This is one of a collection of stories that are like “Final Destination” meets “The Monkey’s Paw” (W. W. Jacobs, 1902). 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.
Jean had been a corporate adventurer who had also led a fiery and action-packed life that included kayaking whitewater rivers, parachuting into canyons, and riding a 1000cc off-road BMW motorcycle across the Namib desert. She had risen to fame and some substantial fortune through hard work, ingenuity, and boldness.
Mostly bed-ridden now, Jean had been on long-term oxygen therapy treatment for a few years, and this had recently increased to high-flow oxygen at 40-60 liters per minute. Her room was kept warm, and a humidifier ran quietly by her bedside. At 78, a lifetime of smoking had left her with chronic lung disease and unable to do anything more adventurous than clicking the remote control or reaching for a glass of water.
Still, Jean enjoyed a life of comfort. She had an army of attendants, the best care, and a view from her second-story bedroom that took in a seascape and rolling hills to either side. She could occasionally get to her window with the help of her nurse to take in the structured gardens and the ocean backdrop. Jean had every convenience and support money could buy.
What she didn’t have, was peace of mind.
Her only child, Jeremy, was not so much a disappointment to her as he was a constant source of bafflement and worry. At 48, Jeremy had shown himself to be disinterested in the effort required for achievement of greatness like his mother but instead was highly adept at spending money on artistic experiences and showy events. One fanciful scheme after another soaked up money, and Jean’s patience. Failed art galleries followed unsuccessful theater productions, and Jeremy had tried his languid hand at painting, poetry, and sculpture without any visible success.
He made a very modest success of being an art critic and wrote caustic reviews of plays and artworks. However, he grew bored with it, and the editor grew tired of fending off irate artists and producers. When Jeremy had mocked a sponsor of an exhibition of modern sculpture, the editor fired him. It was one thing to mock in the name of artistic purity, but quite another to rankle a major advertiser.
Jean had finally put her foot down last year and refused to back any more flamboyant schemes. Jeremy’s reaction was to have a meltdown that left Jean feeling guilty and a sense that she had bullied her son.
Jean had never understood his thirst for the dramatic, and he knew it irritated her. Today, instead of cap in hand, he would blazon it out with her, and he dressed accordingly.
Jeremy wore a black mid-calf woolen jacket, ornate and ruffled white silk brocade shirt, and tight black faux leather pants. Highly polished and boned Demonia knee-high boots rounded off an image calculated to get Jean’s goat.
He arrived at the house with a flourish, the tires of his black 1990 BMW cabriolet throwing a small wave of gravel over the lawn and into a flowerbed, as he skidded to a halt. Old Fred who tended the gardens slowly put down the handles of the wheelbarrow he had been pushing and removed a pipe from his mouth. His wife, Molly, who was the housekeeper, who had been about to give Fred a mug of tea, now stood at his side. They looked at Jeremy, their faces impassive and blank. “What are you two yokels gawping at? Don’t you have ferrets to eat or vermin to skin or something?” barked Jeremy, internally pleased that he had obviously annoyed them. To him, they were backward anachronisms, and he couldn’t understand why his mother kept them on. As soon as he ran things, he would get rid of them, he thought.
As Jeremy flounced up the stairs to the ornate front door, Fred and Molly watched him go. Fred was the first to speak. “No good will come of that one. Can almost smell the brimstone,” he said, pointing at Jeremy’s departing form with the stem of his pipe. “Bound for hellfire someday soon,” Molly agreed. “Just you mark my words Fred Jones; that boy is for the flames.” Fred nodded and sipped thoughtfully from his mug.
Jeremy entered the house, mentally preparing himself for battle. The issue was one of money. Jeremy got a large allowance for his living needs but wanted Jean to pay for the purchase of a disused church that he planned to turn into an artistic commune and theatre. He thought it would be rather fun to flip a church in this way. From sacrosanct to sacrilegious. Jeremy smiled at the thought but then shifted thoughts. Time for battle, and to put on a masterful piece of performative drama.
Jeremy had a well-rehearsed and historically reliable approach to getting his way with his mother when the chips were down. He relied on taunting and baiting Jean, teasing her until she said something regrettable, and then with a theatrical twist he would collapse in tears and apologies. The guilt of all the times that Jean had put career or adventure ahead of childrearing would overwhelm her, and she would wind up giving into Jeremy’s demands.
Things did not go as planned this time. This time, Jean had a different mindset, borne of a doctor’s visit and a sudden awareness of her mortality. Dr. Sullivan had visited the previous evening and laid out bleak prospects. Jean’s COPD had been joined by a diagnosis of liver cancer. Jean had not been a big drinker really, or not enough to cause liver cancer. She had, however, experimented with performance-enhancing drugs as a 20-year-old for just long enough to be infected with Hepatitis-B, which quietly and asymptomatically ate away at her liver. The condition was now terminal, and the cancer well established throughout her body.
Jean had not slept that night, and her mind was a storm of regrets, anger, self-blame, and finally, as dawn broke over the hills and streamed into her bedroom, she came to terms with herself, her future, and the nature of the legacy she wanted to leave.
Jeremy had expected his outfit to provoke a strong reaction from Jean, but she looked him up and down and then simply gestured for him to sit on the simple steel folding chair beside the bed. Jeremy opened his gambit with some well-calibrated remarks about one-night stands he had recently enjoyed, drunken parties he had attended, and injected some mocking asides about “management types” and “bean counters.” Jean looked at him in silence for a while with a gaze that was cool, evaluating, and sad. Jeremy squirmed, he had never encountered this kind of response and felt a growing sense of panic welling up in his gut. Jeremy started a new line of attack: “You never listen …” But holding up one frail hand, Jean cut him short. “I have not been a good mother to you, Jeremy,” she began softly. “I have given you handouts rather than guidance, trinkets rather than attention, and I have pampered you rather than setting clear responsibilities and encouraging you to grow.” Jean looked at her only child with a sense of regret, but also of hope. It was not too late for Jeremy to learn to stand on his own two feet, to build a career, and achieve something serious and meaningful. “I have crippled you, and for this, I am truly sorry, but as much as I would want to repair this, I no longer have the time left in which to do so.”
Jeremy was stunned, and before he could find a response, Jean outlined what was to happen in the few short months she had left. To cater to her rapidly declining health, she was going to give instructions to convert her house and estate into a hospice. It would benefit her directly in her final time but would have sufficient space for a dozen additional patients and additional care staff. After her death, the remaining estate would go toward funding research into liver cancer and supporting the operations of the hospice.
Jeremy would be allowed funds to study or develop marketable skills for up to 4 years, after which his allowance would drop to subsistence level. He wouldn’t starve, but anything over the bread line would be up to him to make up.
Jean looked at Jeremy with hope on her face.
Jeremy reacted in a way she had never seen, but which many recipients of his corrosive reviews could have predicted and recognized. Jean had seen plenty of his tantrums before, but those had been crafted and curated to evoke sympathy and guilt. His tantrums toward others had been designed to hurt and embodied malice and spite, with no care about any other goal than to cause harm and inflict pain. Jeremy got up slowly from the chair, and with an icy calm, walked over to the bed and disconnected the oxygen tube from her mask. He dangled it in his hand before letting it drop to the floor at the feet of his chair.
“So, Mommy dear, you thought you would just cut me off?”
Jeremy reached down and turned off the humidifier and slowly paced around the bed to the thermostat control. “You thought that my reward should be to be kicked to the curb?”
Jeremy twisted the dial on the thermostat until it reached maximum. “Maybe we should melt some of that ice in your veins,” he sneered. Jean tried to reach for her buzzer, but Jeremy easily pulled it from her hand and tossed it to the floor.
“No, Mommy dear, this is a private affair.” Jeremy paced back and forth, describing how she had abandoned him as a child, how she always put herself and her work ahead of him.
Jean’s breathless and croaking entreaties met a sullen wall.
Jeremy sat heavily on the Spartan steel chair and crossed his legs. He continued on a lengthy and bitter diatribe, “I mean just look. I sit on this… what is this… a surplus steel chair from the morgue… you in a fancy bed, with expensive drapes, and pretentious paintings, and nurses, and …” Jeremy rambled on.
Jean was visibly gasping, her voice a barely audible croak. Too weak to raise a hand, let alone get out of bed, and the lack of oxygen exacerbated by the increased heat was making her heart race dangerously.
“Getting hot, aren’t we mother dear?”
“Well, I certainly am,” Jeremy sneered. He rose from the chair and swept off his woolen jacket with a flourish. With the low humidity, static crackled between his silk shirt and faux leather pants and the woolen jacket. A fat blue spark jumped from his boot to the metal chair leg.
If Jeremy were able to see oxygen, it would have looked like a shimmering silver pool across the floor, rippling at the steady stream from the disconnected hose. At 60 liters per minute, his mirror-like boots were already up to the calf in the pool of oxygen.
With the rich oxygen environment and a spark to get the party going, his highly polished boots burst into flames and the paraffin polish mixture burned a fierce blue. Blue and yellow flames leaped up his trouser legs in an instant, the plastic faux leather combining with oxygen in a frenzy of chemistry. Jeremy let out a high-pitched shriek like an enthusiastic steam whistle and launching himself backward, tripping over the chair.
Jeremy hit the floor hard, rattling medicine bottles on the bedside cabinet. His shirt and pants joined forces in the rich oxygen pond, and Jeremy was engulfed in bright and eager flames. Scampering across the floor blindly, Jeremy, screaming in waves, hurtled toward the bedroom windows.
With mouths agape, Fred and Molly watched a shrieking fireball burst through the main bedroom window and plummet two stories down to the veranda below. They watched motionlessly until the flames were mostly gone, and there were only thin spires of black smoke rising from the inert shape on the slate floor.
Molly turned to Fred, “I said he would be bound for hellfire some day, did I not, Fred Jones?” Fred removed the pipe from his mouth and waggled the stem in agreement, “Aye, that you did, Moll, that you did.”