the rest and moved to the downstairs bathroom and the laundry area. The reaction in the laundry was especially vigorous, and Freddy was spattered from head to toe in black mucky droplets. By the time Freddy finished up with the downstairs basin and bath, he looked like he had been playing in a pig pen with a pressure washer. Freddy stripped off his spattered clothes and filled the bath, using extra bath foam. With a sense of relief and achievement, Freddy slid down in the hot, relaxing water and sighed contentedly.
Chlorine gas is volatile, but also about twice as heavy as air, and had pooled in the downstairs bathroom like an invisible lake. With his nose and eyes burning from the deep breath, Freddy coughed and threw up in a broad spray over the bath foam. Panicking, Freddy launched himself up to escape the choking fumes, and his feet slid out on the soapy tub. Arms flailing instinctively, Freddy fell backwards, and the back of his head hit the bathtub rim like a sledgehammer, cracking his skull and partially dislocating the spinal column. Unconscious from the impact, Freddy slid under the foamy water, his last breath bubbling to the surface, his unseeing eyes staring at the ceiling as the foamy shroud closed slowly over him. Freddy was now, permanently, perfectly safe from monkeypox.