Read The Eyes of the Dead Online
Authors: G.R. Yeates
Tags: #eyes, #vampires, #horror, #vampire, #dead, #world war one, #first world war, #Vetala
The Eyes of the Dead
Copyright (c) G.R. Yeates 2011
All Rights Reserved
Acknowledgements and Dedication
I would like to thank the following for their help, hard work and support provided during the evolution of this, my first novel.
Celeste Ramos Bjork-Larsen, for being a superb editor who didn’t mind being creeped out by my fuliginous imagination.
Ronnell D. Porter, for his fantastic cover artwork.
Ruth Latchford, Jez Joubinaux, Kris Dyer, Jason Brawn, Dolores Harrington, Mark & Tori Waddington for invaluable friendship, encouragement and booze.
I would like to dedicate this work to the memory of Claude Choules (1901-2011), the last combat veteran of the First World War.
Private Wilson breathed in, choking as he did. He rolled over onto his back. Watery-brown muck ran from his mouth. He sat up and spat the rest of it out. Wiping the back of his hand across his lips, he looked around.
It stretched away from him in all directions.
A wasteland, gouged through with abandoned trenchworks. His uniform was soaked. The colour no longer discernible through its thick coating of filth. Icy bullets of rain fell, striking his face. Shivering, he clambered to his feet, sinking into the soft ground. He heaved his way through the mud. The going was slow.
He didn’t know where he was going.
He knew he had to keep moving.
As he slogged on, he felt his head aching. Then throbbing. Scalding force was gathering behind his eyes. Bringing tears. Sending lines of fire racing through his brain. He could feel movement inside his skull. The pain was a restless animal, scratching away the inside of its bone prison. Its furious cacophony clouding his mind, making his eyes water. The scratching was cutting deep too. It was working its way into the matter of his mind, re-opening scars. Wilson could feel the memories bleeding out.
With a cry, he fell to his knees, suddenly remembering everything.
Fuck Belgium, thought Private Wilson, spitting rainwater from his mouth.
What a fucking shithole.
Bent double like a beggar, wearily, he marched on, resting a hand on the shoulder of the man in front of him. It was the only way to be sure of following a safe path. There were no roads or pathways here, just the endless trails of duckboards. Everything here was half-submerged in the mud. The duckboards squelched sickeningly underfoot.
In places, the trail was broken up by bombardments from the German guns. Wilson felt the wheezing softness of dead bodies giving way as he marched over them, making him feel ill.
Rain lashed down from the pitch black heavens. The only light was cast by flares bursting overhead, sending shadows scurrying over the wasteland. Wilson looked out across the flickering shades of the landscape before him. He saw soldiers stumbling along, heads bowed against the wet wind. Each man buried deep in his own bleak thoughts. Behind them was Ypres, or Wipers, as they called it. Before them rose the ridges which led to the village of Passchendaele.
Fancy names, thought Wilson, as a flare illuminated the crude ruins of his surroundings. Fancy names for a place that’s gone to hell.
The Germans occupied the high ground, the ridges of which curled around on both sides, looking down over the lowlands occupied by the soldiers of the Entente. Their Generals said the Ypres salient was a valuable point of penetration into the enemy lines. It must be held at all costs. To the soldiers, soaking and shivering in water-logged trenches, it was a death trap. Wilson watched the enemy’s flares going up all around them.
They were surrounded.
You weren’t even safe if you kept down low. A whizz-bang shell could get you. Poison gas could get you. Disease festering in the thousands upon thousands of corpses lying in the muck of no man’s land, that could get you as well. The Germans were safe and sound in pillboxes made from concrete and steel. Death was everywhere for the Entente soldiers below. As long as the bullets flew and the big guns rained down shells upon them, death was there. It was there when they slept, breeding freezing nightmares, which crawled up into their sweating brains. They felt it eating away at their nerves as they dug into the wet ground to make shelter. They heard it as a voice, as hollow as the holes they were making, telling each man that he was digging his own grave.
Lieutenant Phillips crawled on his belly through the marshy ground towards the next shell hole in the line. His passage disturbed bones and rotten pieces of flesh from the ground. The smell of the dead lanced his nostrils. He held his breath. Christ, what a hellhole we’re fighting for, he thought, no-one’s going to want it once this is all over.
Thanks to the light cast by a flare, he could make out three moving shapes in the shell hole ahead. He could hear voices. One of them was high-pitched and ragged. It sounded like one of the young soldiers was losing his nerve. That was the last thing he needed.
These lads were to advance in the morning. Black Wood was to be taken and it was going to take bitter fighting to do it. There would be hundreds of bodies sinking into the slime by tomorrow evening. The men needed to keep their heads. At least for now. He found himself smirking at the black humour in the thought. One of the young soldiers getting windy was all it would take to set some of the others off.
Lieutenant Phillips slid down into the shell hole.
“What seems to be the trouble here, Sergeant?”
Sergeant Smith saluted the Lieutenant, rainwater dripping from his bristled face. He was a thick, sturdy man. Years of rough living had taken all the softness out of him. Only calluses were left.
“It’s young Brookes, sir. We can’t shut him up, keeps calling out for his bloody mum.”
As the shelling lulled, Phillips heard the plaintive mantra, “Oh, Mum! Oh, Mum! I don’t want to die! Oh, Mum!”
“I’ve given him a talking-to and a few slaps but nothing’s snapped him out of it.”
Phillips moved towards Brookes. He was a washed-out spectre huddling at the back of the shell hole. He was just a boy. Phillips could see that plainly. Another one who’d lied through his teeth to get up to the Front where the action was. Now here he was, tear-stained, soaked through, not living the proud romantic adventure he had expected. Phillips might have pitied him but his plaintive cries were putting this part of the line in danger. Depression and panic were always just below the surface out here. He’d seen it in the eyes of many men. He’d felt it himself.
Getting the horrors, that was what the lads called it.
The boy’s cries could also draw fire from the enemy. If the men around here were cut to pieces because of Brookes, the boy would be up on a charge, shot for cowardice, made an example of. All these thoughts spun through Phillips’ mind as he faced the snivelling child.
“I can’t stay here! Let me go home! I don’t want to die! Oh, Mum!”
Voices from the other shell holes carried over to them on the night wind.
“Get ‘im to shut his bleedin’ row up, will you?”
“Send the little sod home. We don’t need the likes of him out ‘ere.”
“Give him a fuckin’ clout so we can all have some peace and get some kip, eh?”
Phillips struck Brookes hard across the face.
The boy’s head lashed to one side from the force of the blow.
He overbalanced and fell.
“Look lad, we’ve got no place for cowards out here. Everyone is going over the top tomorrow, including you. If I find you have been had up for desertion or any other kind of charge then I will bloody well shoot you dead myself. Do you understand me, Private?”
Brookes blinked, one hand pressing against his cheek. He did not make a sound. Lieutenant Phillips looked down at him, not breaking eye contact with the fallen boy.
“Get up, wipe yourself down and stay quiet, you hear?”
“I think I can handle the boy now, sir,” said Sergeant Smith.
“Thank you, Sergeant.”
Sergeant Smith waited until the Lieutenant was gone and then he moved forward, putting a comforting arm around Brookes’ shoulder.
“Come on, boy. You bunk down with me tonight. We need to get some rest in before the morning.”
Brookes and Sergeant Smith huddled up together like lovers. The wet night air numbed them. Warmth was a sensation that was almost alien out here. A memory, no more.
“How long d’you think it will last, Sarge?”
“You mean the war, boy? It’ll last as long as it will. Until we’re all shot to pieces. The Generals haven’t done right by us yet and I don’t see how they will do anytime soon.”
Private Brookes was still new to the trenches and younger than he should be. They all knew the truth but kept quiet about it. There were plenty of other underage soldiers, on both sides.
I might be a holy terror with the lads, thought Smithy, but I respect any man or boy who wants to come out here and stick one on the Boche.
Besides, Brookes could not be spared. There was one job out here that fitted the underage Private so perfectly that it became his nickname.
The tag of Look-out Brookes was his before he’d been in the trenches for one week. His eyes always seemed to need something to keep them busy. Unexploded whizz-bang shells. Skulls and bones in the trench walls. Fat rats shuffling about in the dung of the toilet pits. A Jerry deserter here. A barbed wire entanglement there. That’s why the lad had joined up, Smithy guessed. He couldn’t stay at home and read about it in small print. He had to be there, seeing it all happen.
Those enquiring eyes of his could also be his downfall, though.
He remembered catching Brookes peering over the edge of the shell hole one morning. Watching the Jerry work parties collecting their dead from no man’s land. Rifle at the ready. Thinking he was one of the heroes in the newspapers.
One of the heroes who’s now six feet under, thought Smithy.
He grabbed Brookes, jerking him down, “You’ll get a bullet right through that curious eye of yours. We know the bastards are there and what they’re up to. Leave them be. You don’t need to be looking out for ‘em today.”
With that memory in mind, Smithy went to sleep.
This wasn’t what he had expected the war would be like. It was so different from his favourite picture. He’d seen it years ago in a newspaper.
A black and white drawing of a boy trumpeter, galloping through bursting shells. A bandage on his head and a look of determination on his face, speckles of blood dotting the bandage. The stains were his badges of bravery. He had imagined the boy charging across the field of battle, all hope for victory resting on his young shoulders. Brookes had wanted to be that boy, proud herald of the final charge that would crush the murderous Hun, driving them back to their borders.
He knew now that wasn’t going to happen. He’d been lucky to survive this far, but he still wanted to do the right thing.
That was what Mr Kennington had always told him to do.
He twisted about in the sucking pit of the shell hole, dreaming.
He was back in the study, the afternoon light catching twinkling motes of dust as it fell through the gaps between the heavy curtains. It had been his father’s study. Mr Kennington was allowed to use it after he became the lodger. Mum hadn’t wanted to take one in but she’d needed the money, being a widow. She also needed the company of a man.
Young Brookes had been able to tell.
She never admitted it though.
Mr Kennington had made war seem so glorious to Brookes. It was a man’s life. Bringing civilisation to the outermost reaches of the world. Showing the people out there the right way to live. Mr Kennington had been a cavalryman in the Boer War. He was invalided home after taking a bullet in the chest. Brookes had marvelled at the white knuckled ridge of scar tissue. Running his fingertips across it, he imagined the nugget of metal, burrowing its way into Mr Kennington.
“You do the right thing with your life, young David. You never know when death’s going to come that bit too close to your heart.”
The big guns opened up again, throwing out splashes of white light, sending their murderous loads roaring across the heavens, jolting Brookes from his dream.
Brookes nodded at the questioning silhouette.
It was Private Wilson.
“Get some sleep, pal. We’ve got a lot of being shot at to do in the morning.”
Wilson couldn’t sleep. He rubbed at the bags under his eyes. Rain ran through his dark blonde hair. He was feeling the cold and the damp down to the bone. War was a shitty business, but there were worse things in life. Like the way civilians look at a soldier. They don’t understand what war means. They never could. War changes you. The man who goes home after the peace treaties are signed isn’t the same as the boy who left to fight years before.
That was why Wilson never went home. He could have gone home after the night of the fire. There would have been no questions asked. He didn’t remember what happened to him that night but he knew that it had been bad, really fucking bad.
…darkness then the bright fire…
…burning men falling…
…falling in flames…
He had been found after it was all over. His memories incinerated. Nothing of who he had been remaining, except for his name. He had no home that he could remember. Nothing then to return to. So he stayed. He would see the war through to the end, whatever that might be. Something brushed past his leg. He jumped and kicked out at it. There was a shrill squeak of pain. It was a rat.
Wilson hated rats.
He kicked out again.
His boot struck a puddle of water.
The rat was gone.