Z missed wearing pants. And shirts. And underwear. Full of bitterness, he turned away as Rhodes swung his legs off the side of the bed and pulled on his jeans. He was talking as he dressed, but Z filtered him out. Sitting on the edge of the bed, Rhodes picked his shirt up off the floor and tossed it over his shoulder.
The opportunity presented itself. Z took it. Without giving himself a moment to question the sanity of the idea, he grabbed the shirt by both ends and wrapped it around the man’s neck. Rhodes twisted around, but Z wrapped his legs around his waist and pulled back with all his strength. Rhodes’s flailing became uncoordinated. He beat the mattress as if tapping out, but Z only let go when Rhodes fell still. Z pushed the body off and it slid to the floor. Kicking Rhodes onto his back, Z snapped the chain off from around his neck and ran to the door.
“Fuck!” There were four keys on the chain. Three of them were almost identical. He had to try two of them twice. Finally, a key fit and turned. He pulled open the door. Indecision froze him on the landing. He looked at the stairs, to freedom, then across to the White Room. Every fiber of his body screamed for him to turn right, to run down the stairs.
He ran around the landing instead. Bursting into the White Room, Z shouted: “Guys, wake up! Get up! He’s–”
Before he could reveal Rhodes’s condition, a heavy force caught him on the shoulder, knocking him to the floor.
“I’m what?” Rhodes bellowed. “Unconscious? Dead? Brought down by a whelp?”
Rhodes’s face was still red from lack of oxygen. In one hand, he brandished the telescoping baton. In the other, he held his entire bag of tricks. He had been too angry to choose just one.
Z attempted to stand. Rhodes knocked him across the chest. Cries of despair and protest escaped the surrounding closets. He slammed the baton into Monica’s door, denting the slats and making the girl scream.
Clutching his chest, Z curled up on the floor. Rhodes used his foot to press him down onto his stomach. He sat on the boy’s back and plopped the bag on his shoulders. Opening it, Rhodes considered his options. When the boy attempted to buck him off, Rhodes tapped him on the top of the head with the baton. This was enough to knock him silly for a moment.
Rhodes pulled out a hunting knife, then a scalpel. “Let’s see if I can leave an impression on you.” He moved the bag to the floor, well out of Z’s reach. Leaning down, he pressed the tip of the knife into the back of Z’s neck.
“If you move,” he whispered into the boy’s ear, “you will be paralyzed from the neck down. I will keep you alive, though: You will have a front-row seat every time I fuck your precious friends.
“Your friends are going to help me teach you a lesson.” He leaned back up and looked around at the closet doors. “You are being punished for being defiant.” He poised the scalpel like a pencil and dug it into the skin between Z’s shoulders. Screaming, Z reached to grab Rhodes’s arm, but stopped when the tip of the knife dug into the skin of his neck.
“Uh-uh…” Rhodes clucked. He shifted his knees to pin Z’s arms. As he finished carving the word into the boy’s back, Z groaned and whimpered, keeping his screams behind clenched teeth.
“Now!” The word DEFIANT oozed blood across Z’s back and dripped onto the carpet. “Can anybody tell me a synonym for defiant?” He paused, looking around, but no one spoke. He adopted the condescending tone of a children’s show host: “For those of you who have forgotten in the short time that you have been away from school, a synonym is a word with the same meaning as another word… Anyone?”
“Rebellious,” Witt offered.
“Good!” Rhodes chirped. “Very good! Thank you, Witt.”
Z screamed again as Rhodes carved the word REBELLIOUS underneath DEFIANT. Witt gasped, realizing he had just played a part in Z’s torture.
“Another? Ladies?” He could hear Monica crying, cowering against the back wall. Through the slats, he could see the outline of Heather’s body pressed against her door, head bowed. Impatient, he slashed the scalpel across Z’s back, flinging blood onto Heather’s door. It dripped through the slats. Z howled in pain. She dropped to her knees.
“Disobedient!” Monica shrieked.
“There you are!” Rhodes carved the word with quick strokes. “Just Heather, your turn.”
A moment passed.
“Insubordinate,” Witt suggested when he began to fear the silence had lasted too long.
“I asked Heather.”
“I’m thinking–I can’t think…” Heather breathed. He could practically hear the cogs in her head grinding. She racked her brain: coups, uprisings, shades of gray…
“Good word, Heather!” Rhodes chirped. Z was losing resolve. Tears were streaming down his face. “What was that you said a moment ago, Witt?”
“Insubordinate.” Witt’s voice sounded thick with tears.
“I love words with t, don’t you?” Rhodes asked as he slashed through Z’s skin. Wordless, Z shook his head. “You look like you’ve learned your lesson,” Rhodes observed. He ran a hand through Z’s hair. “One more word, just for good measure. Heather, give me one more word. Defiant. Rebellious. Seditious…”
A shadow passed over Rhodes’s face. “Try again.”
“No,” she said. “Bold. Bold is a synonym for defiant.” She rose to her feet and pressed herself against the door again.
“Don’t–” Z moaned.
“Shut up.” Rhodes did not know if the boy had been talking to him or Heather.
“If you want to challenge it, you can bring me a thesaurus,” she said. “Or even better, a phone. Bring me a smart phone, and I’ll look it up. All you’ll have to do is sit back and wait.”
Equal parts irritated and amused, Rhodes stood.
“No!” Z grabbed his ankle. Rhodes kicked him in the head, then stuffed him unceremoniously into his closet.
When Rhodes opened Heather’s door, she turned to him defiantly.