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 or similar sources 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.

Professor Wilbur Hieronymus Grimes was a fusspot and an old-school academic bully. He staunchly believed there were two sides to medical training: Physicians must be modern-day martyrs as well as budding plutocrats. He taught students as if these things were true, but did not consider that both faces would be tightly bound within a resulting culture that elevated the profession only by parasitizing the humanity of physicians.

He believed strongly that physicians had a calling, not a job, but then twisted that in on itself as a daily torture. No matter how hard a medical student tried, no matter how many hours of the day they studied or worked, it was never enough. They were to be policed, to police each other, and to police themselves, and to feel shame at the least sign of frailty. For Grimes, no student sacrifice was enough, no pain sufficient, no self-denial adequate. At the same time, Grimes believed in wealth. A wealthy physician was a high-performing one in his view, and to the degree that a physician wasn’t rich, it was obvious to him that they were lacking in professionalism. Grimes taught gross anatomy and practice economics. In one, he taught how to wield a butcher’s tools to disassemble the human body, and in the other, he taught how to use marketing, stratification, and billing codes to externalize risk, exploit opportunities, and maximize profit. The anatomy course was mandatory for all medical students, but his economics class was always fully booked because it was popular at the time for well-heeled commentators and influencers to pronounce with great solemnity and gravitas that medicine should be run like a business. That was precisely how it was taught.

Grimes was not a happy nor a popular man. His sour outlook was perfectly balanced by a sour internal dialogue, and he viewed the world as essentially wicked, perverse, and out to get him. Because he distrusted people in general, and medical students in particular, he was suspicious of their motives and forever on guard against anticipated malevolence. This attitude was quite palpable to the students, and his pre-emptive attempts to make sure they weren’t cheating, undermining him, or plotting mischief made for a very tense and uncomfortable classroom experience. When one of the undergrads had picked a ruler off the floor and handed it to the owner during an exam, Grimes had hurtled down the aisle toward her, yelling and waving his arms as if a swarm of demonic yellow jackets were in hot pursuit. Back in his office and scowling at the pair, he could find no evidence of the cheating he was utterly convinced had taken place. However, the less he found evidence, the more certain he became that they were sophisticated cheats using some ultra-sneaky sleight of hand, secretly laughing up their sleeves at him. As his anger and frustration mounted, so did his certainty that they were guilty and his conviction that only the most comprehensive punishments would suffice. In the end, Grimes had so worked himself up that he suffered a sort of seizure and keeled over. After placing him in the recovery position, an ashen-faced young women had scampered off to find help, unsure what else to do with the prostrate figure whose bowels had quite evidently released. On waking in the infirmary, it immediately occurred to Grimes that they may had done this to him on purpose to hide evidence. Within hours, he had them both ejected from the medical school. These were not the first students whose medical careers he had derailed, nor were they to be the last.

Grimes also had a tense relationship with the other staff: the faculty who he thought were all obviously trying to edge him out of tenure opportunities and were certainly jealous of him; the administrative support staff, whom he suspected were spying on him; and the janitorial staff that he was convinced were sabotaging his lab work and stealing from him. All in all, there was animosity, suspicion, and hostility in abundance. Like many paranoid and prickly people, Grimes contrived to create the very conditions that he most feared and suspected, and increasingly it was entirely true that faculty members wanted to oust him. The administrative staff indeed spied on him, looking for just causes to have him fired. The janitorial staff, in their turn, regularly spat in his beakers, blew their noses into his specimen jars, and stole anything they thought would irritate him most: his reading glasses, slides, and, on more than one occasion, his lab shoes.

Life continued in this tense and uncomfortable vein for years, but then things became worse. A big blow occurred when he was denied tenure in favor of a younger woman. He was convinced she had plotted to thwart his pursuit of tenure, but in actual fact, it was not her, but the head of the organic chemistry department. The head was bored with his job and life as a professor, but found his spirits lifted by the delight in making that miserable old coot, Grimes, as dejected as could be. He even slipped the janitorial staff a few bucks now and then to pilfer things from Grimes just to irritate him. Also, on several occasions, he paid them to drop a speck of sugar saturated in cadaverine into Grimes’ street shoes. As a result, and especially on hot days, there was a decidedly detectible smell of death emanating from Grimes’ feet when he took his tea in the staff lounge. The way people wrinkled their noses at Grimes or gave him the side-eye was such a joy that the head looked forward to lunch, and it made getting up in the morning so much easier.

The facility mortician also despised Grimes. Since Grimes took a prime faculty parking spot that she had desired, there was bitter animosity between them. Her preferred parking spot was right next to the covered walkway, but now because it had been taken by Grimes, Wendy had to walk all the way across the parking lot over uneven ground, and when it rained, the path was often muddy. She had already ruined two pairs of heels and it infuriated her no end. As one of Grimes’ direct reports, Wendy also had to put up with his sour moods, his daily interference and micromanagement of how she ran her unit, and most infuriating of all, where and how her cadaver paperwork was kept. Wendy had wanted all records to be digitized and stored on a computer, but Grimes opposed and frustrated her wishes at every turn, and records were still on paper and stored in a stupid metal filing cabinet. Wendy paid one of the cleaning staff to steal some of the glassware Grimes needed for his pet lab project, and she delighted in his frustration. Wendy was crafty as well as fashionable. Using a diamond wheel, she cut Grimes’ glassware into pieces that she added to figurines made of colored glass.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the school left it to each department to decide when to close in-person sessions. Grimes was the last to shutter classes, because, he maintained, it wasn’t as if students could take their cadavers home with them. However, he put pressure on the students to hurry up and get done with the semester’s task sheet in gross anatomy in order to bring the class to a logical pause.

Amy, Nathan, Rachel, and Claire shared a cadaver. They were hurrying as best they could to be done before getting home, which became impossible, but Professor Grimes kept adding tasks or requiring them to describe or demonstrate the task procedures and considerations. Nathan had hurried a task and accidentally nicked the gallbladder with a scalpel. That accident necessitated a cleanup that wasted time and put even more pressure on the team to finish. Just before they were ready to start packing up, Amy discovered the tip of a knife blade embedded in one of the cadaver’s lower vertebrae as she was tracing and removing the sciatic nerve. The discovery had to be logged in the notes and reported to Grimes. He had not deemed it of any great urgency, but required it to be detailed in the notes before he finally let them pack up and leave.

Their departure left Grimes on his own in the building, and he slowly set about ensuring that the cadavers were stowed, the lab secured, and telephones redirected to the main switchboard. He dragged it out because that awful Wendy woman wanted to come and moan about parking spaces again, and he delighted in making her wait. She had pleaded with him to switch parking spots and had said something about ruining her shoes. Grimes had no idea what “Louboutins” were, but he wasn’t having any of it, and planned to advise her to simply wear cheaper shoes, like him, or get some galoshes if it was muddy.

After several weeks, the campus slowly reopened, and staff and students filtered back into the facility. Things were not quite the same, though, and not everyone returned. Some staff had taken retirement because of poor health, and a few had just resigned and left without any given reasons. A small number had also died. The remaining medical staff were pleasantly surprised to discover that Grimes had submitted his resignation during the pause and would not be returning. Some had thought that Grimes would stay in his position forever out of pure spite, but others shrugged and suggested that even an old sourpuss like Grimes would eventually get sick of being disliked and leave. A few ventured that they wouldn’t miss that stink of death in the staff room. Wendy had snorted. “Good heavens yes, he must have had serious body odor issues.” She then suggested that maybe Grimes had a rotten soul, rather than just having a foot problem. During the pause, Wendy had made a little wind chime from an old steel surgical instrument, and she hung it above the staff lounge door so that on warm summer days, the breeze from the garden would catch it and it might jingle pleasantly. On those occasions, she would whisper to herself, “tinkle, tinkle, little stinkle, how I wonder where you are,” and smile.

Amy and Claire returned to finish up their cadaver study. Nathan had quit during the pause, and Rachel had health issues after a COVID infection that made study impossible. Amy had some difficulties remembering things clearly since her COVID infection, but she managed. Now she was perplexed because she could not find their cadaver notes. In fact, though they searched their own paperwork, thumbing through Grimes’ ancient green filing cabinet, they couldn’t find them. Figuring that maybe Nathan or Grimes had taken them, Amy and Claire resigned themselves to this fact and set about recreating the records. The person standing in for Grimes was very understanding and helped them with some of the trickier parts of documentation, also guiding them through the completion of the last tasks on the cadaver. Using their personal notes, they eventually got enough paperwork together to satisfy the record requirements. As the mortician and a pathologist, Wendy was very knowledgeable of both the gross anatomy and dissection work, and, of course, the paperwork, and Amy thanked her profusely for her help.

Nobody ever asked after Grimes, nor did anyone enquire as to what had become of him or where he had gone. He remained an occasional topic of discussion when smelly feet or an irritating manner were the topic of conversation. Most certainly, nobody ever thought that Grimes was at another campus, interred along with the donor cadavers whose ashes were in a commemorative garden behind the medical sciences building. The paperwork that had accompanied his body as a donation had not entirely matched what the students found in the fully prepared and partially used cadaver, but they did not wish to look a gift horse in the mouth. Inter-college cadaver donations weren’t rare, but uncommon enough and desired enough to place gratitude above perfection. Also, little things like the height and weight being slightly different could easily be explained by student inexperience, as well as the fact that the knife blade fragment noted in the paperwork was missing. Nothing in this world is perfect, the gross anatomy professor reflected, and whether a knife injury to the spine looked more like someone had been at it with a curved tip chisel or a trocar, the fact remained that a partially used cadaver in the hand was worth a thousand perfect records in the shelf. “The perfect,” he thought to himself, “is the enemy of the good.”

Wendy often sat in the staff lounge at lunchtime, with the afternoon breeze fragrant from the garden outside, and she was happy. She was likely to take over the gross anatomy seat, her parking spot was ideal, and the merry notes of the wind chimes made from a used trocar always brought a smile to her lips. Her sole disappointment was that the body wasn’t interred where she could see it, but who needs a desire for perfection, when one can have the reality of good?