Page 31 of Dreadful Skin

He heard me, I know he did. But he was too busy to respond. I didn't hold it against him.

"Their hearts, their lungs, they heal too fast. Don't waste any bullets that way!"

Leonard had another idea. He had it beside a window down front, where a hair-covered hand was pushing at the fragmented glass. The hand writhed and reached, groping and grasping for any flesh it could clutch.

"Leonard!" I shouted.

He lifted his blade and brought it down in a heaving, hacking motion. The edge didn't sever the hand but it lodged itself deeply and when the hand tried to retreat, it was barred by the steel. It beat itself against the frame and the pew while howling, spraying blood.

Melissa brought her knife to the scene and attacked the pinned hand savagely, until the last of the holding bones broke and the skin tore and the appendage flopped, twitching, to the floor.

The sound outside was unbearable to me.

It was awfulness in my ears, and it was calling me in a most hideous way. I didn't know if they knew it or not, or if they even meant it—but they were calling me, or calling to the thing inside me; and the thing inside was begging to answer.

"No," I told it. "No," I said as I watched the blood-smeared hand spasm and disappear beneath a pew.

Teeth and a muzzle too high to belong to a dog slathered and stuffed themselves through a window's wreckage and I fired. The teeth shattered, and saliva mixed with purpley-black slime spurted across what was left of the glass. A piece of something's leathery nose slipped stickily down the pane.

They were all around us. Above us, even. Up the side of the porch, onto the tower with the ratty steeple, and with a clang of a bell—clapped by a foot—one was above us and stomping with leaden feet upon the shingles.

McKenzie was reloading. I had two shots left before I needed to do the same.

I held the gun above my head and tracked the thing with my ears. Even if I didn't hit anything vital, the force of the bullet might send the beast back to the ground.

Two cracks sent dust fluttering down onto my head, along with a rain of splinters. An angry but undeterred yowl answered, and was triumphant. McKenzie's rifle echoed my own gunfire, and then the thing yelped and fell.

On the way down it jammed a knee or an elbow into the roof, and the night spilled in from there, too. I stood beneath it, in the spot where the moon looked down and encouraged me—the moon was calling too, ally and ene-my both. I couldn't fight it, I couldn't move. I could only stand there and feel my bones struggling beneath my skin, itching and aching to rearrange themselves into a more fit-ting shape.

I could only keep it down for so long. I could only hold it at arm's length for. . .for not long enough. They were coming for me, the moon and the dogs outside, and the force of nature that reared up from the pit of my stomach—from the base of my neck, and from the depths of my lungs.

Out, then. Let it out.

I dropped the Colt. I couldn't hold it anymore, my hands would not accommodate it. They were coming out. Everything was coming out.

And the things outside were coming in.

Leonard and Melissa were back to back, in a corner by the window fighting with their feet and with their flickering, flashing blades that I'd all but stolen from a farmer's store. Better than nothing. Not as good as me.

McKenzie was hurt. I smelled the blood reeking from his body before I saw the injury, and the injury was not so bad that it stopped him from shooting. I reached for my Bowie knife, but it was gone, it was on the floor. My body was stretching and outgrowing these weapons, made for human hands, to strap against human thighs. I bent down to pick it up and it felt like a toy to me.

The front door was losing its battle to remain closed. The pew-back buttress was failing, and an arm, a shoulder, a neck and a face were pushing, forcing, shoving inside. McKenzie's aim was slipping as he continued to bleed, and his next two shots only struck the thing's forearm.

But I had my toy. I had my tiny little knife, wide enough for a paddle, heavy enough for a hatchet. I threw it with all my might and it disappeared into the creature's throat.

The beast froze with astonishment or pain. The knife handle jutted out like a knob on a door.

The Texas ranger redeemed himself with a bullet to the thing's forehead, and it fell backwards, if not dead, then at least out of the way. But it was replaced immediately by another creature, and Melissa was screaming with rage—screaming battle screams, an Amazon warrior woman covered in blood, some of it her own.

Leonard was—I didn't see Leonard.

Everything looked different, the color (what little there was) drained and the shape of my eyes, it contracted and opened again and the dog's eyes were all I had.

I lunged at the door and I reached for whatever thing was behind it, and I pulled Jack's disgusting face up into my own.

All around me the world was in flames, and heaven had left us altogether. McKenzie was still shooting, though he must be nearly out of ammunition. It didn't matter. McKenzie would go on shooting even after he was dead, probably, and Melissa was swearing and grunting, but none of it sounded like pain—it sounded like the anger still, muted with contempt, and she had more of it stored inside. We'd run out of bullets long before she'd run out of anger.

Jack jerked his body backwards and I was hanging on tight, and I would not let go. He wanted to draw me out, to pull me onto his territory and wrestle me there, but I did not intend to leave the church. I caught us both with one hand on the porch pillar. It broke with our weight, but it slowed our retreat, and there he was—his body rigid and taut beneath mine, stinking of sweat and blood and. . .yes. And fear.

"No more," I told him, and my jaw was distorted beyond human speech, but he understood and was afraid.

He grabbed for my throat, and he got a good grip there—a grip filled with puncturing claws, and itching with the wire-rough hair he worked into the wounds with his fingertips.

But I had my teeth in his throat. I bit, and a gushing torrent of salt and bile and green-copper flavor gushed into my mouth. I swallowed, and my jaw was almost unhinged with the grip of my bite. I cranked my mouth shut, jamming my teeth deeper into his flesh. My tongue brushed against something smooth and bumpy, and he wheezed hot air across it—I gnawed harder, with every drop of strength I had.

He was not taking this quietly, no. He was kicking at me—jerking his feet against my chest and my abdomen, trying to tear at the skin he found there. I felt something rip, and the pain was shocking and bright, but I had my mouth on his throat, almost through his throat, and I was not going to let go.

The harder I held, the weaker he grew.

My teeth met, somewhere beneath his chin, under his skull. The tips of my teeth found one another and I grasped, wrenched, slashed the muscles and tendons and bits of bone I found in my mouth.

I gagged on him, but still I pulled. The tatters of his neck split loose, dangling from my chin. I flung them away and dove down again, and again. Into that soft, wriggling tissue that shuddered when it was bitten.

And then there was nothing but bone.

I sat up, pulled myself up and together, and I yelled at the sky. When I looked back down at the pulpy thing beneath me, its face was slack and the metallic eyes were dark.

* * *

The noise behind me was crackling still. Mescalero was burning into an amazing, ashy skeletal thing, and there was running. There was retreat, and flight, and Jack was beneath me, his heart still and his throat gone—gone down to the bones that held his head upright.

I rose, and I staggered.

McKenzie was standing with his rifle hanging down at his side. One arm was ruined. One ear was gone. Even as he fell to the ground, too weak to stand any longer and maybe dying—maybe changing—his attention was locked on Melissa, who was still hacking, hacking, at a body that looked, at a glance, like the corpse of a deformed coyote. She'd taken it to bits.

She'd taken him to bits. I could see the parts that made him a man strewn across the floor, splattered near the altar.

Leonard, though.

He was down, draped and limp, outstretched along the floor in what was left of the aisle. His stomach was gone, his intestines stretched and curling, hanging from the ends of the nearest standing pew. His mouth was open, and he was gasping quietly, fishlike, gasping while his tattered chest fought to pull in air and while his heart. . .his heart pumped poison to all the parts of him that remained.

"Oh Leonard, no."

But even as I watched, yes. He was coming together. He was mending.

"No." The sound bubbled up out of his mouth. The word came out covered in spit and blood. He rocked his head back and forth. No. No. No.

I felt helpless. I felt small. My hands were working themselves back into something like hands, less like claws—and there was this poor, dear boy, dying and not dying. Changing. No. Not Leonard. Not him, too.

Melissa saw.

She stood, abandoning the remains of the thing that I guess was once Daniel, and she held up that big Spanish knife I'd given her. It slipped in her grip. She was soaked in blood, drenched in it.

* * *

I looked away. I looked for McKenzie, but he was gone. A spot of blood and wet dirt marked the spot where he'd fallen—but not stayed.

* * *

Melissa climbed past the broken pews. She stared down at him, and if the blood hadn't obscured her face so thoroughly, I might have known more of what she was thinking when she said to him, before she brought the knife down on his throat and carved out the last of his life,

"Thank you."