“Are you crying?” Devi asked Elo.
She sniffled. “No.” She wasn’t crying-crying. But the relief that flooded to her after her first sip of coffee, and the steam that rushed up to her nose certainly made it look like she was crying, with how her eyes watered from relief and her face suddenly filled with color.
“Ugh, that was so me an hour ago,” Trish said, shaking her head. “This is one of the worst hangovers I’ve ever had.” Elo gave her a smile she hoped looked sympathetic. Part of her actually felt bad, but the other part was a little proud of herself. Hopefully she knocked everyone off their game enough to really make this challenge look good.
“Yeah, last night was rough,” Elo agreed. But it felt so much better when she was able to hold the giant mug under her nose and just inhale the scent of coffee straight into her bloodstream. The warmth, the feeling of a reset. Plus, she got eggs and bacon. The chef looked utterly disappointed at her simplistic request, but whipped the small plate up for her without hesitation.
“When do you think we’ll get results?” Devi asked across the dining table. Elo kept her eyes closed. She didn’t really care about the results, not when the cushion beneath her was so soft, not when the scent of bacon still lingered. Not when they didn’t matter for her.
On cue, Isaiah clapped as he entered the dining room from the lounge. A few contestants still flinched, but Elo stayed put, hardly bothered to open her eyes. This could have been a dream, and she’d believe it.
“Hello contestants!” called the host. “Thank you for rising early with me this morning. Your beautiful, custom breakfast is brought to you by Gourmet Network--” Good lord, if this was as long as the ad from last night, Elo would definitely fall asleep. But Isaiah clapped again, startling her from her near-snooze. The other contestants joined in his round of applause for the chef, which Elo participated in by smacking the side of her half-empty mug.
“We have the winners calculated! My, my, though…. Some of your secrets.” Isaiah’s smile wasn’t comforting in the least. “But some of you are very good listeners--despite some of your companions being a bit more like closed books.” He definitely flashed a grin toward Elo. Did anyone else catch that? “So without further ado, I am happy to announce the very first points of the competition!
“Third place goes to….” Isaiah looked across to each contestant, savoring the suspenseful moment until he announced, “Ehan!” Various sounds of surprise and sounds of “oh, congrats” erupted throughout the table. A few contestants, Elo included, opted to applaud rather than say anything. “Congratulations, Ehan! You are one point closer to that final prize.” Isaiah gave him, and the cameras nearby, a winning smile.
“Second place goes to--” another dramatic pause as he looked across the table-- “Quin!”
“Wait, really?” came Quin’s amused response. He actually started laughing, sleep deprivation in full effect.
Isaiah laughed, too. “Congratulations! You are three points closer to that one hundred thousand dollars!” More applause. Ehan gave Quin a supportive slap on the back. At least for now, the difference in points didn’t drive a wedge between them.
Isaiah waited for everyone to finish congratulating them before he took another dramatic pause. “And finally...in first place, five points closer to that final prize, that one hundred thousand dollars is...Trish!”
“Oh my gosh!” cried Trish, her hands over her face. Elo gave her shoulder a quick squeeze of support while the various other contestants applauded. Trish rubbed her hand back as a silent thank you, her hands ice cold from her pomegranate mimosa.
“Congratulations to everyone, but especially to our winners, Ehan, Quin, and Trish! You three have shown that you pay attention very carefully, and that you know the most about everyone here!” The applause got very faint all of a sudden, but Isaiah pretended not to notice. “Wonderful first challenge. Please, enjoy yourselves for the rest of the day and all of tomorrow. After that, you’ll start to gain some hints as to what the next challenge may hold.” A physical challenge, likely, if this one was mental. “And don’t forget, just because you aren’t directly competing in a task, doesn’t mean you’re not competing. An extra five points is going to be given every week for the Social Media Favorite!” Isaiah started another round of applause. “Thank you, contestants! I’ll see you soon!”
“Do you think we get to know who the Social Media Favorite is?” Abby asked over the dying applause. Elo shrugged, though she knew that, at least, she would get to know. It was never confirmed, but she figured that the Favorite would be the target of the next sabotage. Or, if not, maybe whoever got the five points otherwise.
Breakfast remained peaceful, with no other surprises from the producers around the corner. Most everyone agreed they would attempt to get some actual sleep; and, without any directions for her next sabotage, Elo decided she’d let them. Besides, Isaiah claimed he’d have the fire alarms checked out during the confessionals, so it would be suspicious to keep setting them off.
The nine of them rose up the stairs together, murmuring sounds of hope.
“They look different,” said Shane as he looked up to the smoke detectors. They didn’t. But Elo figured the sleep deprivation and the desperation for them to stay silent was enough to convince him otherwise.
When Elo shut herself in her room, the first thing she did was shove the glass of matches under her bed, hidden by the mauve bedskirt. She’d have to find a safe time to get rid of that later. For now, she plopped down back into the covers and allowed herself her only hour of shuteye.
If her body let her, she’d have slept more. But the coffee fully ran through her, and gave her just enough awareness to prevent her from having any dreams. Still, it was better than nothing, and it gave her enough energy to switch into a simple, black bathing suit and head downstairs.
Everyone else still shut themselves in their rooms, some even snoring. She tried not to get too jealous. Besides, with everyone asleep like now, she could get the whole back yard to herself, before the sun bore down and made the pavement hotter than the surface of the sun.
So with the chirping of the birds, the buzzing of the bees, and the cool shadows to help maintain the tranquility of an isolated morning in the backyard, Elo settled between the pool and a set of bushes, and took the time to perform the morning Tai Chi routine that Heidi picked out for her. If the next challenge was physical, she certainly couldn’t let any of her rituals slip now. The only thing better than beating everyone in the competition through sabotage would be to just beat them, all out. She wasn’t sure how that sort of ruling would work.
In exchange for skipping out on yoga and weightlifting last night, Elo took the time to fully enjoy the pool, all to herself. The water, first biting and frigid, balanced out the sting of the sun as it grew overhead. The little island in the middle of the pool, with the backless bench, proved to be a perfect resting spot when all was said and done. Now, with her sunglasses protecting her eyes and the shade of the palm tree overhead, Elo lay on the bench and drifted off into a light, relaxing nap.
“...Red Lobster?” came the familiar voice. Elo blinked, and glanced over to the source. In a clear green inner tube sat Nick, holding a beer, floating in the pool with a stupid grin on his face. He had his glasses off, probably for the best, but he navigated around just fine, even though she knew he had probably the worst eyesight of anyone not legally blind.
“I was asking if you were the new mascot for Red Lobster.” Oh that didn’t bode well. His warning prompted her to lift her shades and look over her exposed skin. Even her belly looked a little irritated from the heat.
“I didn’t mean to fall asleep,” she said with a grin. “Not burnt yet, but definitely...definitely time to flip over.” She yawned, stretching her arms over head as she glanced around the backyard. Through the curtains of the sliding door, she could see Trish and Abby sitting at the dining table, chatting, snacking on something.
“Reward me with another view?” asked Nick. Elo scoffed playfully.
“I was going to turn over anyway.” She wasn’t interested in looking like neapolitan ice cream. She did, as expected, gingerly flip to lay on her stomach on the bench, using her hands as a pillow under her chin.
“You’re a true saint.” She rewarded him with a dry laugh. “So, how you been?”
“Hm?” She opened an eye to watch him float about, nursing his beer, looking like a full-blown college student, scant chest hair to boot.
“No one’s around. You can be yourself. How you been?” Elo glanced through the sliding doors again. While one cameraman sat lazily on one of the lounge chairs off to the side, legs crossed, camera pointed directly at her and Nick, the others weren’t around. She wasn’t sure if there was a mic somewhere on this little island or not, though. Not that it mattered.
“Well,” she started through a tired sigh, “life is life. You know. Had that low point after Hackler.” She rested her cheek on her hands, watching him listen to her. “You could have kept in touch, you know.” Though that should have been a clear indication of how he felt. Nick frowned.
“You kind of just stopped texting me. I thought, you know--I didn’t know Bernadette and you broke up, or that you moved.”
“You could have text me, too,” Elo pointedly said. “I stopped texting you because I had a lot going on. But I would have replied if you actually initiated anything.” Was she a little bitter? Maybe. She was a lot more bitter about it when she and Bernadette broke up--that was a painful, slow, but extremely eventful week. Thinking about it now didn’t feel great, with the added knowledge that Nick might use it to manipulate her.
“Well,” Nick said through a sigh, “we’re here now. You seemed to have bounced back from any trouble. And I did message you on LinkedIn last week.” Fair point. But….
“You messaged me to get lunch before you were going to disappear for three months?” she realized, raising a brow. Nick seemed to have just realized that as well.
“I didn’t say I did a good job at trying to reconnect.” They shared a laugh. “I forgot about the show. I didn’t do much to prepare except take a leave of absence from work starting yesterday, and I saw that post you made about how you felt like you were really advancing your career. I messaged on impulse.” He gave a small pause. “Is this that step? This show, the test run for ‘Ellie’?” The finger quotes were unnecessary, but she let it slide. “Who was it you worked for again?”
Elo did think about how to answer this question before, when she was forced to stay awake all night. She sighed and gestured to the cameraman across the way.
“I can’t actually say. They’re a competitor.”
“Ooh, and they’re letting you do this?”
“I can’t say the name or advertise for them--that’s part of the addendum I sighed to be on the show. But in any case, this is a little closer to personal. So I’m on thin ice, but in a good position, so long as it all works out well.” She gave him a reassuring smile, and he nodded.
“That’s really cool. I am happy for you...and I am sorry we got out of touch.” Nick now grabbed the edge of the pool to keep himself from drifting away, and Elo nodded.
“Easier to keep in touch now,” she said, laughing.
“True! I can just knock on your door in the middle of the night….” Elo rolled her eyes and shook her head, probably with a little too much of an edge to it. If what he said in the confessional wasn’t so fresh on her mind, she’d probably be up for the playful flirting...but right now, it kind of felt like if someone were to poke at her raw and burning skin.
Nick didn’t say anything if he noticed her response, and didn’t press it. The silence that fell between them was, for maybe the first time, a little awkward. She didn’t advance his joke or tell him it was too far, and he floated beside her, frowning, floating in limbo. She could tell, by the aimless patting of the water, that he was uncomfortable. Well, she should salvage this, if she actually wanted to use his plans against him like she initially thought she could.
She sighed and fidgeted, and glanced over to her friend with a smile.
“You seem to be doing well,” she said, gesturing broadly with her hand. “Settled in here really easily, anyway.” He raised a brow, though his mood lifted considerably. “I mean, you look like you’re made for this. Beer in hand, lounging in a pool....” She paused and closed her eyes, keeping her tone light. “Not wearing a shirt. You know.” She could hear his smile in his laugh. That tiny comment seemed to sweep everything else away.
“This is a pretty sweet vacation,” he agreed.
“Hope you still feel that way when I win all the money.”
Nick’s laugh rang throughout the backyard as he pushed away from the pool island. “Yeah, sure!”