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Contestant #1 Learns the Rules of the House
Harmony House: Episode 2
“Harmony House” is a serial novel with episodes released every Tuesday morning. You can read the setup for the story or start from the beginning. Each episode comes with high-quality audio narration for you to enjoy on the go with the Substack mobile app.
This novel is free to read for all subscribers. Paid subscribers get access to my other serial novel, “The Memory of My Shadow” and to my entire archive of work.
In the first episode, brothers and founders of FutureAbode Chris and Scott Jenson secured a partnership with green tech billionaire, Cliff Baron to use his patents in their modular eco-home. The compromise is that Baron’s daughter, Evangeline is in charge of marketing and she’s decided they will host a reality TV show competition. Much to the brothers’ dismay, she’s rebranding Harmony House to Houze.
Riley had stayed up way too late again embroiled in a flame war with another troll. It was impossible to just let things go. Riley knew it was an act of futility to try to change someone’s mind. It didn’t matter what the facts were. Facts, logic, evidence, these were quaint concepts on the Internet. Opinion was truth.
Blessedly, the roommates were mostly gone this morning except for one snoring lump in the top bunk across from where Riley sat up in bed scrolling through the latest news. It was a ritual and the ultimate act of optimism, looking at the state of the world every morning. The baseline for good news had been lowered, disappearing gradually, inevitably beneath the rising sea levels. Floods, fires, hurricanes, record heat waves– these were not news events. The reporting on these catastrophes was really just an update on their incremental changes from one day to the next because they were not anomalies, they were normal.
So Riley, a closet optimist, took great pleasure in finding even the smallest atoll of hope poking above the dark water of the daily news. Here was something:
SUSTAINABLE HOME COULD SAVE THE PLANET
And it could be yours if you have what it takes to win!
Six lucky people will have the chance to own what the New York Times is calling a “utopian vision brought to life through sustainable engineering and uncompromising design.” This completely self-sustaining, luxury modular home is 500 square feet of sanctuary in a world spinning into chaos. It’s called Houze.
On September 23, 2028, six people will enter the first Houze. They will live together in the confined space for as long as they can stand each other. According to the website, the rules are simple:
Contestants may bring anything into Houze they want with the exception of weapons of any kind or illegal substances
Contestants will be provided plant-based, organic meals daily
Contestants will have a 30-minute break outside Houze daily
Contestants can voluntarily leave at any time
The last person remaining in Houze will be the winner
To enter the contest, applicants must submit a three-minute video explaining why they believe they should be selected. A panel of judges including FutureAbode founders and brothers Chris and Scott Jenson will pick six applicants to compete for the prize. In addition to winning the eco-home, the winner gets to pick an acre of land anywhere in the world and FutureAbode will buy the property and move Houze to that location.
Riley clicked through to the website and read all the fine print, of which there was surprisingly very little. Riley spent an hour pouring over the hundreds of pictures of Houze that showed it from every angle inside and out. It was the most beautiful thing, part spaceship, part cozy cabin. For Riley, a home was a foreign concept – an abstract idea, but this Houze, it was real. It was better than real, it had a purpose, a mission. It was like science fiction, but the good kind, not the kind where omniscient robots turn humans into batteries.
The utility systems alone were magical. It was a completely closed system that could operate autonomously in a virtuous cycle. The water filtration system could process ninety gallons of water, converting brown water into fresh drinking water in less than twenty minutes. The air purification system removed 99.2% of airborne bacteria, dust, and pollutants. Solar panels on the roof powered all the systems and an onboard battery could bank enough power to last for a week with no sunshine.
The composting system could take pretty much any kind of refuse including many plastics and convert them into the equivalent of inert potting soil in less than two days. That soil along with the desiccated bricks of compacted waste from the sewage system could be safely given back to the earth to grow food.
Riley spent the next hour researching the brothers and their company. There was nothing that threw a red flag or gave even the whiff of tech bro culture (besides the fact that they were literally brothers who happened to work in tech.) Sure, this whole contest seemed like bullshit, more capitalism, survival of the fittest propaganda but that was just the reality of our world, right? To make anything good, you had to fund it. Riley liked the brothers’ story and there was something in their earnest smiles that seemed trustworthy. But really, Riley just wanted it.
The snoring lump in the other bunk finally stirred and groaned as he climbed down the ladder and shuffled over to the bathroom. It was a Friday which was good because at least two of Riley’s roommates would be out for most of the day which allowed for a modicum of peace in the one-bedroom apartment the four of them shared. As for Riley, it would be another long day-- four hours of grading organic chemistry finals, at least two hours in the lab, and then her shift at the restaurant tonight. Just thinking of the day ahead made Riley not want to get out of bed, but as always, the $90,000 in student loan debt was a motivator, gaining momentum like a steamroller, slow, certain, and deadly.
In the shower, Riley thought about what to say in the video essay. Were they looking for outrageous? Quirky? Confrontational? Kind? It was impossible to know. The chances of winning something like this were slim. But six people were going to get a shot so why not Riley? Best not to invest too much time and overthink it. This thing would clearly be a personality play. How could it not? So, the only thing you could do was be yourself.
Riley rushed through the task of grading the finals so there would be some quiet time in the lab before everyone else showed up. Still, there was a chance someone would show up early and that would be completely humiliating. The supply closet would have to do.
Staring into the phone propped up on a shelf filled with beakers, Riley stared into the camera, finger hovering over the red record button. Ugly. There were no two ways about it. Riley wished there was a way to record without having to watch. In the post-selfie generation, you would think it might be easier, but it wasn’t. Riley groaned, pressed the button, and began.
“Hi, I’m Riley Presnell but that’s not my legal name and I guess you probably need that to make this an official entry. I was born Sherry Presnell. I’m a 26-year-old Trans Man. So, there’s that out of the way at least. I was born in Hope Hollow, Georgia. Don’t try to look it up on the map, it’s really just a church and flea market and convenience store – not even a stoplight.”
“I left home at sixteen. My parents couldn’t deal with who I am, and I couldn’t be who they wanted me to be, so I lived with a friend until I graduated from high school. I was the valedictorian of our class, and I got a full scholarship to Georgia Tech. I stayed there two years but there was a program at MIT that I really wanted to be a part of in their School of Bioengineering, so I transferred. That might have been the stupidest financial decision I ever made unless you count the fact that I signed up for a doctoral program right after graduation.”
“My current student loans are more than $90,000 and I’m not even finished yet. I work two jobs to try to chip away at it. I’m a TA and I also work in a vegan restaurant in Harvard Square. Let’s see… what else. Why do I think I should be one of the contestants to live in Houze?”
“Okay, I get along with most everybody unless they’re intolerant assholes or just cruel. I want us to be better. I want to make the world better. That’s why I’ve spent the last six years in school looking through a microscope to try to understand what makes life possible. I mean, it all seems so accidental, but it can’t be. It’s like this perfectly engineered system of interdependent systems and when you stand back and look at it, it’s… well, it’s just kind of incredible.”
“I got this same feeling of awe when I saw Houze for the first time this morning. You guys, Scott and Chris – such a cool vision. I want to be a part of it. I want to learn how it works. I want to help with your mission. Oh, and currently I live in a one-bedroom apartment with three roommates, so I think I’m uniquely qualified.”
“Okay, well, I guess that’s me in two minutes or less. Thanks.”
Riley pressed the stop button and groaned. He was about to erase the video and start over, but he heard someone clanking around out in the lab. Better not to overthink it. Before he could change his mind, he logged back into the website where he’d already filled out the application. He uploaded the video and hit submit.
It was completely out of character for Riley to be so cavalier, but he had an instinct that maybe this wasn’t the place to be too academic. Whatever, it was done now. He probably wouldn’t get selected.
“So, we’re really doing this? I can’t believe we’re doing this.”
Scott was bent forward, hands on his knees, working to catch his breath.
“You know we are,” Chris said. “We’ve been working through the plans for the past two months. It’s going to happen and it’s going to be great for us. You’ll see.”
The sun was up over the mesa and if they didn’t start back soon, it would cook them like ants under a magnifying glass before they could make it back to the car. This was their ritual. Three mornings a week they ran this five-mile summit trail. It never got any easier.
“You always say that, but this is different. This is drifting way out of control. The guys at the shop are looking at me like ‘what the fuck?’ and I can’t really explain it, so I just shrug every morning when there’s a new fresh steaming pile of press about this thing.”
“Scott, for fuck’s sake. Can you just for once not be this way? I mean what am I supposed to do? I’m so tired of having to be the one to eat the shit for both of us and then smile for everyone and tell them why it tastes good.”
Chris walked around to face his brother. Scott straightened up to his full height and looked down on his little brother. This was an old fight, and he was tired of it.
“I’m sure you saw the latest. That crazy woman wants to put our Harmony House in the middle of fucking Times Square.”
“Houze, dude you’ve got to start calling it Houze…”
“Fuck that stupid name.”
“But it tested well with the focus groups,” Chris said, smirking. “But seriously, the name, like it or not is the name everyone’s going to know it by, so you better get used to it. As for the Time Square thing, I’m not sure that’s going to happen. She’s an idiot who has no concept of how much things cost.”
“Can you imagine our… Houze with six fucking people in it waking up and scratching their asses for all the tourists to see like monkeys in a cage?” Scott said.
“Well, it would certainly be a spectacle. But I agree with you, it’s just wrong and you have my word that won’t be the venue. I’ve given her enough rope at this point to satisfy our obligation to her dead father. Let’s start back and you can tell me about the more important shit.”
“You mean like can it actually sustain six human beings for an infinite period of time?” Scott asked as he took the lead down the narrow path.
“Well, it’s not going to be infinite, maybe a couple of weeks. This is a stunt. Designed to be a stunt. One last hurdle before we can start shipping these out for real people who think like we do,” Chris said.
“You know as well as I do how much load testing we’ve done. We’ve spent the last year and a half fixing problems, but this won’t be a simulation. These will be real people trying to live 24/7 in 500 square feet with five other people. I’m not worried about power. We should be good with the HVAC provided we can change the filters out every couple of weeks. But it’s going to be quite a load on water and waste treatment.”
“That could be disastrous,” Chris said.
“Yeah, it could, but we’re not sending these people to the fucking moon. If something goes wrong, they just open the door and step outside.”
“I’m not worried about the people in this scenario. I’m worried about us making asses of ourselves and failing in front of the whole world. Everything’s got to be as perfect as it can be. You’ve got to remember that there’s going to be cameras rolling the whole time on this thing, I mean, that’s the point, right?”
“Well, it’s a good thing I’m in charge of making shit work then,” Scott shouted over his shoulder before jumping over an outcropping of rocks and picking his way down the steep incline.
“So where would you want the location to be if you could pick the place?” Chris asked, catching up with his brother.
“I’ve thought about it and I think it should be remote. That only makes sense, right? I mean isn’t the point of this thing we’ve made to allow people to live closer to the land, to be in harmony with it?”
“Doesn’t that make you nervous though, having it located too far out?”
“Again, not gonna be on the moon man. I just think it would make for better visuals and maybe we could actually recover some of our integrity by putting it in a beautiful setting.”
“Yeah, I agree. We just need to pick a spot. We’re going to have to keep the actual location top secret though. It’s one thing if it was in the middle of Times Square and there are people everywhere, including cops. It’s a whole different bag to have some meth-addled militia men fogging up the windows at night,” Chris said.
“Agreed. Let’s pick some place remote but plan to have a camp close by where we can monitor everything out of sight.”
The brothers ran for the next two miles in silence, the only sound was the synchronized stride of their sneakers hitting the trail and the occasional cry of a red-tailed hawk riding the thermals in the early morning sky. At the base of the mountain, their shadows stretched long in front of them, one slightly wider and taller than the other. Chris accelerated and brushed past his older brother, his lungs on fire, his legs numb and heavy like concrete blocks propelling him forward. Whenever he ran, he was reminded of how an anthropology professor he had in college described the improbable act of homo sapiens running – like perpetually falling forward and catching yourself before you hit the ground.
When Scott caught up to him at the car, they retrieved their water bottles and sat on the hood breathing heavily. This running ritual was important to them both and they kept to it regardless of the weather or anything else going on in their lives. It kept them tight.
“Okay, the way I see it, we have a couple of options,” Chris said. “One: we pick an idyllic natural setting with gorgeous vistas. You know, a place out of a travel magazine. Two: we pick a place with front-row seats to the shit show, like near the disappearing glaciers or eroding beaches. I mean, doesn’t that drive home our mission?”
“Or hey, why not right next to the California wildfires?” Scott said. “Jesus bro, you’re not as smart as you look. I know we want a spectacle for this marketing deal, but we didn’t do all of this just to depress the fuck out of people. I know my engineering is sound and it’ll hold up in those places – well, it should. But I don’t like that message.”
“Well, look at Mr. Hopeful,” Chris laughs and makes a show of craning his neck around the empty parking lot. “Has anyone seen my brother? Okay, so we go with aspirational. Let’s pick someplace beautiful. It’s the least we can do for these poor slobs who are going to be smelling each other’s farts for god knows how long!”
“But hey, they will at least be organic, plant-based farts.”
Chris had just taken a big drink of water and nearly choked. Scott could always make him laugh like no one else. There was something about his sober delivery. Recovering, he tossed his keys to his brother.
“You drive and I’ll pull up the list of candidates. I know you say you don’t give a fuck, but I think you might want to have a say before we pick the final six.”
A key benefit for Chris in these morning runs was the fact that he had a captive audience in Scott for the trip out and back. It was impossible to get him to sit still and listen during the workday. He was always consumed with solving an engineering problem or sorting out an issue with his team. As they pulled out of the parking lot Chris opened his tablet and pulled up the folder of applicants.
Each application had a brief synopsis of the candidate, a picture, and a link to their video essay. He had already been through three previous rounds of elimination with Eve and the exceedingly gloomy project manager from BangOn! Media to get to this final list of twelve. It was proving to be an extremely hard job now that there were so few left and each person had a very real story. In the beginning, it had been easy to just dismiss someone because they coughed too much or maybe their nose was distractingly big or their eyes too close together. He felt unqualified to be passing judgment, but he did it anyway. It helped to have the agency there to provide some suggested profiles for the cohort and some guidelines for the types of things to look for and avoid in candidates.
When submissions started coming in, to get from thousands of candidates to hundreds, a number of filters had been applied. People with overproduced videos. People who were too eager. People who were not eager enough. Anyone under the age of 22 (too much risk). Anyone over the age of 60 (too much risk). Anyone with a significant physical or mental health condition (candidates had to disclose this). The 603 candidates who made this initial cut were screened by a handful of interns who were asked to group any of the good ones (good meaning they were entertaining in some way) into one of six predefined categories. These categories Chris found curious:
· The Scientist
· The Believer
· The Agitator
· The Giver
· The Narcissist
· The Talent
“So, wait a minute,” Scott said, interrupting his brother’s explanation of the selection process. “Who the fuck are these BangOn! people? This sounds like a psych experiment or a tarot card reading, not a contest.”
“Yeah, I thought it was a little much. You would know all this if you had attended even one of the three hundred video conferences we had with their team in London. The brains behind it is actually this guy with a lovely British accent and impeccable facial hair. Very intellectual. I expected him to whip out a pipe at any minute. Apparently, he’s ‘orchestrated’ (their word, not mine), many successful reality shows and contests like this in the past few years.”
“And we’re okay with this?” Scott asked.
“We kind of have to be. I mean you know what it means if we don’t. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’m glad she hired somebody else to do this. Can you imagine if fucking Eve had been in charge of figuring all this out? It’s a lot of shit to think about. It has to be entertaining otherwise it’s a failure. It has to come to a satisfying conclusion. There’s a shit ton of liability and legal wrangling. I think it was easier to build our home and get it certified.”
“Okay. So, these final twelve candidates fit into one of these six archetypes?” Scott asked.
“Yeah, they’ve narrowed it down to two for each. They want us to make the final call on the six. Hey, pull in here, I want to grab some coffee.”
Scott pulled into the parking lot of a local coffee shop they frequented because it was close to the office.
“You want the usual?” Chris asked opening the door to step out of the car.
“Do your part and take a look. I’ll be back,” Chris said, pointing to the tablet he left in the seat.
Scott stared at the grid of twelve faces on the screen in his lap. It was strange thinking about how these people found their way here to this moment in time, their fate in his hands. Well, maybe not their fate, god help them, but certainly their near-term living situation. There was no discernable bias, at least visually. It was a diverse-looking group. He liked that at least.
He tried to imagine six of them living together in the small, perfect space born out of his imagination and now fully realized, from the smallest rivet to the complex chemistry of the composter, through years of sleepless nights and tireless days of toiling in the workshop. He got a little charge from this. Maybe this would be fun, a rigorous test drive of their creation.
“So, what do you think?”
He was so engrossed in studying the candidates that he hadn’t even noticed Chris had returned with the coffees.
“I want to spend some time with it. That okay?” Scott asked, handing the tablet back to him and putting the car in reverse.
“Yeah, but we have to make a decision by end of day in order to stay on schedule.”
“Okay, I’ll clear my morning then.”
Chris handed one of the hot coffees over to his brother and looked at him curiously. He hadn’t expected Scott to show any interest at all. When his brother took an interest in something, he tended to ride it until the wheels came off.
Chris hoped he wouldn’t regret this.
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Who’s Who in Harmony House?
Having trouble keeping track of who’s who from one week to the next? It’s tough when you only get to visit once a week. I made a little cheat sheet just for you: