“You are heavier than you look, sweet thing,” the man grunted as he hoisted the woman by the waist. Her knee caught a metal hook near the wall that held cat o’nine tails and ripped open. She groaned. Blocking out the stab of pain and the stark shock of having this enjoyable encounter rapidly degrade into a nightmare, Zoe Statler switched to survival mode.
“Don’t worry, love, some poor slob will clean that up later.” He swung his head around to motion to the trickle of red plopping onto the cement floor.
“One step ahead. You always gotta be one step ahead. Even if you bleed out here, there’s so much DNA sticking to this floor it’s contaminated before it even falls out of you.” His hands squeezed her tender windpipe, choked off her air, and then released it. “The only thing splats of your blood will do is confirm you are one sick bitch to wind up at a place like this.”
Zoe Statler squeezed her eyes shut. He was right. She wasn’t merely a seventh-grade science teacher; she had a ravenous appetite for what was satisfied in places like these. She had encountered rough, rather enjoyed it that way, but she had never known sadistic or murderous. She had to get out of the room. She had to get away. She channeled her Zen yoga instructor, Marla, who taught her how to quiet her busy brain and focus on the richness of the oxygen that gave her life. Pull in through the nostrils, hold, and release. If she were to panic, her air would dry up; her nose had to control it.
Come on, she told herself silently. Think! Zoe refused to go down like this. Her eyes flew back open, searching up, down, and to each side, scanning for a weapon, a sharp object, something she could slam into this asshole’s esophagus. The man’s bony shoulder stole her breath as it slammed into her ribcage. He was manhandling her, hurting every inch of her, just because he could. Her clothes were off, and she was vulnerable, all parts of herself exposed to his cruel hands. His fingers dug into the soft flesh of her lower back as he threw her like a jackknife over his left side. Zoe winced. Her face bumped against the seat of his jeans before he heaved her spine first against the wall. Her bones rattled. Her teeth began to chatter, and she couldn’t feel her legs. Using her fingers like claws, she crawled toward the door. The shadowy room kicked off gruesome, overblown images along the wall of her collapsed body hunched and lurching forward. She twisted back and started to yell. Surely, someone—even if he were caught in the throes of depraved passion—would hear her? She gurgled and sputtered, screeched and begged. Her raw warbles only echoed around grimy walls.
“Help me! Help…He—” Unbridled agony grabbed the air Marla had helped her find with such ferocity Zoe’s eyes went wide with shock. A sliver of awareness opened like a picture book. Inside were the faces of her parents, her little sister, boyfriend and her best friend. Her people. Not only would they have to deal with her death, now they’d know her secrets, too. She thought of the parents of her students. They’d be horrified that someone like her had access to their precious offspring. She wouldn’t be remembered for the time and care she took with their kids. No, they’d only gasp when they found out where she spent her nights off. Her life reduced to a teaching moment of what not to do to get your rocks off.
Goddamn it! Fire erupted in her heart. This will not happen to me, not if I can help it. Fight, Zoe, fight! Her nails skittered along the slippery floor as she kicked backwards with every ounce of her soul, feeling giddy when she slammed into the man’s thigh with her heel. She could see the door handle.
Just feet away.
“Bitch!” he growled, trying to tackle her down while he bent low in pain. She sensed an opening. He was wounded. She had to act fast to inflict more damage. Zoe engaged her core muscles, twisting like a caterpillar in a cocoon to slam her knee into his damaged leg. She hurled her full weight against him; her torso slid on a sheet of blood. She tried to rise and felt one foot connect with the floor. It was so weak it buckled. No! Forcing herself to find balance, she hopped backwards, away from the now doubled over man. She turned. The space between her and the door got smaller. She could do this. If she could just hobble away, someone would come. Someone would have to see her!
The ankle tried like hell. It twisted on needling discomfort and went down sideways. Zoe’s hands couldn’t catch her fall. She struck the cold cement hard, forehead first. Noise rushed through her ears, like running water, as white haze descended behind her eyelids. A swipe of her thick tongue revealed a jagged edge of the front tooth her dentist just bonded two weeks ago. The tooth was now almost entirely gone.
Using her chin to push upward, Zoe hauled herself back onto her chest and ignored paralyzing pain. Moving military crawl style until her nose scraped the wretched mixture of dust and grime on the floor, she forced her torso upright, and risked a backward glance to gauge the distance she’d achieved. It was minimal in the small room. Goddamn it! With a grunt of extreme effort, Zoe lead with her stronger ankle, jumped out a full stride and forced her damaged foot to take some of her weight. It held, but even better, the door was closer. She frantically slid one leg after another as fast as she could, hunched over and rickety like a wounded pony attempting a weak cantor; her fractured gait found a sort of broken rhythm she turned into a mantra.
Get-a-way. Get-a-way. Get- the strong foot smacked heavily. A- her weight shifted to protect the other ankle from a clumsy landing. Way- the jagged tooth sunk into her lower lip to swallow the ripple of full body torment. Even her tri-weekly TRX classes paled in comparison to this kind of physical depletion. She was exhausted. Only the power of her mantra pushed her on, lumbered step by lumbered step, toward the elusive slip of light in the dank hallway. If she could just round the corner and escape this hell chamber, there was hope the freak wouldn’t pursue her in open space. If she could just…
Zoe heard a sound so piercing she didn’t realize it was coming from her. Animalistic survival skills had her instinctively throwing her arms up around her head as she was roughly thrown onto her back. She felt warm liquid pumping from the base of her skull, like the spray of the shower when she rinsed the conditioner from her hair.
“Could’ve spared yourself all this pain,” he snapped into her face, eyeballs blazing white between blood-streaked cheeks. “Your choice.”
Zoe stared into his eyes. He had seemed so exquisite to her in the hazy lighting of the meeting room, a perfect creature for an impersonal yet mutually satisfying meeting. She chose him because he looked normal. Like her. Just with a sharp edge when it came to fetishes and desires. How wrong she’d been. Deadly wrong.
Trying to stop the heaving in her chest she attempted to speak, careful to look him in the eye to further create a connection. She wanted to make herself real to him. “Why are you doing this?” she barely recognized her own voice, distorted by the new space between her front teeth. “Please…you don’t have to…my name is Zoe. I have a name, a family….”
“Shhh,” he interrupted softly. “I admire your strength. You’re feisty. You fight back. You’re special, Zoe. Nice name, by the way.”
The man straddled Zoe’s waist. He plopped his rear onto her abdomen, forcing her to draw in a quick breath before another wave of pain tore through her. “Sorry,” he said casually, “that probably hurts your ribs. You may have broken a couple when you fell. Makes it hard to breathe.”
Fog pushed into Zoe’s periphery. She couldn’t bring in any air. Sensing her growing desperation, the man shifted himself slightly over Zoe’s right hip and freed up enough room in her solar plexus to feed oxygen to her burning lungs. She grabbed for it in open-mouthed clips. “Please…” she sputtered.
“No can do, Zoe. It’s just the way it has to be. Girls like you don’t matter. You’re dirty. This is your own fault, sweetheart. What do you expect in a place like this? See, with me, it’s not just about the sex, although that was good, too. This is a place for all kinds of fantasies.” He slid a finger down Zoe’s bare thigh, collecting a thin rivet of blood. With her arms held in place by his body, he placed his finger inside her mouth and rolled her blood over her broken teeth. She gagged and pushed back, but he was stronger; she could feel her stomach heave and buck. He grabbed her battered head by loose strands of hair and forced her face close to his.
“I take a little from all my girls,” he told her, as a sinister glint lit his half-lidded stare. He sucked on the finger coated with her blood. “You taste so good, Zoe, inside and out.”
The bare light bulb on the ceiling flickered like Zoe’s spotty coherence. She let go and allowed her brain to take her where it needed to in these final moments. She saw her mom, who baked the best tea cookies at Christmas, and her dad when he taught her how to drive a stick shift when she was fifteen. She saw her boyfriend, Sam, who loved her but just couldn’t understand her attraction to exploitative sex with random strangers. He had wanted to be everything to her. She had wanted more. And now she was about to pay for that.
“You were right, Sam,” she said, although she wasn’t sure her mouth was moving. “I wasn’t good enough for you.”
Sam shook her shoulders. He was angry with her. But he needed to get away from here. Zoe couldn’t help him. No, Sam, go away! It wasn’t safe for him here. She tried to throw her hands out to stop Sam from coming back to her.
Zoe’s lips turned in; this was wrong. Very wrong.
She rolled her head from ear to ear. The hard floor was cold and hard like an arctic glacier. She turned sideways but met only resistance.
“Wake up, darlin’.” A forceful smack to the cheek snapped Zoe’s eyes back open. Instant recall. She wasn’t baking cookies, driving, or kissing Sam’s scruffy cheek; she was dying at the hands of some madman.
“Stop…” she whispered. “Please…just make it stop.” The pain was relentless, a torment that began in her bones and spread through every cell of her body. Zoe was broken, her spirit ready to disconnect. She muttered The Lord’s Prayer, feeling more anger than comfort that she would be called home under such hideous circumstances. Her life was a good one. This sucks!
Summoning a final defiant burst of strength, Zoe jerked her right arm free and let it fly, her fingers hooked into a claw that connected with the man’s flesh and sliced it open near his chin.
He muffled a roar, using one arm to pin her back down. With the other he wiped furiously at the bloody wound. She expected his wrath, found peace in her soul, and braced for the end.
“Good for you, Zoe. You’re a warrior, and I salute your brave heart.”
White teeth flashed in a wide smile. His face was too young to be so evil. Zoe tasted metal and swallowed the blood that pooled near her tonsils. Did he want a response? Validation for his sick compliment? Zoe said the only thing she wanted him to hear.
His grin lengthened into a line. A subtle twitch rippled the taut skin around his mouth. That brought Zoe deep satisfaction. She may not be long for this world, but she got to him first. She pissed him off, and that felt like vengeful divine intervention.
Moving with purpose, the man’s arm went up. Zoe saw the steel blade. Even though she always watched the nurse plunge the needle into her arm when she had blood drawn at the doctor’s, this time she looked away. As the knife slashed through her abdomen, splicing organs and bouncing off bone, Zoe found them again. Off in the distance, she saw her people: Her beloved family, her cherished co-workers, and those special kids she had the joy to instruct. The tallest figure filled the middle; the others let him lead. Daddy. Suddenly she became a little girl again and her father was hurling her into the air, his arms wide and ready to catch her before she fell. She placed trembling fingers to her bloody lips, softly kissed them and reached to take her father’s outstretched hand.
“I’m ready, Daddy,” she whispered, eyes locked on the first man in her life she loved. With a final gasp, her wounds drained her body of the precious blood it would need to survive. Zoe began to let go. She ignored her killer and the loping letters he formed on the wall with her expelled blood.
In the time it took to die, Zoe Statler was surrounded by love.