Page 18 of Dreadful Skin

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.


Down on the river's bed her toes had burst free of the shoes and were dragging along the muddy bottom. She braced them against a boulder, and she took a deep breath.


The reverend's head slipped underwater and she leaned down, folding her body in half to hold him there.


As the lack of air smothered his reason, the wolf rose up and began to struggle on his behalf; but Eileen's grip was firm and her legs held fast against the slight current. Even wolves need to breathe, and she was not going to let him.


He tore at her—lashing and thrashing, tearing at the woman with claws as sharp and thick as flint, coiling in her grip and trying to roll to shake her free, but the reverend had rendered the monster too weak.


Curls of blood muddled the water. It was too dark to see, but Eileen could smell it and she knew that most of it was hers. But. Only a little longer.


His strength diminished slowly—then suddenly, and completely.


He hung in her arms.


She raised her head and his stayed where it was, nodding sleepily beneath the surface of the water, sputtering bubbles and blood, and then nothing at all.


Eileen untangled her arms from his body. The current pried him gently away from her. His face was peaceful, and all his teeth fit inside his mouth. It was the body of a man, not a myth, and it was finished fighting because it had won.

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