Six months earlier…
Amber Nelson lay on her belly, naked and bound to the cold metal stretcher. She could hear someone talking in the background. A woman’s voice? Forcing herself to open her eyes, she closed them again instantly. The room was bright; too bright.
A laugh close to her face made her wince. But the voice was familiar.
“Please,” she uttered in confusion. “Tell me it’s not you.”
“About time you woke up, pretty little Amber with the strawberry curls.”
Amber squinted through almost closed lids. “Nobody calls me that anymore.”
“No, they don’t, do they?” The woman raked her fingernails along Amber’s naked body, causing her to flinch. “I see someone has already put a few welts and bruises on you. I wish I’d been there to hear that one.” She paused her hand and pinched a painful welt across Amber’s lower bottom.
To hear that one? Not to see it? Confusion clouded Amber’s already groggy mind.
“Why are you doing this?” Amber forced herself to stare, determined not to be afraid.
“Because you and your friends…” the word was said with a sneer, “… thought you were so much better than I was. Didn’t you?”
“I don’t think any of us thought that,” Amber said softly.
The woman drew back and delivered a slap that made Amber’s ears ring. “Don’t tell me what I already know to be true.” Her voice developed into a singsong rhythm. “It doesn’t matter now. It’s time for you to pay. And Grant will see to it you do.”
Amber’s brain was ringing, along with her ears. The slap had been delivered to the same jaw Kenneth had badly bruised a few days ago. She’d gone to the ER for x-rays the next day and learned he’d cracked a rib at the same time. This time, the beating had been because she hadn’t returned from the grocery store before he got home from work. As the memory of that beating played through her mind all over again, she stared at her old classmate sadly.
“I don’t care what you do to me,” she whispered. “But I can’t go home.”
The woman’s laugh hurt deep into her head. “Oh, trust me, sweetie. You won’t.” Then she’d turned to Grant. “Beat her until she bleeds. And if you don’t, well, you won’t work here much longer, will you? I’ll be outside.” She turned to Amber once again. “You see, Grant doesn’t speak, so no one will be able to question him, will they? And I’ll get to play this recording of your pain over and over for years to come. And when he’s finished with you, he’ll leave you just awake enough to feel the heat of the cremator as it brings you to two-thousand degrees.” Her voice returned to its singsong pattern as she waved a manicured hand. “Goodbye, little Amber. Goodbye.” On her way out of the room, she’d turned to Grant. “I’ll be listening.” As she left Amber alone in the room with him, she closed the door.
Amber’s eyes grew terrified. She was going to die—like this? “Please God, no,” she whispered.
Grant was moving around the room now, quickly. He picked up a bundle of something from the sink and carried it, dripping across the room to her stretcher. Amber tried to follow him with her eyes. What was he carrying? A wet towel?
The hiss of his belt as it was pulled out through the loops met her ears and she gulped, fighting the overwhelming feeling of panic. Gathering as much strength as she could, she pulled frantically against the restraints. The man called Grant suddenly turned to her, putting a hand that was surprisingly gentle on her shoulder.
Amber squinted up at him. Oh, dear God, he must have been at least eight feet tall. Dark eyes the color of espresso looked down on her a few seconds before he pulled a squirt bottle from his pocket and sprayed a stream of something back and forth across her back, bottom and legs. Then, to get her attention, he motioned his hand above his mouth as if in a silent scream.
“You,” she whispered, “you want me to scream?”
He nodded, suddenly, and raised the belt, bringing it down across the bundle at the end of the stretcher with a sound that she would have sworn was the sound of her own skin, had she felt it. She’d certainly felt it enough times before, except it had been Kenneth holding the belt. Then he looked to her and motioned again.
Amber let out a blood-curdling scream that shook the room.
He nodded his approval. He repeated the motion time and time again, until Amber’s voice grew hoarse, and she could no longer scream. Then, he brought over a syringe and injected something into her arm, and she instantly began to fade.
The next time she opened her eyes, she was being carried up a series of stone steps. They reminded her of the old horror movies she’d seen as a child. At the top, however, he paused and opened a door leading into an almost white room.
She leaned her head into him, just before closing her eyes once again.
The sound of the cremator was the next sound she heard. She managed to get her eyes open, praying it wasn’t meant for her. Once again, she was lying on a stretcher, but this time, she was covered with a sheet. Only her head was uncovered, and she was able to glance over toward the tall man just in time to see him bring over a metal stretcher with the remains of a deer on it. When her eyes opened wider, she realized he was putting the dead animal into the oven with gloved hands. A moment later, he dropped the gloves into a basket and once again put a finger to her lips before bringing the sheet up over her head.
Amber had always been afraid of having her face covered, and she made an attempt to scream. The sheet was jerked back down suddenly, and his hand descended on her mouth, although gently. He shook his head fiercely, warning her into silence.
The jolt of adrenaline into her bloodstream made her fully aware that he was moving her through the room. A moment later, she realized he was placing her into the back of a hearse, with velvet curtains covering the windows, and nodding to the driver.
But just before closing the door and watching it pull away, he raised the sheet just a bit and smiled at her.
“Be safe, little one,” he said.