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How to Win

A new short story from the Booker-shortlisted author Daisy Johnson.

Episode One 

We’re here! Bikinis! Tans! Plucked! Waxed! Ready to go! Thirteen days in a villa with nobody but one another.

There’s a smell to the villa that none of us can quite identify, it gets stronger outside on the terrace and then fades away in the bedrooms. We’re too excited to care. There’s A POWER SHOWER. And A DUMB WAITER. And FOUR MINI FRIDGES FILLED WITH ALCOHOL. There is also some kind of tree but we don’t know what kind. Is it a fig tree? The lights in the pool glow red. Our legs beneath the water look speckled and alien. Hester can do handstands. Jake can tie a cherry stalk with his tongue. Barney’s attractively mean. We all fancy Barney. All the bottles in the fridge have their labels scrubbed off. In the screens our faces glow green. The cameras move on metal tracks, following us around. This is the beginning of the end, this is the start of everything. Freddie and Jonas hit it off, decide to couple up. Adele and Leonora have a fight. What time is it?  The moon winks on and off. We don’t know each other but we love each other, we don’t trust anyone. Adele and Leonora stop fighting, decide to couple up, make out on top of the kitchen counter. It’s cold but someone has taken away all our clothes so we have to stay in our swimming costumes. There’s only one bed but it’s big enough for all of us. Martha and Horatio are having sex on the floor in the bathroom. Adele says maybe they’ll send condoms down in the dumb waiter but, though we stand there a long time, none appear.

Episode Two

Jonas kisses one of the cameramen and an announcement is made that Freddie will have to leave the villa. He hides. We make it into a game called Hunt Freddie. We find his name scratched on the walls, inside the cupboards, behind the toilet, on the ceiling, inside the dumb waiter. We find bits of his nails, snippets of his hair, scraps of his clothes but we do not find Freddie.

Barney and Jacinda fight and fall in love. Barney tells Jonas that she kisses like a whale. We open and close our mouths like fish but Jacinda doesn’t get the joke. We play Who Can Stay Underwater the Longest and Adele wins. A note comes down in the dumb waiter saying: play Truth or Dare and Spin the Bottle please.

Martha and Horatio find a secret room and go into it to have sex.

Episode Three

The tree in the back yard is sick. All the figs have fallen off. We cluster around it, pull wads of the red fungus off with our hands and – not knowing what to do – drop them into the pool. By lunchtime it has grown back, coating the trunk, and some of us have patches on our arms and faces. We scrape at it with our fingers but it’s too hot to worry much about anything. Ellen and Paige start a game of Sleeping Lions which lasts until dark. A bucket filled with bottles of Lambrini comes down in the dumb waiter with an instruction written on a Post-it stuck to the side: DRINK ALL. Sleeping Lions doesn’t make good television. We drink it lying on the cool stones by the pool. The smell of the dying tree fills the air and seems to make us drunker quicker. Ellen and Paige have an argument and one of the bottles is smashed. The bubbles hurt our sun-burnt skin. Jonas starts to weep but there is no one to comfort him. Martha and Horatio are in the secret room having sex again. At times images of them flash up on the screens around the pool. We are too drunk to cheer. We are inconsolable. Perhaps it is the dying tree or perhaps the Lambrini is laced with something. We forget whose arms are whose and tangle up on the stone. We hope our parents are not watching. We hope someone is watching who will give us a job when we get out.

Episode Four

A new girl called Marta comes in and the shit hits the fan. She says she fancies Jonas then kisses Barney. She speaks in halting sentences and without intonation. She tells Barney she’ll couple up with him if he leaves Jacinda and then couples up with Jonas. The one big bed won’t work any more. We sleep where we fall. We sleep in shifts or not at all. Breakfast comes down in the dumb waiter. Some mornings it is pancakes and blueberries and bacon and eggs but mostly it is cereal bars and protein shakes. Marta does lunges beside the pool. Her body is like a machine gun.

Episode Five

We must all sleep at some point because when we wake there is an enormous metal box the size of a car beside the pool. We go around and around the outside of it looking for a way in but it is smooth all over. Jonas tries to kick it open and hurts his foot. Adele and Leonora climb on top of the box to look for a way in from there. After a while we give up. The temperature climbs and climbs. We feel our skin starting to burn, our hair bleaching. Only Marta remains serene. The water in the taps tastes the way the whole place smells. The air conditioning has broken inside and our faces in the mirror are distorted by heat. We decide to sleep by the pool.

In the night there are noises from the box. We press our faces to the metal. It has been in the sun all day but is freezing to the touch. We push our tongues against it and it tastes the same as everything smells, like vegetables left too long in the fridge. We can see our reflections in the side of it; we are starting to look like one another, our skin turning the same colour, our eyes changing shape.

A Twister board comes down in the dumb waiter and we play until we are so tired we can’t see. Adele is the best at Twister. She wins a date with Leonora. They carry their deck chairs to another part of the garden and when they come back they are in a relationship. We celebrate by burning the Twister board and jumping back and forth over the fire. Marta’s hair starts to burn but she only laughs.

Episode Six

Breakfast stops coming down in the dumb waiter. We make vats of pasta that last us through the day. Marta doesn’t eat, only laps up and down the pool while we all watch her from the side. She has a body like a Range Rover. We want to be her or murder her and hide her body in the dumb waiter. Jonas says he saw sparks coming from her ears when they were kissing but no one ever believes Jonas. Fruit grows faster on the tree than we can eat it. Adele and Leonora fill saucepans with it and say they are going to ferment it into booze.

Episode Seven

Jonas says he’s had enough and concocts a plan. Barney, still mean, helps him. Adele and Leonora film it on their phones. Ellen and Paige are curled like cats in the branches of the tree and won’t come down. Their skin is furred with red fungus and when they open their mouths to hiss at us we see their sprouting throats. Jacinda says she won’t have anything to do with it but then she’s the one who suggests smashing the Lambrini bottle and using the glass to get open the hatch that they find in the back of Marta’s head. Once we pull out some of the coloured wires Marta’s speech starts to go, she slurs her words and calls us all by one another’s names. She doesn’t seem angry at the intrusion into her brain, only, suddenly, peaceful. We pull off parts of her body and then are uncertain what to do with it. Jacinda and Barney couple up and suggest using her as plant pots. Adele and Leonora want to sink her to the bottom of the pool. In the end we scatter the bits around the garden: an arm sticking out of the flower beds, her head resting on one of the deck chairs, her legs shoved into the cupboard.

Episode Eight

After we destroy Marta things take a turn for the worse. Crows the size of small dogs have started to live on the rotting tree. They tear off the fungus and the sound of their calls wake us up in the night. We give up on sleeping, we can’t remember how long it’s been since the sheets were changed anyway. What else we can’t remember: how long Horatio and Martha have been in the secret room, when we last ate, whether the cameras are still on, whether we know what is inside the metal box. Our bodies feel light, balloon-like. Adele tries to catch one of the crows and it goes for her eyes. For a moment the sun goes out entirely and it is so dark we scream and scream and the crows squall around our faces. The smell is back and worse, like the ground is rotting beneath our feet. When the sun comes back Adele’s face is bleeding and the clouds are green like they are rotting too. Everything is gone off, gone away, slipping from us. We try to get into the secret room but the door is locked and there is no answer from inside. Leonora tries to climb into the dumb waiter but is too big to fit.

Episode Nine

Adele has gone missing. We look for her in the pool and in the bedroom but she is nowhere. All of her things are gone too. The weather is playing up, the sun comes and goes in the space of an hour, the moon slithers in and out of existence. The shadow of the metal box elongates and is sucked away. Jonas says he hears Freddie inside the box but no one believes him. No one ever believes Jonas. We hold our hands and move around linked together. Something has changed. Something is wrong. The water in the pool is draining away slowly, the fungus from the tree slicks the sides, fills the drains. We go together to the front door but there is a chain through the handles and we can’t get out. Jonas says he thinks he hears Adele and we look and look for her and the crows hop after us but we do not find her. The box seems to be singing. We press our joined hands against it.

Episode Ten

Today Martha came out of the secret room. Our morale was raised and we got out one of the Lambrinis we’d been saving for a rainy day. We put the deck chairs in the bottom of the empty pool and gather there. Martha’s fingers and face are stained and she has a strange way of staring off into space halfway through a sentence. We don’t ask where Horatio is, we never liked him much to begin with and, besides, Martha doesn’t look like she would like it if we asked. She starts stalking around checking everyone out, looking for someone to couple up with. We wish we hadn’t drunk so much. Our bodies move slower than our panic. Martha says she wants to couple up with Paige and Ellen gets mad. We’ve got out of practice with fighting, our mouths don’t hold the curses, our tears fall too soon to make us seem strong. Paige is torn between the two of them, wailing. Her arms are going to come off. The weather goes haywire again and it starts to snow. The snow gathers in enormous drifts at the bottom of the swimming pool. Paige hides underneath the snow and Martha and Ellen dig for her. The fungus from the dying tree stains the snow red. Ellen gets her foot stuck in the drain and can’t get out. Some of us are laughing. Martha finds Paige under the snow. Their bodies look like mausoleums/look like golden fruit/look like angular pine cones.

Episode Eleven

Ellen and Paige say they love each other enough that they don’t want to win and are going to leave the villa. Today the sun is back and food the colour of cement comes down in the dumb waiter and maybe everything will be fine. We wink and flash our bodies at the cameras. We’d almost forgotten it was a competition. If it came down to it we would do anything to win. What do we win? We can’t remember and fight over what it might be. A heap of money. Prince Harry. An island somewhere off the Greek coast. The opportunity to live in the villa forever and ever. We gather at the door with Ellen and Paige to wave them off. We are happy/anguished/fine to see them going. They try to open the door but there is something blocking it from the other side. They shove and shove but the door won’t open. The panic comes on slowly, like frostbite. Barney and Jacinda begin to bicker. Marta’s head offers unhelpful comments from her deck chair perch: have you tried the? What about doing? When are you going to? Ellen tries to break the glass with her elbow. There is blood on the glass and on the floor and on our skin. The crows hum and haw outside as if they know what is coming. Ellen and Paige decide they’ll wedge themselves in the dumb waiter. They scissor their bodies inside. They are thin as scalpels. Their whispers thrum and rustle around us. We wait. Hours go by but the dumb waiter does not go up. The rain is hot enough to hurt our upturned faces. Ellen gets anxious, begins to cry. They decide to cut the rope and let the dumb waiter fall to whatever floor might be beneath us. Marta’s head says: that doesn’t sound like a good idea. Ellen attacks the rope with her teeth. We hold our breath. We hold our breath together like we are one organism with different bodies. Paige is changing her mind and trying to get out of the dumb waiter. The dumb waiter is falling. We hold our breath until our skin turns blue and our lungs beat beat beat in our chests.

Episode Twelve

Time slows to a drip. We watch our hands moving through the air. We eat cold pasta and drink from the rainwater collected in saucepans. We become obsessed with the box. It is the only cool thing in the villa. We lie with our faces pressed against it, we sleep beside it. When we look into the reflection on the side of the box it is always impossible to tell which one of us we are. We are amorphous, jelly-bodied. In our sleep the box decides what we dream. In the day we sometimes hear it talking. It talks with Adele’s voice or with Freddie’s or with Ellen and Paige’s. It is comforting to hear them. They speak everything we worry about out loud. They know what we did when we were children and stole pick’n’mix or kept beetles in jars until they died. They know who we cheated on and the times we got so drunk we fell asleep in parks or on trains. They know what we wish/what we want/what we fear. The voices fill our mouths like coils of hair. We sleep for what feels like days. When we wake Barney and Jacinda are gone.

Episode Thirteen

There are only three of us left. Our relationship to one another is unclear. Jonas says that he loves us equally. Leonora says she’s in the friend zone. Martha says she feels pied off. There are rules we’ve made to ensure survival. Never go near the box. Don’t go somewhere alone if you can go together. Jonas wants to get the cameras working so we can document what’s happening. He says he doesn’t feel alive without the cameras and we know what he means. Now that it’s just us our skin sags and our hair is dry and dull and the swimming costumes hang off us. Jonas says we look like ugly bitches. He gets mean. He tells Martha that she ate all the crisps even though it was him that ate them. He tells Leonora that she looks like a dog. There’s a fight. In the reflection from the box our arms look like tentacles and our faces are merged and formless. We can hear Adele screaming us on though we haven’t seen her for days. Jonas grabs Martha’s hair and yanks so hard that she falls backwards into the empty swimming pool. She falls a long way and then stops. The silence is infiltrated by the noise of the starving crows shifting on their tree branches. Jonas’s mouth is a cave. Leonora swings an empty bottle of Lambrini at Jonas’s head and then screams and screams.

Episode One

We’re here! Bikinis! Tans! Plucked! Waxed! Ready to go! Thirteen days in a villa with no one but one another. There’s broken glass on the floor and the water in the swimming pool is a funny colour, tinged with red. We’re too excited to care. Hermione can break dance. Leo can make cocktails out of whatever he’s got. The dumb waiter clanks up and down. 

Daisy Johnson’s Booker-shortlisted novel “Everything Under” is published in paperback by Vintage

This article appears in the 18 April 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special