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 stank. It wasn’t always the whole of Steve, but mainly his breath and body secretions that were sources of stink. At its worst, the stench was potent enough to make the eyes of an adult water.
His condition had resulted in being expelled from school after a tense history lesson. His work had been bumbling, and when called to the teacher’s desk to “explain,” he had fumbled an implausible excuse. Mr. Biggs had poked an accusatory finger at something in Steve’s homework. “What” he demanded imperiously “is this?” Steve had leaned down nervously and inadvertently belched as he bent over. The stink was appalling, and Mr. Biggs shot up off his chair like a rocket, spilling his herbal tea and tipping his chair. Unfortunately, as he stood up, the class pet, one Vance Grey, was cleaning the blackboard, and a collision sent things crashing to the linoleum floor. It was all very distressing, and there were student injuries. Claire accidentally stapled her finger to her homework, Vance wet himself, and Ruth laughed so hard out of sheer surprise that she had hiccups for a week. As a solution to the whole mess, the school had simply told Steve’s parents that it would be better for him to leave, so that they could draw a line under this whole saga. Steve found that social life as a teen was also complicated by his condition, and he spent most of his time in the kitchen at parties, cooking a calming and welcome refuge.
Since early adolescence, Steve had run the course of dental hygienists, dental specialists, ENT specialists, gastrointestinal specialists, and eventually an endocrinologist and a specialist in trimethylaminuria and other genetically mediated metabolic disorders. Steve was in the 5% of patients for whom many things aggravate their condition. It also meant frequent hospital visits.
After school and trade college, Steve worked as a cook in a hospital canteen, so getting to doctor’s appointments was convenient. Even though the hospital medical insurance was pretty abysmal, he knew everyone in the endocrinology and gastroenterology teams on a first name basis. It didn’t get him better care, but it did get him a little more access, slightly more face time, and bigger smiles from the nurses. When the pain was severe, it really helped to have nurses smile. Another perk to Steve having a job at the hospital and in the canteen was that he was generally at work very early to get the food prep and baked goods going, was busy at lunchtime, and had quiet times in between. That meant that he could use some of the special equipment in orthopedics when few patients were around. A side effect of his medical condition was inflamed joints and stiffness, and the infrared lamps, hydrotherapy tubs, and the specialized exercise equipment were a godsend. He could soothe his aching wrists, ankles, and knees, relax with heat and a little traction, and get adjustments to his wrist braces. He also found a ready and receptive patronage for samples he was trying out as potential new menu items.
Gary had grown up with opportunity, status, and ease that he could not have articulated had you offered him $50. It was simply part of the social network that made him expect that things would just happen for him: finding a job, earning enough for a pickup truck, a house, and a small boat, and being surrounded by people who looked like him, spoke like him, and lived like him. Demographics and economics were not in favor of that happening, though. While his parents’ generation had experienced such a world, they had left him a set of unconscious expectations that matched their world, but not the one they left him. For generations, each cohort of children had experienced a better life than their parents, including longer and healthier lives, better jobs, nicer houses, and more opportunities. Things had not worked out that way for Gary, though, and economic, demographic, and geopolitical shifts had torpedoed any chance that he would coast through life like his father. Gary’s generation was doing worse on every score than their parents. Instead of a cushy legacy, their parents had left them the results of outsourcing, offshoring, and deregulation. As a result of the removal of many of his unearned privileges, Gary had many deeply unmet expectations and a growing sense of outrage and moral panic at his rapidly falling relative socioeconomic status. It wasn’t that Gary was moving down in the world in any absolute sense; his salary was holding steady, his golf club membership was secure, and his car, home, and holiday house were all quite safe. It was the steady creep of rising equitability that unnerved and affronted him.
Gary steadily migrated from private ruminations to online trolling to heckling people who he blamed for his spiraling outlook: women, people of color, and foreigners of any kind. His migration from virtual to physical confrontation had gone hand in glove with a rising gravitation to talk show hosts and a growing consumption of their material. After months of daily exposure, the targets of his ire expanded to include gay people and especially trans women. Where a year before he had not given any thought to trans people, he now reviled them and everything about them. When the late-night radio host poured invective over the brightly colored hair, the body modification, and what he called the “groomer” behavior, Gary had found himself screaming inarticulate rage at the radio. Although he knew no trans women that he was aware of, had never been aware of seeing one, and had no idea if he ever would, he was nevertheless filled with urgent and violent hatred toward them.
It was at a rainbow march that Gary and several members of a loose coalition of street operators crashed that Gary reached his next level of escalation. He had been screaming in the faces of a group of parade members when one of them with purple hair and a shiny bubble-gum pink t-shirt with an LGBTQ band logo blew him a kiss. “Calm down honey, you’re going to blow your top.” To Gary, this was an intolerable provocation, and in a blind rage he swung a fist at her face. His blow landed awkwardly on her forehead and sent her tumbling, but also broke his thumb and index finger in a way that would make his shrieks of pain drown out her sobs and elicit thoughtful murmurs from a clutch of orthopedic surgeons. Gary was reluctantly arrested by the police escort, and only so because the punch had been caught on a police bodycam, a syndicated news camera, and the cellphones of three people with very large online followings. By the next morning, a sullen Gary had had his fingerprints and mug shot taken and was released with a court date 6 months out. He was also rearrested when he screamed at a pharmacist who would not give him “the good stuff” to take away the pain from his complex fractures. The police desk sergeant was very understanding, though, and sent him to the ED of the city hospital with an EMT crew that had come to deal with an opioid overdose at the police station.
Emi was a colorful person, not so much because of any odd behavior, but because her hair was sometimes electric blue, her body was decorated with tattoos and jewelry, and her clothes spoke of down-to-earth vibrancy and joy. Emi was a survivor who had been through the firestorm of drug dependance and lived to talk about it. As someone living with muscular dystrophy who experienced muscle weakness, she was a frequent patient in the orthopedic ward, and was on first name terms with everyone from the transporters and ground floor reception staff to the most senior specialists and consultants. Emi also lived with what was once known as Asperger’s and sometimes took things in a very literal way that endeared her to some, but sometimes irritated those who had little patience to be clearer. Emi especially wasn’t received well by those who talked in code or jargon.
When Gary walked into the orthopedic ward to have his hand evaluated for surgery, he noticed the woman in the jeans and black knee-high boots chatting with a transporter and figured she was staff or something. The painkillers felt like they were wearing off, and he was getting irritable, so he muttered “sign in?” to her in a clipped voice. She looked at him with a puzzled face. “What’s that you said, hun?”
Repetition didn’t help, and Emi couldn’t make out if he was asking her to sign something, asking where to go to sign something, or asking where the sign was for something. With more words came growing impatience, but Gary eventually made himself clear, and Emi lifted an arm and pointed to where the nurse’s desk was half hidden around the corner. He was about to comment on her gecko tattoo, but then realized her t-shirt proclaimed her support for an LGBTQ band. Gary stood transfixed for a moment and then bellowed at her, his face contorted with hate and glowing crimson. Emi tried to back away, but he lunged at her t-shirt, grabbing her necklace and scattering the little silver and blue star pendants across the floor as the chain broke in his hands. Emi yelped. “You effing Muppet, look what you done!” A nurse dropped her paperwork and dashed over to intervene.
Steve walked into the orthopedics unit with an eager step, holding a tray of fried okra for his friends to try out. He was testing a new recipe that involved batter, flash frying, and a dash of lemon pepper and African chakalaka seasoning that gave a spicy tang to the little disks that were crisp on the outside but soft and succulent on the inside. He was so preoccupied that he found himself unexpectedly in the middle of a yelling match between one of the nurses and some guy with a cheap jacket and heavy shoes. The heavy shoes guy wheeled on Steve, and Steve in turn threw up his hands in a startled reaction, sending little crispy succulents in an arc. The edge of the tray hit Gary’s injured hand, and he shrieked in pain and lunged for Steve. An instrument trolley was knocked over as Gary rushed at Steve, throwing an uppercut with his good hand that landed in Steve’s midriff. Steve doubled over, belched, and then vomited over Gary while Gary was winding up to kick him. The smell of rotting fish was so unexpected and overwhelming that Gary staggered backward, gasping. As everyone scattered away from him, Gary looked like he would regain control and begin to do Steve and Emi some lasting damage. Gloating over this chance for revenge, Gary reached down for a heavy stainless steel orthopedic mallet where it had tumbled from the trolley and sprang towards Steve.
The way Gary’s foot shot out from under him when he stepped on a disk of okra made him look like he was on skates. Gary fell back heavily onto the jumble of instruments behind him, his breath whooshing out as he landed on the pile. The momentum of his fall plunged a 10-inch bone drill into the nape of his neck until the tip exited his right eye. As Gary lay twitching, just a tiny trickle of goo dripped down from his eye and onto the smear of okra on the floor. Goo met goo, and justice met Gary.