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.
Earl was an ass. He was the mean-spirited kind of stupid that Bonhoeffer and Cipolla both identified as worse than evil, someone who does harm to others without any benefit to themselves. The only benefit he derived was a sense of pleasure in the dashed hopes and thwarted desires of others. Earl was the kind of guy who might hold you in conversation about the bus you just missed, only tell you about the train you could take to the same place, until you had also missed the train. He was the kind of guy who might hand you the last beer, but then contrive to release it just before you had it gripped firmly and then laugh mockingly as it rolled, frothing, across the floor. Earl was a champion of few things, but at riling people up, he was a gold medalist. You might say that Earl was a master of no trades, but a jackass of all.
His snarky remarks toward women had garnered rolled eyes from his coworkers, especially the female staff, and had once earned him a trip to HR to be read the hospital policy. More irritating to his colleagues, perhaps, were his frequent practical jokes. He called them jokes, but the humor was lost on his fellow employees, who saw little to be amused at him inking out the teeth of women in the staff photo, or rimming water tumblers with chili, or mixing laxatives in with the office candy bowl. The prank that almost got him fired was when he sneaked into the women’s lavatory before work and draped the toilet bowls with cling film wrap. When admonished for the resulting mess and embarrassment, he went on a rant about “political correctness” and “cancel culture.” His argument about “red pills” and “blue pills” was mostly a mystery to HR and the rest of the staff in his department, but the psychiatric department may have found it noteworthy. Nonetheless, there was an official reprimand placed in his file, and he was put in a 90-day probation period and a performance improvement program. If he pulled any more such stunts, the administration let it be known, he could go find employment in a circus. Earl put up a “Red Pill” poster in his cubicle and seethed a bit, but was careful to stay within the lines.
Cyndi and Cathy were a couple, and after several years of planning and preparation, Cyndi was 7 months pregnant, and it was time for a gender reveal party. Cyndi was a midwife. She had met Cathy at St. Mary Hospital when one of her clients developed complications and needed to be rushed to the ED. Cathy was the surgeon on call, and Cyndi had marveled at how grounded and in control Cathy was. She had sized up the situation in a flash, pulled together a team, and got to work quickly, quietly, and effectively. It had seemed like the blink of an eye between their arrival in a state of panic and fear and a calm recovery with a new baby nursing quietly. Cathy had hardly noticed Cyndi when the pager went off to look at a complicated birthing patient arriving in the ED, but when it came to discussing options with the patient, Cyndi emerged as a stabilizing and calming influence. Cathy was frankly astounded at how Cyndi remained warm, compassionate, and helped the patient through emotionally difficult decisions. She shepherded the exchange in a way that gave the surgical team a clear mission and scope and the patient a real say in their care. After the surgery, Cyndi was at the bedside, still providing support, when Cathy rounded and could discuss the surgery results and next steps. They made a good team, each providing skillsets that the other lacked. Cathy’s admiration evolved into affection and from affection into love. Cyndi had been firmly in love with Cathy from the moment she strode into the room focused, commanding, and in control. They moved in together after 6 months and were married within the year.
Both were green in their outlook on living but took differing approaches. Cyndi made the home Feng Shui, had an orchestrated mix of cool and warm colors and textures, and made sure she sourced everything from the re-homing stores or from places that honored their workers and protected the earth. Cathy loved how Cyndi turned their house into a home and how it felt in the living spaces, but her contribution was more focused and technically specific. She knew which products had “forever chemicals,” which were linked to cancer or metabolic disorders and had been implicated in accidents or injuries. She used the industrial accident reporting database, medical libraries, and actuarial data to steer their decisions. Cyndi loved how Cathy could digest tons of facts and data and then sift and winnow to arrive at a decision. Preparing for the baby was a monumental project, and used both their skillsets to the utmost degree, but ultimately, they had created a room for the child that would be safe, stimulating, and cozy.
Cathy had not heard of “gender reveal” celebrations, but it seemed to be something about which Cyndi was very excited, so she was silent on her thoughts that since gender is a social construct, it would be impossible to tell someone’s gender before they were even born, and she withheld her instinct to correct Cyndi and point out that she probably meant “sex” rather than “gender.” It was enough for her that Cyndi was really excited about doing this, and it would be nice to have friends and colleagues over for a celebration. When the full scope of what Cyndi had in mind dawned on her, Cathy sighed inwardly, but then thought, “What the heck.” Cyndi wanted the house to be filled with blue and pink balloons and a gender reveal firework outside on the back lawn, but left the technical details to Cathy, who was better at that sort of thing. She just stipulated that everything be as Earth-friendly as possible. Aware of the Earth’s limited amount of helium, Cathy settled on hydrogen for the balloons, and since it was produced by their solar panels, she had a ready supply. As a safety precaution, she made sure that all the candles were LEDs, and then turned her attention to the matter of fireworks that would be Earth-friendly.
Cyndi was into numerology, which usually made things interesting, but also often made simple things quite complicated. For instance, on the day before the gender reveal event, Cyndi and Cathy inflated 125 balloons for each of three rooms: three because it was a lucky number, and 125 because it was the sum of the first nine lucky numbers, and nine was three threes, and 125 divided by five was 25, which was five times five, and, of course, five was a lucky number.
Cathy would have perhaps been a little more concerned if she had known who Cyndi had invited from work. She was cool with almost all Cyndi’s friends, even if she thought some were just nuts, like the woman who cooked and ate her own placenta. Cathy thought the woman was crazy and weird, but Cyndi liked her and that was good enough. Work was a bit different, though. Cathy actually had to interact with many of these people, and some of them she would rather not have in her home. Earl from Accounting was one such example. Cathy found him creepy and stupid, and if she didn’t have to engage with him on rare occasions to sort out billing codes, she would not have acknowledged his existence. She did, however, understand Cyndi’s desire to be inclusive and share their joy, and since it was only a few hours, Cathy just waved it off. Besides, she thought, it would be easy to focus on more interesting people than Earl.
Earl held no firm opinion as far as gender reveal parties went, though he firmly believed in the idea of lucky numbers. He was enormously irritated by the eagerness and joy that Cyndi and Cathy seemed to get from it. Their earnest belief and innocent cuteness just made him feel aggressive. Earl wanted to hurt them and wipe those stupid smiles off their pretty faces. However, a free meal was a free meal, and there would be an open bar and maybe some hot women, so he gladly accepted.
The party got off to a great start, and Cathy had to admit that it was more fun than she had imagined. She met colleagues that she hadn’t seen in a while and caught up on all the gossip about who was getting a new grant, who was losing their funding, and who had published in a good journal. There were some patients that she recognized, or at least that recognized her, and it was a super-weird but not entirely unpleasant experience. Cyndi was having the time of her life and mingled freely, greeting, exchanging blessings, and accepting good wishes, prayers, and gifts with joy. She almost forgot the time, but Cathy appeared at her elbow and reminded her it was time for the reveal part of the party. With a little shepherding, Cathy and Cyndi moved the crowd to the garden for the gender reveal fireworks.
Earl decided that the actual announcement and “Earth friendly” faux fireworks would be boring, so he went back into the house to look for a drink. He was rooting around in the tub of ice water to find something other than water and kombucha when one of the balloons popped, startling him. He was briefly irritated, but then a sly idea occurred to him, and he fished around in his pocket for his lighter. Just as Cyndi and Cathy set off the pink firework in the garden, Earl flicked on his cigarette lighter and held it up to the mass of balloons jostling against each other on the ceiling. The whistle of the gender reveal firework was suddenly drowned out by the rolling boom of the mass of hydrogen balloons that swiftly went from a deflagration to a full-throated detonation that made the ground shake, turned the picture windows into a mist of tiny razors, and punched out the front wall of the house.
Once emergency services had cleared the collapsed roof, they were able to retrieve Earl’s smoking remains and cart him off in a red body bag.