Page 23 of Dreadful Skin

There's a very old Spanish city, very far down by the coast of the Atlantic. It's called St. Augustine, and I rested there for some time. I learned enough of the language to converse with the people who managed the missions.


While I was there I prayed at the shrine—at the little spot where the very first mass in the New World was ever performed. It uplifted me. It made me feel as if I were part of a great pattern, and that even as governments and churches and boundaries shifted, changed, and fell in and out of power—there are things that remain. There are things that we all come back to, again and again. It's not a circle of life or time. It's not a Great Chain of Being. It's a series of loops—it's an endless pattern knitted over and over, by One who is careful to count every stitch.


* * *


But yes, they are killing coyotes all over the western territories, as far as they can reach out and grab them or shoot them. So there is something reasonable to be blamed, and really, it's better that they blame some four-footed thing they know. In other times, in other places, they might have looked for demons or witches. They might have sought out an old woman and burned her, or they might have looked for cloven hoof prints in the dirt.


It's an irony then, isn't it? The one time they'd be right to assume the otherworldly worst—mortal monsters are ready at hand, easier to eliminate by far. It makes them feel like they're doing something to push back the fear, and it's working, I'm sure. Does it matter why people stay closer to town at night? Does it matter why they walk with greater caution, so long as they do?


* * *


I estimate a death count that stands higher than twenty, lower than forty. It's a broad estimation, distilled from speculation, rumor, and hysterical hearsay, so I'm afraid it must remain a wide net of guessing. And clearly, I have no way of knowing yet how many are left within the camp—changed or unchanged.


I wish I could speak to Melissa directly. Possibly it could be arranged. I don't know—I don't know enough about how they're carrying out their ruse.


It sounds ordinary, but the worst things always do, at first. The meetings come through an area, posters go up, word of mouth spreads (and this means hands to place the posters, mouths to share the words). The townspeople send out feelers, families and curious folks, devoted Christians who wish to share fellowship with others like themselves.


And somehow, fewer return home.


* * *


The gossip didn't begin until Midland, Texas. The group changed course then, heading not west but north and east, pitching their tents again at Big Spring. After Big Spring, chit-chat began in earnest. Three women vanished in the wake of the meetings, that much is certain.


Two bodies were found. Enough body parts were present to indicate a third, but there weren't any doctors near enough to evaluate the mess.


East again, they settled briefly in Sweetwater. Three more went missing, two women and a man—the husband of one of the women. Four bodies were found that time, but the fourth was unrecognizable. It's possible that this was a camp member.


This time there was a doctor, and the doctor swore before a court that the bodies had been mauled and gnawed by coyotes. A frontier doctor would probably recognize it, I suppose; but it's also possible that the poor dogs only found the bodies and worried the bones.


North went the group, to Snyder. Six missing. Only two confirmed dead. Were they swelling their ranks, or only getting better at hiding the corpses?


* * *


(You know, it's hard to hide a corpse from a dog. I would not be surprised if this is why the bodies surface.)


* * *


Following Snyder, the group turned west once more. Their most recent stay was in Brownfield. Eight missing. Four confirmed dead. The local authorities became interested, and I think they may have drawn civic suspicion.


Now they have been gone from Brownfield for a couple of weeks, and their latest journey has them moving farther between meetings than before. Mescalero is quite a ways away from Brownfield. It might mean they're plotting a great run, or a long stretch to the mountains. Maybe they know people are beginning to look at them askance. Maybe they have gleaned that law enforcement, such as it is, is taking an interest in their affairs. Maybe they know that the time has nearly come when they will need to run.


Run or fight.


God help us if they make a stand.


VIII.


Melissa, July 5, 1881


Yesterday was Independence Day. Jack told me all about it, while lying beside me smug and chipper—despite the early evening heat. He likes to talk, just to hear himself, or just to bother me—I don't know which. He's a thing in love with the sound of his own words. He loves himself at least as much as I hate him.


It's just now the middle of moon's cycle, so he isn't as wild or bloodthirsty as the fuller moon makes him. This doesn't make him any gentler a companion, but it means that tomorrow, I will look less like I've been tied in a gunny sack and beaten with a cane.


I hate the smell of him. I hate the way his body changes, and the way it snaps and shifts with the sound of splitting bone under leather—it makes me ill. He makes me ill.


I hate the look of him. I hate his warm-orange eyes that still look cold, somehow; and I hate the way he swells into a knotted mannequin of lumps, hair, and sharp-ended angles when the moon hits him hard.


I hate the sound of him. He makes my ears ring when he is overcome with the moment, or with his bestial attentions, and he pulls all the air in the tent into his chest and he howls, brays, roars—like some bizarre amalgam of creatures never meant to mate or cross.


But most of all, I simply hate him.


Look what he has done to us. Look what has become of the reverend's wonderful holy dream—look at how Jack has perverted it. We began as a band of disciples, following Christ's footsteps through the wilderness. We were poor in funds, but rich in mercy and love. We never wanted for any of the necessities, and as our company grew, our family grew. It was a fellowship of like-minded followers.


And what is it now? A charade of evil. A band of devils.


I am the only one left intact. I alone walk with human footsteps when the night falls and the moon rolls up in the sky.


By my best count, which is not a good count—but is only the roughest estimation, there are twenty of them. All men, who fight amongst themselves constantly. All the women have been used up, worn out, thrown away or devoured except for myself. And me? I think they keep me because they mean to punish me.


Jack says that it's because I'm so pretty and proud, and he likes things that are pretty. I think it's because he likes to defile things that are proud.


He is very proud himself. I wonder what terrible thing overcame him once, or do I already know? But no. It wouldn't be the wolf. I believe he greeted the wolf with joy, and with welcoming arms. I do not think the wolf changed him; I think that it freed him to be as wicked as he wished.


I don't know why I wonder about it. I don't really care. Whatever was done to him in the past, it doesn't excuse anything he does now. Maybe I just want a reason, even as I realize that there can't possibly be one.


So Jack lies beside me still, if not every night—then so many nights as it makes no difference to say otherwise. At least when he's on top of me, he doesn't talk much. What an existence this is, where I split hairs of misery like this.


The more he talks, the more I understand how thoroughly insane he is.


Last night he gave me a secular sermon on Independence Day, and he explained how they would declare an Independence Day of their own—because really, there's nothing he won't try to corrupt.


"What about the rest of us?" he mused, kicking the edge of his heel against the bar on the cot. "Independence Day for whom? For men, for women, for good little citizens, to be sure. But if their laws—if their happy little government—will not protect and serve the interests of those who remain, shall its government apply to us as well? Should we follow their laws if they would kill us on sight?"


If I cared for him at all, I might have interjected an encouraging noise. But I don't, and I didn't.


"Oh, we are few enough now. Maybe that's why they've excluded us. Maybe they don't even know about us—but that's going to change. Already we are growing this pack; already we are stronger than I could've imagined. It took me time—time to sort out the details and time to learn about the transition. It's rather like an infection, but it's not one that's easy to spread."


Then he rolled over, facing me, even though I was staring up towards the sky. But even the stars were denied me by the canvas of the tent.


"I could do it to you, if I wanted to. But I don't, not yet. I like you like this. I like you soft, and easy to hold." He ran one of his hands—normal-looking, now—up and down my arm.


I knew better than to jerk away.


"It's as I said, an infection of sorts. To spread it the body must be badly damaged, but the blood must continue to circulate. If the blood doesn't circulate, the infection doesn't dig itself in deeply enough. Or at least," he said with an airy flip of his wrist, "that's my supposition. I'm no doctor, but I've been examined by many of them. You learn things. But you know, I don't want to call it an infection. It's no disease, obviously. It's nothing that needs to be treated or cured—even if it were possible to treat or cure, and I'm confident that it isn't. If you look at it this way, I'm a pioneer of science. I'm an explorer into uncharted realms of human experience—not because I'm human now, because I'm much more than that. But because I was human once, and I am pushing this thing to its limits—I want to see where the boundaries are."


I couldn't restrain a small cough, from the dust or from simple congestion. He took it as a prompt, and he continued.


"You live here with us, among us. You should be observing this. Do you have a journal, or some papers? I think you should write this down. Think of it! The future may remember you as a brave historian, instead of the captive you think yourself now."


"I'm not a captive, then?" I shouldn't have said it, but the implication that I was free galled me enough that I engaged him, though I didn't look at him.

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