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.
Don lived with two cats and an elderly black Labrador, in a small but comfortable townhouse in a blue-collar part of town. He was somewhat introverted, very conscientious, and just a tiny bit neurotic. Don didn’t exactly have anything against people, but at 53, life had shown him that there was a lot of bigotry against redheads. Although Don was not a huge fan of the great outdoors and would have preferred an office job, driving a propane truck met his needs to be away from the gossip and jokes and got him outdoors without being in direct sun too much. It paid reasonably, and customers were generally polite and very happy to see him.
Don was a patient man, and even when people left garbage bins too close to where he needed to turn his truck or parked their cars in ways that made delivery very awkward, he never lost his temper. Where Don did get a little short with people was when he was dispensing propane, and he had a recurring nightmare that he would be killed by leaking or spilled propane.
Possibly as a result of his nightmares, Don was always very aware of anything that might cause vented or spilled propane gas to ignite. He was somewhat obsessive about anything containing iron that may possibly cause a spark. Before any work that involved connecting propane hoses, disconnecting them, or pumping propane, Don would first make a thorough inventory of himself and his surroundings to ensure there were zero potential sources of a spark. This inventory included checking pockets and first stowing keys, but even metal zippers, buttons, and coins were forbidden in Don’s approach to safety. To avoid having anything that might cause a spark, Don had replaced all the zips on his work clothes with Velcro, and he eliminated any clothing that might cause static electricity. Don even got a crawling feeling if he thought about the steel toecaps inside his work boots.
Don typically left the depot with around 5,000 gallons of liquified propane in his Bobtail truck. His truck had a Class 8 chassis and could haul up to 6,000 gallons, but his employer was careful about wastage, so he was only around 85% of capacity when he left the depot. Don’s territory consisted almost exclusively of hospitals, clinics, and laboratories.
His second stop of the day on this day of the week was the St. Stithian’s Methodist hospital on the west side of town. He looked forward to that delivery, because in winter, the kitchen staff always offered him a donut or a bagel. If he was early and had some time to kill before his next stop, he would sometimes have a quick cup of coffee with the kitchen staff and chat about sports.
The property on which the hospital, a standalone ED, and a pharmacy were located was under new management, and they were not doing as well as projections had led them to expect. City rates had gone up, and an undisclosed state loophole for rent increases for religious organizations meant that costs were up but revenue was flat. The resulting cash constriction led to a change in outsourced maintenance, including garbage hauling and snow cleaning. The management hired staff based on lowest price, so the new cleaning contractor had less equipment, as well as fewer and less experienced staff than previous years.
Snowplowing was now frequently done by casual laborers or even high school kids. To keep costs down, the new contractor cut corners. Snow clearing was done, but not snow removal, for example. They just pushed the snow out of the way and let the mounds melt into the municipal wastewater system. It was a little unsightly, but cheaper, and there seemed to be no practical downside.
On Sunday, it snowed heavily, and winds gusting down the Rockies had turned the parking lot into a winter wonderland, or alternatively, a massive chore for the contractor to clear.
As a high-school senior and casual laborer, it meant an early Monday morning for Sam, and an extra $50 to push the snow off the walkways and out of the hospital parking lot. He drove the small snowplow in a pattern, pushing piles of snow into a few larger mounds. Sam did a quick run through the main parking lot and scraped his way to the kitchen and loading dock.
Sam carefully scraped a path from the parking lot to the concrete statues at the bottom of the main stairs. He carefully pushed snow from the front to the back of the building, so the entrance looked clean. He liked the hospital reception staff and was particularly meticulous with clearing their snow. They were friendly to him, but his main reason was the roaring crush he had on Desire’, one of the admission clerks. As a 12th grade student with little work experience and no hazmat training, Sam noticed the sign with the blue, red, and yellow diamond markings behind the building at the kitchen loading area, but it didn’t mean anything special to him. Likewise, the 12″ dome protruding from the cement area behind the sign didn’t ring any bells. He understood that propane was stored somewhere here in an underground tank, but in his very brief job training with the contractor, they had only said not to smoke within 20 feet, or something.
Since there were no parking markers and it was far from the loading bay, Sam pushed up a snow mound on top of the dome and around the propane warning sign. He carefully cleared the loading area and a path to the blue dumpster and garbage bins, and he pushed the snow to the mound he had built next to the sign with the diamond markings. Sam checked over the area, made a last run back to the front, and headed across to the stand-alone ED. He would clear the parking opposite the pharmacy, and then park the plow, have a quick coffee and budget meal at the burger place on the far side of the lot, and then head to school in his dilapidated and slightly rusted pale blue Honda Accord.
Don and his white bobtail truck rounded the corner to the back of the kitchen just as Tom had disappeared behind the standalone ED building. Don looked at the mound of snow on top of the 300-gallon underground propane tank and sighed. Once again, they had simply pushed the snow aside rather than removing it, and now it covered the underground tank and the filling valve that he needed to access. He was used to sloppy clearing, but this was worse. The back of the kitchen and loading area had been cleared, and it looked like everything had been piled up on top of the little dome and the cover under which he needed to access the filler valve. Just a little irritated, Don glanced in his mirror and muttered “I really wish I didn’t have to deal with people leaving trashcans in the way or piling snow on top of the tanks!”
From the marking on the cleared cement walkway and the hazard sign, he had a fair idea where the filler valve cover would be. It would mean some digging, and Don pondered whether to call it in as inaccessible and carry on to the next client. He liked the kitchen staff though and was pretty sure they didn’t have enough propane to stretch to the next scheduled delivery. He removed his bulky jacket and hung it over the diamond sign.
Don fetched a shovel from the back of the truck and started digging a tunnel that sloped down into the snow mound at an angle toward where he figured the valve cover must be. He hated this, and even though the underground tank was quite safe and his tanker truck hoses were secure, the idea of potentially scraping a steel shovel blade against cement just set his teeth on edge. After 10 minutes of digging, Don was sweating but could see the cover slightly further in and to the left. Another few minutes and Don had a tunnel about 2 feet in diameter and some 4 feet deep. The tunnel was big enough for his body, and for the hose to reach the filler valve.
Don stowed the shovel, checked himself for metal, and crawled headfirst into the hole to remove the cover and connect the hose from the delivery truck to the tank’s filling valve. Satisfied that his connector was on firmly, Don, crawled back out, dusted snow off his shirt and pants, and stomped off some that had somehow got into the laces of his work boots.
Don did one last check, and then slowly opened the valve on the truck. This was a really critical part of the process, and Don focused intently, switching his attention from the hose to where it disappeared into the snow tunnel, and back to the gauges on the truck. Don remained vigilant that nobody was wandering nearby with an open flame, coming too near, or swinging anything made of iron.
Don noted the counter was ticking over slower, and then as the underground tank reached about 89% capacity, he heard the sharp click and sneezing sound as the bleeder valve released gas and a little liquid propane. Don shut off the supply valve on the truck in a smooth, even motion, and noted the reading on the meter. It read just over 280 gallons. Good thing he had come today, he thought, the kitchen had less than a full day’s gas left to spare.
Normally, Don would simply lift the valve cover over the underground tank, reach down about arm’s length, and disconnect his hose from the valve. Today though, he had to crawl back down his snow tunnel to disconnect the filler hose. Squeezing in, Don could smell the peppery, slightly rotten-egg odor of the propane ejected by the bleeder valve and reached deep into the hole to find the end of his hose.
Don struggled to get the hose disconnected and was breathing hard from the exertion. He could feel his heart pounding in his chest, and he cursed loudly, with growing frustration and a rising anger at the lack of consideration of those who made this so hard by leaving snow piled up where it shouldn’t be. Don’s hand slipped and he hit his knuckles on the side of the valve housing. He yelled and cursed, nursing the hand. His head pounded, and he clumsily tore off his gloves in frustration, sucking at the broken skin. “No blood though,” he thought. Don felt a little dizzy and shook his head. He reached back into the valve recess, groping repeatedly for the disconnect valve. Don paused, briefly puzzled by how difficult he was finding this today, took a deep breath, and thinking how stuffy it felt, tried again to disconnect the hose.
Don felt so tired, and he thought he would just rest for a moment.
Debbie rounded the corner with her delivery van, ready to offload barrels of canola oil, egg powder, and juice concentrate. She was surprised to see the white propane truck still outside the loading area. It was always gone by the time she got here, and they would cross paths heading in opposite directions several stops back. As she drew alongside, she could hear the truck idling, and her eyes followed the thick hose snaking its way… to where, she wondered. She slacked off on the accelerator and coasted slowly past the propane truck.
Craning her head around the door frame of her van, it took Debbie a moment to register the shapes that stood out darkly from the white backdrop of the mound of snow where the hose disappeared. Debbie hit the brakes hard. “Feet!” she thought. Reaching for her cellphone, Debbie stared fixedly at Don’s cold motionless legs protruding from a hole in the snow mound. Don had been granted his wish, and he would never again have to struggle with bins in his path or snow piled over the valves.