Page 19 of Dreadful Skin

Eileen stood in the river up to her waist—her dress slashed and her skin torn. She held her hands to her mouth and pushed her fingers against it, feeling the shape of something inhuman spilling out over her edges, refusing to drown or to die.


Part Three: Our Lady of the Wasteland


and the Hallelujah Chorus


Two years after Eileen parted company with a Pentecostal revivalist camp, an urgent letter reaches her with frightening news: the meetings have been revived, but not to serve any purpose of God's.


Though the Reverend Aarons has perished, his son continues their unholy mission. . .and Daniel lacks his father's devout restraint.


Indeed, he has joined forces with a malicious stranger known only as "Jack," and Eileen fears the worst. She once knew a Jack of the same description, and he was a murderous fiend who doomed a small steamboat a decade before.


And now this pair of inhuman hunters leads a ministry of the damned through the desert southwest, gathering victims and fellow monsters alike.


The nun and a young deacon will work together to stop the traveling horror show before it claims more lives. But their interference in the Devil's plans may cost them more than they bargain for.


I.


Dear Leonard,


I'm afraid this letter will never find you, for I sent it to your father in Houston—knowing nothing but his name, yours, and a general neighborhood. I'm also afraid that—even given the best of circumstances—you'll receive this letter and wish to respond, but it will be too late.


Terrible things are happening. The camp, the church, the reverend—he's dead, you know. I think you must know, since you fled so quickly the night he died. (And I never did heed the talk. I never did believe, not for a moment, that you had anything to do with what happened to him.)


But you left.


I don't suppose you owed me an explanation, though I did think we were friends. I hope we were friends. If we never were friends, you might not finish reading this, and I don't know where else to turn.


I half hope this letter never finds you. I am crying as I sit here, knowing perhaps that I'm doing you a horrendous wrong by pleading for your help. But I will write this down, and I will send it along as soon as I can, and I will leave it in God's hands.


If this reaches you and you come, then it was God's will. If you never receive this, then my own selfishness has been punished—as rightly it should be—and I will bear my fate in silence.


I need to write it down, regardless.


* * *


After the last meeting in Holiness, we spent all night looking for Reverend Aarons and that strange little woman who followed him. It was so completely dark that we were lost before we began. But come sunrise, Mr. Martin found the reverend floating facedown in the river when he led his cows out there to drink.


No one knows if the reverend fell, jumped, or was pushed, but all the same, he drowned. And all the same, his son Daniel had to bury him.


We all took it hard, Daniel most of all. He talked as if perhaps we should close the camp and disperse, for it had always been his father's ministry and not his own.


But no, he kept the camp.


We helped him roll the tents and break down the stage; we loaded the wagons, and we moved farther west. East hardly seemed an option, or that's how he behaved. He implied that there were problems behind him back east—and there was nowhere to go except toward the Pacific. So we followed him, because what else could we do?


* * *


(I wish that I'd pressed him about those problems, though. I wish I'd pushed him for more information. Even if he'd only told me a little, I might have gleaned enough for myself to know that I shouldn't go with him.)


* * *


We held the meetings again—in the backwaters, the wilderness, and all those vacant places in between. Atten-dance was lower because there were fewer people, I suppose. I do not believe our reputation preceded us. Even those of us within the fellowship didn't know, so I'd find it difficult to believe that word had spread very far beyond us.


Except. . .and here's something else I always meant to ask you—that woman you brought to the meeting—she knew, didn't she? Then perhaps I'm wrong, and I've always been blind. You used to tease me about the way I didn't notice things, so I think you must have been right all along. Imagine, then, how bad things must have become if I'm writing to you now!


But it didn't get bad overnight, you know. It happened so slowly, it tangled us so cunningly, that by the time we realized the threat there was no way to escape it.


Would it shock you to learn that most of us are dead now?


It shocks me to write it, and as I reread the words I know how astonishing they appear. But you may as well believe me. I'm the only one who remains from the time when you were with us.


The rest are gone, buried or lost in the desert. . .or worse yet, they remain beside us, damned and walking.


* * *


We both know that the reverend could be a maddeningly intense sort of man—and it must have crossed your mind that there was something incorrect about his faculties. I do not mean to imply that he was not spiritual, for indeed he was; but I had come to wonder if something less noble was at work beneath the surface.


You didn't see him like I did, when he would writhe in the dirt after the meetings in his own tent. I saw him, through the flap when he kicked it open. I saw him slathering like a rabid dog, and I saw his arms thrash in such a way that I thought they must be broken from the strain. His hands would curl—I can hardly describe it. His hands would curl and his mouth would stretch as if something were trying to crawl out of him.


I won't say he was possessed. I can't say that. No man possessed by the devil could do such great work for God.


But if it wasn't the devil then it must have been an illness. That was the solution I came to, because it was the only one that fit all the facts as I saw them. But I am no detective or alienist. I can only tell you the conclusion I had to draw—because to draw any other would have destroyed me.


I still think that I might have been right, a little.


And whatever was wrong with the reverend, I think it spilled over to his son. I would see it sometimes. I would note a flicker in his eye or a fever tinting his face. His hands would shake and he had such trouble sleeping, that on some nights he would not rest at all. You could hear him pacing back and forth outside the camp, beside the wagons. You could hear him coughing or mumbling to himself as his feet kicked the sand and dirt and. . ..


I shouldn't stop there. This is my confession, as I said. If you read it and think my mind has snapped, then so be it. I can only give you my impressions of these awful times, and you can make of them what you will.


So I'll tell you the rest, unbalanced as it makes me sound.


Daniel's favorite place to roam at night was back alongside his father's wagon, and I had my tent pitched close to it because once, it made me feel safe. The reverend might have been gone, but I missed him and I missed the comfort of his presence. So I laid myself out near his place in the camp.


When I couldn't dream, I would listen to the sound of night in the desert. The wild dogs called, the big cats screamed, and the smaller things would scuffle and slide around in the gritty earth.


And outside my tent, on the other side of the wagon, Daniel would walk a circle path when he couldn't sleep—and although I could hear him chattering softly, his voice would drop low to a gargle. Then the cadence of his feet would change too. Though before I could recognize the one-two patter of his boots, the pace would shake until it sounded like the track of a terrible great beast—a thing that walked on four feet instead of upright.


After a while, his wandering would take him farther away or back to his own tent, and then I would hear him no more. But I noticed—after weeks of this peculiar behavior—that it was worse at certain times, or near certain phases of the moon.


I will not tell you more than that, because anything further would sound indecent as well as insane, but a woman has ways of following the moon and noting its cycles in the sky. And there were a few days each month that he would come closer to my tent than before, and his unusual pattering steps would bring him right up to the edge of the fabric.


And there was nothing more than the flap of canvas between us. It would scare me to death to lie there, wrapped tight in a blanket that I'd draw up around my shoulders. I would pull my feet beneath me so I could hug my knees and wonder about the noises he made, and they were unim-aginable noises. They were sounds of sniffing and snuffling. They were the mutters that a tracking dog makes when it's found something it wishes to investigate further, and it appalled me.


But at least it was only Daniel who I feared. I watched him wrestle with some internal demon and I believed, at the time, that he was a good man at his core and that he was doing his best to live according to God's principles.


* * *


Back when I was a child, I knew a man who had a problem with alcohol. It would turn him in such a sharp, meaningful way—it was as if two people lived inside him, and drink was the key to unlock the wicked one. There are patterns to it. There are excuses, and promises, and struggles that look the same to me, as when Daniel would walk the camp bleary-eyed in the mornings after the moon was full.


He was sorry about the noise. He was aware of the disruption. He was feeling a bit unwell, but was otherwise fine. He did not wish to make us worry.


I've heard such things before, and I knew they meant trouble; but so long as the trouble was only Daniel's, I thought everything might eventually be all right.


And then came Jack.


Or rather, his name was John something or another and he spoke with an English accent—but he wished to be called Jack, and it fit him better than the civilized name, so we took to it.


He was charming, at first. He's not a large man, but he's lean and strong looking. He's a man who demonstrates good breeding when he wishes to. I thought he was a little bit handsome, and a little bit brilliant. He came to the camp looking for the reverend, but when we told him of the reverend's passing, Jack opted to remain, regardless.


We all found him to be a breath of fresh air, so dour had our daily lives become. Here was a fellow with a touch of that infectious personality, and a way of speaking that charmed the soul when he was feeling light and friendly.

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