Home > Dreadful Skin(12)

Dreadful Skin(12)
Author: Cherie Priest

I closed my eyes, or maybe I didn't. I couldn't tell the difference.

XIV.

The whistle covered every sound, even the thunder, but I could see Jack and the whistle hurt him bad. It hurt me too—it would have hurt anyone standing anywhere near it, when Laura pressed it down full blast.

I pushed it aside, because I had to. I shoved the sound out of my head and I jumped for him, and we struggled there while the sky covered us with rain and clouds, and while the whistle chimed loud with the thunder and the lightning looked so close that it might strike us all.

Then, more suddenly than it began, it stopped.

Jack was bewildered, unnerved, or just relieved. He threw me to the ground and jumped away, but he wasn't paying attention to where he went. He threw himself into one of the stacks—the big black pipes that billowed steam from the engines. It clanged like a gong and, even after he'd righted himself and dashed away, the metal rivets made distressed popping sounds.

I couldn't see where he'd gone, so I went to Laura instead. I knew what I'd find. But I had to look, just in case. She'd outrun him for a few seconds. She was strong. She was smart.

But she was dead.

He'd torn her almost in half, and I wondered how in God's name she'd held on for so long, sounding that dreadful whistle. I also had to wonder, had she held it long enough? Would anyone come?

And even if they came, what would they do?

I had another idea, one that might help Laura's half-formed plan. If we could lift the anchor, the current of the Tennessee was swift; it would carry us at least to stop against the shore. It might carry us farther to civilization, too. We couldn't be far from Chattanooga. If we could even reach the shore, at least we'd have somewhere to run. There on the Mary Byrd, we were fish in a barrel.

I didn't know where Jack had gone.

I had to guess that he'd run back downstairs. He wasn't finished—the bloodlust wasn't through with him yet—and he'd be hungry for more. There was no one left up there on the top deck. He'd have to go back down to the cabin decks if he wanted more havoc.

Down the stairs I went back after him, though I suspected he'd jumped down to the next deck by the wheel—where there was room to do so, if you didn't mind the landing.

I had no idea where the anchor was, and the captain was dead. Laura might have known—she'd been riding the river for a while too. That made Christopher my best hope. Even if he didn't know how to raise it, he'd probably know where it was. But I didn't know where he was, so it was a great game of tag and we all knew who was "it."

I didn't believe for a second that he'd gone back into the dining hall and locked himself within it. Besides, I suspected the cook was dead—otherwise Laura wouldn't have been up there alone, and she might have returned. There was no one left to form a makeshift fortress with. If he'd gone back, he was probably by himself, or with some of the other few passengers aboard—though my hopes weren't very high for any of them.

Back down I ran, taking the stairs two at a time and rubbing at my hands, which ached in a strange way.

At the bottom of the stairs I stumbled over someone's leg and I fell across the deck with a slide and a splash. I pulled myself together and went to him, on my hands and knees, and I turned him over.

It wasn't Christopher, but I couldn't have said much else about him. His face was gone, and so was his neck. So was part of his shoulder. His arms had great tears in them, where he'd held them up to hold Jack away. The man lay crumpled in a puddle of his own waste and blood, well beyond help.

I stood and crossed myself, only then noticing that I'd lost the rosary.

I had no time to mourn for it. No time for anything but the chase.

Around me, up and down—here and there—I heard things breaking but it was hard to pinpoint any of it. The river itself and the woods around it worked against me, casting back the thunder and every echo of every noise. It worried me not only because of the swiftly declining population on the boat, but because the whistle might not have been so helpful as Laura believed.

Even if anyone heard it, how would they find us? I wasn't even sure it would be recognized as a distress signal.

The anchor, then. I needed to find the anchor.

I checked as far as I could and as fast as I could, every deck. One body here, another there. If I hadn't tripped over so many, I wouldn't have believed this many passengers had been on board. Each one made my stomach sick. Each one told me I was failing, and my time was running out.

What if it came down to it—and Jack and I were the last two left?

"Christopher!" I shouted out, because I couldn't imagine being alone there with the beast. I wasn't ready for it. I couldn't handle it. I couldn't do it. "Christopher!" I screamed it as I ran, begging God and every saint whose name I could recall—just let me find him alive. Let me find my friend. We can do this together, but I cannot do it alone. I don't even care if he finds out the truth. Just don't make me do this alone.

Each crack of thunder was louder than the last. Every shock of lightning brighter, and closer.

I rounded a corner and was quickly grabbed by ordinary, human hands. They pulled me out of the rain and into a nook behind and beneath the great red paddlewheel. The wheel creaked and groaned against the weight of the boat, the tug of the river, and the insistent wind.

"Shh!" Christopher warned, releasing me and letting me face him.

I was so glad to see him I nearly cried. "Thank God!" I said instead, but he waved his finger at me again—as if I did not know, and needed reminding.

"Don't! Don't thank anybody yet. Have you seen it?" he whispered. "Have you seen the thing that's out here?"

I nodded. "I've seen him."

"Him? It's Gabert, isn't it?"

I suppose my eyes and open mouth told him what he needed to know. I was astonished, though I shouldn't have been quite so surprised. He was a quick man, I knew as much. It was why I liked him.

"What is he? Wait, no. It doesn't matter. We have to get off this boat. We have to get out of here."

"Is there anyone else left?" I asked, because I had to. I couldn't leave anyone.

"I don't know. I don't think so."

For the first time since the storm began, the sound of the rain comforted me. We were out of its direct path, and it felt like a curtain separating us from the rest of the boat, and the rest of the world. And from Jack. "Do you think anyone heard the whistle?"

"I have no idea. But I don't think it matters."

I didn't either, but I didn't say so. "Where's the anchor?" I begged instead.

"Why?"

"We have to pull it up or cut it loose. We can't stay out here, in the middle of the river, waiting for him to come and get us. We have to get to shore, even if we only drift there and crash."

"And set him loose? At least when he's here on the boat, he's contained. We need to leave and go get help, not give him a lift to solid ground!" Christopher looked surprised at me, but I think it's only because he didn't understand.

"He's already loose! And if you think he can't swim, you're fooling yourself. He's only stayed aboard this long because there's still prey left to find. When he's through with us, he'll head for shore anyway. At least if we move the boat, someone might find it and see what's happened. People will know the danger is here—even if they don't know what it means. Now tell me—where's the anchor?"

"Other side," he said, indicating a direction over to our right. "Though I don't know what good it'll do you to know. Look, I have a way out, maybe. I found the yawls, there are two of them. You and I between us won't fill one, if we can get it out to the water."

"A yawl?"

"A rowboat, yes. They've always got one on board at least. They're easy to disengage. We'll drop one into the river and hop aboard before he knows we're gone."

"It won't work," I told him, but only out of reflex.

It wasn't any worse than my plan to pull the anchor.

"The yawls are only around the corner there. We've got to go past the anchor chain in order to get them anyway. We'll kill two birds with one stone. Look—we can make it. We'll find our way to Chattanooga, or Rossville—we'll get some help."

I nodded. "Yes," I said. "Yes, that's what we'll have to do. Where did you say the anchor was again?"

XV.

The moment I restated the anchor's location, she darted around the corner back into the rain and was lost to me. I will never understand why she thought it was so necessary; and I was even tempted to suggest she was terribly wrong, except that it was clear to me that she knew much more about our predicament than I did.

I had a thousand and one questions, but there was no time to ask them.

I doubt she would have satisfied them, regardless.

"You know where to meet me!" I called out into the rain. I had no idea if she'd heard or not, but I told myself she must have. Otherwise, I could not have left my semi-safe space at all.

But I did. I didn't run too fast, lest I make myself heard and lest I wear myself out. Running didn't come easily to a man my size, and anyway, stealth alone might preserve me. Up ahead I heard a great tearing and splitting—like a tree being pulled apart, rather than sawed. Then I heard a harsh jangling, and a splash.

When I finally made my way to the portal where the anchor chain should have been, I saw only a large hole where the entire mechanism had been torn free. My small friend could not have done this, but if the strange and wicked Jack had done so, then why?

The deck shifted a touch underneath me. It was only a little jerk, a barely perceptible yanking movement. Behind me, the paddlewheel creaked with idle movement.

Mary Byrd was in motion. One way or another, Eileen had gotten what she wanted.

I wasn't much of a religious man anymore, but I prayed hard that she'd meet me where I told her. I wished upon all the stars I couldn't see that I might find her already unlatching the yawl to take us to shore. I didn't understand why she ran on ahead of me. I didn't understand how she knew what she seemed to know.

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