The moment the door swung open and her wheelchair rolled inside the empty hallway, the thumping of the techno music filled her ears and the familiar scent of cologne wafted to her nose. She started to cry.
It had been almost a year since the 18-year-old girl last walked down this hallway to her job at Abercrombie Kids inside the Westfield Brandon shopping mall. On Wednesday, still forced to use a wheelchair following a brutal attack that left her blind and unable to talk, she returned for a special visit.
The girl had been working at the store the night of April 24. After closing, she drove to the Bloomingdale Regional Public Library to return books in the book drop. As she stepped out, an attacker beat and raped her, choking the slender young woman so severely it caused her to lose her sight and left her unable to move.
Now home, undergoing intense physical therapy to learn how to swallow and hold herself up, she ventured out Wednesday to visit was a place she once loved. Former co-workers and managers greeted her, remembering the dark-haired girl who always looked forward to work, and was the first to fill in for absent employees.
Just steps from where the girl had been folding boys collared shirts that night, Abercrombie & Fitch District Manager Amy Zock read a letter to her from corporate officials, praising her strength and courage.
The girl, whose identity is not being released due to the nature of the crime, moved her head around slowly as she tried to take in the sounds and the smells. Her mother believes the girl can make out shadows, but she is uncertain because her daughter still cannot talk. She does communicate to some degree by uttering sounds.
All across the country, employees for Abercrombie & Fitch donated to a fund for the girl during an annual charity drive. From their stores to their corporate offices, the response was overwhelming: the company raised $85,000.
"We hope the money raised will help with your recovery and will, in the future, help you pursue your dreams," executives wrote.
Her teary-eyed mother said she was obviously grateful for the donation, but her heart swelled because of the people who contributed.
"Many of the employees are like her," the mother said. "They are teenagers working part-time like she did. They're not making huge amounts of money. To have it come from them means so much to me."
In addition to the money, the store presented her with outfits selected by her girlfriends. They chose sparkly tops, a striped bag and trendy shorts.
The friends, along with the girl's sister, draped the items on the girl and posed for pictures.
"Okay, now you're getting really spoiled," her friend, Rachel Hall said, giggling.
The girl was hired to help open the store in June 2007, and was there for the ribbon cutting. She loved interacting with customers and always tried to arrive early so she could snag the job as greeter, said her friend and former co-worker, Priscilla Viera. She even enjoyed folding the clothes, and danced to the store's music.
Sometimes, as she stocked new items before the store opened, she would hold one up in front of her and declare that she had to have it.
The night of the attack, Viera stopped by to chat with the girl. They were planning a beach trip for the girl's birthday and she was very excited. As she folded garments, she told Viera she was going to drop by the library after the store closed. Viera said she could not accompany her because she had plans for dinner.
So just after 10 p.m. the girl, who had just turned 18, drove to the library's after-hours drop box alone. She told a friend over her cell phone that a weird man was sitting on the bench. The friend heard a scream and the line went dead.
Friends and family rushed to the library and discovered her behind the building.
Authorities say she was attacked by Kendrick Morris, a Clair-Mel 16-year-old charged as an adult in two rapes — one at the library and another of a 61-year-old woman at a day care near his home last June. He remains in jail without bail, charged with on nine felonies.
The girl spent months in the hospital and then a rehabilitation hospital. Wednesday's trip to the mall was her second outing. Last week, her family took her to see Confessions of a Shopaholic. She sat through the movie smiling, her mom said.
The mother asked for continued prayers for her daughter so that someday she can talk, see and walk again.
"I want her to get better to come back to work here," she said.
Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4613.