First, Niki took advantage of the chore schedule to talk with Melissa because she’d received the brunt of the punishments since Niki’s arrival. Mrs. White claimed to apply the punishments according to a careful set of rules and calculations, but Niki suspected that Mrs. White just didn’t like Melissa’s attitude. Despite the frequency and duration of her trips to the Pit, Melissa kept a fire in her eyes. She walked with vigor—not broken and scared like the little ones and not hard and brittle like Everett—just strong and confident, as though returning victorious from battle, whenever she returned from an absence.
Niki had watched Mrs. White follow Melissa with her gaze, lips pursed tightly like she’d just sucked on an unexpected lemon wedge. Niki hoped that Melissa was aware of this prediliction for heaping punishment on her.
“We have to do something about this,” Niki said, focusing her attention intently on the dirty pan in front of her. She kept it intentionally vague, allowing Melissa to interpret her meaning.
Melissa’s hand stopped scrubbing for a second. Then, without making eye contact, she returned to her task and whispered, “I didn’t think it would be you.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve been waiting for someone else to reach this point—when we can’t just sit and take it any longer.” She paused. When she continued her voice wavered a little. “I’ve been waiting for so long.”
“Why not me?” Niki asked. She felt slightly hurt. She dunked clean plates in hot rinse water to distract herself.
“No offense,” Melissa said. “You just seemed pretty comfy in that big room with your pink bed and your fancy dressers.”
“Fair enough,” Niki said. “I didn’t ask for that room, though.”
“Doesn’t mean your life isn’t easier for having it.” Melissa’s tone was mild, but she wiped the dish in her hand with vigor.
Niki nodded. “You’re right. What are we going to do?”
Together they approached Everett during homework time, while Mrs. White was distracted by the younger boys. The permanent darkness on his face deepened when he looked up to see Niki sit down next to him and then lightened considerably when Melissa sat on his other side.
“Hey, Mel,” he said.
“Hey.” Melissa pulled out her homework. “Niki’s got an idea.”
Everett scowled down at his math. He said nothing.
After a few awkward minutes, silent but for pencils scratching on paper, Niki spoke. “Look, I know I messed up. I don’t blame you for hating me.” Everett’s pencil stopped. “I can’t undo my mistakes, but it’s time for us to put an end to this situation.” They all started working again as Mrs. White walked through the dining room.
“Everything okay?” she asked them. She peered over Niki’s shoulder. “Math, huh? Do you need any help?”
Mrs. White patted her head. “Let’s stay on task then, my dears. It would be unfortunate for Everett to miss school this week.” Her voice stayed light and cheery, but her hand weighed heavily on Niki’s shoulder.
“Yes, ma’am,” they murmured, pencils moving quickly.
Mrs. White footsteps had fully receded to the living room where Ada was now reading to the little boys before Everett spoke again. Without looking up, he asked, “What’s the plan?”