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.
We all make mistakes on occasion. We all make decisions that our older selves regret, decisions made flippantly by our youthful selves that switch the tracks along which our fate unfolds. Some of us survive those mistakes with embarrassment; some of us don’t survive them at all.
Carol Barbara Stiles was 73 years old and had no time for anyone’s bullshit anymore. She had started many years before as a 17-year-old, fresh-faced student nurse at a tiny rural hospital, grimly climbing a career that eventually allowed her to retire as the Chief Nursing Officer at a large healthcare system. In her long grind up the path to retirement, through mergers, acquisitions, layoffs, and transfers, she had heard every story, every excuse, and all the dodges in existence. She had slowly bled out every last drop of enthusiasm to listen to anyone’s saga or any nonsense story.
On her 53rd birthday, Carol had made a quick but pivotal detour to their beach cottage on the way home from her day shift. She had expected to be no more than 10 minutes, during which she would check that the water heater was on, drop off clean linen for the coming long weekend, and collect an empty 20-pound propane tank that needed to be exchanged. Instead, she took only 3 minutes, and saw her husband, Robert, enjoying his secretary who was bent over the sofa. Carol entirely forgot all her other chores and went directly home to execute a relationship severance.
By the time Robert got home from “working late on a new project,” Carol had changed the locks to the house and taken a propane torch to his clock collection, recliner, and fishing tackle, including one handmade custom bamboo rod, an elite carbon-fiber limited-edition something-or-other, and his favorite fishing hat. As his Porsche growled up the driveway, she puffed the last of his Cuban cigars with a fierce glare and discarded it into a pile of suits drenched in lighter fluid. That bonfire of all his vanities had set the tone for their coming divorce process and shaped her mood for decades.
Carol had scrambled her way to as high a position in her career as a woman and a nurse could go. The climb had been long, arduous, and exhausting, and she had put up with the acrid infighting common amongst nurses at many facilities, the outright paternalistic bullying by physicians back in the day, and the ineptitudes and iniquities of administrators whose focus was either on building petty empires or covering their plush backsides while stuffing their engorged wallets. The journey from being a registered nurse to chief of nursing had cost more than just labor and time. It had cost her relationships with people, lovers she would never have, friends she would not meet, and most of all, a bond with her only child, Candyce. Because Carol was almost always busy, tired, or at work, she missed countless opportunities to simply be with Candyce. Partly because of the absence of a father and a lack of a mother, but also because of her own internal makeup, Candyce was a fretful and slightly erratic child who later became a slightly flaky mother, whose fraught relationships crafted a fractious and petulant son.
Carol retired against her will, but symptoms that had first winked at her when she was in her 40s had returned with the intention of staying and making themselves at home. By the time she was 60, Carol had seen subtle changes in her body, and on her 65th birthday a definitive diagnosis confirmed what she already suspected about her future with this disease. It would slowly but inescapably rob her of muscle control and creep inexorably from the little eye twitches and clumsy fingers to difficulty swallowing without choking to an eventual slow death by asphyxiation as her ability to breathe was stolen from her.
Knowing with great granularity what was in store for her, and as a take-charge sort of person, Carol built herself a terminal outcome plan. She also planned a retirement that would be short on anything that would irritate her and long on things she enjoyed or wanted to do before her final curtain.
By sheer grit and determination, drugs, and twice-daily physical therapy, Carol kept the advance to a slow creep, and at 72, she admitted that working was becoming too exhausting. It was time to grab a few remaining years of life to do things for which she had previously never had time. Revenge, for example. Carol’s very first act of retirement was to throw a refrigerated Starbucks Venti Frappuccino at Dr. Steven Martino, Chief Medical Officer. Steven was an ambitious and image-conscious Harvard MBA graduate whose focus was far less Hippocratic than pecuniary. He had an infuriating habit of cocking his head like a dog to make it seem like he was listening attentively to the person speaking with him, when in fact he was usually daydreaming about new golf shoes or a fancy new club. He was also a close friend of her ex-husband, and she was sure he had known of the affair and had encouraged it. Although her dexterity had suffered, her aim and delivery were a testimony to modern drugs and rigorous physical therapy. The venti container landed solidly in the middle of his blue silk tie and engulfed the Italian shirt in a deluge of coffee. The sudden shock of icy liquid over his chest made him gasp, inhale some of it, and left Steve a coughing, dripping, sticky mess as Carol spared a smirk and walked out of his corner office triumphantly for the last time ever.
After retirement, Carol and Candyce were able to spend more time together and build a relationship that was perhaps not perfect, but was a comfort to both, and of practical benefit to Candyce. In particular, Carol was a very convenient minder for her only grandson, Kyle. Kyle had grown from being an irritable infant to being a tantrum-prone child. Now as a testy teen, he was used to a father who mostly skipped visitation times, a stepmother who was often tipsy, and a mother who was distracted and moved whenever her job changed. At 13, he was streetwise in a certain kind of way and resented being dumped, as he put it, with his granny. His relationship with Carol was variable; some days, they would enjoy each other’s company and jointly find faults and solutions to society’s shortcomings. Some days he would do something that didn’t meet her approval, bridle at any rebuke, and they would scold each other freely. Most times, they managed to part on good terms, and there was no doubt that the next visit might be better.
Today things got off to a bad start because he was already in a foul mood. He had crossed swords with a teacher about late homework. He had gotten sideways with his goth girlfriend because he laughed when one of her accessories caught a classroom door handle and she went flailing across the crowded hallway like a black spider shot from a leaf blower. Finally, his regular lift from school fell through, and he had walked a mile to get to Carol’s house. Things got heated when he decided to skip homework and lunch and spend his time surfing social media on the sofa instead. Kyle used his smartphone to record his grandmother while she was scolding him and refusing to let him watch YouTube videos until he had eaten and done his homework. Kyle gave her his “whatever” face and shared the video with his mother with one hand under the kitchen table and the other toying with his baked macaroni and cheese. In less than 7 minutes from that moment, his mother had called his grandmother, words were exchanged, the video clip was discussed, and Carol had closed out her conversation with her daughter on a decidedly frosty note. “You can come fetch your brat and you can find someone else to be your babysitter in future.”
Carol hung up with a burning sense of indignation. The more she thought about the casually sneaky way she had been recorded, the more violated she felt. Here, under her own damned roof, she had been tattled on, and a video of her was broadcast to the outside world. Unable to trust that she would be civil to either Candyce or Kyle while in this frame of mind, she told Kyle to stay put until his mother came to fetch him, and went shopping to calm herself with some retail therapy.
Kyle felt a sort of smug indifference to the havoc he had just caused, and took advantage of the empty house to snoop. He was sure that as a nurse, she must have some interesting pills that he could try, and maybe something special that he could brag with or trade amongst his friends. He might get some purchase with his goth girlfriend with a suitable pharmaceutical peace offering. He had noticed that Granny was especially precious and guarded about one drawer in her bathroom that was always locked. He found no trouble with removing the unlocked drawer above it and disabling the lock with a pair of pliers from the bug-out kit that Granny kept in case seasonal wildfires in the pine forest behind her house forced an evacuation. Kyle had the draw out and found several boxes of tradable items: hydrocodone tabs, Voltaren, and Valium. He slid them into his backpack. Then he found a little metal box with yellow and black chevron markings labeled “Tampons” on the lid and “Feminine Hygiene Products” along the rim. He was about to put it aside, when it struck him that the lid was securely taped in addition to the whole tin being encased in heavy duty shrink wrap. It was like someone really didn’t want idle fingers to open it. Shaking it gently revealed nothing. Whatever was inside didn’t move.
Kyle cut the shrink wrap away with a pair of nail scissors and unwound the tape that was holding the lid closed. Opening the lid revealed three pills of different sizes and shapes, packed securely in cotton wool.
Kyle grinned. “Sneaky old bird, she has a party stash in the bathroom!”
Kyle examined the three different pills and was sure he recognized the leftmost pill as ecstasy.
“Why not …” he said to himself, washing it down with a gulp of energy drink. Kyle inserted his Bluetooth earphones and started his favorite upbeat playlist. After three songs, he was still not feeling anything, so he tried the rightmost pill.
This time, he felt something. In less than a minute, a wave of lightheadedness rolled over him; he welcomed it and surfed the feeling. Like a connoisseur of sensations, he noted a slight tingling over his fingers and lips, and his whole face felt hot and full. Kyle would have taken the middle pill, but the neuromuscular paralytic now surging through his bloodstream was systematically shutting down all his muscles. His fingers no longer responded to desire, and his legs crumpled as his body lost the ability to coordinate muscles to maintain balance. While the paralytic steadily took effect, the first drug, a strong antiemetic, prevented the typical side effect of nausea and vomiting from ridding his body of the paralytic. Unable to walk, crawl, or even reach for his phone, Kyle was very much awake when the paralytic reached the muscles responsible for his breathing.
By the time Candyce arrived to fetch Kyle, he had been breathless for far longer than his brain and heart could endure without oxygen, and he was set free of ever being dumped with Granny, arguing with Mom, or needing to placate an offended girlfriend.