Amber Porter quickly looked both ways as she rushed across the street. Juggling two bags of groceries and her purse, she stepped up on the curb just as a clap of thunder reverberated from the charcoal-colored clouds overhead. “Oh come on, not yet!” she huffed as she hiked her purse up onto her shoulder.

     Cutting through Riverbend Park, Amber hurried down the well-groomed jogging path, glancing every few seconds at the threatening clouds above. “Just a few more minutes and I’ll be home. You can hold off that long,” she mumbled to the sky determined to unleash the first storm of the fall season.

     She shouldn’t have gotten her hopes up. She should’ve known the mechanic was feeding her a line when he said it would only take him twenty minutes, thirty tops, to locate and diagnose the pinging sound that had bothered her for over a week. Bring it right in. I’ll have it f ix ed in no time. Here she was two hours later—with an armload of groceries—walking home with the promise that her car would be ready on Monday. Monday!

     She had thought it was a real coup to find a mechanic that worked on Saturdays. Well, that had backfired. Now she would be without her car for the entire weekend. Though the mechanic offered to give her a ride home—for a fee of course—she opted to walk. She lived just on the other side of Riverbend Park, and as long as she made it home before the first cloud burst, she would be fine.

   Amber’s hurried steps slowed under the weight of her groceries, but instead of getting more irritated, she decided to enjoy the beauty of her surroundings.

     Nestled in a ravine between three neighboring cul-de-sacs, Riverbend Park was lined with aged pine trees and neatly trimmed shrubs. It was a haven in the middle of a bustling city. It was not a typical park as parks go. There was no jungle gym for kids to play on or baseball diamonds for little league teams. There wasn’t even a sandbox for toddlers. Instead, there was a stately white gazebo positioned in the center of a sprawling lawn—manicured to perfection. A series of bridges crossed a gurgling creek, and large shade trees played the perfect hosts to picnic lunches and afternoon naps. It was a Victorian setting by design, and one that spoke of the simplicity of a time gone by. Amber loved the park and used it quite extensively for photo shoots. Many of her clients chose the picturesque surroundings for wedding pictures, engagement sittings, and family portraits. Most Saturdays the park was teeming with people, but it was obvious the threatening storm had kept the normal weekend crowd away.

     A low rumble stole Amber’s attention, once again reminding her she needed to hurry.

     Just a little ways to go.

    Amber stayed on the jogging path that outlined the quaint park, her grocery bags growing heavier with every step. Okay, so I guess having chili for dinner wasn’t the smartest choice. She chastised herself as she readjusted the plastic bags loaded down with cans of tomato sauce and kidney beans. “Just don’t break on me,” she said to the rustling bags.

     Taking a deep breath, she puffed at the strand of hair that kept playing with her eyelashes, her thoughts drifting to the to-do list waiting for her when she got home. “Well, one good thing about the coming storm,” she muttered, “it will force me to stay inside and get caught up on my work.”

     Though Amber was a disciplined person by nature, she loved the outdoors. Knowing fall would soon slip into winter, she had been spending all her free time outside enjoying the weather, the beauty of the changing leaves, and the crispness in the air that was so unique to this time of year. In doing so, she had neglected everyday chores like dusting and vacuuming, not to mention the numerous rolls of film that still needed to be developed for her appointments next week.

     Her shoulders sagged slightly when she thought about her daily routine. She was a wedding/special occasions photographer by trade, and though she enjoyed her work, it was only a stepping stone to her true ambition. She aspired to be a serious photographer. She daydreamed of her work hanging in galleries and garnering the attention of those who appreciated true art. For now however, her clients consisted of those who wanted to pose with their dogs or have entire walls covered with eleven by fourteen glossies of their toddler sitting in a miniature chair, squeezing the stuffing out of a tattered old bear.

     She chuckled. It wasn’t that bad. She reveled in the fact that she could coax the perfect smile out of an ornery child or capture a memorable moment families would cherish forever.

     Still, she wanted more.

     She wanted to be known as a serious artist.

     One day . . .

    Amber continued down the twisting path—picking up her pace—determined to beat the threatening rain. With her internal task list distracting her, she wasn’t really paying attention to her surroundings. When she looked up, she was startled to see a man just a few paces ahead of her, heading her way.

     Amber slowed, uneasiness chilling her bones. Instinctively, she looked toward the heart of the park.

     It was empty.

     “Can I help you with your groceries?” the man asked as he approached her.

     “No, thank you. I don’t have far to go.” Amber moved to step around him, but his steps mimicked hers.

     “Are you sure?” he persisted, his smile more disturbing than friendly.

     Amber could not continue to walk with his burly physique blocking her way. She glanced to her left, realizing how close the jogging path had veered to the shrub-lined perimeter.

     Her pulse quickened.

     “Nice day for a walk, isn’t it?” A voice startled her from behind.

     Amber spun around to see a second man behind her. Frantically, she looked again for anyone who could help her, just one person, but the park was hauntingly vacant. Her heart sank. She turned back to the man in front of her, his intentions obvious in his repulsive glare.

     “Please, don’t do this,” Amber whispered as her heart raced.

     “Listen, Jack, she’s begging us.”

     The man in front of Amber stepped closer still, closing off any possibility of escape. Tears ran down her cheeks as the feeling of helplessness consumed her.

     “Oh, don’t cry, sweetheart,” the man said as he brought his hand up and brushed the tears from her cheek.

    The feel of his touch sent an electric shock through Amber’s entire body. In an instant, she shoved her groceries at his chest and tried to bolt from between the two men.

     It was a futile attempt.

    Her groceries dropped to her feet as a hand that smelled of tobacco pressed roughly against her mouth—smothering her screams. She fought with every ounce of strength she had as the man dragged her deep within the nearby foliage. She twisted and kicked, connecting with his knee. He let her go for an instant, spewing a string of vulgarities. She sprinted forward but the other man tackled her to the ground, trapping her with the weight of his body. While he straddled her hips and tore at her clothes, the other man used his knees to pin her arms above her head and nearly suffocated her with his large calloused hands. Amber thrashed and writhed, trying to fight off her attackers—a reflex of the human soul—but it was useless against the two men who were fueled by the depravity of their sexual appetites. She squeezed her eyes shut, not wanting to look at the men—the animals—that were attacking her.

     She prayed God would allow her to die.

     She could not comprehend living with the knowledge of what was happening to her. The sounds her attacker made. The things he said as he violated her body. She had never heard such repulsiveness or felt such intense pain.

     Just let me die, God. Please let me die. She repeated the plea as time stood still.

    She felt the man shift his weight. It’s over. Amber opened her eyes. Then she realized what was really happening. The men were merely switching positions. It was going to happen all over again.

     As the men jockeyed for position, Amber’s arms were momentarily free. She lashed out with a frenzy of strength she didn’t know she had. She swung at her captors connecting with a nose, a jaw. She screamed at the top of her lungs before a hand clamped down to silence her. She sunk her teeth into the dirt-stained flesh and bit as hard as she could. The man yelled obscenities as he yanked his hand back from her clenched jaw and rose up on his haunches. She pulled her legs up, hoping to unseat the man, when a single blow to her temple shot pain through her every limb. Her world turned to black.

     Finally, God had answered her prayer.