The following is an excerpt from We Live Inside Your Eyes, the new collection from Bram Stoker Award-winning horror author Kealan Patrick Burke, featuring previously uncollected stories and two brand new tales. You are about to read the opening section, part one of two pieces that bookend the collection.
WE LIVE INSIDE YOUR EYES (I)
THE LAST TIME CHARLIE FELT SAFE WAS IN THE WOMB. Since then, he has struggled to find his place in the world and though he is only thirteen, he fears he never will. When he asks his mother why he is the way he is, she tells him he was early, whatever that means, and that now it’s too late. She weeps when she says this, and Charlie leaves the room to avoid addressing her tears. Hidden in the pockets of the things that frighten him most is the realization that he doesn’t like his mother. Once, he did, but she was different back then, full of love and light. Now she’s a ghost playing at being alive, a faded sheet hung upon a coatrack, only there to ensure he doesn’t become a ghost too. But her efforts are minimal. She puts plates of food before him at predetermined hours that are cold and bland, so most of the time he pantomimes satisfaction while tucking the gruel beneath his tongue. It makes him wish his dog hadn’t died, but he did, and his insistence on staying dead is proof that wishes don’t come true, no matter what the storybooks say.
Someday he hopes to write a story, but he doesn’t yet know what it will be. There is little to inspire him within the dank grey walls of this house except thoughts of escape, and even those only go so far, for what is there beyond this house but rain and boys with ugly smiles.
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He is lost and alone, with only the girl in the window across the street for company.
She’s there every day. Sometimes she waves. Mostly she doesn’t. She simply watches him or looks down upon the cracked asphalt cul-de-sac where the older boys play stickball. Those boys used to mock her and throw stones at her window until one of them, the cruelest one, disappeared. Now they pretend they don’t see her. But Charlie sees her. He wishes he could see her closer but like his father says, wishes are wet sticks that will never start a fire.
Then one day he ducks his head beneath the curtain and props his elbows on the sill, ready for another long afternoon of watching and hoping but the girl whose name he doesn’t know is not there to look back at him. Instead, she’s at her front door, looking back inside, jaw moving as she delivers what appear to be harsh words to someone or something he can’t see. And then she is outside and tugging the stubborn door shut behind her.
Charlie is paralyzed by indecision.
He knows if he wanted to, he could run, even though his legs are not very good and he is not very fast, but maybe they would get him close enough to talk to the girl, close enough to see the color of her eyes, close enough to know her as something more than a distant face in his lonely world. His mother may try to stop him, but she is weak too. She will limit her efforts to a cry. Perhaps she will be bold and come to the door, but by then he will be gone, and he knows she won’t follow. They never go outside. Hardly anyone does anymore. It’s too wet and too cold and the air makes people sick. Only the cruel are immune.
He steps away from the window and in his mind, he is already hurrying down the stairs. The reality, however, is much different. Knees shaking, he slowly puts one foot before the other, one arm braced against the wall for support. The wallpaper is damp and gives way, the painted flowers crumpling inward under his touch. He curses his infirmity and wills himself to move, move, faster, faster, but there is no strength from which to draw the fuel he needs to continue, and he collapses to the floor. The carpet smells of mold, but it is a smell to which he is accustomed, so it does not motivate him to rise.
“What are you doing?”
The words come to him from a throat clogged with phlegm. He does not raise his face to look at his father, because he does not like to see him. He hates that he is repulsed but hating doesn’t change it.
“There is a girl outside.”
“What is she to you?”
“Nothing yet, and she won’t be if I don’t try to see her.”
“What if she doesn’t want you to see her?”
“Then she should take away my eyes.”
His father grunts and Charlie smells bitter smoke and the foul stink of a body eating itself to pieces from the inside out. His father’s hands dig into his sides like plastic shovels, and with audible effort, he is hoisted back onto his feet.
“Go then. Don’t be out there long enough to bring your mother to the door.”
Charlie nods his acknowledgment but keeps his eyes averted. All he can see are his father’s mottled hands, like meat that has spoiled in the sun. He remembers when those hands were tender and kind, when they threw him a ball. He remembers lots of things that serve no purpose now.
His father steps aside, and braces a rotten meat hand on Charlie’s shoulder, assisting him to the uneven stairs. Rain trickles down the wall through the stains.
Charlie grabs the splintered railing and eases himself down one step at a time, the threadbare carpet squelching beneath his feet. He is exhausted by the time he reaches the bottom where mildew has turned the floor black. Fungi have sprouted like cartoon umbrellas in the corners as he leans against the door, presses his brow to the spongy wood to catch his breath.
“Go on,” urges his father. “She won’t wait for you forever and you may never be able to go outside again. Go.”
He pushes away from the door, looks at the depression in the wood where he pressed too hard against it, and reaches for the handle. As his fingers find the rusted metal, he suddenly becomes aware that the pockmarked wood, through which the grey light of day seeps through, reveals only darkness now.
Someone is outside, waiting.
She is waiting.
With a smile it hurts him to maintain, he yanks the door wide.
His heart halts its beating, his mind bursts into flame.
“Come,” says the girl with the violet eyes, and holds out her hand. Warmth of a kind he can’t recall experiencing before floods through him, and his pain ebbs away. He thinks she might be an angel, the miracle every man and woman who still has their tongue spends their days demanding from whatever exists beyond the turbulent sky. He considers asking her, but as soon as they’re clear of the cul-de-sac and into the grass leading to the ruins of the parking garage, she lets him go. He expects to fall, to be embarrassed by his frailty before the one person left to impress, but his legs hold. Not only that, but he finds he can put all his weight on them, one at a time, and they do not buckle. “Thank you,” he says, but she has moved ahead of him and he can’t be sure she has heard. While he is debating whether he should repeat himself, she replies.
“I did nothing. Thank her.”
He does not speak again until they are in the shadow of the enormous garage, six stories high and so overgrown it appears to be made from the trees. With endless rain, the woods have grown bold. The concrete façade has been suffocated beneath cauls of ivy. Verdant veins thread their way to the roof. The door is not a natural one, but a puncture wound, as evidenced by the ragged edges and trailing cracks around the trunk of the ash tree that has forced its way out into the grey light. Garlands of ivy and moss provide a screen against the rain and it is beneath this the girl ducks, and then she is gone. Charlie wants to ask her to wait for him, because now, for the first time, his excitement is eclipsed by unease. What if this is a lure, a trick? What if she is in league with The Cruel Boys and they’re waiting inside to smash his bones with their steel rods and wooden bats?
It is now, he realizes, too late for such terrors. He has already been out in the drizzle long enough for mold to have sprouted around his collar and sleeves. There is every chance that his parents will refuse to let him back inside, though there is little risk of making them sick when they are already dying. But he is aware that he has given them all the excuse they need to be rid of him if that is what they desire. Rather than give them that chance, he swallows his fear and follows the girl through the aperture into the garage.
Inside are candles and warmth and little mold. It is possible that the vegetation has protected this enormous room from the worst of the moisture, though that seems unlikely. He doesn’t dwell on it, however. His attention is drawn to the large circle of candles around the wide pillar in the center of the room and the figure they illuminate.
Hypnotized, grateful for the heat, he moves close enough to see that a woman has been lashed to the pillar using ropes made from braided ivy. They encircle her wrists, her throat and her feet. Her face is obscured by a mask fashioned from the skull of an animal he cannot identify. A cow, perhaps. He wouldn’t know. He has never seen one, only heard of them from his father.
Several large notebooks have been scattered around the woman’s feet. The covers alternate between dark red and vibrant yellow. Each one bears a different title, written in thick black letters. Charlie edges close enough to read the nearest of them: THE HOUSE ON ABIGAIL LANE, A WICKED THIRST, TRAVELER.
“You must read them,” says the girl, startling him. She is standing behind him. He can smell her breath and it offends his nose. She smells very much like his father.
“Why?” he asks, despite feeling as though he shouldn’t.
The girl’s eyes are luminous in the candlelight. Her teeth are too thin, the gaps between them too large, but her skin is pristine like marble. “So you can be free,” she tells him. “And so you can be blessed by The Bone Mother.” Her voice sounds like the rain. He looks from the notebooks to the effigy tied to the pillar.
“Can she fix me?”
“There is nothing to fix.”
“And the pain?”
“Education. Don’t you wish to learn?”
He frowns. “I wish to be away from here, but wishes don’t come true.”
“The Bone Mother disagrees.”
At that, the effigy moves and he jerks back a step, aware for the first time of the glint in the eyeholes of the mask. She is awake, and aware, and watching, and he feels the force of her expectation.
“Read the stories, Charlie. Open your eyes to the truth.”
He is no longer sure he wants to be here with the strange girl and the thing tied to the pillar, but he knows there is nowhere to go. If he tried to run, the ability to do so could be stripped from him as easily as it was given and there is only so much shame he can take.
He moves to the candles and, forgetting that it is no longer necessary to employ such caution, slowly lowers himself down onto the concrete floor. He reaches for the nearest story: THE LAND OF SUNSHINE.
“Read, Charlie,” he is told, by more voices than one.
So he does.