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.
Steven “Snake” Carrigan was a herpetologist and a social climber. He married Betty when she was a nursing student and he was cleaning animal cages to help fund his zoology degree. When Betty qualified as an RN, it was her salary that put most of the food on the table and a roof over their heads, and she worked extra shifts wherever possible because she was building a future with the man she adored. But times had changed, and Steve had moved up in the world, and so had his desires and expectations.
As Steve’s career as a herpetologist progressed, he became increasingly focused on advancing his own status and reputation and less on his marriage. He spent more time on networking and socializing with people in ever-higher social circles and less time at home with Betty. He was also increasingly preoccupied with his image and reputation, and noticed how other upwardly-mobile men had glamorous partners who boosted their social profile. In comparison, he felt that Betty was looking more drab and lackluster every year, she wasn’t a gateway to better social circles, and her earning capacity seemed to have peaked, while his was climbing steadily.
It was obvious to Steve that being in the better social circles opened career doors and removed obstacles, but that gaining entrance to those social strata required more than just hard work and desire. In fact, as he had discovered, acceptance required a certain feigned disinterest in money while at the same time displaying the signs of wealth that went with that level of society. On the salary of a department head of a zoological garden, no matter how upmarket, displays of wealth were difficult. When Steve desperately wanted to join a golf club frequented by a group after whose membership he lusted, he discovered that the combined cost of dues and equipment were quite beyond his bank balance. It was then that Steve decided to turn a warning into a gig.
Steve had attended several conferences and seminars in which the illegal trade in exotic reptiles had been discussed to such a degree that Steve had a good idea of what the market wanted and how to gain access to it. His reptile breeding and incubation program was an ideal source. When a clutch of eggs was produced by a rare species, pretty much only he knew how many hatched and how many hatchlings survived. If he skimmed one or two individuals, he was the only one who would know. Through a subtle pipeline and clever method of payment, Steve was soon able to pay club dues, purchase a fancy set of clubs, and splurge on a secondhand Breitling Exospace watch, for the giveaway price that equaled what Betty grossed in a quarter. Overall, his golf gambit cost more than she earned in a year. From there, Steve never looked back, and maintained his own little private reptile house in a specially designed building on their plot. Soon he was making a sale every month on average and was building a nice treasury to fund further climbs up the social ladder.
The next social level, however, had barriers to entry that club membership and watches could not fix. The next level up was a matter of breeding and heritage. One was born into this brigade, or married into it, or on very rare occasions, invited in for exceptional lifetime achievement. Since he was most decidedly not of neo-aristocratic stock, and wasn’t going to wait around until he was in his dotage, marrying someone in the crew was his only bet. Steve already had someone in mind.
Gabriella was the youngest daughter of the chief benefactor to the zoological garden and Steve’s breeding program. The old boy was in his eighties and sent his children out to represent him at most of the various social engagements: cutting ribbons, swinging bottles of champagne at the sides of boats, and presenting checks to this, that, or the other deserving charity. The elderly patron only attended the very cream of events, and only a couple per year.
The events were delegated by family hierarchy. His eldest son went to events that included royalty, real billionaires, and the like, while the second oldest child, now in their sixties, got events with Oscar-winning celebrities, Nobel prize winners, and such. As the youngest of six children, Gabriella presided over events related to zoos, equestrian competitions, and sports teams. She was equally irritated, humiliated, and indebted to this lot. Her allowance was sufficient rather than generous. She knew that she would inherit enough to be comfortable, but not rich relative to her siblings, and that her family name and connections opened almost any door worth her interest. She was also bored, almost permanently tipsy, and sick to death of all the usual playboys who were in her league.
She had met Steve at the opening of a new wing to house a breeding program for some rare something or other. He was one of those academic slick types who sucked up hoping to be invited to a polo match or get into her undies, sometimes literally, but he was amusing. He showed her some exotic snakes, let her hold one that coiled itself around her arm and gazed at her with little black beads. She found the experience quite fascinating: the odd contrast of unexpected strength and fragility of the snake. Steve had handled it expertly and had interesting things to say about the snake. What struck her was that he saw her and spoke directly to her. It felt just for a moment like she was the only person in the room, and he wasn’t talking to the family donating a big chunk of cash, but to her as a person. It wasn’t something she would seek out again, but it was memorable. So, when Steve made contact to invite her personally to attend a small private showing at the city museum, she decided to accept.
Steve had a problem. He was pretty sure that he could lure Gabriella into marriage, but divorcing Betty was out of the question. She would get half, records would become public or at least visible to her that would tip the apple cart on his business with rare species, and he might lose his home and the private reptile house that made his swanky life possible. He had a plan, though.
Despite her hard work and sacrifices to make their marriage work, Betty found herself feeling increasingly neglected and insignificant in Steve’s life. She could see that his priorities had shifted, that he was more interested in climbing the social ladder than in building a life with her. Nevertheless, she remained committed to their relationship and continued to support Steve in his career, even as he became more distant and preoccupied with his own success.
She was also catching the odd hint that maybe he had found someone else, maybe younger, sexier, more athletic and into golf than she was. It wasn’t a suspicion as much as a vague fear, and she dwelled briefly on whether he might find his research assistant or his receptionist interesting. The assistant was a postdoctoral researcher who was easily Steve’s intellectual equal, and she was sharp-witted in a way Betty could never match. She was also slim and gorgeous, with long blonde hair and a trim figure. The receptionist was one of those highly attentive types with a husky voice and ample bosom that made Betty envious. When Steve had recently showed Betty a bit more attention, she felt relief and even joy. Her fears fell away, and Betty responded eagerly. Steve even invited her to see some new hatchlings in his reptile house and keenly pointed out some of the exotic specimens. Seeing him like this, in his element, reminded her of how they had met and of their life as newlyweds, and her heart swelled. He even let her pick up and handle one of the exotic species. It was really beautiful, and she admired the orange head and underbelly, and gasped quietly as it wrapped a dark blue body around her fingers. She was reluctant at first, but it seemed as shy as she was, and it responded to her gentle touch by sliding through her fingers and sniffing the air with its tongue. She put it back in its glass box and watched it slide away before thanking Steve, and explained that she would love to see and hear more, but was not comfortable handling the snakes. Steve seemed disappointed, but said he quite understood. He said he needed to do a little paperwork, but would join her later watching a TV rerun of “Murder She Wrote.”
Betty had just finished the dishes when she thought she should go thank Steve again and make sure he didn’t feel she was ungrateful that he let her handle the snake. She was just scared she would hurt it or drop it or something. When she quietly entered the reptile house, Steve was holding the same snake with the pretty orange belly and light-blue sides, and he was doing something with a little plastic cup that so engrossed him, he didn’t notice her enter the room. Seeing him so absolutely focused on his work, Betty’s heart swelled with admiration, and she had to admit to herself that it made her more than a little horny. Tiptoeing up behind the totally unaware Steve, she intended to whisper hoarsely in his ear so the warmth of her breath could be felt spreading along his neck. She had planned to say something like “Hey fella, want me to play with your snake?” In fact, all she got out was the “Hey” and Steve jumped and yelped like she had tipped an ice bucket over his head. His yelp turned into a shriek of terror and pain, and he flung the snake away. “It bit me! You stupid cow, it BIT ME!” he shrieked at her in a mix of terror and fury.
Betty was horrified at how quickly the situation had gone from romantic and tender to this fury at her. She stammered “It’s only a harmless snake, you said so yourself?” Steve paused in his wailing to yell angrily at her. “Not harmless? You stupid, stupid cow, it’s one of the most venomous in the world!” Betty was not the smartest person in town, and sometimes Steve said things that she didn’t quite get, but she was perceptive enough to grasp the implications of him coaxing her to play with a snake that he now said was deadly. Steve yelled at her to run to the house and call the ambulance, tell them that he was bitten by a blue coral snake, and then come back with ice and a pressure bandage. “Well, what are you waiting for, you stupid ape?” he yelled at her.
Betty backed away slowly, tears running hotly down her cheeks, turned and ran for the door, and bolted it from the outside. She walked to her car and took a drive to the shops, where she picked up groceries she had forgotten to get on her way home from work. As she often did when Steve was busy in his reptile house or at events, she stopped by the hospital to chat with a friend on night shift.
Steve had tried to stay calm, but fury and fear conspired to make his heart pound. He had thought that maybe the snake did not have a chance to get any venom in him. There were clearly two bleeding puncture wounds in the fleshy part of his thumb, but since there was no pain, maybe … By the time Steve noticed the muscle twitches, though, the full dose of venom was circulating in his body and locking open sodium channels as it went. At that point, he was only a few short minutes from full body spasms and then seizures that made running, or even walking, quite out of the question. The best he managed before paralysis overtook him and he choked on his own vomit was to crawl to the door and scrabble at it weakly in a futile way. Steve breathed his last an hour before Betty returned to unbolt the door, try CPR, and call an ambulance.
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