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.
Jordan Skittles was a fast talker—not in words per second as much as the way he skipped and hopped from topic to topic, leaving a trail of sentence fragments and fractured patience in his wake. He overstayed his welcome at every meeting and office gathering simply by draining the will of anyone within earshot.
A person knowledgeable about star signs and horoscopes might concur that as a Gemini, Jordan was fated to be full of words and random knowledge and share them in a very social manner. He was not the most fortunate of people. In fact, he came from a family with a history of misfortune. His father had died when Jordan was 9, in what could best be described as a freak horticultural accident. On his way from the bus stop, Gordon Skittles had leaned through a fence to grab a peach from one of Widow McKenzie’s trees, and got his neck broken by an 18-pound pumpkin. Widow McKenzie had planted an assortment of squash and pumpkin around her fruit trees as ground cover, but some had started climbing the fence, the fruit trees, and two tall pine trees next to the fence. For a time, there was an anomalous sight of bright yellow pumpkin flowers blooming from the upper reaches of a Christmas tree. Where there are flowers, there might naturally also be fruit, and so it was that several pumpkins grew high up in the tree like big fat orange baubles. It was one of these that, perhaps needing only the slightest nudge, descended from 60 feet and hit Gordon Skittles in the head as he stretched for a big ripe peach to give his wife.
Jordan’s mother was not much luckier, and had a habit of closing her fingers in doors: cupboard doors, the front door, and on several occasions, car doors. When Jordan was 11, his mother died of septicemia after accidentally stitching the web of her left hand to a canvas bag. She had been using her sewing machine to attach a leather strap to Jordan’s schoolbag. It was late, she was cold and tired and lonely, and she missed her husband. It was a momentary lapse of focus, but enough for her left hand to get too intimate with the sturdy needle that was darting up and down energetically, punching through the leather and canvas. There was not much blood, but it took her several minutes of howling and unpicking to free her hand. She cleaned the puncture wounds, poured herself a triple Scotch, and went to bed. After a fitful night, she rose to a swollen and hot hand that was a shade that matched her cranberry tea. Feeling hung over, she gave Jordan a hardboiled egg for breakfast and packed him off to school with lunch money. A bit dizzy, she took a couple of painkillers, and curled up with a blanket and a book. She was still in the same position and quite dead by the time Jordan returned home from school. Barely a week later, the orphaned boy was packed off to live with his aunts on the coast.
Karen and Pam, or “Patty and Selma” as they were known to the locals, were twins. They laughed raucously, finished each other’s sentences, and bickered without rest in voices that sounded like they smoked pipes and gargled with gin (which, of course they did). The twins took care of Jordan in every practical way, but otherwise ignored him. The only time they ever got involved with his schooling or his life was when he was given detention for talking in class and when a bigger kid took his lunch money. The twins came to fetch Jordan from detention and settled any official disagreement by simply locking the teacher in the storeroom and dismissing all the other kids in the class. It was probably no accident that the teacher who wound up locked in the storeroom had, 30 years before, edged Karen out of the homecoming queen spot. The twins had a long memory and held grudges like a fine vintage wine.
When Jordan arrived home without any change from his lunch money, it didn’t take long for the twins to pry out of him that a bigger kid called Chad had taken it. The twins had various habits well known to everyone in town. One habit was regular target practice in their backyard with a pair of military issue 1911 Colt 45 automatic pistols. When they visited Chad’s parents, they came prepared, and left with a firm commitment from the parents that Chad would be attending a different school next semester. He would also give his three-speed bicycle to Jordan, and there would be a $200 donation to the police widow’s benevolence fund.
Nobody ever bullied Jordan again, but neither was anyone keen to be his friend, and other than the twins and their bingo buddies, not a soul ever attended his birthday parties. Although his every material need was taken care of by the twins, and they loved him dearly in their own way, they were perhaps not the best role models for social learning. Jordan emerged from his teens as a somewhat unfocused and erratic young man, and he entered the job market clutching a reasonably good high-school diploma, as well as a certificate from the community college as a medical scribe.
Dr. Kaveh was frustrated. The EHR system that had been implemented did not have any of the features he and the other physicians had requested, and was greatly adding to his daily work. Instead of directly making notes on loose sheets and then slipping each sheet into the appropriate patient’s folder as they had in the past, they now had virtual folders and he had to either scan in the handwritten notes as an image or type it all in as text. The process added another 2 hours of paperwork to his normal 13-hour workday. After a near riot when the system went down one evening and the physicians all had to wait until 10 PM to start capturing notes, the CMO and VP of IT promised to fix the problem. There were high hopes that the hospital would now introduce real-time locator system features and automate note taking and charting. Dr. Kaveh and others had seen demonstrations of technology that could automatically record in the EHR which patient was in which room, and all the vitals, actions, and orders were effortlessly captured and added to the patient’s record. Notes were captured by automatically transcribing what the doctor said; all the doctor needed to do after seeing a patient was review the records in the system, make any corrections, and approve. The physicians grew excited about the prospect of this digitization of their work, and how it would free up time to do more true clinical duties, reduce errors, and make charting a boon rather than a burden. It was a heady time, as the physicians joked, finally reaching the “digital frontier” that they had heard so much about at conferences. However, that was not the solution that leadership had in mind, and there was to be no “futuristic digital frontier nonsense,” as the CFO put it.
Jordan got a job as a medical scribe at a hospital close enough to commute from the twin’s house, and the $25,000 salary was like a dream come true. He was so excited on his first day of induction that he forgot to eat and nearly passed out on the bus home. The twins celebrated by trying to bake an apple pie, forgot to set a timer, and filled the house with smoke instead. Being philosophical about such things, they took Jason out for dinner and got him slightly drunk on creme de menthe. On the second day, with his newly printed ID badge attached exactly as the handbook said, and slightly hung over, Jordan was escorted to his work unit and assigned to a physician. Dr. Kaveh stifled an urge to groan, instead greeting Jordan enthusiastically and with the animation of a good Persian host. He took Jordan on a whirlwind tour of the unit and key parts of the facility, stopping to introduce him to dozens of people. By the end, Jordan was nauseous from excitement and overstimulation, and embarrassed himself by trying to ask several questions at the same time and finally blurting out a gush of word salad. He had so many thoughts, so many questions, and so many conflicting feelings. Dr. Kaveh patiently waited for Jordan to get himself under control, but then—noticing the time—simply showed him to his desk, and told him to settle in and be ready to start at 7:30 the next morning.
Jordan got up at 4:30 to catch the bus to be at work at 6:30, much to the annoyance of the security guard whose coffee break was interrupted; he had to escort Jordan to his office, unlock all the doors, and turn on all the lights in the section. By the time Dr. Kaveh arrived at 7:30, Jordan had sorted his cubicle three different ways, rehearsed five different greetings, and had managed to jam the copier in a way that required a technician visit. Jordan eagerly fetched Dr. Kaveh’s coffee, spilled half of it over his shoes, and then caused all the paper towels to fall out of the dispenser while he was scrabbling for something to wipe the mess from Dr. Kaveh’s coffee-scented footwear. Once Jordan got to the actual scribing part, he was fine; his nerves settled down, he could focus, and his training ran through him like clockwork. Dr. Kaveh was pleasantly surprised at how having a scribe actually did make the admin work easier, and for once, he went home before 8:00. He had to admit that even though this was the stupidest, most backward, and weirdest manual way to replicate what should have been a technological solution, it kinda worked. This scribe specifically was also a puzzle. The guy was a mess, but he was also so nice, so eager, and so … just so much that it made his heart ache. He had never met anyone who tried so damned hard yet messed up so massively. It was like having Mr. Bean help out. Yet, he thought, yet when the guy started scribing, he was like a machine!
By the end of the first week, Jordan had broken Dr. Kaveh’s “People’s Choice Podcast Award” trying to clean off some coffee spatter, caused the hand sanitizer to bleed out and make several people slip, and knock the CMO’s 5,000-piece model of the Millennium Falcon off its stand. But progress was made. The team had figured out how to keep Jordan mostly focused, by making him scribe everything. He scribed every meeting, every patient encounter that Dr. Kaveh had, even just idle chatter. It kept him occupied, out of trouble, and was very useful in settling who said what, who ordered the Kung Pao for lunch, and how that joke went that everyone thought was a scream. It was now all in the EHR as “miscellaneous notes.” The trouble was in the gaps. As soon as he wasn’t scribing, the fragmented questions and half thoughts welled up out of him in a constant stream, and his arms would wave around like there was a swarm of bees.
At the end of his probation period of 3 months, Jordan got the good news that he was to be made permanent. Dr. Kaveh gave him this news in a meeting that Jordan was required to transcribe, circumventing the likelihood that Jordan would go off and start babbling and waving his arms around. He would be able to calmly take it down, it would register, and he would be safely out of the building without mishap. When Jordan got home, the twins knew how to get stuff out of him, so that would be fine.
On his first day as a permanent employee, security came to fetch him at 10:00 to get his new ID issued. This involved a few forms, a new photo with blue background instead of red, and a new card that would open the unit doors if he wanted to arrive at 6:30 in the future. He was gone an hour when an enormous explosion rocked the building, toppling water dispensers, setting off all the alarms, and sending the CMO’s model crashing to the floor. It was hours before Dr. Kaveh was informed that Jordan was one of those killed in the explosion that ripped the security offices clear out of the building. One of his staff gasped and showed him the most recent entries in the miscellaneous folder.
Keeping to the policy that Dr. Kaveh had given him, Jordan had been documenting his trip to security.
It started with him leaving the unit:
10:01:23 Leaving GI Office
10:02:10 Passing the 5W entrance
10:02:33 Entering elevator #3
Then, at 10:16:46, he entered “Liquified propane truck ID# 8706 connected to ground filler. Gas is venting at filler connection.” At 10:17:03, he captured that he had entered the security offices, and 15 seconds later the security guard asked what he was writing. The last entry was at 10:17:55 when he captured that the guard ordered him to “cut that out and stop typing.” Eleven minutes later, the leaking gas ignited, and the security offices were destroyed.
In the investigation, it was never discovered what caused the ignition: whether one of the guards was smoking, or if a spark from electrical equipment set it off, or if something was knocked over and caused a spark.
A week later, Dr. Kaveh was assigned a new scribe. This one had fewer social issues and didn’t need to be told to transcribe everything to avoid them knocking stuff over, but they didn’t transcribe nearly as well, they often arrived late, and usually got underfoot.
The twins held a wake of sorts, with Jordan’s shiny brass urn over the fireplace between framed photos of his father and mother. The twins had emptied the ashes into a large homemade rocket, which was pointed out the window toward the bay. Pam said a few words about family, luck, and fate, and Karen proposed a toast: “To Jordan, may his luck be better in the afterlife!” They both lit the fuse, and Jordan’s ashes were shot out the window to sea. In the smoke-filled room, Pam lit up a pipe, poured everyone a shot of gin, and Karen shouted “To us all!”