(Unlike my usual flash fiction, this story just keeps going. There are five sections you should read before you read this … start here.)
“I don’t understand,” Niki finally said. “Why is Melissa in this pit? What does it have to do with me?”
“Mrs. White told Melissa to tell you to get ready for dinner. You didn’t come down properly dressed. We had to wait for you to change. Melissa is being punished.” Everett spit out each sentence.
Ada put her hands up. “Everett. Calm down. She’ll hear.”
The two little boys looked over their shoulders at the slightly open door and huddled closer together.
“I … I didn’t … if I had known …,” Niki stammered. She stopped. The fear crawling across the other children’s faces slithered across the comforter and settled into her bones. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m really sorry.”
She looked from face to face in the dim light. “What can I do? How do I make it right?” She hesitated only briefly before adding, “I’ll tell Mrs. White it was all my fault first thing in the morning.”
“No!” Four hushed but urgent voiced tumbled over one another.
“Shhh!” Ada reminded everyone. To Niki, she added, “You can’t let her know you know about the Pit. She’ll know that we were here, that we told. We’ll all end up punished.”
“All except you,” Everett muttered.
“Why not me?” Niki asked. “I don’t understand.”
Rex popped his head up from where it had been resting on Todd’s shoulder. “You’re the new kid. The new kid doesn’t go in the Pit.”
Todd nodded his agreement. “If the new kid messes up, someone else gets the punishment.”
“But why? That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Mrs. White says it’s supposed to teach us how to work together,” Ada said.
“Which is dumb,” Everett punched at the comforter, “because why would you want to be friends with someone who gets you in trouble?” His voice sounded wobbly.
“Everett, it’s not like that. We were never mad when you–” Ada leaned over to pat Everett’s hand, but he pulled it away.
“I don’t want to talk about it!”
Rex leaned toward Niki and whispered loudly behind his hand. “Everett made lots of mistakes when he first got here. He was the last new kid. We all went to the Pit a lot. Now he likes-likes Melissa, but she doesn’t like-like him even though he said he was sorry.” Rex opened his eyes wide dramatically and shook his head at Niki. She stifled a giggle.
“Shut. Up.” Everett balled up his fist but Ada put her hand between the two boys. “Stop it. She’ll hear.”
Everyone fell silent.
Ada continued, “We should go. Sometimes she does bed checks.” She started to usher the boys off the bed. She looked back at Niki. “Just … be careful, okay? Watch us and try to do what she says.”
Niki nodded solemnly. “Of course.” She looked at Everett. “I’m really sorry, okay?” He shrugged and walked away without saying anything. The others filed out of the room behind him and Ada shut the door. In the thick darkness of her new room, Niki wondered exactly what kind of house she’d been placed in. The first glimmer of dawn peeked through her curtains before she fell asleep.