Dead Eyes by M.E. Proctor
“I will not go!”
Lisa knew what came next. It was the same every Sunday. They were on a loop, stuck on repeat. Mom trying to reason with her. Mom losing patience and raising her voice. Dad coming down from the bedroom to inquire and adding authority to the chaos. Lisa in tears being dragged to the family car.
She couldn’t tell her parents why she refused to go to church. How could she explain that she was afraid to enter the church? She knew what questions they would ask. Was she scared of somebody? Was it Father Callan? Or that young vicar who was too young and too handsome to be a priest?
She couldn’t say she was afraid of a statue.
Mom would raise her eyebrows and say: “My daughter has a vivid imagination,” in that pinched tone she mastered so well. Dad might be more understanding. He was good with weird things. He didn’t scold her when she refused to fetch supplies from the cellar, a terrifying place where spiders reigned. Dad understood nightmares. He read the story of Bilbo with her. She crossed the black land of Mordor with him. That said it all, right?
No, not right.
She couldn’t tell him that she was scared of the Virgin Mary.
The church set amidst tall oaks was picture perfect. Lisa used to like it—the river, the stone bridge, the old graveyard with the red hibiscus. Now, the view filled her with dread. It was a lie. Like a glossy apple you bit into only to find out that worms had burrowed their way to the core.
A crowd had assembled in the parking lot. Neighbors shaking hands and replaying yesterday’s football matches, children running circles around the grown-ups.
Lisa was trying to convince herself that she was somewhere else. She pictured her grandmother’s house with its shuttered windows and the rusted metal barrel catching rainwater from the gutter, the garden and its rows of vegetables, the ripe strawberries under the leaves.
Somebody pulled her sleeve. She came back to the parking lot with a jolt. It was Marian, her best friend. Lisa could have killed her.
Parents sorted out their offspring and everybody filed in. In a daze, Lisa noticed the vicar standing by the door. He seemed about to walk toward her when somebody called him and he turned away.
The vicar came to the house on Thursday afternoon. “Lisa will be confirmed next year, Mrs. Doyle.”
“We haven’t talked to her about it yet. She’s behaving strangely. Tweens, you know,” Mom said.
“I could talk to her. See what’s bugging her.”
“She’s got it into her head that she doesn’t want to go to church.” Mom shrugged. “You’re welcome to try.”
Lisa had retreated to the garden. They sat on the bench Dad had built the summer before. It was unsteady when you didn’t know where to sit but the vicar managed pretty well.
“Sturdy bench,” he said.
“It’s heavy. It can’t be moved,” Lisa said.
“Who would want to?”
They listened to the birds and the rustling of leaves. Lisa knew he was waiting for her to start. “I saw you on Sunday,” she said.
“Well, I work there.”
He had a funny crooked smile. It gave him an ironic expression that didn’t match his profession.
“I’m Peter. I want to talk to you about your confirmation. It’s like a second baptism. Purity and faith. No doubts, no mental restrictions. Do you have doubts, Lisa?”
Doubts? Every Sunday, she faced a statue that put her mind in the grinder. “You’re lying. You’re not here for my confirmation.”
He shifted on the wobbly bench and smiled. “I’m on the hot seat. I’m in the back during Mass, Lisa, with nothing to do but watch people. I know who’s falling asleep, who’s going through their grocery lists, and who’d rather be somewhere else. And I know something is troubling you.”
“Do you feel it too?” Lisa hoped he did.
“What is it? What do you feel?”
“You believe in God, yes? Does it hurt?”
“Keeping the faith can be hard. But God is good, and if there is pain, there is reward too.”
“What if God is doing the hurting, what then?” Lisa’s eyes filled with tears.
“God is hurting you?” Peter asked.
“Not Him. Her.”
It started two months earlier, the Sunday after her eleventh birthday. Lisa walked down the aisle with her parents to get to their usual spot, near the pulpit from which Father Callan gave his sermons, next to the statue of the Virgin Mary. But instead of the Madonna with the sweet smile, Lisa faced the majestic statue of a queen complete with crown and veil. She took an instant dislike to the thing. The colors were too bright. The reds and the blues were screaming. The crown was the garish yellow of cheap jewelry and the slippers had the shine of plastic. It was vulgar. The hands were horrible. Big butcher hands with thick blue veins. The face was even worse. It was a blank mask with thin lips stretched in the semblance of a smile. Lisa was relieved the mouth wasn’t open. She imagined two rows of teeth, pointy and sharp, with red gums holding them in place, hungry for meat.
“My stomach turned when I looked at it,” Lisa said. “I tried to listen to Father Callan but I couldn’t help looking at the statue.”
The next Sunday was worse. The statue was looming over Lisa and the eyes stared at her.
“It has dead eyes. I never felt so cold, not even when I made a snowman with my bare hands. I don’t know what’s happening to me in the church. It starts as soon as I get through the door. It’s like falling asleep except I’m so tired and my head hurts, and I feel sick. And it puts words in my head.”
“The statue talks to you?” Peter said.
“I don’t want to remember,” Lisa muttered. “When I think about it, the eyes come back.”
“In this garden? You are safe here, Lisa.”
She laughed, a bitter laughter, too old for her eleven years.
“What does the statue say?”
“Sometimes the voice sounds like Mom, or Dad, or my friend Marian, and it’s lying. It says things that are not true.”
“You know the voice is lying?”
“What does it say? That your parents don’t love you? That they take you to church to hurt you?”
“You know?” Lisa said.
“I try to imagine the worst things it could say.”
“Why is it talking to me?”
“I don’t know. What else does the voice say?”
“Ugly things about people, about Marian’s family, about my teachers. Are those lies too?”
“The best liars put some truth in their stories. It’s the glue that keeps the lies together. Do you understand?”
“I think so. How do I know what to believe?”
“You cannot believe anything it says. If you believe only a little bit, it wins. It’s like these people who sell door-to-door. If they manage to put a foot inside, it’s very hard to get rid of them.”
“I might have let in more than a foot. I was very angry with Colin Armitrage and I made him cry. I told him I knew he was taking money from his mom. The voice told me and it was true. Colin hates me now.”
“Did you have to tell Colin?”
“I don’t know. The voice wanted me to tell Colin’s mother but I couldn’t do that. It’s…” Lisa paused, embarrassed.
“Huh. I figured if I tell Colin he will stop stealing and he won’t get in trouble. But now he hates me. I think he’s afraid of me.”
“Do you like it when people are afraid of you?” Peter asked.
“It’s kind of exciting, but I don’t want my friends to be afraid of me. They already think I’m weird. Sometimes I can’t help saying things, you know, about people? It’s like the words are pushing out of me.”
“They’re lies, remember.”
She wanted Peter to tell her something that would close the eyes of the statue and shut off the voice. A nasty thought at the back of her mind nagged that the vicar had no idea what to do, that he wasn’t strong enough.
“Even if the voice is telling the truth, it’s hurtful. That’s the work of evil, Lisa.”
He implied it was in her power to resist. She didn’t know if she could; she felt helpless when the eyes were on her. “I’ve told you everything.”
He sat with his hands on his knees. “I doubt that’s the complete truth, Lisa. I wish you would…” He cleared his throat. “I wish you would say what’s going through your mind right now.”
“You’re afraid there might be others like me,” Lisa said, “who hear the voice.”
He sat straight, shoulders stiff in the black cassock. “Do you always know what people think?”
“Is that bad too?” Lisa asked. She was getting impatient with him. She told him more than she had ever dared tell anyone and she didn’t feel any better.
“If you use the knowledge to hurt people or to get something from them, then yes, it’s bad,” Peter said. “You can fight this, Lisa. When the urge to tell people what you know comes upon you, ask yourself if what you’re going to say will cause pain. You didn’t tell Colin’s mother because you knew it would hurt him. This thing wants you to hurt people. Don’t give evil what it wants.” He scribbled his phone number on a flyer for the July 4th pie-making contest. “Call me if you want to talk.”
He was halfway to the door when she said: “Rose is not happy with your brother.”
It stopped him in his tracks.
Peter didn’t have a clue how to solve the problem, but he knew Lisa Doyle wasn’t making any of this up. How else would she know about Rose and her crappy marriage? He knew what Father Callan would say. Possession? Exorcism? There’s an evil spirit in my church—there’s a ghost in the statue of the Virgin Mary? Let’s douse it with holy water! You were taken for a ride by a little girl with a fertile imagination, Peter!
He thought of destroying the statue. Easier said than done. The thing weighed a ton. And the statue was not the issue; it was merely a container. The entity inside it had to be destroyed. He could call the archdiocese and try to explain the situation. They were likely to react like Father Callan. All he had to counter their objections were the words of an eleven-year-old girl. He literally didn’t have a prayer.
To make things even more complicated, he was a man of faith who needed logic. Maybe he wasn’t that different from Father Callan; he could accept the inexplicable only up to a point. The God of the Old Testament didn’t hesitate to mete out punishment for sins committed. He struck at communities with sickening regularity. Maybe it was God using an innocent girl as a conduit to tell uncomfortable truths. Peter pushed away the disturbing thought that Satan, an agent of chaos, didn’t need justification to sow discord and misery. If neither the supreme being nor the fallen angel were involved, it left the possibility of a pissed-off spirit bent on mayhem. Maybe somebody died bearing a grudge so big that a coffin couldn’t contain it.
Lisa didn’t hear from the vicar on Friday or Saturday. By Sunday morning, she was convinced he had given up on her.
Foolish girl, nobody can help you, only me.
The inner voice grew stronger as they neared the church. She got out of the car and went through the door. Her ears were filled with the voice; her eyes only saw the eyes of the Madonna.
“I didn’t do anything, I swear,” Lisa said.
They were in the Municipal Library, sitting across from each other, Lisa with a stack of Harry Potter books in front of her. She had called Peter that morning and whispered breathlessly: “The library, 4 p.m.”
The events certainly warranted a meeting. Police crime tape enclosed the Armitrage and Redmont houses. The town was abuzz with rumor.
“I find that hard to believe, Lisa,” Peter said. “What did the voice tell you this time?”
“I don’t remember!”
“Lisa, please! School is out. Who have you been hanging out with?”
“Nobody! My friends avoid me. It’s like I have the plague.” She was biting her lower lip hard enough to draw blood.
“Did you talk to Colin Armitrage?” Peter said.
She looked at him sideways. “I saw him Monday. Here, at the library. I wanted to apologize to him for what I said. He ran away from me. You have to believe me! What happened has nothing to do with me!”
What happened was a sequence of carefully timed events.
Peter already knew that Colin Armitrage had nimble fingers. Pennies and dimes tended to disappear around him. It could have been a simple matter of reminding the boy about right and wrong, with a stern fatherly lecture on the sin of thievery. It turned into a disaster. George, Colin’s father, came back from work earlier than usual and caught his son riffling through his mother’s purse. George, whose temper was especially short that day, slapped his son. Elisabeth burst in at the critical moment. She smelled alcohol on her husband’s breath and rushed to her son’s rescue. The fight ended with Elisabeth in the hospital with a broken jaw. She immediately filed for divorce. George screamed that his wife was a whore and that as long as he lived she would never have custody of the child. He should have worded his threat more carefully. He died that night. His neighbor, Thomas Redmont, shot him, thinking he was a burglar. Why George was on the Redmonts’ back porch at two in the morning was unclear.
“I believe you, Lisa, but you knew about Elisabeth and Tom Redmont, didn’t you?” Peter said.
She shook her head. “They were friends, yes?”
Quite a bit more. Elisabeth was devout and confessed regularly. Her secret was safe with Peter. He didn’t intend to jump-start Lisa’s sexual education. “We’ve entered a new phase.”
“What does that mean?” Lisa said, too loud. She clapped a hand on her mouth and looked around. This was like church; you had to keep your voice down. “I don’t understand,” she whispered.
“It’s no longer about you and the Madonna with the dead eyes,” Peter said. “Whatever ghost whispered naughty secrets in your ear has decided to push harder. Maybe evil spirits get impatient, just like us.” He smiled that crooked smile of his. “Or they only have a little time to do mischief before management restores order.”
“You say strange things,” Lisa said.
“If I’m right, bad stuff will keep happening,” Peter said. “It could get dangerous around here. I’ll talk to your mother tomorrow. I’ll tell her I got you a spot in the retreat that starts next week. The preparation for your confirmation.”
“You want me to leave? What about Mom and Dad? What about you?”
“I have to stay, Lisa. It’s my job.”
She leaned with both hands on the table and looked him straight in the eye. “That’s not good, Peter. If you stay, I stay. Find an excuse to get us all out.”
Peter volunteered to give a hand at the retreat. His help was welcome. Keeping fifty boisterous kids occupied for a week was no small task.
Lisa’s parents had been easier to convince than Peter expected. The situation in town did a lot to encourage them to make the trip with Lisa.
The police were still investigating the Armitrage-Redmont case when Allan Weathers, the bank manager, set fire to his house after stabbing his wife and daughter, Marian, Lisa’s friend. Weathers, it turned out, had an expensive gambling habit and the bank balances showed disturbing discrepancies.
Bill Callan, the older brother of the parish priest, died when his barn exploded. For years he had produced his own liquor, mostly for personal use. He was careful and never drank the booze while making it. His death was not an accident. Henry Verch, who ran the local bar, was arrested. The two men had had a bitter argument the day before the explosion. Verch grabbed a rifle from behind the counter and told Callan he would shoot him if he dared enter his bar ever again. Verch held Callan responsible for his wife’s death. Irma Verch had consumed Callan’s mixture for years, convinced it was a cure for her ailments. “He poisoned her,” Verch claimed. It was nonsense—Irma had died of a heart attack.
Cracks in a Norman Rockwell picture, Rotten fruit in the Garden of Eden screamed the headlines. TV news crews clogged Main Street and harassed bewildered citizens.
“Nobody ever said anything to me in confession,” Father Callan complained to Peter over the phone. “That they could keep all that evil inside! Elisabeth Armitrage was having an affair with Redmont, Weathers stole from the bank!” He choked on the words.
“It won’t stop until the town has purged itself,” Peter said.
“Purgatory,” Lisa said. She was enjoying the retreat, especially the afternoon activities on the beach—swimming, horse riding, beach volley.
“That is not the same thing!” Peter said, horrified.
Lisa laughed. “Just kidding. Do you think we’ll ever be able to go back?”
“Do you want to go back?”
“No. Dad doesn’t want to either. He was telling Mom yesterday that he could find another job, closer to grandma. Do you want to go back?”
“They will need help when this is over,” Peter said.
The purge was still in full swing. Thomas Grant, the grocer, had been blackmailing Mrs. Milner, the librarian, over a shady land lease. Grant was found dead in his bathtub and Mrs. Milner fell from a ladder and broke her neck trying to retrieve a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica. In the Web era? Whatever the wicked spirit was, it had a sense of humor.
The next incident turned the town into a war zone. The Bentons and the Randalls had been locking horns in court for years in a dispute over property markers. Lewis Benton, Clive’s son, went over to the Randalls to end the dispute once and for all. He managed to take four Randalls down and escaped with frenzied Jack Randall in pursuit. When the police stepped between the shooters, the score was Benton five—Randall six.
“I’m not going back to that crazy town,” Lisa’s dad said.
“That crazy town needs a good priest more than ever. Father Callan is getting old. He can’t shoulder the burden alone.” Peter had decided to go back.
“Promise me you won’t go near the statue,” Lisa whispered.
Maybe it was Peter’s guardian angel stepping in, or the entity didn’t want him to interfere before the task was completed. His car broke down two hundred miles from town, in the middle of nowhere. Hitching a ride, finding a phone, getting a loaner took all day. It was the middle of the night when he got to the presbytery. By then, the final act had been written.
“It looks like he was cleaning it,” the constable said. “The stepstool is over there and the feather duster. The statue must not have been anchored well. Thinking it could have fallen over during a service… It gives you the shivers. My kids always sit on this side. What a freak accident. Will you take over the parish, Father?”
“I don’t know,” Peter said. “The archdiocese will decide. I might be too junior.”
“Seniority, eh? Just like in my line of work.”
The constable said Father Callan was killed instantly when the statue of the Madonna toppled and crushed him. A woman who was bringing flowers for a wedding scheduled to take place in the morning found the body.
“It was weird,” the constable said. “The face of the Madonna was next to Father Callan’s. It looked like they were going to kiss.” He cleared his throat, suddenly aware of what he had just said. “No offense, Father.”
M.E. Proctor worked as a communication professional and freelance journalist. After forays into SF, she’s currently working on a series of contemporary detective novels. Her short stories have been published in Bristol Noir, Close to the Bone, Free Flash Fiction, Expat Press, The Bookends Review, and others. She lives in Livingston, Texas. You can find her on Twitter.