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Dreadful Skin(11)
Author: Cherie Priest

I thought it was up by the stern, by the big paddlewheel or thereabouts; so if there was trouble roaming the boat, it was coming my way. I wasn't running far enough or fast enough, but Jesus Lord have mercy—the captain was dead and we were anchored down to the river bottom. Where could we have gone? What could we have done?

I thought about the whistle again, and I thought maybe it was a bad idea to sound it. Even as I braced myself against the thunderstorm and started to run to the stairs, I thought I might be making things worse for myself. I might lock myself in the pilot's house and sound the whistle a thousand times—and someone might hear, and someone might come.

But the odds were better than fair that whatever came would kill me as soon as rescue me. The killer was closer than any help, that was sure.

But what was I supposed to do? I couldn't think of anything else and I couldn't just stand there and wait for it to come and get me. So I ran to the stairs, and I charged up them—stepping on my skirts and falling on my face before making it to the top.

Up there it was cold and windier than downstairs; I was closer to the sky and closer to the storm, but it felt all right. It felt like being surrounded by God, and I felt alive.

And then I heard the growl. I didn't mistake it for any thunder. This was something other than the sky, making a noise that said it hated me. Well it could hate me all it wanted. I still had my knife.

From the corner of my eye—off to the left, coming around a bench bolted down to the top deck, it crept forward.

Lightning showed me its eyes, and they were the color of new pennies. It was walking hunched over. Its feet made clicking noises on the deck, not like it was wearing shoes but like it was walking on claws. It definitely had teeth; I saw those teeth shining sharp as it breathed and chewed at the wet air.

"Jesus Lord have mercy," I said, to myself and not to it—whatever it was.

I began to back sideways and away, towards the pilot's house. It might be locked but I'd break anything I had to, in order to get inside. But I backed off slow, and it came at me slow. Like a game. Like a step from me, and a step from it.

If I ran, it'd chase me.

I tried to angle myself to put obstacles between us—deck chairs, bundled crates, anything.

It was herding me. It took me a few yards of retreat to figure it out. It was herding me away, into a corner, against the big steam calliope at the edge of the roof. I was standing beside the noisy steam instrument when the monster with the penny eyes jumped.

I didn't waste any breath on a scream. I scrambled aside and grabbed a chair, yanking it loose and pushing it in front of me. The full weight of the beast landed square on the chair and the deck was so wet we both slid—the creature went off to the side, smashing into the pipe organ with its big brass tubes and pedals. I went falling, crashing, in the other direction—back around the deck.

I had a clear shot to the pilot house but I had the monster on my tail.

It recovered quickly, bringing a hairy fist down into the pipes and drawing a shrill, steam-powered squeal from the press of his weight on the keys. Something snagged him and he gave me a handful of precious seconds while he disentangled himself, roaring all the time.

I could hardly see the deck, or the pilot-house door, or my hands in front of me, but that didn't slow me down. I knew what followed me. I knew what would happen when it caught me, and I didn't have any dumb ideas anymore—oh, it was going to catch me. But I was going to make it inside that pilot house.

The thing landed on the deck behind me with a crack and a squeal, and I jumped—stepping on and over the deck benches, pushing myself on with my feet, and holding my skirts up with the hand that wasn't holding the knife.

I'd have never believed I could move so fast—in the dark, in the rain, in that big long dress that slowed me down every turn.

Behind me, though. If you'd seen what came behind me.

You'd believe it. You'd have run too, no matter what.

Behind me I heard it slip and trip its way along, finding footing like I did—just barely, and not very well.

And then the clomping, echoing leaps of its pursuit stopped. I didn't turn around. I didn't want to look and see it back there, flexing its haunches like a cat getting ready to take down a mouse.

But then I saw—over by the stairs, where first I'd come in—someone else was standing. "Jack!" the someone called out, and even in my frantic flight I heard her, and I knew that it was the nun.

"No!" I hollered to her, where what I meant to say was more like, "Get gone! You're no help to me and it'll kill us both!" But I didn't have the breath to do it and I was almost at the pilot house then.

"Jack!" she shouted it again.

It stopped the monster. It didn't stop me.

I collided hands-first with the pilot house door and it was locked, just like I figured it would be. There was a little window, though—beside the door, and a bigger one that looked back over the decks so the pilot could see what was going on around the boat. I turned the knife and struck the little pane of glass with its heavy wood handle.

I didn't know why the monster wasn't all upon me yet, but I took those seconds like the gifts they were. The window wasn't big enough to climb through, but it was big enough to reach an arm through. I jammed my hand on in, and unlocked the door from the inside—then opened the door and let myself on through.

I flung my back against it to close it behind me but something stopped it. Something wouldn't let the hinges shut and this something was huge, and angry.

But I'd gotten so close! I was in the pilot house, and my back was bracing against the monster; whatever spell Sister Eileen had cast on it was broken and it remembered me. It wanted me. It had every intention of eating me alive, I knew it like a mouse knows it.

I was crying then, and screaming, and scooting myself down to sit myself on the floor and hold it closed with my feet against the captain's instruments, and the wheels, and the calling tubes, and the levers and latches. Anything to hold my position there—anything to keep the door from opening enough to let the thing through.

It pushed hard—again, again, and with a great thrust of weight it knocked me lose and threw me all the way across the small room.

It grabbed me—around the waist, trying to whip me around. It wanted me to look at it, but I didn't want to look at it, and I didn't intend to. I struck with the knife and it didn't do me a bit of good. I slashed where I could and felt something warm like blood, but it wasn't enough to drain it, or slow it down.

With a back-handed swipe it knocked the knife away from me and I think it broke my hand. I felt the bones in my palm and along my wrist turn loose, but I reached with it anyway—at the controls, at the bell pulls, at the cords and cables—and it felt like trying to pull a rope with a glove full of gravel.

It hit me hard, trying to stun me or trying to stop me. It let me go just enough to let me fall over the pilot's wheel, and then it grabbed me by my arm to whip me back.

But with my unhurt hand, I'd found the whistle treadle down there towards the floor. I grabbed it and I pushed on it with all the weight I could give it.

One shrill, piercing note blew high and hard into the rain.

The monster howled and slacked his grip on my arm, so I leaned on the treadle harder. The note rose in tone and it got so loud, I thought it would break my ears. But I leaned harder, because the monster was letting me go. And then the second note chimed in—and then, because the thing had all but let me loose, I took my whole body and fell on it.

A chord loud enough to wake the saints blasted out, and it hurt my ears and my head so bad that my hand quit hurting, or at least for a few seconds I didn't feel it anymore.

The monster howled, and howled—and I heard pain in the howl and I wondered if its ears were hurting too. That's why I leaned on the whistle so hard, even though the sound of it had worked its way into my body and it was making my ribs shake.

In my ears there was a snapping, stabbing pain and then there was nothing but that pain. There wasn't even any sound anymore. Not even the whistle. And I was afraid that I'd fallen off—or that I'd died and let it go, but it was still there being pushed, so I didn't let go. I didn't let up.

I turned around to look over my shoulder and see the monster—since it wanted me to look so bad. It was backing up with its hands or its paws or whatever—it was backing up with its hands over its ears. Its mouth was open and its tongue was curling out with a scream, but I didn't hear any of it.

I didn't hear the rain, either. I didn't hear a thing, except for the sour, deep ringing in my head.

I jumped up and down a little, leaning and pushing and pushing on the whistle. Make it louder, then. Make it louder, and make it hurt. Make someone hear. Make someone send help. Make someone come. Make someone come.

Sister Eileen came.

She was there—I saw her, standing very still behind the monster, but I only saw her when the lightning flashed. Between the lightning strikes, I was blind and deaf both. But I watched through the lightning, and I saw only fragments of what came next.

The nun was holding something in both hands—I couldn't tell what it was. It almost looked like she was wearing mittens with knives stuck in them, but it was just a trick of the light. She was holding something, I guess—some kind of weapon, I think. She was panting, too—breathing so hard I could see her br**sts rising and falling between the white flashes and cracked lines above us.

Her eyes were shining. I swear, it looked like she was growing—but it must have been that she was coming closer. She was running towards the thing. She was coming right at it, and it didn't see her at first.

The next flash—she was on top of it. She was on its back and she was tearing at it with her hands, or whatever she held.

They fell together, and everything shook. Everything rattled. Everything went dark, and it stayed dark. I fell down, off the whistle, and I leaned myself back up against the pilot's wheel.

My dress was ripped, and where it was ripped I saw skin. I saw strips of muscle, like on meat when you dress it up to cook. I hadn't even felt it. I didn't want to look at it.

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