Page 26 of Dreadful Skin

He went calmer, and he nodded as if by moving his head he might make the idea dissolve there better.



* * *


Tomorrow, if we haven't yet heard from Melissa, we will leave together for the camp.


XI.


Melissa's Journal, July 8, 1881


Leonard wrote! He wrote back, and he's here—now! Or rather, he's nearby in Mescalero. Only two short miles away, and I can hardly believe it. I wish I could feign some ambivalence in the matter. I wish I could return to my previous attempts at moral confusion about his presence, but I cannot. I can scarcely contain my complete, abject, absolute joy at the prospect of seeing him again.


He's nearby, and he received my message, and he's coming for me. He means to take me out of here. I was lucky his response wasn't seen by anyone else here in the camp—he was being careful with his words, but not careful enough. Or maybe I only know what to look for, and that's why it seemed so obvious to me that he was speaking of a rescue.


I can hardly imagine it. It's astounding, the things a woman can grow accustomed to in time. It's amazing, the horror that can become so commonplace as to feel inevitable and inescapable.


Oh, there's the dread. Yes, a prickle of it. Poor Leonard, come to save me.


It might not work. It might fail outright—a hopeless and laughable attempt that ends with the death of both of us. But my ambivalence is gone. I can't even care that this threatens him. I can't even muster a shred of decency to say, "I should not have asked him for this."


If this fails, then so be it. If we die, we die.


We won't be here.


But I won't sit here and wait, like a toadstool on a log. I need to prepare. I'll need an excuse to go to town. The meetings begin tomorrow night.


* * *


There will be things I can never tell him. I care enough for him to keep things from him, and I care enough for my own preservation that I think, it is likely, that I will be better received if he's never made aware of the humiliation I've daily suffered. I can live with his rage on my behalf, but I cannot live with his pity or revulsion.


I'm not entirely certain that he could live with it, either—and live with me, too.


Is that what I'm thinking, then? Is this how it will go? I'll run away and marry Leonard because he'll suspect enough to ask no questions.


* * *


He's mentioned a "friend" in his letter. There's something he wants to say about this friend, but he dared not—and I wonder what it is.


It sounds like help.


I'm going to get ready, and when I meet with Leonard, he will know that I did not sit idly by, wringing my hands and weeping while I waited for rescue. He will know that I am here, and I am trapped, but before I will surrender, I will fight.


If I were ever hungry enough to eat anymore, I'd complain that it's past lunchtime. But I should eat something, anyway. I should keep up my strength. I should bolster myself for this coming—


No, I should be more careful.


I can't let them see that anything unusual is present or coming. They must not know that I am alive after all, and that there will be more to my life's postscript than, "reluctant concubine."


* * *


Daniel almost caught me, just then.


I'm getting good at hearing them, though. Their footsteps are quiet—quieter than a man's ought to be. But like everything else, I'm growing accustomed to it. I felt it more than I heard it, a slight jostling of the ground outside.


I slapped my journal shut and pushed it under my pillow, then lay my body on top of it like I'd been napping, or crying. I don't cry anymore. They don't believe it; they think I cry when they're not looking. They don't understand that they've wrung it all out of me already.


But there was Daniel, twitching the tent flap with his hand.


I'm less afraid of him now, though my contempt for him is greater than it ever was. He should have been stronger than this, stronger than Jack. I can't forgive him for his weakness, despite his inhuman strength.


Around the meeting time, he gets quieter. It might be that he's growing tired of Jack's company. Or it may be only that he thinks of his father more, and he can give a name to the voice of his dying conscience.


Regardless the cause, it makes me glad—so far as "glad" may go—that he abandons me more and more to Jack. It isn't that I have any fondness for that other brute either; it's only that I tolerate the one of them, and not the pair of them. Better just Jack than to be shared like a toy between quarrelling children.


They don't quarrel much, but when they do, it's over me.


I'm glad they resolved it, however much it may be resolved. I hated being jerked between them. I hated. . ..


I'm tired of writing about it. I hated them both, and I hate them both. But I hold the most anger against Daniel, because once, he was my friend—and he thought better of me than this.


* * *


But it was Daniel who nearly caught me writing about Leonard, and I understand enough of the relationships here to know how strange and nasty jealousy is between men, even when it isn't warranted. They aren't fighting for my affection, after all. They're bickering for my body.


He sulks when he sees me. I think perhaps he's been reprimanded by Jack, or maybe they fought like dogs for dominance, and Daniel lost. Whatever the lesson, he's learned it, or he's learned to pretend it. We're all pretending here, anyway.


"What?" I asked when he stood in the opening. "What do you want?"


He said, "The meeting's tomorrow night."


I said, "I know. What of it?"


"Will you go to town tomorrow morning? Jack thinks. . .."


"He thinks what?"


"I think that we should try to do more to bring the families, the women and children too. There was talking in Mescalero, that this was a camp of men. You should be seen, so that others aren't afraid to attend."


Instrumental in the damnation of others again, of course. As you like. "What would you ask me to do there?"


"Visit the ministers. Stop at the general store. Here's money." He threw a wad of bills down onto my cot and turned to leave. For a second I could not believe my luck, and then I remembered that I have no luck. "I'll come and get you. We'll walk into town together. You'll be my sister."


My heart sank, but it was too buoyant to drop far. At least it wouldn't be Jack. There was something beaten about Daniel that made me feel like he was easier to control in some respect. I might be able to fool him or flee him more easily.


"Tomorrow morning. Whatever you like," I said. I held my voice down, kept one toe upon it to hold it flat.


* * *


Tomorrow morning I'll go to town and Leonard will be there. Daniel will know Leonard, of course. He'll know the lie we perpetuate, and he'll raise suspicions, seed dissent, rally the town and the surrounding towns, if it comes to that.


God knows what it will come to.


God knows what it will cost.


XII.


Leonard, July 9, 1881


The meetings begin tomorrow. I can see where announcements have been posted, and there is gossip about town. These meetings will not be so well attended as our old ones, I'm sure of it. They're giving themselves away—they've hunted themselves into obviousness.


Women and children, even those who'd like to join the fellowship, are being urged to remain home and indoors.


It astounds me what people can glean from behavior. It delights me how astute even the commonest, plainest laborer can be, when faced with peril and threat unheard of. They may not riot in the streets, screaming for the blood of the monsters—but they are wise enough to keep themselves hidden. They shut their doors and fasten their windows, and they keep the little ones inside.


Much as it makes me tense, it pleases me to see the town's reaction. There is fear in the air, and anticipation. There is worry on the face of each passerby, and caution in eyes everywhere.


And they don't even know what they're up against. They only know that something is wrong.


This is not a traveling worship camp, not anymore. The beasts are being found out, slowly, and by God's hand. They will not be allowed to continue, not like this. Not under the cross. Not with songs of praise melting in their mouths.


* * *


Eileen, always prone to thinking of the things I miss, also noted the simmering scent of fear. "I'm glad they're catching on," she said. "But it makes me afraid for them, too."


I looked at the flimsy shutters and thin wood doors. "I hope they stay home."


"But hope and suspicion are two sides of one coin. Closing their doors won't do much help to them."


"But we will help them."


She nodded, but otherwise didn't answer.


"The best thing we can do for these people is tell them to leave, don't you think?" I asked.


"No. The best thing we could do for them is make them leave. But we can't do that, just yet. They won't believe a plague of wolves, though you've gotten me thinking. We might need to destroy the town to save it."


I frowned. Destroying a town to save it—I hoped she wasn't serious, but she looked serious. She was different now from the first time I met her. Then, she was a little lighthearted, even when she was concentrating. Now she was grim in a way that didn't seem to suit her, even as she wore it like a mantle. It didn't fit her, but she would have been naked without it.


"We should part company," she said quietly.


"Why is that?"


"I have some shopping to do. I have some preparations to make, as do you."


She was right. But I didn't want to admit that I felt helpless without her. Instead, I asked how she was planning to fill her day.


"I'm going to see about some tools."


"Tools?"


"Dangerous tools. Do ye also likewise," she said, and she was paraphrasing the Golden Rule. I didn't like the perverse twist she applied to it, but I didn't argue with her. She was right. Our window of time was narrow, and we would need to be ready to take advantage of it.

Source: www.StudyNovels.com