The boiler room was loud. It chugged. It hissed. Its pipes slithered out beneath the school like the tentacles of a giant beast, sending blistering hot water to ancient radiators. Willard examined the boilers, checking the ph and pressure levels.
There were consequences when the boilers were neglected.
Steam condensed on pipes, dripping on Willard all day long. Dripping onto Lily’s clouded picture frame, sullied with the soot of passing time. She was ten when the picture was taken, but the years since her disappearance had made the picture warped and hazy.
He used to say Lily had a guardian angel—her mother, who died when Lily was seven. But there was no such thing as angels—only ghosts to chase him to his grave. He had his work and that was all.
The boiler room had a way of speeding up time—thirty years of Willard’s life.
He’d work until his body broke down like the aging boilers he replaced every few years, the rust of death sticking to his stocky, hardened shell. And then he, too, would be replaced. But until that day, he’d keep the school and its students warm and safe.
The very thing he failed to do for Lily.
He worked at the school but he didn’t teach—no, not him. Not enough smarts for that, though he liked it when they called him Mr. Fearon. It made him feel equal with the teachers. Made him feel smarter than he was.
He knew he wasn’t attractive like the teachers upstairs. His face looked like a charcoal painting from years of burn scars and soot. But it suited him. Matched his insides anyway. Some kids shrank away from him when he spoke—his voice was loud and his hearing half-gone from contending with the boilers.
Some kids said it was his fault when Lily disappeared. Willard acted like he didn’t hear them, but inside he seethed with anger.
He couldn’t be a teacher because teachers told the truth, and Willard was bad at truth-telling. The truth hurt even worse than the students’ made-up stories.
Few people ever came down to the boiler room, so with any luck he’d keep his secret safe forever.
He walked to his cot and sat down with a thud, making the rusty hinges creak. He had a home but it was too quiet there. The quiet made him anxious. He needed an endless hum to fill his ears and a sky of pipes to sleep beneath. At home he couldn’t hide from Lily’s screams. They gave him migraines that kept him from his work.
After twenty years he’d learned that time healed nothing, but work could mask the worst.
The boilers purred as though unwinding for the night.
Whhhirrrrrrr, whhhirrrrrrr, whhhirrrrrrr.
The resting breath of his companions. All he had left to care for.
He pulled the greasy lamp chain by his cot and lay back into the darkness, thinking of the upcoming Christmas holiday. He pictured Lily in her Christmas dress—the two of them dancing to winter melodies in the kitchen, Willard tossing her into the air and catching her on the way down, keeping her safe—the image as crisp as fresh-baked pie despite the decades of heartache between then and now.
Willard supervised detention when no one else could do it, and today he sat with two bored sisters who begged him for a tour of the boiler room. They said they loved creepy places, and maybe he felt he had something to prove. The boiler room wasn’t creepy, only intimidating at first with its hiccups and shadows. It was cozy once you settled in—nothing to fear—so he agreed to show them around. He felt like an official tour guide, showing off his area of expertise. For a few minutes at least, he could be one of the teachers.
It was like the days with Lily after school when she’d wait for him to finish with his pressure checks, imagining she was in a metal forest. The sisters, Audrey and Ginny, held hands as they wandered through the maze with widened eyes. Audrey’s auburn hair and Ginny’s upturned nose reminded Willard of Lily—like she’d reincarnated and split in half, her features shared between the sisters. It didn’t seem fair that some kids, most kids, got to lead a full and normal life.
The girls told Willard they’d heard the rumors about Lily. The stories of her ghost roaming the halls at night, moving desks and emptying drawers. Searching for her kidnapper.
Some kids said killer.
It’d been a rumor since she first disappeared, though the police declared her disappearance an unsolvable mystery after combing the town for months.
Before the sisters left, Willard asked them if they’d like to see a picture of his daughter. They said yes and huddled around him. Ginny looked real hard at Lily, but Audrey didn’t say a word. Something else had caught her attention. Her hand reached out and wrapped around a bright red knob, about to give it a spin. If she turned it too far to the left the pipes might not withstand the pressure.
“Hey—Look out!” Willard grabbed at her arm.
“Oww!” Audrey cried. A line of blood beaded up on her palm.
“Gotta be real careful with those,” said Willard, his heart racing. “I’ll get you bandaged up. You’re lucky that cut’s not worse.”
“But it’s your fault!” yelled Audrey.
“Oh no, I told you first thing to keep your hands to yourself in the boiler room.” He started to sweat and wiped his face with a paper towel from the dispenser on the wall.
“I don’t remember that, Mr. Fearon,” said Ginny. “Maybe we should go.”
“After I care for that cut. That’s the number one rule in here: Keep your hands to yourself. Plain common sense. How am I supposed to keep you kids safe if you don’t follow the rules?” Willard’s voice rose louder than he intended.
Audrey tugged her arm out of his grip and hugged it to her chest. She looked like she was about to cry. In fact, she looked terrified. Willard softened and managed an apology, but Ginny grabbed her sister’s hand and they left without saying goodbye.
Maybe he’d overreacted, but you could never be too careful with instruments under pressure.
Willard needed to sit down. He felt faint.
He’d failed to keep a student safe.
He rubbed his eyes and Lily was there at his feet, crumpled on the cement floor. She visited him like this often. A sight worse than death—beyond death—her skin torn, loose and red. The front of her dress half-melted into her skin. His Lily! His wilting flower draped over his arms, wet with tears and steam.
He’d only left her alone for a minute.
The boilers were unhappy. They hated working as hard as winter required. When one gave out Willard unhooked it and added it to the pile of parts and rusted pipes that had collected in the far corner of the room—a pile he’d neglected for years.
Aboveground, the students’ faces were gray and gloomy, like the overcast sky that hung outside. Willard visited the classrooms, making adjustments to the overburdened radiators, but no one spoke to him. There were no hellos in the hallways, no “Good morning, Mr. Fearon!” from the students or teachers—only whispers and averted eyes. It stung like a slap to be flat-out ignored, like the first time Lily snubbed him in front of her friends.
Sometimes she still woke him up crying at night.
Poppa, it’s dark in here. Can I please have some lights? Like the colorful ones at Christmas?
No lights, Lily. They draw attention. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.
She was ten. She was tall and smart. She loved ghost stories and flashlights and sleeping in tents. She was curious but never rebellious. She looked at Willard like a celebrity—the man with all the keys who went where no one was allowed. He felt powerful when she bragged to friends that he could fix anything.
Everybody made mistakes. His just happened to be the one that ended his daughter’s life. A neglected, loose-fitted pipe. Under too much pressure.
He shouldn’t have left her alone—told her he’d be right back when called away. If he’d been with her he’d have noticed something wasn’t right by the sound. He’d have gotten her out in time.
She could’ve tagged along while he took care of the call.
He could’ve done this, she could’ve done that.
It was all so avoidable.
Willard sat at the edge of the cushioned seat across from Principal Nolan. He wasn’t sure what to do with his hands. He didn’t want to get anything dirty. All those clean pages in all those smart books lining all those dustless shelves. This was no place for a boiler man.
“This is hard for me to say,” said Principal Nolan, “so I’ll get right to the point. Audrey Tessle told some kids that you hurt her in the boiler room and now I have parents calling in asking why we haven’t fired you.”
Principal Nolan’s face morphed and wavered as he talked. The #2 pencils on his tie all seemed to be pointing at Willard. “Now, I know you didn’t do anything, Mr. Fearon. Audrey’s sister told us what really happened. But regardless, it wasn’t a good idea to have them in there in the first place.”
Willard bobbed, outwardly agreeing with his whole body, while inside he shouted, “No! No! NO!”
What could he say in his defense?
Something. He needed to say something, and fast.
Willard had lost his wife, then Lily. His job was all he had left.
If he was smart he could think of something to say, something that would put everything back the way it was. But he wasn’t.
He’d messed up again.
Principal Nolan continued. “Unfortunately we have parents threatening to go to the police, so the administration has decided to offer you an early retirement severance. We can’t let rumors like this fester in our school.” He paused and rubbed his open palms over his face and into his hair. When Principle Nolan lowered his hands he looked splotchy and undignified. Willard felt sorry for him.
“Mr. Fearon, you’ve been an asset to this school for decades—and what with your family history…Well, we’re very sorry about all this. You’ll be allowed to keep your benefits, which should leave you well taken care of. And then we can all move on and forget this incident ever happened. What do you say?”
Willard’s mouth was dry. He’d been in charge of those boilers half his life. He’d have to give up the pipes, the noise, his cot—the privacy he’d held onto for so long that he’d forgotten how to spend time with other people.
Worst of all he’d have to give up being “Mr. Fearon,” the boiler man that kept the children safe and warm.
“I’m not sure I’ll know what to do with myself,” he said, wiping his brow with his pocket kerchief. “This school is my home. I—are there any other options? Maybe part-time, or groundskeeping?”
“I’m afraid the most we could do is let you stay on to train our new hire. I’m really sorry, Mr. Fearon, but I believe this is the best solution.”
Willard felt his world unraveling for the third time. What had there been before his job at the school? Before his family?
Life was a blur of experience.
He wiped his face again. What if the new guy went snooping around? Looking places he didn’t need to look? He’d probably want to clean out the pile of rusted boilers and pipes in the far corner. And he’d probably notice one was heavier than it should be, with something resting inside.
Willard would have to find a way to take her with him.
His sweet Lily, sealed inside an iron tomb.
Panic flashed through his body like lightning and Willard abruptly stood up. He was so lost in thought he didn’t notice Principle Nolan extending a hand to him. He just walked out of the office, his hands to himself.
He had work to do.
The battered boiler rattled in the back of Willard’s truck. He hadn’t looked inside since he’d welded it shut after the accident. Since wrapping Lily like a gift in plastic. He’d fire it open and bury her at home in the backyard. He’d plant a bed of lilies in the spring. Find an angel at a garden shop to stick into the dirt.
A smiling angel with glittery wings. Weather-proofed to last the ages.
Protecting her, at last.
Songs That Fueled the Story:
“Decapitate” by Echo Strobes
“Change (In the House of Flies)” by Deftones
“Guggenheim Wax Museum” by Have a Nice Life