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.
Bryn Bartholomew Bartlett was a senior HR manager at a 400-bed, non-profit teaching hospital and had very firm, specific, and somewhat antiquated opinions on what amounted to a “good nurse.”
While Bryn played no part in their medical training, clinical practice, or academic evaluation, he did have a say in how nurses were judged as representatives of the hospital and their administrative compliance. He had regular contact with the nursing staff in his role as caretaker of one of the two nursing residences and as the head of the team that handled the weekly timesheets, background checks, and of course, the multitude of forms that had to be filled in, signed, and approved.
Bryn didn’t approve of male nurses, skinny nurses, or nurses who were too pretty, too talkative, or too quiet. Gossip and folklore around the residence quickly informed new nurses to avoid Bryn if they could, and not to give him sass if they wanted their forms to be processed efficiently and not get lost.
One of the stories, frequently repeated, involved a fiery blond student nurse who had reacted to Bryn’s comment about her hemline by telling him firstly to blow it out his ears, and secondly to stop being a pervert or she would slap his unctuous smirk clean off his dial. She was soon off the course because of “irregularities” in her timesheet and missing paperwork. In his evaluation of her deportment and character, Bryn had stated clearly that he considered her to be beneath the traditional standards at the hospital and would potentially become an embarrassment. Once Bryn took a personal dislike to a nurse, he had many tools to make their lives miserable or get them cut from the school.
It wasn’t just his sharp criticism of the nursing staff that was generally despised, but also his flamboyant gestures and flourishes. One particular little eccentricity was to react to any questions or errors, either in paperwork or life at the residence, by clapping a hand to his forehead, rolling his eyes, and sighing dramatically. If he was feeling particularly irritable, he might also intone “oh Lord, take me now,” while placing the back of his hand across his eyes in a theatrical manner.
Nina was in the new intake and got in Bryn’s face on her very first day. At the traditional welcoming buffet lunch, Nina had just bitten into a Deviled egg topped with mustard and paprika when Bryn was suddenly in front of her. Bryn struck a haughty pose with one hand on hip, the other stretched out theatrically. “You are… Nina,” he said loudly, peering at her name badge. Nina drew a sharp breath and would have stuttered a nervous reply but for the paprika dust she inhaled. Instead, Nina coughed explosively, spraying egg, mustard, and paprika liberally over Bryn. His ivory-white, 350 thread-count linen shirt looked as if it had contracted a suppurating form of measles.
From that moment on, Nina and her whole class were squarely in Bryn’s sights. There were delays in clearances, lost forms, and Nina especially had queries and issues with every timesheet. Bryn kept an eagle eye on their life in the residency, jumping on any infraction, deviation, or variation. The anxiety this produced in the whole class was palpable, and the lecturer responsible for resilience training noticed how jumpy this class was, without knowing the cause.
Nina and five others were selected at random to have companion therapy animals as part of a trial the lecturer was conducting. Bryn was in favor of companion animals—he had Princess Persephone, a large orange tabby, on whom he doted. He had some reservations about the nurses all having animals but conceded to himself that it might reduce the partying a bit if there were more pets. The companion animals were to be purchased at a local animal rescue, using vouchers, and the rules confined choices to cats, dogs, or caged birds and stipulated that the animals be neutered, healthy, and housebroken. The staff were told to show them the smaller dogs, but as Nina approached the group standing around the smaller kennels, a low grumble to her left turned her head. Bending down, she came face-to-face with Ragnar, the Siberian Husky. Nina was mesmerized by his pale blue eyes and black and white hooded face. He was bigger than the animals the staff had been asked to show, but nothing in the order details prohibited her from picking Ragnar.
When the time came for Nina to fill out the paperwork, the shelter manager popped in and looked a bit doubtful. “Are you aware that Huskies are, … um, high energy dogs? He will need to be run every day, preferably twice.” Ragnar demonstrated by hopping neatly onto the table, and spinning round several times before looking Nina in the eye, and saying something that sounded like “Oh Noooo!”
The shelter provided Nina with a heavy-duty purple leash with a sturdy clip at one end and a wrist loop at the other. The flat 1″ wide woven paracord was softer to the touch than she expected, and she popped her hand through the loop. “Never do that,” the manager recommended kindly. “This Husky weighs 55 pounds, and he will break your wrist and drag you two blocks if a squirrel ran in front of him.” She showed Nina how to hold the loop in her left hand, and added a knot that would be in her right.
Nina poured over the 5-page guide to Huskies she had been given at the pet store where she had bought the harness suggested by the shelter, plus a cargo including water and food bowls and a 20lb bag of turkey and sweet potato pellets. Thinking of jogging, Nina also bought a 1L SIGG Explorer powder-pink stainless steel water bottle. She liked the idea that it was pollutant-free and leakproof, but mostly she liked the solid strap handle on the lid. She experimented with holding the water bottle and leash like the shelter had told her, with the fingers of her left hand through the loop of the leash and gripping the handle of the water bottle. The loop in the leash fit snugly around the bottle and would get caught by the bottle if it slipped from her fingers. This all felt secure and comfortable, and Ragnar said “YOO OH NOOO” in agreement.
Over the next few weeks, the various new pet owners settled into their communal life, and Nina had worked out a process to get Ragnar ready for a run and then navigate her way out without him lunging at any of the other pets or making too much noise. Her only cause for alarm was when she had been a little late to take him on his morning run, and Ragnar had parked a prodigious poop on Bryn’s doormat while she was waiting for the elevator. She had cleaned it up pronto but couldn’t get it all out and was nervous that Bryn would notice and have some retribution in mind.
That evening at 7:00, Nina was holding the front door open and leading Ragnar out to the sidewalk for his run, when she suddenly came face-to-face with Bryn, cradling Princess Persephone in his arms. “YOU!” Bryn glared, “and your giant doormat despoiler!” Ragnar responded with a loud bark and a “YOO!” Princess Persephone, alarmed by this altercation, squirmed and tried to free herself.
Events moved quickly. Ragnar lunged at the wriggling cat, plucking the leash out of Nina’s right hand. Nina yelled at him, held the water bottle handle tightly in her left hand, and tried to hold Ragnar back. At that moment, Princess Persephone broke free, flowed like orange liquid from Bryn’s clutch, and bolted. His instincts in overdrive, Ragnar erupted in muscular energy and took off after the fleeing cat. When the leash jerked the water bottle from Nina’s grasp, it tore off one of her nails, broke her index finger, and spun her into the half-open door. Stunned by the impact, Nina collapsed on the cement in front of the entranceway.
Nina sat up slowly, her head throbbing where it bumped the door, and her left arm was an inferno of pain. Her focus was on Bryn, though, who was sitting across from her and against the lower railings on the stairway to the entrance. He was staring fixedly at her, his mouth open, and an expression that looked to her like doom. Nina braced for a torrent of sarcasm and biting comments and the start of the end of her short nursing career.
For once, however, Bryn’s sharp tongue was sheathed and he had nothing to say. Actually, this was a permanent shift in behavior, and Bryn would never again have a sharp word for nursing staff. When the water bottle had been harnessed by the leash, it had been flung and then whiplashed as Ragnar lurched and then veered in hot pursuit. The bottle had hit Bryn butt-first and squarely between the eyes, in a way that was entirely incompatible with life. As Nina scrambled to where he lay, she heard one last long sigh as his breath became air.