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.
Peter was the chief architect and principal patron of his very own pity party. He carefully curated the panoply of petty grievances, personal slights, and constructed affronts that fueled a chronic sense of outrage and victimization.
At 25, he was a loveless victim of virginity and could easily list the many personal shortcomings that he was certain were the causes of women paying him no attention: He was too puny, too short, too pale, his legs and arms too weedy, his wrists too limp, and his chest too weak. It was his slightly delicate and receding jaw that was his chief complaint regarding his physique and the main accusation by women. No woman, he often asserted to his online compatriots, would ever entertain the thought of breeding with someone whose jaw so loudly proclaimed his genetic inferiority. He was, as he flatly stated, “the chinless wonder of his generation.”
Bruce was a chemical experience entrepreneur and a maestro of making money from the surge in affection for electronic cigarettes. He formulated concoctions that combined the wizardry of user appeal and the artistry of money extraction from an eager and youthful user base. He operated his production facility out of a lock-up storage room in a nearby industrial park. Rows of flavorants and essences lined somewhat worn second-hand metal shelves that Bruce had either inherited from the previous occupants or had scavenged from departing tenants around the industrial park. Mango-lime, cranberry-apple, and chocolate mint were on the gray shelf above his workbench in steel canisters, and dozens more lined shelves behind him. Passion fruit and black currant were his biggest hits with vapers, but he had groupies who really loved the unique blends that set him apart from the hundreds of other juice chemists in town. Some of his mixes used exotic materials from all over the world: betel nuts from India, Virginia flue-cured tobacco from Zimbabwe, and Khat from Somalia.
Bruce also built custom coils. At the side of his workbench, he had a coil winder and jig, and a number of spools of wire attached to the side of the nearest steel shelving unit.
From the perspective of cultural fit, and in terms of profit, Bruce catered more to the “cloud-chaser” community of vapers than he did the “substitutes.” He enjoyed the rebellious anarchy and creativity of the cloud-chasers and was more aligned with the bottom-up hacker ethos they embodied, a visceral and motivated rejection of overbearing and repressive health policies and encroachment on personal liberty. He understood the focus of the substitutes to be the desire to replace their tobacco habit with something safer, but they were a group, not a community, and they were sour, dour, and not in power. Besides, a subbie might buy a single basic model pen and maybe two bottles of juice, but a cloudie would buy several upmarket pens, a dozen flavors of juice, and a whole range of mods, add-ons, and kits, as well as everything from bracelets to tote bags.
Bruce’s proficiency at mixing appealing and profitable juices did not extend to the intricacies of quality control, sterility, and toxicology, and he either dismissed risks of contaminants or was simply oblivious to them. He was, for example, utterly unaware that some of the tobacco extracts he created and the betel nut infusions he distilled also contained pesticides and heavy metals.
Peter was a cloud-chaser, and although he orbited the fringes of the community, he felt their body heat when he surfed the user groups, stopped by the vape cafes, or joined in online defense against pharma-shills and anti-vapers. He regularly ordered from Bruce and pored over the discussion threads on people trying out new mods or juices. He liked the juices and mods that produced bigger and more visible clouds, and even though he shied away from mixes that produced the raw burning sensation of a big throat hit, he was an adventurer as far as flavors, rare mixes, and exotic juices went. The throat hits were just a bit too painful, but he could tolerate them if the result was an impressive cloud of smoke.
Peter had known pain in his life. His older sister often gave him a wedgie, he had twisted an ankle (cursed weak ankles!) playing soccer in middle school, and he had endured many purple-nurples with the stoicism of a martyr when Chad J. Warner had cruelly twisted his nipples during gym class. None of this could quite have prepared him, though, for the pain to come. As many who have experienced a tooth abscess or tertiary syphilis of the mouth might attest, the jaw and mouth are richly served with pain nerves, and the cancer that had slowly infiltrated Peter’s jaw played the nerves like an orchestra. What had started as a tiny angry ulcer in the floor of his mouth had developed into several open sores and then advanced like a commando attack on his lower jaw, gums, and teeth. Peter had tried all manner of medicated mouth washes, gargles, and naturopathic lozenges by the time he had sought medical advice. At that point, the cancer had infiltrated his root canal system and the bone of his lower jaw. The lymph nodes under his jaw were hot and engorged and had become cancer distribution depots.
The initial surgery quickly discovered bone infiltration and left him with a somewhat reduced tongue, a fair amount of gum, floor, and cheek loss, and several teeth taken. Radiation and chemotherapy reduced the tumors, as well as his hair. Although he was often just too exhausted, Peter still maintained a presence on social media, but cut back on the vaping forums and focused his limited energies on the cancer chats. He spared some time for the Reddit groups related to incels. Still sarcastic and aggressive towards “femoids” in general, the biting reality of his medical condition was forcing a shift in his outlook, and increasingly made his previous grievances and angry positions feel contrived and indulgent.
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By the time repeated surgery had indeed reduced his jawline to a “chinless” state, his online outlook had shifted from an angry virgin exchanging stories with fellows who chatted incessantly about their social ineptitude and facial shortcomings to frank questions with other cancer patients about practical matters like controlling nausea and pain, bowel movements, and 5-year survival rates. Then there was perspective. Peter met Greta at the hospital in a small infusion ward set apart from the normal bustle of the hospital. Greta was an outlier in many ways; she was left-handed (12% of the population), she was red-headed (2%), and she was transgender (~0.6%). She was also a terminal patient, and at 16 had barely started life when liver cancer (0.0088%) from an undiagnosed hepatitis infection had metastasized throughout her tiny body. At 5 foot 1, the slightly built Greta had the appearance of a wood nymph, and the effects of pain and chemo had made her usually pale complexion as white as an alabaster statue. She dealt with her future and her treatment with an emotionally honest stoicism that was breath-takingly human and powerful. She didn’t shrink from pain and fear, but reflected it honestly while enduring it. She showed fear in her face when something was going to be painful, she cried quietly while it was happening, and she smiled or laughed with obvious relief when it was over.
By the time he had his last infusion session and was saying tearful goodbyes to the staff, Peter saw Greta as his best friend and hadn’t visited an incel chat room in ages. Now that his jawline was reduced to nothing but a skin-covered stub with two molars, his ability to chew was a source of intense joy, and the supposed manliness of a jutting chin seemed to him laughably irrelevant. Having experienced the “red devil” during chemo, fanciful narratives over “red pills” seemed embarrassingly immature. If you wanted to feel real power of a red pill or experience a real throat hit, he had thought months back, try the raging sore throat from doxorubicin and the resulting racing heart, chills, and joint pain, and just wait for the vomiting and diarrhea from chemo to ground your reality.
Peter was the chief architect and principal patron of his very own gratitude party. He carefully curated the panoply of things he valued, spread good will with generosity, and constructed small acts of kindness that fueled a chronic sense of peace and mindfulness. His eulogy at Greta’s funeral transcended the monotone of the electrolarynx device that replaced his own ruined voice box. He described how she had taught him what courage was, what humility felt like, and how to treasure the fleeting human connections along our journeys. He mixed eagerly with the crowd afterwards, exchanging encouragements with patients, gratitude with fellow survivors and physicians, and acknowledgements with healthcare providers.