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.
Jake’s first experience of college life was turbulent. He largely dropped out in his first year of medical engineering at the local college, because of a combination of bad timing, bad economy, and bad choices.
Jake hadn’t saved up enough in preparation for college and had spent big on a trip to Mexico after high school graduation while also buying himself a used car. He couldn’t afford any of the available housing options and his commuting costs were unaffordable. On-campus subsidized housing was unavailable and off-campus rentals were just beyond his budget. Unlike many students, Jake didn’t have family money to lean on. His father had been laid off in the recent recession, his mother was in a secure but low-paying administrative job at a hospital, and his occasional odd-job work helping with home improvement projects wasn’t a reliable revenue stream. The job market for non-college-graduates was tight. That was strike one.
Jake qualified to get into a medical engineering course, but—with the expectation that his studies would be just an extension of high school—he had taken on too many subjects in his first semester. The first week of classes were deceptively easy. Most of them were administrative affairs, collecting names and details, or social events to get to know each other. Course work amounted to a basic overview of topics. Where lectures got into the subject matter, it was a leisurely recap of all the familiar stuff from high school. Jake goofed off and didn’t bother with the recommended reading materials. He felt comfortable.
The second week was a rude awakening; Jake suddenly found a large chunk of the lectures quite incomprehensible. He had a sense of being in the surf when a big swell lifts you clear off the sand beneath your feet and a wave breaks over your head. Jake sputtered and tried to recover. While he was still busy trying to understand how the class had so suddenly shifted from mundane and familiar to alien and tangled, a new indigestible lump of material was delivered. That was strike two.
With a heavy study load, he soon realized that university-level subjects took a whole lot more effort than high school. The social scene was also so much more enticing; every day came with at least one invitation to party. Jake found it hard to turn down offers to party, play sports, or just hang out and chat.
Jake knew he was floundering. Even if he spent nights catching up and weekends preparing, he had simply bitten off more than he could chew, and he couldn’t even keep up, let alone catch up. One Monday morning, he overslept and missed a class, and although classmates were willing to share their notes, Jake came to a dreadful realization that it was futile. He would never be able to get this material into his head in time for the next truckload of knowledge. That was strike three.
On the last day that students could withdraw without penalty, Jake made a sober choice and dropped all but one subject. The computer engineering course was available in a mostly online format and he could take it without the daily traveling requirement. He began searching for jobs that would give him flexibility but soon realized that the market was tight. Not only were there many other students also trying to find work, but he was competing with people who had been laid off during the recession. Those returning workers had the advantage of work experience, qualifications, and hands-on knowledge.
Jake lowered his sights slightly and applied for dozens of entry-level office positions, but soon realized that flipping burgers or selling shoes were about the only jobs he was going to be offered. He had almost given up hope when a friend at college suggested something surprisingly workable. His friend’s mother was a senior administrator at another campus of the school and was looking for a new junior janitor. Jake jumped at the offer of an introduction.
In the interview, the senior administrator and head janitor were a little skeptical about his lack of work experience, but decided to take a chance on him. A deciding factor was his choice of medical engineering studies and past experience with home improvement. The pay was higher than working in retail or food service, the work hours matched his academic needs, and studying was encouraged.
Jake, in turn, weighed the potential for excruciating embarrassment if any students recognized him, but felt comfortable that none of the students on this campus were likely to know him. At $9 per hour, with a potential for $13 per hour after a 3-month probation period, Jake gratefully accepted.
Jake had never been an early riser, so the work hours were a shock. He had a 6:30 start, with reduced duties during school hours that ran from 7:30 to 2:30. Once students were out of class, the bulk of his work started. From 2:30 to 6:00, he did classroom cleaning and refuse removal, plus repairs and maintenance. Once a month, the janitorial team worked on Saturday to do bigger or noisier repairs.
Jake found himself torn between two worlds. On Fridays after work, he often went to a local pub with the other janitors and groundkeepers in the area. On other days, he would frequently socialize with his college friends. Although he clearly spent more time at his job than at his studies, Jake still introduced himself as “an engineering student” rather than a janitor. He made a conscious effort to stay connected to his college friends and tried not to miss any opportunity to join in on student social events. Jake felt a conflict in his identity. One night, he looked at himself in the mirror and made a promise. “You won’t be a janitor forever! Not more than a year!” Jake’s janitorial work was divided into three categories. Firstly, there were scheduled seasonal jobs. Seasonal work involved the gardens, but also marking the playing fields, preparing the tennis courts, and servicing seasonal sports equipment. A second category consisted of daily cleaning and emergency repairs, such as a whiteboard coming off its hinges or a light going out. A third category, on which Jake was asked to focus, was a long and growing checklist of repairs requested by the health sciences teaching staff.
Jake had sorted the list by a combination of priority vs effort, and—after working at it for 6 months—was getting to some of the “icky or picky” jobs. One of these was the mold in some restrooms. There was unsightly black mold growing along the floor edges and base boards of one of the women’s restrooms in an annex building.
The mold had become more urgent because of an upcoming sports day during which an influential member of the governing body would be attending. The chancellor herself had come down to the workshop to explain that the member was also the person that first reported the mold and was likely to give the faculty an earful unless the “mold situation” was resolved. With this in mind, Jake moved it to the top of his list.
The next morning at 6:35 sharp, he was on hands and knees with a scraper and a yellow and red “out of order” sign on the outside of the restroom door. By the time Jake needed to vacate the restroom at 7:30, he had only cleaned five feet along one wall. Since the mold extended along almost every edge of the 15×32 ft. restroom, an hour every five feet was not going to work out. He surveyed the room: Seven stalls, including one wheelchair-accessible stall. Yes, he needed something a lot faster than a hand scraper. Maybe a whole team doing it? Maybe some sort of chemical?
Jake tidied up, removed the sign, and headed back to the office to see if anyone else on the team had ideas for a faster method. Over coffee and donuts, there were plenty suggestions, and Old Bill came up with the best, this great idea to use a pressure washer. Bill had 20 years of service and an encyclopedic knowledge of maintenance tricks. Bill showed Jake where the washer, hoses, and accessories were stored. “Mind you, add this oil to the gasoline before you fill the tank,” Bill said as he held up a little white plastic bottle for emphasis.
That afternoon, Jake rolled out the big green pressure washer and experimented with the various nozzles to see if mold could be removed from some tiles and planks he had found behind the workshop. Of the five nozzles, one was feeble, two were no better than hand-scraping, and one was a slight improvement. One, though, was amazing. The water jet from this nozzle was flat and wide, and with the shorter 5/8” hose, it tore through the mold. In a single slow pass, the jet lifted and cleared the mold cleanly.
Jake spent the evening with some college friends to help them prepare a float for the annual “Pirate Parade” through town. Jake knew how to use a welding torch and air tools and found himself serving what seemed like an endless line of groups needing help on their floats. Jake felt a sense of belonging and the grateful enthusiasm was infectious. Jake was in his element as “the engineering guy who could fix stuff,” and later on, when gratitude translated into offers of drink, he was also pretty well oiled.
Jake woke the next morning at 5:30 a bit hung over. He skipped breakfast because he felt a little queasy and nibbled instead on a leftover pastry. Jake gulped two pain tablets with his coffee to tone down his throbbing head. He arrived at the campus just after 6:00 and fumbled the pressure washer over to the restroom. What was he forgetting? He groaned and made his way back to the workshop for the sign to hang on the door. He didn’t want some early-bird student to use the restroom while he was in there.
After connecting the thick 10 ft. water supply hose to the service faucet under the wash basins, Jake hung the sign and closed the door behind him, donned his safety glasses, face mask, and hearing protectors, and gave the starter cord a yank. Starting at the far corner stall, Jake focused on blasting the black lines and patches of mold away, slowly stepping backwards along the contours of the wall.
As Jake reached the corner at the end of the first wall, he glanced at his watch. He was making good time but needed to move a little faster. He had started at 6:20 and his watch said it was 6:38. Eighteen minutes and nearly a quarter done, he thought, and started on the next wall. That meant he would finish around 7:45, a bit late. If he pressed on a bit faster, though, he would likely finish close to the preferred time of 7:30.
At the end of the next wall, Jake checked his time again. He had done this wall a bit faster, he figured. His headache was back and he felt a little queasy again, but it was nothing serious. Jake lifted his mask and, after a swig of coffee, he pressed on.
Toward the end of the third wall, Jake had to redo the last few feet. He had somehow gone a bit askew and sprayed next to the mold rather than on it. Jake checked his watch. It was 7:18. The first wall took 18 minutes, he thought. So, seven plus 18. Jake frowned and checked his watch again. 7:20. 18 plus 20, he thought. Thirty something. He needed to finish at 7:30. That sounded right. Thirty-something was OK.
Jake turned the corner and started on the last wall. He felt out of breath. This was not heavy work, but the mask was wet, making it harder to breathe. Jake pulled off the mask and tilted the wand back toward the line of mold in front of him. He felt a bit disoriented and turned to face away from the mold. He took a slow, deep breath to ease the growing nausea and started spraying, slowly walking backwards, leaning a bit against the wall to his side to steady himself. Almost done, he thought, pressing on.
At 7:48, the big green pressure washer sputtered to a halt, its one-gallon tank empty. The mist from the spray settled slowly in the blue exhaust haze and the motion-activated lights turned off. The restroom grew quiet as Jake’s body, robbed of life by the accumulating carbon monoxide in the closed space, slowly gave up its heat to the cold gray tile floor below. He was no longer a janitor and it was indeed not more than a year.