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Authors: Cherie Priest

Tags: #Fantasy, #Horror, #Fiction, #Historical, #General

Dreadful Skin (10 page)

BOOK: Dreadful Skin
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“I thank you for gathering here with me today. I thank you all for being here.”

He lifted a Bible, black like his suit, and he held it aloft as though it were an empty envelope—though it must have weighed more than a sack of flour.

“We are here for this—for the Word. We are here for the sound of salvation, as comes through Jesus Christ and no one else—no where else. There is no store that sells it. There is no thief who steals it. There is no bank that loans it. There is only
Jesus Christ
.”

For the first time in weeks, Eileen shivered.

She didn’t even have to listen hard to hear it in his mouth. She was close enough to smell it, sliding off his body like water off a well-pitched roof. The stink of the wolf was there—rank, reeking of old butter, wet dog, and meat that has turned.

The predator glimmered in his eyes…but it was not alone there.

Eileen made herself look. She forced her face up and pried her hands away from it.

Gazing out beside the beast was a very human defiance—a very mortal resolve that stood beside the wolf and wrapped its fingers around the wolf’s throat. It was a determination like nothing she’d ever seen before. It awed her, and thrilled her.

It terrified her.

The longer Reverend Aarons spoke, the more frightened she became because he was doing
so well
. He was so powerful, so magnetic, and so persuasive—even though night was coming, and the tent was packed with easy victims. His control was unlike anything Eileen had seen anywhere, in anyone.

But it would not be enough.

Just when she’d begun to wonder if yes—faith could hold the thing in check—she began to see the cracks around the edges. The wrinkles around his eyes flexed, unflexed, stretched. The hand that held the Bible began to tremble, steadied, quivered.

“No,” she said. “No,” she urged. “Hold it. Hold it in. Hold it back.”

I want so badly to believe that you can. If you can, maybe I can.

His arm folded, and his hand dropped the Bible. It fell to the stage floor with a resounding thump, sending a shockwave back through the crowd. The reverend’s face was white, almost as white as his hair.

“Is he all right?” someone asked, off to Eileen’s left. “He looks sick, is he all right?”

The reverend began to speak again. His words came slower, as if to create them cost him dearly; but they were clear, and commanding. “I want to ask you,” he began. “I want to know who here among us would come forward and make a fresh commitment to the Lord. I want all of you who are willing to come down here to rise up—and join me in front of this stage. Will you join me for a word of prayer?”

A traveling murmur worked its way through the audience, sweeping back and forth across the room, punctuated by the occasional outburst of, “Yes!” “Yes, I will!”

Behind the stage, Leonard and the young woman stood—eyes closed, hands raised—with the piano and fiddle players.

“No,” Eileen said. No one heard her, and no one heeded her, and she expected that much. The audience surged, and people came tearfully forward—hands outstretched, prayers dribbling down their chins.

“No, don’t go near him. Don’t….” She gave her plea more volume, but it still was swallowed by the ambient hums, hymns, and petitions.

He was cracking, top to bottom—it had happened so gradually, and then all at once. His head went back and a coughed groan came up out of his throat. It was followed by a muttering, mumbling, gurgling torrent of incoherent syllables that rattled out through the tent.

“Oh God,” Eileen said, and the cry was taken up by others. Then, much to her astonishment, more babbling broke out in imitation. A woman here, a man there—another woman over in the corner dropped to their knees, and to the ground, and began an echo of the reverend’s rambled litany.

Circles opened around them, spaces cleared, and shouts of, “Praise Jesus!” rang out.

“You don’t understand,” Eileen declared with a touch of desperation. She reached out to force her way forward, to the reverend’s side. She broke through the ring of people and was pushed back by a rough but determined arm.

“Let him be,” said the pretty singer. “He’s on fire with the Spirit of the Lord.”

“He needs help,” Eileen argued.

Leonard stepped through the crush of people and joined the women. “No, Eileen. You don’t understand. He’s fine, he’s—”

“He’s not fine!”

The man on the ground was curling and uncurling his body in and out of a fetal position, groaning, and twisting. Eileen cast a desperate glance towards the pried-open tent flaps and felt a sharp stab of terror. The desert air was creeping down to blackness, bleeding dark auburn from the sunset and promising stars before long.

The wolf inside was calling her, too.

It was lunging, lurching, throwing itself against her ribcage as if it could break itself out that way. She clutched her own chest and buckled, moaned, reached for her skirt. She tugged at the hem and threw aside the hands that wanted to help her.

“Away,” she gasped. “Get away!”

But the hands petted harder, soothing, encouraging. And on the stage the reverend’s eyes were changing color—losing that pit-deep black and taking on a cast of gold around the edges.

Nearly delirious herself, Eileen fell to one knee and collapsed against the singing girl’s legs. The commotion of the gesture gave her a second to reach under the skirt and the first thing she touched was the Colt. It was snug in its holster, warm against her body.

No, maybe not. Maybe? Please.

She ran her fingers around the garter and grabbed the green bottle instead, tearing it out from under her dress and thumbing the cork loose. She heaved it to her face and threw a few drops into her mouth, wanting comfort and control—or at least a little bit of blackness.

Her eyes watered but the sugar-sweet sting was strong in her sinuses, on her tongue. It made her wobble, but it gave her strength.

She pounced forward, landing hands-down beside and on top of the reverend, who was starting to slather and spit. “No,” she told him, and she lifted the bottle.

“No!” said someone else, but she didn’t know who—and hands reached out to grab her, not understanding.

The halos of gold in the reverend’s eyes were expanding, swallowing his pupils.

Desperate, Eileen shrugged her shoulder with more strength than she should’ve used. Even with the invigorating fog of the chloroform, she was too strong for someone her size—and she cast the unhelpful helpers away as if they were children.

She took the reverend by the upper arms and rolled him onto his back.

His teeth were changing, stretching and pointing up out of his mouth.

Outside the moon was rising, rolling, sliding across the sky.

The reverend’s lids blinked, and the halos warped as he struggled for control. He seized it—his muscles tightened beneath Eileen’s hands—but he couldn’t keep it. His head snapped back on his neck and his chest sucked in enough air to fill a barrel; and then he began to roar.

Around him, the circle of faces retreated fast. Shock swept them into each other, toppling and frightened, even as they were intrigued and awed.

He thrust his chest forward, trying to rise, but Eileen forced him down. His hands shot out, fingernails peaking into sharpness. But she caught his hands up in her arm and twisted them back.

Pandemonium seasoned with fear began to snake through the audience.

There was no more music, there were no more instruments or prayers, and the moaning of the other tongue-speakers had either burned itself out or was abandoned to curiosity. The worshippers in the back of the tent wished to press forward, to the reverend; the worshippers nearest the reverend wished to press backward, away from him.

Eileen would not let him go. They thrashed together, his legs kicking and scraping along the ground—seeking purchase.

He found it on the edge of the stage. He thrust a foot against it and used that leverage to launch himself out from under her. He rolled then, scrambled and ran for the tent flaps which were peeled back and open to let in the night.

“Stop him!”

Over her shoulder she heard the singing girl beg.

“No!” Eileen commanded. “Get away from him!” she ordered, even as she hauled herself up and began to dash after him.

Aarons had cleared a path and it remained parted long enough to let Eileen slip through the confused crowd. She staggered and caught herself, tripped on her skirts, slipped and skidded on the dusty ground, and reached the desert night too slowly to knock the reverend down.

Leonard was behind her by half a second.

But she wouldn’t stop. Couldn’t stop. Couldn’t let him catch her, either.

It gave her focus. If the wolf inside wanted to run, if it needed something to chase and catch, then let it be this other wolf. And let her chase him far away from these people, from the singing girl, from Leonard.

She took a deep breath and felt her chest stretch against the fabric of her dress.

His scent is strong and fresh, but I don’t need it. His shadow scuttles there, it hunkers and jerks towards the river. He’s not moving as fast as he could, because he’s fighting it.

God bless him, he’s fighting it, look. Look, he’s taking himself away from them after all.

I can move faster. I can let the wolf run, and I will catch him because he still wants to leash and bind his own monster. But if I let mine take the lead, mine will outrun him. I can stop him, I can work with the thing inside and bring the beast down, or hold him still and steady until the moon has done its worst.

Her legs started to pump even as her feet began to stretch and the first hint of claws tore through her flat leather shoes. The pain writhed up her calves and joined the misery that leaned so hard against her ribs, but still she ran—and her steps grew longer, and she outpaced the people at the tent until the darkness swallowed her whole.

And then there was only the reverend, loping forward in the darkness, hunting for the river.

“Not
yet
,” she growled at the change, she commanded her hands as they sprouted hair and the knuckles twisted like a wind-blown tree.

The reverend’s odor was a slick and ill-smelling tendril of air. She snapped her jaws at it, biting her way through the darkness, keeping the trail even as her teeth were breaking and crowding inside her mouth.

There.

She leaped and landed with her face in the small of his back, her hands around his waist, and she tumbled with him to the ground on the banks of the small river. Leonard had been right, it was more of an oversized creek, but it was water—and it was deep enough to drown in.

“That’s what you’re doing, isn’t it?” Eileen tried to accuse him, but the words had a hard time forming around the swell of her tongue, past the cliffs of teeth that would not stay down.

He howled again. He cuffed her, but she caught his arm.

“You are stronger than this!” she screamed the words down into his face, but she wasn’t sure who had said them—her own frustration, or the unchallenged monster. “Fight it!” she cried, but she wanted to say instead,
“Fight me!”

He aimed his struggle inward, refusing to let the thing take him whole and refusing to resist Eileen, though the size advantage was his and she was imploring him to make the physical effort.

She needed a reason to lash out. She needed an excuse, as perfect darkness draped itself around them both, to lash out—to let the wolf wear out its rage against a target less innocent than those in the tent.

But the target wasn’t cooperating. He was wrestling with himself, and losing that fight too.

“The river,” he gagged, choking on the inside of his mouth as it continued to rearrange itself. He pointed one ragged-looking hand at the water, mere feet away from his head.

Eileen’s head was swimming with too many things at once—the wolf, the chloroform, the moon, the sky, and the sound of searchers crawling along in the desert, trying to track down the missing minister and the deranged little woman who’d followed him.

“The river,” he said again.

“It won’t work,” she told him, and tears were filling her eyes. She was so frustrated and so frightened, and so impressed. “I’m no Baptist.”

His eyes were locked, though—on the soft patch of skin below her throat. A far-off flicker of starlight glinted on the tiny gold cross that hung there.

He moved his mouth like he wished to say more, but his face was changing too much. It was shifting into something that wasn’t meant to speak. The taut, curling lips formed the shape of that word again, “River.”

Eileen wondered where her green bottle was and if there was anything left inside it, but it was long gone, back by the tent or inside it still. No help from the chemicals, no help from heaven—only the insistent, maniacal pull of the moon.

She nodded. She bit her own lip and made it bleed with pointed canines too large to be her own.

Inside the reverend’s chest black things were bubbling and a growling thing was forcing its way out, up, into the desert. The afflicted man rolled onto his side, and using his misshapen hands to pull himself forward, he dragged himself head-first towards the rippling stream.

Eileen permitted him this much; she lifted her body off of his and let him shift his hips, climbing with his elbows, contorting himself in agony, squirming into the water.

On her hands and knees, she moved beside him—and past him. The river swirled up around her ankles, soaking her dress and weighing her down. She leaned back farther, deeper, holding his arms as she retreated into the muddy strip of water. Thigh deep, hip deep.

He was floating then, and easier to draw along.

He was hardly fighting her at all, mostly fighting himself, or the thing he harbored.

She snaked her arms up under his. She wrapped her limbs around his chest and clutched him there, the back of his head lolling against her breasts. “This isn’t right,” she said, and a sob came with the sentiment but it was one of anger and jealousy more than sorrow.

BOOK: Dreadful Skin
10.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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