It had been the journey from Hell. Six hours squashed together in the stickily claustrophobic confines of the station wagon, the rain beating an incessant tattoo on the vehicle. A new job, a fresh start, a new beginning – it had been meant to be all of that and more. Instead they had seen the total breakdown of a relationship in a single car journey. Woken by the jolt as the car bumped through a dip in the road, Stephen, strapped firmly into his seat, raised his head and looked around sleepily. Stephen’s entry into the family five years before had seemed to be the glue that would finally bind them all together but instead he’d merely been the paper covering the cracks. Visibility was almost zero at times as the wipers fought against the increasing deluge.
“Are we there yet?” The words slipped out innocently enough but they were like a spark in a car filled with explosive gas.
“We might have been if your father could learn to read a map.” Jill Kennedy spat the words out with enough venom to paralyze a medium sized animal. Peter tightened his grip on the steering wheel, fighting the impulse to jump back down his wife’s throat.
“We’re almost there.” He offered by way of conciliation. Sitting in the back of the car beside Stephen, Emma – aged nine – stared blindly out of the window, trying to shut out the hostility. As the rain continued to lash down, the car drove alongside a high brick wall towards a pair of large wrought iron gates. Stephen craned his head up and peered out of the window.
“What are those lights Daddy?” The wet road was lit by the flashing of blue lights from a number of vehicles parked inside the gates. A sign, swaying in the wind, beside the gates read: ‘Becket’s Children’s Home’. An ambulance and two Police cars were parked in the drive, lights flashing across the walls of the large, stately building. A number of Police and paramedics were milling around the ornate entranceway. As Peter got out of the car, a Policeman immediately crossed to intercept him.
“Help you sir?”
Peter stared towards the house as Jill stood out of the car.
“Peter! Answer the man!” Jill’s temper was no less acute now that she was out of the confining environment of the car. Strapped into the back seats, Stephen struggled desperately to get a better look through the rain-covered glass, eager to get his feet back on the ground.
Emma sat back in her seat. Head bowed slightly, her ears struggled to decipher the barrage of sounds from beating rain, hurried voices to the slow but steady creaking of a length of thick, old rope.
Peter snapped his attention away from the Paramedics and Police gathered below the balcony above the entranceway. Through the sheeting rain and glare from a number of Police spotlights he could just barely make out the shape of something hanging.
“S…sorry. I’m Peter Kennedy. What’s going on?”
Rubberneckers already… in this weather! The Policeman turned away.
“I’m the new director of the home. I’m due to take over from Mr. Galloway at the end of the week. What’s going on?”
The Policeman stopped and looked round over his shoulder.
“Perhaps you’d better come with me.”
Peter followed as the Policeman led him towards the entrance.
“Peter!” Jill’s voice had lost none of its shrill edge despite the noise of the rain. He looked back. “I’ll only be a moment.” Jill turned away, anger boiling inside her.
Peter followed between the Police cars and ambulance. He looked up as he passed the last of the vehicles. Staring down at him were several small white faces, pressed against the windows. The constantly shifting rivulets of water on the glass making their pale complexions look even more ghost-like.
“We got a call from one of the night staff about twenty minutes ago. It’s not a particularly pleasant sight.”
Peter stopped, lowering his gaze from the windows. Police and paramedics were crowded around the entrance. Two Policemen leant out of a window above the entrance, struggling with a length of heavy rope. On the ground the Policemen tried to get hold of the legs of James Galloway as his body swung slowly from the end of the rope, twisting in the frantic efforts to lower it to the ground.
“Oh my God!” Before Peter’s words had died on his lips – a cry went up. The young Policeman desperately trying to keep hold of the wet rope let out a shout as his feet slipped beneath him. The end of the rope sailed out of the window, hands frantically grabbing for it. Galloway’s body plunged down on top of the Policemen and Paramedics below, flattening two of them.
Peter rushed forward, instinct taking over. He took the hand of one of the Policemen and helped him to his feet. As the officer, half Peter’s age, struggled to his feet Peter stared down at Galloway’s body sprawled ungainly across the entrance. The rope had cut deep into the neck, his tongue lolled from his mouth.
The older Policeman glanced daggers at the younger man then turned to Peter who was wiping the water from his ashen face.
“Looks like you’ll be starting your new job earlier than you thought.”
“Oh Jesus!” Peter spun round. Jill had a hand to her mouth, turning away. In her arms Stephen peered out from beneath the oversized cap covering his head.
An hour later Peter finally trod the stairs of his new house, a rundown affair attached to the back end of the home. He stood at the top of the stairs, the landing lit by the faint glow of daylight coming in through a small window behind him.
The door to Emma’s room opened without a sound. She lay on her back, eyes closed, face turned towards the ceiling. In a smaller bed on the opposite side of the room Stephen slept soundly. Peter picked up Bear from where he had fallen on the floor and tucked him back under the covers.
In their own room there were no curtains covering the window. Jill was sleeping, her back turned towards the door. The quilt is pulled tightly around her leaving the rest of the bed bare.
Peter closed the door silently behind him. Stepping over a suitcase on the floor he pulled off his jacket and sat lightly on the edge of the bed. Jill stirred but didn’t wake. Peter pulled off his shoes, socks and lay down, staring up at the ceiling.
The first day in Hell.
It got no better the second day. Peter was introduced to Mackenzie, right hand man to the previous head of the home. Mackenzie was a weasely little man with an annoying habit of trying to stare down whoever he was talking to. The situation was far worse than Peter had been lead to believe when he had first agreed to take over from Galloway. Galloway’s suicide had taken the death toll in the past six years to eleven. A further three disappearances of children could only add to that tally. Forewarned of Galloway’s stern hand at the tiller, Peter was nonetheless surprised by Mackenzie’s apparent lack of emotion regarding his former employer’s successful attempt to take his own life. Nor would he be drawn on his knowledge of the reasons behind the tragedy. With this line of questioning leading to a solid brick wall, Peter turned his attention to the immediate future of the home.
Mackenzie’s beady eyes stared intently at Peter, enjoying watching him desperately trying to come to terms with the reality facing him. The home was closing. Peter’s role was to do nothing more than supervise as the last twelve remaining children were found alternative accommodation and the property sold.
Jill seemed to take the news surprisingly well – however – her anger was so great that she was unable to express it in anything other than stunned silence.
Harvester watched all this from afar. He had been aware of a subtle shift in Galloway’s psyche for sometime but even he had been taken aback by the suddenness with which he had decided to bail out of their relationship. Now it seemed that others were planning to deprive him of the few remaining trophies. That wouldn’t do. He had an agreement. Galloway may have sought to absolve himself of any further connection with their deal but the deal hadn’t died with him. Harvester had his rights. Perhaps he should have made his approach to the man called Mackenzie… but no. Harvester dealt only with the man at the top.
Harvester sat back in his throne, the fingers of his left hand, wrapped in a criss-cross of well-worn leather webbing, gently caressing the carved wooden handle of the ocular extractor that lay beside him. Around him the best part of a million sightless eyes stared down at him from the walls of his chamber.
By Peter’s third day in Hell communication between him and Jill had become non-existent. He’d tried several times to explain that the news of the situation in the home had been as much news to him as it had been to her but she’d long since stopped listening to anything he said.
A tour of the home had only served to lower his already damaged spirit. The building was in a criminal state of repair. Plaster hung from the walls. Electrical wiring and plumbing were inadequate at best, illegal at worst. He could have written a complete dissertation on the failings of the structure but that would only hasten the home’s demise. A smile rarely left Mackenzie’s face as he guided Peter through the long, bare corridors and numerous empty dormitories. The closure of the home was long overdue. Besides, there were other, far darker reasons why the home should be shut down as soon as possible. A deal had been brokered, terms agreed. Mackenzie knew that as much as he had hoped, Galloway’s death would not have changed anything. This new man, a man under the weighty thumb of his wife, a man who had thrown away a comfortable job, income and home, had come here – plunged into a Hellish situation he could barely expect to survive, let alone succeed against.
Through the dirt caked window of the upstairs dormitory, Peter looked out onto the grey tarmac quadrangle below. Of the dozen boys still left at the home, eleven were outside; some playing with a rapidly deflating football, two of them engaged in conspiratorial whispers away from the rest. Peter turned away from the window and stared at the two lines of beds which ran the length of the dormitory walls. At the foot of the farthest bed a holy man sat talking in hushed, reverent tones to the small boy, Timothy Northam, tucked up in the bed.
‘Father Kerrigan here has been our savior. A spiritual beacon among the darkness and despair of this sad place.’ As the holy man looked round, Peter was immediately struck by the look in his eyes. The windows to his soul. This was a man with a heavy burden weighing upon him, one that even his religion could not lift.
Father Kerrigan was weak, fatigued by the battle but just for a moment his eyes brightened as he shock Peter’s hand and felt the energy and enthusiasm of a new soul entering their lives. Father Kerrigan looked at Mackenzie, the burden of their shared knowledge was crushing him into the ground. Somebody had to talk to this new man, confide in him, share the burden of their knowledge, make him a part of it… to see if the spreading of the information would lessen the individual burden. But deep inside Father Kerrigan doubted whether he had the strength to combat the evil that had befallen them.
Jill spent the days as far away from the home as possible. The very sight of the place had already begun to depress her. Knowing that within as little as six months it would be an empty shell – the perfect reflection of their crumbling relationship – made her angrier than she could believe. Stephen was too young to understand anything of the situation other than he found himself in new surroundings. For him every day was an adventure.
Even at the age of nine, Emma Kennedy knew the relationship between her mother and father was falling apart. It wasn’t information that worried or scared her. They had argue and sniped at each other for as long as she could remember. The final, inevitable separation would come as no surprise. She loved them both, that would never change – no matter which one she eventually wound up living with. She knew her time would come.
Her father was the one she had the closest relationship with but Jill, more interested in her own needs, left her alone to do as she pleased, and that suited Emma just fine. She sat in her room, music playing from a tape recorder bought with birthday money from her grandparents. She turned her head towards the window, felt the weak sunlight on her face, listened to the boys, the orphaned, the diseased, playing outside.
It was day five in Hell and things were hotting up.
Rain beat incessantly against the window, the weathered frames leaking again, tiny rivulets of rainwater trickling down the glass and pooling on the sills. Faint moonlight slanted in through the windows onto the children sleeping in their beds. Father Kerrigan sat in his wooden rocking chair, an aged sentinel, watching over his meager flock. In his lap he fidgeted nervously with his rosary beads as the chair rocks slowly back and forth. He had wanted to tell Peter everything the moment he had first seen him, so eager was he to unburden himself of the horror that surrounded them, watching, waiting. But something inside had made him hold back. Perhaps he felt that through his sacrifice, Galloway had saved them, or perhaps he realized how insane it would sound if he were ever to speak his thoughts out loud.
Suddenly the chair stopped moving as Father Kerrigan sat perfectly still then turned his head towards the half open door at the far end of the dormitory. None of the sleeping children had stirred. Father Kerrigan slowly rose from the chair and moved cautiously towards the door.
The corridor was silent as Father Kerrigan appeared in the doorway of the dormitory, a silhouette.
‘Wh-who’s there?’ Silence was the response as he stepped away from the door. Ahead of him the corridor disappears away into the darkness. A breath of cold air washed over him, his skin rising into gooseflesh. As he stepped back into the dormitory a large, scabrous hand suddenly clapped over Father Kerrigan’s mouth. His eyes widened in fear, his nostrils filling with the fetid smell of damp leather and death. Harvester stared into Father Kerrigan’s fear filled face.
‘Not much of a watchdog. Are you?’ Harvester raised a second leather strapped hand. Light glinted off the rusted metal barrels of the ocular extractor. Father Kerrigan’s eyes fixed on the rusted, blood encrusted ends of the tool as it approached his face, only inches from his eyes.
Harvester stared over Father Kerrigan’s shoulder. He lowered his hand from Father Kerrigan’s mouth and moved to step towards the children. Father Kerrigan stepped into his path.
‘No!’ Father Kerrigan’s voice was hushed, unable to disguise the fearful tremor. Harvester stopped, a smile breaking on his lips revealing two lines of jagged, age cracked teeth.
‘Does this mean you’re volunteering to take their place?’ Harvester again raised the extractor, bringing it close to Father Kerrigan’s face. Father Kerrigan shrinks back.
‘Remember, we still have a deal.’
Suddenly the rosary slips from his hand. It hits the floor, the beads scattering across the floor.
‘Father?’ Father Kerrigan looked round. In the farthest bed, Timmy was sitting up, rubbing his sleep filled eyes. Father Kerrigan looked back. Harvester was gone.
Father Kerrigan moved to the end of the bed, glancing nervously towards the open door.
‘It’s all right. Go back to sleep.’ None of the other children stirred. Timmy snuggled down in the bed as Father Kerrigan pulled up the sheets and tucked them in around him.
The seventh day in Hell. Peter had been away from the home. An endless succession of meetings with lawyers, bank managers, financial consultants, clinical psychiatrists, social workers and welfare officers until his head was spinning.
Jill hadn’t answered his call earlier in the day. He’d wanted to tell her that he’d be late home, apologize for having been away overnight, tell her he’d be back earlier than expected, tell her that he loved her… but she wasn’t there to talk to. Perhaps that was better, when they didn’t talk they didn’t argue.
Peter got out of the car and turned his collar up against the rain. Every muscle in his body ached from having sat in a succession of uncomfortable chairs and then driven for three hours to get home.
He wasn’t listening as he climbed the stairs to their accommodation at the rear of the home, he heard only the incessant beating of the rain against the windows.
He stopped to say goodnight to Emma and Stephen, both sleeping the sleep of the innocent.
It was only as he touched the door handle that he sensed something was wrong. There were sounds other than just rain against glass. The door opened. Jill was the first to look up. Even as Mackenzie tried to withdraw, his penis shriveling to nothingness, Peter was walking away.
In the morning of the ninth day in Hell, Jill left. She took Stephen with her and left in Mackenzie’s car. Emma asked to stay with her father, a request Jill was more than happy to grant.
Hell had now become home to him. It was of some comfort to have Emma with him. The whole in his live left by Jill’s departure did not ache as he had always suspected it would. The years of arguing had anaesthetized him to the pain. All he had to do was throw himself into his work, finding homes for the last of the children still left in his care.
By the thirteenth day in Hell Emma, Father Kerrigan and himself were all who remained resident. All that was save the Harvester of Eyes. He was always there.
It was still dark when he opened his eyes. Father Kerrigan stood in front of him. Peter looked around, confused then he remembered the home, the body swinging at the end of a rope, the children, his children, Mackenzie… and his wife. Sleeping in his office chair had sent his back into spasm again. He sat up.
‘I’m sorry to disturb you. I looked in your lodging…’ Father Kerrigan had listened to his fair share of confession. Buried beneath his current worries, this man’s domestic crisis meant little – even so, a little of what had made Father Kerrigan a man of the cloth still lingered within and felt a moment of compassion… but a moment was all it was.
Peter stretched his aching back and stood up from the chair. He felt his cheeks flushing red. He could see the urgency, the intent in the Priest’s eyes.
‘We need to talk.’
Peter Kennedy listened as Father Kerrigan told his tale. His head swam with images and ideas as the information once again changed hands. Harvester’s existence had posed little problem for Father Kerrigan to accept. If there was a God then how could there not be a Devil? If anything it had made his faith stronger. Where Harvester had come from was still unexplained. He had spoken of people long since dead but whether that had been from personal experience no one had ever taken the time to enquire. What kept him bound to this particular location was also still a mystery to them. Ultimately the bigger questions had become irrelevant once the deal had been struck. Initially Galloway had tried to protect his charges. It was only when it became clear that Harvester was here to stay and Galloway’s own son had been taken that his spirit crumbled and he acquiesced. The deal was simple.
The home provided Harvester with all he wanted, the windows to the soul. Payment for a debt centuries old – an eye for an eye. A child’s eyes had been the price, collected regularly until Galloway’s pain had forced him to fasten the rope around his neck and jump from the window.
‘I think you’ll find it all legal and above board.’ The voice was deep, a bass rumble that seemed to vibrate through the core of their bodies. Now Peter saw for himself. The Harvester of Eyes. He stood well over six feet tall. Thick, matted hair crept out between a mass of leather strapping that covered his face, the remnants of an ancient mask. Similar webbing, punctuated with spiked metal studs covered his muscle-bound arms and legs. His immense torso was bound beneath a heavy leather and chainmail shirt. It was the instrument in his hand that was the focus of Peter’s attention. Twin barrels of tarnished brass, blood encrusted on the jaws, on the underside of the ocular extractor the two collection chambers were filled with milky fluid.
‘I’ve come for my payment.’
‘This can’t go on… It has to stop!’ Father Kerrigan felt his spirit bolstered by Peter’s presence.
‘It’ll stop when I say it should stop!’ Harvester pressed the jaws of the extractor into the desk. Peter stepped back as Harvester turned his head to stare at him, his eyes barely visible behind the web of weathered leather. The rank smell of death and damp leather surrounded him like a cloud. The fetid odor increased in intensity as Harvester opened his mouth.
‘I’m giving you a choice. Leave and live. Or stay and die.’ Peter stood his ground. The leather strapped hand slammed him across the face. Peter crashed back over his chair and collapsed in a heap on the floor. As Father Kerrigan stepped forward to help him, Harvester grabbed the holy man by the arm.
‘You’re not going anywhere.’ Father Kerrigan stared into the dark black eyes, the Devil’s eyes.
‘I only ask that you spare the children. They are away from here. It must end.’
‘I’ve already made my deal.’ The muscular, leather-strapped hand grabbed Father Kerrigan by the throat and pressed his head back against the wall. The tips of the extractor pressed against his eyes, the metal jaws on the end of the two brass tubes forcing the eyelids open and creating a vacuum around the eyeballs. The holy man tried to scream but the sound was muffled by Harvester’s hand as it continued to constrict his throat. All was black, impenetrable darkness so his other senses took over. His nose was filled with the fetid odor from the leather strapping on Harvester’s hand. His ears became filled with the sound of the mechanism as cranked into action. Father Kerrigan tried to twist his head away but it only increased the pressure on his eyes.
Miniature cogs began turning, slowly sliding the lubricated pistons out through the back of the tubes. The pull of suction on his eyes was excruciating. He could feel the orbs being deliberately sucked from their sockets. The muscles attached to the eyeballs began to rip and tear. Blood began leaking from the tear ducts. Gradually the machinery of the ocular extractor sucked his eyeballs out of his head. The holy man was still conscious, his ear filled with the sound of the grinding cogs, the soft ‘plop’ as the excised orbits dropped into the collection chambers and the slow hiss as the vacuum was released and the pistons slide gently back into place, the metal jaws retracting. His eyelids draped limply over the empty sockets. The lack of blood and oxygen to the brain had finished him off. Harvester stood back, admiring his handiwork.
Peter regained consciousness. His eyes felt heavy with bruises, the lids stuck together with dried blood. He staggered to his feet, almost stumbling over the body of Father Kerrigan. Only one thought entered his head ‘Emma!’
Emma stood at the window, her back to him as Harvester approached. He raised the extractor.
‘I’m here for you child. I’ve come for your eyes.’
Emma turned to face him, her sightless eyes staring blankly towards him.
‘You can’t… Jesus has already taken them.’
Harvester halted in his tracks, indecision, hesitation, emotions he had never encountered before. He could not take what she did not have to give him. They stood, facing each other, the monster and the blind girl.
‘What will you do now?’ Her bravery touched him, cutting straight to his black heart. He wanted to reach out and touch this young creature. Hold her in his arms and slowly squeeze her, crush her to his chest until she became a part of him. He wanted to see through her dead eyes. He wanted her to see.
Peter ran, crashing through the doors of the lower dormitory. His heart thumped in his chest. His limbs felt heavy as lead. He cried out Emma’s name, his voice echoing through the deserted halls. A brief flash of lightning lit the way ahead allowing him a nanosecond to register the obstacles in his path, concealed by the enveloping darkness.
Emma’s ears picked up the faintest echo of her father’s voice. Harvester noticed the tiniest movement of her head as she registered the sound. Emotions cascaded through Harvester’s head. He saw no trace of fear in the little girl. This exquisite, beautiful child. Grown men, emissaries of God, all had trembled in his presence but not this girl.
Harvester dropped the extractor, returning it to the clasp on his belt. He held out his hand.
‘I have something I want to show you.’
Emma took Harvester’s hand. She felt no fear, just as she felt no threat from him.
Peter raced to the top of the stairs, and burst through the door into Emma’s room. She was gone.
Harvester lead Emma by the hand, guiding her through the chamber, the million or so eyes staring at her from the walls, each one following her every step. At first the new sensations entering her head were blurred, indistinct but slowly they darkness began to lift, coalescing into a million shades of grey. As she stood with Harvester at her back, the veil of darkness began to lift from around her. The mass of grey began to separate, clarify, greys became colors, darkness turned to light. She felt Harvester’s presence, protecting her, guiding her. Then all at once she could see. See him, see herself, see everything that the million eyes had seen. Half a million lives, half a million deaths. She could see what they had seen, what they did see and what they would see.
“It’s beautiful! Thank-you.”
Harvester cracked a smile.
“Can I stay?” Emma had no need to turn around to see the reaction on his face. She could see inside him, into his heart, into his soul.
“Of course…” Harvester replied. “Stay as long as you want.”
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