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.
Harold and Harriet met in college. They were both undergraduates in an electrical engineering program and developed a kind of romance born of competition. Harriet came from a blue-collar family and grew up around appliance repairs. Harrold’s parents were both professionals. His mother was a surgeon, his father was an engine designer.
From the first day they met across a dull lecture hall, Harrold and Harriet competed. They competed for marks, asking questions in lectures, and for the attention of the lecturer, the frazzled teaching assistants, and the weary class. If Harriet beat Harrold on a test on the performance of transformers, you could bet he would redouble efforts to beat her on transistor theory. The competition between them started with Harrold interrupting Harriet in class when she was answering a question about Zener diodes. His “Well, actually” interruption was pertinent in a very narrow and nitpicking way, and it rankled Harriet to no end.
She soon returned the favor by interrupting him when he was explaining electrical hysteresis. The game, some might have said, was afoot.
Scarcely a class went by without a robust interaction between the two, and one afternoon an argument over field effect transistors spilled over from the classroom to the hallway. It continued when mutual friends and classmates met for drinks at the Keg and Tankard, a faux Irish pub popular with engineering students. It continued even after the drinks gave way to coffee, and coffee gave way to tired farewells in the parking lot. Harrold leaned in close to make a point about resonant circuits, and Harriet kissed him full on the mouth.
Harriet wasn’t quite sure herself why she had kissed him. Maybe, she sometimes told herself, it was just to shut him up. The net effect was to charge their competitiveness with an odd flavor of geeky sexual tension. They started dating in a clumsy and competitive way, and by the time they graduated, they had competed themselves into marriage plans.
Their career paths diverged soon after graduating, with Harrold becoming involved in research and academics of x-ray tomography, while Harriet scoffed at the intangibility of academia and went to work in maintenance and installation of MRI machines. Harrold worked at a university with a large teaching hospital and occasionally consulted to imaging machine vendors. Harriet worked at one of those larger vendors and serviced and installed MRI machines at large hospitals, including the one where Harrold worked. Many dinnertime arguments were about CT vs MRI, with Harry extolling the virtues of the fine resolution of CT scans and relatively fuzziness of MRI, while Harriet would draw attention to the radiation load and cancer risk of CT and the low health impact of MRI. They argued endlessly over cost per scan (MRI being nearly double), energy use (CT 23% higher), carbon footprint (unresolved, but both were growing), and even the table weight limits (CT having 22% higher limits).
It was the little things that really irritated each about the other though. After 30 years of marriage, it was his way of gargling in front of the mirror in the bathroom every night that most irritated Harriet. He would stand with his arms folded over a middle-aged spread, face blank and expressionless, and his mouth wobbling about like it was made of rubber. Harriet hated it and said so.
Harrold, in turn, despised the way Harriet sucked her teeth for ages after every meal. However, it was the way she heated her milk before bed that really got his goat. She would put a mug of milk in the microwave and run it for a minute. Then she would stop it, wait seven seconds, and run it for thirty seconds, stop, fifteen seconds, stop, ten, stop, five, stop. But that wasn’t even the half of it. She did it all while humming out of tune, and each time she stopped the microwave oven, it would ping. Each time she started it again, it would beep. It drove Harrold to the edge.
Harriet said it was the best way to get her milk as hot as possible without boiling over, but Harrold saw it as a personal attack. Occasionally, the milk boiled over anyway and Harrold wound up cleaning it. At times like these, Harrold sometimes wished for a bolt of lightning to blast her into oblivion, and one day he said as much.
The mood shifted from that point on, but not before Harriet suggested that a bolt of electricity sounded like a good idea but with a different outcome in mind. She suggested loudly and frankly that his gargle face and twitches resembled a man being electrocuted. Each fumed at the other.
Then the microwave broke. In a feverish cleaning attempt, Harrold got water inside the microwave oven and it stopped working. In response to Harriet’s scowls, he grudgingly undertook to fix it.
It was a simple matter of drying out a sensor, but he quickly found another problem. The door seal was no longer working properly, and it was leaking microwave energy. Not a lot, but it got him thinking. What if he adjusted the internal wave guide and altered the door screen so it was essentially a ray gun aimed at the milk boiler. Did he really mean to harm Harriet? He wondered briefly but was soon caught up in the theoretical puzzle of altering the wave guide. This was not a trivial task and drew on years of design experience in a way he found captivating and invigorating. In a matter of a few hours, Harrold had designed a modification that, on paper at least, would turn the microwave oven into a death ray. He chuckled and drew a little “Harriet in the death ray” stick figure cartoon in the margin of the notebook. It was like a catharsis, and Harrold felt release and a sense of exhilaration.
Then he thought of the real problem—could he make the microwave oven sense that the milk was close to boiling, but then stop? The problem appealed to his sense of creativity, and his body language shifted from irritation to one of seeking a goal. He had a mission, and it showed.
He made some initial sketches and noodled around with formulas about wave density and reflectance and wondered whether the wave harmonics would change at the moment the liquid began to bubble. He scribbled furious notes and went on long walks along the canal across the road, muttering to himself about impedance, harmonics, hysteresis. His modification would sense the start of boiling, cut microwave output, then stepwise energize again at slightly lower power, cut again, go again at a lower step. It would keep doing this for about five down steps and then cut power and ring the bell. He was essentially automating the manual processes Harriet carried out, but with more efficiency and fewer bells and beeps going on.
Harriet had grown suspicious at the change in his demeanor and the mismatch between the stated aim of drying out a sensor and the level of effort Howard appeared to be spending. He was up to something, she had thought. Then there was what he had said. When Harriet asked him what he was doing to the microwave oven that was taking so long, Harrold put on a sly face, tapped the side of his nose, and said “Something that will surprise you. Boy, is someone in for a surprise!”
When Harrold went on one of his walks, Harriet snooped. The bulk of the calculations and sketches were vaguely familiar, but it had been decades since she had done this kind of theoretical work. Some of them were just completely inscrutable to her, and she couldn’t for the life of her figure out what he was trying to do. Something about feedback and microwave power output, but she couldn’t be sure. There were some notes that were abundantly clear though, and a little stick figure drawn in a crude pencil sketch left absolutely no doubt in her mind. Harrold meant to modify the microwave to kill her. So, this was where they were now, she reflected somberly. She had not realized he hated her this much, but it all formed a pattern to her now.
It took a few hours of reflection, but Harriet came to a steely conclusion. Two could play at this game, she thought. She mulled over the practicalities, and with a sly smile of her own, settled on something simple, practical, and obviously effective. Something that lent itself to her advantage of practical industrial experience.
That afternoon, when Harrold went for a walk to solve one final piece of his boil-control concept, Harriet took three tools into his workshop, cut two wires in the guts of the microwave oven’s exposed interior, and added a third, a flat ribbon made of braided high current strands.
Late that night, when Harriet had gone to bed, Harrold put a finishing touch to his control circuit, connected it up, and quietly fetched a cup of milk from the kitchen to test it out. “Boy, will she be surprised,” he thought happily, and placed the milk in the center of the turntable. Careful not to disturb the tangle of wires and small circuit boards spilling out from the back of the microwave oven, Harrold flicked on the power, and carefully closed the door and pressed the cook button.
Harrold watched intently as the cup rotated slowly, glancing occasionally at a readout on a meter whose probes disappeared inside the back of the oven. As the temperature of the milk climbed, so did the tension in Harrold’s body. He saw the milk just start to boil and was about to yank the door open when he saw the reading on the meter suddenly drop. It was working! It needed a small adjustment, but this would work. Harrold reached for the handle to open the door and stop the power to the magnetron. He was thrilled and so happy that his invention was a success!
Harriet’s modification was also a success. With the magnetron circuit live, the flat braided wire Harriet had added conducted over 4,000 volts from the high voltage magnetron power supply to the door handle, and from there to Harrold’s hand. The two wire deletions disabled the safety shutoff and allowed Harrold’s body to conduct the high voltage to ground, over fifty times what could easily have been a fatal amount. Boy, was Harrold surprised! Just not for long.