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.
Nikka was a knitter. She was also a dab hand with an acetylene torch, an angle grinder, and a drop forge hammer. She had started with a childhood pastime of knitting, and other than jumpers and jerseys, Nikka crafted blankets, baskets, and balaclavas. Over the years, she had mastered wool and yarn and even hemp for domestic products, but it was when she tried steel cable that she discovered metalwork as a hobby. After knitting a sleeveless waistcoat from thin steel cable, and learning that she could join sections with brazing rods and a torch, Nikka slowly grew her metalworking to include buckles, bracelets, and beyond. She gradually expanded to metal sculptures. She did so well in an exhibition of new artists with her 12-foot stainless steel abstract depiction of St. Raphael the Archangel, patron saint of healers, that it now stood in the atrium in front of the main hospital entrance.
In her job as a vascular surgeon, there was not much need for a cutting torch or welder, but it certainly required the dexterity and hand control that knitting and metalwork helped to hone. When people heard of Nikka’s metalworking prowess before meeting her, they often expected to see a towering amazon of a woman, perhaps with a voice that rumbled like distant thunder, or at least one that was hoarse and commanding. Almost everyone was surprised to find a five-foot-one dainty in a pink jumper and glittery Crocs. Of those who had met her, few knew that she kept fit by going to the fencing club on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and the karate dojo on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Most days, she started her morning with a swim and ended it with an acetylene torch or an arc welder.
Life had stolen more than a few precious things from Jean, but the theft of her sight was perhaps the cruelest stroke. Blindness had progressed from inflamed eyes in the initial stages of an infection and had eventually resulted in scarred and opaque corneas, but it was the damage to her optic nerves that had plunged her into permanent midnight. Like any 6-year-old, she had been excited to go to the county fair, and her parents had marveled at her joy at seeing the ponies, her amazement at the cotton candy machine, and her pure exhilaration at all the colorful people and the hubbub. It was nearly 2 weeks later, the fair already forgotten, when she woke up with a cough and a runny nose, followed quickly by a slight fever and sore throat. Her parents had not thought much of it at first and they wrote it off as a cold, but then the fever deepened by the end of the next day and her eyes were alarmingly bloodshot. By the next morning, when they carted her off to the family doctor, there was a blotchy rash over her face and neck. The nurse practitioner easily diagnosed measles.
It had been a miserable week, but as the key symptoms had receded and life started returning to normal. Jean was feeling a bit more bouncy. Then she ran into the coffee table and put a gash on her forehead. At the ED, they quickly attended to the wound, but the physician’s body language had changed subtly when she came to discuss it, and she had a worried look on her face. There was scarring in Jean’s corneas and damage to the optic nerves. Over the next month, the creeping blindness was irreversible, and eventually, total.
Jeremy had been bored at school, and with the expectation that his family fortune would be a magic carpet ride through life, he viewed school as a waste of time that took away from his freedom. He was also reasonably handsome and found it easy to glide along with the help of a gargantuan allowance, plus copious assistance from teachers and the principal. There were expectations that sizable donations would be forthcoming, that tolerating Jeremy and easing his path would be effort well rewarded. At 16, Jeremy was given a Mercedes sports car, and his popularity expanded accordingly.
The party was lavish and loud and the envy of everyone at school. In theory, Jeremy was grounded when his mother tried to rouse him for breakfast the next morning and discovered him still drunk and tangled up with a naked blonde whose mother was on the same arts committee as she was. The girl was bundled off home, Jeremy was sent up a tray, and his punishment extended to a stern sigh from his mother and later a disapproving eyebrow from his father. By the evening, he had taken a different girl to a rave.
The fine life came screeching to a halt when his father suffered a fatal heart attack while sharing cocaine lines with his regular sex worker. With his death, several things unraveled in quick succession. First, as his trading accounts were distributed to other fund managers, some gaping deficits became alarmingly clear. The 50 million dollars of debt that had accumulated in his loss account was revealed, as well as the fact that he had been transferring large sums to an investment account that evidently emptied into his own pocket. Secondly, it became clear that these were not even close in impact to the high-risk investments he had made on behalf of the firm. An inevitable margin call from various creditors was highly likely to bankrupt them. Lastly, it became clear that he had mortgaged everything and that there was more red ink than the value of everything the family owned.
By the end of three months, the lavish parties were a fond memory, the McMansion had been repossessed, and the imported cars were gone, plus all the jewels and furs and other trinkets of wealth too. The bankruptcy court allowed the estate to make funds available for one used car, bargain basement clothes, a small apartment, and plain food in a somewhat battered refrigerator. Jeremy was saved from the utter humiliation of losing the wheels and designer threads when the school simply expelled him. The school very politely gave their opinion that he would be better off at a public school. His first day at school wearing clothes from a thrift shop was something he feared more than death, but nobody there noticed, because wearing used clothing was the norm. In his old school, in a class of 12, he stood out as the wild kid with the street cred. In his current class of 48, there were kids 3 years older and 50 pounds heavier. There were kids whose street cred included actually living on the streets, and some were mavericks because they had severe and untreated mental health issues. In this class, he was barely noticeable.
If his mother had thought about it, she might have worried that Jeremy had invested too little into his studies and paid too little attention in class to graduate without a donation to the school. In truth, though, it didn’t occur to her, and it wasn’t a priority for her whether he graduated or not. As it happened, the school had a silent policy to graduate anyone except those whose mental horsepower really did need some external help. Jeremy was just one of several whose lack of effort the school dealt with by simply minting him a graduation certificate and sending him on his way. What Jeremy soon found was that there were not many jobs for people without skills or connections that paid anything near minimum wage and that competition at the bottom was savage. His appetite for self-pity was unrelenting and growing, and it did not take much prompting from radio talk-show hosts to convince him that he deserved better, that he had been cheated out of his rightful place in society, and that Blacks, women, gays, and especially illegal immigrants were “stealing his future.”
He found some sense of refuge at a saloon at the edge of town where derelict warehouses sheltered some destitutes and formed the border between rival gangs. The saloon was considered neutral territory. Here he could find people who understood loss, knew what it was like to be cheated out of their rightful place in society, and had experienced the grinding despair of being qualified for nothing that paid. Here were his people: Guys who weren’t going to give him any PC bullshit and had a joke or two about the leeches of society, who shared his rage over the TV news about them sucking the nation dry and ramming their gay lifestyle down his throat. He also shared their stories, their anger, and their crack. On some nights, after his full of cheap booze and crack, they wandered out alone or in pairs to see what pickings they could find. Sometimes they rolled the odd homeless guy sleeping in a bus shelter. Other times they found one of those people that left a rave and got lost or someone in a parking lot late at night. On those nights, when the crack had seeped into their brains, they used fists and blades and got some revenge for their misery.
The facility where Nikka worked was in an area that had once been on the main subway line between the city and the industrial area, but since then the city had expanded, the industrial powerhouse had decayed, and the subway lines had been dug up in favor of roads. The roads now had potholes that pockmarked the area like acne, because as the factories closed, the revenue to keep stuff fixed had evaporated. Because of theft and an increase in muggings, staff were advised to stay in groups when arriving or leaving at night. Half seriously and half as a joke, Nikka had fashioned a club out of woven steel cables that she twisted and welded. Somewhat dismayed at its grim utilitarian appearance, she knitted it a covering out of a fluffy pink woolen yarn. The result was a 12-inch pink thing about as thick as her big toe, with a bulbous tip where the steel cables inside the woolen sheath looped around a small lead weight. Her girlfriend had erupted in giggles when she saw it, then vainly suppressed snort-laughs, and finally just melted into a bundle of hooting cackles. “I triple dare you to take that fluffy dildo through security. I DARE you!” With that backdrop, there was simply no way that Nikka could leave it at home.
It was a Friday evening, and Nikka put on a rainbow wig, a glittery cowboy jacket with fringed sleeves, and purple shimmer cowboy boots over jeans. She kissed her girlfriend goodbye and headed to the hospital for the night shift. The clothes and hair would all have to come off before her shift started, and her scrubs would be standard surgical green, but she was certainly allowed a sterilized rainbow bandana. It was going to be a rough shift. Fridays always brought more than their fair share of gunshot wounds, drunk driving accidents, and fistfights. She also had an after-hours clinic for people with chronic vascular issues.
Jean had taken the bus to the hospital for a session at the vascular clinic. Measles had scarred her blood vessels and heart, and the clinic was trying a new drug that might help her. There was no cost to participate in the trial, there was free food, and the staff were so friendly and nice that it was actually a high point in the week. The bus ride was no big deal, although tapping her way across the parking lot was tricky. A couple of times when it had snowed or was raining, the driver had detoured and taken the bus right up to the hospital entrance. His boss had shouted at him about it, though, so he only did it if the boss was on vacation or the weather was really bad. Tonight, Jean tapped across the parking lot and dodged the potholes.
At 10:00, the clinic was over, and Nikka offered to walk Jean to the bus stop and wait with her. Jean tried to brush it off as no big deal, she didn’t want anyone to make a special effort, but Nikka insisted. As they left the building, Jean noticed a smell. “It’s sorta like burned tires or plastic, mixed with nail varnish. It’s like a nail salon, but when a pair of false nails get too hot.” It had not meant anything to Nikka at first, but then halfway into the poorly lit car park, she also caught a whiff, and the penny dropped. “Shit! That’s crack cocaine!”
A dark shape loomed into view, and Jeremy drew a knife out of his belt. “Hey girls, we gonna have some fun.” Tonight, he was going to cut some bitches and bleed them some. First, though, there was business to attend to. He waggled the blade in front of them. “Purses, money, jewelry, NOW!”
Nikka felt the furry wool and gripped the shaft, letting the bag drop to the uneven asphalt. Jeremy peered at her and burst out laughing at her pink furry implement. He smirked and waved the glinting blade at Nikka in a lazy sweep. The reaction was not quite what he had expected. Instead of the fearful recoil and squeals or pleading he was expecting, Nikka thrust her wool-covered club in earnest at the fist holding the knife. The knitted covering offered little padding over the steel that crunched into his fingers, and his hand reflexively jerked back from the pain, sending the knife spinning across the asphalt. He yelped and then lunged forward in fury. Nikka didn’t pull back, but instead stepped forward and thrust with the club, hitting him in the mouth with the tip. His upper lip split open against his teeth, and the force snapped his head back sharply. Before he could recover, she swept the club down in a loop, and brought it crashing into his right knee. As he crumpled to his knees, Nikka pivoted on her heel, and spung around, bringing the club into the side of his head with all her strength. She grabbed Jean’s hand and they ran as fast as Jean could manage, back into the light and safety of the hospital entrance and into the arms of the elderly security guard.
Jean had already finished the second cup of hot cocoa that Nikka had brought her by the time the police arrived. It took them another half hour to check out the carpark where Nikka had pointed. They did so slowly and without any expectation of finding anything. This was the tenth mugging in the area in the last week, and every time, there was nothing to find. This time, though, they found Jeremy, already cold to the touch. Under the beam of the police flashlight, the pool of blood around his head was a black halo. Jeremy had earned his final street cred.