Page 22 of Dreadful Skin

A thousand times a day I wonder about Leonard. I wonder if my letter ever found him, and then I go back and forth. . .overcome one moment with joy, and the next with guilt. I should have never sent it. I should have sent it sooner. I hope he comes. I hope he stays away.


These days, I find myself wishing harder and harder that he stays away, and stays safe.


Every day the horror doubles. Every night I lie on my back underneath whichever bastard won the coin's toss and I remember fondly the weeks before, the months before, when I was only afraid. When I was only ashamed. When I was still alive, and not this battered shell with a mouth that dares not open, even to pray.


Yes, back then. Was it a year ago, or only a few months?


I measure the days in meetings. We have them every few weeks, here and there. I look forward to them in an idle way—which is wicked, I know. When we set up, when we pitch the tents and post the announcements. . .when we invite the unsuspecting multitudes to come and worship with us. . .we are killing them. I am killing them, with every nail I beat into every tree. I am damning them with every sheet I press against a wall.


But they do come. They know nothing except the charisma of the brutes that preach and pray.


And I look forward to it.


When I walk through the town with my stack of papers, I am dressed like a normal woman, behaving in kind. I am pleasant and polite, and I pretend like an actress on the stage. I know my role.


Sometimes when I walk I think I must have awakened. "Ah," I say—and it's like breathing fresh air. "Yes, all the rest—it was a nightmare, and look, here is the morning and the world is right again."


I smile, and it is not forced. For a few seconds at a time, it is beautiful. It is enough. Almost. Even though I know it damns me too to be so pleased, for I am complicit in this farce.


* * *


It happened slowly, at first. One or two here, there.


And I knew, of course. It was a preposterous merry-go-round of knowing, and being known, and being silenced. We were three, then—bound together in hatred, and knowledge. Eve and her two false Adams. Oh, such a secret did we share.


If Leonard had been here, I would have gone to him. So there's one thing to be thankful for—Leonard was not here. But is it right to be thankful that he was not killed, and that others took his place?


God. There's that sound again. I haven't mentioned it, I guess, but I know what it means. It means they're coming—one or the other of them. I'll have to finish this later.


VI.


Dear Melissa, July 3, 1881,


I realize that it's been quite some time since we've seen one another, but I have heard that you are still traveling with the camp meetings—despite the fact that Reverend Aarons has passed away. His death was so unexpected, and so strange!


But I miss you, dear Melissa. You were a true friend to me, in a world where such friends are few and far between.


I wonder if you haven't grown lonely since I've gone. We had so many things in common, and I'd like to think that perhaps you relied upon me in some fashion.


You can still rely on me, let there be no question of it.


I hope you do not think me foolish for my insistence on this point. I hope you don't think I'm a braggart when I tell you that I have strength untapped, and unexpected resources. I am not fearless, but I am brave—for I am not alone. Remember King David, who told us, "The angel of the Lord encampeth round about them who fear Him, and delivereth them."


These are not such dark times that the angels have all forsaken us. I've met one or two myself, as of late, and they are a hardy bunch, astute and willing to lend aid. They are a very present help in times of trouble.


Nothing has changed, in this regard. God never changes. He is constant, and He is with you.


And, on a less celestial level, soon I will be with you soon. I'm greatly looking forward to it, I must say. It's been almost eight months now—can you believe that? Eight months since I've stood on the stage to sing, or since I've wandered a new town with an armload of announcements. I've missed it terribly.


But this is not to say that I plan to rejoin the show. I suppose I mean to ask you, is there any chance you feel the same way? Might you be interested in going back east—or even further south, or north?


* * *


It sounds as if I mean to swoop down there upon the camp and spirit you away—though you and I share no formal union, and any such action would appear rash and unconsidered.


I wish to inform you, though, that I've considered it most deeply. I've thought of little else over the last few days, and it might be that my imagination is running away with me. . .when it would rather run away with you. Ask for me a week from Thursday—that's the soonest the coach can bring me. I thought of acquiring a horse and starting off alone, but I've been discouraged from such a course by a knowledgeable friend.


* * *


(As an aside, I do believe this friend shares advice with heaven's blessing, though our doctrine might not necessarily line up on all points. Diversity of knowledge is a marvelous thing when one has diverse questions.)


At any rate, I am confident that I have been soundly advised, and if all goes well, this friend shall join me. I will be glad of the company, for the journey is a long one through treacherous territory, and the end is always uncertain when we travel through such unmarked places.


Did you know that on the old maps—when first this continent was being discovered and addressed—that carters used to write upon the ocean, "Here there be monsters." I wonder what they say now, about this vast expanse of wasteland that makes up the whole heart of this nation? It's a funny thought, that's all.


* * *


When we arrive at Mescalero, I'll rest myself at whichever hotel I find there first, and most tolerable. Be on the lookout, and please come join me if you can. Ask for me, and I'll inform the desk clerk to expect a beautiful woman to enquire there.


I've also notified my friend about your presence at the camp, and my friend is quite eager to meet you. I think you'll get along well, and I look forward to making a round of introductions.


~Yours,


Leonard


VII.


Eileen, July 4, 1881


It's difficult to do this kind of research while on the road, but I have my methods, and I have my contacts (here and there). The mail moves slowly in these parts, if it moves at all. Gossip flies faster, but is less reliable.


Even so, accounting for things which may have been told with exaggeration, this is what I've gathered.


* * *


To begin with, people are killing coyotes. People always look to kill them, I know. To cattle men and farmers they are a nuisance, so they're regularly shot on sight. But great round-ups are being orchestrated to purge the territories of the canine blight.


It's a wasteful, needless thing. I understand why the effort is being undertaken, but it can't help. The poor dogs. They say that Christ sees even the sparrow fall from its tree, so perhaps then He also watches these dogs of the wilderness during this time of persecution.


* * *


The first victims were all women. I wonder why that is? Wouldn't the male members of the congregation prove a greater threat to Jack and his newfound accomplice? Or—and this is a terrible thought indeed—perhaps the men were attacked too, and permitted to survive.


That's a frightful scenario, and it makes me tremble.


I never feared for my own strength as a woman, even before anything changed. But in the face of this. . .well, it's a pack, is what it is. . .I would hate to be one woman standing alone against them, responsible for the well-being of others. But Leonard and his Melissa are in peril due to Jack. And I could have killed Jack. I could have stopped him and I did not, because I feared my own strength.


That night on the Mary Byrd—this should have ended there. I saw him surrounded by flame, and that very flame was surrounded by acres of water in every direction.


I told myself then (and I've assured myself since) that I fled the boat for poor Christopher. He was dying. I knew he was dying, but I wanted just one miracle. . .and I could have lived and believed, having one friend in the world to share my secret.


I thought about it, for a few seconds.


I actually considered, once I had given up any pretense that he might survive. . .I thought about his blood there—all over my skirt, and I thought, "How much would it take? Only a bite? More than a scratch? What would it take to infect him?"


One of my hands was beneath his arm, there in the small boat, but the other hand was across his belly and I thought—"It could be an accident. He would never know; I wouldn't even have to lie."


And then he died.


The last breath rose up out of that barrel-shaped body of his, and he was gone, and I never had a chance to perform such a terrible experiment upon him. And in this way too, I was reminded that Heaven watches us all, even the little sparrows, and even the frightened little monsters who work so hard to be good.


I was saved from that choice, from that sin.


But I had dallied too long, there in the boat, and Christopher was dead and the Mary Byrd was sinking, burned to the water line like so much kindling.


I couldn't see Jack anymore, writhing and angry in the light of the fire that consumed the decks. I couldn't see him, and I told myself that it was because the smoke had overwhelmed him and he had fallen. I would never see him again. I would never need to chase him any farther, because my work was at an end.


But my work hadn't ended.


I knew it must go on when the morning came and I was sodden, miserable, and alive—there in the rowboat with Christopher's stinking body.


* * *


God is good. I believe that.


God is good, and He would not leave me to live this way if there were no other service I could offer Him.


* * *


Jack was gone, so far as I could tell. I accepted it as fact because I could not bear the thought of returning to look—and besides, I could scarcely do so without calling scrutiny down upon myself. So I took the coward's way and simply left.


I thought of going back north, but I found the southern climate more agreeable. Farther south it was easier to find others of my kind—from a religious standpoint, not a corporeal one.

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