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Chapter 2

Isaiah the host let out a long, melodious laugh.

“Oh, you’re all so short and sweet!” he said in response to their introductions as Elo sat with pursed lips. “Now, before you settle in too comfortably, we’ve got a little bit of a logistics problem: your rooms!” Elo tried to look as engaged as everyone else, but Nick was still staring at her, so she just found a loose rock on the floor to examine.

“Is this why we have these colored bands?” asked Abby with a raised hand. Hers was white. Isaiah clapped.

“Yes, Abby! Exactly. But, well, this is a competition. You have to compete for the right to pick your room first.” The group gave gentle, nervous laughter. Brooke glanced to her golden stilettos, and swore under her breath. “You’re all going to be living together for a short while, so it’s best to get acquainted with a few more details than just names and job descriptions. How about deep, dark secrets?” Now Elo looked up.

She didn’t know Isaiah well, just helped interview him for the part, but she thought, at least, she’d get a slight look of reassurance from him when he glanced at her. Instead, his mischievous smile sent jolts of uncertainty in her stomach.

“This isn’t for points, don’t worry. That’s a bit unfair.” Unfair would be to give Elo a task to keep her entire identity a secret, cast someone she knew from before, and then set up the very first task to be about secrets. That would be a bit unfair. “So, throughout the house are groups of hidden keys with colored ribbons on them. These ribbons match your bracelets. So, for instance, Abby, your bracelet is white, so the keys that represent your secret will also be white. There are nine of you, so there are nine colors and nine groups of keys.

“The keys are hidden in a way to give a hint as to what the deep, dark secret might represent. This will give you an edge on figuring out what it might be, but we won’t tell the whole story.” He winked. The stirring of the contestants stiffened to a slightly more defensive stance. Some with their arms crossed, some suddenly looking as if they were ready to bolt for the gate door. The cameras caught every single expression and twitch.

Isaiah continued, “But, to keep things interesting, there are only five of each key, and you’ve only got five minutes to find as many as possible. Your various levels of success will determine the order in which you get to pick your rooms. Make sense?” There was too much excitement in his voice. Elo’s hands flew to either side of her legs, her feet shifting to prepare to run. When no one had any questions, just as she suspected, Isaiah announced, “Your time starts now!”

Elo wasn’t the only one that saw what was going to happen. Abby bolted straight to the camera beside her--why, Elo didn’t bother to focus on--while Ehan booked it straight to the sliding glass door. Brooke kicked off her shoes swiftly, abandoning them by the pool, and followed Ehan into the house in a full sprint. In the chaos, Elo stole away to the pool bathroom off by the pergola.

Which one of her coworkers was responsible for this sick trick? Really? The first day? As Elo silently cursed Grace and other behind the scenes specialists, she dashed through the door to the bathroom.

Cold, highly ventilated, the tiled room echoed her heavy breathing. The door shut behind her, and she immediately began opening the drawers and cabinets surrounding the floor-length mirror, searching, hoping she was right in her guess. Identity, mirrors--that worked, right? It wasn’t as if there were photos of her in the house, or proof of her certifications or anything like that--that much she was sure of.

This bathroom didn’t seem to hold any keys of any kind. With a careless final sweep, Elo spun around and dashed through the backyard and into the house, silently thanking her past self for doing a walkthrough with the contractors to double-check the invoices and checklists. She had an advantage, knowing the layout.

The next bathroom was off on the front of the first floor, near the stairs. Just as she opened the door to go in, she caught Brooke stepping out of the grand piano room, clutching a key in her hand that matched the orange band on her wrist. Brooke didn’t seem to see her yet, and instead opted to head to the kitchen, where Devi tore through the cabinets with fervor.

With the hints tucked away in her mind for later, she shut and locked the door behind herself.

This bathroom, although grand with three toilet stalls and vanities alike, didn’t have anything in its medicine cabinet other than first aid, and nothing other than cleaning supplies and toilet paper under the sinks. If Brooke already found her key, that could mean she or others could already be heading toward finding hers--or by stumbling upon it by accident.

Elo finally decided to take a page out of Brooke’s survival guide and kicked off her heels, casting them against the wall of the bathroom with a thud. The mud from under one of the heels splashed onto the immaculate, white wall, which made her flinch, but she ignored it for now. There were more pressing matters. She’d apologize to the cleaning crew later, if they got to it before her.

She now rounded the corner to run up the stairs, sweaty hand tightly gliding along the banister for support. The only thing worse than everyone finding out she was a plug on the first day would be if she broke her back at the same time.

The two other bathrooms were set on either side of the hallway, at the very ends of the long stretches of ten bedrooms--one of which, she knew, was locked and used for electrical storage and backup camera and audio equipment. Elo risked heading to the bathroom on the right first. She mumbled an “excuse me” to Shane as he brushed past her, and another to a sweaty-looking Quin, before she made it to the door.

As she cursed Grace and crew in her head for setting up this stupid (literally) pointless challenge, she began to tear apart the storage bins and drawers of the large, illuminated counter. First aid, Clorox wipes, double-ply toilet paper--come on! Maybe her key wasn’t in the bathroom at all, but she had one last one to check before she started to invade the dressers of the bedrooms.

When she got there, she didn’t even bother shutting the door this time. She was running out of time, she knew it. She’d undoubtedly pick her room last--but she didn’t really care at that point. She knew they were all essentially the same. Finally, when opening the mirror of the middle vanity, Elo saw what she’d been looking for, mostly: three keys with purple ribbons tied to them. Without thinking, she grabbed all of them and stuffed them in her pocket. When she turned to run back out, she had to grab onto the counter to stop herself from slipping in surprise.

Nick stood by the door, his fist full of four keys: red, black, green, and purple. Her throat tightened when he spotted her.

“Doesn’t look like you’re doing so well, Ellie," came his off-handed comment. Elo pursed her lips. Well, if he got one of her keys, she only had to make sure he didn’t talk to whoever else got hers. She then, at least, had a chance to find a believable lie to feed them.

“I see you found yours,” she said in response, gesturing to the red key he also held. “Am I going to find that on a window lock?” Nick’s grimace told her she would. He told her about his former stint with the law in confidence on the job a few years ago, but it was hard to forget. A year in juvie for breaking and entering, and he was caught before he could steal anything because the window had an alarm. He didn’t take her bait, though, and continued blocking her way to the hallway.

Elo sighed. “Look, I know you wouldn’t believe that I...just go by Ellie now, or whatever,” she started, searching her mind for some sort of excuse he would buy. “I’m--I’ll explain everything. Please. Just keep it to yourself.” Nick considered her words for a moment, watching her tap impatiently on the counter.

“I think I can do that,” he said finally. God, she’d spent so much time searching for her own keys, there was almost no time left to find anyone else’s, and he was talking so slowly! He let out a long “hum” as she started toward the door, not moving. “But I think you’ll owe me.” Elo rolled her eyes. Perhaps if she actually competed for the same points he did, it might make her pause. But this? He’d likely ask her to sabotage someone, and as long as it didn’t conflict with what she was already doing, hell--no problem.

“Fine.” She gestured for him to move, ignoring his surprised smile, and immediately turned into the bedroom he just came out of.

Elegant and simple in design, at first, Elo went for the window, until the tousled decorative pillow caught her attention. When the window proved bare, she returned to the deep crimson plushes, lifting and feeling the fabric.

To her surprise, she found a couple green keys. She left the others, took one, and dashed out of the bedroom. Maybe she should have been looking for other secrets, if she already knew Nick’s--and she could have sworn she just heard Isaiah yell some sort of number. Besides, there were, like, a hundred windows in this house. She didn’t have time to look for a hint to something she already knew.

Heart in her throat, Elo decided to dash back down the stairs and into the backyard. First thing was first: dispose of the evidence that she was hiding anything in the first place. And, thankfully, when she got back outside, she only saw Isaiah standing with just one cameraman. She frowned at him, pointedly, as she sprinted toward the stone fence. She grabbed for the purple keys in her back pocket, then as hard as she possibly could, chucked them over the fence, and twisted back to the host. He just smiled at her while a cameraman caught every one of her movements.

“The fuck, Isaiah?” she demanded through her teeth. Isaiah laughed.

“Contestants!” he shouted, turning to the glass doors of the house. “You have one minute left!” In her anger, she started her way toward the host, but hesitated. The cameraman. Around his neck was a chain, and the faintest, white ribbon stuck out from his shirt. Redirecting herself, Elo instead approached the camera and held out her hand. The large man was a good sport about it, and just grabbed a key with a white ribbon from his pocket to hand to her. Well, that was clever, hiding it on the staff--but also, what kind of secret involved cameramen? None that were good to air on television, anyway.

Abby was the first of the contestants to burst through the sliding doors, a thin line of sweat dripping down her temple.

“Giving up early?” she asked Elo. When she flashed the white-ribboned key, Abby shrunk into herself, hand over her bracelet, and plunked down onto a chair. She had a small handful, but Elo couldn’t make out the different colored ribbons. Hardly any moments passed as the other contestants began to return to the back yard, all panting, holding keys, looking worried. The most impressive haul seemed to be Brooke, who held almost every color, though notably not any purple. Elo struggled to find the other person that held hers, but everyone was returned to their seats by the time Isaiah finished his dramatic countdown.

Over the various sounds of people heaving for air and settling into their chairs, Isaiah turned to all of them with a grin. He had one hand on his ear, listening to whatever the producers said, and methodically glanced at each of them in time with the reports he received.

“Welcome back, contestants!” he called after maybe a full minute of silence. “So it looks like we have a few ties, so as tie-breakers, we will use the times that it took for you to find the keys as the deciding factor of what order you will go in to decide your rooms. Let’s first start by showing off who got what, in rainbow order. Red?” When prompted, Nick stood, a lot less confident than when he walked in. His hands clasped in front of himself as if he was defending from an attack, his thick lips turned down in a grimace.

“I’m red,” he said finally.

“Thanks, Nick! Now, I see you’ve got a red key. Who else has a red key?” When Isaiah said this, various hands began to rise into the air: Brooke’s, Quin’s, Trish’s and Ehan’s. “Alright, each of you, including Nick, has a point. Next up is...orange!”

Each of the contestants stood when it came to their color; four points were given each round, until it was time for Elo to stand up for the color violet and showcase that she had only Abby’s white key, and Shane’s green key.

“Thanks, Ellie! I see you don’t have a violet key. Does anyone else have one?” Only Nick and Devi raised their hands. The rest of the contestants all glanced to one another, searching for other hands that might raise. “Well, that’s interesting!” Elo sat down before anyone else could ask any questions.

“How’d that happen?” Brooke muttered to her when she sat. “Sucks you didn’t find yours. You don’t even know what secret they could be using against you.” Elo shrugged simply at her, hoping she wouldn’t look too far into it. Abby and Quin were next, both equally nervous when they stood, and obviously taking note of who rose their hand.

“Great work, everyone!” Isaiah said with a laugh. “That’ll sure stir some conversation at the welcome party tonight. But first, let’s figure out what rooms you’ll be getting ready in! All of your luggage has been transferred to the hallway so you can officially claim your bed. The team has calculated the order you will go in based upon your completion times and the amount of keys you collected. First place, to no one’s surprise, is Brooke!” The contestants let out respectful applause, though with noted hesitation. She got everyone’s keys--except, of course, for Elo’s. Winning the challenge, Brooke discovered quickly, also made her a massive caution sign.

The group began their nearly silent journey up the steps, with some people breaking away temporarily to find their shoes (Elo included), until they all reconvened in a single-file line against the walls and doors of the second floor hallway. Two cameramen followed, the rest remaining down stairs.

Isaiah gestured to Brooke when everyone was settled.

“Brooke, please grab your bag and pick your room.” And, as expected, the first four people to pick their rooms all selected ones closest to the bathrooms on either end of the hallway. From there, the only one remaining when it came to Elo’s turn, was the remaining centermost room, which she took unceremoniously with and with a sheepish laugh. She didn’t mind; all the rooms were essentially the same except for the color scheme and a little bit of layout, not unlike a hotel room. Hers happened to be favoring an odd shade of mauve and white; so, not the prettiest of schemes, but it wasn’t hideous. She was glad she didn’t get a yellow room, which Abby volunteered for when she went fourth. It seemed fitting, with how bubbly she was, but at the same time, Elo couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could manage any sleep in a room that bright.

Isaiah addressed everyone again. “Alright, please take your time to get ready. The welcome party will be ready downstairs in approximately two hours, so please remain up here while we set up. If you’d like to make a confessional video, just let Kristina or Topher--the camera operators--know, and they’ll use the spare bedroom to film you. Sound good? Great! See you all soon.” And, with a charismatic smile and wave, Isaiah disappeared down the stairs.

After his footsteps disappeared, the whispers began, every contestant at their doorway, looking to one another as if they were all students left alone in a classroom for the first time.

“What an ice breaker, huh?” Elo blurted out. She gained a few courteous chuckles. Devi, tall and stunning across the way from her, cocked her head to the side.

“How did only two of us find your keys?”

Nick decided to be helpful: “Especially since I saw that you were right where they were hidden.” Elo’s heart jumped to her throat, and looked to him with what she hoped was a convincing look of confusion.

“What do you mean?” It was as if he didn’t actually want her to owe him at all, if he was going to be that open about it!

“The bathroom.” He stuck his thumb to the bathroom door he stood closest to; he was the second one to choose a room, so he picked an obvious choice to be by the stairs and a bathroom.

“I didn’t see any keys in there.”

“You know,” Devi piped up, “I also found my key in a tub of yoghurt, but I don’t see anyone else having theirs look quite so….”

Ehan scoffed. “I didn’t find yours in any yoghurt, but it was in the fridge.” Really? Oh, that was interesting. “You didn’t poison anyone as your secret, did you?”

Elo stole the chance to try and change the story. “You think someone moved the keys around?”

“Oh, that’d be funny,” Abby said with a laugh. Nick, on the other hand, still was sure to catch Elo’s eye before leaning against his door frame.

“Maybe,” he said.

Trish seemed disinterested. “So what’s everyone wearing tonight? I thought we weren’t going to get a chance to dress up before the welcome party, so I just...wore the outfit I was planning on wearing. What’s the dress code? I thought it was semi-formal?” At least she didn’t look that great all the time, Elo caught herself thinking.

“I don’t know, but I’m starving,” Shane burst. “I hope the food’s good.” Wasn’t he the chef? Elo gave him a courteous chuckle, then was the first to break away from the hallway to address her room. Somehow, she had to find a way to steal away and do that damn confessional while Grace was still around so she could figure out what the actual fuck was going on. No way in Hell was she going to give a confessional like that in just the extra bedroom where anyone could overhear. Maybe she’d have to sit on this frustration for a while until she could guarantee some actual alone time with a producer.

Elo instead focused on getting ready for the party as quickly as she could, while still attempting to look nice. Maybe if she finished while everyone else was so focused on preparing, she could find a way to sneak out without anyone noticing.

So while everyone else opted to have some smalltalk, Elo grabbed her duffel bag and garment bag, and began to unpack. Her dresser had a mirror on it, so she at least didn’t have to go into a bathroom to deal with any hair or makeup decisions. Her hands shook when she grabbed for her makeup bag, until she ultimately dumped everything out on the dresser with a loud clatter. Half of the supplies fell onto the floor, but she didn’t bother worrying about them until she was done slapping on a crimson-colored lipstick and darkening her eye shadow to be a considerable amount smokier. When she was done, she grabbed for the first dress hanging in her garment bag and slipped it on. Maybe it was a bit early to wear a look quite this formal, but to show up in jeans when there were girls like Trish and Brooke, wowing everyone with simple outfits, desperation took over.

She shimmied into the purple gown, a flowy one shoulder with a slit that ran all the way up to her right thigh, and twisted the fringes of her hair into a small half-updo on the back of her head, the most she could do with her hair cut into a wavy bob.

This wasn’t what she had originally planned for tonight. Well, not her--Heidi. All of her outfits were picked out by Heidi, even the daily makeup she was allowed to wear, all in an attempt to make this persona of “Ellie” more personable and likable. Everything was so manufactured to try and give her a hand in this competition...but if that was the case, how in the world was she supposed to be convincing with all the shit they just pulled on her?

When Elo poked her head out of her bedroom, several of the contestants were in their rooms with the doors shut, obviously changing. A few girls spread out in the different bathrooms, doing their makeup, making smalltalk, and even Quin and Shane were off to one side of the hall, chatting, not bothering to get ready so early. Elo pursed her lips, then spotted Kristina in the doorway of the spare bedroom, swapping her camera battery. When she was sure no one saw her, she dashed to the room, and signaled Kristina to follow her.

The girl, bright-eyed and fresh from college, followed her in and shut the door behind them.

“Confessional time?” she asked with a naive smile, lifting her camera at the ready.

“Kristina, what the fuck is going on?” Elo whispered harshly. “What was that first challenge? What’s with casting Nick?” Kristina furrowed her brows.

“What’s wrong with Nick? Are you uncomfortable with his secret?”

Elo stared at her in shock. “No, I’m uncomfortable with him knowing mine! We know each other! We worked together!” Kristina’s expression felt...off, to say the least. She was trying too hard, keeping her brows that clenched, shrugging her free shoulder too much. But, on the other, rested the camera she operated, blinking red. Elo stared at it for a moment. “That’s recording,” she noted.

“Oh, is it?” Kristina took it off of her shoulder, still pointing it to Elo in such an obvious way to keep her in the shot. “My bad, I’m sorry. Did you want to do a confessional, since I’m rolling?” What a liar!

Elo scoffed, then walked past her to go through the door. “Looks like I just did.”

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