If Heather had ever felt the need to abandon the others and escape, it was at that moment. She knew the strip was not well-hidden if he was searching for it. Her throat tightened with dread. She fought with the door, but it was sturdy and unrelenting. The closet door had a padlock on it. She tried the bedside table. It was also locked.

Why does everything in this house have to be locked?

Her breath came in short, panicked gasps. She climbed over the bed to the window. It was nailed and painted shut. She tried to pry it open anyway. She turned to grab the chair, but froze. Rhodes glared at her as he walked down the hall. He turned the sill sweep between his hands.

“I learned a new phrase the other day, Just Heather,” he said. “I learned, Bless your heart. It took me quite a while to figure out what it meant… It’s a fascinating dialect, the Southern colloquial. Never before have I heard such a contradictory phrase. Bless your heart, Heather Stokes… bless your heart.”

Rhodes meandered toward her as he spoke, toying with the metal strip. Heather fought to remember it was flimsy and weak and couldn’t hurt her at all. Despite that, her chest was tight. Her hands shook. Pressing herself against the wall, she fought the tears choking her and threatening to run down her face. She took several deep breaths and concealed her fear.

“The others… your friends, they’ve sold me your secrets, your whole life, in exchange for a few minutes of rest. These are the people you are killing yourself for. Are they really worth starving yourself? Are they really worth your pain?” He leaned down to look her in the eye, waiting for an answer.

“Pain…” She looked away. “It’s really not that bad,” she lied. “It doesn’t last that long.”

“Well, yes.” He nodded, standing tall again. “But you,” he added, holding up the strip between his palms, “will be feeling this for the rest of your short life.”

Grabbing her arm, he threw her against the bed. He shoved her face-down into the mattress. Brandishing the strip like a crop, he brought it down upon her back.


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