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Chapter 5

The entire house spent a half hour searching for any signs of a fire when the first alarm went off. The cameramen didn’t return, but Elo knew that the security footage around the house would be plenty for at least a montage of the havoc she reaped.

“Maybe it’s a malfunction,” Ehan suggested with a big yawn. “We can let the producers know tomorrow.” Elo could imagine the look of complete false surprise on Grace’s face when he would tell her. “Oh no!” she would claim, “I’ll have someone look into that right away. Thank you for telling me!”

Ehan insisted everyone go back to bed when no one could find any source of smoke or fire. And, about a half hour after everyone went back to bed, Elo stood under the fire alarm with a few matches smoking in her hand once again.

Despite the aspirin, her head throbbed. The screeching of the alarm was one thing, but the inability to let herself sleep was another. She didn’t even lay down, but she did find that she’d stare off into nothingness, blink, and suddenly it would be time to set off the alarm again.

At about six in the morning, Elo sat on her bed, staring at the clock. In a few minutes, she’d set off the alarms again, but a far more obnoxious sound, one she didn’t expect, sounded from downstairs.

Elo stumbled to the door of her bedroom and opened it to look out into the hallway. Brooke let out an actual growl when she opened hers.

“Is that a fucking airhorn?” Ah, that’s what that sound was.

The contestants made their way out of their rooms, all pissed, puffy, and beyond exhausted in their various sleepwear.

The airhorn preceded Isaiah’s cheerful voice from downstairs. “Contestants! Time to wake up! Your first challenge will be in twenty minutes! Please get dressed and come down here!”

Trish slapped her door frame in frustration, then completely slammed her door shut the next moment.

“Of course the first challenge would be right now,” Shane muttered before he shut himself in his room, as well.

Elo could only sigh to herself in defeat as she got dressed in her leather pants and a white blouse. She knew this challenge would be something about mental fortitude--why else would they ask her to keep everyone awake the whole night? The three layers of concealer did not hide her dark circles. It almost made them look more prominent. To try and fix that, she slapped on the messiest, smokiest eyeliner she could manage with so little time. She maybe looked like she was ready to go hang out in a dark alley somewhere, but it was really hard to care without sleep.

She made a quick pit stop to the bathroom to pop a couple more aspirin, then tossed the bottle into her room before she shut her door. Might as well make anyone else suffer just a bit more for this challenge. There probably was more medicine in the other bathroom, but this would at least deter anyone from the left side of the hallway from getting easy-access meds. If she didn’t get almost full points for this sabotage, Grace would have to stop her from bitching at the camera.

Isaiah called again for the contestants, informing them he stood in the lounge, waiting for them. The lounge was one of the rooms on the first floor, a large family room of sorts with some decorative bookshelves, a dry bar, and plenty of plush, blue couches and chairs for everyone to sit and relax.

Isaiah stood in the middle of the room with a few cameramen, looking refreshed and cheerful in his simple polo and dark wash jeans.

“Good morning, Ellie!” he chirped as he gestured towards the other contestants. “Please sit.” She took her spot next to Brooke, clad in a simple, sleeveless blouse and jeans, and watched the other contestants enter in and sit with much more casual clothing than what everyone wore last night. Despite their all clearly grumpy expressions, it was a relief to see everyone look kind of normal.

“Welcome, welcome!” Isaiah called when Trish finally trickled in. “I hope you all slept well!” He didn’t even wait for a reaction. “Your first challenge is now. To help you out, please accept a notebook and pen.” In the middle of the seated area, right in front of Isaiah, was a coffee table that held a pile of simple, brown notebooks and a cup full of Bic pens. “These are yours to keep any notes you want. Write down any memories, whatever you want.

“Beside us is a room that has been locked until now. When I call your name, you will go into that room and face a camera. From there, you will do your best to explain, with as much detail as possible, what you think the secret is behind each and every key that was found yesterday.”

“What?” blurted Nick. Pallid and irritated, he summed up everyone’s feelings on the matter. Isaiah smiled.

“Hopefully you’ve been paying attention to your fellow contestants! We will go in the order we determined yesterday to pick rooms. That means Brooke, you’re first. You may have a few moments to write down your thoughts, but within the next five minutes, please go next door and explain as many details as you possibly can about the secrets of your fellow contestants. Tie-breakers will go in favor of whoever has the most details.” Brooke stared, eyes barely open, mouth slightly apart in shock.

“I--in the next five minutes?” she asked with a groggy voice. Isaiah nodded.

“You feeling okay, Brooke?” he asked with a sympathetic smile. “You look like you feel ill. Would you like to sit this one out? You won’t be eligible for points, but if you’re feeling sick, you are more than welcome to go back upstairs and rest.”

“No--” she insisted, shaking her head. “No, I’m fine. I’m ready.” She blinked wildly, reaching forward for a notebook and pen, but still headed toward the door. She gave a quick glance over her shoulder to Shane and Quin, who both held various expressions of regret.

“Wait,” Brooke asked, gesturing to Isaiah, “does this include our own...keys?”

“Great question, Brooke!” Isaiah sounded, seeming surprised. “Well, I suppose that would be a fair interpretation of the rules, hm?” Brooke blinked at him, and sighed before she left out the door. “Everyone okay? You all look exhausted.” Shut up, Isaiah.

“Um,” Trish sounded as Brooke left, “there’s something wrong with the fire alarms…. They kept going off last night.”

“Right as I fell asleep,” Ehan mumbled, “every time.”

Isaiah put on a relatively convincing surprised expression. “Oh! I’ll have them inspected as we go through the challenge. Can’t have those malfunction!” Isaiah pulled out a phone from his pocket to send a text. As this went on, Elo reached forward for a notebook and pen for herself, and watched as the others grabbed their own set.

She gave a nervous glance over to Nick. He frowned at her, then shrunk in on himself to start scribbling in his notebook. Elo took a page out of his book and shuffled into her seat to start writing her thoughts down. Next to her, Abby tapped her pen on her notebook, shy and deflated. Elo could see the paper and anything she wrote on it from this angle. While she didn’t get points for this challenge, knowing peoples’ secrets would give her a distinct advantage. Plus, if anyone kept these notebooks, maybe she could find them later to see what she could find.

Abby started off by listing everyone’s names in a column, including her own, and filled out as many details as possible. In her own row, she wrote the simple word: “Camgirl.”

Elo somehow managed not to react, and instead copied the answer down on her own notebook. A key on a cameraman. Clever representation. But holy crap, when this episode airs on TV….

With that in mind, Elo hurriedly jotted down the notes she did know about the others, careful to keep her own secret out of it. She was likely not the only one thinking about how all the answers to their questions were in these little booklets. She glanced up to Nick through her lashes to see him gauging the small group. Yeah, no. This thing was going in the pool after this little challenge. And then when everyone was distracted, she’d have to go through their rooms to find if anyone kept these.

Elo frowned to herself. She sounded like her older sister.

But eventually, Brooke returned with crossed arms, her expression unreadable. Was that shame? Lips pursed, shoulders slumped--this was not the same woman that walked through those sliding doors yesterday afternoon. She didn’t have the energy to hold up her confident persona.

“Welcome back, Brooke! Now that you’re done, you may go to the kitchen and enjoy tea, coffee, pomegranate mimosas, whatever you fancy. Please put in your breakfast request with the chef when you get there and she will get right on it.” Wait, they got breakfast and coffee? Now Elo frowned even more. Coffee sounded beautiful right about now. And maybe some eggs and bacon.

But she was stuck here, while everyone else got to spill their secrets to a camera and stuff their tired faces with grease and tea. And it took far too long, too. She didn’t have that much information on anyone, so she was mostly just sitting there--and, embarrassingly, she did fall asleep for a little bit.

“Your turn now, Ellie!” were the cheerful words that stirred her from her unintentional nap. Ellie sucked in a breath and lifted her head from the couch cushion. She and Isaiah were the last ones in the room, as promised. She followed what was expected of her: left the room, went into the previously locked room from yesterday, and shut the door behind herself.

“Hey!” Grace called with a huge grin. It seemed like this used to be a small office of some sort, now replaced with regular seating furniture and random tchotchkes hung on the wall and on various floating shelves. The giant camera boxes against the wall made it obvious that this was another station for cameramen to get new batteries or put equipment away.

“Hi,” Elo said through a yawn. She plopped down in the white armchair across from Grace, holding her notebook. She gave a small wave to Yennifer behind the camera. Just as before, Grace rose to prepare to shove the clapper in Elo’s face, and looked to the woman behind the camera.

“All focused,” Yennifer said. “Camera rolling; audio rolling.” Grace then held the clapper up to Elo’s face, labeled the take, and sat down after snapping.

“Great sabotage last night,” Grace said, laughing as she sat back down. “I’m sure the viewers will love it.” Elo only had the energy to shrug. “But in any case, some notes for improvement would be to be a little more consistent. You only hid one bottle of aspirin, but you were the only one that used that one. There was Tyelnol in the other bathroom and ibuprofen downstairs, so nearly everyone got something for their headaches.” Elo merely nodded, and rested her head on her hand as she watched Grace go over the notes she had.

“I don’t think any of the meds are actually helping, if that means anything,” she said. Grace laughed. Elo hid a yawn.

“Alright. So let’s go ahead and list what you think the secrets are.”

“Is anyone going to get in any trouble from these secrets?” Elo was sure to ask. Grace shrugged.

“Not legally.” Well….

Elo sighed. “So mine’s obviously that I’m a show plug, and not a real contestant,” she said as she flipped open her notebook. “Oh, Abby’s is that she was a camgirl. Shane slept with his girlfriend’s brother and got caught by her, Quin is closeted to his parents, Nick went to juvie when he was a teenager because he got caught trying to break into a house….” She glanced at her other notes and frowned. “I have zero clue what Trish’s or Ehan’s secrets could be. Brooke had something to do with breaking the law, maybe something about music, since she was coming out of the music room with her key. Devi’s has something to do with food. I think maybe she’s lying about an allergy or something.” She hid another yawn behind her hand and looked up. “Was that everyone?”

Grace laughed. “Yes, that was everyone! How did you know about some of those…?” Nick’s and Abby’s. That’s what she wanted to know about.

“I looked over Abby’s shoulder when she was writing her notes,” she admitted with a shrug. “And Nick told me his secret when we used to work together a few years ago.” The blonde nodded to her, then flipped over to another page of her notebook.

“So Nick….” Elo frowned.

“Is anyone else close to figuring out what my secret…?” Nick would obviously have the easiest time catching her. Maybe that’s what Grace referred to.

“Would you like to see?”

“See? I can see the footage?”

“Why not?” Grace shrugged, then glanced over to Yennifer, who mirrored her. She retreated to the desk that was pushed against the wall and grabbed a laptop that was busy backing up files from an SD card, and passed it to Grace. “I can show you Nick’s. No one else got that close. Devi’s suspicious that you’re hiding an ‘integral part of your identity’ or whatever.” Vague, but good to know. Grace clicked around on the laptop, then twisted it around to face her. The thumbnail showed Grace holding the clapper up against Nick’s face; Elo pressed play.

“Oh,” Grace interrupted, looking up from the notebook in her lap, “you’re looking for the timestamp around four minutes and thirteen seconds. That’s when I asked about you.” Elo paused the video and glanced up, furrowing her brows.

“You had to prompt him?” She would have figured that maybe he would have openly said something about her secret first, since he had the most information about it. At Grace’s silence, Elo scrubbed the timeline to the directed spot, and pressed play again.

“...all I know about Elo. I mean Ellie.” He grimaced, guilty.

“So tell us about how you found out about Elo’s secret?” sounded Grace’s voice from the computer. Nick shifted, glancing back and forth from the camera lens to Grace off-screen.

“Uh, well, she told me.”

“In exchange for her owing you,” Grace echoed. Nick let out a nervous laugh.

“You guys really are watching. Alright, yeah. I knew Elo from another life. We worked together a few years ago at the same company, so we were really shocked to see each other here.”

“So you knew each other well?”

Nick seemed to be just as confused at the thought of answering that question as Elo did yesterday.

“Um, we knew each other. Saw each other every day and all that. We were...friends.” That same fumble. Grace caught it this time.

“Good friends? Or…?”

Nick shrugged, shrinking a bit. “Is that what she said?” His question made Elo’s heart skip a beat.

“Nearly.” Grace’s voice was laced with amusement in the playback. “Was there something more?” Grace’s words made Elo fidget in her chair. Nick’s cheeks flushed a dark pink as he laughed to the camera, his arms flopping a little too relaxed for the amount of embarrassment he so clearly showed.

“Um, a-anyway, that’s how I knew she was hiding something, with her secret.” What a dodge. She didn’t know if she could handle being asked that question right now, either. Not with her migraine, not with how her brain functioned at half speed.

“Do you believe her explanation?” Elo glared at the live Grace sitting in the chair across from her before she returned to staring at the computer. Nick bit his lip and looked to the ground. Elo’s heart started to race in her chest at his response.

“I think some of Elo’s secret is real. But I think there’s more to it than what she led me to believe at first.” Fuck.

“Are you going to try and find out more secrets? Looks like you’ve got an edge up on learning more about Brooke and Ellie, or Elo.” Nick clammed up a little, now, sighing, staring straight at Grace.

“I mean,” he started, sighing, “at the end of the day, this is a competition. I’m going to do what I can to win.” Based on his expression there, Grace gestured for him to elaborate. He didn’t look like he wanted to. “Um…. So if, say, gaining their trust and learning about their motives, or getting them to sympathize with me more will give me an edge, I should do it to help my chances.” Gaining their trust. Getting them to sympathize with me. Elo pursed her lips, and watched the rest of the clip with much less interest than when she started. She handed the computer back to Grace gingerly, humming to herself.

“So what do you think, Elo?” Grace prompted. Elo tapped her notebook, deep in thought for a moment. It stung, a little, to see Nick be so calculative about their past...friendship. It explained more of his behavior to Brooke, to how he secretly flirted with Elo rather than overtly like he did with Brooke. She silently commended herself for holding her opinion out on him until now. At least now she knew what she was dealing with. At least now she wouldn’t feel so bad driving a bus over him and his chances at winning.

“I think,” she started slowly as she glanced up to the camera, “I think that while I was hired for this position, I’m not the only shitdisturber here. I’ve got my work cut out for me.” Elo was sure to put on a mischievous smile for show, despite her disappointment in what she just heard. “But Nick has another thing coming to him if he thinks he can outplay me at my own game.”

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