Page 3 of Dreadful Skin

An alibi was my favorite accessory.

I would wear one like a funeral carnation in a black lapel. I would use it to garnish myself, and to redeem myself. I would sport it in public to reassure London that I was a worthy, plain, and innocent citizen—confused, and in mourning like the rest of them.

But after a while. . .yes, well. In time, all the expensive alibis in the world could not be stacked, one on top of another, high enough to build a wall between myself and the prying eyes of nervous, curious people.

Jesus, God, or Whoever.

It was only a little hunger. Only a little need.

And I kept it so closely in check. I watched myself for the signs, and for the warnings. After so many years I knew what to look for, and what twisted visions I could count upon to warn of impending change. I had learned how to control it!

All the rest I can blame on my father, because I went to him for help and he refused me, at first. Later, he would use his influence to keep our name out of the papers, and later—always when it was much too late—he would quietly arrange for restitution.

He seemed to think it was a disease—acquired in some opium den or brothel. Every objection I uttered was nonce to him, and every plea for a reasonable treatment fell on deaf ears. So far as he was concerned, I needed a physician like Dr. Marblen, or Dr. Bentley. There was no room in my father's head for an infection like the one I carried.

There was no room in his mind for the monsters at the far corners of the Good Queen's Empire.

In time, he came to invent his own explanations. He passed them around to his friends over too much brandy when the weather was cold. Once he said that I'd been cursed by a gypsy, and another time he mumbled that I'd been trampled by elephants while abroad.

Once—just once—he came very near the truth by virtue of his own imagination. Even as he denied any truth to the unflattering rumors, he would feed them seedling crumbs.

One night I overheard him speaking to the marquess. He spoke of me like I was a wayward adventurer from a penny dreadful; he was constructing a myth of me with his words, in his own library and parlor. Deny the facts when they are gruesome, or untidy. Speculate for me something prettier, and simpler, and easier to spread by firelight.

I recall, from my listening place beside the door jamb, that there were expensive cigars that night and a crystal decanter that drained by the hour. I held my position outside the room, and listened to the old men ramble about war, and children, and monsters like me.

"It was during his time in India, you know. That was where the event occurred that changed him so, though you do not think him much changed now. I can only say that there are nights when he must be seen to be believed—and days when we must close him away for fear of him, and for what he would do if left unattended.

"He went out on safari with the son of a friend—I think you know him, so I'll leave his name from the story, if you don't mind—but he went out with a rifle and an elephant. They were hunting tigers, as you do when in a place such as that.

"I've heard stories, you know—of places like that one. They tell me it is as if the whole land itself rises up and wishes you gone. Every stray plant has thorns and each new creature is deadlier than the last. I swear, I wish we had left it alone. I think so sometimes," he added quickly, "but I know that it's all for the best. I'm a brick for the empire, and my son was too. I mean no disrespect or disloyalty when I say these things. I only mean that it's an inhospitable place, more hot and unwelcoming than hell. That is what I've heard, though you can take or leave it as you like."

I thought the marquess should leave it, personally, as my father was well into his cups, but inexplicably speaking less nonsense than usual. Let him tell the truth through a fog of alcohol. Stories told that way are always easy to discard when morning comes and a headache comes with it.

Besides, India was not so bad. It was hot, yes. But Eng-land is cold, as often as not, and between the two I believe that I prefer the struggles of staying cool to the struggles of staying warm.

Like so many other preferences of mine, my father would not understand it.

"Somewhere under the jungle canopy they rode on their elephants with the brown boys guiding them, calling out sights and hushing the party when game felt close. I imagine he wore a proper helmet, and he carried that old gun of mine—I insisted he take it, though now I wish I'd lent him something bigger, or something faster to shoot.

"But then a storm brewed up fast, as these things do in such hellish climes. They were too far into the bush to retreat, so they huddled for camp and sheltered themselves as best they could.

"One of the brown fellows cried out, and was lost. It's dark there, when the sun goes out and trees stretch high and thick above. They couldn't see what took the man. They couldn't tell if he was hurt, or dead, or only running. The storm did not relent, though. Water came down in drops as big as your thumb, and the elephants shuddered for wet and worry. They stamped their giant feet into the mud and wished to be elsewhere, as did the remaining men, I'm sure.

"There in the sodden jungle, where it must have been quite dark, they could not see so well for the shadow and the pitching rain. They could not have known when the trees parted, and through them slipped the beast."

"A tiger?"

"What else?" My father asked it drunkenly, sloshing his glass and gesturing at the window, at the ceiling with it.

I had told him what else, as best I could. We both knew it was no tiger, but he had no other name by which to call the dread, so he gave it a word he knew.

"It pounced at them, it leaped upon them!" And here he lost more brandy, or scotch, or whatever the drink was that night. "It fell upon them, you see—and my son had not stayed atop his elephant where there was more safety. They say that a tiger won't disturb an elephant, and if my son had believed it—"

I'd believed it, but I think it would not have mattered. The elephants were trumpeting, by then. The danger was too near, and it was something that made the big beasts break, and run.

"He might have stayed there, atop the beast. But no. He had come down to the ground to chat with another man—and then the beast, it leaped! I said that, it leaped—and it fell on them both. The one man, the friend of my son, he died on the spot.

"But my son was able to crawl away. After the storm was over and the tiger had gone its own way, John was gathered, by the brown fellows and by the remaining people from the hunting party. He was gathered up and taken back into Delhi where he languished there in a hospital. You must understand what it's like there, so hot and so wet. So damp with disease and I tell you, it is hard for an Englishman to recover from a cold in that place—much less from a wound so dire. And that's the meat of it, I think. I don't think he ever recovered. Not fully. Not like he should have, if he'd been here."

The marquess left his own glass on the arm of the chair, and he did not raise it to his lips. "Is there—I mean, has he a scar, then? Some mark of the injury to show for it?"

My father shuddered then, the way the elephants had when the thing had poured itself out into the trail. "You should see it, Henry. Or maybe, you should not. I've seen the injuries of war before. Not much turns my stomach. But oh, the way its teeth met his skin—and the way it bit through bone. What else. . .." He started a thought and lost it, swirled it around in his glass.

"A tiger, of course. What else could it have been?" The marquess finished the question for him, because I think he knew I was listening from the hall. "No fault of his own then, if it's left him with a terrible shock. It's a wonder he lives at all."

"A wonder," my father said. "A wonder indeed."

If it had been my mother there, or my brother, he might have added the rest of his conclusion—that it was a wonder better left a continent or two away. But it would not do to say such things in front of Henry, so he let the story end.

He was wrong, of course. He was wrong in more ways than I could begin to tell, given a full decanter and a willing ear. He was wrong about the city, and the weather, and the tiger. But something about the way he told it—I liked this version better. When I heard him share it with his old friend, I thought perhaps—just for a few minutes, with a brain steeped in brandy—he'd understood what I'd told him after all. Even if he couldn't fathom the players, he knew the play.

Even if he didn't want to cry "wolf," for that is a thing that reckless boys do.

He could think I was reckless if he liked. He was probably correct, after all. There was a reckless beauty to it. There was a reckless poetry when I lifted my face to the sky and bared my teeth like a savage, like a screaming boy, and I made my voice twist itself into the sound of a wolf.

And when I jumped—God, when I jumped.

I could feel myself leaving the earth and clawing my way through the sky, for seconds at a time, and then there was nothing else in the universe—no God at all, even. Only grass and clouds and the scent of a living planet left orphan by a reckless creator.

They said, in the papers and in the penny dreadfuls, that it was as if I had springs on my feet. I must have aid, to leap so high. I must have a coiled mechanism to propel me so. Truly, it was easier to blame science than Mystery.

And truly, it was a silly name they gave me—though they got the "Jack" part right, by guess or circumstance.

Eventually I became too much hassle to hide. Eventually, when the moon turned over and glared down full across the night, it was too much for me to contain. If my father had admitted the nature of my ailment, some better treatment might have been made. Almost anything would have been better than chains and a basement. "Hide the moon from him, if that's what does it," he'd said. He was a fool and a liar.

The moon did nothing to me. It was only a cue, a trigger, and a goal. Every jump, every leap, every spring-heeled crouch and short, sharp flight—it was all to reach the moon, because I swear, she was the only one who'd have me.

But failing the moon, and failing my father, and failing my country, too—I made plans to leave. The stories were swirling too close, sometimes. The mad little men with the pencils and the presses swarmed a touch too near. I began to fear quite honestly that if I did not leave, I would be killed.