Home > Dreadful Skin(6)

Dreadful Skin(6)
Author: Cherie Priest

"Who's there?" he asked again, and I would have answered for him—had the fiend not stepped out into the light himself.

"I didn't mean to intrude, or cause any alarm." Jack Gabert slipped into the dining area. He slipped, I said—and I mean it that way. He moved like hot syrup pours across a plate; he glided and rolled. He filled the space he met.

I stiffened, I'm sure.

Christopher relaxed. What a fine primal sense he had! I'm sure it served him well in the gambling halls he frequented. Until he relaxed I almost thought—well, I almost thought that maybe I'd found some assistance. But no, he relaxed. He settled down into his chair and reached into a deep pocket for a cigar to join my smoldering cigarette.

And I'd almost thought. . .but it was just as well.

Here was a man in tune with the world around him. He heard small noises and took them to heart; he saw small details and filed them away in that part of the brain which quietly lies unless the body is threatened. I tried not to be too disappointed in him. He'd known he was being watched, but he didn't know what was watching.

It wouldn't be enough to save him, I didn't think. It wouldn't be enough to simply suspect.

"There you are—Jack, isn't it?"

"John. Or Jack if you like, for it suits me fine." I preferred 'Jack.' He looked me up and down and I let him. It was the first time he'd seen me close in quite some time. It might have been the first time he'd ever looked at me at all.

Oh, he knew what I looked like. He'd gathered a description, I'm sure. He'd glanced me for a few moments here and there, at least. And he knew my scent.

And when he looked at me—when he laid eyes upon me and let them rest there for those pointed seconds, I knew that the information they gave him was scant compared to what his nose was free to gather. He might have thought I smelled like candles and linen, or wool. He might have gathered I smelled like nighttime blue and something red.

He was mentally marking me. What had previously been a faint trail through a crowd—mixed with the interfering smells of the masses—his nose was distilling it down to something more precise and perfectly mine.

I knew, in those seconds, that he would never lose or mistake me again.

"Mr. Cooper," he nodded at Christopher. "And Sister." He nodded at me.

"Mr. Gabert," I called him.

Christopher waved his cigar and patted his chest pocket. "I might have another to share. Would you join us? I wouldn't ordinarily indulge in front of a woman, but Eileen swears she doesn't mind."

"Indeed I don't. I find the smell pleasing, if you want the truth."

Jack smiled and it was a sinister thing—a stretching of that slitted mouth, and a narrowing of those copper-brown eyes. "I imagine the little lady there is quite full of surprises. And I must tell you, I have a remarkably healthy imagination."

"I have no doubt," I murmured, pretending that the obvious and untoward implications were all I observed.

"Now, Jack—that's no way to—"

"I didn't mean anything by it, Mr. Cooper. I was only teasing. Since the good sister here can take a bit of tobacco, then I imagine she can handle a bit of banter as well."

"Whether or not she can—or chooses—to handle it, sir, it's unseemly and I'd rather you watched your language."

"Don't," I told Christopher. I put my hand out and placed it on his sleeve. "It means nothing, and no offense was taken. All is forgiven, as the Lord would have it."

I tried to put some gentle warning into my protestations. Jack was on edge—he was glistening with something malicious and happy. I didn't like the way he stayed on the fringe of the room, lingering at the doorway. The distance between us was surely meant to reassure us, but I knew how little it meant. I'd seen him clear greater spaces in less time than it takes to sneeze.

The gambler had no such frame of reference, though.

"I tell you, Mr. Gabert—ever since you joined us here, I've had some concerns. I've made gentlemanly efforts to be friendly but you rebuff me—and the other passengers, too—with a rudeness that is nearly intolerable." He was warm from the alcohol, I think. Or maybe that quiet, nervous part of his mind was working after all, and feeling defensive. "If you aren't interested in socializing with your fellow passengers, no one here would fault you for it. But there's no need to be crass to a woman of God."

I thought Christopher was going to stand, but he didn't. I left my hand on his sleeve as if by force of will I could hold him down.

Jack leaned against the doorframe. "She's no woman of my God."

"Then what God do you serve, if any you serve at all?"

I braced myself for a bit of snappy blasphemy, but he hesitated and held his breath. The question shouldn't have stalled him. I don't know why it did.

He leaned his head around the wall and glanced into the corridor. "No God serves me," he mumbled. "I suppose I could swear by my own true self, for I am the God of my own idolatry."

When he turned himself away from us like that, I spied something on the side of his neck—beneath his beard, and on it. It was black in the low evening light of the lanterns, but if he were closer, it might have been red.

There was more, too. On his jacket—but his jacket was black and probably silk. It only looked wet, but I wondered—wet with what?

I would have felt bolder if we'd been alone, the monster and I. I would have been more inclined to rise and confront him if not for the slightly drunken chivalry which would surely get in the way.

"Jack," I breathed.

He smiled at the light familiarity. Or maybe he smiled about something else. Upstairs, on another deck, I heard a fluttering commotion—like a large bird, dying. It was hard to sort out from the rain, though. The rain still pounded and poured, and all the sounds inside it were distorted.

"I wish it would stop raining," Jack said as if he'd read my mind. He said it in a faraway voice that changed the mood of the room. There was a coldness in his words, and in his tone.

Such a simple sentence shouldn't have made us shudder, but both Christopher and I did just that. "Yes," Christopher agreed slowly. I think he preferred to let the tension slide. Again the primal mind was working for him, trying to quiet his offense and ease the moment. "It slows us down, and I think we'd all like to reach Chattanooga as soon as possible."

"I wish it would stop raining," he said again. "It makes me feel so trapped. I wish I could see the sky."

With this passing thought, Jack turned on his heels and spilled back out into the hall.

A chill ran through me, from my feet up to my ears. Small hairs on the back of my neck and along my arms began to lift themselves like hackles on a threatened cat. It was the gold in his eyes, I think. It flashes brighter when he's hungry—or more precisely, when the hunger comes for him.

I had wondered if the rain would matter. I didn't know if it would dampen his needs, to use a comically appropriate word. I'd suspected it wouldn't. The night works on faith—clouds may cover it, but the moon needs no evidence to shine.

In retrospect we see these things so clearly. The covered sky only pent him up—it made him harder to control, because he had no point of reference. He could not look up at the sky and tell himself, "Yes, there is the moon and it is almost full of light. This is why my head is clouded, my blood is bubbling in my veins. If I am not careful, I will reveal myself. I must make precautions if I want to remain undetected. In a few days it will be easier. I will be all right for a few more days."

Before the rain came, he walked the decks when they were nearly empty. He knew what the sky would tell him, so he watched himself and his behavior. But with it gone? Even knowing what the moon would say, he was acting blind, with only his own instincts to guide him.

"Oh God," Christopher whispered, stuffing the cigar into his mouth and lighting it with fumbling fingers. And in that moment, in the wake of Jack Gabert, even though Christopher understood nothing at all, I believe that he knew.

VII.

I was alone in my room, retired there because with the rain coming down in such terrific sheets, there wasn't much to be done. There was no way to navigate, not with any effectiveness. In weather like that, when God Himself is against you, there's nothing to be done but wait out His wrath and hope for the best.

I dropped the anchor and took one of those French bottles to my cabin.

I still had one left for Nancy.

But the other would keep me company for the night. Let the rain fall and let the boat sway. So long as the tiller lines held and the anchor didn't slip, I counted it a small blessing. There were only a few of us on board anyway. Let them wait another day. All I wanted was a night when I could drink enough to sleep through my dreams.

I started early—immediately after supper. After the war camps, I never did skip a supper. Every single one was a blessing and I thanked the Lord for every bite.

In my cabin I removed my boots and unfastened my waistcoat, because it was too warm and too tight. At first, when the war ended, I thought I should eat myself strong again; I didn't want Nancy to see me all sticks for arms, and bones for legs. Perhaps I went too far the other way. Perhaps I had grown too soft.

I had a small couch covered in brown cotton and stuffed with horsehair. It was firm and I could lean while putting my feet up. It was more civilized than drinking in bed.

I didn't have any wine glasses, and I'm not sure why. I think they all were broken, or downstairs, or there had never been any to begin with. But I had short tumblers for scotch, so I poured a blood-purple shot for myself and drank it that way. It was more civilized than drinking from the bottle.

I listened to the rain and I was happy. In only a few short days, I would see my wife again. It had been—years. More years than I could think to count, but fewer than it felt, I'm sure. These things happened. People were parted, and people came home.

Tennessee was never a home of mine, but it would suffice. Home is where the heart is, as they say—and Nancy was there. We could stay or we could leave. We could go back and try to salvage what was left, or we could go somewhere else and start fresh. I would let her decide.

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