This three-part story (read Part 1 here) 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.
In this story, a young couple wishes they would inherit enough to make the down payment on a small cottage. After a fatal accident, insurance pays out the exact amount for which they had wished…
A Future Home
Two days—and a brief interview and follow-up calls to her supervisor—later, Nancy was working a second shift at the care facility. It was a block from the hospital and paid weekly. Nancy was bringing in an additional $12/hr., 20hrs/week, and fitting studies in at the care home while William did chores. With what little time they had for a social life, they either stayed home or attended free events. Their favorite was art exhibitions that offered complimentary snacks and wine. Whenever they had spare gas money, they drove out of town with the truck and enjoyed the free national park and wilderness. The art exhibitions gave them a sense of being entertained, and wearing mismatched clothing from secondhand stores might be seen by other patrons as Bohemian rather than skint. The drives out into the parks gave them a sense of peace.
Feeding in the numbers including Nancy’s additional job increased the height of the teeth in the graph and reduced the slope by a lot, but it was still a slow downward slope. Nancy’s extra work just pushed out the point at which they would be unable to pay rent and put food on the table. By next year this time, they would be on the street. It was clear, William also needed a second job, but they had some time to figure out their options.
William compared rental of other flats further out of town and then looked at rentals versus mortgage payments. Surprisingly, he found that if they could manage a 20% down payment, a mortgage on a comparable house was cheaper per month than the apartment. “That’s nice, honey,” Nancy said looking over his shoulder, “but our rental contract locks us in for a year.” “Actually, 13 months,” William added. “It’s a bit of trickery in the contract dates.”
When they had spare time, they looked wistfully at houses. Not seriously, just to get a feel, they told themselves. During one of these mental excursions, they saw an ad for a small, two-bedroom cottage on the edge of a green belt on the other side of town. The details said that the owner was in no hurry to sell and was using it as a guest cottage. The next Sunday, when Nancy was off, they drove over to the area and took a tour. It was at the end of a dead-end road and hidden from the street by a small and slightly disheveled hedge. The agent said it needed a sewer connection but had electrics and new roof tiles. The agent led them through the cottage and showed them the back of the property. It was a surprisingly large plot, and a small stream cut through an overgrown orchard. Nancy looked around at the small living room and fell in love with the divided light windows with diagonal muntin. The walls were a muted white and crisscrossed in dark timbers in a faux-Tudor style. Nancy whispered to William that she half expected to see old horse brasses hanging from the timbers and pictures of a Cadbury canal boat. The feeling of fake Olde-English countryside was pleasing, even if a bit contrived.
The cottage had been servants’ lodgings, and then an in-law suite on a larger property, but the main house had become dilapidated after the original owners retired and then had burned down after a lightning strike. The property had been subdivided, with the bulk turned into a new housing estate. The agent did some numbers for them and said the owner would probably shift for $170,000. William pulled out a pad, and in a few minutes, had the 20% down payment calculated as $34,413.87.
They went home feeling thrilled and frightened in equal measures. Nancy joked about one of their aunts leaving them an inheritance to pay for the down payment. “I wish,” exclaimed William. “Wouldn’t it be a dream if we just inherited the money?” Nancy grinned and sighed, “Oh well, I guess with wealthy family, it’s just us chickens to save it up.” When they got home, Nancy put a photo of the cottage on the fridge, and William added a sheet under it with “$34,413.87” in big black letters.
They now had a clear savings goal.
Furniture, or the lack thereof, was starting to be a pest, and without comfortable cash reserves to pay with, they scoured secondhand shops for furniture and kitchenware. Given the already eclectic style mix, they had the luxury of not caring if things didn’t quite match. They had some nice tall-backed chairs but no dinner table. The tables at the secondhand stores were all just the wrong height. While tinkering on the truck in the basement, William found a pile of old wooden pallets. The building super said these were junk and was happy for William to take them. William had the basic tools, including a handheld power saw with an 8” blade, but needed a planer and sander. Nancy loved the idea of their own custom-made dinner table and helped him look for tool-rental shops nearby. They found a local tool rental that also had the cheapest prices, although it had a weird name—Wild Man Tool Rental & Services.
The next Friday night, while Nancy was working, William went to Wild Man Tool Rental & Services and asked about a planer. The staff were helpful but seemed ever-so-slightly shifty. William shrugged it off, and asking for an orbital sander, was shown to a rack with several machines and a row of shelves with sandpaper sheets of varying grit. While picking out the sandpaper sheets, William saw a notice board. There was a paper for odd jobs and a small stack of application forms. He was a fair handyman, he thought, and took one home. William had cut the pallet timbers to size, planed them to an even thickness, put the tabletop together, and sanded it to a fine finish. He had then taken the table up in several trips and assembled it in place. By the time Nancy came home on Saturday afternoon, there was a freshly sanded new table. Nancy got out her paintbrushes and paints and set to work adding a grape-vine motif on the legs and edges. By the time they went to bed, the table had a hand-drawn pattern around the top, and a fresh coat of lacquer to seal in her artwork.
Wild Man Tool Rental & Services
William took the completed application form in the next evening, and they interviewed him on the spot. He was ushered behind the counter and into a back area that opened up into a cavernous warehouse. Tall racks stretched up to a high vaulted roof, and there was equipment everywhere. They sat in a small, prefabricated room in one corner next to a large set of sliding hangar doors. The interview consisted of a few technical questions about his driving abilities, tools he had used before, and examples of previous DIY projects. The two people interviewing him exchanged frequent glances and there seemed to be some kind of subtext that William couldn’t fathom. Did he have any prior involvement with law enforcement? Was he ever a boy scout? Has he been in the military or taken any pledges?
After about 40 minutes, one of them nodded to the other and fetched the owner. Clyde was a very sleek person in a three-piece tailored suit and expensive shoes, and he smelled of cologne. A thin mustache seemed to quiver when he spoke, and he had soft, plump hands that signaled that he had never held a tool in his life. The contradiction was startling, but William soon realized that Clyde was not into tools and maintenance but was very much into profit. Clyde described how the company bought tools and equipment on estate sales and auctions mainly, but sometimes from pawn shops. The way he paused on the issue of pawnshops and then rushed on to describe how they had branched out into bidding on service and maintenance contracts, made William wonder. Clyde explained how the company had very few employees and instead sub-contracted almost all the actual service work to contractors and DIY enthusiasts. William asked vaguely how the tools were checked or maintained, and Clyde said something equally vague about DIY enthusiasts doing the refurbishment of all tools.
Something that William did not know, and which Clyde feared but also didn’t know, was that the company was already under investigation for buying stolen equipment and changing serial numbers. Clyde was not aware that within a year, and largely due to William, he would be indicted on 22 counts of fraud, receiving stolen property, and conspiracy to commit fraud.
The next morning, William read an email congratulating him on his appointment as a “Registered Handyman Specialist” for Wild Man Tool Rental & Services and was given a login to the online scheduling system. Despite some slight misgivings, William logged in and was surprised and excited to see he already had two jobs in his queue. The first job, or “Work Order,” was a to clear a barn that was being decommissioned. In the inventory of tools he had to pick up was a Bobcat 220 skid steer loader, spare propane tank, and a shovel. The instructions stated that any safety equipment such as helmet, gloves, boots, or masks were available for hire or purchase from the store prior to leaving. The instructions gave directions and the address, who he was to report to, that it paid $500, and that it was expected to take him 15 hours of labor. Nancy peered over his shoulder that night after shift and was thrilled that he had picked up a gig so quickly. “I think this actually means I get to shovel crap,” William whispered theatrically. It didn’t escape their notice that he could earn far more doing so than she could while caring for the aged.
When William arrived on site, he could see that work was already well underway, and there were people cutting apart other buildings. The foreman in a bright, high-visibility jacket gave him a brief overview that the dairy farm was being decommissioned and the site would be used for housing and a block of apartments. William’s job, he confirmed, was to scrape and load several tons of manure from a large barn into a dump truck. The dump truck was someone else’s job, but William was to use the pressure hose after scraping was done, and pump that into a weir a few hundred feet downhill. William found the Bobcat fun to drive, and although he got showered in manure a few times when he raised and tilted the Bobcat’s bucket into the truck, it was more like a game than a job.
The pressure washing was an entirely different thing, and he soon learned that the back-spatter and spray would drench him. By the time he was done for the day, he was soaked from head to toe in a rancid mix of liquified manure and old dirt. He stripped off his overalls before climbing into the truck and tried hard to scrub it all off in the shower, but when Nancy got in after her shift, the whole flat reeked of barnyard. “Wow, did you take a swim in the river?” she asked him with a smile. The next day, William finished off his pressure washing, got the job signed off by the foreman, and by 7:00 PM was back at home and scrubbing himself down again.
That weekend, Nancy and William crowded around the laptop again and looked at the budget. The numbers now looked healthy, and the trend line was on a slow but firm positive slope. Looking further into the future, they could factor in Nancy’s upcoming qualifications. In less than 6 months’ time, Nancy would qualify as a registered nurse at just over double the pay and have far more job options. With her RN status, Nancy could take the odd extra shift at the hospital at a far higher rate than working at the eldercare facility. William had another year still to go on his 2-year work experience requirement to become a Certified Internal Auditor (CIA), and then his salary would also almost double, to a little less than $60,000/year.
The future was promising, and they both felt a sense of approaching relief and the comfort of a well-defined plan. In the meantime, however, food and entertainment were humble, and life settled into a comforting but exhausting routine. Because of their second jobs and studies, they often missed each other entirely, with one coming home just after the other had left or getting home after the other was already asleep. The two had brief moments of shared wakefulness to chat, cuddle, or do things together.
Their life had turned inward, shrunk, and hardened, and their social life was entirely a table for two. Drinks with friends, poolside parties, and BBQs were replaced with events shaped tightly around them as a couple and mostly related to work, study, and sleep. Waking hours were dotted with jealously guarded moments of intimacy. Every day they would look at the picture on the fridge, and every week William added to a drawing of a progress thermometer he had made on a sheet of white cardboard and stuck to the fridge. The red line indicating their savings was creeping slowly but surely toward their target.