“Alrighty. We’re here.” Eloise’s mom shifted the car into park and looked at her daughter in the passenger seat. Eloise’s eyes stayed glued to the window, which framed a large brick house. No, not a house. A mansion.
“Eloise. Sweetie?” Eloise’s mom reached out and swept one of Eloise’s long brunette braids to the front of her shoulder.
“I think I want to go home.”
Eloise’s mom chuckled. “Anastasia is new to your school and needs help making friends. You’ll have lots of fun at her house.”
Already pushing the door open, Eloise replied, “That’s no house.” Her worn white sneakers plopped softly against the manicured grass, and her left shoelace thwapped against her ankle, untied already. Eloise trudged through the grass and up to the front door, and she gazed up at the large brass knocker high up on the door. Where’s the doorbell? she thought. She smacked her open palm against the door, resulting in a satisfying thwack that sounded like it echoed into the house. What kind of house doesn’t have a doorbell?
The door handle twisted in front of Eloise’s nose, making her heart race ever so slightly. A tall bald man in a black suit with white gloves stood in the crack of the doorway.
“Miss Anastasia is in the foyer.” His voice was deep but also nasally. Like he was pinching his nose. He turned from Eloise and started walking deeper into the house. She scurried behind, afraid to lose sight of him. What on earth is a foyer?
Her untied shoelace tic, tic, ticked as it bounced against the stone floor. It was white with swirls of black and so shiny that Eloise could almost see her little freckle under her right eye. She stuck her tongue out at her reflection and had to squeak to a halt to avoid hitting Bald Butler, for he had stopped walking.
“This is the foyer. Enjoy your stay.” Bald Butler tucked his gloved hands behind his back, nodded his head at Eloise, and walked away.
Eloise peered around one shiny white column and into what was apparently the foyer. Inside the room was a long line of girls standing shoulder-to-shoulder, all the same age as Eloise. All stood silently. The girl on the end farthest away from Eloise turned her head ever so slightly in Eloise’s direction and darted her eyes between Eloise and the empty spot beside her.
“Oh!” Eloise mused aloud. All twelve heads swiveled in her direction, and she clapped a hand over her mouth before scurrying to stand in her place in line. “What are we doing?” she whispered to the girl next to her.
“I don’t know.” Coily black hair brushed Eloise’s shoulder as the girl leaned toward her. “The butler keeps leading girls in one by one, and we all stand in this line. I wasn’t one of the first girls in here, so I don’t know why we’re standing like this.”
“Perhaps Anastasia is spying on us through cameras.” Eloise pivoted her head up to the ceiling, looking for the black domes that her brother, Charlie, had said were cameras. He said that the grocery store uses them to spot children who pick their noses when they think people aren’t looking.
I never pick my nose, though, Eloise thought. Only babies pick their noses. And Charlie, probably. Picking noses is most definitely something a stinky twelve-year-old boy would do. Not a proper eight-year-old like me.
Eloise finished her inspection of the ceiling, but she did not see any black domes.
A door slammed from above them, and the coily-haired girl flinched. Eloise reached down and grabbed her hand.
“What’s your name?” she breathed with the faintest of sounds.
“Aisha. What’s yours?” Aisha squeezed Eloise’s fingers.
“Eloise. Don’t worry. I’ll protect you. I have a brother, and he’s not afraid of hitting girls.” Aisha’s wide eyes darted to Eloise’s face. “So I just hit him back.” Eloise grinned.
The sound of shoes click-clacking against the floor echoed through the room, and a head of curly blonde hair peeked over the railing of the balcony as it headed for the staircase. A tiny pale hand ghosted over the banister, and the blonde hair bounced with every step down the stairs.
The clacking stopped as Anastasia turned towards the girls and pinned her frosty blue eyes on them. Her eyes darted up and down each girl, and she began to tsk, tsk, tsk. She wore a poufy light blue dress that Eloise thought was far too fancy for a playdate.
Anastasia tapped her nails against the banister a few times before stalking toward the line of girls.
“As you all know, I’m new here. Which means I’m in need of a new best friend. Obviously, my options are very slim since you all were the best I could find. But if you prove yourselves worthy, I think you’ll find a friendship with me to be most beneficial.”
Eloise snorted and Anastasia’s gaze zipped in her direction.
“Do you have something to say, peasant?”
“We’re in the same class, Anastasia. What makes you think you’re better than us?” Never mind the fact that Eloise didn’t know what peasant meant. It sounded rude, and that was enough for her.
“I’m sure you know where the door is. If you don’t want to be here, then you can leave.” Anastasia folded her hands in front of her and flashed her a sickeningly sweet smile. Eloise debated it for a moment. Mom won’t be back to pick me up for a long time. Besides, I can’t leave Aisha. Eloise squeezed Aisha’s hand twice before shooting her own hard stare at Anastasia, tilting her chin up high.
“Hmm! That’s what I thought. Does anyone else have any thoughts they’d like to share?” The rest of the room stayed funeral silent. “You’ll need to prove yourselves to me before I can deem you worthy of my friendship.”
Anastasia turned away from Eloise and began gliding down the line of girls. She stopped at the girl farthest from Eloise.
“It’s teatime. I can’t be friends with someone without manners.” She clapped her hands together twice and Bald Butler appeared. Anastasia turned to him. “Clive? We’re ready for tea.”
“Right this way ladies.” Clive extended a hand toward a doorway directly opposite the door that Eloise had entered from. The line of girls began trudging into the next room, which was a very spacious dining room.
Eloise and Aisha sat at the far-left end of the table. Eloise squinted at the three forks next to her plate. Why would a person ever need three forks?
More men dressed like Clive and some ladies wearing knee-length black dresses entered the dining room carrying silver trays stacked with little sandwich squares and steaming hot kettles. A silver tray was plopped right in front of Eloise’s nose, and before she could think of grabbing one of the perfect little sandwiches, another hand reached out.
“Excuse me!” Anastasia screeched. The hand halted and all heads swiveled to Anastasia. “No one is supposed to eat until I say so.” The hand slowly receded from the table, and Eloise saw the girl’s eyes start to go glassy, but the girl stayed strong, and no tears fell.
“Now.” Anastasia raised both of her hands. “Ladies, let’s eat.” Not a single hand moved until Anastasia herself reached for the sandwich trays. Then, the girls all happily dug in. No one spoke.
Anastasia had many comments on the etiquette of the girls at the table. Sugar cubes are to be picked up with the tongs, not your fingers. You should not slurp your tea. It is improper to take the cucumbers off your sandwich because you do not like green things. Eloise rolled her eyes after each comment. How much longer before Mom comes to pick me up?
One girl actually did cry after a particularly scathing comment from Anastasia. And Anastasia, of course, had more words to say about the girl’s tears.
“Ladies don’t cry in the presence of others. They wait until they are alone.”
After tea came the pastime activities. Whatever those are. Maybe Anastasia has some dolls that we’ll play with. Pastime activities did not, however, include dolls.
“Chess is an activity that shows a number of skills. I can’t possibly be friends with an idiot. Clive! Bring in the chess sets.”
The girls all shuffled into a room set up with various tables that the butlers and maids were topping with chess boards and pieces.
“Choose a partner, and you can begin playing.”
Aisha leaned towards Eloise. “I don’t know how to play chess.”
“Neither do I.” Eloise tugged on one of her braids. “We can make it up as we go, I guess.” Eloise climbed into the chair across from Aisha and stared at the pieces in front of her.
“Oh, do take your time.” Anastasia said with a smirk from where she stood to Eloise’s right.
“I don’t see you playing chess, Anastasia. What makes you think that I’m not worried about being friends with a dummy?” Anastasia huffed and turned to harass the girls next to Eloise. Eloise leaned over the chess board.
“Great, now that she’s gone, we don’t have to pretend to know what we’re doing.”
After chess and the excessive judgement passed from Anastasia, moms started arriving. With each knock on the front door, heads jerked towards the front of the house in the hopes of seeing their mother’s face. One by one they all left, even Aisha, leaving Eloise alone in Anastasia’s house.
“Well, I don’t have time to wait around all day. I’m going to the garden. Don’t follow me.” Anastasia turned with a swish of her skirt and left Eloise standing in the foyer. That stuck-up, no-good brat! Eloise thought. How can she just leave me here? I’m a guest. My mom would never let me treat a guest the way Anastasia treated us today.
Eloise paced the length of the foyer a few times before clenching her fists and storming off in search of a door that would lead her outside. She was going to give Anastasia a piece of her mind.
After getting lost a few times, Eloise found herself surrounded by roses and vines and flowers of every color she could think of. And in the center of it all was a tree with a swing. Anastasia’s back was toward Eloise, and she swayed back and forth, the tips of her shoes dragging in the dirt. Eloise marched right up to that tree and stopped behind Anastasia.
“I have never met someone who was as rude as you were today.”
Anastasia jumped up and spun to face Eloise. Her face was red, her cheeks wet. Eloise’s anger fizzled. Just a little bit.
“What are you doing here?” Anastasia spat out.
“Were you crying?”
Anastasia swiped at her cheeks. “No.”
“Why are you crying? You’re the one who was mean to everyone.”
“I’m…I’m crying because I couldn’t find one good friend out of all of you! It makes me mad.” Anastasia crossed her arms and leaned back, resting against the tree. Ivy leaves that wrapped around the trunk brushed against her hair.
“That was the most ridiculous way to pick a friend that I have ever seen! Friends shouldn’t have to prove themselves to you.”
“Well, they do to me! I have high standards.” Anastasia dropped her arms and pushed away from the tree.
“You’ll never have friends then. You’re too much of a bully!” Eloise stomped away but not before seeing the tiniest bit of hurt in Anastasia’s eyes.
Eloise wandered back into the front entryway and paced between two shiny white columns.
She’s playing tricks on me; I just know it. That sneaky little Anastasia trying to make me feel bad for her.
She stomped toward a window facing out the front of the house and pulled back a gauzy curtain. Her mother’s car was nowhere in sight. What is taking her so long? Eloise yanked the curtain back into place and left the entryway, determined to explore.
She pressed down hard on the balls of her feet to make a satisfying squeak against the tiled floor. She ran up the stairs and slid back down them on her bottom. Tiled steps were not nearly as comfortable as carpeted steps. I won’t be doing that again, she thought while rubbing her backside.
When she reached the room where they had played chess, she walked up to the board closest to her and tipped every piece on its side, watching them whirl around. And then, she came across a large, clear window that overlooked the garden. The tree looked even larger and the plants even greener from inside.
Eloise could see Anastasia standing in front of a very tall and slender woman with curly blonde hair just like Anastasia’s. Her chin was tilted down. The blonde woman shook a pale finger at Anastasia, and Eloise squashed her ear against the glass to try and hear what the woman was saying. It was very muffled, but Eloise could just make out the words.
“…were good enough for you. Don’t cry over girls who are beneath you. You’ll find better friends, I’m sure.” The woman caressed Anastasia’s chin, and Anastasia mumbled something that Eloise couldn’t make out.
The words that Eloise’s mother had said earlier came back to her. She needs help making friends. She sighed, then dashed around the corner to the door that led out to the garden.
“There you are, Ana!” Eloise skidded to a stop in front of Anastasia as she jerked her chin out of her mother’s grasp.
“And what are you doing here?” Anastasia’s mother glared down at Eloise.
“Ana and I were playing hide-and-go-seek. She must be really good at it because I’ve been looking forever.” Eloise widened her eyes at Anastasia, whose mouth was slightly open.
“Um, yes…of course. I’m an excellent hider, and you are a terrible seeker, but you can learn. She can learn, right, Mother?”
Anastasia’s mother hmm-ed and walked slowly around Eloise. “Is she educated?”
“We’re in the same class.”
“How are her table manners?”
“She was…most definitely not an embarrassment to eat with. But she can always learn more!”
Anastasia’s mother brought her hand up to her chin. Eloise held her breath. Perhaps this was a bad idea?
“Fine. She will be an appropriate companion under the circumstances. But I expect you to teach her proper etiquette. I can’t have my daughter being friends with a neanderthal.” Anastasia’s mother nodded her head once and left the garden. Anastasia collapsed into the tree swing.
“What on earth is a neanderthal?” Eloise asked.
“I have no idea. We will have to ask Clive. Why did you come back?” Anastasia peered at Eloise.
Eloise motioned for Anastasia to scooch over on the wooden tree-swing plank—for it was big enough for two small girls—and sat down, swaying gently.
“Because I saw the way your mom talked to you. It must be hard to find friends that she likes. She’s like a queen. She must think no one is good enough for you.”
“Yeah. She is kind of picky. She won’t like you when she really gets to know you. You might as well leave and not come back.”
“I don’t know about you, Ana, but my momma didn’t raise no quitter. I’m a fast learner and you promised to teach me.”
Anastasia stopped the swing and looked at Eloise. Her lips tipped upwards. “Really?”
“Yes, well, lesson number one.” Anastasia stood up from the swing. “My name is Anastasia. Don’t call me Ana.” She put her hands on her hips.
Eloise jumped up and mimicked Anastasia’s stance. “Well, lesson number one of friendship is that friends give each other nicknames. I’ll call you Ana and you can call me Ellie.”
Anastasia crossed her arms and frowned. Eloise frowned right back. A few seconds passed, and then Anastasia rolled her eyes.
“Fine, Ellie.” They both smiled. “Let’s go inside. I saw you eying the dinner and salad forks at the table. I can’t be friends with someone who doesn’t know what a salad fork is.” She looped her arm in Eloise’s.
“Fine, Ana, as long as we can do something fun next.”
“We can play chess!”
Eloise rolled her eyes. “I think chess is dumb. Do you have any dolls?”
Anastasia thought for a moment. “I have some in my room.”
“You better not ruin any of them. They were very expensive.”
“You live in a castle, Anastasia. I think your mom can buy you a new one if I break it.”
Anastasia paused, then giggled. “Well, I guess you’re right. But this is not a castle. It’s just a house.”
“Trust me. This house isn’t just anything.”