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.
When death came for Tim, it was unexpected, violent, and brief. The circumstances leading to his untimely transition from present to past were par for the course, as his grandfather put it.
Tim had lived with his grandfather since his mother was sentenced to a 10-year stretch in the penitentiary. Tabitha had fallen foul of the state’s zero-tolerance drug laws, and it didn’t help her case that the drugs were not hers, that she had not known they existed, or even that she had been clean for 3 years. The fact that she had a record, and the drugs were in her house where a minor was living, were ample grounds for the district attorney’s office to seek a harsh penalty, and the judge to agree.
The drugs had belonged to Tim’s father, who had hidden them in the garage because he didn’t want Tabitha to know he was using again. Tabitha naturally knew the moment he was on opioids again because his back injury was suddenly not the topic of every conversation, and his unsubtle sneaking about semaphored it as though he had a flag waving above his head. She had been planning to leave Bruce this time, but he died from an overdose in a U.S. state that believed in neither rehab funding nor in Naloxone. The police cruiser that responded to the anonymous call didn’t have Naloxone, and by the time the ambulance arrived 30 minutes later, it was no longer needed.
Tim was placed in the care of his grandfather as his only living relative and finished his 12th grade with a narrow pass mark. With no college funds, no great interests, and no clear job prospects, Tim spent the next few months mainly engrossed in multi-player computer games, chatting online, or listening to music. At end of the fifth month, his grandfather started hinting strongly that Tim needed to either go to college or find a job. “Also …,” Grandfather had intoned, “you need to be more careful and mindful. I’ve seen you strolling across the parking lot or across the road, listening to your Walkman, and not paying the least bit of attention to your surroundings. That will get you killed, young man!” Tim had pointed out that Walkman was ancient technology and hadn’t been around for decades but promised to be more careful crossing streets in the future.
Partly through his grandfather’s influence and especially his golf buddies, Tim was given a job as a junior lab assistant at a research hospital. It would not have been the first, nor the last, position traded on the links and beyond the purview of official channels. It wasn’t a very glamorous or highly paid job, but it kept Tim out of the house, put a meagre salary in his pocket, and theoretically at least, gave him a potential career path.
Career path was not exactly how Tim experienced the job though, and he did not see the multitude of scut-work tasks that the qualified lab technicians pushed his way as some kind of learning pathway. He was good-natured enough about washing flasks and test tubes, scrubbing dishes, and packing beakers, bottles, and sundry apparatus away. However, it bored him, and not one aspect of working in a lab fired up any sense of adventure, learning, or interest. The closest he got to even vague curiosity was helping with the gas chromatograph, and that didn’t last beyond a few weeks before it was just another vaguely stinky and boring thing in his eight to five job at the lab.
What he did enjoy was that he didn’t have to talk to anyone other than get task instructions, and even those were increasingly just notes on his whiteboard or on a task sheet in his in-tray. Tim could wear his new Crusher noise-canceling Bluetooth headphones from Skull Candy. Connected to his smartphone, he could be immersed in music or occasional podcasts all day. The full-size metallic purple earphones had a battery life of nearly 24 hours, and its combination of sensory bass, active noise canceling, and personalized sound gave Tim an immersive experience that transported him from the tedium of work in specific, and the drudgery of life in general. What the lab staff liked most was that he didn’t bug them and actually did put a dent in the housework side of lab operations. Even if he was unenthusiastic and uncommunicative, he didn’t give lip or grumble about menial jobs. While he seemed easily distracted by social media or phone calls, he generally just drifted along and got stuff done.
One of Tim’s most recent tasks was to fill and seal glass ampules in one of the outside buildings. Filling was a matter of measuring out a preset amount of fluid from a burette and then using a bench-mounted acetylene torch to melt and pinch off the top of the ampules. It wasn’t quite fun as such, but once he filled all the ampules requested, he could play a bit and melt, twist, stretch, or shape a few empty ampules into shapes. He made a few small glass Manga angels out of scrap test tubes and ampules this way and posted some pictures online. He found the acetylene torch amazingly fast at heating up the glass and turning it into a glowing, malleable medium.
Odorless and colorless, acetylene was an accidental discovery in 1892 and was a marvelously energetic and useful industrial gas. Besides being used in a number of reaction and synthetic processes, when combined with a stream of oxygen, it could be used to braze, weld, or cut metals, and as Tim had found, it could melt glass with ease.
Tim had just completed filling a tray of 50 ampules and was starting the sealing process for the batch when he was interrupted by a phone call that paused his music and announced the caller ID. She wasn’t exactly a girlfriend, and they had never met face to face, but Tim spent hours at a time chatting with her online and collaborated with her in games almost every day. He took his hands off the gas supply valves, and left his bench to go chat and vape outside. After nearly 30 minutes, he was finished chatting. Tim checked his social media, answered a few messages, and posted an update on his day with a picture of a tray of filled ampules waiting to be sealed. He took a few more puffs on his frozen lime drop vape and then went back inside to his music and his ampules.
Taking a moment to reorient himself at his bench, Tim put on one heat-resistant safety glove, got the pliers ready, and reached for the push-button igniter. He declined an incoming call from another gaming friend and absent-mindedly twisted the gas knobs feeding oxygen and acetylene to the burner. Had he not been wearing the noise canceling headphones, or been distracted by the call, Tim might have otherwise heard the hiss of the gas when he sat down, or noticed that the gas valves were already open. Tim held the igniter to the gas nozzle, and pushed in the red spring-loaded button with his thumb.
Tim didn’t have time to register the flash and never heard the thunderclap as the explosive mix detonated. The force of the explosion punched out the windows and doors of the outbuilding, scattered roof tiles for hundreds of feet, and set off car alarms in the hospital parking lot all the way to the back of the main building.
The funeral was sparsely attended, since Tim had few local friends and the rain had dissuaded some of those, but many dozens left messages on his social media wall, and a thoughtful page by two of his gaming friends received several thousand likes and briefly trended on Twitter. One post simply contained two emojis – a broken heart and a single tear, from a distant friend who would no longer be his daily collaborator or chat with him for hours.