This three-part story (read Part 1 here and part 2 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…
The work order on the Wild Man scheduling page was one that combined two things that William hated most: confined spaces and high places. The firm had secured a contract to dredge and inspect a number of industrial ponds and their interconnecting wells. A main dam received the wastewater from the Eagle Crest mine, and to satisfy safety concerns and to recover silt, fed a number of treatment ponds. These all had to be dredged from time to time, to recover minerals and prevent them from simply becoming a marsh. William’s job was to clean out a number of the wells that lay between the dam and the ponds.
The dam got a steady gush of wastewater twice a day, in time with drilling and cleaning operations in the mine. Because it was likely that the work in the well would take longer than the cycle of filling and draining of the recently dredged dam, and as a safety measure, William was required to fit a 24″ Pipe Plug into the inflow pipe of the well. The plug would keep water out of the well and allow William to work in safety and without undue rush.
William was unfamiliar with all the issues around using pipe plugs and read through an image of a photocopy of some pages from the manual. It mentioned a table of safety precautions, but those pages didn’t seem to be included. William drove to Wild Man early the next morning to draw all his equipment. It was Saturday, so Jay was at the stores desk and wandered back into the warehouse to fetch the pipe plug. William heard a loud thud and a lot of cursing before Jay emerged struggling with a canvas bag. This was the mysterious pipe plug. William had imagined something like a flat bung, but unzipping the bag, this looked more like a round trashcan lid attached to a large buoy. It was cumbersome, and William judged that it was about as heavy as a large pocket of cement–50 pounds or more.
William heaved it into the back of the truck and opened the bag wide to get a better look. It had large steel lugs on the front that were too small to be comfortable as handles. He looked closer and saw burring on the lug edges that suggested maybe carabiners or chain got attached to them. William shrugged and fetched the rest of his suggested equipment. On the drive to the job site at the Eagle Mine, he thought about the lugs. He figured they must be to pull the plug out in case it got stuck. A thought occurred that the plug might get sucked backward when he deflated it after finishing the job. Maybe water would flow out on the other side and suck it in.
If the clerk who had captured the document image had scanned reverse side of the last page, William would have known that the lugs were meant for cables or chains to anchor the plug into a pipe and may have seen a graphic showing the front of the installed plug with a crosshatched area and the label “Danger Zone.” He would also have read that, indeed, sometimes the plug would need to be extracted with a cable attached to the lugs, just as he had imagined.
The map of where to find the well manhole cover was rough but good enough to find it in a paved area below the dam. William heaved off the cover with the tool he had drawn from stores, and he swung the heavy cover to one side. Staring down into the well with the work light, he could see that the water level was about fifteen feet down. The diagram said the floor was twenty feet from the ground level. William lowered a suction hose into the well, ran the outlet hose into the lower pond twenty feet further down, and started the pump. While the pump ran, William unloaded the rest of his equipment. He dragged the axial fan and its 12” fresh air pipe over to the manhole and then set up the generator and compressor unit next to it. William positioned the hoist tripod, so it straddled the opening, and connected its hoist motor.
William peered down into the well and could see that almost all the water had been pumped out, so he lowered in the 12” fresh air hose and started the small generator and then the axial fan to force fresh air into the well. There was no knowing what the air would be like down there and blowing fresh air in was just a good idea.
William took a moment to take a swig of water and a few calming breaths. He didn’t like heights or confined spaces, and here he had to climb down into a dark hole that looked like a tomb. He felt a slight vertigo, and thinking about being in this hole made him feel nauseous. William forced himself to think of Nancy and the house on Orchard Rd. and how her job was mostly a lot harder than his.
Using the winch, William lowered the pipe plug to the floor of the well, and then put his toolbox, work light, and spade into the mud bucket and lowered them all down into the well. William grimly put on his safety harness, and swiveled his legs into the hole, gulped hard, and slowly made his way down the slippery metal rungs.
William soon had the light set up, and the image of being in a tomb was replaced with a tiny bit of wonder at this mysterious and dank place. William used the compressed air hose to blow out the 24” inlet pipe that was 3 feet above the floor and then checked the inside of the pipe for loose materials, scaling, and cracks as described in his work order. Next, he took a wire brush with severe bristles from the toolbox and gave the first two feet of the inside of the pipe a good scrubbing to remove any loose scale or grit.
Next up was fitting the plug. He rolled it over a few times to make sure he understood how the instructions tallied with the physical appearance and then wrestled the huge plug into the pipe. By the time he got it positioned so the lid part was just sticking out of the pipe, he was breathing hard and sweating. William attached the air hose from the compressor and started inflating the plug. It groaned and whined and bulged until it filled the pipe tightly. He pumped it up to 35 psi as described by the pages from the manual. The instructions said to look through the glass inspection window, but William saw nothing but darkness. William sat on the toolbox for a few minutes to collect his breath and to review the job. With the plug in, he could get rid of the silt, and start inspecting the floor and walls.
William used the suction hose to remove what liquid mud he could and then started shoveling the firmer mud and debris into the mud bucket. After about forty minutes, the mud bucket was full, so he reattached his harness, and climbed back up to the surface. The hoist pulled the mud bucket up, and he could swing it to the side and pull the pin and lever to hinge it open and dump the mud out. William took a break, poured himself some coffee from his thermos, and munched on a ham and cheese sandwich he and Nancy had jointly prepared the night before. She took the cheese and pickles; he took the cheese and ham.
William felt almost invigorated by the coffee and followed the empty mud bucket back down. The pipe plug instructions had said to view the inspection window hourly and to check the drain valve at least once. This time when William peered into the inspection window, he could see that there was a water level building up behind the plug, and opening the bottom valve briefly resulted in a spray of somewhat slimy water from the dam. “Guess it works,” William muttered to himself and got back to shoveling and scraping muck into the bucket.
It took another three trips to the surface, but William had finally got the floor clear. Fairly exhausted, he took a lunch break, finished off his sandwiches and most of the coffee, and discovered with delight that Nancy had packed in a chewy candy bar and a little note: “Thinking of you in your underground cave, enjoy the candy and think of me cleaning bedpans!” She had left a bright red lipstick print on the note. With a big grin and a sigh, William donned his harness, and climbed back down into the well. With the floor clear, William began inspecting the walls, looking for loose bricks, cracks in the concrete sleeve, or signs of leaking or roots. He picked at cement here and there to make sure it was firm, and as instructed, took photos of the walls with his phone. With daylight almost gone, the opening above that had been a bright blue circle above him was a darkening evening sky. “Nearly done” he thought and got down on hands and knees to inspect the well floor. As he got close to the inlet pipe and was looking at the floor below, he thought he heard a humming sound over the noise of the air hose. He reached up to touch the pipe and could definitely feel a vibration. William stood up, puzzled, and went around to the front of the pipe. He bent over and peered at the inspection window. It was dark again, so he was unsure what to make of that.
William brought the work light closer and peered at the plug. It seemed to be sweating around the edges, and the humming sound was quite distinct. He started to stand up, and to wonder if this was a problem. He wondered now if the sound he had heard at the Wild Man this morning was Jay dropping the plug. “Was that a problem?” he wondered. He looked at the pressure gauge and noted in alarm that it was far below the 35 psi. “Leaking!” he muttered, with a growing sense of alarm.
William barely registered the plug leaving the pipe almost explosively and hitting him full in the chest as it shot out of the pipe, no longer able to hold back the tons of water pressure behind it. He briefly felt a cracking sensation in his chest, but then the force of the impact drove him backward into the wall behind him. His head hit the wall with a sharp crack, and William blacked out. Cold muddy water gushed from the 24″ pipe in a solid geyser, spinning William and swirling him around the walls. William’s heart beat erratically, trying to cope with the trauma. It fluttered, paused, and stopped.
Almost everything was packed, and Nancy had stacked full cardboard boxes in the middle of the living area. In one corner was the stuff she needed to take in her onboard luggage—her copy of the job offer as an RN and her graduation records, her boarding pass, and her identity documents. She had accepted a good position at a hospital in another city, another state. A new life. She didn’t know how, or even if, she had coped these past 3 months. Life had been a grey blur since the accident, but she had somehow finished her degree, completed her RN exams, and found a new job far away from memories and pain.
Clearing out a final drawer, Nancy came across a rumpled page, three-quarters full of handwritten notes. Nancy recognized it instantly, sat down heavily on the empty carpeted floor of the bedroom, and cried with great heaving sobs. It had been a lazy summer afternoon, and one of those rare occurrences when neither of them were hurtling off to a job or heading, exhausted, to bed. The sun was angling through the open balcony doors, and busy sounds of life filtered in. Somewhere, a dog barked happily in time with peals of children’s laughter. Nancy made one of those terrible relationship mistakes, and looking up from a popular “women’s magazine,” asked him the kind of question better known for wrecking relationships than fostering mutual insight. She had just finished an article that was highly critical of how men were critical of women’s bodies. It suggested a test. The test, it stated confidently, would identify if your current partner was a keeper or best ditched.
Nancy looked across at William with no hint of the risk he was being offered and asked in the sweetest and most innocent sounding tone, “If you could change three things about my body, what would you choose?” The answer, if one is a Sir Lancelot, is of course something along the lines of “oh my precious darling, I would not alter but one hair on your head, oh light of my life, keeper of my soul.”
Instead, William looked up beaming, and answered, “Oh, I would change your boobs, your brain, and your lady-bits.” “Perhaps,” Nancy said in light tones that belied the growing rage, despair, and sense of betrayal that roiled within her, “you would write it all down while I go to the bathroom.”
Nancy had stood in front of the bathroom mirror, hot tears streaming down her face. She tried to recover her composure but sure to her core that this was the last day she would ever spend under the same roof with him. Nancy splashed cold water on her face and bought some extra time brushing her hair. She closed her eyes and counted breaths like they had taught in her course on resiliency. Breathe in, one … two … three … four … out … one … two … three… four. When she felt she had her emotions under control and a plan to pack and leave, Nancy took one last breath and walked back to the living area.
William had grinned like he had just solved a tricky problem, found a forgotten $20 bill, or baked a particularly yummy cake. He handed her a page with three headings and copious notes under each, smiling broadly and not in the least picking up on her icy body language.
Nancy had taken the page with thumb and forefinger but could not help herself from grasping the righthand edge in a clenched fist., expecting to see words to the effect that he wanted her to have breasts of cartoonish proportions. She started reading the text under the first heading. In caps, and underlined, was the word “BOOBS.”
The text below started “I would give your boobs the ability to ward of cancer, and those lumps some women get.” Nancy skipped to the next underlined heading—”BRAINS”—and scanned the text. It was a slightly convoluted paragraph about feeling for her when she had struggled with her statistics course, so he would fit her brain with a cyborg implant that had a floating-point math co-processor and preloaded R statistics programs so she could just look at a page of numbers and instantly do all those complicated tests and regressions. Nancy skipped on to the last heading— “LADY BITS”—which in turn talked about immunity from cervical cancer, ovarian cancer, and the ability to pick ovulation and menstruation times and have no cramps.
Nancy had shed tears of pure relief on the paper before she was done reading and had launched herself across the couch and into his surprised but very grateful arms. She had kissed him with unexpected ferocity and a sense of relief and joy that overwhelmed her.
Nancy now smoothed out the sheet of paper as best she could, wiping away the fresh tears on the page, and smudging a few more words. Like she had before, in what seemed like distant make-believe world, Nancy counted in her breaths, counted them out, counted them in.
Nancy was almost calm when she was jarred by the doorbell.
The rumpled looking man at the door somehow matched the crumpled sheet of paper. His brown suit looked like it was more than a little past its expiry date, and the man inside it had the creased and furrowed look of someone who bore the world’s woes in his baggy pockets and bulging leather case. Before launching into her pre-recorded “no thank you, I do not wish to buy …” speech, Herbert H. Hoover (no relation) launched his even more rehearsed “Hoover, H, Metropolitan Life, with pay out papers for Mrs. Jones, Nancy, of this address”.
Over the bare kitchen island, Herbert Hoover detailed that Jones, W, deceased, had held a basic death and dismemberment policy with Metropolitan, and that he, Herbert Hoover was therefore empowered to issue Jones, Nancy, (Beneficiary) with a check to the sum of thirty-four thousand, four hundred and thirteen dollars, and eighty-seven cents. After some brief steps to positively identify Nancy, he offered her a pen. Nancy took the pen and signed distractedly next to the red sticky note arrow. Her eyes drifted to the fridge door, where a large note was still posted, and which she had as yet avoided taking down. The amount they had needed for the deposit and earnest money for the little house on Orchard Rd. The amount they were striving for ever since that day. The number in thick black Sharpie on William’s handwriting was $34,413.87, and she had inherited exactly what they had wished for.