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.
Victor was a savvy senator of a southern state, and he had the formula for repetitive re-election. Over the years, he had mastered the combination juggling act and tightrope walk act of professional politics. Victor could find ways to benefit the industrial sector who had the money and influence needed to fund a successful election campaign. He also knew how to stir up his voters and drive turnout at the ballot by cranking up the outrage mill. Sometimes, his work had a triple aim of industry patronage, voter support, and direct financial benefits to himself through his many tangled investments.
Victor had crafted laws that elegantly reduced irritations to industry and simultaneously gave his voters a sense that he was “sticking it to the other side.” Oddly enough, several of those laws also benefitted his own businesses. Last year, for example, he had gutted some of the state public health regulations related to water quality and usage. As a result, his shares in a seafood factory soared in value. He had also indirectly trimmed the public health department budgets and placed restrictions on its ability to inspect or fine industries for water-related activities.
Clarice worked for the state department of health. Her primary role was to carry out surveillance of water and foodborne diseases and to reduce harm to the public by identifying risks, initiating preventative or mitigatory interventions, and performing inspections of food products, processing, and handling. She was exhausted, though. It seemed to her that her every tool and method she had to carry out her work was obstructed by the laws and policies that, in theory, granted her authority. In practice, she had wide accountability but very narrow capability or authority. She had virtually no budget to carry out inspections, and where she could afford to issue public health orders, the laws stipulated that they be narrow to the point of useless; she gave so much prior warning regarding any inspections that they were essentially ineffective. Her staff had also been decimated by budget changes. Her only data scientist had been transferred to another department and her inspection and surveillance team had been cut by 60%. After an embarrassing report by her department on waste discharges into the bay and coliform counts in the water, her IT budget had been cut. The specialized statistical software licenses she needed had been canceled to save money; orders for image editing software were also canceled.
Candace had coped by switching to free software: RStudio for her statistical needs and Gimp for doing graphics. This switch in software had a steep learning curve, but turned out to be not all bad. She found there was just as much functionality for her purposes and the support through other users was faster and just as good.
Candace had serious concerns about waste going into the bay and had spent a virtual afternoon session with a team looking at pathogen shifts and changes in average temperatures of the waters in the bay. She had been worried for a long time about water health in the bay, but especially now that so many aquaculture businesses had started up. Her latest concern was about shellfish health, since so many people used the bay as a food supply. With water temperatures unseasonably high, and some early signs of trouble, she had sent a sample of cloudy water for testing.
Victor was having a busy week. Elections were coming, and he had a lot of fundraising to do, courtesy calls to make, and industry events to attend before the week was done. Thursday was booked with back-to-back visits to big donors, but he had saved the best for last: a late afternoon visit and tour of a seafood factory specializing in mussels, one in which he held a 32% share. Part of the tour involved a photo session and formally cutting the ribbon on a new addition to the processing plant. Not that he minded, but he had to redo the take of him sampling mussels several times. First there was unexpected reflection off his forehead, then the wrong person was to his right, and finally someone was coughing in the frame, which would have looked as if they were bilious or something. Victor was not pressed for time at this stage and didn’t mind gulping down more mussels chased with crisp Pinot Grigio. All in all, it was an enjoyable couple of hours, and the publicity would probably boost revenues. There was still work to do, though, and he had several hours ahead of him to change wording in new bill to water down emissions standards to one that had less economic impact. Victor headed to the office. He would normally have gone home to finish up the work, but the office was on his way and closer. He was feeling some slight bowel pressure, as if he had eaten something a little too spicy, so closer was better.
It was a good decision, because he barely made it to his oak-paneled office and its private toilet. He speed-walked the last stretch and slammed his office door closed behind him, very grateful the staff had all gone home. To say he experienced profuse watery diarrhea would have been a vast understatement. The hot jet that shot out of him was an experience that was entirely new to him, and not even a childhood mishap with bad milk or a college encounter with some doubtful fish tacos came close. He had barely got his wind back before he had to grab the dustbin and vomit profusely.
Editor’s Note: Want to be featured in a medical fiction piece? Use the form below to let us know!
Victor was somewhat stunned by this sudden unpleasantness, but he did feel a little better. Thinking the worst was behind him, he cleaned up and got ready to leave. Sudden abdominal cramps and pain in his rectum put any thoughts of leaving out of his mind, and a new sense of urgency drove him back to the toilet for another series of profuse bouts of diarrhea and vomiting. The onset was a little too sudden, though, and he missed the bowl by a tiny margin. He stared dismally at a splatter of brownish liquid on the tiled floor, vaguely noting little flecks of whitish material dotting the puddle. After several more bouts, and his legs and gut cramping badly, Victor felt that he needed help and tried to get to his phone. His face red, with sweat beading on his forehead from a mounting fever, Victor fumbled with the phone, only to lose his temper when it wouldn’t recognize his thumbprint. After five failed attempts, the phone locked him out for three minutes, and Victor had to dash back to the toilet.
When the janitor unlocked the office door at 7:30 sharp, as he had done every day since Victor had employed him 7 years ago, he was greeted by a fishy stench of quite indescribable proportions. Venturing tentatively into Victor’s office, he took some time to take in the dark gray cadaver seated on the toilet, leaning back, with its teeth bared over blue lips.
Due to the budget cuts and low staffing in the public health department, it wasn’t until midday that the urgent lab request from Wednesday had come back. The warmer water had accelerated growth of one specific pathogen around the mussel beds that hadn’t been seen in these parts in over a century. Clarice looked at the report with a low whistle. She hadn’t seen a Vibrio cholerae number like that since a trip to Nigeria several years before, and never in any developed nation with a functioning public health system. No longer allowed to issue quarantines, she carefully typed up an alert recommending against consumption of any shellfish from the bay area for the next 2 weeks.