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.
Madison was a very happy and self-satisfied plutocrat and a proud member of the state legislature. His most recent triumph was gutting OSHA regulations that he felt crimped his ability to generate satisfactory profits from his family-owned wood pulp and fuel pellet business. His family had owned the hardwood chipping mill and wood processing plant for three generations, and he had introduced many modernizations that increased efficiency, decreased costs, and raised profits. Mostly, this was achieved through cutting corners, trimming staff, and bending regulations in order to externalize costs.
At a recent meeting of the regional chamber of commerce, Madison had described his progress in getting several OSHA regulations struck from the state requirements. To general applause, he had described how, without these onerous and unnecessary regulations, his wood pellet plant could operate at 7% higher efficiency and see 3.8% better profit margins. For some reason that was unclear, but applauded nonetheless, he added that he had used some of the savings to expand the operating power of a debarker by upgrading it with a 780-horsepower motor. The audience gathered that this was very impressive and gave him another stirring round of applause. They cheered heartily in response to Madison’s announcement regarding an upcoming tour of his upgraded facility. During the Q&A, a member of the chamber, with no little preparation by Madison’s press secretary, asked what his “big wish” was. “What a great question!” Madison had enthused. “My big wish is that everyone would learn a lesson from what I have achieved from cutting intrusive and overzealous so-called safety regulations and see what can be achieved when a business polices its own safety!”
Chiara, or simply “Chi” to her family, was a tired, young, blonde emergency medical technician. Chi was the daughter of Italian immigrants and was the EMT shift lead. It was a small, rural EMS service, and she was studying psychiatric emergency medicine, with an ambition to move to a larger service in the city. As a result, she was often burning the candle at both ends trying to juggle a full-time EMT job, a part-time gig at a regional psychiatric facility, and her studies. Brian was almost the opposite: tall, red-headed, of Irish descent, and quite happy to serve a rural community. He wanted to stay and improve rural care.
Peter had dropped the regional TV station’s best digital film camera this morning when the top of his paper coffee cup had popped off and scalding fluid sloshed over his right hand. Images of getting fired flooded his mind, but the equipment seemed fine, powered up OK, and the lens seemed perfect. Breathing a big sigh of relief, he clambered into the station’s old Ford Transit and headed for the lumber yard to do a puff piece for some local politician. “Make it bold, heroic, manly,” his boss had said. Apparently, the politician spent a lot on ads for his mucky sawmill and his re-election campaigns, as well as a ton of cash on hit pieces against his political competitors.
Bob was one of the few remaining employees that had worked for Madison’s father. His own father had worked at the plant before him, but the idea of a “job for life” had rapidly evaporated under Madison. Bob knew how to keep busy, stay out of view, and make no waves. When Madison cut jobs, Bob knew not to complain. When Madison fired the guy whose job it was to watch the big debarker and chipper and be near the emergency shut-off switch, Bob was silent. When Madison ordered him to disable several of the double safety interlocks required by OSHA, Bob did as he was told. Now, instead of three people, it was just Bob tending the debarker. Bob drove the big yellow JCB, shuttling 30-foot logs from the yard to the hopper that fed the debarker. Once in a while, some interlock would still halt the nine-foot-wide debarking drum, and the 30-foot-long barrel filled with metal claws would be stationary until Bob dismounted from the JCB and sorted out the cause. Usually, it just needed a log to be poked with a long pole that he kept handy, but sometimes he needed to rock the drum a bit by making it reverse slightly in its cradle. Bob knew not to complain about it, but also lived in fear that Madison would blame him for stoppages and get someone younger. Bob would just hurry back to the JCB, drop a load of logs from the claw grapple and into the infeed hopper, and then scoot back to fetch more as fast as he could.
Today was special for some reason, because Madison, the CFO, a bunch of managers from other plants, and a press photographer were touring the plant. Bob dropped a load into the hopper and made himself scarce. Not being seen at all was marginally worse than being seen hard at work, but making any kind of mistake in front of Madison and his adoring cronies during a photo op was tantamount to begging to be fired.
Madison was beaming. He gave a rousing oration about the value of hard work, simple values, and down to earth priorities. Peter peered through the view finder and noted that as a token of earthiness and simplicity, Madison was wearing brown hiking boots with his tailored jeans and his made-to-order plaid chambray shirt. Boots, Peter mentally noted, that were apparently Brunello Cucinelli leather “Hiking Boots” that probably cost somewhere north of $1,300 a pair. Peter smirked to himself as Madison and his little entourage struck masterful poses in front of various industrial-looking backdrops. Madison instructed Peter to get a clip of them “inspecting” the “debarker drum,” and the little group clambered into the long barrel thing and stood valiantly on top of some big logs lying along the bottom of the barrel. Peter busied himself with the camera.
It seemed like the drop had indeed caused some damage to the camera, because the high contrast between the inside of the debarker barrel and where Peter was standing in the sunlight was confusing the auto focus. He switched to manual mode and set a different f-stop on the rotating ring. When Peter looked back through the viewfinder, he was confused. Instead of seeing the party hamming it up as emperors of industry, there was just a solid blank barrier of some kind. The huge barrel was now turning, rumbling, churning, and the hydraulic gates at each end were closed. Things were tumbling from a chute on the side, chunks of bark, the odd strip of wood, and they joined a big pile on the ground.
When Bob figured the show must have moved on, he returned to the debarker with another load of logs in the JCB’s gripper. He was a bit puzzled that the debarker was still running, but didn’t think much of it until he saw the photographer standing frozen in place, one hand over his mouth, and staring at the pile of bark. He looked at Bob, and said in a detached way, “They were in.” He apparently couldn’t say any more.
In response to Bob’s garbled 911 call, Brian and Chi were lights and sirens all the way to the plant. When the call came in, Brian had been giving a presentation and explaining how many homes do not have a ‘landline,’ that everyone was relying on cellphones. He had to cut short his TED Talk about how people need to teach kids to access their phone with ‘Touch ID’ or a passcode in an emergency so that they can actually call 911. While Chi hurtled towards the plant, Brian stooped his 6’3” frame in the back of the ambulance and started prepping the trauma kit for what was almost certainly a multiple-patient industrial accident of some kind. His orange jump box with the big blue and red Patriots sticker was stuffed with bags of saline and wound packs.
While Chi attended to the photographer, who was evidently having some form of psychotic break, Brian got a rapid outline from Bob. He followed Bob to the debarker, which had now been manually shut off. With the hydraulic gates lowered, Brian peered into the empty barrel with the aid of his flashlight and then climbed down to the ground to see this pile that Bob kept talking about. Squinting at the pile of bark and wood splinters, Brian saw there were old rags mixed in with the bark. When a tattered leather boot tumbled from the pile, Brian took a moment to register that there was still a foot in it. Over where Chi was sitting with him, Peter blurted out with a disjointed laugh, “Brunello Cucinellis, thirteen hundred bucks a shot,” and added somewhat distractedly, “They went in, they couldn’t get out.”
As he had wished, Madison had indeed provided a lesson on cutting safety regulations and the result of policing himself. It was just not the lesson he had imagined nor the outcome he had in mind.