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.
Bridget “Birdie” Tannenbaum was a hippie. She was also entranced by reclaiming, restoring, and recycling. When she wasn’t teaching first aid, giving CPR demonstrations, or doing free home visits for the elderly in her area, she was rescuing and repurposing pre-owned treasures. As a trauma nurse approaching retirement, Birdie had experienced a full lifetime of people’s fragility, their foibles, and their value.
Nobody could fault Birdie’s skills or knowledge at work, but every manager she ever had worried that she cared a little too much, internalized a bit too much, and felt other people’s pain just a fraction too much. It never once interfered with the quality of her work, but Birdie ended almost every day in tears. Emergency medicine was like that at times; things just so often got raw and real. There were so many ways humans could make simple mistakes that ended with life-altering or life-ending consequences: a gun left unattended for a second too long, a moment’s distraction crossing an intersection, a hurried moment with a power tool. The ED regularly took in people with the effects of those tiny lapses, and Birdie was right in front, dealing with those people and their effects… every day.
Giving CPR classes, teaching first aid, and visiting the elderly was one way she could head off some ED trips, and for the rest that she couldn’t prevent, she had her hobby. Birdie loved nothing more than discovering an old and forgotten treasure and nursing it back to a functional state, or at least recycling it in some way. She had restored an old ice cream maker and gave it away to a couple who would get many more productive years out of it. The torn and partially sun-bleached velvet curtains that she found at an estate sale had been turned into a waistcoat. Her partner was not as keen on her hobby, or her time spent visiting old folks, but on the whole, he tolerated it in a good-natured way.
Brett had teased her about her lack of planning and follow-through, and frankly, he was getting sick and tired of her endless abandoned or “work in process” projects that littered almost every room in the house. When Birdie had come home after a “picker trip” in the countryside with a huge trunk of old clothes, Brett was not amused. He didn’t like the women in her “picker club,” and he thought it was demeaning that his wife was rummaging through yard sales, estates of the deceased, and pawn shops like some kind of hobo. He had made up a story at the golf club about her collecting valuable antiques, but was very aware of the sidelong glances and what people really thought.
Brett was angling to be the next club secretary and was very sensitive to the image that Birdie was creating. When a local paper did a piece on “pickers,” and cast Birdie as a slightly senile but lovable scrounger, Brett was mortified, doubly so because he was named in the piece alongside a picture of him trying to shield his face with a club newsletter. The board of directors didn’t exactly threaten him, but their suggestion that a club secretary had to be beyond reproach made the implication clear. If asked, they would readily concede, and even enthuse a little, that Bridget’s social work with the elderly was exactly the sort of thing one wanted associated with a club member. But, they might continue, one could take charity a bit too far, especially if it became an embarrassment. Secretly, many of the members and their delightful partners also felt like “that Birdie person” was upstaging them a bit too much.
To make sure that there were no misunderstandings, one of the members pulled Brett aside on the 9th hole and let him know that the members would love to put their support behind him but would greatly appreciate it if he would reign in his wife just a little as far as her “picking” went. After all, they were careful to underline, photos in the paper of the secretary’s wife emerging from a dumpster clutching some old piece of jetsam would just be intolerable for all concerned. By the 18th hole, Brett was crystal clear about Birdie and her dreadful hobby being a big impediment that needed a firm hand. By the time they reached the plush confines of the clubhouse and had ordered martinis, Brett had resolved to put his foot down, so to speak.
Birdie was, at that very moment, savoring a really good haul. Inside a beaten up steamer trunk that itself may prove to be a proper antique, she had discovered a full load of antique clothing and a smaller wooden box with decorative wrought iron fittings. There were period pieces galore of fine cotton, linen, and wool. They seemed intact, but years of seepage and water infiltration had badly rusted the iron bands and bolts of the trunk, and the rust had badly stained most of the clothing. Birdie looked in restoration books and online for advice on removing rust stains, and was delighted to read that some acids could remove the stains very effectively. In one YouTube video, she watched how a squirt of oxalic acid into a glass filled with turgid rust-water turned it totally clear in minutes. It was so miraculous that she was unable to stop herself from laughing out loud. Eager to try it out on three long cotton nightshirts, she went rummaging through bottles of laboratory chemicals she had picked up at a bankruptcy sale. She had kept them because they were sturdy old glass bottles with perfect glass stoppers, and she planned on cleaning them up and using them for salad dressings, balsamic vinegar, and maybe soy sauce. Dabbing a little of the acid on a bad rust spot worked like magic, and the rust stain vanished almost entirely. Thrilled, Birdie put acid in a plastic tub, and immersed the nightshirts and a badly stained cotton muff in it, pushing down with wooden tongs and swirling and squishing them in the tub. By the time Brett arrived home, Birdie had rinsed the nightshirts and cotton muff, and draped them over two saw-horses to dry.
The next morning was Sunday, and while Birdie was out delivering food packages and doing health checks on several elderly folks, Brett got busy. He got a fire going in an old 55-gallon steel drum in the garden, and started collecting Birdie’s rubbish that was lying around. He stuffed a bunch of the old rubbish clothing and paper into an old wooden box, hammered the lid closed, and dropped it into the fire. For a while Brett just stared into the drum, watching flames licking delicately around the edges of the box, and the wood starting to blacken, flake, and then glow, joining with the flames.
Brett likely never heard the explosion when the material that had been converted by the acids turned the stout wooden box into a bomb. Shards of the steel bands, heavy duty nails, and brass hinges and locks were thrown by the blast, turned into shrapnel that so extensively perforated his body that he bled out long before anyone could possibly have come to help. Brett never did become the club secretary, but he did get a nice mention in the club newsletter obituary section, along with the photo of Birdie and her pickers.