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.
Willy was worried. He was what some physicians have taken to calling “the worried well,” or people that are often medically fine but fret incessantly about perceived risks and malaise. Unlike hypochondriacs, who generally have multitudinous and chronic ailments, Willy had a focus: a discrete and bounded singular issue marked by a specific event.
He had always been trim and athletic, but with the Sunday morning sun lighting up his bathroom like a stage, Willy was alarmed by what he took to be the appearance of a paunch. Turning in front of the full-length mirror behind the bathroom door, he spied the beginnings of a beer belly and some signs of love handles. As a self-admitted “fitness freak,” he had a very strict regimen regarding daily exercise, he partook in a mostly vegan diet, and he utilized a host of holistic supplements. This sudden revelation of adiposity shattered his sense of balance—and coming in tandem with his approaching fiftieth birthday—made him feel that his bodily autonomy was slipping away.
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Staring at his reflection in his illuminated bedroom mirror, Willy’s sense of Sunday serenity was blown to pieces. He pinched, and wiggled, and clutched himself, hoping against hope that he had been mistaken, misled by a trick of the light. To his great consternation, his probing fingers discovered, and his tape measure confirmed, what his eyes had suggested. He was now chubby. Willy stared at himself in the mirror, and made a solemn promise. “I will lose weight!”
Willy’s weight became his single health focus, and he poured over the literature in search of ways to trim down. He spent hours browsing blogs, websites, and social media, hunting for materials by people he liked, and people like him. What he compiled were snippets that validated his feelings, confirmed his beliefs, and reassured him that others had exactly the same issue. Moreover, Willy sought justification that he should follow his gut feeling. What his gut said to him was to buy a Bluetooth-connected bathroom scale that could feed data to his wellness smartphone app.
Many of the wellness blogs and websites confirmed something Willy had often suspected, that American and European foods and spices were rife with genetically modified products. Several sites offered direct import options for foods and spices from countries not yet in the clutches of big agriculture and pharmaceutical companies, places with more natural methods. Thrilled at the range of really interesting natural foods and spices available for online order, and feeling almost like a young boy again in his excitement, Willy ordered a long list of food ingredients. Since many were somewhat unfamiliar, he also ordered several recipe books to match the cuisines of the originating countries. Willy bought a 24″ X 36″ laminated world map for the kitchen and put colored stickers on the countries of origin. He monitored his orders and could hardly bear the excitement and anticipation each time a UPS truck pulled up with another box. As goods arrived, Willy marked countries on the map: Turkey, China, and India. It wasn’t long before he added Iran, Argentina, Egypt, and Brazil, shortly followed by Pakistan, Nigeria, and Ghana.
When he received his latest cluster of orders, he noticed some water damage to two boxes, but the contents seemed fine. Willy could just imagine their long sea voyage. He could picture their journey, threading across the globe like spice island trade routes plied by four-mast wooden ships and pirates like the old days. The kitchen cupboards filled as he shelved and stacked peanuts, cashews, and Brazil nuts. Figs, dried apricots, and dates filled squat glass tubs on the counter. Tall glass containers were brimming: black sesame seeds in one, couscous in another. Maize was stacked in its cloth bag alongside wheat, rice, millet, and corn. Spices were a whole other world, and he filled five rows of glass bottles with black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, coriander, and ginger from the Sultanate of Oman.
Dr. Christine W. Butler had been tracking a pair of killers for the last eight years. They rose from obscurity, often worked together, and their reach had grown. Initially noted only in far-flung regions where policing was lax, standards were low, and conditions were unstable, she had noticed their kills slowly but surely increasing across the developed world. As regulatory rigor had been replaced by industry self-policing, she had seen signs of their presence right in her own county in Chicago.
The names of the pair of killers were well known to Christine, and in her weekly reports, she listed them as Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus, or simply A. flavus and A. para. Their chosen weapons were aflatoxin B1 and aflatoxin B2, or just AFB1 and AFB2. There were several different types of aflatoxin, but AFB1 was believed to be the most potent among all aflatoxins.
Christine was professionally curious. Her biosurveillance job was like being a detective, she sometimes told those who asked. In truth, she spent more of her time writing grant proposals and fighting to protect her tiny budget than actually getting samples of imported food products and testing them for a range of pollutants and pathogens. It was a thankless job, but she loved it. The public, who benefitted daily from her work, didn’t know that her job existed. The people who funded her work either resented her existence or looked at her budget as something to be reused on things that benefited publicity. Her funding came from two sources. The industries that imported food products paid fees that supported her work, and they resented it. Her other funding came from a congressionally directed budget, which politicians often tried to pillage for their own pet projects.
Christine’s current concern was a spike in aflatoxin levels in some imported millet and cumin. From what she could determine, the cause was that the produce was improperly stored, and often lay in crib storage several months where Aspergillus could thrive in dank, humid cribs before being shipped.
Willy was gaining ground on his weight target. He could see a steady drop in his BMI according to his fitness app, and it was projecting the 4th of March, or 84 days, until he reached his target weight. The app was gamified, so he was in a BMI and fitness competition with 13 other members. He was currently ranked 10 but was number 2 in terms of improvement rate. With hourly updates, and daily pole position reports, the app kept them all focused and engaged. Willy was very pleased; in addition to the weight loss, he thought food was just not as tempting as before. Maybe it was the prizes and daily pep-talk doled out by the app, but he just didn’t seem to have quite as much of an appetite. Perhaps because he had been coached on having smaller portions, he felt very full after even small meals. The AI in the app had recommended he switch to using smaller plates and bowls and buy smaller cutlery. Somehow having a smaller plate and using a smaller fork made his body think it had eaten more. Willy marveled at how this seemingly simple trick actually worked.
Willy was a little worried again. He was getting close to his target weight, and that was very exciting, but lately he had experienced bouts of nausea that seemed unrelated to any specific food or any specific time of day. He was also finding it increasingly difficult to muster the energy to do intense exercise routines. The elliptical was OK, but the stair machine was really tough, and if it wasn’t for the support of members of his virtual fitness team, and goading by the app, he was sure he would have quit.
Willy bought a new laundry detergent. He had seemingly developed an allergy to the old one and was constantly itchy. While he was in the shop, he bumped into one of his exercise friends, who commented very favorably on his weight. “Wow, Will. You are looking great!” Jenny had said, and he stopped to have a chat over a cup of coffee at the in-store Starbucks. He was glowing from the complements she showered on him, and when he brought up his concern about his skin looking a bit yellow, Jenny had a ready answer. She was a fitness fiend, and looked trim and athletic, her glossy black ponytail swishing as she energetically talked about her fitness approach. From what she had read, occasional yellowing could come from a high protein diet coupled with red blood cell replacement due to intense exercise. Willy was relieved by her animated reassurances. Then he mentioned that sometimes he needed to throw up after exercising. “Oh jeez,” Jenny had cut in. “If you don’t feel like throwing up after the stair machine, you just aren’t doing it right! I often toss my cookies after a hard session.” Greatly reassured by her confidence and expertise, and mindful of how trim and healthy she looked, Willy pushed his exercise routine up a notch and gained even more ground in the app rankings. He was now ranked at number five, just three below Jenny, and was gaining ground on her.
Willy was very worried. Despite superhuman effort, he could just not maintain his previous rate of fitness improvement. From being a tie with Jenny in the rankings, he had started slipping back. His weight was fine, he thought, and he was thrilled when he reached his BMI target. In fact, his weight had continued to drop. It was exercise that was causing his slippage. He just couldn’t keep up the pace and it was increasingly hard for him to match his previous targets for any of the aerobic exercise routines. As his performance slipped, Willy anxiously tried to counterbalance by sheer will. It was increasingly more difficult for him to muster the energy to exercise, and as his body mass kept dropping, his bouts of nausea after exertion grew longer and more pronounced. As he dropped further and further below Jenny in the rankings, and it took ever greater effort to complete even basic aerobic exercises, Willy grew despondent. He also continued to lose weight, even though he increased his calorie intake with a wide assortment of flavorful smoothies that drew from his trove of exotic herbs and spices.
It was a grey and rainy Tuesday morning when Willy was jolted. He lethargically trudged on his stair climber and had gone barely 5 minutes when excruciating pain coursed through his belly like an electric shock. The sheer force knocked him to his knees, and he blacked out from the pain, face down on the gym room carpet. He barely made it to his panic button, then croaked to the operator that he needed an ambulance, a hearse, anything to take away the pain. The ED team didn’t need much more evidence than the pain, yellow skin tone, and swelling to know he was undergoing liver failure. The combination of an MRI and blood workup further isolated a cause that also explained so many previous signs and symptoms. It was a week later that Willy sat uncomfortably in a poorly-fitting hospital gown and heard sentences that he scarcely believed. The cancer that had ravaged his liver had spread across his body in a constellation of metastases, and it was a cluster of these nodes that had caused the pain when they penetrated the wall of his stomach. A train of mets had invaded his esophagus, narrowing it, and filling a large section of his upper stomach.
Christine added a black pin to a map of her state that covered the wall behind her desk. It was the first death related to aflatoxin type AFB1 in her state that she had ever heard of. She reviewed the autopsy pathology notes and saw the work of her enemies. Aspergillus flavus was in her town and had claimed its first victim. The 50-year-old decedent had been fit and previously healthy, with no known comorbidities, and examination of the food in his house had showed broad cross contamination with Aspergillus. Christine could type the Aspergillus to one of three points of origin in the Middle East, but it was not possible to tell which food item had been the primary source. She looked at her map and started to plan her surveillance. She wondered where the killer might be hiding. Was it at one of the many natural produce stores? Was it already in one of the big retail outlets, or in this age of online ordering and same week delivery, was this the end of a single distribution path? Christine was concerned.