Andie woke up the next day in her apartment to the smell of her own vomit. She looked around to find its source and discovered a bright blue stain on the carpet next to the mattress that hadn’t been there the day before. Her head felt split open from a headache so severe she was certain that death was a better fate. She didn’t remember the ride home, but she recalled being put in bed, and Lucy’s disembodied voice muttering something about sleeping it off.
Andie’s phone rang. Seeing just the letter ‘M’ through blurry vision, she picked up assuming it was Marcella calling to check in on her. She dragged her finger across the screen to answer.
“I feel like death.” she said. Her throat felt like she’d shoveled gravel into it.
“Andie?! It’s Mom. What’s the matter? Do I need to come get you?”
Andie held the phone away from her head and groaned. “No, I’m fine. I just have a headache.”
“Your sister told us your great news,” her mother said. By her tone it was clear she didn’t find it exciting in the least.
“Never one to pull punches, were you?” Andie mumbled, fumbling for a glass of water by her bed.
“Well I was going to call you today, Mom. I have a terrible migraine and I just want to sleep.”
“Your father is here. Do you want to explain why we didn’t get a call last night? Why we had to hear about your glamorous life through your twelve-year-old sister?”
“Not really,” Andie said. She didn’t feel like explaining anything. She felt like her mother’s voice might just make her come out of her own skin.
“I see.” There was a pause Andie assumed she was supposed to fill with an apology, but her pounding head didn’t allow it. Unable to keep quiet long, her mother said, “When you decided to leave, we did everything we could for you, Andie.”
“I am grateful, I just–”
“You just refused to call us and tell us about anything. You can be such a selfish girl. I didn’t raise you like this.” Her mother’s voice had raised two octaves, which usually signaled an oncoming bout of hysteria.
Andie sighed. “I don’t want to argue. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
“Listen to me, young lady–” her father’s voice roared.
Andie hung up before he could finish. All she wanted to do was curl up and go back to sleep, but before she could, the head-jarring sound of her buzzer sounded. Someone was outside. She pulled herself out of bed and dragged her feet across the carpet to the intercom by the door.
“Yeah?” she croaked.
“You sound rough. It’s Marcella, let me in!”
Andie buzzed her in, unlocked the door, and crawled back in to bed.
“Hellooooo,” Marcella called, opening the door. She took in the state of the apartment– bare, with clothes strewn across the carpet (the result of last night’s outfit dilemma)– and the state of her friend– lying on an air mattress, cocooned in blankets and wincing.
“I thought I might find you like this,” she said.
“Did I throw up in anyone’s car?” Andie whimpered.
“Luckily, no. And I brought you something that, I promise, will make you feel like a new person. You need to drink this,” she said, waving a styrofoam cup in Andie’s face that said Qwench Juice Bar, “because we have to be someplace.”
“We do?” Andie asked, horrified.
“Yes, don’t you check your messages?” She handed the smoothie over, and Andie sipped tentatively.
“UGH! This is disgusting!”
“You get used to it,” Marcella said. “Listen, I’m going to help you get dressed, and then we’re meeting Camille and Lucy with everyone else to see where we might be living.”
“What? I already have an apartment,” Andie protested. Her head reminded her to use her inside voice, and she took another swig.
Marcella glanced around, nodding slowly. “Sure, you do. But don’t you want to see what BetterCorp is offering?”
Andie was curious. She didn’t even need to go to know that it was a palace compared to her apartment. Taking another long sip of the magic smoothie, she nodded in agreement.
“Okay,” Andie said, cracking a smile. “And hey, thanks for bringing this. It’s probably the grossest thing I’ve ever had, but I think it’s helping.”
“You’ll be you in no time,” she said.
Thirty minutes later Andie climbed in to Marcella’s red Mustang convertible parked in front of the building. The smoothie was gone and so was her headache, for the most part.
“Wow, what a great car!” Andie said, rubbing the smooth leather seats.
“Thanks! I bought it after signing my first modeling contract. I kind of have a thing for old cars,” Marcella said, like she was letting Andie in on a secret. “My dad helped me fix it up. He’s a mechanic in the valley.”
“What does he think of the BetterCorp campaign?” Andie asked, thinking of her own stubborn father, probably sitting in their living room in Iowa stewing in anger. He’d sent a text that Andie couldn’t bring herself to read.
“He thinks it’s incredible, even if it’s not his world. It’s always been just me and him, you know. Mom died when I was six. So he’s my biggest fan.”
“Love that,” Andie said. “My parents would rather I go to Iowa State and become a pharmacist or something.”
Marcella laughed. “A pharmacist?”
Andie laughed, too. “Yeah, they’re sensible, I guess.” But sitting in the front seat of a convertible in the California sunshine, driving up Hollywood Boulevard with her new, gorgeous friend and a contract waiting for her at home promising everything she’d ever dreamed of did make her alternate pharmaceutical future sound comical.
“Shit!” Andie said, putting her hands over her face.
“God, I forgot about the contract,” she looked at Marcella, eyes wide. “Did you read through it?”
“Girl, I’ve basically been with you the whole time, give or take five hours of drunken sleep. But stop worrying! We have until tomorrow night.”
“I know,” Andie said. “I’ll read it all tonight. I just don’t want to sign away my kidneys, you know?”
“Oh then you better not sign it. That’s a part of every BetterCorp contract.”
“Really?” Andie cried.
Marcella howled with laughter. “No! Andie, you need to relax.”
Andie joined in to the laughter and sat back in her seat, feeling the wind in her hair. Marcella turned on some music, and the two of them belted at the tops of their lungs while at stoplights, drawing stares from tourists on the sidewalk. Another Britney song ended as Marcella took a right onto North Highland Avenue, heading up into the Hollywood Hills. Andie raised her eyebrows. Homes up there were in the many millions.
“If we get to live up here maybe I will give them my kidney!” Andie said, sending them both into hysterics again.
The house was raised on a hill and obscured from view of the street by heavy shrubbery. Anyone driving by would never get so much as a cursory peek. The hill people like their privacy, Andie thought. When they pulled up to the heavy front gate blocking the driveway from the road, it swung inward, welcoming them with open arms. Andie felt like the curtain was being pulled back to reveal the wizard, but as they pulled up behind a handful of other shiny, oversized cars in the driveway, she realized that this world was proving to be so much more than an ordinary man with the capacity for deception.
The house was plucked from the cover of Architectural Digest, surrounded by sycamores and pines. The facade itself was all straight lines and imposing windows, and in the front room Andie could see Camille wave and beckon them in. The stately doors opened and Marcella and Andie were whisked into the front foyer. The house appeared to be beautifully furnished, but the voices of everyone in the group still sent a loud echo through the house. They walked into the front room at the end of a story Nate had been telling.
“–so I ended up running down the block in her underwear!”
The room erupted in laughter and Nate’s grin widened into a full smile as he laughed at his own expense. Andie caught Elijah’s eye and noticed his dimples for the first time. Why hadn’t she talked to him more the night before?
Oh, hey, she thought.
“Now that everyone’s here,” Camille said, “I’m turning things over to the lovely Quentin to walk us through the house.”
Quentin was the realtor who had sold the home to BetterCorp. He was wearing a bright pink suit and patent loafers. His bald head and single ear piercing reminded Andie of Mr. Clean, and he had a lot to say. First he took them to the open plan kitchen with its granite counter tops and extra wide stainless steel appliances. The living room had a 70 inch television and an elaborate entertainment set up, but Andie wondered when any of them would have the time to play video games. The back doors accordion folded to open the living space to the backyard, where a crystal blue pool looked so refreshing Andie nearly jumped in. Quentin motioned past the gardens in the backyard, mentioning a tennis and basketball court. But the best part of the house was its view. Up on the hill, Los Angeles lay before them like a blanket of opportunity. Every glittering hope Andie had ever felt could be seen from up there, covered by only a thin layer of Los Angeles smog.
Bringing everyone back inside, Quentin showed them the recording studio and full instrument set up. Up the same hall there was a gym, a sauna, a dance studio space, and a home theater. The last room at the end of the hall was smaller and set up with a camera and studio lights which, Quentin explained, BetterCorp had requested for anyone who wanted to create a video diary of their time in the house. One of the boys made a crude joke about documenting a certain type of activity, but Andie couldn’t tell which one had spoken. Quentin then marched the ten of them up the stairs off the foyer to show them the seven available bedrooms.
“But wait, aren’t there eight of us?” Elijah asked.
Everyone looked around at each other as if they didn’t already know the answer. There were eight of them, which could only mean one thing. One of them wasn’t going to make the final cut.