Sunday, December 25, 2011

Chapter 1: We're Not in Kansas Anymore

Week 1 - Sunday, Devon

I climbed out of the taxi cab slowly, doubting whether the taxi man took me to the right place. I turned back to look at the man in the driver's seat. "415 Southwind Lane?"

The driver nodded, winking. I took a deep breath, closed the door to the yellow cab, and watched the taxi take off along the road in a cloud of fumes. Only then did I open my eyes and look over my shoulder.

"Holy crap."

I thought back to the tiny apartment I grew up in, cramped into a bedroom with my parents. I remembered the dying front lawn, a pitiful brown square sprawled in front of a stained white building. Peeling paint, crumbling roofs, smashed windows, doors barely on their hinges. The cold of the winter creeping in during the night... That was the home I knew. This was the home I dreamed about.

Here, in Queenstown, California, there will be no frostbite. The sun is shining, the sky is clear... It's very different from Maine. I won't miss the snow one bit this winter, nor will I miss my parents, and I definitely will not miss that house.

I was the last one to arrive. The others were already gathered farther down the sidewalk in a clump, introducing themselves and making friends. They looked like they were having a pretty good time... I guess I was the odd one out again.

But not the only odd one out.

"Hey! You're Devon, right?"  a guy across the street called, waving.

I guess I wasn't invisible to everyone here, after all.

I jogged over to the guy, smiling. "Yeah, I'm Devon," I called. I stopped in front of him, and my smile disappeared. "Um, I feel bad because I don't know your name..."

"Hey, don't worry about it. Not all of us are stalkers," he said, laughing. "My name's Cyrus."

I grinned and looked back at the estate. "So... This is pretty crazy, huh? Out of thousands of people we're the ones that end up here... I guess I won't believe it's happening - "

" - until the challenges start. Until people get sent home, when everything gets crazy, when all the drama starts."

"My thoughts exactly..."

"So you said you're a stalker. How so?"

Cyrus put on a smug expression. "Well, I figured I might as well get to know my teammates and opponents - you know, find out everyone's strengths and weaknesses. I looked you all up on SimSearch."

"That's not entirely stalkerish... It's actually kinda smart. You're ahead of the game already! I'm just glad you're on my team and not the girls'..."

"I'm a guy, aren't I? And the guys' team is gonna kick ass," Cyrus said ambitiously.

"For sure, " I chuckled.

A blond girl broke away from the clump across the street, noticing Cyrus and I standing alone in the shade. She strolled across the road, her wavy hair shining under the morning sun... She was beautiful, in a young and spirited way.

"Hey guys! Why aren't you over here with the rest of us?"

"Um..." I looked down at my feet.

Cyrus jumped in to save me. "We're admiring the estate from afar. Looking at it like a painting. Devon's an artist, you know."

My face flushed. "Okay, now you're officially a stalker."

The blond girl laughed. "You guys are funny! I'm Blair, by the way."

"Cyrus Harrell, your personal jokester," Cyrus said, bowing extravagently.

I cleared my throat awkwardly, feeling like I was interrupting something. Like I was out of place. "And, uh, I'm Devon, but you already know that because Cyrus told you earlier. So...yeah."

Blair smiled. "Hi, Devon."

"So, are we opponents worthy of competing against?" Cyrus asked in a silly voice.

Blair faked thinking for a moment. "Hmm... I think so. But the girls will still cream you!" Blair stuck out her tongue and took off down the road, with Cyrus hot on her heels. I was alone.

Even after making the first friends I'd had in my life, I was still the odd one out. I always would be.


I sat alone in the shade for awhile, watching Cyrus chase Blair around, yelling all the way that the boys' house was boss and the girls would be the ones getting creamed.

I noticed a girl with flaming auburn hair watching me from the clump of people. I tilted my head, trying to get a better look at her.

"Ah, I see you've got a crush on Eliza," Cyrus said in my ear.

I whipped around and scrambled to my feet. Cyrus stood behind me. Of course, this Eliza girl hadn't been looking at me... She had been looking at Cyrus.

"I thought you had a thing for Blair?" Cyrus asked.

"W-What?" I blinked, my thoughts scattering. "I don't have 'a thing' for either of them!"

Cyrus raised an eyebrow. "Are you sure of that?"

"Yes! Well... I don't know."

Cyrus rolled his eyes. "What do you mean, you don't know? It must be obvious."

"I don't know because... Because I've never been in love before."

"Jesus, Devon, don't play with me."

"No, I'm serious!" I protested.

Cyrus's brow furrowed. "You really are telling the truth..." I nodded impatiently. "Well, I think you're falling in love... And possibly with both of them," Cyrus concluded.

"Dude, you can't just jump to conclusions like that. Look, whatever, just don't try to set me up with them or crazy chiz. They're our opponents, remember?"

Cyrus shrugged. "There's no rule saying you can't have a relationship with them."

My eyes bugged out of my head. "With an attitude like that, people are going to get hurt!"

"Hey, I never said I was going to be the one dating."

"Well I'm not going to hook up with them, either!" I said, exasperated. "Besides, they wouldn't be interested in me, anyways... You're always stealing the spotlight from me."

"I'm not trying to! But you never say anything! What am I supposed to do, stand there awkwardly, waiting for someone to speak? It's in my nature to talk a lot!"

I crossed my arms. "If you want me together with one of them so badly, then back off."

"Dude, what the hell? I'm not trying to steal them from you - trust me!"

"You really expect me to trust you? The guy that SimSearched us all, to learn how to break us down? Because I honestly don't think I can." I started to walk away. Where I was going, I didn't know.

"How is our team supposed to hold itself together if we're fighting?" Cyrus called after me.

I turned back and glared at him. "I don't know. Maybe you should figure it out, seeming as you know everything."


I stormed away, walking alongside the road to nowhere.


There was Eliza, running after me. So she had been watching me, after all...

"Where are you going?" she asked, panting. Her eyes glittered with concern... Genuine concern.

"You wouldn't care," I snarled, although I didn't know why I was acting so nasty. I didn't want to lash out at her, but something inside me forced me. "Nobody cares about me! I'm the invisible one. I'm the poor kid from the run-down neighborhood, the odd one out, an outsider. Don't bother following me."

"I don't care what other people think of you." Eliza grabbed my arm and pulled me closer. I tried to pull away, but she held me tight. "I saw what happened with you and that other guy."

Her deep emerald eyes calmed me; I could speak without losing my temper for a moment. "Yeah? And?"

"And I think you need to come back to the estate. You can't give up on the first day just because some guy is acting like a jerk." I couldn't believe what I was hearing... I had barely met her, and yet she was showing me sympathy. There was something soothing in her gaze, something that took me to a place I had never been before.

I took a deep breath. "It's not even lunch yet... I don't want to go back there, but I think you're right. I...I can't let Cyrus drive me out of this competition." I grimaced. I wanted to believe the words I spoke, but I didn't have that much confidence. These weren't my own words, this wasn't the decision I would make. Her eyes... They were green. Full of life and confidence, full of reassurance and encouragement. Influential.

Eliza looked into my eyes. "Who are you?" she breathed.

"Devon. Devon Wilder."

"Devon..." Eliza took my face in her hands, stealing my breath away. I couldn't make sense of this feeling... This feeling of falling. I'd never felt anything like it before. It was a welcome change from so many years of anger and depression and hopelessness... So many years of darkness. I felt like I was living for the first time in my life. Here, under the warm California sun, in the arms of a girl I had just met. This was real, this was all real... Now I could believe this was all happening. Eliza made everything crystal clear.

She held my gaze for a long time, not saying anything. She didn't need to - I read it all in her eyes. Not a word was said as she took my hand and led me back down the road, retracing our steps.

I think this is what love might feel like.


Eliza came with me when I met the other girls, Marisol and Maddie. Those two seemed to be getting along well...

"I saw her on the news, Devon!" Marisol told me excitedly. "She was a famous tennis champion at one point, and a pop singer in high school!"

"What was your name, again?" I asked Maddie.

"Maddie Swafford. Ring any bells?"

I recognized the name - my parents watched all of her games on television. I never watched them, because I thought athletes were stuck up and over-emotional...

"So why did you leave tennis and singing?" I asked curiously.

Maddie sighed. "The fame was starting to get to my head. I was pulling farther away from my true self... I woke up one day, looked in the mirror, and said, 'This isn't me anymore.' That was the day I decided to quit."

Marisol frowned. "It's a shame you did. You were so good at both! I bought all your albums," she added.

Maddie shrugged. "Don't get me wrong, I loved tennis and singing. I didn't want to leave them, but...I had to."

"What changed about you? Sorry, I know I'm prying," Marisol said apologetically.

"It's okay," Maddie reassured her new friend. "It's just..." She looked at me, and I knew it was my signal to go. I wanted to know what happened, but I'm not a girl, so I don't get to be included in the girl talk.

As I mumbled a goodbye and broke away, I realized Eliza hadn't said anything this entire time. I pulled her over under a tree, trying to read her thoughts. "Eliza? What's wrong?"

Eliza stared blankly at me for a moment, buried in her thoughts. "O-Oh! Um, nothing. I'm fine, sorry."

I shook my head. "No, you're not fine. What's going on?"

Eliza looked away. "It's really nothing, Devon. Don't worry about it."

I decided not to push her any further. She would tell me when she was ready, if that time ever came.

"I'm going to go talk to Blair," Eliza said quietly, wandering away and not meeting my eyes.

I decided to get up the nerve to introduce myself to the other guys. So what if they ended up not liking me? They should at least know my name. I wanted to be strong and show them that I'm not invisible.

"Hey guys," I said, approaching Cyrus and the other two guys. As soon as Cyrus saw me, he scowled and walked away to join Blair and Eliza. I rolled my eyes and sighed.

The brown-haired guy stepped toward me. "Devon, right?" He held out his hand for me to shake.

"That's me," I confirmed, shaking his hand. He introduced himself as Sebastian Wang.

"And I'm Derrick," the other guy said, giving me a fist pound.

"So tell us something about yourself," Sebastian said.

I groaned. "Hasn't Cyrus told you everything you need to know already?"

Derrick shrugged. "Eh, he had some pretty strange things to say. I find some of them hard to believe."


"You slept with a teddy bear until you were fifteen," Derrick replied.

My face reddened. "What the hell?!"

Derrick couldn't keep a straight face any longer, and burst out laughing. "Dude, I'm so kidding! Ha, you should have seen the look on your face!"

"That is so not funny! I thought you were serious!" I said angrily. "Okay... It's kinda funny." I doubled over in a laughing fit, and Sebastian laughed so hard he lost his voice.

Sebastian frowned, then brightened and started motioning with his hands. "What's he doing?" I asked Derrick.

"Sign language," Derrick replied.

I smiled. "Oh, duh. I didn't know you knew sign language! That's awesome."

"Well, we don't really know anything about each other, do we?" Derrick said thoughtfully. "Except for Eliza and Maddie."

I perked up, realizing there was something important lying under his words. "Wait, what do you mean?"

Derrick looked surprised. "You don't know? Eliza and Maddie are stepsisters."


Lunch rolled around, and we separated into our dorms. Derrick whipped up some mac-and-cheese for us, burning it in the process. He claimed he took a few cooking classes in high school, but the amount of salt in the pasta suggested otherwise. Nevertheless, Derrick became the designated cook for the guys' dorm.

Over mac-and-cheese, we talked about our lives before we came here. Derrick had a lot to say, having traveled the world for soccer tournaments. He had stories to tell from England, China, Russia, Australia, Brazil... It seemed he knew everything about this world we live in.

Hearing about Derrick's life brought a strange feeling. This was the life I could have had, if I had listened to my parents and done what they asked... I could have been the guy with all the stories to tell, the guy who was the star forward of the USA team. I could have had everything.

"Devon? What do you do for a living?" Derrick asked.

I cleared my throat nervously. "Um, I paint."

The guys hesitated a moment before nodding and mumbling their opinions half-heartedly. "Painting... Cool... Yeah, art is cool. Sounds fun..."

"How about you, Sebastian?" I asked quickly. Sebastian, who was sitting next to me, gave me a smile only I could see. He got the hint and launched into a story about his band, Desert Thunder, and how they got their first gig.

Finally, it came Cyrus's turn to tell his story. "Well, I'm an adventurer and an inventor. Right now, I'm trying to create a robot capable of multitasking. I have all the blueprints drawn, I just need to find some of the pieces. As for adventuring... Well, I've traveled to Egypt quite a few times, and I actually got to venture inside the Great Pyramid in the summer. It's riddled with traps and tricks, and at one point I doubted whether I would make it out alive. I'd consumed all my food and water and had a nasty gash in my arm. Then, just as I was about to turn back, I spotted a room full of gold. I was lucky that I tossed a quarter in before I entered, because half the floor dropped away into the ground! I managed to grab everything I could carry in my backpack as the roof started to inch down from above, and made it out just in time. That had to have been one of the most exciting moments of my life. When I got back to the US and brought my findings to a museum, I found out I had grabbed a long-lost artifact that had been mentioned in Egyptian legends. The museum paid me $500,000 for it!"

I smiled sourly at Cyrus. "Well, it sounds like you're not in this competition for the money. So why are you here, Cyrus?"

Why not give the money to someone who really needs it? Someone like me?

Cyrus grinned, hostility glinting in his eyes. "I don't know. I guess I just want to make friends and have a good time."

And stir up trouble.


The day dragged on. Sebastian and I played video games together while Derrick went on SimConnect and Cyrus hung out with Blair out back.

When I looked out the window, I saw Cyrus whipping up drinks for Blair at the bar. Blair sat on a stool, laughing as juice sloshed everywhere. At least...I hope it was only juice.

"You like her, don't you?" Sebastian asked, appearing behind me.

I shrugged. "I don't know. I thought I was in love with Eliza... But I think I still have a crush on Blair. I think I have a crush on both of them. Is this normal?"

"Absolutely," Sebastian reassured me. "Don't think too much about it, though. You'll know which one to pick."

"Cyrus already has Blair in the bag... I think Eliza is the only one I can pick."

Sebastian shrugged. "I wouldn't be too sure about that. You never know with Cyrus... He might just be leading her on. If he breaks her heart, she'll have you to fall back on."

I looked at Sebastian curiously. "How do you know Cyrus would do that?"

"Well he might not do it on purpose. I don't think he even knows she likes him... All I know is he definitely doesn't like her."


"Believe me, I know."


After Cyrus came in from drinking who-knows-what with Blair, I constantly caught him glaring at me. Every time I turned my head, Cyrus was there, a sour look on his face. Had he caught me spying on him and Blair?

I tried to take my mind off girls, but I just couldn't. This was the first time I had met rich, beautiful girls, and this wave of emotions was a bit overwhelming. Guys aren't supposed to feel this much, I told myself over and over, trying to take my mind off Blair and Eliza. However, I couldn't help remembering all the times I had seen Blair and Cyrus together and felt jealous. But I had Eliza...

Love is a complicated thing. I wasn't even sure if I was in love, yet I got caught up in all this madness.

I didn't see Eliza until dinner. We sat at opposite ends of the banquet table on the patio, miles away. I offered Eliza a seat by me, but she simply shrugged and walked away. I just don't get her. Earlier that day, she was all warm and fuzzy, but by dinner she was fading away already.

Maddie chattered on and on about the most random of subjects. I couldn't focus on whatever she was rambling to me, so I nodded my head and smiled. Nod, smile, nod, smile, nod, smile... Eliza...

I kept catching Eliza's eye, but she would never hold my gaze for longer than a second. Dinner lasted an eternity.

After the huge meal, we broke up and hung out in the backyard.

Cyrus hung out with Blair and Eliza in the hot tub.

Sebastian and Maddie roasted marshmallows at the fire pit.

Derrick and Marisol had a few drinks at the bar.

I stood alone.

Eliza smiled at something Cyrus said, looking slightly uncomfortable but trying to enjoy herself. I knew from the way she blushed that Cyrus was flirting with her... With Blair sitting right next to him.

I clenched my fists, feeling my temper rise. Deep breaths... I marched over to the hot tub.

"Cyrus!" I barked. "Can I talk to you for a minute?"

Cyrus raised an eyebrow. "All right. I'll be right back, B," he told Blair as he stood up.

He followed me into the shadows, his expression changing. "What do you want?" he hissed.

I stepped closer to him until our faces were inches apart. "What game are you playing?" I spat angrily.

"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Yes you do, don't lie! You're leading the both of them on."

Cyrus shook his head. "No, I'm not. I'm just getting to know them."

"Yeah? Then what's with the pet names? 'I'll be right back, B,'" I said, imitating his words.

Cyrus sighed agitatedly. "I don't think 'B' counts as a pet name. Besides, why does it matter? I'm not interested in her, or Eliza."

"Yeah, but you're getting them interested in you!"

"Look, I'm not out to hurt anyone!"

"Well, you're acting like a total ass, if you ask me!"

Everyone fell silent and turned to look at us.

Cyrus stabbed a finger into my chest. "Devon, you cause more trouble than you're worth!" He left to rejoin the girls in the hot tub.

The night lasted forever. All around me, laughter sounded, and everyone had a really great time... Everyone except me. I drank and drank at the bar until I could hardly walk straight, drowning my sorrows and stress in pina coladas.

Eliza never said a word to me.


"Come on, you can make it up the stairs," Sebastian said, practically dragging me upstairs. I could hear my heart pounding in my ears, and I felt sick to my stomach. Everything was blurry and spinning, surreal... Dreamlike. So very different from how I had felt that morning, in Eliza's arms. I'd had way too much to drink.

"I'll just go to sleep here," I slurred, crumpling into a ball on the spiral staircase.

Sebastian sighed. "Derrick, can you give me a hand?"

Derrick climbed up to where I was lying and helped Sebastian lift me up and carry me the rest of the way up the stairs. They stood me up on my feet at the top, pointing to the beds. "You should probably lay down now," Derrick said.

"We'll have to make sure he doesn't get into the drink supply next time," Sebastian whispered, but I was too drowsy to defend myself.

I stumbled sluggishly over to the other side of the room. I was about to slump onto my bed when I saw blurry white squares on the orange and brown sheets. They were fuzzy and bright and almost...glowed. "Haha, there are glowing white squares on the beds," I mumbled drunkenly.

Sebastian and Derrick walked over to me. "Okay, now you really need to lie down," Sebastian said, dismissing the "glowing white squares" as hallucinations.

Derrick, however, had a look at the beds. "Wait a second... There are folded papers on the beds."

"Probably just notes from the people running this competition," Sebastian decided.

Derrick picked up a paper and unfolded it. Through the dreamlike haze, I saw his eyes widen. "Um, I think you'll want to take a look at this."

Sebastian stepped closer. "Why? What is it?"

Derrick read the note aloud, his voice heavy with suspicion. "I'll kill you off one by one until I'm the only one left standing."

No one spoke. We just looked at each other, our eyes wide. "It's...probably just a joke," Sebastian said quietly.

"Yeah, it's probably just the girls playing around," Derrick murmured. "We shouldn't worry too much about this."

The doorbell rang.

I looked out the window. The four girls stood on our doorstep.

Sebastian hurried downstairs, Derrick dragging me along behind him. Sebastian flung the door open.

"Is this some kind of joke?" Blair shrieked, thrusting a note in our faces. I tried to read the writing over Sebastian's shoulder, but the letters floated around and I couldn't comprehend what I saw.

"It's the same note," Sebastian whispered, and looked back at Derrick.

"What do you mean, it's the same note?" Maddie asked, her voice shrill. "Wait... Do you mean you also got notes like this?"

We nodded slowly, examining their expressions. I knew then that the notes weren't from them.

"Wait... Where's Cyrus?" I whispered.

The girls inched closer to us, looking around anxiously.

I had the most discomforting feeling that we were being watched.

Eliza met my eyes for the first time that night.

Suddenly, Cyrus emerged from the shadows of the road in his workout clothes, returning from a midnight jog. Everyone stiffened, and the world suddenly grew crystal clear. For a second, I broke out of my drunken state and could think straight. All the pieces fell together.

Cyrus had SimSearched us all. He knew all our secrets, our weaknesses, all the things he could use against us. He had access to the most powerful information of all in this competition, and he seemed like the kind of person who would be more than willing to use it.

I pushed through the crowd and stumbled down the steps and onto the road. I threw a punch at Cyrus, yelling anything I could think to say. "We know what you did! 'I'll kill you off one by one until I'm the only one left standing?' Who do you think you are, running around stirring up trouble? You don't belong here! You'd better sleep with your eyes open tonight, pyscho-"

Cyrus shoved me away from him. "What the hell is all this chiz you're throwing at me? The pina coladas have gotten to your head, bro!"

I grabbed Cyrus by his shoulders. "You know what I'm talking about!"

"Dude! Can you at least explain to me why you're trying to beat me up?"

Derrick tossed one of the notes to me, crumpled into a ball. "This is what I'm pissed about."

Cyrus took the note, uncrumpled it, and read it, his eyes widening. "Who wrote this?"

I aimed another punch at his face.

"Wait!" Sebastian yelled, running out of the house. I hadn't noticed him go back inside. He ran down onto the road, pushing us apart. He looked at me and said, "There was a note on Cyrus's bed, too."

"We're too smart to be fooled by a pitiful cover-up like that!" I snarled.

Cyrus shook his head. "Look, I may not like you, Devon, but I'm not lying when I say I've never seen this note before."

I had no reason to believe him, no reason to ever trust anything he says. But something in the way he said those words told me he didn't do it.

I knew he was telling the truth.


If Cyrus didn't write the note, then who did? What is Eliza hiding from Devon? How will the author of the note target the contestants? Chapter 2 is coming soon, packed with more drama and surprises!

You can now vote for your favorite contestant, but I suggest you wait until later in Week 1 - there will be a few shocking surprises that could change your vote. ;) If you liked this chapter, remember to follow my blog by clicking Join This Site! I also love comments. :)

Last but not least, happy holidays, everyone!