The Boiler

Mr. Cullen bought the house in the hopes of spending his retirement solitarily. The little house was nestled deep within the woods, in its own cleared patch of land: a neat house at the end of a neat dirt road. By the door, a rusty axe head was sunken deep into a moss blanketed stump. The wind whistled eerily through the hole the axe’s wooden peg had vacated. Mingling with the whistling was the creak of a dilapidated weathercock.

Forbidding to some, the house seemed to fit Mr. Cullen’s simple needs perfectly. As he stood on the front porch with Autumn’s red leaves tumbling over his feet, he took off his glasses and polished them, smiling, with a polka dotted hanky. Mr. Hauser was standing in front of him, speaking in his drawling voice, holding the house keys in his hands like a guarded prize.

“So wolves and foxes pretty much steer clear if you spray some of this around…”

Mr. Cullen was not really listening. Mr. Hauser seemed to be a nice man, but he always appeared a little over-anxious and edgy, especially when he talked about the house and its upkeep.

“Now, Mr. Cullen…”

He waited for Mr. Cullen to respond

“Yes?” Mr. Cullen answered mildly, clamping his glasses back onto his nose.

“Now, Mr. Cullen, I gotta warn you about the boiler. It’s a tad finicky, and of course I’ll be coming around once a month to check up on it, but sometimes it makes noises. Now, don’t go downstairs and try and fix it yourself cause the machinery’s too old, you might damage it, or yourself. You just call me if it starts acting up and I’ll drive right over. I’m only fifteen minutes down the road remember.”

“Sounds fine, Jim. I’ll call you if I have any problems.”

“You do that”, said Mr. Hauser, trying his best to look penetratingly at Mr. Cullen.

“So everything’s set up inside? I’m eager to up my toiletries and sheets.”

“Everything’s all set up.”

“Good, good.”

The two stood looking at each other, silently. Mr. Cullen rolled from his toes to his heels, raising his eyebrows and nodding his head. Mr. Hauser eyed Mr. Cullen oddly. The weathervane creaked behind Mr. Cullen.

“So… the keys Jim.”

“Oh yes” said Mr. Hauser hastily. He outstretched his hand over Mr. Cullen’s. Mr. Hauser hesitated for a moment, as if parting with a family heirloom, and then he let the bold iron key ring clink into Mr. Cullen’s soft palm. Mr. Cullen watched Mr. Hauser stump back to his red truck. Mr. Cullen waved calmly as Mr. Hauser started the old motor. Mr. Hauser began to pull away and then pausing, he thrust his haggard face out the window and called, “Don’t forget, don’t touch go down to that boiler, you might lose a finger even. And”, Mr. Hauser’s tone grew softer, “take good care of the house. God knows I’d stay in her if I could afford the mortgage. See you round.”

Mr. Cullen nodded affirmation and waved a little harder. As the dust from Mr. Hauser’s truck grew distant, Mr. Cullen pondered the nature of such a queer man. A chill breeze descended suddenly on the clearing, however, and drawing his woolen sweater around his neck, Mr. Cullen retreated back into the house. The axe head whistled vehemently outside as the sun shrunk below the mangled black tops of the trees.


For some time, Mr. Cullen enjoyed his stay at the neat little house. Apart from feeding the fire and dusting the book shelves, there was little strenuous activity for Mr. Cullen, and he grew accustomed to the country life quite easily. He twiddled his socks by the fire and read the books he’d never had time for when he was working on Wall St. Mr. Hauser came over monthly with a tool kit to work on the boiler. He never took long, and Mr. Cullen was happy to find that these monthly visits, along with the New York Times and the occasional letter from his nieces or a money seeking cousin, were his only links to the world outside his little cabin in the clearing. Even the electricity bills were surprisingly low. Everything was as Mr. Cullen had planned.

He was sitting in the living room one evening, enjoying a particularly cozy book, when he noticed a sound apart from the crack and pop of his fire. He perked his ear and stared up at the ceiling, but the sound did not repeat and he resumed reading with a dreamy sigh. He found his place on the page only to hear the sound again, this time louder and closer. This time he set his open book firmly on his corduroy knee and twisted in his chair t survey the expanse of the living room. The room was dim save for the flickering beams cast by the fire. Flickers of light danced on the wall opposite the fireplace, but the room remained silent, and Mr. Cullen began to wonder if he was hearing things. Just as he was about to give up on the sound, he heard it again and saw a lump raise up under the carpet at the far corner. He strained his eyes looking for the lump to resurface. But it did not reappear in the same spot. It rose up closer to Mr. Cullen’s chair. He rose from his seat, fearlessly awaiting a mouse to scurry along the wall near him. He waited in vain. No mouse came, prompting Mr. Cullen to fold his arms over his chest with a perplexed frown. Suddenly his foot was hit hard, from beneath, sending a shockwave rippling from his ankle to his knee. He hopped around in surprise and pain. Another lump burst from the floor near his other foot. Soon the frequency of the bumps increased, until the floor was a tumultuous sea of bumps and pounds. The sound was like a chorus of drums, growing ever louder.

“My God!” exclaimed Mr. Cullen. He leapt over to the lamp and clicked it on. Light flooded the room and the thumps subsided, abruptly. The rug was once again an unbroken plane of beige. Mr. Cullen rubbed his nose and then bent to the floor. Propping his lenses on his balding head, he examined the floor closely. There were no marks, no signs of damage. He rose to his feet, and then stomped on the floor. He was surprised to find the floor give partially beneath the impact of his foot, as if the floor were made of rubber. He eyed the floor warily and moved slowly towards the phone. He rang up Mr. Hauser.

“Hello, Jim. You wouldn’t believe, the strangest thing just happened. The floor started to have big bumps all over it, like it was a pot of boiling water.”

A crackling voice replied over the line, “Oh darn! That’s the boiler acting up. I’ll be right over to fix her up.”

“Are you sure it was the boiler? There were physical bumps popping up all over the place.”

“Yep, the pipes bang something fierce.”

“The pipes”, said Mr. Cullen incredulously.

“Yep, I’ll be over soon. Don’t try to fix it yourself.”

The phone clicked off on the other end and Mr. Cullen looked from the phone to the floor. He settled the phone back onto its hook and then sat rigidly in his chair, eying the floor like it was a sleeping child who might reawaken and cause further mischief. He sat there until Mr. Hauser’s head beams shown in from the front windows.

Mr. Cullen rushed to the front door and let Mr. Hauser in. Mr. Hauser stepped inside, brushing a red leaf from his coat.

“I trust you didn’t touch the boiler?”

“Of course not, but this is very strange Jim. The floor was bending and-”

Mr. Hauser said enthusiastically, “I designed the floor myself. It keeps the boiler safe and sound; when the pipes clanged against hard wood it hurt the boiler something terrible.”

“Jim, I’m afraid you don’t understand. The entire floor was thrashing about like an ocean”, said Mr. Cullen exasperatedly.

“Steam and pipes, that’s all. Now if you don’t mind Mr. Cullen”, Mr. Hauser hefted and tapped his trusty toolbox, the instruments inside shifting and squeaking, “I’ll just start the repairs and the boiler won’t bother you no more.”

Mr. Cullen raised a finger to make another point, but Mr. Hauser brushed past him and stomped down to the boiler room. Mr. Cullen placed his hands on his hips and looked down the dimly lit, winding staircase which led to the boiler room. With a shake of the head, Mr. Cullen put the whole incident behind him and went back beside the fire.

Mr. Cullen began to feel drowsy and approached the door to the basement with the intent of delaying the repair until tomorrow morning. He was nearly to the door, when Mr. Hauser emerged smiling and drooping his toolbox on his finger like a schoolboy dangling his books from a string.

“The old bugger’s all fixed up”, he said cheerily.

“Indeed? Well if you don’t mind”, Mr. Cullen brought his watch to his face with an extravagant flourish.

“Sure, I’ll be out of your hair now”, said Mr. Hauser he swung his toolbox all the way to the door, again reminding Mr. Cullen of a giddy schoolboy. Mr. Cullen ushered him out the door, wishing him a good evening.

“You have a good night too, Mr. Cullen”, said Mr. Hauser widening an ivory smile from his bronze face.

Mr. Cullen leaned against the front door massaging his temples, and reminded of how grateful he was that country life provided very few instances of such disturbance. He slipped into his silken robes and washed up for bed. The boiler did not bother his sleep for the entire night.


Two weeks passed and it happened again. Mr. Cullen stood quietly observing his living room floor get pummeled with a cup of steaming coffee. He sighed, and slurped his black coffee. He looked at his watch: 8:30. Mr. Hauser may have been out to dinner, but it couldn’t be helped. Mr. Cullen stepped intrepidly out onto the carpet and walked towards the telephone. His hand was outstretched for the phone handle when a blow came from below his foot, very similar to the shock he had received on the previous occasion. His mug flew from his hand and smashed against the wall. Mr. Cullen howled in pain and clenched his leg looking furiously at the coffee stain running down the fine wooded wall and into the crack where the floor met the wall.

He turned with a wild rage towards a nearby chair, picked it up, poised it above his head and flung it at the nearest lump. The chair hurtled at the spot and broke up into splinters. Mr. Cullen stood hunched over and huffing the room silent. He slapped his knee, and did a little jig.

“Ah, hah! “Finicky” my ass! All it needs is a good smack and it falls into order!”

Mr. Cullen’s celebrations were interrupted my a disturbing sound, something like a muffled groan was barely audible from spot between his very own two feet. Mr. Cullen cocked his head, suddenly very stern. He believed he had even hear a child’s sob for a moment. He listened intently, but nothing more was to be heard. Suddenly, the floor bumped again, this time violently, taking Mr. Cullen’s legs out from under him and sending him sprawling to the floor. Mr. Cullen rose shakily from the pulsating floor, his glasses eschewed and his face a livid purple. He stormed from the room, and flung open a closet door. He withdrew a heavy wrench, nabbed his key ring from a shelf and walked towards the cellar door with a purposeful mien. Mr. Cullen was ranting and raving against the boiler with indignation within his mind. It was as if he took personal offense at being treated so by his own machine. So absorbed was he with his own thoughts that he did not notice that the thumping had ceased of its own accord.

Mr. Cullen was busy creaking down the old staircase, further irked  by the first pang of old age creeping into his knees. He dared not grab onto the railing twisting down beside the winding staircase; the railing was a rusty pipe, barely clinging to the crumbling plaster walls with screws that jutted out and trembled with each of Mr. Cullen’s footfalls. A dank smell rose from the base of the staircase. Mr. Cullen’s impetus  bore him headlong into the plume of rancid air. His tasseled loafers submerged into a green puddle, sending speckles of slime onto Mr. Cullen’s corduroys.  This puddle, no doubt to Mr. Cullen, was the source of the horrid stench. Mr. Cullen cursed silently to his prized loafers and then lifted his head.

A broad, engraved door barred his path. Despite the fuzzy growths splotched on it’s edges, the door had clearly been a labor of love for some craftsman. Etching of flowers and woodland creatures flowed across its face. At one time, the door had been a colorful display of life, but before Mr. Cullen it looked like a melancholic old man. Its skin was brown and leathery. Only a few patches of reds and blues remained as a memory of its youth. Someone had repurposed the door and slapped a bulky iron padlock by the latch. The gaping keyhole stretched open forebodingly at Mr. Cullen, like a silent shriek.

Mr. Cullen wasted no time observing the door. He flitted through each key on the ring, shoving each one at the admonishing padlock. With each new key, his anger rose. He reached the final key, and the padlock remained closed. To Mr. Cullen, it appeared to be mocking him. Mr. Cullen mopped his brow with a newly sooty hand and, determined to either fix or destroy his boiler, raised his shiny new wrench above his smudged bald scalp and then crashed the head of the wrench onto the lock. The circuit snapped surprisingly easily. He inspected the lock in his hands briefly, noting that it had been worn through with rust and use, and then tossed the stocky sentry into the puddle.

Mr. Cullen examined the door a little more closely. Apprehension wormed into his mind for the first time as he realized just how silent the base of the staircase seemed to be. The boiler was not showing any sign of being on at all. All of the sudden, something about what Mr. Cullen was doing seemed reckless.  Perhaps Mr. Hauser had a true reason to forbid Mr. Cullen from entering the boiler room. Mr. Cullen hesitated for a moment, on the cusp of turning his back on the whole affair and walking up to his bedroom to enjoy a piece of cheese and a glass of wine before climbing into bed. Mr. Cullen brushed aside his fears, dismissed them as foolish. Nevertheless, it was with a ginger push and a wary step that he passed by the beautifully sad door into the boiler room.

Mr. Cullen squinted his eyes into the dimly lit room.  Many of the corners of the room were cast in darkness. All six sides of the room were padded with some coarse material, scratched at points. Mr. Cullen thought of an insane asylum with a shudder. As far as he could tell, the padded walls wrapped around the room uninterrupted except in one spot. On the far wall from Mr. Cullen, a giant industrial machine was bolted to the wall. It looked as if someone had taken the rusty innards of a watch and nailed them to a wall of buttoned down cloth. Mr. Cullen could see the hulking machine clearly because stuck to the wall beside it was a blinking light bulb. A metallic cord wound from the base of the bulb and twisted into the maelstrom of cogs and screws of the machine.

Mr. Cullen approached the shuttering light and machine with a hint of trepidation. His feet padded softly over the soft floor. It was so dark he could barely see the path to the machine except when the light bulb flashed brightly for a moment. He groped onward. His foot crunched through something brittle. Mr. Cullen looked down to find his foot lodged in the smashed chest cavity of a mammoth rat skeleton. He cringed a little and extracted his loafer from the jagged clutches of the dead rat’s ribs. He scattered the remains with a flick of his ankle and continued towards the machine which he supposed to be the boiler.

Mr. Cullen drew up next to the machine at last and, raising his spectacles, looked intently at the machine. He was surprised to find that there were no pumps or gauges. There were no pipes at all, only a series of wood handled cranks and levers. He touched one of the handles tenderly with his soft, pink fingers. The wood was worn smooth and black. Mr. Cullen looked up at the winking light fixture. He turned the crank slowly, curiously. To his sudden delight, the bulb burned a little brighter. It quickly faded down, however. Mr. Cullen was highly amused at the contraption now. He placed his wrench and key ring down and put both his hands on the handle, readying to give it a real turn. Like a giddy schoolboy with a new toy, Mr. Cullen beamed as he felt the smooth wood underhand, listened to the gentle whirring of the machine, and watched the mesmerizing, twirling cogs and wheels.

Mr. Cullen chuckled happily and turned from the machine to the room, now completely awash in resplendent light. His smile drifted away. Standing in the corner was a chalk white, naked man, standing beneath a brown stain on the ceiling. His bony spine was facing Mr. Cullen, but he could tell the man was catching droplets from the brown stain on his tongue. Mr. Cullen stood transfixed beside the machine. The lanky man became aware of the new light in the room, catching it on his spindly fingers before his face. He pivoted slowly around on the spot wear he stood, jerkily shifting his feet so that his body moved closer and closer to facing Mr. Cullen’s. Mr. Cullen’s jaw dropped in dismayed astonishment, his hands hung limp by his sides.

Finally, the man was facing Mr. Cullen, and it became clear that he was no man at all, but a creature. Although hobble, the creature’s head nearly grazed the ceiling. Its body was like a bundle of sticks held together by knobs of papier-mâché and sinews of tight muscle. Its skin was pulled tight across its face. Its entire face was consumed by two black, shining wells for eyes, and a gigantic grin, moist with spittle and drool. A sound resembling the curious gurgle of a baby emanated from behind his set of jagged yellow teeth. Mr. Cullen mimicked the sound absurdly, fearfully. The creature’s nose and ears were pressed flat against its skull, which was bald except for a few wisps of dry black hair sprouting up from brown splotches on his scalp.

To Mr. Cullen’s terror, it began to lurch toward him, swaying its elongated arms down by his knees, wading through a sea of newly visible rat carcasses. With each step, it stumbled down, its knobby knees buckling under its own weight. Then it rose, jerking its body up suddenly,  for its next step. It seemed to be perpetually tumbling down towards Mr. Cullen, like an avalanche in slow motion. The light was flickering again. With each new flash of light, the thing loomed closer, its beaming, tiny head towering higher and higher over Mr. Cullen’s. Mr. Cullen found himself lost in the creature’s gleeful eyes. He could see his own pitiful figure mirrored in their inky recesses.

The creature was almost upon him. Mumbling something incoherent, Mr. Cullen ducked sideways and sprinted for the stairway. He flew past the ornate door, a tingling sensation brushing at his lower back, pushing him to go faster. He leapt up the stairs nimbly on his toes, not daring to peek backwards. He sped through the living room, skidded around a corner and ascended quickly up to his bedroom. He slammed the door behind him, but it drifted ajar, defiantly. He rushed to the edge of his bed, looking out the window nervously. He fumbled for the phone and punched in Mr. Hauser’s number, straining his ears for any sounds behind him. Mr. Hauser picked up the phone, answering groggily, “’Lo?”

“Mr. Hauser! There is a man in the boiler room”, stuttered Mr. Cullen, still in alarm.

“Oh dear”, said Mr. Hauser cutting him off with some tsk-tsk’s. “You’ve found Radley, I’m afraid.”

“Radley?” exclaimed Mr. Cullen.

“He’s my child. He was always a little troubled. Damned near killed Mrs. Hauser on several occasions, but she wouldn’t hear of sending him off to some institution so we kept him in the cellar.”

Mr. Cullen did not remember seeing Mr. Hauser’s wife. “

“What happened to Mrs. Hauser?” he asked suspiciously.

“Well, Radley never did kill her wholly, but he did do a number on her face. She spends most of her time in bed now, her mind went with the incident. I’ve been left to do the caring for Radley, bringing him rats for food– he likes live food best– and pitchers of water.”

Something crashed downstairs. Mr. Cullen twisted in his seat, looking fearfully at the beam of light peeping in through the open door. The sound was distant, probably from the living room. Mr. Cullen imagined the tower of skin and bone shuffling happily around in the cozy living room, his pale skin standing out against the oriental carpet and fine china. Mr. Cullen shuddered at the thought of such an out of place monstrosity in his own cozy living room.

“Mr. Cullen? Harry?”

“Yes, yes. I’m here. And what the hell am I supposed to do with him?” whispered Mr. Cullen urgently.

“Don’t go near him! I’ll leave in a moment, but there’s something you should know”, Mr. Hauser paused, “ I designed that entire room myself you know. The walls were a simple fix to keep Rad from hurting himself, but the machine, the machine remains a source of pride.”

Mr. Cullen could fairly feel Mr. Hauser puffing up with pride on the other end. Mr. Hauser continued on, “the boy had so much energy, god knows from what, so I put it to use. That machine provides practically all the electricity for the entire house. He never gets tired of cranking on the old thing, except of course, when he gets hungry. That’s when he pounds on the floor to let me know. But anyway, he’s out of the boiler room now, so obviously he isn’t pumping electricity into the house.”

Mr. Cullen groaned, “Are you saying that this place could black out?”

“Yes, I am. If that happens you’d better hide cause he’s used to it, but you wouldn’t have much chance running or fighting in the dark.”

Something creaked in the hallway. Mr. Cullen listened intently. Nothing more. It was an old house, it creaked even when there weren’t criminally insane nudes prowling its corridors. Mr. Cullen turned back to the phone, “So what am I supposed to do then?”

“For god’s sake hide.”

“Where? Where?”

“Well, the outhouse would be best. Or perhaps just one of the closets. Oh, but do not hide in the bedroom. When Rad was a child he always knew to come find me there. He never did like the pantry but…”

Mr. Hauser’s voice grew distant as Mr. Cullen grew aware of a sensation on the nape of his neck. He turned his head slowly over his shoulder. Poking through the door at an angle was Radley’s grinning face. The door began to swing slowly open, pushed by the pressure of Radley’s bony shoulder. Radley began to enter the room, the same unflinching look of happiness plastered on his face.

Mr. Cullen rose from the bed, the phone resting loosely in his trembling fingers.

“Mr. Cullen?” a voice crackled from the earpiece.

“He’s in my room right now”, Mr. Cullen breathed into the mouthpiece, his chest heaving violently.

Radley began to walk towards Mr. Cullen again. This time his gait was less pronounced, more agile. He was closing distance quickly. Mr. Cullen backed towards the corner of the room, letting the phone drop from his hand and dangle like a pendulum over the bedside table. Radley’s beaming face eclipsed the ceiling light, the rays of light enveloping the devilish green and sunken black eyes. The hallway light flickered and died. The light in Mr. Cullen’s room wavered in turn. Mr. Cullen pressed himself flat against the wall, his wide eyes following the Radley’s path.

A voice shouted from the phone, “I’m on my way, Harry! Get away from him! Run away! I’m…”

The line went dead. Radley’s face was suddenly curtained in darkness, leaving only the moonlight from the window illuminating the creature’s fawn colored nails and grubby hands as they reached out for Mr. Cullen. Outside the axe head shrieked vehemently. A fierce wind blew around the house. The weathervane spun slowly on its axis, groaning mournfully in the dark.


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