top of page

The Boiler

by Ash Kingery

Frederick Masterson hastily put down the telegram he’d been re-reading all day as his secretary poked her head into the office. “Mr. Dalrymple would like to see you, sir,” she said.

The man Frederick always dreaded seeing had arrived, ready to discuss the telegram he didn’t want to keep considering, and at the precise moment that was guaranteed to aggravate him even more. The clock on his desk read 5:55 p.m. He was supposed to leave in five minutes, and now he’d be late coming home. He could, of course, just ask Delia to send Dalrymple away, but it was better to get him out of the way sooner than later.

“Fine. Send him in, but tell him I haven’t much time to spare. Oh, and… you may go home, Delia.” Frederick said. 

“Thank you, sir,” Delia said as she closed the door behind her.

Frederick sighed and straightened his tie. George Dalrymple was a pleasant enough man, but Frederick hated him because he held a position within the Stanton and Masterson Railroad that had been forced on Frederick. Having heard about one too many safety issues with the SMR, the federal government had sent Dalrymple to act as “chief of safety.” Except the SMR was only a freight railroad. It felt excessive.

If nothing else, he could at least be thankful that Dalrymple was a man who could be persuaded, so to speak, to keep word of the SMR’s worst incidents out of Uncle Sam’s ears and to deflect any nosy reporters. Thanks to his efforts, the government and companies alike were happy to give the SMR the contracts to transport their goods across the country. And yet, a tiny flicker of worry always lurked in the back of his mind.

Dalrymple, a neat, thin man with a well-manicured black mustache and a tweed jacket, entered and gave Frederick a little smile. “Thank you for seeing me so late, Mr. Masterson. I appreciate it. How are you?”

“May we skip the pleasantries, Dalrymple?” Frederick said, waving a hand. “I know why you’re here.”

Dalrymple’s expression didn’t change. “And I know what I have to do about it,” Frederick continued. He pulled his checkbook out of his desk drawer. “How much?”

Dalrymple’s expression remained placid as he said, “Not this time, sir,” in his usual mild tone.

Frederick was taken aback. His palms grew slick with sweat. The moment had come at last. “And what changed your mind?” he said as he put his checkbook away.

Dalrymple shrugged slightly. Still, still, his expression didn’t change. In fact, he didn’t even seem to blink.

The hairs on the back of Frederick’s neck stood up. He cleared his throat, tapped the telegram, and said, “Another locomotive exploded, killing the fireman and engineer. I need you to tell me how you’ll keep their damn fool behavior out of the news.”

“They were only following your orders, sir,” Dalrymple said, a hint of steel in his voice. “You wanted them to reach Houston faster, so they fed it with coal till it burst. There was no time for them to activate any safety measures.”

“What changed, Mr. Dalrymple?” Frederick said slowly. “Locomotives explode sometimes. Accidents happen.”

“Sometimes? Oh yes, sometimes they do. But this was no accident. This was deliberate on your part.”

“Deliberate?” Frederick said. “How dare you accuse me of such a thing?”

“Your orders were the cause of this. Are you so blind to the consequences of your actions?” Dalrymple said, raising his voice a touch.

“Watch your tone, Mr. Dalrymple,” Frederick hissed, gripping the arms of his chair.

Dalrymple drew himself up straight. The useful, pliable man Frederick knew vanished in an instant. “I will not.” He leaned over Frederick’s mahogany desk, spreading his fingers wide and smudging the ‘1888’ on the telegram. “You have gone on this way for too long, Mr. Masterson.”

“Get out of my office, Dalrymple.” Frederick said, struggling mightily to remain stoic. When he refused to move, Frederick stood and opened the door, then pointed to it for emphasis.

Dalrymple turned slowly and lifted his head. His eyes were red. Or was that just the lamp’s light reflecting strangely? He took a step forward, then grabbed Frederick by the wrist, lifted his hand off the doorknob, and shut the door firmly. 

“Unhand me,” Frederick said, shocked and enraged by Dalrymple’s brazenness. Dalrymple didn’t let go. Frederick tried to break out of his grasp, but the man held him tighter than iron shackles.

Dalrymple leaned in close. “Sit down, Mr. Masterson. I have more to say.” His eyes were undoubtedly red, and they flickered with all the colors of a flame.

Try as he might, Frederick was unable to escape Dalrymple’s grasp. Dalrymple flung him into his leather chair, and Frederick nearly tipped over from the force of it. Dalrymple leaned over the desk again and got very, very close to Frederick’s face. His breath was hot and stank like coal. “Mr. Masterson, would you like to know the names of the men killed driving that locomotive? Or do you only care about the name of the locomotive itself? Tell me, which name will you recall first?” he whispered.

“The… the Starlight, right?” Frederick said.

“Very good,” Dalrymple said with a stretched-wide grin, and now it wasn’t Dalrymple speaking, but someone else entirely, someone with a gravelly Irish accent. “My name is Finn Molloy. I was the Starlight’s engineer.” 

Dalrymple’s face twisted into a deep glower. “And my name is Alfonso Acosta. I was the fireman. Neither of us wanted to push her so hard,” he said, now with a raspy Mexican accent.

“She was a tough old girl. Strong as an ox,” Molloy added. Dalrymple’s face stretched and warped every time his voice changed, taking on aspects of the dead man’s face, and his gray eyes changed color as well–green for Molloy, brown for Acosta. Frederick just shrank back in his chair as Dalrymple’s hands–if they were indeed still his hands–seemed to twist as he gripped the desk harder.

“She was indeed,” Acosta said. “But we had a deadline to keep. You had said that this run should take us two days. But, Mr. Masterson, you can’t go from Albany to Houston in that short of a time, especially with so much cargo. Not unless you fuel a locomotive without stopping. Except no engine can take that much coal.”

“If we hadn’t gotten there quick enough for you, we would’ve been fired as soon as we stepped off that train,” Molloy said.

“We needed our jobs, Mr. Masterson. So we sacrificed ourselves for them. I left behind my wife and little girl. They’ll never know what happened to me, not if you or Dalrymple have anything to say about it,” Acosta said.

“Nor will my siblings, or my sweetheart, or my dear widowed mother,” Molloy said.

“So what did you get?” Dalrymple snapped, going back to his own voice so suddenly that Frederick’s entire body spasmed at the sound of it. With every word, his mouth opened wide, revealing gleaming, pointed teeth. “Two dead men, one destroyed locomotive, and a load that won’t reach its destination in time. All because you demanded speed over safety, speed over sanity.”

“I– I was doing it for the customers! They demanded speed!” Frederick gasped.

“Only because you promised it to them,” Dalrymple said, his voice deepening dangerously. “You knew that was a promise that came with risk. You knew that slow and steady, especially with such hulking, dangerous machines, is what wins the race. But you ignored that so that you might line your pockets, and you hid all evidence to the contrary. There are more within me. Should I introduce you to them?”

“Please, no–” Frederick said.

Dalrymple’s face writhed, stretched, and cracked, his flesh warping as if it were hot metal. Two more sharp-toothed mouths appeared, one on each cheek. They all began to speak at once, each with their own accent, forming a cacophony that drilled directly into Frederick’s head like a railroad spike. “Thomas Ross. Henrik Siegel. Noah Katz. Bernard Coleman. Enzo Como. John Stevens. Carl Freeman. Erik Nylund. Pedro Soto. I can go on,” he said, his normal voice now a booming echo. “All of these men were your loyal employees. Had you not instituted unsafe policies, had you not threatened your men with so many punishments, had you not chased the almighty dollar, you would not have their blood on your hands.”

Frederick had nothing to say. There was nothing he could say that would placate Dalrymple, or whatever was wearing Dalrymple’s skin.

“Well?” Dalrymple said through his three mouths.

Frederick swallowed the lump in his throat and said, “What are you?”

“This was George Dalrymple, yes,” Acosta said through Dalrymple’s left mouth. “But George was complicit in your crimes. So he had to go. We took him for ourselves when he visited the remains of the Starlight.”

“We can’t move on because we don’t have bodies left to bury!” Molloy said through the right mouth. “We were blown to smithereens!”

“Alone, we are powerless. Lonely, lost souls wandering the earth. But because we could only wander, we found each other. And together, well… We found we have quite a lot of power. Power to take control, to use him to get to you,” Acosta said.

“Now that we’re here, Mr. Masterson, how should we deal with you?” Molloy said.

Dalrymple’s three mouths chattered at once. “String him up!” “Bury him alive!” “Beat him till he bleeds out!” “Shoot him like a dog!” “Draw and quarter him!”

“Show him what we saw!” Acosta cried above the rest, and the other voices suddenly murmured their assent. “Do you know what a destroyed locomotive looks like?”

“Y-Yes,” Frederick said, not wanting to admit that he had only ever seen them in pictures taken by Dalrymple, when he had still existed. The boiler was connected to pipes that wove throughout the front of the locomotive, pushing steam through its metal chassis. When the boiler exploded, the smokebox tended to shoot forward like a bullet, leaving the pipes to spill from the remaining chassis. They looked like enormous spider legs, crawling over each other, desperate to escape.

“Then we will show you,” Acosta said.

Dalrymple’s body began to grow in all different directions, becoming taller, lankier, sharper. His bones cracked as his neck and torso lengthened until his head hit the ceiling. Yet he kept lengthening; now his waist almost touched the ceiling, now his legs were longer than the rest of him, now his fingers scraped the ground. His eyes became points of red light swimming in blackness. His three mouths smiled at Frederick and said, “Any last words?”

Frederick closed his eyes and clapped his hands over his ears, but Dalrymple forced his eyelids open with his clawed, spindly fingers. “I’ll keep them open!” he howled. Dalrymple let go and stared at him intently, waiting for his words. Afraid to even blink, he took a deep breath and said, “M-My wife. My son. A-And Delia. Please don’t hurt any of them. They’re innocent.”

“You have my word,” the thing that had been Dalrymple said. Its three mouths fused back into one, then opened wider and wider until its face was all mouth. A mass of thin black tendrils burst from its mouth, emitting a sound like a train whistle. The dozens of tendrils ensnared Frederick, wrapped him in a cocoon of soot and slime and burning-hot metal, and squeezed him until he burst.


The thing that looked like George Dalrymple exited Frederick Masterson’s office to find his secretary gone. It looked into the mirror on her desk and assessed his appearance. Satisfied that it looked like a human again, it picked up a book of matches from Delia’s desk. Then it picked up the phone and said in Dalrymple’s mild voice, “Operator, I need the police. There’s been a terrible accident at the office of the Stanton and Masterson Railroad. Yes, I’ll wait here. Thank you.” The thing hung up, lit a match, and dropped it on the desk, where it quickly caught fire. It watched the fire spread, then left. It was time to speak to William Stanton.


Ash Kingery is an author from Phoenix, Arizona. She likes making/reading/thinking about comics, playing video games, and lying on the pavement to become a human scrambled egg. She has a website with a real domain name now, so that's neat.


bottom of page