Chapter 1 – Amanda
I closed the back door to my Chevy Citation and slung my gym bag over my shoulder. I wiped the perspiration off my brow as I set my sights on the glass doors of the building.
The place didn’t look like much on the outside, just a tall beige concrete industrial building. It’s what’s on the inside that counts, I thought to myself as I pulled open the door. The whoosh of air conditioning descended in a welcome wave, refreshing my hot skin.
I embraced the sweet and musky scent of sweat emanating from the weight room. The sounds of metal clanging from down the hall echoed off the walls toward me. Hypnotized, I followed the sound.
The fluorescent lights that lined the hallway buzzed quietly as the sounds of the metal on metal got louder, slowly drowning out the noise of the lights. I approached the archway to the main area and slowed. A butterfly took flight in my belly as I peered cautiously through the gap in the cinderblock walls.
The room took up most of the industrial space of the building. Large halogen lights high in the ceiling brightened the room so it was easy to navigate the machinery. My eyes traveled quickly over the after-work crowd, and I swiftly released the breath I’d been holding.
Relieved that I didn’t see him, I crossed past the opening to head to the locker room. Chewing the corner of my bottom lip, I rounded the corner and slammed right into a solid body, an oomph! escaping my lips.
A hand grabbed my arm in a vice, squeezing my bicep. My heart rate began to increase.
“Steve!” slipped from my lips as I bit back the words of pain. “You scared me!” His grip intensified, and I clenched my jaw to hide the pain.
“Where have you been?” he sneered down at me as his face came closer, his dark brown eyes closing into a squint.
I blinked in confusion. “I just got here; I was a little late getting off of work.”
My fingers began to feel numb, but I would not give him the benefit of knowing how much discomfort his hold caused. As his mouth opened to speak, the odor of bitter coffee struck my face. The sound of footsteps echoing on the walls caused him to look over my head. He released my arm and stepped back.
There was no doubt in my mind whose shoes approached us. I flexed my hand slightly by my side but never took my eyes from Steve’s face.
Mark stepped up beside me, just close enough that his arm brushed against my shoulder. I looked up to see his jaw clenched, the muscle on the side ticking like a second hand on a clock. I glanced back to Steve and took in the anger etched on his face.
“Steve,” Mark’s voice was deep and gruff.
“Mark,” replied Steve’s deeper voice.
They stood almost nose to nose around five foot ten or eleven each, their shoulders stiff and wide enough to block out the view of an entire room.
They sized each other up, never breaking eye contact with one another. Clearing my throat quietly, I tried to break up the mounting tension.
Mark’s eyes flicked to me, although his face didn’t move, “Mandy, go get dressed. We have a busy routine tonight.”
Thankful to have been released, I nodded and sidestepped Steve to go the last ten feet to the locker room. As the door closed on the scene behind me, the muffled thump of my gym bag as it hit the tile floor filled the quiet room. I sank to the bench, allowing my face to fall into my hands. This needs to stop, I thought.
Unzipping my bag, I relaxed at the sound of the metal on metal. I needed to forget about Steve and start focusing instead on what lower body routine Mark would put me through. I kicked off my sneakers and wriggled out of my jeans to put on my workout gear. Before tossing my work clothes into my bag, I pulled out my weight gloves, straps, and leather support belt that would protect my lower back and internal organs.
I pulled my long blond hair up high and tight on my head, hoisted my bag into my locker, and then spun the dial on my lock, turning to make my way to the main floor. Mark stood right where I expected him. Glancing around, I didn’t see Steve, and my shoulders relaxed. I smiled as I stepped in front of Mark, hoping he would skip the lecture, his intense green eyes watching my every move. I knew he was about to say something, but I really wished that he wouldn’t.
Mark was not only my friend, he was my trainer. We had met several months ago when he’d noticed the potential I had to body build. Like almost every other woman in the gym, I had already noticed him, so to know he’d been watching me had surprised me.
Mark was nine years older than I was, making him twenty-eight, and I had found myself more than once fantasizing about him. I was pretty sure every hot-blooded woman in the place did. I mean, how could they not? He was unbelievably built, with the sexiest emerald eyes and square-jawline I had ever seen outside a magazine.
Smiling shyly, I hoped my infatuation didn’t show on my face as I waited, bracing myself for what he would say. Absently, I pulled my weight gloves on, fastening the Velcro tightly around my wrists.
“If I ever see him touch you like that again, I’m going to kill him, Mandy.” His words embarrassed me, and my eyes went to the ground. Glancing to my side, I saw Jeff and Bob watching us. I knew they had heard the threat, too. My cheeks warmed. Mark waited for his words to sink in. I nodded just once, bringing my eyes back up to his. What was there to say?
He held the contact for a moment longer. His intensity overwhelmed me, so I looked away and began buckling up my weight belt, trying to prepare for the workout he was about to push me through.
Ninety minutes later, my leg muscles screamed as I lowered myself into my car seat. I relished the pain that radiated through my muscles after a workout: the burning and the way the muscles quivered as they started to heal themselves from the torment I put them through by choice. I loved the way I felt after a workout. Smiling as I put the car into reverse, I concentrated on keeping my foot from bouncing off the brake pedal as it shook from the slight exertion.
I made it home safely, though my legs wanted to give out on the two flights of stairs I climbed to reach my apartment. The smell of the moldy carpet in the hallway always wrinkled my nose, so instead, I tried to focus on the pale yellow paint peeling from the concrete walls. This definitely wasn’t a first class joint, but it was my first apartment, and I was proud that I could afford to live on my own.
My stomach rumbled loudly as I unlocked the heavy-duty brown metal door, dropping my bag on the beige carpet floor just inside. I headed to the kitchen, turned the dial on the mustard-colored stove, filled a pot with water, and placed it on the warming burner. From inside of one of my dark brown cabinets, I found my box of store brand pasta and set it next to the stove.
Sally jumped up on the counter, meowing and begging to be petted. “Hello, Sally, did you miss me?” I crooned to the fluffy bundle of whiteness as I scooped her up and walked into the small living room. I glanced around at the bare walls. I really needed to hang a few pictures. Stark white surrounded me, a vivid backdrop for my heavy pine furniture. I turned on the television and plopped down on the sofa cushion, kicking my feet up on the scarred coffee table. Sally continued to purr softly as we sat together; she twitched her tail at me when I put her aside a few minutes later to add the pasta to the boiling water.
I poured an already-open bottle of pasta sauce into another pan; letting it cook on low while the pasta boiled. A half loaf of French bread sat on my counter, and I picked it up along with a bread knife and plate. I carried them back to the living room, set them on the coffee table, and began to cut the bread.
A knock sounded at my door just as I took the first bite of the flaky crust. Sally raised her tail and shot down the hall. Skittish cat, I thought to myself as I stood up.
I set the plate and knife down on the coffee table where my feet had been and went to the door, pulling it open without looking through the peephole. In hindsight, this was just the first of my mistakes.
The door swung inward forcefully. I lost my balance trying to avoid the door and fell back over my gym bag. A thump vibrated through my head as it struck the leg of a dining room chair. Momentarily stunned, I looked up into the face of a very angry man.
“Steve, what are you doing here?” I asked, getting off the ground as quickly as my shaking legs would allow me.
“You were supposed to wait for me tonight. We had plans.” He pushed the door closed behind him with a loud metallic bang, not very unlike the sound of a jail cell closing. As I rose to my feet, I remembered him telling me about some new place he wanted to take me.
“I’m sorry. I completely forgot.” The look on his face now had more than my legs shaking as he stepped in front of me. “I’ll just turn the pasta off, and we can go.” As I turned from him, he grabbed my arm in another vice-like grip.
“No, it’s too late now,” his voice growled as he pulled me to him.
“Steve, stop! You’re hurting me.” I tried to twist backwards to make eye contact with him, but he reached around and grabbed me by the throat, my arm still held prisoner. My back made contact with the hardened muscles of his abdomen.
“Steve, stop!” I managed to say. He dropped my arm and wrapped his thick arm tightly around my waist.
“Don’t tell me what to do, Amanda. You don’t tell me what to do. You got that?” The voice next to my ear sounded like it was shouting, but I knew it really wasn’t. This voice that, only a few months ago, had lulled me into feeling safe, now frightened me.
I didn’t try to fight him; the fear of being held against my will did not allow me to think straight, must less fight. His breath slid past my right ear; I needed a way to calm him down, but my mind went blank. I did not know how to deal with the anger and agitation that had been growing in him recently.
Steve released his arm from around my waist and turned me towards him, his other hand still wrapped around my thin neck. My eyes felt huge as I looked up at his face. Could he not see the fear and pain in my face? Did he not care? His brown eyes were wild.
“You will stay away from Mark. Do you hear me?” This time he did shout at me, and I tried not to flinch. Without thinking, I reached up to pry his hands from my throat.
He picked me up off the ground, slamming my upper body into the wall. My hundred-twenty-five-pound frame meant little to him when he benched three hundred pounds with no problem. My eyes closed involuntarily to the pain that vibrated through my head. My legs caught up to my upper body, but instead of hitting the wall, they collided with the stereo cabinet sitting three feet off the ground. Pain lanced through the back of my thighs as the sharp edges dug in.
His hand still on my neck, Steve held me against the wall as my eyes finally opened. Anger built inside me as I made eye contact with him. Maybe he saw the change in my eyes or maybe he realized how he held me, but he let go and gravity dropped me to the floor. My hand involuntarily flew to my throat as I gasped for fresh air.
I curled the fingers of my left hand into the fibers of the carpet; my lungs burned. What could I do? What could I say to make it better? This was my fault. I knew I should not have forgotten about his plans.
I was able to breathe normally again when I finally looked up at the coffee table; the same coffee table where the eight-inch bread knife sat. The reflection from the television animated the silver blade’s surface.
I lunged for the knife, my right hand on the wooden handle as I turned to face him. The tears I had yet to shed welled in my eyes, spilling over and down my face. Nothing could have stopped the anger, pain, and humiliation that flowed through my body at that moment as I thought only to protect myself.
He looked between me and the blade, yet he did not move. Time stood still as we stared each other down.
“Get out, Steve. Get out now,” my voice croaked, barely audible over the sound of the television.
His eyes narrowed, but he didn’t move otherwise. I saw his nostrils flare as he looked again at the knife.
“Get the hell out of here, Steve! If you don’t get out, I’m going to cut you!” My shout got his attention, his Adam’s apple moved up and down as he swallowed.
He backed towards the door, never removing his gaze from me. His right hand reached behind him for the doorknob. I adjusted my position, angling my body towards him as he moved.
No words were spoken as he stepped over the threshold. The hinged spring in the door moved sluggishly, so I threw my weight against it and bolted the top lock. The knife fell to the floor of the hallway as I moved quickly to the kitchen, turning off the boiling-over pot of pasta. With the sauce also turned off, I ran into my bedroom and threw clothes into a bag.
Within just a few minutes, I was packed enough to make it through a couple of days. Scooping up Sally on my way to the door, I peeked through the peephole, the metal of the door cold on my heated skin. The hallway appeared empty, and I carefully opened the door, prepared to scream if Steve somehow showed up out of thin air.
The corridor was indeed empty as I ran to the stairs and descended as quickly as I could while holding my bags and Sally, her claws digging deep into my shoulder as she clung to me. Before walking into the parking lot, I looked through the window to make sure the parking lot was clear. Two other tenants were in the lot by their car just past mine. Good, someone to see if something happened.
As casually as I could manage, I made my way to my car without bringing attention to myself. With my two bags thrown into the backseat and Sally huddled on the passenger seat, I climbed in and locked the door with shaking hands. Backing out of my space, I looked out the rear window to where I could see my building. Two cheap lawn chairs sat on my balcony watching my departure. They knew I would never return, and their sadness crushed me as I put the car in drive.
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