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.
-View the first in the collection: Ruth & the Stochastic Murder.
William Alphonse Peterson, or WAP as he was called behind his back, worked as a hospital store manager. Although William was thought to be efficient by his superiors, he was a horrible boss and was despised by his staff. He seemed to do everything that modern management literature suggests one should never do, and nothing that one should.
For example, he regularly bullied his staff, often berated them in public, and always assumed that if he wasn’t micromanaging them, they would either goof off or get things wrong. He seldom supported his staff, rarely let them take ownership of how to accomplish tasks, and never gave them praise where it was due. He believed solidly in “Theory X”: that workers were basically lazy and incompetent, and that people only worked as a result of threats and coercion. “What staff need most is a rocket up their backside,” he would say proudly. To which, more than one member of staff muttered under their breath that they wished the rocket would lodge itself up his backside instead.
A routine habit that William had adopted was to use the most tedious, backbreaking, or otherwise unpleasant jobs as punishment. The annual stock take, for example, was kept for those who gave him lip, laughed or joked during work hours, or otherwise irritated him by looking happy. Josh and Petra, for instance. Petra often had some witty retort to his memos, and Josh was forever making wisecracks.
Josh was doing his least favorite job today: weekend stock take. The regulations required an annual stock take of the medical equipment warehouse, and he and Petra had somehow drawn the short straw. It was brain-meltingly boring work and involved an enormous amount of physical effort to drag dusty boxes out to count contents or lug equipment about to find serial numbers to match the inventory list.
Stock take in the medical warehouse also involved uncomfortable safety equipment. The hardhat made one’s head sweat and itch, the safety boots felt as nimble as clown shoes, and the dust masks left bruises on the face and cuts behind the ears. The safety glasses somehow managed to mercilessly clamp one’s head and simultaneously keep sliding down one’s nose. They constantly fogged up. William considered these inconveniences an added bonus to the overall theme of punishment work.
Petra hauled the first plastic tote of automated external defibrillator devices off the shelf with a grunt and a vague curse that WAP should die in a suitably amusing fashion. Each AED measured some 3″ x 9″ x 9″ and weighed about 6.5 lbs. Each tote contained up to 10 AEDs, and there were 24 totes to be checked.
While Petra tallied up serial numbers of AEDs, Josh worked across the aisle behind her and was counting and checking racks of oxygen bottles. Each H-Cylinder of oxygen was 54″ long, 8.5″ in diameter, and nominally contained 7,107 liters of medical-grade oxygen at 2,200 pounds per square inch of pressure. Each bottle weighed some 140 pounds, and most bottles needed to be turned to find the serial number. The bottles lay on their sides, five to a shelf, and five shelves to a unit. There were twelve of these units to be inventoried, and only one shelf was not full. To inspect the valve, Josh had to wrestle a metal protective cap off, and after the bronze valve assembly was inspected, the cap had to be thumped back on. Josh called across to Petra that the cap assembly must have been invented by a sadist of some kind, because it almost always involved getting skin pinched or knuckles banged. Likewise, lifting and rotating the bottles to find a serial number often seemed to result in pinched fingertips or torn nails.
Twenty minutes before the designated lunch break, they had reached a point at which it made sense to stop. Petra had just lifted a tote back onto the shelf and was exhausted. Josh had finished a rack, and his hands were dirty and bleeding from multiple places where the skin had been pinched into little weeping blood blisters.
William heard them walking down the long corridor that ran from the warehouse to his office. Just outside his office, another corridor crossed at right angles and led to the cloakrooms in the one direction and to the canteen in the other. Since William hated having to see staff shuffling back and forth between cloakrooms and the canteen, he had positioned his large oak desk so he had his back to the corridors and his office door.
When Petra and Josh had almost reached the junction in the corridors, William swiveled on his chair, scooted across slightly to face the open doorway and harrumphed loudly, pointing at the large station clock on his wall. “You are not yet on your lunch break,” he called out loudly. Petra argued that they had reached a natural break in their work, and that it was physically demanding. William laced his fingers and replied that natural breaks or not, their lunchtime was not due for a further quarter of an hour, and that if they found their work too taxing, they might prefer to find work elsewhere more to their liking.
Petra sighed, and turned back. She needed this stupid job and wasn’t about to lose it over WAPs clockwatching. Josh muttered something under his breath, and moved a “slippery when wet” sign from the adjacent corridor to just outside the office door. They both laughed, put their hardhats on, and dragged themselves back to the warehouse.
Petra heaved another tote off the shelf, and said something about not needing a gym membership. She bent down and pulled off the tote lid, dropping it on the floor to her left. Josh twisted and tugged the cap off a bottle on one of the lower shelves in the next rack, and yelped as he caught his knuckles between the cap and the edge of the shelf. He dropped the cap and it clanged and bounced as he straightened up and jumped back, “Ow, bloody hell!” Josh landed on the tote lid that Petra had dropped. His feet shot out from under him before he could even try to steady himself, and he fell face first toward the bottles. Josh’s hardhat saved his life, but the impact of his head on the exposed bronze valve stem knocked him cold and he collapsed on the concrete floor in a tangled heap.
Petra’s yell was made inaudible by the shrieking whistle coming from the 1″ hole where the impact had snapped off the bronze valve stem. The highly pressurized oxygen roared out of the narrow aperture, imparting enough thrust to launch the 140 lb. bottle off the shelf, across the floor, and punch a hole through the thin internal wall. Somewhat unstable, the bottle screamed its way down the corridor, gaining speed even as it careened from one side to the other, here knocking a fire extinguisher off the wall, and there sending a water cooler flying.
In the time that William had taken to process the noise and decide it wasn’t a siren, the bottle had covered three quarters of the length of the corridor. William came to the conclusion that Josh was monkeying about with an air horn, and straightened up from his chair just as the bottle hit the window behind him at nearly fifty miles an hour.
Very little could have protected William at that point, and it was just his thoroughly bad luck that the bottle had hit his office slightly sideways. If it had gone dead straight, it would have missed him by a few inches, but with a slight yaw, the end of the bottle hit him right on his tailbone.
The slight degree of osteoporosis in William’s bones was not a significant factor, but his body mass probably was. He offered enough inertia to the forward momentum of the bottle to rob it of some of its energy, but that had a downside. The integrity of the average human pelvis is incompatible with an impact by a 140 lb. steel missile traveling at 50 mph, even though the impact was slightly angled.
William was no exception to this point, and when he came to rest against the wall, the massive internal bleeding quickly reached a fatal level. One might say that rocket and backside finally met, and that neither lived to speak of it.