There was a moment of silence in the group, the eight of them looking at each other like enemies for the first time. Andie’s palms felt sweaty despite the AC that had previously given her goosebumps. She caught Marcella’s furtive look out of the corner of her eye, but she didn’t dare look at her. She knew she would see her in a different light. Her new friend could be the person who staked a claim on Andie’s dream, leaving her out in the cold– or, in actuality, her shoebox apartment in Los Feliz.
“Let’s head downstairs,” Camille said, acting as though nothing was amiss among the hungry, enterprising young people around her.
Andie started to follow everyone out but a tug on her shirt hem pulled her back into the room.
“What the hell do you think this means?” Marcella whispered, eyeing the doorway as everyone made their way out.
“It means two of us are either bunking up or one of us is getting the boot,” came a voice from the window. Pete Sumner, who Andie had smoked cigarettes with the night before, stood looking at the view through the floor to ceiling window at the other side of the room.
“So what, one of us will be voted off the island Survivor Style?” Andie asked, crossing her arms over her chest.
“Unless…” Pete said, “one of us doesn’t sign the contract. Otherwise the weakest link is out of here.”
“Yeah, well, that won’t be me,” Marcella said defiantly.
“Or me,” said Pete, eyeing Andie.
“I –” Andie began.
“Can everyone come down, please?” Lucy’s voice rang up the stairs to reach them.
The three of them marched down with awkward smiles on their faces. Now that everyone was reseated in the living room, Andie noticed that the spaces on the couches had widened an obvious amount. No one spoke to one another, no one was telling funny stories, and everyone was focused on Lucy.
“By now I’m sure you’ve noticed that there are only seven rooms upstairs,” Lucy said. “Unfortunately, the company has only given us funding for that number. We offered eight of you the opportunity, but unfortunately seven will move in.” Her smile didn’t quite reach her eyes, and she avoided direct eye contact with them by looking at the plush rug beneath her feet.
“We will be asking that you all stay here tonight, and then tomorrow morning, based on your assessments of one another, we will ask one of you to return the BetterCorp paperwork and leave the house.”
Survivor Style it is, Andie thought.
“How will you decide?” asked Gwen.
Camille stepped forward and said, “We encourage you all to use the documentation room, get to know everyone, and then we will interview each of you again in the morning. Your opinion about who fits best as a group will be weighed in to the decision. We want this to be a smooth campaign that will mean long-standing careers for each of you. So make friends.”
Andie couldn’t help but feel that, as Camille, Lucy, and Quentin left the house, they’d planned this from the start. But what was there to gain by having them all pitted against one another? The number one thing she’d have to try to do that evening is get everyone to like her. But that might prove difficult when everyone was in such a somber mood. Complicated further by the fact that she wasn’t really sure what interactions she’d had with them the night before. She knew there were gaps in her memory, but how big were they?
I’ll never drink again. Never.
“We gotta go claim rooms before everyone else,” Marcella whispered into Andie’s ear. Without another word she took off toward the stairs, her curls bouncing as she ran. “Last one in a room sleeps on the couch!” she yelled behind her, laughing.
Everyone in the living room perked up and sprang into action, rushing toward the foyer entrance and half circle staircase behind Andie. Andie yelled out in surprise as she was jostled, then turned and ran for the marble stairs herself. She started off pretty close to dead last, except for the final girl in the house, Carmen. As Carmen ran up behind Andie, she clawed Andie’s leg, catching her ankle and causing her to slip on a stair.
What was initially fun and games became a scrappy battle to the bedrooms on the second floor. Nate elbowed his way to first place, running for the master bedroom at the end of the hallway and Pete wasn’t far behind. Vincent and Gwen were howling with laughter as she jumped over him to prevent his stealing the first bedroom on the left. He conceded it to her and scurried across the hall just as Elijah made it to the top of the staircase.
Andie’s knee smacked into the edge of a step, but she wasn’t one to go down without a fight. She cried out in pain while Carmen tried to get past her, but she thought quickly and threw herself into the girl’s path. Regaining her footing, Andie took the steps two at a time. But Carmen was treating this race like an Olympic sport, and she wanted the gold. She grabbed Andie on the arm, harder this time, as the two ran up the hall and when Andie turned to tell her to let go, Carmen used the momentum to swing herself into the last empty bedroom.
“Ha!” she screamed, beaming and triumphant. Everyone else was still recovering from their sprint and didn’t notice the tussle between the two brunettes.
A moment passed where Andie leveled Carmen with a look of pure outrage. The dumb bitch had cheated, and she knew it. Andie rubbed her arm where the painful imprints of Carmen’s fingers throbbed. Andie glared, but Carmen only looked smug as she spun around and fell on to her plushy down comforter. Andie would have to sleep on the couch downstairs. In some ways it felt like she’d already been voted out.
“Andie, you can always stay in my room,” said Vincent. Everyone whooped and laughed. He raised his eyebrows at her.
“Nice try, Vince,” said Marcella, “she’s with me.”
“The invitation stays open!” he called, closing his new bedroom’s door and marching back down the stairs.
“Oh, no, I don’t want to impose!” Andie said to Marcella, flushing bright pink. “I’ll sleep on the couch.”
“There’s a king size bed in here,” Marcella said, gesturing in to the master bedroom. “I don’t think we’ll even realize we’re in the same room. Unless you snore.”
Andie hovered in the doorway for a moment before deciding to take Marcella up on the offer. As she walked in, she shot a look back in the direction of Carmen, but the door to that room was now closed.
Andie watched as Marcella threw open the doors of the master bedroom’s closet, and the two of them gasped. Expecting there to be plenty of space but nothing noteworthy, Andie almost screamed when she saw racks upon racks of designer clothes hanging inside. The shoes all stared out from lit shelves, inviting her in to their hiding place. She couldn’t help but hope that they were her size.
“Is it stupid that I want to play dress up like a seven-year-old kid?” Marcella asked.
“If it is, we’re both idiots,” Andie said. The two looked at each other and started laughing, running to pull things from their hangers and out of drawers. They spent the next hour trying everything on, from over the knee boots by Louboutin to floor length gowns straight from the Gucci runway. Andie was in a designer pair of ripped jeans and an outrageously embellished Balmain jacket she wasn’t quite sure she could pull off when there was a knock at the door.
“Come in!” Marcella called, finishing her look off by pulling a cream, quilted Chanel bag from its shelf.
The door swung open to reveal Elijah and Gwen. “I see we’ve all discovered the closets,” he said. He slid the sunglasses he wore down his nose to take them both in. He wore a pink floral suit, which somehow made him look even more masculine, and behind him Gwen looked stunning in a belted dress with a plunging neckline. She did a little spin in the hallway before explaining why they were there.
“Everyone’s talking about a swim. Want to come?”
Once all of them were down by the pool in designer swimwear, talk turned to rehashing their auditions. Apparently, Andie was the only one who hadn’t prepared anything in advance.
“I brought only four of my instruments– five if you count my voice,” Gwen said. “I wanted to show range.”
“That’s loads more prepared than me. My audition was just a man and his guitar,” said Elijah. “I performed a Pink Floyd song.”
“Which one?” Andie asked.
“Wish You Were Here. I wasn’t really sure how it went until Camille started applauding.” He grinned sheepishly.
“Must have been pretty impressive then,” Nate said. “I did a really embarrassing runway walk for them. Aunt Lucy thought it was funny, which made it hard to concentrate on looking good.”
“No one’s believing that,”Carmen said while floating by on a pool raft. “Just look at you!” Everyone laughed.
“Oh yeah, what about you, Miss Universe?” Nate shot back.
Carmen made a noise of disgust. “I would never be a part of one of those pageants,” she said. “I walked in and handed them my modeling portfolio. They talked to me for ten minutes before they handed over the paperwork. Very transactional. Now all that’s left is switching my representation to Prodigy.”
“How do you know we won’t vote you out?” Marcella asked with a smirk.
Carmen shot Marcella a look. “I guess I don’t. But I think I’ll stay if the boys have any say,” she added, winking at Nate, who flushed.
As she jumped out of the water to sit on the edge of the pool, Andie caught Marcella’s eye and made a gagging gesture that only her friend could see. Marcella smiled, but Andie could tell that Nate’s interest in Carmen had gotten under her skin.
“What about you, Andie?” Pete asked, throwing the line of conversation in her direction.
“Huh? Oh um…” Andie couldn’t think of a good way to tell them that she’d been one hundred percent unprepared. “I just did some impressions,” she said dully.
“Impressions?” Elijah said, letting out a boyish chuckle. “Can you show us one?”
Andie shook her head emphatically, “No, no! I can’t!”
“Come on, Andie!” Marcella said, giving her an encouraging smile. The rest of the group chimed in with the same prodding. Andie bit down on her bottom lip, heart hammering.
“She’s too scared!” Carmen called from the other side of the pool.
Andie looked at each of their faces, turned toward her in anticipation.
She sighed and closed her eyes. When she opened them, she broke in to an impression of Keira Knightly in Pride and Prejudice, her favorite Austen novel. Andie was swept into the character, the perfected posh accent and breathy sighs, sidelong glances and genuine intensity. She delivered her lines to the nearest Mr. Darcy– who just so happened to be the handsome and tattooed Elijah Wells– finishing with the words “…And I might as well enquire why, with so evident a design of insulting me, you chose to tell me that you liked me against your better judgment.”
A moment passed that felt like an eternity before Elijah’s face broke in to his wide, dimpled smile, and everyone cheered. Vince and Gwen splashed Andie from the pool with excitement, telling her how amazing she was. Andie felt her entire body jittering with nerves she couldn’t calm.
“Brava!” cheered Marcella.
“Thank you, thank you” Andie said, bowing. She was proud that they liked it but wished she didn’t feel like throwing up.
“Maybe we’ll get cast in a TV show together, Andie,” said Pete, gazing at her like he was seeing her for the first time.
“Yes! And win Emmy’s by the time we’re twenty-one,” she replied.
“Uh oh, I sense a Hollywood it-couple in the making,” said Marcella, nudging Andie.
She was about to protest, but from the poolside table Andie heard her phone’s distinctive ringtone. She hopped up and ran over to answer it. Seeing that it was her mother calling, she chose to ignore the call. She stared at the screen while it went to voicemail, wondering when she had changed from the girl who always needed her parents’ approval to someone who moved across the country without a moment’s hesitation.
“Don’t feel like talking?” Elijah asked from behind her. She spun to see that he’d also gotten out of the pool and was towel drying his hair.
“I’ll call them back,” she said.
“Cool. Hey, come inside with me; I have something I want to show you.”
Looking back at the pool, where everyone was now grilling Marcella about her audition, Andie felt a tug in her chest. She felt at home here in a way that she never had in Iowa, and it scared her. She knew that so many things in this place didn’t last, but right then, she wanted to stay in the moment forever. She wanted these people to always think of her as the girl with a bright future, not the girl from some town no one had ever heard of. She also wanted to spend time with Elijah, wherever he was leading her even though boys leading her places usually meant trouble.
“Do you want to dance with me instead?”
Andie pushed the memory away.
“What is it?” she asked, following him inside.
“I figured, you performed for me, so I should sing for you,” Elijah said, heading toward the music studio.
“I’d love that!” she said. Her voice sounded too high, and she hated herself for not playing it cool.
The two of them entered the recording room adjacent to the sound proofed studio. Andie took in the long bank of knobs, sliders and blinking lights on the mixing console in front of the glass that separated the two spaces. The room was being pumped with freezing cold air to keep the many machines from overheating, but with wet hair and nothing besides a bathing suit and towel on, Andie shivered. Elijah reached around her to pull a microphone toward the sleek black chair in front of the mixing console.
“I’m going in there,” he said, “but you can talk to me through this, and I’ll be able to hear you through the headphones. Here’s the control to switch the mic on and off.”
“And how do I record?” Andie asked. She gestured to the console in front of them, unsure where one would even begin.
Elijah laughed. “I don’t think we’re at quite that level of comfort yet,” he said. Andie smiled. She wasn’t sure if he meant he wasn’t comfortable with her, or she wasn’t good enough with the controls to get a good recording. “the record button is actually on the computer. This is all for mixing the various inputs.”
“Wait here. I’ll be right back,” he said before backing out of the recording room door into the hallway. He returned a few minutes later, once Andie was sure he was playing some kind of prank, in his pink floral suit and carrying Andie’s designer ensemble.
“Gets a little chilly in this room,” he said, helping her in to the Balmain jacket. The man thought of everything.
Both of them sufficiently clothed, he left her there and went into the studio space. Andie watched him from behind the soundproof glass, sitting back in the comfy black chair. He picked up an acoustic guitar, strumming the strings and adjusting them to tune it. He looked every bit the rockstar, if a bit boyishly cute– like Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic. He appeared comfortable and assured as he stood in front of the microphone and donned a pair of headphones. Andie took her cue.
“Can you hear me?” She asked softly into her microphone.
“Sure can, my dear,” he said, strumming the guitar again.
“What will you be playing for me today, Mr. Wells?”
“A little song I’ve been working on,” he said, taking a breath. “I hope you like it,” he added. He strummed the guitar a few times and then began playing. Sneakily, Andie reached over to the computer mouse and hit record. She hoped all the right buttons were pressed and dials were turned, but she had no way to know for sure.
“The seasons are changing, but we’ll never know.
We have California sunshine and no winter snow
And I’m afraid she’s an angel but she’s lost her way, gave it up for summertime on a cold autumn day.
Now if the deal’s a devil, you’d better not leave
She’ll wrap you in heaven with a hope to deceive.
We’ve got no time to get away.
Here in Los Angeles, we’re all lost, oh we’re all lost angels. And in Los Angeles I’ve got bills for things I don’t own. In Los Angeles, the wind is carrying my call. And in Los Angeles no one’s an angel at all. No, no one’s an angel at all.”
Andie watched, mesmerized. His song wasn’t what she’d been expecting. It was better. It was melancholy and sweet, about a city Andie barely knew but Elijah apparently knew well.
“She’s got those pretty looks, so pretty that I fall to my knees.
She’s got hope for us all, but she hasn’t got any for me.
On evenings of August with a sweet summer breeze, she calls me her lover then leaves me to freeze on my own.
If I don’t have her love then I don’t have a place to call home.
Still she offers me hope, with a sign on a hill that I’ve seen in a movie or two.
Oh, she’s cruel when she’s kind, she’s taken my mind, and she doesn’t want to give it to you.
Here in Los Angeles, we’re all lost, oh we’re all lost angels. And in Los Angeles I’ve got bills for things I don’t own. In Los Angeles, the wind is carrying my call. And in Los Angeles no one’s an angel at all. I’ve learned from Los Angeles, no one’s an angel at all.”
He played a few more chords before speaking into the mic. “Thanks so much for listening.”
Andie hit the stop button and turned off the computer monitor, beaming at him through the glass. She started speaking, but he motioned to his headphones. She’d forgotten to press the button so he could hear her.
“Wow!” She said, loud enough that he was startled. He went to pull the headphones off of his ears.
“You’ll blow my eardrums out, woman!” he said with a laugh.
“Sorry,” she said at normal volume. “I just didn’t want you thinking I was trying to,” she dropped her voice to a whisper, “give you an ASMR experience.”
They both laughed at that. “Doesn’t work on me I’m afraid,” he said, hanging his head. “How was the performance? A bit low-key for me, if I’m honest.”
“What are you talking about? You were incredible,” Andie said. “I loved it. I might have accidentally recorded the whole thing. Or I got nothing at all.”
Elijah shook his head, “I never took you for a sneaky one, Andie Rowe.”
“Yeah, well,” she shrugged. “Want to come listen to it then?”
He took his headphones off, placed the guitar back on its stand, then joined her in the booth. Taking a seat next to her, he turned the monitor back on. His lips parted slightly as he looked back at her, shaking his head in mock disappointment.
“You recorded something,” he said. “And here I thought you were trustworthy.” He dragged the marker to the beginning of the selected audio file. “Weird…”
“What’s wrong?” Andie said, worried she had broken everything.
“This file says it’s three hours long,” he said, clicking a few more things. “But it looks like there’s only sound around the two hour marker. He dragged a few pieces of the sound clips around, clipping it and adjusting settings, then clicked play.
At first there was no notable sound. Then there was a noise like a door opening–presumably the door to the studio– and a person walking in, followed by a second pair of footsteps.
“I don’t know why you think we need to be in here,” came a vaguely familiar male voice. Andie couldn’t quite place it.
“I don’t think Quentin is in the know about this campaign, Larry,” a young female voice said on the recording. Andie and Elijah exchanged confused looks.
“Larry… as in Lawrence?” Andie asked.
“Shh! They’re saying more,” Elijah said, dragging the marker back a couple of seconds.
“Well I don’t see why we are having this conversation now instead of six months ago when it was first introduced,” Lawrence said.
“You know I’m just looking out for BetterCorp’s best interest. I think the microchips are a great idea, I just don’t know if we’d be setting a precedent we can’t afford to live up to.”
“This is all a test run, Lucy. This new talent is promising, and everything up to now has shown positive results. If it works out, money will not be a worry for the company. Or for you and me,” he added.
“Lawrence and Lucy were in here right before we started showing up,” Elijah said.
“Wait, go back to what Lucy said,” Andie said, grabbing Elijah’s arm.
He moved the marker back again.
“–BetterCorp’s best interest. I think the microchips are a great idea–“
Replay. “–BetterCorp’s best interest. I think the microchips are a great idea–“
Stop. Cut. Replay. “I think the microchips are a great idea–“
Stop. Cut. Replay. “–microchips are a great idea–“
Andie’s mother’s voice rang in her ears then, even as Andie tried to block it out:
“If it seems too good to be true, Andie, it always is.”