January 4th, 2017.
Stark City, Oregon.
"He's a great guy," they all said, "once you get to know him." He being Gulstan Clay; a shy, slender young man who worked in Patient Transport at Stark County Medical Center. They being the rest of the staff. Doctors. Nurses. Technicians. Transporters. Clerks. Engineers. Janitors. Everyone loved Gulstan.
Everyone, except Heather Hewitt. Heather didn't even like Gulstan, mush less love him. And she sure as hell didn't want to get to know him any more than she already had.
"Cozy back there, sweetheart?"
Heather, semiconscious, mewled in frustration. She lay bound, gagged, and barefoot on the cold metal floor of Gulstan's van. The carpet had been removed, and it smelled of bleach. Pungent and ominous.
Gulstan laughed. "Don't worry. It takes awhile to get where we're going, but it'll be a smooth ride."
Heather shuddered; didn't dare open her eyes. Confusion intermingled with drowsiness inside her brain. The cord around her ankles and wrists chaffed her delicate skin. The back of her neck ached with a cold electrical burn. The duct tape over her lips felt sticky and stifling. All around, equipment rattled with the van's movement. Tools, chains, buckets—perhaps a shovel or two.
God knew what else.
Lying there, Heather's thoughts drifted back to the very beginning. To six months ago: July Fourth, 2016. She'd had to work, but it had been a slow Independence Day for the E.R. At lunch, she'd gone to the cafeteria with several coworkers. Ten minutes into her break, a young man in blue scrubs sat down opposite her. He had spiked black hair and wore a crooked, anxious smile. Heather noticed severe razor burn around his jawline. A fellow nurse named Blanche introduced them:
"Heather, meet Gulstan. Gulstan, meet Heather."
She'd smiled and said hello. Gulstan looked uncomfortable, explaining that he'd just started in Transport; the new kid in town. Heather couldn't remember her response, but Gulstan said, "Nice to meet you." Simple as that. Heather resumed eating and gossiping with Blanche, and hadn't even noticed when Gulstan left the table.
How could she have guessed that such an innocent meeting could lead to this?
"Oh, uh...it might get a little bumpy for the last mile or so, sweetheart. Sorry about that."
Gulstan had put a pillow beneath Heather's head, and now she buried her face into it.
Sweet...heart? I'm not...not your...sweet...
After that unremarkable day in the cafeteria, Heather returned to work as usual, never knowing that she'd just caused an avalanche in Gulstan's fragile world. Two days later, she'd met Gulstan again—this time in the E.R. He'd arrived to wheel one of her patients to the x-ray room. Except Gulstan had seemed more interested in her than in doing his job. He wanted to become a nurse, he'd said, just like Heather. Then he'd begun asking questions. How long had she been a nurse? When did she graduate nursing school? Did she like it? What made her decide to be a nurse?
On and on, until Heather had to excuse herself. She'd felt annoyed, but also sorry for Gulstan. He seemed a bit awkward; unsure of himself. Lonesome.
"You know...I first met you about a year ago. Heck, I guess there's no harm in telling you this now. But, uh, I was goaded by my old boss into going down to that strip club you used to work at..."
Choking back tears, Heather sighed into the pillow. Wishing with all her heart that she didn't have to hear the rest. Because she already knew.
The third time Heather met Gulstan, she'd just exited Intensive Care when he appeared at her side. He'd seemed nervous, stammering as he asked Heather to help him prepare for nursing school. That's when Heather felt the first twinge of dislike, and she reacted by saying that she didn't have the time. She'd also mentioned that her boyfriend might get jealous if she accepted.
Heather didn't have a boyfriend, but her gut had told her to lie. And Heather always listened to her gut.
"Yeah. As soon as we walked in, I saw you up on that stage. Naked as a jaybird, too! I thought, 'what's a beautiful girl like her doing in a place like this?' I'm really glad you don't work there anymore, sweetheart. It's best for us."
Heather swallowed around a knot in her throat, worked her lips against the tape. She'd danced at Le Club du Mal, the classiest erotic nightclub in Stark City, for two years to help pay for nursing school. She'd even danced part-time for awhile afterward. And she'd never had any reason to regret it...until now.