“You better believe in karma
Baby it’s gonna sting
The wheel of life’s gonna do you in
So I don’t really have to do a thing
You took me outta my money
You messed up my love life and my career
You better believe in karma
Guess it’s gonna start getting weird right here
Bad karma (oh, yeah)
Baby that’s what you got
Bad karma (oh, yeah)
Whether you believe it or not
The universe is gonna getcha
You’ll be scratchin’ the seven year itch
You know what I think?
Bad karma’s a bitch”
– Bad Karma, Ida Maria
The song ran through Claire’s head for what felt like the dozenth time since she’d returned home from school and locked herself in her room. She felt like she was about to throw up. All week long she’d felt like she was going out of her mind, even starting to doubt her own friends for the first time ever, as she’d tried to figure out who it was that sabotaged her art project. She hadn’t been able to understand WHY someone would do it. Oh, she’d been bullied before, but most of the bullies had left by now, going on to menial jobs or onto welfare, leaving her with actual peace with which to somewhat enjoy her final few months of school. At least until someone had snuck into the art room when no-one was there and vandalised the oil painting she’d carefully left out to dry. It was unsubmittable and unsalvageable: she’d had no choice but to start over from scratch, rushing to meet the deadline, and so upset over the whole thing that she couldn’t concentrate properly. It was difficult to paint with a shaking hand. Claire had put her heart and soul into that first piece. She was desperate to secure a University place and if she couldn’t get a top grade she had no chance of getting in to any of her first choices.
Finally she heard what she’d been waiting for and leapt up from her bed ready to pounce. Her sister Rachel, just back from her boyfriend’s house, made her way up the stairs. Claire could hear her on the phone to one of her friends. Even though she was ready to throttle the spoiled little madam, this caused her to stop and wait until the conversation was over, signalling from her room that she wanted Rachel’s attention.
“It was you,” said Claire when the call ended.
“I beg your pardon?” replied Rachel with a frown. That was the only use her sister had for manners, to try and lead you on a merry dance with them.
“Ohdon’tplaycoywithme, don’t you dare! All this time I’ve been wondering who it was, and it was you! You’ve seen what it did to me, you KNEW how important it was, and you don’t even care, do you? Why? For heaven’s sake, why would you do this to me!?”
Rachel licked a pair of glossy lips, looking around nervously. She closed the door to Claire’s room and walked over to her, Claire turning and putting her back to the wall in order to get a good look at the guilt (or rather, total lack thereof) on her sister’s face.
“Who’s been saying that?”
“Amy asked around, and at least two people saw you and Laura Jane go into the art room – where you had absolutely no business being.”
“Well, they’re lying, aren’t they? I never went anywhere near your stupid oil painting. Have you told anyone about this?” asked Rachel, looking worried.
“You LIAR!” screamed Claire, making it sound quite the dirtiest word in the entire world. Rachel recoiled from her as though slapped, which from the way Claire’s arms were waving around, she almost had been. “You absolute LIAR!”
“Shut up!” hissed Rachel, stepping towards her as though about to slap a hand over her mouth. What if mum and dad hear us? I’m telling you, it’s got nothing to do with me. I would never do that to you.”
“Then how do you know it was an oil painting that got ruined?”
“Eh?” frowned Rachel. “Well… you told me, obviously.”
“No, I didn’t,” said Claire, the smug smile of virtue triumphant spreading across her face. “You never even asked when I told you about it.”
“If it was me –IF, I’m saying – then I would have had to know what it was to put glue over it anyway, wouldn’t I? So that doesn’t really add up.”
“I didn’t tell you it got glue on it either.”
“And Laura Jane knew about it – her friends are in the class and they knew how important that project was.”
“Look, it was just a laugh-”
“You’re going to be in so much trouble when-”
Claire’s threat was cut-off when suddenly her sister’s arm slammed against her stomach, pinning her to the wall. It took her a moment to get her breath back. She tried to push her off, but her sister held firm.
“I’m not going to be in any trouble though am I? Not based on this… this heresy.”
“Hearsay,” Claire couldn’t help but correct.
“There’s no proof we did anything. Seriously, you don’t want to mess with Laura Jane, alright? You’ll be done with school soon: you want to just keep your fucking mouth shut and your head down or else, all right? It’s for the best. I… wouldn’t want to see anything happen to you.”
“She’s nothing but a bully. She can’t get away with this…”
“That’s the thing though: she’s not a bully at all. It’s you. She doesn’t bother anyone else but you. She’s been one of the best friends I’ve ever had, and she gets on with just about everyone. But you… you’re just so… soft… you just make yourself a target.”
Claire’s bottom lip quivered. She and her sister had always had their ups and downs, but it was only now that she saw just how Rachel really saw her. Rachel removed the arm that was pinning her to the wall, sighed, and placed her arms on her shoulders in a bizarrely conciliatory gesture.
“Look, you know I love you, don’t you?” she said softly into her ear. “But… sometimes you make things really difficult for me. I try to stick up for you, I do, it’s just… I’m not having people pushing MY face into the mud, just because I’m your sister, you know?”
With that, she rubbed her shoulders, gave her arm a little squeeze, and left the room with a smile as if the air had just been cleared between them. Claire stood still for a moment, reflecting on herself and her relationship with her sister. She felt like she’d been taken and placed in a box from birth, a box she could never hope to get out of, and after spending most of her life trying to pretend it wasn’t there, her sister’s words were now forcing her to look at it.
Slowly, she climbed back onto her bed, and after a moment, began punching her pillow. Over and over and over again, and all the while Ida Maria told her that karma was a bitch.
“Perhaps, given the simply delightful collection of smells that are currently assaulting my nose, you could make your explanation as quickly and… as briefly as you can, Bardsley,” said Rosalind, when despite Claire’s best efforts, words simply stopped coming. Despite the clear unpleasant distraction this was giving her lecturer, she nevertheless managed to speak in articulated perfection as she drew out her vowels and over-enunciated her consonants. Needless to say Claire felt absolutely distraught for the woman having to be subjected to something so unseemly, and wished terribly that she could comfort her. Preferably by giving the woman the slimiest hug of her life.
Rosalind Darlington-White was one of the reasons – or perhaps on reflection excuses – why Claire had been able to attend university in the city she’d grown up in. Also a local, Rosalind had worked for a large animation company in France for a few years and was therefore well known amongst the local community, and a significant asset to the university. While the company she worked for no longer existed, she still possessed a far from insignificant contact list, which of course her students would do pretty much anything to be able to network with. Claire had been glad to be able to stay at home a little longer and put off venturing out into the world. Of course when she did finally go venturing, it wasn’t likely to be anywhere Rosalind had helped get her to. Every time the woman looked upon anything she’d worked on she made a strange noise with her throat which Claire optimistically hoped was just her struggling with a particularly bothersome bit of biscuit, but which was always followed up by some scathing witticism and then a perfectly articulated explanation of how she would have done it entirely differently and how anyone with a brain would clearly appreciate her way was much better. Except it always seemed like nothing she offered was remotely constructive whatsoever and was only useful so far as putting herself over as an artist of the highest calibre.
It certainly couldn’t be argued that Rosalind did this because she was short on compliments. Quite apart from the fact that most of her students showered her with praise over her work (their true feelings about her overbearing manner, along with the obvious but nevertheless to them quite amusing Darlington-Shite nickname, kept very much behind her back), her looks had not faded one bit, even in her forties. Of course, the regal makeup she wore helped. Claire didn’t normally go out of her way to apply much in the way of makeup, but she supposed it was just like painting, with your face being the canvas. On Rosalind, it’s application was as intricate as it was beautiful: a wash of green eye shadow with gold highlights to darken her piercing hazel eyes, a light application of bronzer which gave her skin a pleasing, golden glow, and meticulously applied red lipstick. Her long, glossy raven-black hair fell in a cascade of beautiful curls. Suffice it to say she did not need to be standing next to a vaguely girl-shaped blob of pink pudding in order to be considered a woman of exquisite beauty and class.
Claire tried to work out the best way to explain her current appearance, resisting a sudden mad urge to simply yell “I AM THE PUDDING QUEEN!” and run away. It would be helpful if she could make it through this unending gauntlet of torment in a manner that meant she could still generally live her life and be able to face people as normal afterwards. Also, given that she hadn’t at all expected to make it to university at the time and in the manner she had, she was going to need Rosalind’s help getting in to one of the buildings so that she could enjoy her eagerly awaited shower.
God, she hated the way the woman was looking at her: it said that she looked every bit as stupid as she felt. She was never going to be able to look her in the eye again. Every time she went to class now she was going to feel unbearably self-conscious, just knowing that whenever she caught Rosalind’s attention her lecturer would be thinking of the time Claire clambered through the wall covered in slime and sans shorts. What if she brought it up in class? She would just die!
“I was um, I was just out for a walk when, um, some people, um, came up to me, er, and started, just started covering me with all this stuff, I uh, I don’t know who they were, or, um, why they would do that,” said Claire.
“Um,” she added helpfully, after a moment of standing in awkward silence. She knew her story was utterly lame, but trying to invent anything other than something very vague would have just opened her up to being caught in a lie. Telling the truth wasn’t an option: Larissa was silent but no doubt still listening, and while Claire wasn’t at all sure she wanted, or even would be able, to continue, she didn’t want to get herself disqualified. That would be rule-breaking, and even on such a stupid show, such a thing was unthinkable for her. And she certainly couldn’t make out that anyone on campus had done it, as then Rosalind would have to refer the matter higher up and there would be no chance – and she certainly hoped there was a chance at this – of her shameful slimy secret remaining concealed.
“And your response to this was to run straight to university and try to jump through a hole in the wall?” asked Rosalind, who puckered her painted lips as she mulled over this absurd scenario.
“Well I… ran away from them obviously,” said Claire. “And I was way closer to here than I was to home, and I knew there were showers here, so…”
She cut-off as she heard some kind of commotion across the campus. Both of their heads turned, but as they were behind one of the buildings (Rosalind had plainly been round having a smoke when she saw Claire tumbling out of her shorts, and quite how that smell didn’t bother her, Claire would never know) they couldn’t see what the fuss was. Claire’s fingers went to her mouth in horror. Of course! Of course! Someone else had seen and had ran to tell everyone, and now they would be coming, they would be running round here and they would see, they would actually all see her, oh no, oh no no no no no…
Two incredibly pretty young women appeared round the corner. Wolf whistles followed them as they came, although to the greatest relief of Claire’s young life, no other actual people came with them. Rosalind peered at them quizzically. They were both making an absolute spectacle of themselves having both turned up in dresses so spectacular they obviously weren’t here as students. The blonde in the green dress even had a flower pinned to her hair. For a moment Claire wondered whether one of them was Larissa, but she quickly dismissed the idea. She’d just been talking to her a moment ago, so there was no way that she could have gotten here so fast. Thanks to the crazy stunt at the bridge, she did now know that Larissa’s base of operations, or one of them at least, had to be very close by to the river, or else Claire’s fall would have been broken by literally nothing. Even without taking that into account though, they both looked rather uncomfortable at their state of overdress (although Claire would have killed to be overdressed right at this particular time) and at the way Rosalind was examining them with those sharp Hazel eyes; she couldn’t imagine even Rosalind breaking through Larissa’s cheerful disposition.
“Who are you?” Rosalind finally asked when no information was forthcoming from the two women. “You’re plainly not here as students, I can see that much.”
“We’re Claire’s friends,” said the blonde. Claire couldn’t help but notice the blonde was looking her immaculate best, while the brunette was looking a bit like she’d been dragged backwards through a hedge. They shared a look of empathy for a moment as the other girl spoke. “She called us and told us what happened, and asked us to bring a change of clothes over for her.”
Rosalind regarded the women for a moment and then looked back at Claire sceptically. Her expression contrived to say that she had Claire Bardsley pegged as a loser, and therefore not the kind of person who would associate with such pretty, presumably popular young ladies in such fine, fine dresses. Perhaps Rosalind’s nose had really had enough of Claire by now however, as instead of pressing further she sighed and started walking towards the main campus area.
“Come on then,” said Rosalind, waving for them to follow.
“Um!” called Claire urgently.
“What?” asked Rosalind impatiently. The woman seemed incapable of sympathy. In a way, Claire was almost glad, since at least this way, she didn’t really have to talk about her predicament all that much. “What’s the problem?”
“Um, miss, if we just walk over there everyone’s going to see me,” said Claire meekly. She looked at the ground. A globule of pudding slowly trickled it’s way down her head and plopped down making a puddle onto the ground in front of them all. No-one said anything. She was sure she looked an unbelievably sorry sight.
“So what exactly do you suggest we do, Bardsley?” asked Rosalind, hands on her hips. Claire didn’t know, but she didn’t say anything, because she was quite sure if she did Rosalind was going to insist she get moving, possibly by dragging her along by the ear if necessary, and she certainly wasn’t going where anyone could see her, no matter what.
“Maybe if you have like, a sheet or something we can cover her with?” suggested the bedraggled brunette.
I LOVE YOU FOREVER, thought Claire.
“Oh! Oh! There are sheets in the art rooms, miss!” said Claire, hopping from foot to foot in earnest excitement. “The ones we use to stop the paint from getting on the floor!”
“Bardsley,” snapped Rosalind, then stopped herself. She ran a hand through her soft hair; it must have felt so good to her that it helped calm her. “This is quite a hassle. Fine, I’ll get you a sheet.”
With a disgusted sigh, the woman headed off towards the art building. This gave the three girls the chance to finally get introduced, but not before the blonde sprayed something pleasant smelling into the air around her. Claire’s bad smell wasn’t going to be ‘assaulting’ her nose anytime soon.
“Hey, Claire,” said the brunette. “I’m Erin, and this is Hayleigh. We’re I guess the presenters of the show you’re on right now, well, not ON right now, if you know what I mean: it’s not like we’re filming at the university, not that Larissa probably wouldn’t, knowing her…”
“One more will put you past the half-way mark,” said Hayleigh. “I’m impressed you managed to make it this far: I don’t know if your sister could have pulled off what you did at the restaurant.”
“The restaurant?” asked Claire, feeling this was, at least in a way, old news by now. “Did you see me jump off that bridge?”
The two women shared a puzzled look.
“Bridge?” asked Hayleigh.
“What?” asked Erin.
“Never mind,” said Claire. “I’m sure you’ll know soon enough.”
She didn’t add: hopefully because Larissa tells you rather than because I end up on the evening news for that little extravaganza.
“Ah, I almost forgot – along with your change of clothes, Larissa wanted us to give you this,” said Erin, holding out a golden envelope. Hayleigh snatched it out of her hands.
“Don’t give her it now, in the state she’s in, idiot! We need to wait until we can get it on stream, anyway.”
“What is it?” asked Claire.
“No clue, other than it’s to do with your next challenge, I presume,” said Hayleigh. She quickly hid it away in the bag she was holding containing Claire’s blessed change of clothes as she saw Rosalind returning with the sheet. In a moment it was draped over Claire and she was escorted across the campus. She could see absolutely nothing. The two presenters helped guide her while Rosalind went in front. There was no small excitement of chatter accompanying them.
“Who do you suppose is under there?”
“Must be a celebrity!”
“Er… they seem to be leaking… pudding or something…”
“Probably some sort of abstract art thing,” said someone knowledgably.
“Yes, Rosalind’s with them. Can’t wait’ til the big unveiling. I’ve always been a big fan of hers.”
“I’m a big fan of how fuckin’ hot those two are!”
Thankfully Rosalind sent anyone packing who approached to try and take a peek under the sheet. To Claire’s great relief they managed to make it to the showers without incident. She’d surely been due some good luck after the string of disasters that had courted her throughout the day so far. There was no-one else around, and the sheet, now very slimy on the inside, was carefully removed from her.
“You three can take responsibility for disposing of this,” said Rosalind, tossing the filthy rag into the corner of the room with a grimace. “And for cleaning up the mess you’ve trailed through the building.”
“Yes miss,” said Claire, head lowered with shame. This was about the most scolded she’d ever been. Well, if you excluded the fact that she’d just been chased across town by a mob of people about ready to tear her to pieces. “Miss?”
Rosalind sighed. Her expression finally thawed just a little.
“You really don’t have to call me ‘miss’ all the time, you know. I can clearly recall giving you all permission to call me by my first name.”
“Yes mi- I mean, Rosalind. Sorry,” said Claire. She wished Rosalind would call her by her first name. Someone calling you by your last name was bad news for sure. “Um, could you… please maybe… not tell anybody about this? I’m really just so mortified by this whole thing, and I don’t want people talking about it and making fun of me… please?”
“So long as I hear no complaints about you leaving any of your mess around the place, your secret is safe with me. Oh, and please, I will understand if you miss this afternoon’s class. I’d rather you got yourself sorted here than you come to class smelling like a dairy.”
“Thanks. And thanks for your help,” she said. And thanks so much for all your concern, she didn’t add. Once Rosalind had left, and Erin and Hayleigh went to check what filth she’d trailed in with her, she tossed her unsalvageable clothes under the messy sheet. The presenters had taken the microphone and earpiece from her.
The warm shower was heaven: she decided immediately that she was never leaving. She also decided that she was probably going to take a dozen showers and still not manage to feel clean. Happily as well as a change of clothes the girls had brought some shampoo and some lovely scented soap. The shower was so good that even the loss of her one hundred percent perfect attendance record didn’t faze her all that much. Her skin felt like it could finally breathe again, and the heat helped sooth her aching muscles. There had been no time to relax ever since Larissa, or at least her voice, had entered her life this morning, and now that she could, she longed to just go home and lounge about the house. She’d jumped off a bridge into the back of a lorry filled with pudding! Her! It would be so wonderful to not have to deal with any more people for a while, or to have to run anywhere, and of course to not have to get slimed. Maybe she’d work on a sketch, or read a book, or just lay her head down and listen to some tunes. A nice early nice night.
She didn’t have much of a sense of time passing, although all but the most persistent of the slime had been washed from her body by the time Erin and Hayleigh returned. They were chatting impatiently, and while she was grateful they’d turned up to help (even if they were guilty to some greater or lesser extent of being part of the total farce that this ‘show’ was) they would just have to wait until she was done. Showers were far too blissful an event to be rushed through, she had learned.
“I wish she would hurry up,” said Hayleigh.
“Well I’m not dragging her out of there,” said Erin, although she sounded pretty agitated regardless. “I wish I was in there with her. Uh, I mean… don’t give me that look, you know what I mean – stop giggling, Hay! – you know for such an expert in staying clean you sure have a dirty mind.”
“Yeah, speaking of that, thanks for not landing me in it earlier.”
“Well, you had a point. Besides, you know what she’s like, she’d have probably been all ‘oh, selling out your friend, huh? I see how it is! It’s ‘The Blackening’ for you again, sweetheart!’, geez!”
The pair burst out laughing at that, and even Claire had to stifle a laugh at Erin’s coarse attempt at imitating Larissa’s sugar-sweet manner of speaking. She made her sound like Marge Simpson, which was about as far away as she could possibly have gotten.
“Still,” said Erin, once they’d recovered. “I do want to know what’s in that envelope. Don’t you think it’s odd that she sent us out here with it? I mean, she has Claire’s number and the earpiece right? And she could have sent anyone with those clothes. So why go to all this trouble?”
“We’ll know soon enough,” said Hayleigh firmly.
“If we wait and open it on the stream it’ll be too late! We need to know what she’s up to.”
“She said Claire’s to open it, and we’re not to look at it beforehand.”
“But what if it involves us? Look, you know she’s not watching us right now. We can sneak a look and she’ll be none the wiser.”
Hayleigh seemed to hesitate.
“Okay, open it. Carefully though! We need to make sure we can seal it back up so she won’t notice,” said Hayleigh in a conspiratorial whisper. Claire couldn’t even make the sound of the envelope being opened over the sound of the rushing water, so she presumed Erin had been careful, but she did catch a cry of dismay.
“What?” gasped Hayleigh, sounding extremely worried. “What does it say?”
“There’s another envelope inside… ‘NO PEEKING, ERIN!!!!!!!’… seven exclamation marks, she’s put! Seven! I’m not a bad person, Hayleigh, I’m not! I’ve never done anything in my life that deserved seven exclamation marks! And what the hell’s this demon thing she’s drawn on the front? With the weird horns?”
“Demon thing? Erin, that’s her! She’s drawn a caricature of herself. Look, those aren’t horns, those are her pigtails.”
“Oh, I see it now. Wait, what’s that line above her finger?”
“I think she’s… wagging her finger back and forth at you.”
“At me!?” wailed Erin.
“She wrote it out to you! I told you not to open it.”
“That’s the exact opposite of what you said! Oh my god is she… she’s winking at me!”
“Put it back in, Erin!”
Finally, once Claire had gotten about as clean as she could hope to feel short of employing some kind of specialised scrubbing equipment, she got out and dried herself off while Erin and Hayleigh politely waited outside. Her change of outfit turned out to be a pair of dark blue denim jeans and a sea blue and black plaid button down shirt. It wasn’t her style at all, but she’d have settled for literally anything under the circumstances. After fixing her hair up a bit she neatly folded up the sheet, taking care not to get herself messy all over again, and placed it along with her clothes into a black bag Erin gave her. With some regret she handed it over for it to be disposed of.
When she was ready, the girls led her back out through the main entrance to the university. Heather and Ethan were long gone, presumably off to class and no doubt wondering where she was. She hoped they weren’t too worried about her; first she’d cancelled lunch with Ethan and now she’d missed her first class ever. Just along the road she saw someone with a camera. She supposed she should be used to getting filmed by now, and it was certainly better than her messy jaunt across town, but there was still something particularly daunting about having to stand in front of a camera and talk to people. Erin handed her back the microphone to put on her clothes, along with her phone.
“Welcome back, everyone!” said Hayleigh brightly, looking into the camera. “Apologies for the long break, but we’re here now for the first time with Claire joining us – oh, and I guess this is Erin’s first time joining us today as well. How about you tell us where you were earlie-OW!”
“Whoops, my arm slipped,” said Erin, moving past Hayleigh and over to Claire. “Claire, do you have anything you want to say to everybody at home watching you right now?”
“No, I don’t,” said Claire, a red-hot blush spreading over her body. Even without that, she was already way too hot: she wished she still had her denim shorts.
“You’ve already completed three huge challenges: only four to go and you’ll be taking home that fifty thousand pound prize,” said Erin, pushing on. “How do you feel about your chances?”
“I don’t know,” said Claire, and then feeling like she had to make at least some kind of effort not to come across as the lamest person ever, added: “It’s been really crazy so far, and it seems like they’re only going to get worse.”
In truth, she really wasn’t sure whether she was going to continue any more. The past two challenges had been far too awful, and her having to leap from a bridge was far more extreme than anything she could have imagined when she’d first agreed to be on the show. Could any amount of money really be worth what lay ahead? But again, if she just quit, then all her ordeals had been for nothing. She supposed there wasn’t any harm in at least hearing what the next challenge was.
Looking somewhat apprehensive, Erin handed over a golden envelope and told her to open it up. The light of the sun caught it, blurring Claire’s eyes until she angled it away. She opened it to see the second envelope the girls had been discussing while she cleaned up. She couldn’t help but smile when she saw the little caricature of Larissa cheekily waggling her finger at poor Erin. Yes, she could certainly picture Larissa looking like this; the girly but lush pigtails were exactly the sort of thing a woman who dotted her i’s with love hearts would wear. Opening the second envelope, she found inside a piece of card which she held up slightly to block the sun.
“What does it say?” asked Hayleigh after Claire had stood frowning at it for a moment.
“You are cordially invited to the world’s largest Gunge Party?” said Claire finally, the question mark being her own addition. She recognised the front of Club Reflex, although she knew the outside without at all knowing the inside. On the top right hand corner she could see a woman in no small state of inebriation looking like she was jumping for joy while being locked in a gunge tank being absolutely covered in yellow goo.
“Everybody likes a party,” said Erin, trying to raise Claire’s spirits as her shoulders sagged. Both she and Hayleigh stood side by side with her to peek over at the card.
“I don’t,” said Claire.
“Two for one on cocktails though,” said Erin. “Free entry too!”
“What’s a gunge party?”
“Well… you’ve heard of foam parties right? And paint parties? I mean, we weren’t filled in on this to be honest, but I imagine there’ll be all kinds of gunge games, that kind of thing.”
Claire cringed at the card. She couldn’t take her eyes off the woman in the gunge tank. She’d just ran across town covered in mess and been seen by all kinds of people, and had the whole thing broadcast to a number of people on the internet. It was all kinds of mortifying, but she’d just managed so far to avoid the big humiliation knock-out of being seen by people who knew her. She hoped she had, anyway. Rosalind she didn’t really count so long as the woman kept her word. Tonight, however, that was going to end. Decisively. Her classmates went to Club Reflex all the time. The only reason they wouldn’t be there on a Friday night was because they couldn’t afford to, and with free entry and drinks offers on the go, everyone in town was going to be there. Were those the flyers Ethan and Heather had been handing out? Ethan probably wouldn’t go, at least, thank goodness. He usually liked a quiet drink and an early night, if he was going out. They were the same speed in a lot of ways, which she liked, though it did mean that there were twitterpated glaciers that were capable of hooking it up quicker than Claire and Ethan.
Her phone rang.
“Congratulations on making it this far, Claire,” said Larissa.
“Larissa, this has gone way…”
“And the good news is, not only have you managed to freshen up, you now have an opportunity to refresh yourself mentally too,” continued Larissa. While soft as ever, her voice easily managed to steamroll Claire’s attempts to offer her objections to today’s quite unbelievable events. “You’re now free until ten o’clock this evening.”
Well, that was something at least. It actually gave her time to properly think about things for the first time. She definitely needed some downtime to try to relax and get her head together.
“Mostly free anyway! There are two important bits of preparation to be carried out ahead of tonight’s big Gunge Party. First off, I’ve made an appointment for you later with a good friend of mine who runs a beauty salon in town who’s going to get you looking just oh-so-beautiful for tonight. What a treat!”
To Claire, who was mostly kept by her parents and whose only real source of income was the (very) occasional commission piece through her Deviantart page, getting pampered did sound nice. Her mother had treated her for her birthday one time, and although she’d still been a bit awkward during the whole thing, flat out refusing to let them massage her, the facial she’d gotten had felt quite blissful. The staff had been very friendly and accommodating to her shyness – the experience had been good for her confidence. She wished she could enjoy treats like that more often. Of course, getting pampered with the explicit goal of getting trashed later on was highly unlikely to be a feel-good experience. She could try to pretend the gunge part wasn’t happening, she supposed. At least it was a break in between humiliations.
“Secondly, you’re going to bring Ethan along as your date!”
There was a slight elation in Larissa’s voice which seemed to indicate a certain excitement in seeing what Claire’s reaction to this was going to be. At first, there wasn’t one. The idea of Larissa speaking Ethan’s name – a name she by right shouldn’t have known – was just too surreal for her to process. She ran it back through her mind to try and figure out in what way she’d misheard or misunderstood this bizarre instruction. To her horror, it played back exactly as she’d heard.
“What?” she squeaked.
“You sound so surprised! Come on, you know you don’t want to go to the Gunge Party by yourself. What a great way to start things off with you two as a proper couple!”
“E-Ethan’s not my boyfriend! How do you know Ethan?”
“Ethan’s one of the biggest backers of our show!”
“He is not! Ethan’s not some…”
Claire paused mid-sentence as she realised what she intended to say might not go over so well with her present company or with the show’s audience.
“Some what?” Larissa coaxed.
“Someone who could, uh, afford something like that. He doesn’t watch much TV either, so I can’t imagine him backing you, or even having heard of you, for that matter.”
“Heh, I was just teasing you,” said Larissa. “When we were talking earlier you were playing it very coy when we got on to the subject of relationships. It was obvious there was someone you liked, so while you showered I called your dad who was happy to share that all you ever talk about is “Ethan said this” and “Ethan thinks that” and “Ethan’s just such an amazing artist”! I felt so bad when he told me you two had lunch plans today that you had to cancel because of me, so I figured this is a great opportunity for me to make things up to you both.”
Claire’s hand clenched around her phone tightly. Larissa had gotten everything her way so far, but this was something she couldn’t stand for.
“Here’s the deal,” said Claire firmly. Erin and Hayleigh had been chatting off to one side, watching her only from the corner of their eyes, but for some reason she had their attention now. “You want me to continue on this show, you leave my friends and family out of this.”
“You say that, and yet you were happy enough caking your sister this morning, weren’t you? You could hardly get downstairs fast enough to do it as I remember it! Had to put your hand over your mouth to hide how hilarious you found the whole thing!”
“I-” Claire tried to protest this, and as she did she remembered that weird feeling of pleasure she’d gotten at the time, and the shame she’d felt at it.
“So you want your wonderful Ethan to be sheltered, but if it’s just your sister, that’s okay then? The rules were given to you right from the beginning, Claire. I told you there were few boundaries or limits to this game… and I told you that I’m the one in charge. I don’t remember saying anything about me being in charge except when it doesn’t suit you! You don’t make deals, I do. So here’s my deal and it’s the best you’re going to get: play by the rules, or you lose. And if you lose, well, I still have a party going ahead tonight. I still have another day ahead for the game to run through. And, for someone willing to play by the rules, I have a hell of a lot of money to give away. You know who I think would be willing to do whatever it takes to win the prize? I think the girl who was supposed to be our original contestant would, don’t you? I don’t think she’d have any scruples at all about doing whatever it takes to win.”
Claire held the phone away for a moment to give a strangled cry of frustration, which everyone ended up hearing anyway. She’d never attempted to defy anyone the way she just had Larissa, and it couldn’t have backfired more spectacularly. Instead of getting her friends and family kept away from this, they were now more involved than ever. Claire was the responsible one, and she’d ended up jumping off a bridge and getting almost stuck in a wall before tearing her shorts and standing half-naked on University grounds in front of her lecturer. She couldn’t even imagine the kind of antics her deviant sister would get up to! So now even if her ordeal was over, it wouldn’t be over. She didn’t even want to think about the torment that might get inflicted on her if Larissa and her sister teamed up against her!
“You must think I’m very mean, don’t you? But you know what I think, sweetheart?” asked Larissa, still sounding chirpy as ever. “I think sometimes you need someone watching out for you, to give you a little push every now and then.”
I’d like to give you a little push, right off that bridge, and there wouldn’t be anything soft for you to land in, either!
“I asked you not to call me that,” said Claire, although the determination in her voice had faded to a small whine by this point.
“Asked, was it?” said Larissa. “Is ‘stop calling me fucking sweetheart’ how you were raised to ask for something? I don’t think it was at all! I had a lovely chat with your parents to discuss the show with them (we had tea and biscuits too!) and they were some of the nicest people I’ve ever met, and I don’t think that’s how they raised you to ask for something.”
“Sorry! Sorry, sorry!” babbled Claire, remembering her outburst from earlier.
“Hee hee, I’m just playing with you, Claire. Another benefit of us not being a TV show: you can swear as much as you want. No need to be formal with me; I’ve heard it all, believe me!”
“Why, Larissa?” asked Claire , her voice trembling. “Why are you doing all this?”
“Why don’t you have a boyfriend, Claire?”
“I… I don’t need a boyfriend,” stammered Claire, very uncomfortable with where this conversation was going.
“But you want Ethan to be your boyfriend, don’t you? Have you ever had a boyfriend before?”
“I don’t see what that has to do with anything!”
“Oh, Claire,” said Larissa. The coating of sweetness that was always around her voice tempered slightly. For the first time all trace of girlishness left her voice. It made her next words seem so genuine, as though she were confiding in Claire a great truth. “You’re such a beautiful young woman. You could have any man you want, and more than a few women. I think me and my friend can help show you that. And don’t worry about the Gunge Party. I know the last two challenges have been really hard on you, but you’ve come through. I think you’ll have fun with this one.”
Claire was taken aback. She felt as though she was back in her sister’s bedroom with Larissa talking to her over the speaker, when she’d been completely overwhelmed and unable to speak. In the next moment, Larissa was back chirping at her in her usual speaking voice.
“I’ll text you the details of your appointment. Can’t wait to see how gorgeous you look for your big date with Ethan!”
As the call ended, Claire was about to scream when she remembered Erin and Hayleigh were still there. Not to mention that Larissa could presumably still see and hear her.
“Is Larissa… is she always like this?” asked Claire.
“Wonderful woman,” said Erin quickly. “She’s larger than life.”
“She’s the best,” agreed Hayleigh. Apparently neither of them had forgotten that Larissa was still watching either.
“Anyway, we should probably be getting back,” said Erin. “It was nice meeting you – good luck with the rest of the game!”
Claire watched them go with a glum look on her face. This wasn’t fair! All through this show she’d at least been secure in the knowledge that she could back out at any time. Now though, she was just as stuck as she’d been in that damn wall, and Larissa was treating her like she was her own personal plaything. The show itself was already bad enough, and now the woman was running her life for her as well. The fact that she wanted Ethan to go out with her was beside the point – the last thing she wanted was for their first date to end with her as the mortifying centrepiece of some so-called ‘Gunge Party’. And asking him on a date was difficult enough without having to ask him to come to that! Ethan knew full well she didn’t like going to nightclubs, so she’d probably come across as some kind of gunge-loving weirdo, when of course she was anything but.
She waited anxiously outside the art building for him. Class was almost over, but it felt like a long wait as she fidgeted and tried to think of what to say. She’d thought about it many times, but never had the courage to actually do it. She thought he was interested – there had been little signs at times, not enough for her to feel confident enough to act on, and not actual flirting per say, but there was a definite chemistry there, or she thought there was.
Ethan was one of the most laid-back guys she’d ever met. That had its good points and bad points, she supposed, but it made him easy to get on with. She always felt so calm and comfortable when he was around. Usually. He came out of the building alone. While it wasn’t unusual to see students walking around carrying books, Ethan had the terrible habit of reading while he walked. Besides being something of a pet peeve of hers, it also made it difficult getting his attention.
“Hey!” she called. When he didn’t react, she tried again, and when that failed she hurried along after him as fast as her still aching body could go. Finally she got alongside him and gently tugged at his shoulder, a thin, sympathetic smile on her lips at the familiar ordeal it was getting him to notice her. In more ways than one.
While those who didn’t know usually thought him ignorant or aloof, the truth was that Ethan suffered from tinnitus. He’d simply gone to bed fine one day and woke up the next with a non-stop ringing in his ears. Ethan played bass in a band so at first thought nothing of it, assuming it would stop in a day or two. When a week passed with no improvement however, he’d gotten checked out, and eventually once all avenues were exhausted told that the condition was permanent.
She’d never heard him complain about it, except for one time when he’d confided in her that it was “pretty fucking awful.” He’d been smiling, and spoken as though making a joke, but it was the one time he’d let her see through it.
Ethan was tall and a little on the skinny side, with messy dark hair and – as she teased him about every Friday – was rocking his usual five-day stubble. His eyes looked tired; he’d probably been up half the night working on some project or another. She quite understood – art was their shared passion (although she herself kept a regular sleep schedule no matter what).
“Hey!” said Ethan as he joined her, waving at his ears apologetically for obviously not having heard her right away. She led him away from the crowd. “Heather and I were wondering where you’d got to. It’s not like you to miss class. Everything okay? You look kinda strung out.”
“I can imagine,” said Claire, managing a small self-deprecating smile. “It’s a long story, but everything’s fine. Just… something unexpected came up. Sorry for cancelling lunch earlier. Where’s Heather?”
“Rosalind wanted to talk to her about something. I was going to wait for her, but she said not to bother.”
“What? What about? Rosalind didn’t say anything about… about me, did she?”
“Nobody cares that your one hundred percent perfect attendance streak just broke except you,” Ethan assured her.
“She didn’t say anything else?”
“No. Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah, uh, there’s just… something I need to ask you.”
She clasped her squirming firmly hands behind her back and looked up at him shyly. He wasn’t like the first crushes she’d had back at school – things that had developed almost instantly and been maddeningly overpowering. She’d seen him around in her classes and never really noticed him at first. It wasn’t until one day when Rosalind had been particularly scornful towards a piece she’d worked really hard on when he’d seen how upset she was and encouraged her. Then, in what was probably before today the most devious thing she’d ever done, she’d asked if he could help her with the 3D art software they used, even though she didn’t really need any help at all. They’d been friends ever since, and at first that was all she’d seen him as. Then his birthday had come up, and she’d had the idea to do a portrait of him. It was something she’d done for all her friends when they’d left school. They’d all been moving away, leaving her behind, and she’d wanted to do something to show them how much their friendship meant to her, and so they had something to remind them of it. It had been comforting doing it – drawing portraits always made her feel close to people even when they weren’t around. It made it a little easier to say goodbye, even though she hadn’t wanted to. She still remembered how thrilled they’d all been. Of course, at school she’d been considered a big deal when it came to art. At university, in a place filled with amazingly talented people, she was nothing special at all.
She’s put her heart into Ethan’s portrait. It took her a long time to finish it, and whenever she worked on it, he was all she thought about. She thought about how they met and how close she felt to him and how much she enjoyed their time together. She’d spent an aching amount of time trying to get every last detail of him just right, from his celestial nose, to his soft , thin lips, the stubble (of course!) and his bright, kind eyes. Eyes were always the most important part. She knew exactly who he was just by looking at those eyes. By the time she was done, she was almost too embarrassed to even give it to him. There was so much love in it that she thought it would completely give away the feelings that she’d realised when she’d worked on it. While he’d been very happy to receive it, however, he remained seemingly oblivious. Or perhaps he just never acknowledged it because he didn’t feel the same way.
“Would you…” Claire began, and stopped. Her feelings were too important to be cheapened by Larissa and her stupid whims. At the same time… she did want this, and she didn’t want to spend her whole life feeling the way she did when she’d had to say goodbye to her friends as they moved on. She didn’t want to be the one always getting left behind. She’d put up a wall between herself and people… maybe it was time to knock a hole in it and slip on through.
“W-would you maybe like…”
She’d jumped off a bridge today! This shouldn’t be that hard!
“Would you be able to go on a pretend date with me? Tonight?”
“A pretend date?” asked Ethan, raising his eyebrows. He sounded amused, and understandably, a bit miffed as he mulled over this concept.
She’d just asked him out on a pretend date! Like they were five years old in the playground! She’d knocked that gap in the wall and gotten stuck on the way through yet again, legs kicking helplessly in the air.
“Uh… yeah…” said Claire, trying each individual word out for size before she dared speak them aloud now, lest her mouth betray her again. “I… kind of… told Rachel that… I would go to that party thing tonight… and uh, she was making fun of me for not having a boyfriend… so I told her… that you were my boyfriend.”
Well, she certainly didn’t fee calm around Ethan now! She was horrified.
“Claire, how on earth is that going to work? We’d have to drop the act sooner or later. How am I supposed to look your mother in the eye knowing she thinks I dumped you?”
“Why would you dump me?”
“We’re not really going out!”
“I mean, why wouldn’t I dump you?”
“You wouldn’t dump me.”
“I would so dump you!”
“Wait a minute… what party are you even talking about?”
“There’s a party at Club Reflex tonight. Or so I hear,” said Claire defensively. Of course, with Ethan’s condition she would have quite understood if a noisy club wasn’t where he wanted to be: she was hardly going to jeopardise his health, not for money, not for any reason. However, she knew Ethan well enough to know that for one thing, he had earplugs which helped when he was in noisy places, and more importantly that Ethan was very clear that he never catered to his tinnitus. He’d have been offended if she even brought the issue up. He still played in his band as well, although she suspected music, and not art, might have been his first love if things had been different.
“I know, we were handing out flyers for it earlier. You do know it’s a Gunge Party, right?”
“Everybody loves a party,” said Claire firmly.
“You don’t! Do you even know what gunge is?”
“Yes,” said Claire, who knew gunge on a very intimate basis at this point. “They’re doing two for one on cocktails.”
“I don’t drink cocktails.”
“Come on Ethan, please! As a favour to me?”
“Claire, I’ve barely slept…”
“Ethaaaaan!” Claire whined. Ethan sighed.
“I just… don’t see the point in us pretending to be something we’re not,” he said.
“Oh… well, I mean… yeah…”
“If it was a real date though…”
Claire’s heart skipped a beat. This might just be the most amazing thing that had happened to her all day, and that was quite saying something at this point. It was also perfect: nothing had been cheapened if he asked her, after all.
He’d asked her!
“That… yes. Yes, I’d like that,” she said softly.
Although Claire found herself unable to meet his gaze, instead looking awkwardly at her feet, she couldn’t help but give a small smile. And when she managed to look back up at him briefly, she saw that her smile had actually worked on someone for the first time all day.
“Wow,” said Ethan.
Claire couldn’t help but be pleased -she couldn’t remember ever cracking the ever-stoic Ethan before! Then again, even she’d been taken aback by the transformation that had occurred during her visit to the beauty salon. She’d come close to running out of the place in pure embarrassment when the stylist covered some of the ‘suggestions’ that Larissa had offered. At first she’d tried to fight the woman and go with her own choice – she was tired of Larissa constantly having her way with her – but eventually gave up when the stylist had mentioned getting Larissa on the phone to sort things out. Besides, although she hadn’t admitted it aloud, she’d rather liked the look of the sweet, sleek bob cut, so that was the one she went for.
As far as her makeup went, the closest she’d managed to any kind of suggestion of her own was a reluctant ‘a little makeup is okay, I guess’. She was glad they’d ignored her; she’d never thought the winged-eyeliner look was for her (people might comment) but she loved how elegant it made her eyes look. It seemed a long way away from the mousy girl people saw her as, and it made her feel at least a little more confident about herself than usual. A gentle application of cream foundation was concealing her freckles and with help from a facial treatment, giving her skin a nice clean, hydrated feel that was so wonderful after spending so much time covered in gunge. The perfume she wore had a pleasant floral tone that was considerably more pleasing than the pudding scent that had been lodged in her nostrils since her big leap earlier.
Larissa had also arranged a selection of pretty outfits for her to choose from, most of which, unlike the eyeliner, really were too bold. There was one that would have shown her belly, a number that were cut far, far too low, and one leopard print dress that, for all that she had pushed the boundaries of her nature today, she wouldn’t be seen in in a million years. She’d settled on an aqua Bardot dress with blue leaves printed all over it, which she thought was cute but also elegant, complimenting the more mature look her styled hair and makeup was already giving her. Despite the imminent threat of the gunge, she’d been so happy with the look that she’d taken a few selfies with her phone before Ethan arrived at her house, and she never did that. In fact she usually complained about Rachel’s vanity whenever her sister took her own, but since nobody else was home, such hypocrisy could remain her little secret. She was glad nobody was here; she was pretty sure her mother would have fainted upon seeing her all dolled up like this, and she wouldn’t have relished trying to explain the look, the fact that she was going on a date, or the Gunge Party.
She would have liked the chance to learn exactly what Larissa had told her parents about this mysterious underground game show though. She’d tried googling it
(oh my, you’re so smart, sweetheart! Aren’t you smart?)
but perhaps understandably given the secretive nature of the show, and the fact that if it even had a name at all she didn’t know what it was, she hadn’t been able to turn anything up. She had at least found some information about Larissa, but not much more than she’d already been told.
“Okay, so how about you tell me what’s really going on?” asked Ethan with a coy smile.
“I don’t know what you mean,” said Claire.
“You’re setting me up to get gunged, aren’t you?”
“Of course not!”
“Did Rachel put you up to this? She did, didn’t she? She would think this is funny…”
“No! Ethan, please, for one thing I would never be stupid enough to go along with one of her crazy ideas in the first place, and for another I’d never do anything mean to you, okay? You know that, right?”
“I know something’s going on,” Ethan sighed. “You’re not… acting like yourself.”
Claire hesitated. She needed a way to explain this without actually explaining it.
“Maybe I don’t want to be me. Maybe just for a day or two, I want to try being someone else and seeing what that’s like.”
“What wrong with being you?” asked Ethan softly, reaching forward and touching the side of her head gently. There was something about the way he said it that touched her. It seemed to say I like you just for being you. But the answer, that she couldn’t bring herself to tell him, was that she was sick of people looking at her and immediately seeing her as a mouse, if they even saw her at all. For all of her anger at Larissa, she’d told Claire something that very few people had in a long time: that she mattered. Larissa had seemed interested in her. Larissa knew how to talk to her, not just talk at her like everyone else seemed to. Larissa had told Claire that she was beautiful… and she’d helped her feel beautiful. She never had before.
No matter what the woman had in store for her tonight, she was going to enjoy some time with Ethan. She had promised herself that, even going so far as asking him out to dinner before they went into town. She’d even spent most of the evening thinking of what she was going to say to him. What she absolutely wasn’t going to do was think about the Gunge Party until dinner was over. She needed this.
When she didn’t reply to him, Ethan turned her around and took his arm in his. She pressed in close against him without even thinking about it; she didn’t know if it was because of the quality of his aftershave or simply from a fresh scent after the pungent sweet smells that she’d suffered through all day, but he just smelt so good. While he may not have had the help of a stylist, he’d certainly done his part, in a black casual suit jacket and crisp white shirt. He’d even shaved.
They stepped out, and Claire glowed.
Club Reflex was made up of three floors which, while virtually identical in appearance, usually housed three different styles of music. Unfortunately none of them in any way would have catered to Claire, who after a few minutes of the same drab house beat thumping away over and over, would have much preferred ‘none’. She looked over at Ethan – she couldn’t help but worry about him even though she should have known better. He gave her a thumbs up, and he did look happy, the pair of them very much having enjoyed the other’s company over dinner. Ethan had already put his ear plugs in; they would have stood out to anyone looking at him right away.
The Gunge Party was restricted to the first floor, so that any patrons just here for their Friday evening’s entertainment were free to opt out of the whole thing. Although it looked like people’s interest was definitely peaked: the place was jumping, and Claire was definitely feeling uncomfortable. For her, if not for Ethan, the fun of dinner was wearing off as the horrible reality of her next challenge began to loom. The butterflies in her stomach might well have been trying to dance to the music.
“You know, we don’t have to stay,” said Ethan, noticing her discomfort. “We could always go somewhere a little more quiet.”
“I’m fine here, thanks. Are you okay?”
A number of booths were situated around a performance stage which looked to have been set up especially for tonight. Normally they would have had no chance at them, but Larissa had reserved one especially.
“I think these are for VIPs,” said Ethan as Claire made to sit down.
“I know,” said Claire. “This is ours.”
“The plot thickens,” said Ethan.
Claire looked up at the stage which the booths sat around, noticing the large Perspex tank that sat just off centre. Currently it was unused, but looking around the floor, she noticed there were several tanks laid out on the floor already being put to work. A very excited, high pitched squealing was coming from one not far from their seats, where a buxom blonde in a short sleeved white top was squirming on the lap of her boyfriend as the pair of them were relentlessly coated in translucent green gunge. They looked very much to be having the time of their lives, but Claire couldn’t help but feel even if getting gunged was (god knows why) something you actually wanted to do, you should wait until nearer the end of the evening to do it. Presumably there was somewhere in the club set up for people to get cleaned up. She doubted the girl – who was still screaming with delight about the whole thing – would be quite so happy when it got round to going home time if there wasn’t.
A woman in her twenties wearing a rose red waistcoat and matching bowtie, with white shirt and dark trousers, wandered over to their table. She brought with her an expensive looking bottle of wine and a couple of glasses which she set down in front of them before pouring. Ethan couldn’t hide his surprise. The waitress also handed Claire another envelope.
“From our mutual friend,” explained the waitress, as though they were in a spy movie, rather than on a game show. “Please let me know if there’s anything you need.”
Claire raised her glass, although having already having had a little wine as a treat with her dinner, was a bit wary of having too much more. She needn’t have been so careful. With the wine still in her mouth as she took a moment to savour a very pleasant taste that could likely only ever be in her budget if she won the big fifty thousand pound prize, the woman who’d just been gunged walked past their table. The translucent gunge that soaked her white top had turned it completely see through. Claire spat wine all over the table, turning her head away and delicately covering her eyes. Ethan sat looking straight ahead, completely stone-faced. When Claire finally dared look back, their eyes met and finally Ethan’s shoulders began to move up and down. Although she moved now to cover her wet mouth, she caught a fit of the giggles as well. Once they finally recovered, saying nothing to each other, Ethan pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, shifting round so he sat next to her, and dabbed gently around her mouth. His lips were so close to hers, she couldn’t help but think about kissing him, but of course that would be much to forward for a first date eve-
She was startled to find she was no longer merely thinking about kissing Ethan – she was being kissed, and she was kissing him back. The taste of him made her heart melt, and when he pulled away, she gave a small moan of pleasure before pulling him back in. She’d always felt so nervous about being kissed, but it came surprisingly easily. There was no awkwardness at all; from the way Ethan went about it, she knew she tasted just as good to him as he did to her.
After a few moments, Ethan sat back, pushing her hair away from her eyes and running it through his fingers before cupping her cheek with his hand. Claire smiled warmly at him. She no longer cared what Larissa’s challenge was. There was nothing she could do to her now. She was grateful to her – she really had just needed a little push all along.
“Would have been a real shame to waste that wine,” said Ethan, licking his lips smugly. She hit his arm playfully, then he took her hand and they sat together in a comfortable silence. At least that was to say, they didn’t say anything to each other – Claire was still being dominated by that horrible house music which to her sounded as if it could still be the exact same song that was playing when they came in, and Ethan presumably accompanied by the constant “EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE” squeal that ran through his ears at all times.
Feeling invincible now, Claire picked up the envelope.
“I need to check this. Can you give me a minute?”
“Is this where I find out what all this is about?”
“I… can’t tell you anything right now, Ethan. I will when I can. Is that okay?”
“All right,” said Ethan, so laid back he could almost be mistaken for being deceased.
“I just want you to know that this has nothing to do with you and me,” she said, looking into his trusting eyes and squeezing his hand. “I know I screwed up earlier, but I really did want to ask you out, you know? I’ve wanted to ask you for a really long time now, actually. You’re my best friend, and I… care about you. A lot more than I’ve told you. I just… never dreamed that you could feel the same way I do.”
“I thought a lot, after you gave me that portrait,” said Ethan quietly. She could barely hear him above the music. “I don’t think anyone else has ever seen me the way you see me. I say I don’t let my tinnitus affect me but… it makes me distant from people, a lot of the time. Sometimes I think you’re the only person who sees the real me.”
Claire couldn’t ever remember being so happy. He had noticed after all. She wasn’t even going to ruin the moment by asking why on earth he kept her waiting so long. He was here with her now, and they were together.
Though she still had to face her next challenge, and she had to face it alone.
After Ethan moved back to the other side of the table to give her some privacy, she tore open the envelope. She waved it back and forth at him.
“Don’t hold this against me,” she said. She sounded almost pleading. Ethan smiled, clearly bemused.
Claire took a deep breath, and silently read what her next challenge was. The illusion of invincibility vanished, and her mouth fell open in horror. Ethan spoke her name, sounding worried, but he seemed miles away from her now. They’d been soaring together, but now Claire had plummeted back to earth.
Hello Lover Girl!
I’d say I hope things are going well on your date, but I just know they are! For now, just kick back and enjoy yourself (my friend at the bar will keep the wine flowing!) but at 11:30 sharp, you need to head into the VIP area for your next challenge.
I know it seems like things have been going against you so far, but worry no more – tonight you’re in charge! That’s right, the hostess of our Gunge Party will be none other than … you!
You told me so much about your very commendable charity work, so I’m sure this one fits you perfectly. 50% of all of tonight’s takings will be going to charity. However your challenge tonight, as the hostess of the party, is to persuade people to donate an additional £500 by the end of the evening. The centrepiece of tonight’s festivities will be a Gunge Auction, hosted by you, sweetheart! People will be able to put forward the names of their friends, relatives, enemies… anyone at all they want to see get the gunge! And those with the highest amount of money against their name get put forward to get gunged by you!
I can’t wait to see just how cruel you can be (in the name of a good cause, of course)!
Your Friend Always,
There was no way she could go on stage and host a Gunge Auction in front of people. There were people who knew her going to be here! She couldn’t stand in front of them gunging people any more than she could stand in front of them being gunged. She couldn’t stand in front of them doing anything. Public speaking was her worst nightmare. What would Larissa do if she just leapt up and ran out the building? Would she be angry? She’d gone to a lot of trouble for all this. A lot. Claire was in such a panic she drained her glass without thinking, ignoring Ethan’s suggestion that she might want to slow down.
The room spun for a moment.
The sound of a familiar voice brought her back.
Blinking, she looked over at the bar to see her sister, dressed in a light blue crop top and white mini skirt looking back at her. She was talking out of the side of her mouth to Laura Jane, who Claire hadn’t seen since leaving school. There was quite a posse with them, mostly other girls though there were a couple of males already with them, and if the appreciative looks the group was getting were any indication, their ranks would be swelling before the night was done. Plenty of eyes tracked Laura Jane as she crossed the floor in her burgundy cocktail dress. The purple neon lights of the club illuminated the light smattering of pretty freckles that covered her face and bare arms. A crown of flowers sat atop braided, flaxen hair, making her look like a maiden straight from a fairy tale. Although the devilish look in her eye said to Claire: maiden gone bad.
“Long time, no see Claire!” said Laura Jane, taking a seat at her booth without an invitation. She smiled at Ethan and Claire knew right away her curiosity was peaked. Then she really took her first good look at Claire and looked uncharacteristically unsure of herself for a moment. It took Claire a moment to realise what the problem was – she’d sat herself down firmly expecting to see Claire the mouse from her school days. The thing about Laura Jane she remembered though was that she could never be wrong, so if it was a mouse she expected to see, it was a mouse she saw. Her confidence returned as she mentally rearranged the world to fit her own view of it. “You haven’t changed a bit. It’s a surprise to see you here; I always ask Rachel if you’re ever going to come in, but she says you like to just sit at home in your room by yourself.”
Rachel, her blonde hair tied in a chignon bun, arrived and stood at the end of the booth, while the rest of their group remained where they were, talking amongst themselves.
“Hang on,” said Rachel as she surveyed the scene. “Are you two here on a date?”
Claire bristled at the shock in her sister’s voice.
“Yes, we are as matter of fact,” she said, and between that and Laura Jane’s earlier jibe, not without some small amount of satisfaction. She was dimly aware that she might be starting to get a little tipsy, and while the responsible part of Claire warned her it might be better to keep her mouth shut, she couldn’t help but relish the chance to show Laura Jane that she perhaps wasn’t the total loser she’d always thought she was back in school.
“Why does your boyfriend wear ear plugs?” asked Laura Jane with a smug titter of laughter. “Is he really that sick of listening to you?”
“Maybe I should get a pair,” said Rachel, laughing even though she knew fine that Ethan had Tinnitus.
“I hope you two have a lovely evening,” said Ethan, stepping in and dismissing them as he saw Claire was getting upset.
“Claire and I were just going to catch up,” said Laura Jane. “We’re old friends, aren’t we?”
“We were just leaving,” said Ethan, taking Claire’s hand. Claire shook him off gently, lifting the wine bottle and pouring herself another glass, never taking her eyes off Laura Jane.
“Going to hit the dance floor, are you?” grinned Laura Jane. “I’d love to see that. You were always a wallflower at school parties, weren’t you? Clumsy too. No rhythm, no co-ordination, no-one to dance with…”
“We’re not at school anymore, Laura Jane,” said Claire.
“How much have you had to drink?” asked Rachel suddenly, looking at the half-empty bottle suspiciously. She looked at Ethan. “She never drinks…”
“We’re dancing,” Claire suddenly declared, slamming her empty glass down and standing up. She took Ethan’s hand and practically dragged him over to the dance floor. The two girls followed, looking at each other and giggling. Claire stormed onto the floor, turned to face Ethan, and then… stood there awkwardly for a moment as she looked around to try and get a feel for what other people were doing. Claire hadn’t expected to be clubbing tonight, and she was type of person who typically felt the need to read guides on things like ‘How to Have Fun’ in detail in advance, rather than simply going out and just having it. The first thing she saw was a girl grinding her bum against a guy’s crotch. She looked back at Ethan who raised an eyebrow, clearly wondering what she was thinking, before he started moving his head to the music. Hesitantly, Claire started to follow along. Pretty soon Ethan’s arms, shoulders and feet were moving too, and she did her best to follow along, except she was so caught up trying to shadow him her rhythm was totally off.
Despite everything, between the wine and being with Ethan, she began to forget her anxiety and actually started to get into what she was doing. She’d almost forgotten all about Laura Jane and her sister when suddenly she found their group slowly surrounding her and Ethan in a circle, trapping them in the centre. Her eyes fell to the floor as they started mocking her.
“Great moves, Claire,” laughed Laura Jane. Of all the things they could be off doing, this was what they’d chosen. It was like they had something invested in making sure that Claire was still the same loser she’d always been. Laura Jane had always been the queen bee back when they were at school.
(What’s your life like now you’ve left the hive? Dropped out of University your first year, last I heard.)
Before she had a chance to second guess herself, Claire grabbed a very surprised Ethan by the hands and in the next moment the circle broke to let them out as they twirled across the floor.
“We’re not going to let them bother us,” said Claire, wrapping her arms around Ethan’s waist and swaying her hips against his. Ethan stood stunned for a moment, and then began to go along with it. She began spinning around, having no idea whatsoever what she was doing, but she didn’t care – she was having fun. She was so out of control she bumped them into another couple, having to shout her apologies over the music.
As she let herself sink into Ethan’s warm embrace, she could see Laura Jane and Rachel behind his shoulder, frowning at her. Claire had surprised them, and she wasn’t done yet.
Imagine their faces when she walked out onto the stage as the hostess of the evening.
Although she was fast losing any sense of time, Claire had it firmly engrained in her mind that she had to make it to the VIP area at eleven thirty. It turned out she needn’t have worried, as the waitress who’d been looking after her came to collect her. A bemused Ethan was brought along with her and informed he would be kept company in the VIP area while Claire was absent.
“I don’t understand,” said Ethan. “Where are you going to be?”
“She didn’t tell you?” said a voice Claire recognised from earlier in the day. Hayleigh’s green dress was a much better fit here than it had been on campus, and while Laura’s Jane’s crown may have usurped her single flower, she still would have won out over the girl in every other aspect. Erin too, standing beside her, also seemed to have fixed herself up from whatever fate had befallen her earlier. “Claire’s very kindly agreed to front a very special Gunge Auction for charity tonight.”
“So that’s what all this is about,” said Ethan, nodding. “Well, I don’t know how you talked her into doing it, but I think she might have had a bit too much to drink to be going out there and…”
“I’ll be fine,” said Claire, who was standing sleepy-eyed and swaying gently from side to side. She used his shoulder to prop herself up and told him, not for the first time tonight, what a wonderful man he was. Hayleigh and Erin shared an uncertain look at each other.
Before Ethan could protest further, Hayleigh had taken him by the arm and led him to a seat towards the back of the VIP area. Claire couldn’t hear what was being said, but they appeared to be having quite a frantic discussion. A couple of bouncers stepped in beside Hayleigh, making soothing gestures at him. All sense of stoicism gone, Ethan gave a worried look over at her. He really was very sweet, but she felt great. She still felt nervous, but it was more like the kind of fun nervousness you got when you were heading to the top of a rollercoaster than the abject terror she’d felt earlier in the evening. There was a little voice in her head that seemed to be pleading with her not to go through with this, but it made little impact through the pleasant fog.
Erin explained that as soon as she went on stage, there would be a number of staff around the floor with stickers to write the details on and buckets to accept donations, and anything given would be added to her total. The crowd would be free to bid on whoever they wished on the floor to go on stage and get gunged. There would be six winning bids in total which would be announced at set intervals through the evening. Whoever had the most money against them at each slot would be getting the gunge, though the totals would roll over throughout the auction. There would also be a few messy games played to try to keep the momentum up and encourage people to keep donating even if they didn’t want to put anyone forward.
“You sure you’re okay to do this?” asked Erin.
“What happens if I’m not?” asked Claire.
“Then you’ve lost the challenge, but that might be better than going out in front of all those people and passing out on stage.”
“Don’t be such a worrier, Erin.”
A middle-aged Asian woman wearing a bright orange fringed top and blue shorts appeared in front of Claire with her hand outstretched. A single strand of her curly moussed hair had fallen out of place and ran along her cheek: she blew at it only for it to fall straight back down.
“My name is Xiulan, the owner of this establishment – and one of the show backers. A pleasure to meet you, Claire. I’ve been watching you throughout the day. I admit, I mostly went along with this because Larissa and I have had some fruitful business ventures in the past and I owed her a favour or two– I never imagined she could do much with this format, but she certainly knows how to put on a show, doesn’t she? Are you ready?”
“R-ready? Um, is there a script or something? What am I supposed to go out there and say?”
“You’re on your own there, I’m afraid. I’m going to go out and introduce you to the crowd – the rest is up to you.”
“Don’t overthink it,” advised Erin. “The only thing that really matters is getting those donations in. Just get through the auction and if you think you’re struggling, try some of the games we’ve suggested.”
Claire could hear Xiulan on stage beginning the introduction as the volume of the music playing was lowered.
“Good evening ladies and gentleman. I’m so glad to see such a turnout for tonight’s event, and I can see quite a few of you have gotten into the spirit of things already! Far too many of you though are still looking much too clean though – I can still see your faces! – so let’s offer up a bit of an incentive to change all that. Now we’re going to begin an auction where you can put forward yourself, your friends, your boss, anyone you like who’s with us tonight. All you have to do is approach one of our staff – you’ll see their red waistcoats and buckets – and give them the name along with the amount you’re willing to spend to see them get brought up on stage and totally trashed by our mistress of ceremonies.”
After listening to the rules getting explained again (albeit for the benefit of the crowd this time) Claire made her way towards the stage. It felt like there were two Claire’s now, the one who was going along with this and one who, in a tiny little voice that was being completely ignored, was desperately trying to get her to stop.
“So now let me introduce your host for the evening. Don’t be deceived by her sweet, innocent appearance – this girl’s going to show no mercy to our chosen victims… I mean ‘volunteers’. Let’s hear it for Claire Bardsley!”
As Claire wobbled over to the front of the stage, she took the microphone that Xiulan was holding out to her and stared out at the crowd. She desperately wanted to see the reactions of her sister and Laura Jane, but given the volume of people, and the fact that most of the faces looked either blurred or… slimily blurred to her, she wasn’t able to pick them out. There were a few people she was able to recognise though.
She dimly realised she’d been standing on stage in front of everyone for a not insignificant period of time and hadn’t said anything.
“Hello!” she managed to squeak. A combination of alcohol and mad panic carried her on. “I-if you could all bear with me, I seem to have… I may have had just a little bit too much to drink and I uh, aha, I don’t really have anything prepared…um…”
“Claire, what ARE you doing!? Get off the stage! You can’t do this to me!”
Claire gave a little drunken laugh that turned into a mortifying burp. Amazingly, the crowd seemed to think this was all going as planned, and laughed at this high comedy. Thanks to her sister’s horrified shout she was able to place her and her friends out amongst them.
“That’s my sister, Rachel, shouting at me to get off the stage – hi Rachel!” Claire waved over to her happily, rallying now that she’d gotten to see the stunned reaction she’d been hoping for. Laura Jane was at one moment scowling at her and then in the next, once the certain knowledge that Claire was going to make quite the fool of herself reasserted itself in her mind, was snickering. Rachel tried to shrink into herself, looking around horrified as people turned to look at her.
“You look a lot like her,” someone in the crowd observed.
“Don’t ever say that!” cried Rachel, aghast.
Although public speaking was not a skill in Claire’s repertoire, defining rules definitely was, so she managed to ease herself in a little by reiterating the rules of the auction.
“So if there’s anyone here tonight you have a bone to pick with, who you’d love to see brought down a peg or two, don’t be shy: go ahead and put there name forwards for the gunge! And if you feel guilty at all, just remember it’s all for a great cause! By the way, if anybody wants to put the name ‘Rachel Bardsley’ forwards, I’ll owe them a drink!”
Claire had to put her hand over her mouth as Rachel’s friends grabbed her to stop her from storming onto the stage. She wasn’t allowed to formally nominate anybody herself, but she thought Larissa would appreciate her trick, her own sense of mischief having helped inspire it. Even if it didn’t actually work, it had seemed to warm the crowd to her, at least a bit, and that raised her confidence in her next plan.
“But – not to sway your vote or anything! – I should point out that we have somebody here tonight that I think most of you will recognise… and from her pristine appearance she’s been keeping herself well clear from the gunge all evening. That’s right, joining us here tonight is our local art heroine, Rosalind Darlington-Shite… ohfuckimean, White!”
The crowd laughed at her inadvertent slip of the tongue. Whether it was this or using her local celebrity status to maximise donations at the expensive of her extremely neat and clean appearance that bothered her the most, the icy cold stare Rosalind gave her sent Claire running to the back with a final panicked instruction for everyone to start putting in their bids.
Her little heart felt like it was about to burst as she returned to the VIP area. Erin, seeing the state she was in, came over and gently sat her down in a comfy leather chair, telling her how well she’d done as she gently rubbed her arm. Despite Erin’s protests, she went to get herself another drink from the VIP bar. When she didn’t quite know what she wanted the waitress recommended something called a ‘Screaming Orgasm’, but there was no state of drunkenness so severe that would have ever allowed Claire to order any such thing, so she settled on a rum and coke.
As they ran up to the first gunging, she was able to look at the totals that had been written down on a notebook. She gasped when she saw that Rosalind alone had already broken the total needed for her to complete the challenge. Although there were bigger shocks for her as she looked further down the page. Her sister’s name was there all right, in fifth place right now, but for some reason her own name was on the list which – and she checked this twice – apparently was allowed somehow. Rachel and her friends were surely responsible for that. Presumably Rosalind hadn’t thought of it, or her name would probably be quite a bit higher up. As it was, there were a few names that could overtake her with just a tiny push more, and she prayed that they would.
When she returned to the stage, she realised Rosalind probably hadn’t donated because she apparently hadn’t moved at all. Her husband, a small, unassuming middle-aged man in a grey suit that looked like an accountant rather than the kind of hunk one might expect Rosalind to have married, appeared to be trying to calm her down.
“Thanks to everyone’s who’s donated so far. Remember, don’t worry if your chosen victim doesn’t get picked this time: the totals will roll over each turn. But our first volunteered victim tonight is… Rosalind Darlington-White. That’s White!”
Claire gulped as Rosalind was brought up on stage with her. The stare was even worse now she could properly see her fierce hazel eyes, so instead of trying to meet it, she diverted herself by admiring the slim black dress her lecturer wore, lined with sparkling opal sequins. A pair of the finest designer leather shoes betrayed the fact that she was more interested in fashion than dancing, being gunged, or just plain having a good time tonight.
“I hope you enjoy the hangover you’re going to have when you wake up tomorrow,” whispered Rosalind into her ear while Claire meekly turned her head. “Because I can promise you it’s going to last you well into next week and beyond. Your next class with me is going to be very interesting, I’ll tell you that.”
Quickly deciding that the best way to at least temporarily divert this unpleasantness was to make sure the rest of their discussions were made public, Claire held the microphone up and, with more than a hint of sarcasm, thanked Rosalind for joining them this evening.
Erin and Hayleigh brought out a chair and a number of buckets which Rosalind peered into with no small amount of disgust and apprehension as she sat down. They also wheeled out a trolley filled with several very gooey multi-coloured pies. The crowd loved the two girls, who smiled and waved pleasantly in acknowledgement before leaving Claire to it. She couldn’t hide the fact that she was rather pleased with the thought of humiliating her haughty lecturer. It had been a long, trying day that had forced her from one embarrassment to the next, and in the heat of the moment, it felt good to be the one dishing it out for a change. Especially against someone she, if she put her hand on her heart, had a petty but profound dislike of.
“I did help you this morning,” hissed Rosalind as Claire moved over to her.
“How are you feeling about this, Rosalind?” asked Claire smugly. That tiny little voice continued it’s increasingly panicked attempts to get her to stop. It seemed highly concerned that this version of Claire would have the luxury of disappearing into the ether in the morning, while the sober, restored version of her would be left facing some very severe consequences. Claire could see the Rosalind also wrestling with herself as she thrust the microphone into her face (accidentally smacking it off of her the first time, which did nothing to improve her mood). She looked like she wanted to rip into Claire, but she was a public figure, and now she was up here she had to try and play along.
“Well,” said Rosalind, trying to sound composed even as she fidgeted in her seat. She still enunciated every syllable of every word perfectly, of course. “I do rather wish I had been given maybe a bit more notice about all this. It does seem that quite a bit more money could have been raised and also we could have… come up with a list of approved substances in advance.”
Claire followed Rosalind’s concerned gaze over to a bucket filled with baked beans. The woman’s body instinctively slid over to the very edge of her chair away from them. Claire was willing to bet that trying to get beans out of those delicate, raven-black curls would be a nightmare her lecturer would not want to envision.
Deciding to savour that one, she instead picked up a bucket filled with sticky yellow honey and walked behind Rosalind. From here she could see the curls of her hair, so shiny they were as impressive as the gleaming opals of her dress, spinning down across the bare skin of her back. Claire knew she was being pretty – spiteful, even, that quiet voice said – but the truth was she was going to enjoy the hell out of this. Rosalind had always made her feel so small.
The woman was trying to take some calming breaths, her shoulders moving up and down. As she exhaled, Claire poured. Rosalind’s shoulders twitched uncontrollably, her body instinctively huddling in on itself as the dribbly honey added a new and altogether unique sheen to her hair as it began to steadily flow over it.
“Oh!” gasped Rosalind. “Oh! Oh! Oh!”
Not too keen on getting a face full of honey, Rosalind leaned over before it could run onto her forehead. Claire kept pouring at first, letting her the honey immerse itself more and more into her hair, watching as it ran through layers of curls, flattening each and every one of those perfect spirals as it went, before dollops of it landed on her exposed back. Then, even though there was quite a bit of honey left in the bucket, she stopped and moved round to the front. As Rosalind sat in the brace position, Claire put on hand on her chin and pushed her head back. While a few gleaming globules of honey spilled off her head onto her dress, her face remained untouched, her painstakingly applied makeup remaining unharmed. Rosalind looked at Claire through glassy eyes. As Claire released her, Rosalind ran a hand across her head, wincing at the strands of hair she could feel stuck beneath a golden prison. She wriggled her fingers and tried to shake the honey from her hand. She gave a strangled cry as she began to feel honey about to overspill from her head, using both hands to try and hold her hair back. Despite her efforts, a small trickle began running down her forehead and along the side of her nose.
Rosalind clearly thought she was momentarily safe, but with her hands preoccupied, Claire quickly lifted the bucket and let the rest of the honey run out all over her exposed face. Rosalind screamed, formerly refined facial features contorting to form a grotesque mask of horror as she was coated in the sweet gooey mess. Beneath the honey the makeup on her face could be seen melting; eyeliner ended up on her cheek, bronzer was dribbling all over the place, her lipstick was bleeding down her chin and soon a massive gunky mass of makeup cascaded down her neck, plopping on down into the valley of her breasts along with a solid helping of sticky yellow goop. Rosalind shuddered. And shuddered again. Her appalled mouth was agape, a smattering of honey hanging from her lips risking getting slavered all over the place, as she looked down upon herself. The sharp gleam of her mostly intact dress seemed almost to be mocking her at this point.
She fired a barrage of expletives, and they were not at all perfectly enunciated.
A pleasant drunken buzz had overtaken Claire by this point; no longer the focus of the crowd, she felt very comfortable all of a sudden, even though they were making a ton of noise. People were actually cheering her on. Whatever concern she might still have had about making a fool of herself was lost, at least for now – she could hardly make herself look more foolish than Rosalind did. A sharp panic ran through her for a moment as she considered the possibility that she might have her turn yet, but she dismissed it. As the face of the evening, there had to be a way for her to keep things in her favour.
“Now we just have to do something about this dress – eh, no not take it off, come on, who said that!?” asked Claire, looking out at the crowd. Despite the comment, she was almost enjoying herself. She’d never come out of her shell like this before.
“You’re in so much trouble for this!” snarled Rosalind as she noticed that Claire was having just a bit too much fun. Her fury was plain to see under the glazing of honey that coated her face.
“Don’t be like that,” said Claire. “It’s all for a good cause, isn’t it Winnie?”
As Rosalind wrung her hands, Claire picked up her second bucket. This one was filled with neon lavender gunge; to the eye it looked pleasant, though she knew getting it covering you would be anything but. Rather than pour this time, she swung the bucket back and forth dramatically, the crowd cheering every time, before throwing the contents at Rosalind. She shrieked and jerked back in her chair as the neon wave collided with the front of her body. In an instant she’d leapt to her feet, looking as outraged as she did outrageous as the neon gunge shone in the dark of the club. Her dress still caught the eye as much as it had with it’s sparkling opal sequins, but was unlikely to be considered an improvement. Claire told her to sit down, but Rosalind at first refused as she looked at the large pool of gunge that was now soaking on the chair. She stood shivering, glowering at her. When Claire repeated the instruction, she tried with no success to try and wring her soaking dress out, and then meekly sat down.
For the first time all evening, the tiny voice in her head fell quiet. She’d just told Rosalind, of all people, what to do. And she’d timidly done it. It was both appalled and impressed.
Elated, she picked up a pie from the trolley and held it up for the crowd to see.
“Do you know what this is, Rosalind?”
Rosalind peered at the pie through miserable, honey soaked eyes that looked resigned to her fate.
“Er… well… that looks like uh, peanut butter, is it? And that on top is chocolate.”
“It’s going in your face is what it is,” said Claire.
Rosalind gave a pretty pout and Claire slapped the pie with more force than was strictly necessary into her honey-soaked face. The woman jumped in her chair with a shocked “UUUUUMPH!”, but remained seated this time as the pie decomposed against her. Although most of her face was no longer clearly visible now, the scrunching of her usually elegant nose and annoyed smacking of her lips told Claire exactly how much she hadn’t enjoyed that.
Although Claire was giddy at the opportunity to give something back to her smug, condescending lecturer, she decided it might be best to wrap things up before they went too far. She was probably starting to enjoy this more than was entirely healthy. She thought back to the restaurant, when people just hadn’t seemed to be able to stop themselves from humiliating her. Enough was enough.
After the beans, of course.
“No, not the beans,” said Rosalind, waving her hands in protest. “Claire, I’m warning you – I forbid you to do this. This… this lack of respect you’ve shown me is unforgivable.”
Claire lifted the bucket, and this time she met Rosalind’s stare head-on.
Rosalind leapt out of the chair and moved behind it.
“Don’t make me chase you through the club now, miss,” said Claire. She could almost feel herself channelling Larissa. It made her feel more confident. “People gave their money for this – we don’t want them dragging you back up here, do we? So sit down.”
“This is… intolerable…” said Rosalind, looking at Claire with complete disbelief. Claire who had barely dared say two words to her until today. “You wait. You just wait.”
Shaking with rage, Rosalind sat down again, looking at the floor. Claire loomed over her.
“Look up,” she commanded. She was as drunk with power right now as she was with anything else. With a look of absolute hatred flashing across what could be seen of her gooey face, Rosalind looked up at her.
Claire dumped the beans.
A tower of beans built up atop her head for a moment, and then Rosalind gave an outraged scream as they tipped over the top, some getting stuck against her face as they ran over the honey, others falling onto her shoulders and dress along with a splashing of sauce. A significant helping of beans adorned her once-magnificent hair. Rosalind wriggled, thoroughly embarrassed, and looked down at the massive pool of beans that swam in the lap of her dress. Stunned, she swayed from side to side, the pool moving along with her.
“Can I go now?” she asked Claire through gritted teeth.
“Everybody give Rosalind a big hand for being such a good sport about all this!” said Claire, as Rosalind’s husband came up to help her down. She shook off his efforts to help her, storming away into the crowd, although if she hoped to blend in, she certainly didn’t. As many messy people as there were in the building, the neon gunge lit her up like a beacon for all to see even if you happened to miss the trail of beans that followed her. Claire didn’t envy the task the woman had ahead of her; her own clean-up had been bad enough, but she knew it would take a heck of a lot of shampoo, conditioner, and effort before hair that thick looked anything like glossy again.
The next person put forward was a guy – an extremely arrogant fellow who managed to rub Claire and practically everyone else in the building up the wrong way. A multi-coloured pie assault probably hadn’t hurt his impenetrable ego, but it had surely put something of a dampener on his evening. The crowd loved her for putting him in his place, and although she had a few awkward moments here and there on stage (drunk or not, she was anything but a natural performer), this just seemed to make people root for her even more.
The third victim was also a guy – Ethan. Her heart sank when she saw his name. Rachel and her friends must have been responsible for that. She’d never liked Ethan much, and the fact that they were now going out together probably hadn’t helped that. As Claire’s own name crept up the list, it was obvious the group was out to get them both before the evening was over. Given that she was surely their preferred target though, it seemed likely that Ethan’s bandmates had also put towards him as a wind-up. They’d bumped into them earlier in the evening, although it seemed a long time ago now.
Ethan sat on a chair – a clean one had been provided – as Claire nervously looked around her for something that wouldn’t cause him too much grief. His earplugs had been temporarily removed.
“So… um… this is actually our first date,” she told the crowd, who laughed and roared with approval. “What do you think my chances of a second are?”
“Well, go easier on me than you did Rosalind, and we’ll see,” grinned Ethan. He too had enjoyed his share of drink by this point, and didn’t seem entirely aware of what was going on. She kissed his cheek and then, very delicately, she tipped a bucket of neon orange goo over his head.
Afterwards, she escorted him to the VIP room, which Xiulan immediately arranged for him to be escorted right back out of.
“Look, why don’t you get yourself home? I’ll probably be a while here yet,” said Claire. “I’m so sorry we didn’t get to spend more time together. I really had a great time with you.”
“Me too, although you sure looked like you were enjoying yourself with Rosalind earlier.”
“Don’t act like you didn’t enjoy it too!”
“Maybe a little!” Ethan conceded. “Don’t worry about me, I’ll see if I can find my buds, see if they were responsible for this. I want to get you home.”
“I think they’ll probably find you first,” smiled Claire.
When she got back to the VIP room, Xiulan was arguing with Erin, and it seemed plenty heated. From the way she was furiously waving her goo-splattered dress, and the gunge covering one of the tables and leather seats, it looked like Erin must have tripped on one of her journeys from the VIP area to the stage. As Claire tried to hear what was being said, Xiulan suddenly grabbed Erin quite fiercely by the arm and dragged her along into the ladies toilets nearby. Claire looked at Hayleigh, who stayed where she was by the bar, looking away awkwardly. She looked embarrassed as Claire glared at her. Why wasn’t she doing anything to help?
She looked around in the way of the hopeless bystander who hopes to find someone more capable on the scene who could sort everything, but when no-one else seemed about to, Claire decided she’d better hurry after them to make sure everything was alright. She opened the door just in time to see Erin getting a slap to the face. Xiulan looked disgusted with her. She pinned her up against the wall while Erin cowered, lip quivering.
“Get away from her,” said Claire.
“This isn’t any of your business,” said Xiulan. “I own this place.”
“You don’t own Erin and you don’t own me. Whatever happened out there doesn’t give you the right to hit her. Erin, come over here to me,” said Claire, taking the stunned woman’s hand and pulling her away. Xiulan grabbed her other arm, giving Claire a severe look that on any other day would have scared her stiff.
“We’re not finished here,” said Xiulan. Claire knew just from looking at her that she wasn’t going to be able to control her like she had Rosalind. But she might just know someone who could.
“We’ll just see what Larissa has to say about that. I wonder how she’ll feel about you hitting one of her staff.”
“Do you think I’m stupid? There are no cameras in here. You’ve no proof of anything, and if you think Larissa will take your word over mine…”
Xiulan trailed off as Claire pulled at something clipped to her dress and held it up for them all to see. It was the microphone she’d been wearing all throughout the evening to make sure the viewers at home could hear everything she said. The viewers, and of course, Larissa. Xiulan looked as though she’d just been struck herself. Her mouth opened and shut, and then she ran out of the bathroom.
Erin leaned against the sink and took a deep breath.
“Are you all right?” asked Claire.
“Thanks to you, I am, yeah,” said Erin. She took Erin back into the VIP room and, in no uncertain terms, told Hayleigh to look after her.
She was on auto-pilot for the fourth gunging, which saw the debut of the stage’s gunge tank at last, and featured a girl who might as well have put herself forwards for all the fun she had with it. It was a refreshing change from the usual humiliation; she just wished she could have enjoyed it better. She was also starting to get tired now.
It wasn’t until she saw who the fifth target was that she started to snap back a little from the earlier unpleasantness. Karma, she thought to herself. And it really was: she’d noticed plenty of people she’d went to school with, and despite what her sister said (and probably really did believe) about everybody loving Laura Jane, the girl was a bully. A subtle bully, maybe – her stunt with the glue and her painting was about as bold as she’d ever gotten – but a bully non-the-less. It looked like there might be a few people here tonight who hadn’t forgotten that.
Although some of the crowd had moved on by now – Rosalind being a difficult victim to top – there were still a large number of people into the auction, and they always seemed pleased whenever Claire came back on. She quickly found Laura Jane in the crowd and gave her a meaningful look which she obviously did not understand the meaning of.
“Well now, here’s a funny story for you,” said Claire. “I went to school with our next victim, and in my last year, she poured glue all over my art project, almost killing my chances of going to University. And tonight Laura Jane Elonore, it’s not going to be glue, but I am going to enjoy pouring GOO over YOU.”
Laura Jane looked around at her friends, all of whom looked completely caught off guard. And then, taking Claire aback, she smiled and proudly walked on to the stage as though about to be presented with a prestigious award. Claire licked her lips; she didn’t know what this meant, but she was wondering whether Laura Jane was going to throw one of the buckets over her and then flee the club. But no, she just took her seat and beamed out at the crowd. Did she actually want to get gunged? It didn’t seem likely; Laura Jane was a vain as they came, from what she remembered.
And that was it, she realised finally. In Laura Jane’s mind, she could never be wrong. That’s what earlier tonight had been about – she’d decided Claire was a loser, and no matter what Claire did, nothing would ever change that. So if Laura Jane had been brought up here to be gunged, then her mind would rearrange itself to tell her that this must be what she wanted.
“She looks keen, doesn’t she?” said Claire. The two girls stared at each other, looking for the slightest sign of weakness in the other. Claire picked up a pink foam pie and held it up to her chin menacingly. When her expression didn’t change, she playfully lifted the crown of flowers from Laura Jane’s head and placed it atop her own. Then she wrapped an arm around the back of her head and quickly jerked it forwards into the pie. Pie exploded outwards from the sides of the paper plate at the force the girl’s freckled face had been smacked into it. Claire rubbed the pie in before returning to the trolley, grabbing a green pie in one hand and orange in the other, and as the paper plate that had stuck to Laura Jane’s face finally fell, sandwiching her head between them.
“Is that really the best you’ve got?” asked Laura Jane.
“I can do better,” Claire assured her.
“Then do your worst.”
Recognising that the pies were having no effect, Claire looked around at a fresh selection of buckets she’d been given to choose from. There was a bucket of white gunge, funnily enough, which seemed apt since it made her think of the glue the girl had used to destroy her painting, but then it also made her think of something else, and that was just purely obscene, so instead she picked up a bucket containing chocolate sauce. She stepped in front of Laura Jane, looking down on her in the hopes this might daunt her somewhat. A mocking smile started to cross the girl’s lips, so Claire headed it off by turning the bucket upside down. Instead of gently being poured over her, the chocolate all flooded out of the bucket at once, which totally caught the flaxen-haired miscreant off her guard. Her head and shoulders were lost entirely under the assault, and her burgundy dress didn’t get off lightly either as most of the top down to her waist were turned brown in an instant.
Claire watched eagerly as Laura Jane shook herself, sending little dribs of chocolate sauce flying through the air. She flicked her head back to toss her flattened flaxen hair over one shoulder, which left a messy stain running all over it. And then, to the bemusement of Claire, she lifted a hand that was dripping with chocolate, and began sucking her fingers one at a time.
“Tastes gorgeous,” she said, smirking over at Claire before playing to the crowd. Claire wished Larissa was here; she was pretty sure she would have wiped that stupid look off her face in about five seconds. But she didn’t know what else to throw at her. The gunge tank was the messiest thing she had at her disposal, but that had been used up by the last participant.
She took a look at the buckets and made her decision. If this didn’t get to her, then surely nothing would.
“Take a look, Laura Jane. This is for you. You wanted the worst, and now you can have it.”
Laura Jane’s smile remained, but it froze for just a moment as she looked down into a bucket filled with mushy peas. It was almost imperceptible, but Claire could have sworn the corner of her mouth twitched just slightly.
Claire lifted the bucket high and deposited the blubbering green mulch over the girls head. To her immense satisfaction, this time Laura Jane couldn’t hide her disgust, gagging as the soft wet mass engulfed her nymph-like features. Her hands went to her heart as though she was completely affronted. Her breathing became quicker, her mouth tightening in a grimace, before she slowly fought back against it. Claire watched an amazing transformation occur as Laura Jane actually tried to force a smile through the radioactive looking waste that ran over her. It flickered on and off. By the time to mush had ran down her dress and trailed down her thighs, she almost looked smug again. The effect was somewhat spoiled however by the fact that her body was quivering, perhaps from how cold the peas were, or with rage that Claire had even momentarily broken through the pleasant bubble that Laura Jane lived in. She held her arms out and a trail of green smushed peas could be seen running all along the length of them.
“I l-loved every minute of that,” said Laura Jane, although she sounded like she was assuring herself of this fact more than anybody. “And we’re so going to make sure you’re next.”
For a moment she looked smug… and then she dry heaved. Claire quickly stepped behind her, placing the crown of flowers back on her head, or at least on the mass of mushy peas on top of it. Laura Jane looked up at her furiously, before clamping her hands over her mouth and running off the stage as fast as her legs could carry her.
The crowd showed Claire their approval.
The first person Claire saw as she returned to the VIP room ahead of the final auction of the night was Erin, hovering over the notebook containing the auction tallies and making an adjustment. She winked as she saw Claire, which she took as a sign that the poor woman was feeling better. It was only when she took her final look at the book that she realised what it really signified.
Up until a last minute donation, Claire had been down to receive the final gunging. Erin had saved her, and put in a considerable amount to make sure that Rachel took her place. She didn’t know what to say. She made to thank her, but she’d already left the room.
To think that after this morning and afternoon, she’d almost given up on karma.
She made her way out onto the stage for the final time, almost sad to see it all end. Suddenly, though, she didn’t feel so well. The room span around her. The tiny voice that had been chipping away at her all night sensed her weakness and struck.
(You thought this kind of senseless entertainment was for morons this morning, didn’t you?)
(Yes, but they’re MY morons now, aren’t they? Listen to them. Nobody here thinks I’m a loser, or a mouse, or invisible. They think I’m cool.)
(So that’s what cool people do, is it? When they get humiliated, they prove their worth by humiliating others, do they?)
(Rosalind and Laura Jane deserved it!)
(And what do people who always go around giving everyone what they deserve deserve?)
(It’s not my fault! It was karma.)
(Really? How does that explain Ethan, then?)
(Well… maybe he’d been thinking really impure thoughts about me all night.)
She smiled at that, feeling a bit better. At the front of the stage, her eyes locked on her sister, who immediately knew what that meant.
Rachel turned and ran.
She had to push her way through the crowd. Whatever had gotten into her sister, other than copious amounts of alcohol, she had no idea, and she had no intension of hanging around to find out.
A slimy body rubbed against her, covering her immaculate navy top in some kind of horrible orange grime.
“Eh, excuse me!” she bawled, but the ignorant perpetrator simply walked on. As she was about to go, however, another cold, gooey hand rested on her shoulder before pushing past. To her horror, she found herself trapped in a multi-coloured herd of slime creatures, who gave her no room at all to get out of the way as they swept over her, bumping against her and getting more and more slime over her top and white skirt. They swept her away from the exit. She was pushed between bodies like she was being squeezed through a car wash, although she was getting the exact opposite of cleaned. Some woman, apparently thinking seeing her in hysterics in the middle of this awful swarm was funny, gave her a messy hug and a slimy kiss on her cheek before Rachel was able to squirm free and, with help from the gunge all over her, slip her way past the last few people at the edge of the crowd.
She gave a few, quick, panicked gasps, arms outstretched as she looked down at the state she was in. In front of her was a female bouncer, dressed in a black suit, white shirt, and wearing a tie, who looked at her with amusement. Rachel was about to offer her a few choice words when she noticed the woman was holding some kind of squirt gun filled with an inky-looking dark blue slime. She took a step backwards and that was when another bouncer who’d gone unnoticed behind her started showering the back of her head with slime. Her chignon bun took the initial assault before he started spraying down her back. At the same time, the woman in front opened fire, shooting her with a faceful of ooze that caught her open mouth like she was a target at a shooting gallery. Caught between the pair, there was no way for her to escape, as every time she turned she just exposed a different part of herself to the deluge. The pair were managing to catch each other in the crossfire of blue and yellow goo, but didn’t seem to care, only stopping soaking her once they’d run out of ammunition.
“T-this stuff comes out of your clothes, right!?” Rachel managed to croak finally, grabbing the female bouncer by the shirt weakly.
“Sure it does,” said the woman, but she was smirking as if Rachel had just asked the stupidest question in the entire world.
The two bouncers locked their arms around hers. Rachel was turned to see Claire, Little Miss Perfect, still looking pristine. Claire lent her arm against a nearby gunge tank, drumming her fingers against it and looking at it as though sizing up an idea.
“No, Claire, please. I’m your sister. Look at me, I’ve had enough.”
“Lock her in,” said Claire, nodding to the bouncers.
“Claire no! I’ll kill you for this!” screamed Rachel, trying to shake herself free. She was shoved inside forcefully and the door was slammed shut. Claire pushed a button, and the slime began to flow.
Oh, I am so going to get you, she swore to herself.
Just you see if I don’t.