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.
Kyle was a big brass chicken of a man, heavy, somewhat unstable, and largely ornamental. Kyle had been a cigar-smoking, whisky-swilling, coke-snorting, one-term politician who had surfed a wave of public discontent and media mischief into office that was ridden back out again 4 years later, on the back of ineptitude and lackluster performance.
It was unsurprising to everyone but Kyle that it was far easier to loudly criticize a predecessor for every cumulative ill of the political system, and quite another to fix even the smallest part of it. He was also astounded to discover that the same people who noisily joined him in denouncing government and calling on it to be “defunded” were also the people who demanded the most from government services.
Having lost his seat in Congress, Kyle fell back on the time-honored tradition of family wealth and nepotism. However, while his uncle agreed to employ him at a hospital where the family had clout, the job was not quite what Kyle had anticipated. In his mind, Kyle had pictured being shoe-horned into a CEO role, or at least a comfortable and undemanding board position. His uncle had neither that level of influence nor the inclination to put up the kind of fight needed to put his no-talent nephew into any prime spot that he himself had an eye on. Besides, he had argued to himself and Kyle’s doting mother, being the manager of the hospital kitchen would be a growth experience for Kyle, an opportunity to hone his managerial skills and put his expensive MBA to use.
Ms. Karen Bridget Perky had heard about the new kitchen manager who was coming in, but her first meeting was a bad omen. She was having lunch with the rest of her quality & safety team at Dunnaway’s, the local Irish pub, laughing uproariously as was her habit, and engaging friends, staff, and other patrons in banter and blarney, as one does. Besides her laugh being somewhat loud, infectious, and frequent, when she really got going, Karen tended to throw her head back. If she was totally engaged in a joke, and it was particularly good, she moved her entire body when she laughed. On this occasion, Karen was very much engaged, and the whole pub rang with her laughter.
In the booth behind Karen, Kyle was schmoozing a local reporter, playing up his appointment in the hospital kitchen as “getting back to the grassroots of work” and as his pilgrimage to raising standards and “getting rid of dead wood.” It was not going as well as planned, and instead of a quiet working-class lunch showing off his mastery of business and grasp of the lot of the common man, he had to keep repeating himself whenever the laughter from the booth behind him drowned out his voice. He had also twice had to surreptitiously fish around in his lap for food that bounced free of his fork when the booth partition had been bumped. The reporter had been distracted by the laughter and startled when a thump into the booth partition had caused a baby carrot to dislodge from Kyle’s fork, roll down his thigh, and land neatly between her instep and shoe. She had yelped, grabbed for her foot, and momentarily suspected either that Kyle had tried to play footsie with her or that a large rodent had poked a wet nose into her shoe. The whole episode was embarrassing and infuriated Kyle enough to half stand and glare over the partition. “Do you mind!” he had yelled at them, his voice breaking slightly in his desperation to get the meeting back on a course that underscored his role as a rescuer executive.
The effect was not quite what he had calculated, though, and after a second or two of stunned silence, the group erupted in renewed laughter. Someone made a comment about “Old Squeaky McSqueakface the Kitchen Klingon,” and Karen screamed with laughter, hurled her head and shoulders back, and hit the partition behind her solidly enough to dislodge a leprechaun attached to the top of the post and send it tumbling down onto Kyle’s table. The plastic leprechaun landed on the edge of the reporter’s plate, flipped it, and catapulted the remains of a steak and Guinness pie lunch over Kyle. The reporter shrieked again and jumped up, tipping the table so that their beers, a glass of water, a cup of iced tea, and a half-empty plate of fries and gravy slid into Kyle’s lap. Kyle bellowed incomprehensible threats and accusations at nobody in particular and everyone in general. In the adjoining table, an old man whose eyes swam behind thick spectacles took strong offense to what he thought was a personal attack, grasped a steak knife from his plate, and broke wind so loudly while raising it strenuously that the knife was forgotten amongst fresh laughter.
The reporter did not write a glowing piece, drawing parallels between Kyle’s short-lived and troubled political career and his lunch debacle, all while raising questions about the wisdom of hiring him to manage a hospital kitchen. She wondered without making too fine a point of it, how exactly a failed politician came to be seen as the best choice as the new kitchen manager. The effect of the article on the hospital board was incendiary, and Kyle’s uncle found himself in the uncomfortable position of having to argue that Kyle could indeed rise to the occasion and whip the kitchen into shape, cut costs, and increase productivity. To counter misgivings aired by other board members, he made a commitment that Kyle would have the long list of repairs 90% completed before the next board meeting in 2 weeks.
The next few days were miserable for Kyle, and he reacted to the increased scrutiny and performance expectations like any other bad manager. He kissed up the chain of command and kicked down. Specifically, he canceled all vacation that his staff had planned for the next 3 months, fired those who objected, and extended work hours for those who remained. Next, he assigned tasks to each person and set deadlines that he mostly sucked out of his thumb. Picking the most visible tasks first, Kyle prioritized the list in order to get the best appearance of progress that he could. If politics had taught him anything, it was that the appearance of progress and effort was far more important than actual achievement.
Another reason that Kyle was miserable was that one of the people who would evaluate his success on several of the more visible tasks was that infuriating, laughing woman. The story of the lunch had evolved and gathered added aspects, as stories often do. Many of the hospital staff had now heard of the event, but also understood that Kyle had been accosted by an old man without teeth, and that in his panic to get away, Kyle had soiled himself (or broken wind loudly) and had fallen over a table while running away (or had also split his trousers). Half-hidden smirks and frequent laughter after he had exited a room or walked by a nurse’s station put him in a constant state of fury. As one might expect, he took it out on his staff.
Today, Kyle was micromanaging his staff in the cleaning of the kitchen floor, polishing of brass, replacement of several cracked ceiling tiles, and removal of old defunct heater trays. To save time and get to the next set of tasks, Kyle had two people removing the lime scale from the floor and skirting boards where water leaks and splash had left ugly, highly visible streaks and patterns on the tiles. In parallel, two others were to disinfect the floor before moving on to the storage room to unpack shelves, clean, and repack. When one of the older workers objected that they had always done de-scaling and disinfection on different days, Kyle had yelled at her and suggested that maybe she should find another job.
The team assigned to descaling were mixing the fluid too slowly for Kyle’s taste, and he yelled at them to hurry up. They tried to explain that the aluminum chloride hexahydrate and citric acid monohydrate usually came premixed, but because he had bought them separately to save money, it required extra work to mix them correctly. Kyle told them again to hurry up and turned to go see what was taking the disinfection team so long. He found them discussing how to use the respirators required when using the sodium hypochlorite fluid. They were not familiar with the cheaper respirators that Kyle had ordered and were discussing how to interpret the instructions. Kyle yelled at them to hurry up, too, and went to find the team replacing ceiling tiles in the eating area.
By the time Kyle had been to each team, done more yelling, and taken a break for a few phone calls and a couple of cigarettes, it was time to go check on the descaling and disinfection. To his great satisfaction, both teams had moved on to their next tasks in other rooms, and Kyle could see a clear difference. The old rust stains were gone, the scale marks had disappeared, and the tiles looked almost new. Kyle should have smelled the sharp lemony tang of the citric acid, but as a heavy smoker and regular vaper, his sense of smell was not quite up to it.
Kyle moved about the kitchen, looking for anything that might necessitate further yelling, and he knelt down to get a good look under a boiler to make sure the rust marks were gone. Bending over like that made him feel a bit queasy. It was obviously the second helping of fettuccine alfredo he had for lunch, he thought to himself, and he stood up. That made him feel dizzy and he had to hold onto the boiler frame while he coughed. “You really need to cut back on those smokes,” he thought to himself. Further into the kitchen, he found a spot that looked like they had missed it, but on closer inspection he realized it was a chip in the tile. This was bad news because replacing a floor tile was beyond his staff’s capability and would require a maintenance work order. Kyle looked about, blinking, and saw that if he moved one of the tables, it would hide the offending tile. Kyle gave it a shove to see how practical it would be, and after a bit of heaving, was satisfied that two of his staff could move the table and clean up the spots where the legs had left marks. The exertion made him cough again, this time so hard that he felt quite dizzy, and his head and chest hurt. Another fit of coughing brought a wave of nausea, and Kyle emptied his lunch out onto the freshly sanitized floor. “Shit!” Kyle groaned before a fresh bout of coughing overtook him. With his eyes burning, Kyle staggered towards the far exit and the restroom.
When two members of the team came back through the kitchen on their way to their next task, they were immediately alarmed by the strong smell of chlorine released by the reaction between the descaler and the disinfectant, and they beat a hasty retreat without noticing Kyle’s inert shape on the floor. Kyle’s lack of understanding of how the world worked and his bossy know-nothing attitude had finally caught up with him in a permanent fashion that no amount of family connections and deep pockets could fix for him.