A stale wind blew through the Appalachian woods, sending the branches of the trees into a frenzied dance and driving a flock of birds from their nighttime perch.
As they took flight, she coughed. And when she did, she coughed up blood.
Bitter warmth streamed into her mouth, pooling thick at the back of her throat, choking her struggling breath.
Behind teeth that ached with the pain from gums swollen by repeated blows to the skull, her bloated tongue tried desperately to form a sound. Willing her vocal cords to act — to speak, to scream, to do anything — all she could muster was a small whimper as her body ignored her pleas.
She was naked, bathed in fear. The threads of rope that secured her hands over her head burned, turning her wrists to pulp. A fallen tree branch stabbed into her side as the humid tongue of autumn licked at her exposed flesh and wet, blood-soaked soil sucked her backside and buttocks into its hungry mouth.
Amid the renewed hammering of her heart and the gurgle of blood and saliva bubbling over her lips, she thought about how her pathetic existence had brought her to this moment. She had despised her life in this small, North Georgia town. It had been one consumed with brutal drudgery and unbearable insignificance. But, somehow, it never seemed more precious to her than now as she lay on the ground dying.
Her body ached; bruises welling up on her legs. On her back. And on her arms. A swollen cheek squeezed closed her right eye, and a broken jawbone obscured what little view she had left of the world from which she’d spent so much time planning escape.
Through dwindling sight, she looked up into the face of her killer.
And he stared back.
His striking features no longer embodied the big-city charm and grace that had drawn her to him in the bar and later successfully encouraged her to his side as they left arm-in-arm. This man that she, for a moment, had thought could be her savior from small-town agony was now little more than a fluid silhouette fumbling in the shadows above, the faint glow of moonlight creating a shimmering halo around his dark frame.
His eyes gleamed from deep sockets, and gore-smeared lips smiled at her as he did little more than grunt, assessing her with as much significance as would a butcher to a hog.
Repulsed by the sight of her own fluids coating his face, she looked helplessly into the night sky. As a child she’d been fascinated by the stars – always a source of hope and the promise of far-off places. And there as usual, the bears – major and minor — glimmered in the dark expanse. Crouching nearby was Orion the Hunter, leading his rag-tag band of gods into battle with lesser creatures.
Her murderer breathed into her face, stealing away any thought of rescue from above. His was little more than a cruel wheeze, accompanied by the falling leaves that glided silently through the air, intermittently obscuring her view of the heavens. Several of them clung to his bare torso; her own blood serving as the glue that kept them in place.
Through tear-filled eyes, she noticed pieces of her self clinging to his chin. She thought he must have bathed in her, smearing her essence in great swathes across his body. Bloody handprints, like those of a child artist with bedroom wall as canvas, crisscrossed his chest and shoulders.
Squatting over her, his weight was immense. His powerful thighs rested on her own. He said nothing. Oddly observing. Burning menacing holes into her brain. Her would-be knight, was no longer the man he had appeared to be. He was, instead, an animal wearing the skin of her Lancelot.
Perhaps it was shock, or impending death playing a dirty trick on her mind, but behind him the darkness seemed to part; as the curtain of night was silently drawn back. A void appeared where there had once been only shadows, and through it stepped a small boy. His skin was smooth with youth, surely no more than 10 years old, and dark, unruly hair poked playfully from beneath the brim of a ragged baseball cap. The child’s shocking blue eyes glimmered from behind his caramel-colored features.
She felt an odd sense of calm in the young boy’s face.
In his right hand he carried a large coin, flipping it over and over, its silver guilding glinting in the moonlight.
First heads, then tails.
He let the coin fall to the ground. It landed with a dull thud that silenced the voices of the forest.
Once again his eyes met her’s, and he calmly said, “Last call… Looks like this time you’ve won.”
With the boy’s words, her killer plunged his hands into her body. The horror in her midsection was like a brush fire through dead wood. Flames of pain spread through her as his sharpness sunk deep inside her bowels. His was a penetration that was never deeper, a violation never more extreme. Oily pieces of her slipped through his fingers, and she shuddered as his rough hands snapped a rib.
She fought the urge to look down at her abdomen. Instinct told her to grab at the coils that now burst from her stomach like meat from an over-ripe melon and shove them back into her vented cavity. But the rope held her instincts in check.
An audible smack accompanied her intestines as they sloshed onto the soggy ground beside her. From the exposed mass, he retrieved an unrecognizable piece of her, something that vaguely resembled a photo she’d once seen in a schoolbook.
Vomit urged her throat open while the bears looked down from the sky. They snarled, ravenously. All of nature, it seemed, had turned against her.
He shoved the bile-coated organ into his mouth. And just before her eyes closed forever, she saw him flash a set of perilous razors as he bit off a section of raw meat, her juices spilling over his lips and dripping onto his chest as he chewed.
The boy standing beside her looked on quietly as the Liberator completed his task.
And somewhere in the distance, from the grainy speaker of a jukebox in a roadside bar, Charlie Daniels played a vicious, dueling fiddle.
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