Page 13 of Dreadful Skin

I made haste along the sodden decks and closed my eyes when I passed broken doors. I winced and gazed away when I saw blood smeared and dripping down the windows or on the rails. But I made it down to the dock where the yawls were swinging and creaking in their onboard moorings.


I saw no sign of Eileen until a light behind me nearly sent my heart into my throat.


She was standing there with a lantern, wick trimmed low but giving us light enough. "Hurry," she whispered. "Do what you must. I don't know how to work this."


I took a step and the floor ducked out from under me. I found it again, and put both feet down firmly. "We're moving." I stated the obvious—reaching for the lever that would lower the yawl and set the boat down.


"I went to the pilot house. I braced the wheel. We're headed for shore, but it might take a while to get there. How do I help you with this?"


"You don't. I've got it." The boat dropped harder than I would have liked. It cracked upon the floor with a noise that must have been heard or felt all across the boat.


"Hurry."


"Yes," I agreed. "To the water. Help me push, like this."


She stood beside me, shifted her shoulders, and shoved. Between us, we forced the little rig to the edge of its slot and then, with a hesitation and a sway, it splashed down into the river. It bobbed there expectantly, oars crossed within. The current felt for it immediately, but it was tied to Mary Byrd yet by a long rope.


"I'll go first," I told the nun. "Then you jump down, and I'll catch you."


"No!" she screeched.


At first I wondered why my reasonable suggestion had provoked such an outburst, but then I felt it—the blow to my upper arm, the brutal strike from behind that picked me up off my feet and threw me hard and headfirst into the other yawl. Something broke inside me, though whether it was ribs, arms, legs, or skull, I was ill-prepared to say. The world wavered and went dark.


I fought it.


I shook myself and there was pain from every joint and limb. I tried to rise, and tried to see. Sister Eileen was circling in retreat. I think she was trying to reach me, the lovely fool. "Go," I tried to tell her, but the word was drowned in the blood that filled my mouth.


Pain and blackness welled up in my throat, or maybe it was only more blood. Whatever I'd broken, it bled from within.


I fought it.


I saw her standing alone—just a lantern between them, with a flame trimmed low. I looked madly around, looking for something to strike with, and finding nothing—seeing nothing. The bloody blackness came up high, and my vision was leaving me.


I fought it.


I fell to my knees, then crawled up again. I pulled my miserable body up to my feet, using a support column to prop myself. Lucid thoughts grew harder and harder to come by, but I managed just one: how much oil is left in that lantern?


"Eileen," I said, and the word came out unintelligible. Neither she nor the beast gave any indication they heard.


She was standing at the edge of the rail, at the edge of the boat—the water behind her. The yawl must have been behind her too. One more lucid thought—one more lucid action. I don't remember doing it, and I don't remember how I did it, but I found myself leaning on her with almost all my rather-significant weight.


Then we were falling, and there was fire.


We missed the yawl and landed together in the river, but the yawl was only a few feet away and she dragged me to it. She must have been much stronger than she looked, for such a small woman. For such a small person. For such. I don't remember.


But I do remember, before it all went black for the last time. . .I do remember lying on my back, in the boat, and staring up at the Mary Byrd and seeing flames. I saw Jack—the monster that he was—I saw him ablaze and shrieking inside the area where the yawls were kept.


"The river," I gurgled at Eileen.


"He can't." She gathered what I meant. "He's trapped. He can't leave the boat that easily. It'll burn around him, down to the water line, I suppose. And you helped," she said, and I believe her eyes were full of tears. I hope she wasn't wasting them on me. "You helped me, you didn't make me do it alone."


"Burning."


She kissed my hand and held it to her face.


Her eyes were shining a funny-bright color, mirroring the flames on the boat, and I thought, "That's what it is. She's an angel, after all."


Part Two: Halfway to Holiness


In 1879 the Reverend Benjamin Aarons cuts a holy swath across the western plains—taking his traveling revivalist camp from town to town, spreading the word of God and selling salvation.


But beneath the tent, all is not as it seems. The throes of religious ecstasy hide a more sinister kind of violence, and a series of vicious, unexplained murders have followed the itinerant minister from Cane Ridge, Kentucky all the way to Holiness, Texas.


There, Eileen Callaghan joins the audience to pray and watch.


The nun with the hidden Colt pays careful attention to the thrashing of the Christian mystics—for while these people speak in tongues and writhe with the Holy Spirit, Eileen sees signs of an unnatural change.


But is the reverend a calculating fiend, using his position in the church to mask a thirst for blood? Or is he a desperate, frightened man, fighting to control an affliction he can't explain?


Shudder, dear reader—for the necessary course is grim but clear: if Eileen cannot help this anguished man, she must surely slay the monster he's becoming.


I.


"COME and WORSHIP WITH US," read the sign.


Eileen Callaghan peered at it closely. She scanned the print from top to bottom, examining it as if there might be a hidden message, some acrostic clue buried in the call to prayer. The black print at the bottom said, "Friday, September 2—Sundown in CARTER'S FIELD, just outside HOLINESS, TEXAS."


The small, red-haired woman murmured a ladylike grunt of interest.


She folded her hands and took a step back. She shrugged beneath her bonnet and adjusted it with a frown, because she did not care for it. But the day was too hot for her old black habit, and too warm likewise to let her head go uncovered.


She'd grown up believing in hell in an abstract nightmare way; but west Texas had given her something more concrete upon which to dread the afterlife.


With the back of her hand, she wiped her forehead.


Behind her, a man approached—or she guessed he must be a man by the weight of his feet in the dirt, and the lack of audible petticoats. He kept a polite distance. He waited until he was sure she must have absorbed the announcement, and he said with an invitation in his voice, "Will you be attending the camp meeting tomorrow night?"


Eileen smiled in a way that reached her eyes, even though her lips were pressed together. Then she turned around to face him. "I think I might," she said. "Why? Would you recommend it?"


"I. . .I would," he stammered. "I would recommend it very much." He retreated a step and acted as though he'd like to put three or four paces more between them, but his manners prohibited it.


"It's all right. There's no need to be alarmed." She gave him a little wink, and added with a conspiratorial whisper, "We don't bite."


"I didn't mean to be rude," he said. "It's only, I didn't realize."


She reached for the cross, on a chain at her throat—for that was where his eyes were locked. "Realize what? That I was a Christian too?"


"I only meant—"


"I do know what you meant, dear. It's strange, the way people recognize it, even when I don't wear the uniform. I left the convent years ago, and besides, I'm not sure I could bear to wear black in this desert of a place."


She was careful when she talked to make her accent heard. It was a trick she'd learned through trial and error—how nervous American Protestants were less troubled by foreign Papists than the homegrown kind. And in that part of the country, most of the homegrown Catholics were converts from the Spanish missions; so a white, English-speaking Catholic was a real oddity.


"I hope I haven't offended you," he said. He fiddled with his collar, running a knuckle around its rim and withdrawing a finger that was slick with sweat.


"Why would I be offended? You haven't been the least bit rude. You recognized me as a fellow believer, and you've shown great concern for my sensibilities, as you understand they may differ from your own."


The young man glanced over at the announcement, then back at Eileen. "I feel a bit ridiculous now, since I don't suppose you'd be very interested in our camp meeting. I don't mean to imply you shouldn't come. . .except," he ran a hand across his hair. "Except now it sounds like I wish to discourage you, and that's not the case either."


She almost laughed, and she might have—except that he seemed so fragile and so prepared to run away. "I'm not so easily discouraged, I assure you. And I certainly didn't mean to make you ill at ease. I was only curious about these meetings, and I'm very glad you happened along."


"You are?"


"Indeed I am. Why, just now I was standing here wondering about these meetings, and here you are, full of answers. It's practically a sign, don't you think?"


"You mean, from heaven?"


"From heaven, of course. From God—the same one we've both been known to pray to. Though my goodness, it's awfully hot out here, wouldn't you say? If it wouldn't embarrass you too much to be seen with me, I'd like to step inside and bother you a bit further. This is all terribly interesting, Mr.. . .?"


"Leonard," he said quickly. "I'm Leonard Dwyer, ma'am. And I would be honored for a chance to share my faith with you." Leonard held out an elbow, crooked and prepared to take a lady's hand.


Eileen placed her fingers on his arm and let him lead her away from the tree with its nailed-down notice. She walked with him along the main street of Holiness, Texas—past tall, flat-fronted clapboard stores, a barber shop with a red and white pole, a doctor's office, and a pub.

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