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.
Sammy was a sly guy. He knew how to leverage options, get double duty out of opportunities, and cajole strategically. His job as a technician at a sports medicine clinic paid reasonably well, gave him good benefits, and was enjoyable. It also gave him access to tools and materials that he could use to fuel his hobbies and generate extra income that funded a standard of living quite beyond his nominal means. Sammy’s side hustles were putting him ahead of the game, but were sometimes tiring, and he figured that another 5 years at this rate, and he could be done; 10 years at most and he would be done for good.
Some of his work projects were fun, gained him recognition, and flowed easily over to private side hustles. When the facility director asked if he could save any of the older stationary exercise bikes, Sammy converted several used motors from a scrap yard and upgraded the exercise bikes so they generated electricity, powered their own circuitry, and sometimes had enough juice left over to charge a smartphone. Sammy bought several of the scrapped bikes from the facility at a nominal price and used work equipment and parts to upgrade and convert them, too, turning a handsome profit on eBay. Another lucrative dual-purpose project was thanks to the steep discounts he could get on bulk plastic tube orders.
The facility needed custom-made recliners and soccer goals made from plastic tubing, and Sammy used the bulk order to his advantage. In addition to bending, cutting, and joining plastic tube to build the desired products for the facility, Sammy used the same materials and tools to make a range of truck bed bike racks, clamshell sunshade frames, and backyard wind turbines. He used the facility miter saw to cut the tube sections to the lengths he needed and bend and shape the plastic using a propane torch. The facility workshop also had far better spray-painting equipment than he could afford at home, and he used it to apply stencils and color schemes that would have been almost impossible without the high flow spray system. Once the components were completed at work, he took them home, assembled them, and fulfilled online orders that rolled in day after day.
He also pressed a few of the junior staff into service and made full use of their creative talents. Vivi, for example, was extraordinarily gifted at color schemes and artistic paint jobs, and even though Sammy found her annoyingly upbeat at times, she could spray logos and designs so expertly that the components looked factory made. For her own part, Vivi was never suspicious that half her work was for products that never seemed to be used anywhere at the facility. Between putting her creative flair into spraying exercise bikes, murals, or other equipment, and flirting with the young patients and staff at the facility, it just never occurred to her that she was part of Sammy’s private production line. Vivi was just happy to be helpful to anyone who needed it. The only part of Sammy’s scheme that she avoided was when he was using the propane torch to soften and bend or shape the plastic tubing. She didn’t like the angry hiss of the torch, and while the smell of green corn the heated plastic gave off was pleasant at first, it quickly got stinky and nauseating, and made her cough, even with the respirator she wore when spray painting. When Sammy was using a torch on the plastic, Vivi found somewhere else to be.
Now Sammy was in a bit of a panic. It was Friday, and he had back orders to fill for bike racks. He had hoped to use some of the younger staff to do pipe cutting, flattening, and bending, but the facility director had given them a half day to celebrate gay pride. For Sammy, this was a cloud, but the silver lining was that with fewer people in the center, he was free to do his private work without any curious eyes. Sammy had jigs laid out on the floor, a cart full of pre-cut lengths of plastic pipe, and he set about heating up pipes with the propane torch and bending them on the jigs. Stopping only to refill his flask with a sports drink and for toilet breaks, Sammy got into a rhythm and churned out parts.
At 3:00, he took a quick break to survey the progress and gulp down some of his cherry-flavored sports drink. He swallowed a bit awkwardly, and it somehow turned a tickle in his chest into a giant coughing fit that seemed to linger for the rest of the day. If anything, the tickle in his chest and throat progressed into a burning sensation in his throat. Despite the rush to get orders done, he was glad it was Friday. For one thing, he just felt tired, and he suspected Vivi’s spray painting fumes were making his eyes water and burn. Sometimes, especially at times like now when he was tired, he could swear that his vision was a bit blurred. By 5:00, though, Sammy was almost done, and he packed up the shaped plastic lengths, some still hot to the touch. The exertion of loading everything in the back of his pickup had made his back ache and his chest feel tight. He was thirsty, but the thought of any more cherry sports drink made him nauseous. Even a sip threatened to make him vomit.
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By the time he reached home, he was feeling a lot better, and he looked forward to a hot shower, a microwave burrito bowl, and a cold beer. A little nausea returned briefly after the burrito, but on the whole he felt fine, and his cough was almost completely gone. He slept well, and while a cough woke him up a few times, it was nothing to be alarmed about. The next day, Sammy started assembling bike racks and gluing sections together or packaging kits for shipment. By nightfall, he had almost every order completed and had scheduled pickups for shipment. Looking over the order totals for the week, Sammy was beaming. A few more months like this and he could put quarry tile floors in the kitchen to rival the wooden floors in the bedrooms, the marble floors in the bathroom, and the wrought-iron pool furniture. He was well pleased with the profitability of his side hustles, which in some months more than doubled his income. Sammy treated himself to Indian takeout and a couple of beers. His chest still felt a little tight, though; he made a mental note to talk with Vivi about her paint fumes.
Almost exactly 36 hours after leaving work, Sammy woke up early Sunday morning coughing and found himself struggling for breath. The sunrise was just breaking through the French doors leading to his pool, bathing the bedroom in lilac and gold. Sammy staggered to his bathroom and hacked up a handful of pink-tinged froth. Gaping at his hands filled with coughed-up foam, clumps slowly ran down his arms and dripped from his elbows. Sammy felt light-headed, his vision clouding and fading. As he staggered backwards, his chest tightening like it was ringed with shrinking steel bands, he stumbled over a bathroom stool made of plastic pipes and slipped. Landing heavily on the cool marble floor tiles, Sammy grunted and his heart quivered, stuttered, and stopped, as the effects of the phosgene gas given off by the hot plastic pipes took full effect. After a few residual twitches, Sammy and his side hustles were done for good.