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 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.
Ajay and Vinay had been feuding almost their entire lives, and by now in their mid-fifties, it had solidified into their characters like dark load-bearing, reinforced concrete.
All through middle school, they competed for prizes, awards, and attention, and neither could gain the high ground for long before the other mustered some new energy to briefly pass them. By the end of high school, they were frenemies of the most ardent sort—smiling bitterly at each other, giving icy congratulations, and offering sour acknowledgements. With almost identical academic performance, similarly impressive extracurricular achievements, and equally effusive letters of recommendation, they obtained nearly indistinguishable college acceptances.
Thankfully, their paths diverged in college, and the bookish and quiet Ajay chose to major in finance, while the brash and outgoing Vinay set his sights on a medical career. Truth be told, this was mainly the result of maternal influence—Ajay’s mother was an actuary at a large bank, whereas Vinay’s mom was an orthopedic surgeon. It was a great relief to both families that the two were finally on different career paths and that this foolishness, as Ajay’s father put it, could finally be put to rest. He also added, privately, that at last his son would not have to put up with the pompous and braggardly behavior of Vinay. A grandstanding bag of conceit, he thought to himself.
Both climbed their respective professional ladders in a steady fashion, Ajay slightly quicker because medical finance had a shorter academic path, and he was able to begin the management clamber sooner. By the time Vinay had finished medical school and started his climb into managerial positions, Ajay had risen to a junior financial director role.
The toys with which they signaled their rise became more exotic, extreme, and expensive. Their cars got wider, sleeker, and lower, and signaled opulence of a certain material kind. Ajay and Vinay met occasionally on the links, or rather, in the exclusive clubhouse or the parking lot. They had each ponied up for the shaded parking that was opposite the pro shop and had parking spaces on either side of the covered walkway. Whether it was fate or the limited distance either was willing to move from family, the two found themselves at the same hospital. Ajay had been there several years and was the VP of finance when Vinay was transferred as the medical director for Sports Medicine, as a result of a merger between two regional healthcare systems. Vinay had been thrilled with the promotion right until he bumped into Ajay on his third day at work. Vinay was backing his new Corvette Stingray into his assigned parking spot, and as he turned back in his custom leather seat, there was Ajay, looking sleek and satisfied. “Just visiting?” Ajay had suggested, hopefully.
Vinay returned the snub with interest, often deliberately gunning his engine when passing by Ajay in the parking lot and driving past Ajay’s modest Mercedes a little too closely. He thought it hilarious when he made Ajay jump when he spun his Stingray in the parking lot just as Ajay was placing folders in his trunk. Papers had spilled out and scattered in the evening breeze. Ajay was not given to expletives but had muttered loudly enough to raise giggles from some passing medical students. “I wish that fathead would choke on his stupid car!”
Things were made slightly worse when renovations to some satellite buildings had closed part of the parking lot and they found themselves assigned to adjoining parking spots under one of the older buildings. Vinay derived a sense of pleasure from entering his spot a little too quickly when Ajay was near or leaving his spot with a roar and squealing tires. On the work side, Vinay had his sights firmly on the CMO slot that would open up in the next couple of years when the aging incumbent was set to finally retire. Vinay could imagine himself in a plush office on “CxO Row.”
In meetings, Vinay often took more than his fair share of the time and saw it as an opportunity to denounce non-medical staff, extol the virtues of sports medicine, and crow over how the fat profit margins of sports medicine paid the salaries and perks of almost everyone else at the table. He grudgingly acknowledged the cardiovascular and orthopedic surgery departments for their healthy profits but sneered at pediatrics and public health for sometimes barely turning a profit at all. The bulk of his bile was reserved for administration and especially those he termed the “bean counters.” Whenever Vinay used that term, he would glance in Ajay’s direction and give a little eye-roll.
The day that Ajay was promoted to CFO was also Vinay’s birthday, and although his wife came to the office for a surprise lunchtime visit, and his staff sang him a sweetly enthusiastic happy birthday song at the lunchtime celebration, Vinay was seething. He put on a reasonable show of appreciation, but even the gift of a dozen Dixon Fire golf balls from the staff didn’t make him feel less bitter about being upstaged by Ajay. The staff had bought the balls because they knew of his passion for golf and wanted to give him something brag-worthy—the $75 price tag came with a promise that they were recyclable and eco-friendly. Under normal circumstances, Vinay would have loved bragging at the club that he had the most expensive golf balls, but today he barely squeezed out a grimace. His wife had splurged on a box of Grand Cru chocolates by the gourmet Belgian chocolatier, Pierre Marcolini. Even this failed to lift Vinay’s spirits, and when the lunchtime celebration was over, she made her exit wondering whether it had been quite worth the effort.
Back at work after lunch, Vinay was morose. He harangued his staff over trivialities, lectured his personal assistant on the lack of updated sports posters on the office walls, and snarled at a nurse wheeling a patient to the sports rehab clinic. He seemed to grow more upset as the afternoon ended, and it dawned on him that he was several years away from matching Ajay’s status. He stalked out of his office as the sun was setting on the vaguely pink hospital complex.
When Vinay got to the parking garage, there was a further provocation lying in wait for him. To celebrate his promotion, Ajay had already bought a new S-Class Mercedes-Benz in muted metallic grey. The old parking spots were suited to a previous generation in car sizes, and the Stingray and Benz were both somewhat on the wide side, with the effect that there was barely enough space to walk between the two luxury cars. Vinay cursed loudly but decided he could slide through the gap when he opened the driver’s side door. Still carrying his fancy balls in one hand and unopened chocolates in the other, Vinay turned sideways and squeezed through the narrow gap, and with a twist, dropped himself to the driver’s seat.
Vinay had misjudged the gap, and his jaw hit the top of the door, snapping his mouth shut with an ugly crack. With his head caught between the top of the door and the frame, his body jerked spasmodically. His right buttock struck the leather seat with a glancing blow, and the seat cover slid over the highly finished maroon leather. The forward inertia propelled his head along the top of the sloping door and Vinay rapidly slid down toward the hinge. With the weight of his body and his frantic jerking, his neck slid forward until it had wedged tightly at a point at which the gap between door and frame was too small to allow any further movement, and the resulting pressure crushed his larynx. For once in his life, Vinay was speechless, and apart from the urgent scrabbling of his feet on the smooth concrete floor, he was silent. By the time a group of nurses came past for their evening shift, Vinay’s silence had become permanent, choked to death by his own car.