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.
Vern was always getting into hot water of one kind or another, or so his twin sister often said. He was not curmudgeonly as much as just stubborn, somewhat rigid, and struggled with coloring between the lines consistently. Vera frankly didn’t see the distinction, and sometimes despaired of her brother’s ways —like washing his teeth in her dishwasher. Vern had a full set of false teeth. They were not the modern kind that involved titanium pegs and space-age ceramic crowns, but the kind your grandpa might have had back in the day. These were the type that came out at night, glowed purple in fluorescent light at the disco, and inflicted pain if you got tomato pulp above the upper base. Vern was not the sort of man to blow big money on dentistry and appearances, and he never liked food with any kind of pulp or went clubbing, anyway.
Vern had two passions and really didn’t care much for life beyond them. To Vern, work was a way to fund building model airplanes and going fly fishing, and he didn’t seek out human contact unless directly required to. His attitudes and solitary lifestyle had never brought him into any meaningful contact with women, and he stayed a bachelor. Vern was quite satisfied with that and had moved into his parents’ old house with Vera after her husband had died. A childhood infection with hepatitis B had silently corroded Grant’s liver and he had developed primary liver cancer that metastasized throughout his torso before the first hint appeared at age 48. Just 204 days after the diagnosis, Grant was in the ground, and Vera was faced with paying off a second mortgage, two cars, and a Winnebago. Grant had taken out the mortgage to pay for remodeling and purchase of the Winnebago, which he said would allow them to travel the country when they retired.
Vern was pretty good at the DIY work needed to complete the remodeling, and putting their salaries together meant they could afford to keep the house and pay down the loan. Vern was skilled enough at woodworking, could handle small welding jobs, and could do the basic electrical work required. Since they worked at the same hospital, they could commute together and save money. Vera worked in the pathology lab as a technician, while Vern worked in the hospital sterilization department and mostly handled the lab sterilization equipment. The job came with some perks that Vern greatly appreciated, and which made the somewhat mediocre salary acceptable in his eyes. First, Vern got to buy any written off or retired equipment at nominal rates. This had allowed Vern to build his own drill press, lathe, and milling machine from parts of working equipment purchased at $1 a piece. Second, it enabled Vern to purchase a wide array of things for his hobbies and get the very substantial discounts afforded to the hospital by wholesalers and specialty suppliers. He also got the best service from suppliers who would not otherwise have given him the time of day. The hospital allowed him to deduct these purchases directly from his paycheck, but since it only did so when the hospital paid the invoices, it typically gave Vern 90 days to pay. The third and perhaps most important perk in Vern’s eyes was the fact that he had no real supervisor or workmates, and as long as he got the job done on time and well, the lab manager was happy to just leave Vern alone.
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Vern sort of creeped her out anyway, so it was by mutual consent that they interacted as little as possible. Vera ignored his foibles, like how he wore his ID badge, his habit of not always wearing teeth, and supposedly using hospital equipment for his hobbies. Instead of wearing his ID around his neck on an approved lanyard, he tended to keep his badge in his back pocket, with an unapproved lanyard hanging out and swaying like a scraggly tail. She didn’t like it, but it seemed irrelevant for somebody who never went anywhere else in the building. She wasn’t sure why he sometimes didn’t wear teeth, but felt it wasn’t really her business to ask, and she didn’t really want to confront him over it. Vera had not actually seen him misuse any equipment and had disregarded some of the more fanciful gossip. If it became a problem that she personally encountered, or there was a formal complaint, she would act. Until then, and as long as he came to work on time and did his job, she was content to leave things be. As an afterthought, she asked the cleaning staff to tidy away anything Vern or anyone else left lying around.
Vera and Vern generally got along fine as housemates. She tolerated his stinky bait and the odd dead fish in the freezer. The dentures in the dishwasher were way beyond the pale, though, and they got into a spirited exchange about it. The exchange was somewhat asymmetrical, though, and mainly consisted of Vera giving Vern a stern dressing down, with Vern making feeble defenses. But the experience had the desired effect and Vern quickly found an alternative method for denture cleaning. Part of Vern’s daily work involved processing the dirty implements, containers, and instruments from the lab and three inpatient wings. In practical terms, it meant that each unit sent wheeled mesh shelving trolley carts from point of use to the sterilization section where Vern worked. Each trolley was bar coded and could be read in and out, so the managers could see the status and location of their trolleys in real time. Likewise, Vern and the sterilization manager could track utilization and efficiency. At the business end of the process, Vern operated two roll-in rack washers that were 76 1/2 inches high inside and could each accommodate up to six 24 inch by 60 inch trolleys at a time. The combined high-pressure sprayers and steam jets could sterilize a full load in 6 minutes.
Vern sometimes added a few hobby items to be cleaned, and it seemed natural to pop his dentures into a spot in an open rack to be sterilized. The result was very pleasing to Vern. Not only did the rack washers clean his dentures better than anything had before, but did so in a fraction of the time. Vern didn’t mind not having any teeth in while he worked, although it made using the phone a bit tricky, but he was soon facing an unexpected problem. The sterilization process was bleaching the plastic base of his dentures and the prolonged heat was causing them to soften and slowly warp. Although Vern was relatively unconcerned about appearances, having white gums visible when he smiled or spoke might be disconcerting to some folks and cause unwanted attention. Vern had a simple solution: By opening the rack washer door, he could interrupt the washer after 2 minutes into its 6-minute cycle. A safety circuit would pause the washer as soon as the door was open, and Vern would lean a 4-foot length of 2x4s up against the door to keep it open while he walked inside and squeezed between the trolleys to get his dentures. Closing the door afterwards caused the washer to continue as if nothing had happened. It all worked fine from Vern’s perspective, although some busybody kept moving his plank.
Vern was feeling a little grumpy today. His plank had disappeared and he had to waste time finding something else to hold the door open. All he could find was a metal pipe that was slightly longer than the 2×4. Vern wheeled six trolleys into the washer, putting one with bed pans and a few empty spots in last. He popped out his dentures, wiggled between the two trollies, and placed the dentures into one of the empty slots. Vern took another look for his 2×4, but soon the 2 minutes on his stopwatch was up, and he returned to the washer, picked up the pipe, and pulled open the door. It was a bit more difficult to get the pipe to lean at an angle that kept the door open, but Vern got it to stay put, and he hurriedly wiggled his way between the hot and dripping trolleys. Vern had just closed his fingers around the sparkling clean dentures, when the pipe rolled and slid sideways, allowing the door to swing shut. As the hot spray and steam resumed, Vern jerked backward in a frantic bid to get to the door, but his lanyard had hooked around the bill of a large pair of forceps, which wedged tightly between the trolleys. Repeated yanking proved futile, and Vern succeeded only in getting even more entangled in the carts as the scalding spray drenched his entire body. By the time the rest of the 6-minute cycle had run its course and the spray stopped, Vern had got into hot water for the last time ever.