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.
When Mick woke up at 5:30 on a frosty winter Friday, he had no way of knowing that he had 3 hours, 42 minutes, and 7 seconds left to live. He emerged from sleep, as he usually did, grumpy, slowly, and somewhat dehydrated. Mick was not a major fan of getting up at night for micturatory purposes and cut back on fluids after 8 PM. He also far preferred sleep to waking, and the alarm clock did not signify to him the start of a new day as much as it did the death of a treasured night. In his dreams, people listened to him, things went his way, and nobody was bleeding, vomiting, or pooping on anything.
As a radiology technician, people seldom listened to him, and they bled, hurled, and squirted with astounding regularity. Although there were crews to mop floors, make beds, and clean patients, it was he who got to keep the MRI and CAT scanners clean and tidy. When the bodily fluids strayed onto the machines, he was the one with a bucket. He was not much in favor of people in general, especially the leakier ones, and over the years he had morphed from an overly serious young man with a degree of social ineptitude and a slight phobia about touching people to a middle-aged grump that snarled at nurses, was sarcastic with radiologists, and dismissive of patients. He liked to do things his way and became impatient with people who messed up his routine.
Although the clinical staff in radiology were sometimes a bit put off by Mick and his stiff and prickly ways, nobody faulted his efficiency and attention to detail. He got things done quickly and properly. He was impeccable in the maintenance of the diagnostic imaging equipment and he always had the right materials in their proper places. Although he was abrupt with patients, he was careful and precise when he positioned them for diagnostic imaging examinations and was meticulous about shielding patients from unnecessary exposure to X-rays or radiation. When it came to following physician orders, he might have been gruff and impatient, but he always delivered the goods on ensuring image accuracy and clarity. His records were perhaps not great literary works or even polite, but they were certainly clear, complete, and up to date.
Two things kept Mick from being in any way popular with the other staff. One was his breath, which was perhaps of interest to dogs, rodents, and dental pathologists. The other was that he just didn’t care for people. If he had a choice, he often thought to himself, he would far rather be asleep than awake, and far rather with his machine than with people. He found them disorderly, unpredictable, and distracting, and for the life of him, he could never decipher half of the small talk that went on between them. The chatty greetings were irritating, the gossip was infuriating, and the flirting made his head ache.
In turn, he irritated the physicians, irked the radiologists, and made the nurses nervous. They all avoided him when they could and tolerated him when giving him a wide berth wasn’t practical. In particular, Mick intimidated the younger nurses. He was almost pathological about keeping ferrous objects of any kind out of the MRI room and would snap at any nurses who ventured into the room with a patient still wearing athletic clothing like yoga pants or sporting shirts. He would rant about the metallic threads and paints that could heat up and burn the patient during an MRI. He was equally fussy about any supportive socks or braces, or materials containing metallic anti-bacterial compounds. He would quiz the nurses about any slivers of metal from an injury, or pacemakers, or surgical implants, and would seethe if they didn’t know for sure if these had been checked. What really got Mick going, though, was the discovery of any pocket contents like wallets, keys, and coins, and the times he found scissors or a pager were as rare as they were memorable. Mick would puff himself up like a blowfish, and if his sermon didn’t etch itself into the nurse’s memory, his copious waves of breath certainly would.
Editor’s Note: Want to be featured in a medical fiction piece? Use the form below to let us know!
Mick had everything set up on time for the first patient. He had 2 hours and 25 minutes left to live. By the time the third patient was wheeled in, he had scowled at a young nurse for leaving a patient’s watch on, snapped at another for bringing the patient to the wrong side of the table, and lectured two nurses about a patient who had a small crucifix clutched tightly in one hand. Mick had 2 minutes and 3 seconds left. As the third patient was leaving, there was a commotion in the passage, and a patient from the ED was being moved for a scan.
The nurse pushing the gurney was nervous but competent. She was competent because her training had prepared her for casualties and emergent cases, and it focused her mind and kept her firmly in the moment. She was nervous because the stakes were higher, and here she was again in front of the radiology tech from Hades. She had double-checked for pocket contents, watch, jewelry, and anything on the patient that could possibly have contained metal. Mick recognized her, and through narrowed eyes, interrogated her closely about metal objects. “No watches this time?” he queried gruffly. She shook her head quickly and forced a nervous smile. “You sure?” he demanded. After a long scowl, he relaxed somewhat and signed for her to help get the patient onto the MRI table. As they shifted the patient, there was the unmistakable clink of metal, as sonorous as a gong and as meaningful as a church bell at a funeral. “What the hell!” Mick was outraged. Sweeping away the blanket, he uncovered a 6-lb D-type oxygen bottle resting between the patient’s legs. Eyes popping, Mick went red in the face and grabbed for the bottle. Mick had 18 seconds left to live. The nurse was bewildered and appalled at her own oversight, and she instinctively reached for the bottle to remove the offending object and rectify her glaring mistake. Their hands touched, and Mick recoiled from the contact, his hands fouled the tubing, and the bottle flew in a gentle parabolic arc and hit the hard floor, snapping off the valve stem. With a deafening screech, the shiny black bottle turned into a rocket and hit Mick in the face with the force of a 5-pound hammer being swung with gusto. With 3 seconds left to live, Mick was no longer awake when the back of his head hit the floor, and his last breath escaped and joined the surrounding air.