Page 20 of Dreadful Skin

Daniel and Jack became fast friends. They became brothers the way some people fall in love, swiftly and stupidly. Within a matter of days they were inseparable, and most of us thought it was a good thing.


Daniel had become so alone in the wake of his father's death. Jack brought him back around; Jack made him smile, even as Jack changed that smile.


I don't know of a better way to put it than that—Jack changed Daniel, or that's what I tell myself, because that is what's easiest to believe. It might be that Jack only gave Daniel permission to act out in unacceptable ways—but if that's true, then I have wasted too many tears on a man who did not deserve them at all.


* * *


This is what's happening, Leonard. This is what's become of us, now.


I must write the rest quickly, or else I'll lose my resolve and wad this up. I'll throw it away before I ever let you see it, and even now I wonder if I shall ever mail this.


I think maybe, perhaps I won't.


It's easier to continue if I tell myself, "He'll never see this. I'll throw it into the fire." Let me go on, then—pampering myself with that delusion. I'll write as if you'll never read, if this is the only way to go forward.


* * *


They began to leave the camp at night, together. I heard them, as I was usually awake and I was closest to the wagon they'd come to share. I was relieved, because this meant no more strange nighttime wandering for Daniel—or so I thought.


Instead, it meant he had company when he rampaged through the sand and dirt. Instead, it meant that the unsettling sound of four feet had blossomed to the awful patter of eight.


One of two things will happen, if I continue to write and you continue to read: you will not believe me at all, or you will think I've been a fool for taking so long to discern the nature of these two men. I'd rather you think me a fool. I most certainly qualify for the word, I'll be the first to confess it.


But this is what I did—I began to lie in wait for them, even though I was so deeply afraid I could barely breathe when I heard their paces outside my tent. The sound intrigued me so much, and I heard it so regularly—I was insane with curiosity. I had to know what they were doing. Surely whatever sight would greet me could be no worse than the terrors my own mind imagined.


Little did I know.


I should have left the tent flap low, and never lifted its corner.


Late one night when the moon was high and I heard their hoarse, coughing laughter, I roused myself from my cot and went to the tent's edge. Daniel and his friend were mere feet away, on the other side of the wagon—I could hear them moving together quietly, but roughly.


I crouched down and took the edge of the tent between my fingers, lifting it up and pressing my face down to the ground so I could see them.


It was the most unnatural, hideous thing I've ever laid eyes on. Leonard, I cried out—it was a tiny cry, a small yelp of astonishment and loathing—but it was heard, and I was lost.


They were not men anymore, but I could recognize their clothes and there remained some cast of their mortal posture. But both of them were transformed into monstrous things—beasts, covered with hair, and with faces that stretched to shape themselves like the snouts of dogs. Their hands were disgustingly transfigured into claws, with fingernails that came to yellowed, filthy points; and their eyes were most dreadful of all. Their eyes appeared polished, mirrored like a cat's, and they burned a loathsome shade of gold when the moon's light was captured there.


And these two men, now beasts, were frolicking together like puppies. They were tugging at something heavy between them, and at first I did not realize what it was. I could see it, plainly enough. I could make out the contours of the hands, the rising stripes of ribs, and the mangled legs that were missing feet.


I could see, well enough, that it was a corpse they teased and picked apart.


After I cried out, and after they turned their bloodstained muzzles to leer at me, I fainted.


* * *


Oh, at first we all said "coyotes," of course. At first we all shuddered and vowed to keep vigilant watch for ourselves, and for our neighbors. The time had come to move on, anyway. It was easy for Daniel and Jack to tell us all, "Let us go west again, and north. Another camp meeting will take our minds away from this tragedy. Another meeting will remind us God is great, and that our sister Pamela sleeps in Jesus now."


But ever after, when they would see me—if they would catch my eyes, and I would look away with panic in my face—they would smile.


With each stop, with each meeting, we would stand on the stage and praise the Lord. And with each stop, with each meeting, one or two of us would vanish into the desert beyond the safe-seeming bounds of the camp.


* * *


I think they kept their wickedness quiet because at first, they chose victims from the towns where we stopped—and they threw the bodies far into the night, into the sand. The people they took and mutilated were never found until after we were gone; and even then, when the bones had been gnawed by the wild dogs and the sand rats, who could say what dire event had brought about their deaths?


But as you might have guessed, or as we should have suspected—rumor travels faster than fact, and faster than the law.


Before long, we were not welcomed as visiting emissaries of Christ; we were greeted with suspicion, and told to keep moving.


The first time it happened, Daniel was livid. He responded to the small town's mayor with such defensive anger that it only reassured the mayor he was making the right decision. It was Jack, of all people, who soothed the situation. It was Jack who told them both, "We're only a few miles away from our last stop, brother. We can go farther into the wilderness, like Jesus himself. There are other towns, other communities. Other places where the Word won't be treated like so much trash."


Jack meant to insult the mayor, but if the mayor was insulted, he wasn't weak enough to let it change his mind. I thought of staying there, of flinging myself at the man and begging for asylum in his borough. . .but then I saw his wife, standing behind him with two small children—a babe in arms and a toddling youngster who clung to her leg.


And I thought—no. If I am ever to escape these men, then I must do it alone. I must escape into the wilderness if it comes to that, or into a great city filled with policemen and many guns. But I cannot stop at a place like this, defenseless even with so much pride. I'd see them all killed for their kindness, and then the blood will be on my hands, too.


So I stayed with the meetings, because my options were few—and growing fewer. One by one the original brethren began to vanish. Sometimes they left us a bloody trail, and sometimes they left nothing but their belongings. Sometimes they left no sign at all that they'd ever lived, or ever traveled with us. It was as if the earth had swallowed them up; but I knew they'd been swallowed by worse than the grave, and it turned my stomach.


I used to lie awake and pray, and cry. I would ask myself and God, "Why not me? Why leave me for last?"


* * *


My despair has become so great, and so consuming, that there are days when I wish, and pray, and beg, that they will give up the charade and take me, so to end the suspense. If they mean to tear me to pieces, let them get it over with.


But they won't. I know that now.


I can see it when they sneer at me, that it pleases them for someone to be aware. They keep so many secrets, and they play such elaborate parts upon the stage. I think it gives them pleasure to know that there is one member of the audience who sees through the smoke, and who knows where the mirrors are hidden. They are showing off for me, like schoolboys.


* * *


If I find the strength to mail this to you, if you find the courage to read it, and if you find yourself down to these last few lines. . .you'll believe me, won't you? We are headed west, always west—into the old Spanish territories west of Texas. There is a settlement at a place called Mescalero, and on the other side of Mescalero, there is nothing but desert and canyon so far as I've heard. Once we're past that tiny place, I fear that we'll all disappear together into the wilderness; and I, for one, will almost certainly not be seen alive again.


Come for me, Leonard, or don't.


Come and rescue me if you can, or remember me fondly if you can't.


~Yours,


Melissa Anderson


II.


Dear Miss Callaghan,


I never did know for certain how I should address you, but since I'm begging for your counsel, then the formal salutation sounds best. This having been established, I wish to apologize before I begin for any undue familiarity I might display in this letter—for I realize now that, in truth, we barely knew one another. Two days of slight acquaintanceship at Holiness does not equal friendship, but I am at my wit's end, and I believe that you and I may share a secret, after all.


I do not think it will come to you as any real surprise that Reverend Aarons was found dead—in the morning after the camp meeting where last I saw you. I suspect it might even come as a relief to know that he was most thoroughly drowned.


Let me not mince words, for I haven't the ink and Melissa hasn't the time—I believe you know what happened to him, and I might even be so bold to suggest that you had a hand in his passing. The reverend was not in his right mind, those last few days. But you knew that, didn't you? You knew it all along.


* * *


Dear God, I have paused to reread my introduction and I am deeply ashamed. I began this letter to beg your assistance, and instead I opened it with an accusation of murder. If you refuse or rebuke me, I've no one to blame but myself.


Forgive me, please. I am afraid and confused, and I need you. I need your peculiar strength, and your careful sensibilities. I need to know what brought you to Holiness. I believe that Melissa Anderson's life depends upon it.


You may remember Melissa—you must have noticed her.


She was the beauty who sang the service with a songbird's voice. When she read from the scripture or closed her eyes to pray for the congregation, you could hear the eastern states in her words, for she came to us from Carolina.


She was the daughter of a merchant in Charleston. Melissa's parents had her tutored, and groomed to marry a man who would help her father send ships back and forth along the coast and across the ocean. He traded in cotton, tobacco, and indigo, and upon such things was the family fortune built.

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