The first rule didn’t come until dinner that night. Mrs. White helped Niki unpack her few belonging quickly and then suggested she lie down for a rest.
“Moving and meeting new people can be so tiring, can’t they?” she asked as she folded the corner of the comforter down and fluffed the pillows. Niki, who normally considered naps boring and unnecessary, relished the idea of some quiet time in her beautiful new room. She allowed Mrs. White to tuck her in and smiled back at her as she turned off the light and gently closed the door.
Niki didn’t think she’d actually sleep–usually it took her a while to get comfortable enough with a new house to let her guard down–but the bed and the pillows and the strain of the day conspired against her usual vigilance.
The next thing she knew, she was opening her eyes to the sound of knocking on her door. The sun had gone down and the room was murky and filled with shadows. Niki didn’t believe in supernatural things–why waste time on imaginary dangers when the world held so many real ones?–but still she hesitated to climb out of bed into the darkness of this unfamiliar room.
“Yes?” she asked through the darkness.
The door opened a crack and light from the hallway poured in around Melissa’s narrow face.
“Mrs. White says it’s time to wash up for dinner,” she said.
Niki hopped out of bed, her nerves banished by the warm glow spilling into the room.
“Your dinner clothes are in the closet,” Melissa added and then she disappeared.
After turning on the light and closing the door, Niki opened the closet, curious to see what ‘dinner clothes’ were. She’d always just warn the same clothes she wore all day. ‘Dinner clothes’ sounded fancy, fitting for a life filled with fat pillows and late afternoon naps.
She felt a tingle of disappointment as she gazed into the closet. A floor-length dress of thick gray material hung limply from a hanger in the center of the small empty space. It had long sleeves, a high round collar, and a matching sash around the waist. It was easily the ugliest thing Niki had ever seen. Sitting on the floor beneath the dress were a pair of dark gray, ankle length boots that laced up the front through a series of silver hooks. They looked terribly stiff and uncomfortable.
Niki washed up and went down to the main floor in her own jeans and t-shirt. They were a little wrinked from her nap, but they were much more comfortable than the ‘dinner clothes’ looked like they’d be.
Five pairs of eyes stared at her as she entered the dining room. The other children were all seated at the heavy wooden table. They wore matching gray outfits; the girls in dresses like the one in Niki’s closet and the boys in gray suits with white shirts and dark gray ties.
Niki watched panic appear on each of their faces as they registered her clothes. Ada started to stand and one of the little boys gave a low, soft groan. Everett gave Melissa a disgusted look.
“Didn’t you tell her?”
Melissa started to protest, but then Mrs. White walked into the room and everyone froze. She wore her own gray dress and carried a casserole dish between two oven mitts. She set the dish down on the table and stood next to her chair at the head of the table. The children all sat rigid in their chairs, hands folded in their laps and eyes forward.
Mrs. White said nothing. She simply looked at Niki with a gentle smile. Her eyes, however, were flat and cold–almost sharp–as they stayed on Niki, unblinking. The grandfather clock in the hall ticked loudly as the room stayed in tableau for several long minutes.
Niki turned around and returned to her room. She hastily put on the gray dress and laced the stiff boots up as best she could. Shen she returned to the dining room, Mrs. White’s eyes softened and she gestured to an empty chair. The other children still sat straight and silent so Niki did the same.
“Now then, children,” Mrs. White said brightly. “Now that we’re all present and presentable, we can start.” The children passed their plates toward the end of the table where Mrs. White dished out the casserole. They moved more freely, but still spoke only to say “please” or “thank you”. Nobody looked at Niki. The bubble of concern tried to rise to the surface of her consciousness again as she handed her own plate over.