TAMPA — Alone, she stood in a hospital bathroom, peering into a small mirror at a woman she had never seen — herself, the new Audrey Mabrey.
She'd been beaten, doused with gasoline and set afire. She had awakened from a coma to excruciating skin-stretching therapy. She had mustered the strength to get out of bed
But she hadn't yet looked.
Now here she stood, one-on-one with the burn scars that covered 80 percent of her body. Her eyes fell on her deformed mouth.
The bathroom light was dim. That was the only mercy. She would avoid the next mirror she saw, and the one after that.
But she wouldn't hide forever.
Not the new Audrey.
• • •
Eight years ago, the old Audrey sat in front of a computer in an El Paso apartment with no cable TV. She was 20, fresh out of her hometown of Killeen, Texas. She'd left an ex there. She wanted to start over, grow up.
It was her day off from a job waiting tables. She signed onto an AOL chat room. Her screen name: Journeyoutta254.
She was drawn to a screen name: BLACKNBOLD4U.
Bold. She liked that.
She asked the standard first question in any online chat.
She envisioned the lights of Times Square.
Men in chat rooms typically asked about her weight and bra size, but this one wanted to know about all of her. And he told her he was a cop. When she said she didn't believe him, he told her to call the station and ask for Detective Christopher Hanney.
She heard his voice that day.
A month later, she flew to New York. He met her at the airport.
• • •
From the beginning, she remembers, there were lies.
He wasn't 35 when they met; he was 38. He told her he was single; he wasn't.
She wanted to have a family. The first of two boys came, but Audrey's wedding day had to wait for his divorce.
She grew used to changes in plans. She'd wanted to get a degree but decided to wait until he retired from his job in New York.
When they moved to Apollo Beach, he took a job as an airport security officer and she went to work at Chili's.
Looking back, Audrey thinks he never wanted her to go to school. She did it anyway.
In the fall of 2009, she started at Hillsborough Community College. On the first day, she came home excited, still wearing her bookbag. He didn't say anything. When she went out for drinks after work, he accused her of cheating. She was hanging out with friends. She needed that time to herself.
He didn't get that.
He always gave her two compliments: She was sexy, and she was a great mom. He told her she was too beautiful to be with him. To this day, she doesn't think he knows how she liked her eggs cooked.
Six years into the relationship, Audrey wanted out.
They continued living together to save money. She told him her goal was to move out by December. But on a night in October 2009, Audrey called 911.
Her side: He tried to rape her, telling her she still had "wifely duties." She escaped his grip and called a friend. He smacked the phone out of her hand and shut off her cell service.
His side: He didn't touch her. He told police she was talking to another man, they argued, and yes, he shut off her phone — it was in his name. But he didn't try to rape her.
It was the only sign of violence she had seen in him, Audrey said later. She decided to move out of the house but waived prosecution.
And he made promises: He'd watch the kids while she was at school. He'd pay child support without a court order.
He'd be civil.
For a time, he was.
• • •
She went for a jog that day. She loved to jog. The breathing, the solitude, the sun — it all made her feel free. The worries about her bills and her marriage just fell from her head.
Her run on Nov. 17, 2009, started from his house.
She'd stopped there on a break between class and work. She didn't see him. His bedroom door was locked, but she thought nothing of it.
She left her cell phone at his house. Had she carried it, she might have been warned.
As she jogged, people started getting text messages from her husband:
Im sorry 4 all ive done. Now i am that monster she made me out 2 b. I love u all. GOD BLESS. Its time i met my fate. Good bye.
At least one friend tried to call Audrey.
Here are the facts to which she will testify at her husband's trial in May, her memory of what happened when she returned to his home and opened the door:
He stood naked, shaved.
He held a butcher knife.
Audrey turned to leave, but he rushed her and scooped her close, his bare chest pressed against her back. She froze, unable to scream.
She saw a drop of blood hit the floor. She realized it was hers. He'd cut her pinky. This, she thought, is for real.
He took her into the garage and forced her to lie face-first on a child's blanket covered with cartoon characters. On it, she remembers, he tried to sodomize her.
She tried to say things that might make him stop.
"I love you, Chris. I love you, I love you, I love you. . . ."
He stood and demanded to know the paternity of their 4-year-old son Malachai:
"Tell me . . . or I'm going to gut you like a f------ pig."
He had always said the boy was too beautiful to be his. Malachai was the dishwasher's baby, her husband would say. But Audrey always took it as a joke. She'd tell him they could get a free trip to New York if they went on the Maury Povich show for a DNA test.
She couldn't believe this.
"We planned him," she remembers telling her husband.
He hit her on the side of the head with a hammer, she says.
Then, he hit her again.
This is it, Audrey thought.
A third time.
At the fourth blow, the hardest, she started to pray: God, forgive me for my sins. Thank you for all the blessings, and please, let me go to heaven.
She saw her husband light a candle, the one they'd bought at Target to decorate their home. It smelled like cucumber melon.
That's when an image floated into her mind — her children, without a mother.
Her prayer changed: God, just let me live. Just let me live, that's all I want. Just let me live.
She threw her hands in front of her face before she felt the splash of gasoline. Then, with the ease he once used to toss the remote, she remembers, he tossed the candle.
• • •
There was chaos, and then, for six weeks, there was sleep.
She remembers this: Running, in flames, to push up the garage door. Stop-drop-and-rolling on the front lawn. Her neighbor screaming. The pain searing. The chopper landing. Being told she needed to be forced into sleep; fearing she would never wake up.
Audrey was pumped with strong drugs and prodded by doctors and nurses at Tampa General Hospital trying to rebuild her. They patched her together using her own skin, even transferring part of a tattoo she had on her leg up to her arm. Her mind, in a coma, tried to process it all as reality infiltrated her dreams.
She still remembers the magnificent ice city, where tall buildings dwarfed her and cool water ran through the streets, lapping up her legs, soothing her with every step.
There was the dream where Dog the Bounty Hunter forced her to undergo a harsh form of physical therapy that involved ropes, a cannon ball and heat. In real life, her arms were tied up, outstretched to keep her skin from tightening.
Then, there was the one where she was stuck on a sadistic version of the game show, Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?, where a tube was inserted into her throat, and every time the audience got a question wrong, she was forced to inhale smoke. She would later realize she'd had a tracheotomy.
In her dream, she saw Malachai.
The boy answered the final question of the show and set his mother free.
• • •
February 2010. Three months had passed since the fire. She had been awake for two. She planned to leave the hospital for a day and, for the first time, to see her boys.
She wanted to see them, of course she did. But how would they deal with her burns?
She hadn't looked at the scars since that day a month earlier in the hospital bathroom. She kept her wheelchair positioned sideways as she prepared for baths, so she wouldn't have to see her reflection.
Her boys would see what she looked like before she could bear the sight herself. Malachai's godmother showed him a photo of Audrey to prepare him.
Then, the day came.
Audrey walked through the doorway of the home where her children stayed. For a few seconds, Malachai just looked at her. Then, the little boy opened his arms and hugged the first part he could, her legs. They sat next to each other on the couch, and when she got hot and took off her jacket, he reached for her arm, running his hand across her scars.
"You know," she told him, "Mommy looks different now."
He told her it didn't matter.
He told her he loved her.
Still, she could not look at herself. When she got out of the hospital, she moved in with friends. She asked them to cover up every mirror in the house.
That's how they stayed, hidden behind paper, until one day that March, when she decided, once again, to step into a bathroom alone.
She had always taken pride in how she looked. Now, she had other reasons to be proud, like her survival, her progress in physical therapy, and what she was about to do.
Screw it, she told herself. It's time to move on.
She reached for the cover and tore it off.
• • •
The new Audrey, now 28, no longer hides from mirrors.
She wears makeup and paints her nails hot pink.
She volunteers with Hands Across the Bay and hopes to start her own charity, one that would help other women.
She speaks about the consequences of domestic violence.
She no longer jogs. The heat bothers her too much. She still feels an uncomfortable throbbing in her upper chest, and she can't turn her head all the way.
But freedom has come. With the help of donors and a pro-bono lawyer, she filed for divorce, lives in her own apartment and drives her own car.
She thinks often about the prayer she said the day of the fire. She reminds herself that she got her wish: Her life was spared.
That day, deputies found her husband lying face down in the grass outside the home. "Put me back in," he told them. The deputies put that in their reports. He'd cut his wrist, neck and abdomen and later told a hospital chaplain he wanted himself and his partner to die so they could be happy forever.
Of Audrey, he told a deputy, "I watched her die."
With each court hearing she attends, she proves him wrong.
He arrives in chains, charged with attempted murder and arson.
The first time, he avoided eye contact. The second time, he didn't. He shook his head and mouthed the same words over and over: Oh, my God.
She shook her head too, her own thoughts running through her mind: You're going down.
She is on disability, but doesn't plan to be forever. She intends to return to school this fall, to pursue a degree in psychology.
She hopes to write a book.
She has written the ending to this story, her story:
My character is the definition of who I am. This enables me to choose who I want to be. I choose to be brave, loving, forgiving and strong.
I choose to be happy. I didn't die that day. What I learned was how to live.
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3354.