A janitor works on a boiler. Winner of SCREAMS!!! April 13 2021.
“You should have a look at that boiler.”
Steve sighed. Grimley wasn’t the first tenant to tell him about the boiler but he’d been putting it off for a week now. A few noises weren’t high on his list of problems and, besides, he hated going down to the basement and fighting with that ancient boiler. He’d long given up trying to find replacement parts for things that broke on it and knew that he’d have to fabricate anything that was needed this time. The damn thing was more trouble than it was worth and there was no way Flintlock, the miserly landlord, was going to buy a new boiler unless he had to.
“Why should I look at the boiler, Mr Grimley?”
Grimley’s features took on a conspiratorial look as he replied. “There’s noises. Noises coming from the pipes. They ‘ave to be coming from that boiler. And you’re the janitor. You should find out what’s making them noises.”
“What sort of noises?”
“Weird noises. Noises like I ain’t ‘eard plumbing make ever before. As if it’s in pain or something. I tell you, Steve, it’s like the thing was alive, the way it groans and wheezes.”
“Groans and wheezes, hey?” Steve shrugged. “Okay, Mr Grimley. I’ll take a look at it as soon as I finish with Mrs Palinkov’s curtain rail.” He patted reassuringly at Grimley’s shoulder.
The curtain rail did not oblige so willingly, however. Mrs Palinkov had managed to order the wrong measurements and Steve had to make several adjustments to the rail before it would fit. It was early evening before he had everything installed properly and he considered leaving the boiler for the next day.
But it had been a while since he had first been told about the noises. And he’d promised old Grimley. He shouldered his toolbag and began the descent to the boiler room.
The basement was a depressing place. A single tired light bulb was the only grudging illumination allowed it and most of the space was taken up with dusty, unwanted items in storage. Piled together, these embraced dark corners that seemed purpose made for vermin and creeping things to hide in. One section had been walled off with breeze blocks to create the boiler room, a cramped, overheated space almost filled with the machine that named it. Steve hated working on the obsolete thing, forced by lack of room to get too close to the most heated parts of it and the result was welts and blisters on his hands and arms where they had touched the sweltering metal.
This time was no different, Steve met with a rush of warm and humid air on opening the door to the partition. He stepped inside, instantly forced into close proximity with the building’s overheated supplier of heat and water. How he hated these too frequent struggles with the beast to keep it working as intended.
In the toolbag he found his latest secret weapon in dealing with the boiler. A pair of thick, fireproof gloves should ease the task of finding and fixing these mysterious noises. He placed them on one of the pipes leading from the boiler and flipped on his cell phone.
“Mr Grimley? Steve here. Can you turn on your hot water so I can see what’s happening with the boiler?”
He watched the blue, unwavering flame of the pilot light through the little glass window. A few moments and then the whole bank of burners whooshed into life, one after another. The sound was like a sudden gust of wind in a gale. That was normal enough and couldn’t be heard up in Grimley’s apartment, surely. It settled to a low-pitched, steady roar.
Steve put on the gloves and began to adjust the strength of the flames, hoping to induce the noises he’d been told about. The roaring shifted up and down through the scales, just as it always did. Nothing wrong there, then. He left the settings as they had been and stepped back to survey the boiler.
That was when he first heard the sound beyond the noise of the burners. It was a deep, continuous groan, like a huge beast in pain, that seemed to vibrate in the air, only becoming noticeable when you began to ignore the usual boiler sounds. It stopped for a moment and began again.
Suddenly Steve realised that it was modulated slightly, that it was not the featureless groan he had first taken it for. There was texture in it and changing tone almost as if it were a voice trying to form words. He waited as the sound grew more distinct, as it moved higher up the scale and became clearer. Now he fancied he could hear words in the sound.
“Steve, Steve,” it seemed to be saying.
The janitor listened intently, entranced by this strange effect that somehow produced an imitation of words. The temperature in the room increased as the burners flamed incessantly, sending hot water racing through the pipes to Mr Grimley’s apartment.
Steve could hear nothing but the strange voice now that he was aware of it. And the words seemed to be changing.
“Steve, you hear me now. You hear me, don’t you? Hear me, Steve.”
The pipes began a chorus of pings and ringing sounds as they became hotter and this became an accompaniment to the words, providing short, sharp consonants to the long vowels of the flames. The words became clearer still and more intelligible.
“Steve, listen to me, Steve. I’ve waited long for this, Steve. I see your work for me, your care and attention for my breathing. I know how you keep the water flowing in my veins and send the gas of my waking to the fires. Listen to me, Steve.”
The janitor shook his head in disbelief. How could this be, this apparent voice of a dumb machine, filling his head with words that seemed to make sense? He had heard voices in the noise of machines before but never had he been able to make sense of what was being said. This must be some sort of psychological effect, his mind working with the sounds to produce words he unconsciously wanted to hear.
He just needed silence to think through what was happening and break through to the truth. Mr Grimley should turn off his water, that would shut the thing up.
Steve produced his cell from his pocket and realised how impossible it would be to make Grimley hear anything above the noise of the boiler. This had been mounting in volume as its words became more intelligible and now it was shouting at him.
“Steve, Steve, do you not want to be with me? I have waited so long. You must know that we are destined to be together, you the great attendant and me, source of the heat and vapour of existence. Come to me, Steve. It’s time, our time, we shall rule the underworld.”
The janitor dropped his cell as he felt the pull of the boiler’s words tugging at him, like some monstrous form of energy that sucked at flesh, a magnet to draw in the metal of his being.
He fought the drag of it, managing to turn around and grab at the door handle to escape. His glove slipped against the warm metal of the handle, the flame proof material unable to grasp at the smooth surface. Against his will, he stepped backwards toward the boiler and the raging voice increased in power.
“Steve, why do you struggle against me? Think of the life that awaits us. You cannot understand how the fires that burn within will comfort us, how we shall be as bright warriors against a cold world. Come to me now.”
The words became a wind forcing Steve back to the boiler, always pounding in his ears as the heat raged at his skin. His hair began to crinkle and he could smell burning flesh as his body touched the superheated metal of the boiler. He screamed soundlessly in the deafening words of the monster as the scorching began. His arms waved in the air and the gloves slipped from his hands to fall useless to the floor.
The last thing Steve heard was his name, endlessly repeated by the machine that loved him.
Word count: 1,390
For SCREAMS!!! April 13 2021