Victim Six

Exact date and time unknown

Somewhere in rural Washington State

“Quiet, bitch,” he said. “Be a good girl and do as I say.”

His words came at her with the smell of sweat and motor oil. They were delivered in a strangely calm, almost soothing, cadence.

The young woman was terrified, her body, her very presence, shrinking under his power.

“Don’t!” she said, the words falling from her trembling lips.

“Good girl,” he repeated.

Tears rolled. A coppery flavor filled her mouth. It was as if she tasted spare change, yet her mouth was empty. She was bleeding where he had struck her.

And her pleas for help were called out only in her head, God, help me!

No answer. Just a slow fade. A curtain pulled. A moon eclipsed. Then absolutely nothing at all.

That was before. Just how long ago, she couldn’t be sure. Her memories were a mosaic. They came to her, not the seamless movie reel she had imagined people saw in their mind’s eye when their final moments came and their life flashed before their eyes, but in tiny shards and splinters: Her high school graduation. How she and her best friend Danita had bought a bottle of screw-top wine from a mini-mart near the Tacoma Dome, where the ceremonies were held. They’d guzzled it in Danita’s old car. Real tough, she’d thought. The only bad thing she’d ever done in a childhood of helping her mother raise her siblings, making solid-B grades, and working part-time jobs when she could fit them in between her household chores.

What did I do to deserve this? she asked herself in a blip of lucidity.

Her mind jumped to how her mother had sat her, her brother, and her sister in a neat row on the old floral davenport that faced the relic that was their TV. Mom snapped off a soap opera and fought back tears. The other kids were younger, but she knew right away before she opened her mouth what this little family meeting was about.

“Your papa and I…”

Another splinter drove into her. She recalled how she’d stolen a handful of candy corn from a bin in the produce section in the market when she was seven. She never told anyone that she’d done so, but to that very day the sight of the triangular orange, yellow, and white Halloween confection made her stomach churn with guilt. She never stole anything again, never broke any law. One time when she was stopped by a state trooper, she cried because she thought she’d been speeding and was going to get a ticket. Instead, the affable cop with a soup strainer of a mustache told her that her taillight was out, flashed a smile, and waved her on to the nearest repair shop.

“Need to be safe,” he said. “Have a daughter of my own and wouldn’t want her driving with a winking tail light.”

Some thoughts materialized as if underscored by the divine, reminding her not to steal, that parents don’t always stay together, that there are good men out there too. Some were more random. Things that came to her that felt like filler, a recap of moments that had never been important. She lost her car keys the week before. She threw up on a merry-go-round when she was four. She hated ravioli from the can and could remember the slap she got from her aunt when she told her so at the dinner table.

Shutting her eyes did nothing. The images still bombarded her.

Stop, she thought. Think. Think. You don’t want to die. Not here, not in this place.

The man on the other side of the wall that separated