During your stay at the House of Propriety, you have no name. You are given a number upon arrival, and it is this number by which you are referred to by the adults. You are not allowed to tell the other girls your name; you are not allowed to tell the other girls anything. You are not allowed to speak.
When the newest girl arrives at the House, she is given the number 18. Since there are more than eighteen girls in the House, and she is eleven years old, she isn’t certain of her number’s significance. She almost asks, in the beginning when the Rule of Silence is new to her and therefore forgettable, but a single glance from the Matron reminds her to hold her tongue. During the tour she bites the inside of her cheek to keep from asking questions, though it feels like a thousand of them bubble in her throat and push at her mouth.
There are six adults at the House: the Matron, terrifying in her stiff black dress and tight-bound gray hair; her husband, a man who enjoys earning the girls’ trust in order to exploit it for his own amusement; their eldest daughter and her husband, a lazy, spoiled couple who treat the girls like servants; and the youngest daughter, a reserved young woman who watches always for rule breaking. The House is an old Victorian manor turned into a maze of rooms and passageways by an almost unbelievable amount of clutter. It seems to 18 as if every resident who has passed through its halls left something behind, so that strange objects sit on every surface and in piles against the walls.
Though 18 keeps her head down in the beginning, it doesn’t take her long to learn the ways of the House, which girls can be trusted, and which spy for the adults. By the second month, she has become involved in what some call, both affectionately and with no small amount of wry humor, the Resistance. A small network operates among the most rebellious residents, messages passed in coded signals, rearranged objects, and nearly inaudible whispers. To these valiant efforts, 18 brings a valuable asset. 18 has no word for what she can do; she calls it “ghosting”, though she knows she can’t really be a ghost if she’s still alive. Whatever it is, since she was a toddler 18 has been able to send her consciousness, or maybe her soul, out of her body to invisibly and silently explore the area around her. Never has this skill been so useful or so necessary. With it, she eavesdrops on the adults and keeps watch while the other girls pass messages or commit subtle sabotage.
Through the network, 18 learns about the Repentance Room. The little building can be seen from the House’s rear windows, but from a distance it looks like nothing more than a shed nestled near the back wall of the garden. According to the others, however, the Room is used to punish children who break too many rules of the House. There they are locked, in cold and darkness, without food or water, for hours or even days. Some girls never return at all. The adults always claim these girls ran away, but no one believes them; there is no running away from the House.
After six months, 18 is finally allowed to go into the gardens as part of her daily chores. Her first time out, she tries to ignore the Room but finds herself drawn to the dilapidated shed anyway. The door is sealed by a large padlock, but 18 doesn’t use her ghosting to see inside. She isn’t ready for that truth just yet. Instead, she turns her back on the Room with the intention of leaving its dark secrets behind – but instead, they come out to face her in the light of day. Unbeknownst to 18, she has been gifted with one other strange power: the ability to see the resting places of the dead. As she turns away from the Room and back to the gardens, she catches a glimpse of bare skin between the leaves and investigates. Like a hologram, the vision of the buried dead girl floats just above the rich garden earth, the spring flowers and long green leaves sticking up through her translucent form like beautiful knives. When 18 looks up, she realizes the pale ghosts litter the garden.