Edward sighed as he watched the drool seep from the corner of the young woman’s chapped and cracked lips. The glazed look in her eyes told him that his fun had reached a premature ending. Traveling from her thigh, Edward had slowly pared her skin from her lovely, long legs. Her mind had snapped in defense of his actions, and he was sure the final straw had been hearing her own skin sizzling and popping in the old, seasoned cast iron skillet. Or perhaps smelling the fragrant aroma of her own sauteed flesh. She hadn’t held up nearly as well as he’d hoped. He’d seen this too many times even to bother trying to rouse her. She had checked out. Edward had been excited by the prospect of trying something new, both in his “work”, and as a culinary first. He was mildly perturbed she had not made it to the point where he had planned to feed her, for which he'd been eager. With a shrug, he cut her ties and casually tossed her over his shoulder, now just a sack of organs. Had he known she would escape so quickly from reality, he would not have wasted his time picking her up as she hitchhiked on the highway.
It was just as well, Edward thought, nudging the door to the abandoned cabin open with his foot. He continued down the rickety steps, then trudged out into the nearby woods. For weeks, he had been having hazy dreams of a dark entity urging him east from Texas, finally leading him into Georgia. Always the nomad, his hunting area and habitat had generally consisted of the west coast. He ranged from as far north as Washington State all the way down to Southern California. He wasn’t sure why he trusted a dream that sent him from the familiarity of his home turf, only that each mile brought him closer to where he knew he needed to be. There was something here, in Georgia, that had been calling to him after the dreams began. A shadow in the darkness, he could never get a good look at what it was, that needed him for something, and he desperately wanted to obey. This type of thing had not happened before, but he had to follow through until he reached his destination. Just yesterday, he had passed a sign that took his breath away. It was a town sign that looked like a sword piercing a skull next to a river, and one that he had seen many times in his dreams. It was then and there that he knew where he had been urged to go.
Finally, he reached the perfect spot, a loamy area lush with ferns and vegetation in advanced stages of decomposition. There was a fallen tree to his left, with a large cavity where the roots had pulled up. Dropping the girl to the ground, he checked once more to see if there was any sign of awareness in her. The dead look in her eyes, blank stare with enlarged pupils, confirmed she was completely catatonic. Placing one hand on the back of her head while the other grasped her jaw, he jerked violently, snapping her neck with a loud pop. He then crammed her into the hole and covered her with sticks, leaves, and finally loam. He stood up, brushed off his hands on his jeans, and checked his handiwork to see if she would be easily seen. The task completed, Edward turned to get back to his snack and prepare to head back to the little place called Garfield’s Crossing.
* * *
Rayna glanced over at the sound of wooden blocks crashing to the ground and the maniacal laughter of the twin toddlers playing in the kids’ corner of her bookstore. She grinned at the exasperation in their mother’s voice and set down the inventory she’d been working on. Rayna walked over to lend some assistance to their harassed mom. Her dog, Luna, padded over to see what the commotion was all about.
She scooped up one of the towheaded three-year-olds and cuddled her. She tickled the girl’s tummy, eliciting more giggles. “Stace, don’t get onto these pretty babies too much, they can make as big a mess as they’d like in this area. That's absolutely what it’s for.”
Stacey Rickard gave a small sigh of relief and smiled. “Thanks, Rayna. They may be cute, but they can be a handful. I had to get them out of the house before the snow came in. They’ll be stuck inside for a while, and we’ll all get cabin fever. I figured if we bought some new books, we’d have just a few less meltdowns.”
The other handful toddled over and grabbed onto Rayna’s pants leg. “Ray, pick me up, pick me up!” Rayna adjusted Tara and hoisted the other little girl onto her other hip. “Kiss, kiss!” Dixie kissed her cheek, and not to be outdone, her twin sister Tara did the same to the other side. “All right ladies; let’s not smother Rayna with kisses!” Stacey smiled apologetically, her arms reaching out to lift little Tara. Breathing in the lovely smell of baby from her hair, Rayna gave one last squeeze and kiss, and bent to put Dixie down. The little girl ran over to Luna and squealed with delight when the dog covered her face with doggie kisses. “Luna kisses now, mama!”, the little girl scrunched her nose up and giggled again as Luna went to lay back down.
“These girls can smother me anytime. I love seeing them when you all come in. How’s Derek?”
Stacey’s husband, Derek, ran a quality construction business around the area, and was responsible for building the shelving for her bookstore. He was a quiet guy, who towered over Rayna’s 5’4” height by almost a foot. While he looked like a linebacker, he was a sweet bear of a man that doted on his girls and wife. Rayna became close to the family during the shelves’ construction and especially loved spending time with their little girls. Stacey was a great friend with a beautiful heart, a firecracker when angry, and always rooted for the underdog. She had adopted Rayna immediately upon her arrival to Garfield’s Crossing and made sure that Rayna knew everything that was going on in the little town. They had a girls’ night once a month with wine and dinner at Rayna’s house that included Clara, a librarian at the middle school. Rayna cherished the time with her friends.
“He’s fine, a little busy right now. He won a bid to renovate the Chickamauga museum. It’s a big deal for his whole crew and will keep them working for a couple months. But I’m missing him. When he gets home, he’s exhausted and heads to bed early. That’s Derek, though. He’ll run himself down to make sure the client gets their best work.” Stacey’s mouth curved up in a smile and she scratched Luna’s head, saying, “He promised us a week away down to Savannah when they finish the project, so I’m not complaining too much. We haven’t had a vacation since we finally got preggers. I’m counting down the weeks.”
Rayna rubbed her hand down her friend’s arm and squeezed her hand. Derek and Stacey had trouble getting pregnant on their own and had worked with an IVF doctor down in Atlanta. It had been a long and challenging road for the two of them, and Rayna had spent a few nights consoling her friend while they were going through the process. When they found out they were having twins, they were over the moon. Rayna threw them a baby shower right there in the bookstore. She had been so happy for the couple and knew they would be wonderful parents.
Rayna replied, “Savannah is gorgeous, a really special place. I’ve spent a lot of time there, visiting an aunt. She lives right off Oglethorpe square and has for forever. She’s a bit of a legend actually; some of the locals swear she has the second sight and treat her like gold. You guys should stop by and have dinner with her. Aunt Macey is a card. The stories she could tell you about the city would curl your toes. She knows so much about the history, you’d think she lived through it. If you’re interested, I’ll contact her and let her know. She just loves company, and the kids would really enjoy her home. It’s a big house, with gables and a ton of character.”
“Oh, we’d love that, I’ll let you know once we decide on a time frame. You’re the best, thank you.” Stacey hugged her, thankful again to have found a friend like Rayna. When they first met, they’d clicked instantly, though Rayna had seemed a bit standoffish at first. Even after five years of friendship, Stacey felt that Ray had secrets she wasn’t ready to tell. Her friend rarely talked about her past, and the few times she did, Stacey was always surprised. The tidbits she’d pieced together about her made a fascinating puzzle, someone who’d been all over the world but looked to be putting down deep roots in Garfield’s Crossing. Rayna was a warm, friendly woman that loved her dog, and who had an almost supernatural intuition when it came to others’ needs and feelings. She always showed up when Stacey needed her, Luna at her heels, even when Stacey herself didn’t realize she needed help. Rayna also had a watchfulness about her, as if she were always ready for trouble. Stacey wasn’t sure what had happened that put her on constant guard but thought perhaps it was an old wound from her past, maybe an abusive relationship or tough childhood. Whatever the case, Rayna wasn’t willing to open up about it, and in the interest of their friendship, Stacey never pushed. She loved her, and that was enough. Mentally shrugging off her thoughts about her friend, she turned to pick up the blocks and get her kids ready to go.
“Don’t worry about that. I’ll tidy up once I close shop. You guys need to go ahead and get home before it gets too snowy on the roads.” Rayna bent down and gave the two girls kisses on their noses. “I love you ladies, you be good for your mama, and enjoy the snow tomorrow.” She rose and hugged Stacey again, then they all walked over to the register to pay for the books. As Rayna checked them out, she said, “Call me next week, and we’ll get together on Tuesday night if it’s clear. I’ve been dying for fish tacos, so I’ll make some for dinner. You can bring your guacamole dip, and I’ll ask Clara to bring margaritas.”
“That sounds fantastic. I’ll let Derek know he’s on twin duty that night.” She swiped her card and took the receipt Rayna gave her to sign. Looking over again at the sound of blocks crashing, and the two girls cackling with laughter, she rolled her eyes and smiled. “By Tuesday, I’ll be dying for some me time. See you then.” She walked over to her kids and gave each of them a bag to carry, and made sure their coats were on, and hats were pulled up over their blonde heads. Holding their hands, she made way to the door and walked out into the evening.
* * *
Rayna closed the door on their exit with a smile on her face. It was one of the pleasures of being based in a small town like Garfield’s Crossing. The people never failed to delight her, as they always did no matter the culture in which she immersed herself. Finding a true friend in Stacey was a blessing to her. She was eternally grateful for her friendship and those of the other people in the town that she’d made relationships with.
As she locked up, her dog Luna creaked back up from her bed in front of the old fireplace and executed a groaning stretch before sauntering over to get a pat and rub. The six-year-old dog was another love in her life. She’d adopted Luna as a pup in South Korea before she’d moved to Garfield’s Crossing. Weighing in at 88 pounds, it had taken some time for the locals to get used to the large dog that looked like a white wolf, a trademark of the Korean Pungsan breed. However, Luna’s temperament and sweetness had won them over in no time. “Ready to go home, Your Highness? Have a little more sleep after I make your dinner? Some rough life you have there.” Luna looked up at her with the canine equivalent of reproach and promptly sneezed on her knuckles. Rayna yanked her hand back. “Oh, come on! That’s just wrong.” The dog shook her big head and chuffed in her own doggy way of humor, and apologized with more wet kisses. Rayna crouched down and scratched her head, running her fingers through the beautiful white fur, and said, “You’re forgiven; now let’s get cleaned up here and head home before the snow starts. It’s going to be a cold one.”
Rayna went through her store straightening the books, and shelving those left out, then moved over to the kids’ area. She wiped down and disinfected the toys and primary-colored blocks left from the day. Her greatest happiness other than her dog and friends was her bookstore, Print and Pages, and she loved every part of it. She’d always had a voracious appetite for books, so opening a bookstore seemed to fit. Along with that, she found a real talent for business and turned a decent profit.
Having completed her closing routine, Rayna grabbed her coat and hat, then shut down the lights. As she bundled up, a feeling of fear snatched away her breath. The fine red hairs on the back of her neck stood up, and she whirled around to the front of the store and looked out the window into the night beyond. Nothing was moving outside but the snowflakes drifting down from the darkened sky. “What a moron,” Rayna breathed. She called Luna to her side, and they walked out together into the glitter of snow in streetlights. Rayna locked the shop door, glancing around she looked for the source of her unexplained fear. Luna was alert and showed no signs of impending danger, and there was no one near them.
Due to the weather, the town square’s business district had closed down early, and all was quiet, muffled by the new snow. The street was deserted except for a dark muscle car driving on the opposite side and an old beater with a Mamma Fu’s delivery magnet riding the door as it drove through town. She shook off her disquiet and began walking down the street towards home. Though her small cabin was a mile and half outside of the square, away from the little town hustle and bustle, she always walked unless it was raining. It gave her a chance to exercise Luna, and the cold never bothered her. She’d gotten used to it over the many years guarding in Tibet, and some of her favorite memories were of the snow there.
She turned south and made her way over the train tracks then onto the dark road running parallel to Main Street that would take her home.
As she passed over the Crimson River, a patrol car pulled up to her left and a handsome older man leaned out calling, “Rayna, you’re the only one who would dare walk Red Line Road at night in a snowstorm no less.”
Rayna laughed, “Sheriff, you’re the only one who would dare call this a snowstorm.”
Sheriff Abernathy Jackson gave a grin that crinkled the lines at the corner of his eyes and kept pace in the patrol car with the pretty young redhead and her dog. “You be safe tonight. I know I’ve asked before, but are you sure you and Luna wouldn’t like a ride?”
Rayna shook her head in the negative, “I appreciate the offer, Sheriff. I really do, but you know Luna and I can take care of ourselves.”
He gave her a long quiet look.
The year before, a pair of itinerant bikers had mistaken Rayna and Luna for an easy target, too drunk and stupid to be cautious of an eighty-pound dog, and cornered them as they left the bookstore. Sheriff Jackson had been at the hardware store buying lugnuts and witnessed what happened through the window. By the time he’d arrived at the scene, Rayna had one flat on the ground with a broken nose and two dislocated fingers, and the other had a good view of his genitals between the dog’s teeth. He’d ended up needing twenty-two stitches but had kept his family jewels.
The Sheriff responded, “Yeah, I know. All right then, ya’ll stay warm. I’m headed home myself; we all but closed up the station for the snow. See you around.” As he pulled away, he gave her a small two-fingered salute. She waved and continued home with Luna at her side.
* * *
Edward Garrison reached Garfield’s Crossing late in the evening, and in a state of vicious excitement. There was a thin coating of perspiration on his upper lip, and he delighted in the soreness in his fingers from clenching the steering wheel. It was an abnormal state of mind for him, as he was generally calm and detached. It had always been his way, through childhood and until now into his late 30s. He was what his family had called “steady,” as a child. He was steady when he played as a young boy alone with his toys. Steady when he received accolades in school. Steady as a young man driving for the first time, on his first date, his first job, and his first kill. He couldn’t remember ever becoming overly excited. He understood that people would think him evil, and he could care less. People were meat, bloated maggots living their pedestrian lives, with their addiction to sitcoms, wasting their time keeping an account of other bloated maggots on social media. Like parasites, they used the world around them just enough to cause distress, but not enough to kill the host habitat. While Edward felt little emotion, he did despise the human race and always had, even his consistently affectionate and loving mother as well as his traditional and cheerful father. One of his fondest memories was the day that he left his middle-class family, after dismembering his father’s beloved golden retriever, Max, and leaving it on the porch.
Max had always hated him.
In any event, he no longer conformed to that status quo; instead, he traveled here and there throughout the west with no plan but the next diversion. The need would build in him, and he would begin to search for prey. His modus operandi varied; he’d tortured his victims in a variety of ways from burning and cutting, to crushing and biting. He explored all options, even rape, though that wasn’t really his bag... unless they were already dead. For whatever reason, he had enjoyed that. He didn’t have a specific type, killing kids, men, and women, and of all races. He wasn’t a racist or bigot to put one above another. Hurting people, that’s what did it for him. Lacerations, crucifixions, impalements, exquisite torment in all its forms. Vagrants, the homeless, and runaways were always in abundance, the castings from the bloated maggot society. They were the safest choice because no one ever looked for them.
He had tried almost every loathsome thing he could think of to debase a human being, every manner of harm he could inflict, and he considered himself an adept in the arts of depravity. It was what defined him, and he basked in it.
He had found some tidbits of legend Googling the small town, but not much of substance. He had hoped to research more at the town library now that he was here, once the snow flurries stopped and the weather had improved. Edward enjoyed the legends that people came up with to explain things they didn’t understand, and in his readings, he learned the Cherokee Indians had quite a few that pulled the imagination. While he explored the surrounding area of the town, he also intended to explore the myths and fables of the natives.
One tidbit that he had read today concerned the travels of the Spanish explorer, Hernando De Soto, whom he knew some about from the monotonous droning of his public school teachers. In 1540, he was bravely exploring the Tennessee Valley, and generally devastating Native American chiefdoms with European disease that their bows and spears could not fight against. It was a nice spot of historical tourism for towns to be able to put up a plaque stating that he'd trekked through their area. Edward had downloaded a picture of the route, and it showed the expedition traveling south from Tennessee, then cutting west directly south of Walker County. However, this route is not entirely accurate. De Soto had, in fact, sent a small party into the surrounding wilderness where the current town of Garfield’s Crossing is located; three of his trackers and one of the chiefs he’d enslaved to serve as an interpreter.
The story that grabbed Edward’s attention in his reading was the return of two of the party De Soto sent out, one having lost an eye along with his mind, and the interpreting chief babbling of what the research paper referenced as a horned serpent called an uktena, and a dark, soul-eating evil called Uyaga. He’d also read of what the Cherokee called the Little People, and a raptor-like animal called the Tlanuwa. There were a great many tall tales that made for interesting reading. He contemplated them as he headed into town, along with the possibility of finding a Native American to kill. He did enjoy the exotic.
Tonight, he intended to get his bearings before the snow became hazardous, then head into town for a place to stay. He slowed down as he entered the city proper, the speed limit having dropped, and passed a few small businesses. The area was dead, which didn’t surprise him. He had heard of the redneck south closing down everything at the first sign of snow flurries. The only clue that he hadn’t driven into a ghost town was a beat up car with a delivery magnet on its side, and a beautiful red-head coming out of one of the stores with a dog. He wasn’t particularly fond of dogs, as they tended to growl and snarl at him, so he kept his distance. He continued through the town and went right at the fork, heading off of the Main Street.
The town was small but had shops and restaurants that would tickle the fancy of any tourist, the type of stores that he disliked for their kitsch. Coming up towards what looked like a residential district, he decided he would rather stay away from that area for now, instead, hanging a right at a sign reading Wheeler Rd. The road ran straight, but dark as it was, he could not tell how far it went. He decided he would continue down the way for a while, in no hurry. He figured that whatever had drawn him here would make its presence known at some point. After traveling the road for a time, the forest thickened and crowded the shoulder. He crossed into the old growth tree line and slowed as he saw headlights rushing up behind him and heard a car revving its engine loudly. The blinding headlights came right up on him, and he thought the car was going to rear-end him. He yanked the wheel to the side, quickly maneuvering onto the shoulder of the road, and slammed his brakes to stop, and the car stalled. As he looked over to see the vehicle that drove him off the asphalt, it surprised him that there was no car to be found, no tail lights, no revving. It was unusual, to say the least, but most likely a car full of teenagers cackling like loons at their fun. He wouldn’t have minded gutting every last one of them, but calmly placed the vehicle in park and turned the key, to silence. He was on a dark country road at the beginning of a snowstorm, and the car would not start. Lovely.
* * *
Rayna enjoyed her nightly walks from the store with Luna. She adored the area, with the stark mountains to the north and the forest to the west, the best of both worlds; plus she enjoyed the eccentric town. She felt blessed to be here and pondered on it as she walked down Red Line Road, or Wheeler Road if you were an outsider, the moniker Red Line stemming from the habit of cars drag racing its length. Suddenly, Luna let out a growl, deep in her throat. Rayna could see they were coming up on a dark colored car on the shoulder with a man under the hood. Luna let out a bark, and the man turned to them and waited while they walked towards him. Rayna saw that he was a tall man, clean cut and very handsome, with sandy brown hair and dark brown eyes. He wore a light blue button-up shirt and well-worn blue jeans. Luna growled low again, and her hackles raised, and Rayna placed her hand on the dog’s head. “Easy girl, take it easy.” Rayna then called out a hello. “Do you need any help?” she asked with a welcoming smile.
The man replied, “ I’m not sure, my cell phone seems not to work way out here, and a car racing down from town drove me off the side of the road. I was going to see what I could do to try and start it.”
Rayna called out, “We don’t live far from here and can give you a ride into town; sometimes cell phone service is spotty. I’m Rayna, and the pup is Luna. Sorry, it’s unlike her to be rude.” Rayna came within a few feet of the man, and suddenly Luna began to whine and placed herself in front of Rayna, and between her and the stranded man.
The man brought his hand up as if to shake hers, and got out “it’s nice to meet…” before Luna began barking in ferocious snaps, saliva shaking from her canines.
Rayna softly spoke in Korean, “joyonghan,” and the dog quieted, yet trembled with the force it took to obey. She considered the man more intently and deciding Luna’s instincts had earned Rayna’s trust time and again, obeyed her own. She opened her mind and peeked into his.
Edward was getting irritated with the animal. The woman was now looking at him suspiciously. His excitement from earlier had only increased, an itchy need to discover the reason was called he was called here, and his calm was shriveling at a dangerous pace. Rage gripped him. His mind became a spur, a jagged edge of pain and he knew he had to take the next course of action.
* * *
Rayna felt a shove of violent anger from the man’s mind, rooted further and instantly knew him, the things he had done, the details of every part of his life. Knew every look another person had given him, every stone he had traveled on, every single second of his existence opened to her. Effortlessly she delved even deeper, to the very neurons in his brain that misfired, causing his diseased mind. There was not a thing special about him other than being one of those rarities: a true psychopath. Deeper she penetrated, and she felt the very essence and texture of his soul. She hovered there for a moment and cast her mind’s eye across that vastness, the sea of what makes a person until she found something hidden in the depths. She felt an annihilation of matter itself, an anathema to light and life, which no human possessed. She quickly retreated, knowing now what she was dealing with, and feeling again that fear she had felt earlier in the evening. Rayna knew what was required of her, and resolved to fulfill her duty as Guardian. She softly spoke again in her pup’s command language, “Luna! Jib!”, sending the dog home, and with a whine, but as always obedient and loyal, she ran swiftly towards their cottage. Rayna then looked at the man, who was moving away from the car and said, “Hello, Edward. I wish there were something I could do for you, but there’s nothing.” She then took off running into the forest, safely away from her dog and her home.
* * *
Edward Garrison was about to lift his hands for the woman when she solved one of his immediate problems by speaking to the dog, and it took off. His eyes narrowed, and the sides of his mouth curved up in an evil smile now that there was no way the dog could cause him harm, thus eliminating the need to kill them both. He lifted his brows in surprise when she calmly said hello to him using his name, which he had not given her. Then she bolted into the forest. He grabbed the flashlight from under the hood and gave chase, crossing the snowy street and bursting into the trees, his quarry already ahead of him by about fifty yards. She was very fast, he gave her that, but he thought to himself that he’d hunted fast before, and they always wore down. He also had a light, and she did not. He barreled over fallen tree limbs and shrubbery while watching out for tangling vines. There was no light from the moon or stars due to the snow cloud coverage, and he kept his ears open to hear her cry when she inevitably fell. His adrenaline kicked him into overdrive, the hunt causing his blood to sing. When he had traveled for some time into the woods, he stopped and listened for any sound around him. There was nothing. Complete and total quiet, surprising him. Women tended to whine in their fear, making it easy for him to catch; this woman was not the norm, and the novelty excited him further. He glanced around and to his right could see a faint light ahead. The woman must have had a small penlight or phone in her pocket, and the stupid cow didn’t realize she was showing him the way straight to her. He quietly crept through the bushes towards the light, with the intent to surprise her. When he was about 15 yards out from what looked like a clearing through the trees, he strained to see her. From outside the clearing, he could see a pale golden light that was getting brighter. He smelled the forest pines, and an underlying odor of ginger and cinnamon, but there was no sound.
Curious, he walked forward out of the trees, and stepped into the clearing and the light, and felt himself stop without actually telling himself to stop. He placed one foot in front of him, but his foot did not move. In fact, nothing on his body would follow instructions at all. As he stood there, completely immobile, the light directly ahead slowly retreated. In front of him was a sight that took his breath away, along with every thought in his head, and his adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed in fear. Eyes as large as dinner plates blinked at him from a height of fifteen feet, set in a face of nightmarish beauty. Blinding white fangs shown in a grotesque smile, a mouth that could swallow a man whole, were they lucky. A serpentine body undulated with shimmer from what looked like scales but was more feathery and in the same brilliant colors of a hummingbird. It was ruby-throated, with an emerald and sapphire underbelly. The beast’s back and powerful legs were golden, and giving off the same pale light as he had seen from the clearing. It was fantastic and terrifying, and he knew he had a reckoning. The mouth opened, and the musical voice of the red-head came forth.
“Edward, you were pulled here by something far more dangerous than you could know, used by a malignancy you wouldn’t understand, to one of the few places on earth where the veil is thin. My kind are Guardians against that great enemy. We are the Naga, the Imoogi, the ddraig goch, the Coca, and here, the Cherokee used to call us uktena. Different names for every culture. We are legion.” She sinuously moved forward, and lifted her paw, extending a long black talon towards his torso, and he felt a brief tug but could not move. An odd warmth filled his shoes, and though his eyesight greyed at the edges, he saw her lifting a three-foot rope of something dark and wet into her mouth. Edward’s last thought was that he now knew what it felt like to watch oneself be eaten, and as he drew his last breath heard, “You see, Edward. You’ve found yourself a dragon.”
© Novis Opera LLC 2018