Page 17 of Dreadful Skin

But more than the disapproval there was naked interest written on the faces that were coming to fill the tent. There was eagerness, and pleasure, and a gentle throb of bodies as they moved themselves forward, closer. Closer to the stage. Closer to the girl. Closer to God.

Eileen joined them.

She found her way close to the front, three or four rows of heads in front of hers. Up towards the wooden stage that echoed, smacked, reverberated with the gleeful stomp of fervent feet. On tip-toes she stood, straining to see.

Back against the far corner of the stage there was a piano, and standing beside that were two bearded men whose elbows were pumping madly at their bows and fiddles. There was no sign of Leonard anymore, but she could smell that he'd been nearby. A faint trail marked his body's passing, weaving and bobbing between the worshippers where he earned his way forward—but it was a hard trail to hold, so cluttered with the stink and motion of other bodies.

Eileen was holding her head up, sniffing, listening with her nose. When she realized this, she dropped her chin and hoped she hadn't been seen. It embarrassed her, though it was so wonderfully helpful. But it was not a human impulse at all—it was the beast inside, and she didn't like it.

She didn't like the way the beast was tapping its foot, either. She was displeased at the pulse within, a fiendish, repetitive tug on her soul that wanted to move, to dance, to crawl forward and howl.

No. Not yet.

Not here, not now.

It's not even dark.

But dark was coming. And there was the pound of the music and the crushing sweat of anxious bodies, the toxic perfume of a tent filled with blood.

Eileen put her face in her hands and breathed through her fingers.

One, two. Count it—one, two.

Three, four. Five, six. Breathe.

In her garter holster the Colt offered a reassuring weight, and beside it—also strapped against her thigh, was the green glass bottle and its last precious drops. She didn't want to use them tonight; she didn't want to need them tonight, but tonight was looming up faster than she'd imagined and the crowd was. . ..

. . .the crowd was. . .

"This is too much," she said to her palms, knowing that even the people on either side of her, leaning against her shoulders, would not hear over the din.

If he's half as cursed as I am, he can't stand it. He couldn't possibly. These meetings, this camp—they can't hide his condition, they can only aggravate it. It's not even time yet and I can feel myself losing my grip on my reason—I can feel my fingers slipping free of my sanity because it's all too much.

The people, all of them smelling like salt and blood—they're swollen with it, and they're crying out for violence or music or God. And I. . .I want to give it to them.

No, the thing inside—it wants them. Not me.

Yes, I want to rise up. Yes, I want to climb out and crawl free and break them one at a time in my hands. I want to bite them until they stop screaming. I want to—

"No," she said aloud, into her hands.

But the world swirled around her and the chanting voices made her nauseous. They assaulted her concentration and made her vision swim, as if she were watching the service through a fish bowl.

Would anyone notice if I lifted my skirt, just a little, and took the bottle? Just a few drops—just a little bit of that pretty chemical smell. Just a touch and a taste, to push the thing back down.

It might not matter. Any moment now, and it will be indecent and I will be embarrassed by it later—and Leonard might see and he might wish to know what I was doing—but if I do not take the reins back into my own hands, it will be much, much worse.

The thought of Leonard sharpened her sight a tad, so she chased that thought and caught it, held onto it. Leonard, a nice boy. Brought her here because he believed. Brought her here to see the Reverend Aarons, as she'd wished.

"Aarons," the name came past her lips and was spoken up on stage as well.

The girl's song was over, the crowd was primed, and the girl was stepping down. She stepped away on a short flight of stairs. She took Leonard's hand—yes, there he was—and she tripped lightly down to the desert floor that comprised the tent bottom.

Leonard said something into her ear; she leaned in to hear him, and she nodded.

Eileen couldn't quite catch it, but the effort honed her control further. And when the music had stopped, there was one less thing to distract her. The swollen, aching, chaotic thing inside had less to feed it, then. She forced it back, willing it back and down, and away.

She wanted to see this reverend.

He took the stage in a black suit that must have been dreadful in the sun (but oh yes, the sun was sinking—the sun would be sunk in another hour, or less than two). Reverend Aarons was a tall man, lanky inside the death-black suit, with bird-black eyes and a shock of astonishing white hair that framed his head with the shape of a halo. He hushed the crowd when he opened his hands; he opened his mouth, and the tones that poured forth were as dark and thick as tar.

"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!"