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.
Herbert J. Tardive III was a plaid-wearing warrior for the natural way. It started when he had a heart attack and gained experience in how lifestyle and diet could intersect with heredity in a way that could give one a sense of impending doom and looming death. The pain, horror, and experience of being manhandled, wired up, and treated like a slab of badly butchered meat left Herb with a passion for a simpler life with less stress, less clutter, and a more natural diet. Herb cut meat and dairy from his menu, embraced tofu and grains, and resigned from his cushy but stressful job as a senior director in hospital administration in favor of something less demanding, like HR.
The embrace of vegan foods and a natural lifestyle proved trickier than anticipated, and muscle cramps, loss of energy, and some undesirable gastrointestinal experiences due to his novice attempts at a vegan diet led him to join an online wellness group. Herb had a rather rigid personality, though, and was prone to struggle with criticism. As a result, while he certainly took many pieces of information to heart, Herb bridled at any suggestion that, as a novice, he should first accompany others on foraging trips for wild food and medicinal plants. His new, less-stress job as an HR manager at a smaller hospital gave him less worry, more time off to cultivate a garden, walk in the forest, and yes, hug the occasional tree. It had not done very much to alter his habit of interrupting people, being generally bossy, and assuming without reflection that he knew best.
Dr. Joshula V. Trebaux was a very gay toxicologist with a celebrated online personality, “The Salad Queen.” He performed a weekly webcast in which he recreated salads and dishes from around the world, often with guest presenters from far-flung places such as Swaziland, Madagascar, Tasmania, and the Scottish Hebrides, and his dishes used exotic ingredients. Joshula and Herb lived in the same townhouse complex, were both members of the HOA committee, and had crossed swords over parking spots and the redesign of the collective garden. In particular, they had clashed over the type of roses that were to be planted around the barbecue area. Herb had strongly favored a mix of red hybrid Tea Rose and yellow Floribunda, while Joshula regarded the same as somewhat pedestrian and commonplace, and had suggested the more subtle pink Damask and the moody dark purple and crimson Black Baccara. The HOA committee decided on a compromise and went with the Black Baccara and the Floribunda, leaving neither party very satisfied. A year later, they had again publicly disagreed, this time over salads for the quarterly tenants’ potluck. Joshula expressed doubt and sowed a little scorn over Herb’s homegrown cress contribution, then stole the show with his own masterpiece of nuance and flavor that featured avocado slices drizzled with a balsamic reduction on a bed of delicate Bibb lettuce leaves. Herb was secretly outraged and decided to take his revenge by preparing an exotic dish for the next potluck that would show up the fancy-pants “Salad Queen.”
Herb spent the next 2 months scouting the woods and toiling in his garden to prepare for a knockout pair of dishes. In the days running up to the potluck, Herb collected plants from his garden and from a forest in the open space that bordered his property. Under some old oaks, he harvested ramps that he could use in a wild greens and pesto salad. The heady garlic-onion aroma of the ramps lifted his spirits, and he sat for a while and took in the peace and wonder of the forest. Herb collected more ramps and some mushrooms in the dappled light filtering through the old oak canopy. He grew concerned whether the strong garlic aroma might overwhelm the salad, but then noticed that some of the ramps from the shady side of the trees had a more delicate scent when he crushed the leaves. “Perfect!” he thought, and collected those with a mind to have more of the less garlicky ramps and a few of the stronger ones to give a bold statement without being overpowering.
There was already tension between Joshula and Herb, and even a cursory glance at Herb’s plaid pants and jacket persuaded Joshula not to try either Herb’s wild green salad or mushroom soup. Joshula reacted to the fashion statement and thought: “I’m not eating anything from this guy.” Joshula was totally not going to try a wild mushroom soup collected by a guy who wore plaid pants, but even less so if he wore a jacket with an entirely different plaid pattern. Also, he reflected, wrinkling a delicate nose over the salad bowl, who would want garlic in a wild greens salad, anyway? When one of the other HOA guests asked whether he was going to try the soup or salad, Joshula’s faint eyeroll adequately communicated his disdain. Nobody actually said anything, but flows of people around dishes at a potluck are driven largely by subtle clues and observations, body language, and clustering, dishes around which people thrummed. The chatting drew more people, while the lack of initial interest in another dish, perhaps because someone as notable as Dr. Joshula Trebaux disdained it, was soon amplified. Everyone wanted to try what everyone else wanted to try and nobody wanted to be the first with a dish that nobody seemed to want.
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As the bowls emptied, the visible selection preferences grew obvious, and not only did Herb realize that nobody had touched his dishes, but also that everybody knew that he knew that nobody had touched his dishes. Embarrassment surged through his body, and with his face glowing red, Herb did his best to appear casual as he gathered his untouched dishes, stalking out as fast as he dared. Once safely in his car, Herb sat as miserable as a Siamese cat in a hailstorm. “My salad was the best, and they just lost out!” he yelped unconvincingly at a bird investigating a bread crust in the gutter. Herb backed up his claim by wolfing down almost the entire bowl. “Yummy … hmmm … just right balance of dressing, just a hint of garlic and onion notes. The perfect salad.” Herb composed himself, tidied away a few leaves that had fallen onto his lap, and started the car.
It was that hint of garlic that Dr. Joshula Trebaux, toxicologist, might have noted as highly salient. With so many ramps in the salad, there should have been a very strong, almost overwhelming garlic note. Had Joshula been on hand, he might have queried where exactly Herb had collected the ramps, and might have taken immediate action. But of course, Joshula wasn’t at hand, and by the time the stomach cramps started, Herb was already in trouble. When blurred vision forced Herb to pull over and stop the car, the cardiac digoxin-like toxins in the copious amounts of lily-of-the-valley he had mistaken for “ramps with less garlic” were already coursing through his bloodstream. His body tried vainly to rid itself of the toxins; Herb vomited explosively before he could get the door open and filled his underpants while he struggled to unclasp the seat belt. Herb’s pulse slowed and grew irregular. He fumbled for his cellphone, but his eyesight was blurred and he couldn’t see the screen to unlock it or dial for help. As the car grew redolent with the smell of mushroom soup and gastric contents, Herbert J. Tardive III suffered a series of seizures and expired at the side of the road.