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The Problem with the Drains

Estimated reading time — 10 minutes

“Man, that shift sucks!”  I hear it all the time.  I can understand why people say it; I used to think the same thing.  I still do some days.  I’m one of the lucky people that go to work while everybody else is sleeping soundly in their nice warm bed.  It does have its perks, though.  Most importantly for me, I’m all by myself, all night long.  No bosses breathing down my neck, no co-workers getting on my nerves.  Truth is, I just don’t play very well with others.  Never have.  It’s how I landed here on the midnight shift in the first place.  I was getting under everybody’s skin during the day, and I’d had my fill of them as well.  I’d ruffled too many feathers, as I often do.  They probably would have just canned me altogether except for the fact that I’m damn good at my job, so they just changed my shift instead.

All’s well that ends well, and if I’m being completely honest, I was happy they did it.  I mean, don’t get me wrong- it’s far from perfect.  Sleeping during the day can be… problematic.  The rest of the world doesn’t give a damn that you’re trying to get some shut-eye.  Kids play, and dogs bark.  Salesmen knock, and sirens scream.  All things considered, though, everything was actually going really smoothly until the problem with the Drains started.

You see, I’m an overnight engineer in an office building.  It’s not a huge building, not a skyscraper or anything like that, but big enough to need a mechanic to babysit it all night.  There’s a whole mess of systems running 24/7 in a big building to keep everything ticking the way it’s supposed to.  Electric, HVAC, plumbing… all the things office workers take for granted.  I keep their computer servers cool and their air clean and breathable.  Nice and warm at your desk on a 10-degree day in February?  Thank a building engineer.  Did you ever see “The Wizard of Oz”?  Guys like me are “the man behind the curtain.”  Like I already said, I’m quite good at it, and for the most part, everything ran smoothly the way it was supposed to.  But then there were the drains…


It all started a couple of weeks after I began working the graveyard shift.  I was making my rounds, checking the boilers and water pumps when I noticed a strange smell, and a pool of water around one of the circular floor drains in the boiler room.  Plumbing clogs weren’t all that unusual in a large building, especially when it came to the toilets.  You can’t imagine what people try to flush down those things.  But a clogged floor drain was unusual.  They’re really only there to help with damage control in the event of a flood if a boiler or a pump were to let go.  To see one backed up was weird.  Maybe one of the daytime guys swept the floor, didn’t feel like going to find a dustpan and swept a bunch of crap down there.  When it came right down to it, the how and the why didn’t matter.  What did matter was that it was my problem at that point, and it needed to be fixed. So I got to work taking care of it like I had a hundred times before on a hundred other clogged drains.

I tried a plunger first, looking for the quick, easy fix, but that didn’t do the trick.  Grabbed a short manual auger to try to clear the trap out.  The trap, in case you don’t know, is the bend below a drain that stays filled with water all the time.  The water in the trap forms a liquid seal, and it’s the reason you don’t smell an entire city’s sewer system every time you walk past a sink or toilet.  It’s also very prone to catching things and causing clogs.  The auger didn’t work either, which meant the problem was even deeper than that.  It was time to break out the big guns.

I went down to my shop and retrieved the “end all, be all” of drain clearing tools: A heavy-duty, 200-foot-long motorized snake.  Enough length and power to tackle even the nastiest blockages.  It had an auger head attached, which could push through whatever was causing the trouble and get the water flowing again.  I set it up next to the drain, pulled my gloves on, and got to work.  I fed about 10 feet in by hand and then got the snake spinning with the foot pedal switch.  The electric motor simultaneously spun the snake and slowly fed it into the pipe.  I was surprised to see how deep the clog actually was.  I watched the length markers appear on the metal snake from within the drum, and then disappear again as they spun down into the drain.  20 feet, 40, 60, 80… all the way to 160 feet!  I was starting to worry that I’d run out of snake before I reached the obstruction, when I felt it hit something.  The motor labored slightly as the auger pushed into the clog.  Then, something strange happened.  It seemed as though the snake got pulled out a bit, like when a fish on a hook swims away and takes some of your fishing line with it.  I didn’t think much of it and was relieved to see the pooled up water receding into the drain.  Mission accomplished!  I reversed the direction of the motor and began feeding the snake back into the drum, wiping it dry as I went.  When I got to the 20-foot marker, I remembered hearing a strange noise that almost seemed to come from the drain itself. It sounded like a faint screech- but not the metal on metal scraping that rang out as a snake spun inside a cast iron drain pipe.  It sounded almost… like an animal crying out.

I should take a minute to make something clear: spending many hours alone in a huge building at night can have some nasty side effects.  Combined with the inherent lack of sleep that came with overnight work, solitude can sometimes make you think you heard or saw something that wasn’t really there.  I was ready to dismiss the sound until I saw what was on the head of the metal snake as the last 5 feet emerged from the dark drain.  There was a strand of what looked like dark grayish rubber hung up onto the auger.  There was also some slimy pinkish matter around it, and I couldn’t for the life of me imagine what it was that I had just spun the snake into.  I didn’t think much more of it as a wiped the snake clean and started mopping up around the drain.  After that, the rest of the night played out like any other, and I went home as soon as my relief arrived.

I had some trouble sleeping the night and had what I can only describe as a general feeling of unease that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.  After tossing and turning for most of the afternoon, sleep finally did take me. I only got about 3 hours’ worth, however, before I heard the alarm buzzing to signal the start of a new workday.

I didn’t get along with any of the daytime engineers, and we rarely spoke.  Instead, I always learned of the day’s events by reading the logbook that we kept in our control room.  On that particular day, I saw that a different drain had backed up in the basement.  Much like the night before, they had needed the big snake to clear it. This didn’t surprise me too much.  Sometimes when you cleared a blockage, it would get itself stuck further down the line, and you’d end up with another clog shortly after.  I assumed that’s what had happened.  On the bright side, the basement was the last stop on the way to the sewer, so if they cleared the blockage down there, I figured that it would be gone for good.  Unfortunately, I’d soon learn otherwise.


At around 4 am, I was sitting at a bench in the boiler room looking through some maintenance records when I heard a light slapping sound from across the large room, near the boilers.  I walked over to check it out, and as I approached, I could see the all-familiar sheen of pooled water around the floor drain closest to the boilers.  As I got closer, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  The source of the wet slapping sound was a thin gray tendril protruding from the drain, about 8 inches long.  It seemed to be flipping around, slapping the floor surrounding the drain.  My heart started racing as I gawked at what quite clearly seemed to be a limb of something alive inside a mechanical room floor drain.  I reached for a nearby broom and swatted at it, but it just started slapping around more eagerly, as if excited by the new stimulus.  Beginning to panic, I did the first thing that I thought of and ran over to the boiler’s blowdown valve, used for bleeding off 190-degree boiler water into the drain, which was currently home to the curious gray nuisance.  I opened the valve just a bit, and the chemically-treated, scalding hot water had the desired effect.

The sound that followed was unmistakable- It is the same wounded screech that I had heard the night before, only much closer, and much louder.  The strip of flesh began to bubble and blister before retracting as fast as slippery gray lightening back down into the drain.  The pool of boiler water, mixed with the water that had been there before, disappeared into the drain with a whoosh.  I closed the boiler valve and tried to compose myself.  Overtiredness was the obvious cause of this impossible hallucination, I told myself.  The amount of sleep I was getting each night just wasn’t enough for a human to operate properly on.  Disbelief set in, and I started to wonder if I had dozed off at the bench in the boiler room and dreamt the whole thing.  But there was no mistaking the smell- the awful putrid smell that now hung in the air.


It was nearing the end of my shift, so I made all of my usual equipment checks and retreated to the control room, which had absolutely, positively no floor drains — a very desirable quality for me at that moment.  I added my notes to the logbook, making no mention whatsoever of the particular events that would have been considered completely insane by the engineers that would come in to relieve me.

Another restless day in bed.  Very little sleep.  I couldn’t get the vision of the scalded tentacle and the sound of the horrible scream out of my mind.  The alarm buzzer was silenced instantly by my hovering hand that had already been held above the alarm clock waiting for the number to change.  By that time, my eyes felt puffy and irritated.  My skin was crawling, and even the slightest sound seemed deafening.  Anybody that has experienced long stretches with little sleep would recognize the symptoms- severe, honest-to-God sleep deprivation was setting in.  I was going to shower, but took one look at the drain in the tub and thought better of it.  I splashed some cold water on my face, pulled on some clothes that seemed relatively clean, and headed out to work.

When I arrived, the logbook detailed a busy day that had been plagued with complaints of slow draining sinks and gurgling toilets that wouldn’t clear completely when flushed.  My nightly rounds eventually brought me into the boiler room, where I saw not one, but three tendrils of at least two feet in length slapping and probing around the boiler drain that was once again very badly clogged with a large pool of water around it.  Without a moment of hesitation, I went to the shop and retrieved the foot-pedal-operated drain snake once again, only this time I switched the auger tip out for a heavy-duty cutting head, guaranteed to rip through and clear any blockage when other attachments won’t get the job done.  When I returned to the boiler room, I plugged in and readied the snake close to the boilers, but not close enough to be within reach of the hideous gray tentacles.  I cracked the boiler drain valve slightly as I had the night before, releasing a bit more of the blistering-hot water down into the drain.  This caused the creature in the drain to screech, and retreat partially back down into the drain.  Acting as fast as I could, I immediately fed the snake forcefully down the drain several feet, pushing the tendrils further down, and causing another loud cry of pain.

The creature let out a different, angrier roar now, and tendrils shot up and out, in spite of the thick metal coil that I was hand-feeding hard into what I assumed was the creature’s body.  I was beginning to reach for the footswitch, but the tentacles started weaving feverishly, and then they began wrapping themselves up and around the heavy metal snake.  Before I could even process what was happening, one had started wrapping itself around my wrist.  I recoiled quickly and managed to pull my left hand free, but in the next instant- two more thick tendrils had started slithering their way around my right wrist and then up my entire arm!  Panicked, I tried to pull and rip at the thick slimy bonds with my left hand, but more tentacles emerged from the drain to wrap that hand as well.  They were moving too fast for me to contend with, and I quickly found myself overpowered.


Nothing that had happened up until that point compared to the terror and despair that I felt next.  Unable to free myself, I felt that, slowly but surely, I was being pulled toward the drain.  There was nothing that I could do, and my hands had become useless in the tangle of gray whips.  Head-first, I was sliding inch by horrifying inch closer to the four-inch drain opening that this creature intended to somehow squeeze me through.  In a moment of complete and utter dumb luck, I saw that my foot was very close to the pedal switch that would engage the snake motor.  With every last bit of my remaining strength, I pulled back hard against the creature enough to swing my leg over and just barely catch the switch with the very tip of my toe.  The result was immediate, and very effective.  The motor whirred to life, and some of the tendrils released at once, flailing frantically around the drain.  Others got bound up around the now spinning snake and were ripped apart from the sheer force. The pool of water around the drain began to change color to first a light pink, and then a deep, thick crimson.  The snake’s cutting blades continued to tear through the soft flesh of the unseen creature with the steady rhythmic churning that only a strong electric motor can provide.  The tendrils moved wildly at first, then more slowly.  Finally, to my great relief, they stopped moving altogether.  I took my foot off the switch and became aware of a very welcomed relative silence in the boiler room.  Another moment later, the gray appendages receded completely into the drain and the pooled blood and water went down with them, bubbling and gurgling as it slowly disappeared into the darkness.

After taking a moment to collect myself, I made the decision to leave the building right then and there.  I left everything just as it was.  When the day shift arrived, they’d inexplicably find 100 feet of bloody snake stuck in a drain pipe in the boiler room, and that was perfectly fine by me.  If I had tried to explain, they would never have believed me anyway.

I’m not sure how many days it has been, but I do know that I still haven’t slept.  Since then, I spend most of my time in my bedroom, far from most of my house’s indoor plumbing.  There’s a bucket that I have close by for when nature calls.  Every time I feel as though I’m about to drift off to sleep, I hear the soft, wet slapping that I heard that first night when I saw the tentacle.  Every time I get up out of bed to check the kitchen and bathroom, however, the sound stops, and I don’t find anything there.

Credit: Kris Mueller

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