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.
Steely fancied himself a slick operator, a modern-day Lothario in tight pants and pointy shoes. Steely cruised the wards of rural hospitals and clinics as a representative for an anesthetics reseller. He thoroughly enjoyed the work and the socializing that went with it. “I’m volatile, baby!” he would say with a big wink and a smirk.
Steely mainly repped inhaled anesthetics that were administered through a face mask, the laryngeal airway, or the tracheal tube. His big sellers included isoflurane, sometimes desflurane, sevoflurane, and the new, fancy—and expensive—Xenon. These anesthetics were usually delivered via a mask or supraglottic airway through a vaporizer or another form of mechanical delivery system, all of which were part of his sales portfolio. His territory covered a large rural area with medium-sized cities at each end, and he spent about a third of his time on the road in his pale blue Ford Transit 250 van.
The van was fully stocked with samples, giveaways that he was no longer allowed to hand out to physicians, and demonstration equipment. To cater to the bottles of sample anesthetics and various bits of equipment, the van was fitted with 14-guage stainless steel tread, plate cargo flooring. On rare occasions, he delivered small emergency orders himself, so there was a lightweight ramp for wheeling up his products. When he couldn’t find a motel for an overnight stay, Steely had a small camping bed and mattress that could be folded up after use and hung from cargo hooks on one wall of the van. All in all, the van was comfortable, versatile, and useful.
Steely was partial to recreational use of the drugs he sold; he liked the sweet-smelling halothane. The problem was that halothane had been discontinued years back and the old stock that could be used for fun had dwindled to zero over the last year or so. As a fluorinated methyl isopropyl ether, sevoflurane was a bit pungent, but quickly eliminated by the body after use. It wasn’t much fun, though—didn’t give a sense of euphoria like the others and the rotten-banana odor wasn’t as appealing. Although he was very careful about who was in the know, he often livened up intimate occasions with product samples, and had an understanding with several other reps whose products were a better fit for party use. It seemed like a natural extension of schmoozing doctors, to charm the nurses and administrative staff that might be interested in partying. The doctors, mostly, didn’t pay attention to him flirting with the young female staff, but his behavior had caught the attention of the head of toxicology at one of the bigger hospitals, who also ran the facility addiction clinic. It wasn’t that Steely was visibly addicted, but Dr. Shanice Smythe had picked up the subtle cues of encroaching dependency and underlying surreptitiousness that suggested to her that he was more than a casual user. It had started during a training course in which each student sampled a few breaths of Entonox, a 50/50 mix of nitrous oxide and oxygen. The small 18″ D-type bottle was passed around the class and Steely took two hesitant breaths. The worn rubber mask smelled like old socks, but the gas had a faintly sweet smell. As he passed the bottle to the person at the desk behind him, he mumbled that it had no effect on him. By the time the bottle reached the back of the row, Steely was grinning broadly and feeling the warm glow of euphoria. He could still feel the pain from a bruised knee he got during basketball practice, but he realized that he just didn’t seem to care about it. After class, he and three friends enjoyed what was left in the bottle, sucking at the mask until the bottle was empty, cold, and running rivulets of condensation.
It wasn’t that Steely was abusing, he might explain, it was just fun, and besides, he needed to test the products he sold. He needed to know what they tasted like, felt like, and how long they took to wash-in and wash-out. He also found it useful to know whether it left one feeling dizzy, groggy, or nauseous. However, he had developed a taste, and not just for the sake of practical product knowledge. He longed for the feeling he had experienced from that first pull of Entonox, and after meeting a new surgical nurse, wanted something special as a treat for their third date. “Volatile in more ways than one, it’ll be a gas, I promise,” he had said when arranging to meet her on Friday night.
Although Steely didn’t deal with Entonox, he knew someone who did whose territory overlapped. After some trading in favors, leads, and tickets to a ball game, Jim had agreed to fill an old, unused 15-pound bottle with pure nitrous oxide for Steely and meet up before work at a fuel stop. Things didn’t quite work out, though, and Jim had an unexpected early customer call. They postponed to a lunchtime meeting at a diner near their afternoon sales appointments. Steely had to postpone the lunch meeting, though, because he was waiting for the head of anesthesiology at a clinic and couldn’t get free. Finally, they met up after work in a hospital parking lot. Jim pointed out that this was not a medical grade bottle anymore, so obviously Steely couldn’t use it for any client. Steely only wanted it for fun, so he didn’t mind this small issue.
Steely handed over tickets to the ball game and put the black bottle into a small sporting bag. After a day in the trunk, the bottle was almost too hot to hold, but Steely planned to cool that down by sucking up some of the gas. He crossed the parking lot to where his van was sheltered under a tree and checked quickly to see if anyone was looking before he climbed in through the back doors. Eager to have a quick sample of the nitrous, Steely crouched over the bottle and fumbled to get the hose connector onto the valve. He couldn’t see well enough to get it on properly. Hugging the bottle with one arm, he turned to reach for the shop light mounted on the roof above the cab area. As he stretched, the bottle slipped from under his arm and fell to the van floor at his feet.
At a nominal temperature of 59° F, a medical-grade bottle of nitrous oxide would have an internal pressure of some 640 pounds per square inch, be designed to withstand the pressure, and have a relief valve in case the pressure built up too high. This was not such a bottle, it did not have such a valve, and it was nowhere near 59° F. It responded to being hot, shaken, and dropped in a very physical way. The bottle split lengthwise and the gas filled the confined space, blew both rear doors off their hinges, punched out the front and side windows, and tore the roof off.
The bottle itself had not exited via the peeled open roof or the gaping hole where the doors had been, due to the simple fact that its trajectory had been interrupted by Steely’s head. It had all been, as Steely might have said, quite a gas, and very volatile at that.