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.
Life in a hospital kitchen is hectic and tense at the best of times, but Chef Bart took that to another level. He was acid about delays, energetic in chasing the stopwatch, and intense in his feedback to staff. While this did keep costs low, and apparently kept full food bins on time every day, the rushed and tense work atmosphere resulted in an average kitchen staff tenure of 13 months, compared with the industry average of 19. Over 80% of junior staff left the month following their 1-year anniversary, at which point they could seek transfers or leave without penalty. Bart did not see this as a problem; he believed that he was efficiently sorting out the weak performers and keeping the cream of the crop. Even though the staff churn was a headache for HR in terms of constantly needing to recruit or separate kitchen staff, they very much liked that the kitchen staff trended young, which offset some other departments that tended to have an aging workforce.
Jada had not expected her work as a Junior Chef to be glamorous. Having paid her dues during trade school practical work, first as a dishwasher and then as a kitchen janitor, she knew how things worked. During her training, she had personal experience with sous chefs who would yell, throw things, or bang on kitchen tables if someone let the omelets go dry or burned something. One executive chef had become livid about a burned Bechamel sauce, and he had beaten a ladle on the stainless-steel table so hard that the rivets had shorn off and its spoon had broken free of the shaft and sailed out of the kitchen through one of the window panes. Jada had stared wide-eyed at him and cast furtive glances at the others for some hint of how to react. The more experienced staff had remained stone-faced and then quickly got back to work the moment the chef turned and walked away. During her break, not one of them had so much as mentioned the event, but the souse chef had laid out steps to remember to avoid burning the sauce in the future. By the time she graduated from trade school, and could rightfully step up to the title of Junior Chef, she too didn’t blink when a senior chef screamed, but she vowed never to be that chef who terrorized their staff.
In addition to grueling hours and a shouty chef, the staff had other problems at work. The pay was a pittance, and many of them were working extra shifts to make ends meet. Jada sometimes got a few hours a week as a transporter, wheeling patients from one wing to another, and sometimes she worked at a coffee shop just next to the hospital. On rare occasions, she got a gig at a hotel where her cousin worked as the assistant events manager. She used to get a regular seasonal gig catering for the soccer club where she played, but that had stopped. COVID-19 had benched half the team, and after his second infection, the coach had gone rapidly downhill, dying after a week in the ICU. After the funeral, at which many of the mourners were coughing or walking like they were 80, there was just no will to keep the team going, and that was the end of it.
Another problem at work was the ever-shrinking budget. Jada had no idea why things were so tight, but she overheard the end of a tense argument between Bart and the sous chef. Bart was yelling something about money “not growing on a bush” in response to the souse chef shouting about decrepit freezers and low-quality ingredients. The argument had been triggered by a change in vegetable orders. To cut costs and reduce waste, Bart had switched from fresh vegetables to frozen. They could order the frozen stock in greater bulk, and it was cheaper per serving than fresh. Frozen vegetables also had fewer scheduling issues, and boxes filled with plastic bags of pre-sliced, pre-peeled, and pre-washed vegetables were dropped off at the loading dock by a big, refrigerated truck every week like clockwork. From Bart’s perspective, this also cut on labor, and thus also one position. From the sous chef’s point of view, frozen foods were bland, characterless, and lower quality, but even more to the point, placed a burden on the aging and staggering walk-in freezer. In the end, the frozen goods stayed, and the freezer was repaired and even upgraded.
Jada was in two minds about the frozen vegetables. Not having to peel or skin or even slice or chop vegetables did indeed free up some time, but it seemed to her that it also removed something from the soul of the kitchen. The scent of carrots being topped, cleaned, and sliced was perhaps a very small pleasure, but it did add something to being in a kitchen that was lost in simply opening a plastic bag of cleaned and sliced frozen carrots. All the smells of fresh parsley, parsnips, and pumpkin, radish, rutabaga, and rhubarb blended aromas and scents in a way that just added to the experience that a bag of frozen foods didn’t. The bags were also a pest. They were a cheap stiff plastic that tore easily and often split open if they were grabbed just a little too forcefully. Any spills risked Bart yelling, so it was also another opportunity to get bawled out over something both trivial and beyond control.
It was a Monday morning, and the kitchen was buzzing to prepare lunch. It was not the nice buzz of a well-oiled machine, but the kind of buzz made by a rickety circuit breaker that was arcing and spitting in an ill-tempered way because there was too much demand, too little servicing, and too few years of service left in it. Tempers were frayed, it was the busiest meal, on the busiest day of the week, and in the busiest month of the year. They were one junior chef, two janitors, and one dishwasher short. Jada had split a bag of frozen onion slices in the freezer, and Bart was nursing a hangover. He was boiling mad, but also trying hard not to hurt his head by yelling. Bart was not good at dealing with internal conflict, and as usual the kitchen was hot and stifling. His head pounded, and it took all his energy not to scream at Jada for spilling frozen onion slices across the freezer floor or at one of the porters who had somehow managed to leave a stack of butter sticks on a table next to a stove top. There was now a pool of molten butter spreading across the warm stainless-steel surface and a steady rivulet of liquid butter trickling from the edge and onto the floor.
Unable to trust himself with the porter, Brett took refuge in the freezer for a minute or two. The orderly shelves, chilled air, and quiet soothed his throbbing head, and his pacing in the freezer slowed as his headache eased. He stood still in the middle of the freezer and closed his eyes, his breathing slowed, and he could almost drink in the sense of peace that enveloped him. He felt so relaxed that he hardly even noticed the few slices of frozen onion underfoot. A sudden crash jerked him back into the present. One of the waitstaff carrying a full load of new orders had slipped on the spatter of molten butter on the floor, sending full plates crashing in every direction. Bart shrieked in fury and erupted from the freezer like a tornado, sending the door crashing open. A slice of frozen onion stuck to the sole of his shoe slid on the kitchen floor like his foot had been painted with Teflon. Bart landed flat on his back, and the impact of his head on the freezer threshold made even the most hardened staff jerk to see what had happened.
The funeral was attended by most of the kitchen staff, a few people from administration, and a few cleaners. Many were coughing or walking like they were 80, and there was just no will to really mourn anymore. Jada and a few others had made a few snacks, and there was even a selection of fresh vegetables and a dip, which was a nice change.