Medical Fiction: Clive and the Cargo

This is one of a collection of stories that are like “Final Destination” meets “The Monkey’s Paw” (WW 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.


Clive was a contract courier. In real terms, he had a fleet of three vans and a pickup truck and eked out a living taking on overflow haulage that was too small, too cheap, or too sticky for the mainstream couriers and logistics companies to do themselves. Clive was prompt, polite, and predictable, and many of his customers asked for him by name when they added comments to their orders from him. When Myrtle the sculptor operating from a small holding 56 miles from town wanted a sheet of stainless steel, they handed the delivery off to Clive. When the farmer’s co-op wanted to deliver five sacks of feed to old Bob, whose dirt track joined the hardtop road just west of the rail crossing, they called Clive. When the grain storage facility ordered hoses for cleaning concrete, it was Clive who hauled them from the rail siding to the facility. Clive enjoyed his job for the freedom it gave him and the unbelievable variety of things he transported every day. One day it was machine parts and sacks of flour; the next day it was windshields and baby food. It was, as Clive told his buddies, “gas.” Some of the industrial stuff made him a bit nervous, though, and while he had never actually undergone any hazmat training, he was pretty sure that if something stank, it was probably no good to breathe in.

The first pickup today was a load of dry ice from the depot on the west side of town, destined for the regional 300-bed hospital. Looking out his loading space, the clerk had given him some storage advice: “Don’t put the plastic wrapped slabs of dry ice on top of the veggies and don’t put anything heavy on top of the slabs. These will freeze the veggies in no time and anything metal or heavy will either stick to it or buzz at you.” She had demonstrated by pressing the edge of a quarter into a chunk of dry ice. The unworldly squealing and buzzing sounds were a novelty to Clive, and he grew concerned that maybe he should come back with a sealed metal box. “No, you don’t want to confine it unless you have a really cold freezer. The outgassing would just build up pressure in any sealed container and burst it,” the clerk said. She had gone over a few safety rules: handle only with gloves to avoid frostbite, don’t put it on top of or near anything that didn’t like freezing, don’t contain it in a bottle. “Ka-Pow!” she had explained. Don’t rush the delivery, but don’t dilly dally either, and don’t park in the sun. They both glanced at the gray sky, and she had pulled a face as if to say, “Fat chance of sun.”

Clive put on his heavy workman’s gloves and helped stack 10-pound slabs of dry ice, 100 in all, in the space behind the cab. Each 10″ x 10″ x 2″ slab was individually wrapped and grouped in plastic-wrapped packages of five. He was puzzled as to why a hospital needed all this dry ice. The clerk had grinned and launched into what was probably a well-rehearsed explanation. “Hospitals use dry ice for two main purposes: transporting vaccines, medications, and tissues—and cleaning.” She explained how dry ice blasting was a really effective way to clean medical and industrial equipment because it reduced waste, was environmentally friendly, and decreased the need for more harmful industrial cleaning solvents. She grew quite animated, explaining how the dry ice pellets transformed into gas immediately on impact, expanding and removing contaminants from the surface. “Ka-Pow!” She grinned at him. Clive grabbed a cardboard cup of coffee and headed out.

It was 10 AM when Clive made his third pickup of the day. He already had the dry ice, three crates of vegetables, and some automotive parts. This pickup was a stinky drum of trichlorethylene and it made Clive nervous. The clerk who consigned him the drum was not very forthcoming with a materials safety sheet, eventually making him a photocopy of an old and tattered page. He tiredly explained that it was a solvent but was not flammable. Clive looked dubiously at the long list of cautions about not getting it in one’s eyes, avoiding skin exposure, and that it could harm immune and reproductive systems, liver, kidneys, and the central nervous system. “Are you pregnant?” the clerk asked Cliff, looking at him over his reading glasses. “Because trichlorethylene can affect fetal development during pregnancy,” he said with a straight face. Cliff rolled his eyes and wrestled the drum into the van.


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The hot muggy weather had been given scant relief by the rain that drizzled down from a murky gray sky and had seemed to just add to the sticky humidity. Clive had dropped off the two boxes of spare parts at a truck repair outfit in the industrial area and stopped for lunch to eat a leftover piece of pepperoni pizza while rain made little snaking tributaries down the windshield and the talk radio guy hammered on about liberals and borders. Clive’s headache had returned and had brought a little nausea along for company. He had maybe stayed up later than he should have the night before. He had played pool and shared more than a few rounds of cheap beer with the guys. Done with the pizza, he twisted round behind the seat to grab a roll of paper towels that he kept in the seat pocket. He fumbled it as he turned back and tried several times to grasp it as it bounced off the steering wheel and his clutching fingers and tumbled its way down to the floor. Clive felt dizzy when he finally straightened up, and a fresh wave of nausea threatened to escalate. Whether from the exertion, lack of sleep, greasy pizza, or mounting irritation with the talk show guy, Clive’s heart was racing, and his face was flushed. He stabbed the button on the radio to silence the whiney goading voice of the host. “Just shut the hell up!”

Clive wiped his fingers and mouth with two sheets of paper towel, stowed the pizza box, and used paper towels in the garbage bag he kept in the passenger-side foot well. Clive popped the glove box and rummaged around a bit for some ibuprofen and slugged down a pair of tabs with a mouthful of coffee. Clive wrinkled his nose at the lukewarm coffee. With lunch done, I pointed the van back toward the highway. He was momentarily confused about which direction he needed to take to get to the hospital via the motel where he needed to drop off the vegetables. While he was trying to get a map up on his phone, its battery died, so Clive pulled off and stopped the van on the soft shoulder. He groped around in the center console for the charger cable, fighting off the headache that seemed impervious to the tablets.

Patricia D. Klein was a deputy with the county sheriff’s department, and part of her normal route took her along the highway and county line roads that cut past the industrial area east of town. This was the third time she had come past the truck repair shop and its junkyard today and the second time she had seen the white delivery van standing on her shoulder. This time she looped around and stopped behind the van. Hand on her hip, she approached the driver’s side door until she could see an expressionless face pressed against the inside of the window. The pale face with the blue lips stared past her with unblinking eyes. Pat was one of those in the department with CPR training, but the high levels of carbon dioxide in the van from the steadily outgassing dry ice had long since exceeded that of an environment compatible with life, and her efforts to resuscitate Clive were futile .

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