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.
Julia lived in a constant state of fear. The level varied day by day, hour by hour, even minute by minute, but there was never a waking moment that she was free from feeling fear.
Most of her fear pivoted around the men in her life. It wasn’t that anyone physically harmed her, although tapping her on the head while asking if she had any brains might certainly be seen as abuse. Her fear was the result of a constant backdrop of being undermined, mocked, and denigrated by men. At work, she was bullied by the other nurses, the doctors had no patience with her, and patients pushed her around. She tried to be assertive, like the resilience training suggested, but setting and furiously defending boundaries was just not in her nature.
Julia’s father had moved in with them after his second wife died. Jimmy had always been an intolerant man, whose claims of being a perfectionist were probably just an excuse for being a surly nitpicker. Her earliest memory of him was being told to hold a glass of water with both hands and then being loudly berated when her 4-year-old hands were unable to grasp the glass tumbler tightly enough to prevent it from shattering on the hard kitchen floor.
Julia’s mother was a pale woman given to mystery ailments that came and went and involved frequent hospital visits. Emily may have been a hypochondriac, but that didn’t mean she was wrong. The slow cancer that was causing many of her varied symptoms was real enough, and Julia’s final memory of Emily was of an emaciated and alien being with gaunt features and gray skin. It was also the first time she would hear her father mutter out loud that he would rather die at home in his own clothes and not in some hospital bed in a paper gown with his ass hanging out.
Julia’s husband, Lenny, would often agree with Jimmy on this point, adding that he would rather die with his boots on and his truck engine roaring than be a patient anyplace where Julia worked. Jimmy and Lenny found this hilarious. The discussion would usually be punctuated with a raised glass, and a comment about the feebleness of women in general—Julia in particular.
Julia’s relationship with Lenny, big athletic Lenny, had started with him in the role of sanctuary and protector from her father and the ever-critical world. They were married shortly after she finished nursing school, and it didn’t take long after getting married for a steady creeping shift to turn her haven into a mental prison, her protector into her persecutor. It started with laundry. She didn’t iron things properly, fold them right, or pack them in quite the best way. Lenny soon criticized her cooking, her clothes, even just how she stood, or walked, or sat. Her makeup was too pale, her clothing too shapeless, her hair too mousy. Her fingernails were too short, too colorless, too raggedy.
Every waking moment of Julia’s life carried a menacing possibility that she was getting something wrong, and as a result, her behavior was typically hesitant, tentative, jerky. She got things wrong because there was seemingly no way to get them totally right and an infinite number of ways to mess them up.
For a brief time, pregnancy gave her respite, but soon, according to both Lenny and Jimmy, she was getting up to pee too often, she was too slow or too tired. She got another brief pause when she had her baby. Jimmy Junior was a big soft bundle of joy and gave her a sense of peace and accomplishment, but after he reached two, he became another source of torment. Had Julia reflected on this much, which she didn’t, she might have recalled that little Jimmy was the kind of infant that seemed to realize that opposable teeth gave him power to make his mother yelp during breastfeeding. Jimmy Junior was a demanding child, seldom satisfied with anything Julia did. The porridge in this fable was always too cold or too hot, and even when she got everything else right, it was too little, or too late, for Jimmy Junior. He was the kind of child that kicked the seat in front of him in the movies, and he was prone to temper tantrums that were both derided and supported by his father and grandfather. The blame for his tantrums were, however, usually laid squarely at Julia’s feet. She was accused of being too tolerant, too inconsistent, too weak. She was also always in a hurry.
On this particular day, Julia was in a hurry because she was late taking Jimmy Junior to a class birthday party. She was late because her father wanted another cup of coffee, Lenny had wanted his shirt ironed, and Jimmy Junior had misplaced a shoe. She had also rushed to add more color to her cheeks and a touch of lipstick because Lenny had said she looked like a corpse.
In her rush to get Jimmy Junior into the truck, she had forgotten the keys, and had to run back to the kitchen where Jimmy was seated at the kitchen table in a thick brown Turkish Terry cloth bathrobe and red-checkered pajama pants. “Forget the keys again, you silly cow?” He also had something to say about her putting too little sugar in his coffee, so she had to fix that quickly before darting back to the truck—and a very fidgety and impatient child.
Julia had left the truck’s lights on after driving back from her shift the previous evening. Turning the key resulted in a series of clicking sounds. Julia sighed inwardly and re-checked Jimmy Junior’s seatbelt next to her on the bench seat. The wisecracks and eyerolls she got from Lenny were so anticipated that she barely noticed, and she scrambled to follow his instructions: Fetch the jumper cables, pull the van around to face the front of the truck, pop the hood on both, and call him when she was done.
Julia felt frazzled and had torn a nail lifting the heavy hood on the truck by the time she called Lenny over. The spare wheel for the truck was mounted on the hood; it took all her strength to lift the hood until the latch caught. She got back in the driver’s seat and looked at herself briefly in the mirror. Her hair was mussed, she had inexplicably gotten a black smudge of grease on her face, and saw, looking down at her hands, that her blouse cuffs and hands were grubby.
By the time Lenny had positioned himself between the two vehicles, and checked that Julia had set up the cables right, Jimmy Junior had long since started squirming in his seatbelt. Jimmy Junior was now making loud demands, pushing Julia hard as she sat behind the steering wheel. “Mom! I need to be at the party! Don’t you understand anything?” He vented a little frustration by repeatedly kicking the dashboard. Julia pleaded with him to stop while trying to stay focused on Lenny’s shouted instructions.
Jimmy stood at the back door, sipping his coffee, and watching the drama unfold. He muttered loudly to no one in particular “What the heck is that stupid girl doing now?” and then sauntered over to join in the carnival.
Just as Lenny bellowed for her to turn the ignition, Jimmy Junior kicked again and connected solidly with the gearshift lever. The engine turned and caught, the gear engaged, and—with Julia’s foot firmly on the gas pedal as instructed—the truck lurched violently forward. There was a crunching sound as Lenny was pinned between the two trucks and the hood slammed closed on top of him.
Despite her panic, Julia reacted quickly. She flipped the gear shift into reverse and hit the accelerator. With her eyes locked on Lenny, Julia pulled the truck backwards fast, and she watched in horror as he slid out from under the hood and collapsed on the ground.
Julia scrambled out of the cab and sprinted to where Lenny lay crumpled on the ground. He was panting rapidly and trying to sit up, but his legs were splayed at an odd angle, and he seemed to be folded below the waist. Lenny’s breathing was hard and coming in cycles: loud gasps, each longer than the one before, followed by a lingering sigh and a long pause, only to start again with another series of gasps. Lenny had vomited and smelled like a sewer. As Julia bent at his side, a pool of urine grew under him and enveloped her feet. Lenny gave one last sigh, his pupils grew wide, and his gaze was fixed and staring straight ahead.
For a time, Julia was frozen on the spot, her mind blank. After what seemed like an eternity, Jimmy Junior’s shrieks brought her attention back, and she slowly rose. Julia returned to the truck and rummaged in her handbag for her phone, ignoring the wails from Jimmy Junior. Maybe an ambulance could do something, she thought. As she waited for the 911 operator, Julia noticed the truck was tilted to the one side. It seemed to her that the left rear wheel must be on top of something. Julia rounded the back of the truck in a daze and saw that she had indeed backed up on top of something. The left rear wheel sat on top of a large something that wore red-checkered pajama pants, laying very still without a single criticism or complaint. Jimmy the elder had very much died at home and in his own clothes, just as he had always wished.