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The Nanny Gets Room Service and Ice Gets Broken
Harmony House: Episode 5
“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 last episode, we were onboard a flight from San Francisco to Atlanta where Jessie, our third and oldest contestant participating in Houze was lamenting about the ills of corporate greed and its impact on the environment while he sipped a whiskey in first class and judged himself and the other passengers. Through his eyes, we also met Deepu, a handsome young professional obsessed with social media and his appearance. He and Jessie have a confrontation over some damage Deepu’s expensive suitcase did to an elderly passenger’s coat.
The printed itinerary on the card attached to the gift basket said they should meet downstairs in the Magnolia conference room at 10 AM. This would be the first time all six contestants would meet. Jayden’s stomach gurgled. Nerves. That plus the fact that everything edible in the gift basket was mostly gone. And don’t forget there was room service this morning – pancakes, eggs, sausage, orange juice, and two cups of coffee.
Jayden had never been in a hotel this nice before and might not get the chance again so, why not take full advantage? Besides, who knew what the culinary future held? Organic, plant-based meals did not sound delicious, and food was Jayden’s comfort, the salve for most ills, and the centerpiece for any celebration.
The flight from New York City, while uneventful, had been harrowing. Every slight bit of turbulence, every tick, groan, and knock the huge jet made was panic-inducing. By the time the long travel day finally ended in room 892 of the Ritz Carlton with turned-down sheets and a delicious bottle of rosé from the enormous gift basket, Jayden had mostly recovered.
Air travel, really any kind of travel had not played a significant role in Jayden’s life which had mostly been lived within a six-block footprint of Queens taking care of other people’s kids. First, it was Jayden’s younger cousins and then later, the downstairs neighbors. From there it had somehow evolved into a career, the path of least resistance. It was easy to take care of children. They were easy to understand. They were open and free of judgment. For nearly twenty-five years, Jayden had rocked, burped, changed, bathed, fed, dressed, and fell in love with other people’s children.
But that was over now. This was a new chapter.
She looked at herself in the full-length mirror of the bathroom. It was hard to avoid looking at yourself in a mirror that nearly covered an entire wall. She hadn’t regarded her naked self in a very long time. Her body was something she’d mostly given up on in the last few years. For a while, it had mostly held its shape but once she crossed over the thirty-five-year mark, her exercise regimen of a brisk walk to get from one place to another no longer worked. Now at forty-two, without a partner, without kids of her own, there was really no incentive to work at it. She squeezed the doughy rolls of flesh around her belly and thighs, and she smiled. It wasn’t a sad or ironic smile. It was the same gracious smile Jayden had blessed so many children with over the years.
During the fifteen minutes of the most amazing shower she’d ever taken, Jayden let her thoughts meander, still luxuriating in this newfound freedom. Most people don’t realize how much mental focus is required to take care of children. For the last five years, she’d taken live-in positions so even when she was off the clock, she was never really off the clock. The shampoo smelled like money, like the clean, citrus fragrance rich women left in the air behind them as they walked past you in Manhattan.
As she was toweling off in the afterglow of the shower, it occurred to her that this might be the first and last luxurious shower she would get for a long time. Who were the five other people she would be spending the next few months with who had nothing left to lose? How would they manage showers? Forget showers, where would they all sleep? She honestly hadn’t given it too much thought. She’d made this decision as a wild leap of faith without consideration for where she might land. It had to be done. She’d played the lottery every week and never won. Entering this contest had just been another lottery ticket except this time she’d won. More than winning, the thing that appealed most to Jayden was the chance to finally break free and make a single choice about her life that was not predicted by every other choice she’d ever made. She had come to the stark realization that all these choices had ultimately never really been choices, just logical steps forward based on inevitable forces pushing from behind.
She dressed quickly, not wanting to be late. Before heading out the door, she grabbed the last piece of bacon off the silver room service tray.
She had not yet met anyone from the company unless you counted the limo driver, so she was eager to get this adventure started. There was going to be some type of orientation followed by a press conference and then they were to be whisked away to this tiny home in some exotic, undisclosed location. It was all like a movie. No, not a movie, a reality show, but she was in it so how could it possibly be real?
She laughed to herself as she exited the elevator and started looking for signs to the Magnolia conference room. She wandered around for a while getting increasingly more anxious until she felt a tap on her shoulder.
“Hi, you’re Jayden, right?”
A young, fresh-faced white boy was sticking out his hand for her to shake.
“Yes, that’s me,” she said, accepting his hand.
“I was just headed up to look for you. We’re going to be down this way if you want to follow me.”
“Am I late, I thought we weren’t supposed to be starting until ten.”
“Oh, it’s fine. These big hotels can be like a maze. It’s just down these stairs and to the right.”
At the bottom of the stairs, they followed a long empty hallway with carpet so plush and soft it felt like walking on sponge cake. She followed the young man as he made a right into a small conference room. Her pulse quickened and heat rose to her face. She’d intentionally not wanted to be the last one to arrive and as a result, call unnecessary attention to herself, but that’s exactly what was happening.
There were several people seated in the dim-lit room around a large conference table. The man standing and talking to the group stopped when he saw her walk in.
“Jayden, welcome! We have a place for you right here between Deepu and Fran. We were just about to get started,” the man said, gesturing to the last empty chair available at the table.
He smiled, took a deep breath, and resumed talking to the group. “As I was saying, we have a lot to cover in a short time before the press conference this afternoon, but first, I realize everyone here is new to everyone else so let’s do a little icebreaker, shall we?”
The man had a lovely British accent that reminded Jayden of James Bond. He was wearing all black and he moved like a dancer or maybe a mime street performer as he went to the large whiteboard at the back of the room.
“I’ll start! My name’s Schultz, S-C-H-U-L-T-Z,” he said, writing his name in beautiful block letters on one end of the board. He continued to write, capturing his biographical data points as he spoke. “I’m from London, my role is, well, let’s just say I’m the one to blame or praise for bringing you all here. Secret truth: I’ve never played a video game. Passion: I love tying flies even though I don’t actually like to fish!”
He turned from the board after writing the last bit, capped the marker, and held it out like a baton. No one volunteered to take it, so he smiled and walked around the table. Jayden was terrified that she would be picked as punishment for being late, but he passed behind her chair and stopped at the dark-haired woman sitting next to her.
“Fran, would you do us the honor of going next?” he said, handing the marker to her.
Fran smiled, pushed back from the table, and stood so she could take the marker from Schultz. She was at least six inches taller than him with her heels. She crossed the room in four elegant strides. In front of the whiteboard, she exuded the confidence of someone who was no stranger to being up in front of a room. She reminded Jayden of one of the many Puerto Rican girls she grew up with on the block, but this woman was a long way from the hood. She was gorgeous and refined, maybe even a little bit cold. No, she wasn’t Puerto Rican, at least not one hundred percent. There was some WASP in her lineage, something entitled about the way she lifted her chin and smiled with the corners of her mouth turned down. She was the kind of person everyone’s eyes followed in a crowded room.
“Hello everyone, my name’s Fran Bristow and I’m a marketing consultant. Let’s see, secret truth… I hate American football even though with clients and men I pretend to love it. I am passionate about many things but if I have to pick one, I would say travel. I love to see new places.”
Her handwriting on the board next to Schultz’s example looked like a nine-year-old’s. Schultz prompted, “Fran, why do you believe you were selected to be in Houze?”
“Um, maybe because I put a lot into producing my video? I’m in the business so I had some friends workshop it with me.”
“It was top-notch. Splendid!” Schultz said, nodding eagerly.
Without being instructed, Fran seemed to know how these things worked. She capped the marker and strode over to the table. “How about you?” she asked, extending the marker to the stylish young Indian guy sitting on Jayden’s other side.
He stood quickly, smoothed the lapels of his sport coat, and took the marker. As he walked over to the board, Jayden marveled at his perfectly tailored pants. These first two contestants were not helping her self-esteem, but she smiled generously and tried to focus on not sweating.
“Hey folks, my name’s Deepu Jain. I’m in software sales. My secret truth is I actually hate Indian food and love a big juicy hamburger (don’t tell my aunties). I’m passionate about connecting with people.”
As Deepu scrawled his facts on the board, he was careful to hold his jacket well away from the board using his free hand so he wouldn’t soil it with dry-erase marker. His handwriting was neat and level, but inscrutably small. When he finished, he pivoted away from the board on his heel and capped the marker.
“And why do you feel you were selected Deepu?” asked Schultz.
“Maybe because I know how to talk to the camera? It’s kind of a side hustle for me, self-promotion.”
Schultz nodded, fingers steepled in front of his face. Deepu moved away from the board and his eyes scanned the room. Finding his target, he quickly pitched the marker without warning to the oldest guy seated at the table who, much to Jayden’s surprise, caught it easily like he knew it was coming.
The old white guy had a homeless-man length beard and wore earth-tone pants with lots of pockets and a white t-shirt. He pushed back from the table and winced just a little as he straightened to his full height. He clomped over to the board in his hiking boots and sighed loudly as he uncapped the pen. Thinking better of it, he recapped the pen and turned away from the board.
“Name’s Jessie, Jessie Mentone. My secret truth: I don’t own a gun and never have. Most people find that surprising. As for passions, I like birds. All kinds. And why was I picked? I don’t know, maybe my rugged good looks? No, I think maybe I’m the token old white guy or maybe just a guy who’s extremely passionate about the environment.”
Jessie looked around at their upturned faces as he was calculating who he should pass the baton to. Jayden found men who looked like him intimidating and even frightening. It was instinctual, an automatic biological response born not from any personal trauma but passed down from her mother’s milk and her mother’s before that. When his gaze settled on her, she smiled extra hard which was something she always did whenever she felt threatened in some way. It was her plumage, her ink cloud.
The old guy’s smile did not involve any teeth, just a stretching of his lips into a complicated grimace accompanied by furrowing of his brow. Rather than throw the marker, he walked all the way around the table and upon arriving at Jayden’s chair, stooped in a way that seemed he was trying to appear smaller somehow. He offered the marker to her in one of his large open hands – a gesture that reminded her of how kids were taught to feed animals at a petting zoo. Jayden nodded to him, took the marker, and then got out of her chair and walked over to the whiteboard.
“Um, my name’s Jayden. I’m uh… what was the next thing? Oh yeah, I’m a nanny in New York City, Queens actually. My secret truth is, I don’t really know. I couldn’t think of anything to say. I’m not good at this. What was the other thing?”
“Any passions you want to share?” Schultz offered, leaning forward in his chair.
“Um, I love to read. All kinds of books, but I really love Sci-Fi.”
“Brilliant! Me too,” Schultz said. “And why do you think you were selected?”
“Oh lord, I really have no idea. I’m still thinking I’m gonna wake up any minute.”
Jayden stood for an awkward moment in front of the room of strangers, her back to the whiteboard. Her hand began to cramp from squeezing the marker and it dawned on her that she’d not written anything on the board. She half turned to the board, then turned back to face Schultz.
“I forgot to… do I need to write my details?” she asked.
“Only if you want to, love,” Schultz said.
Jayden paused for a beat trying to decide. She preferred to do things right, to follow the rules but what were the rules here? The old guy didn’t seem interested in them. She decided on a compromise and quickly wrote just her name on the board. It was her signature, an elegant, looping cursive, the J like a monarch butterfly wing. She capped the marker and walked quickly back to the table, stopping briefly to hand the marker to the man sitting at the head. He was bald, and neatly dressed in a pressed shirt with a tasteful floral pattern. Up close, she could see his eyebrows were expertly threaded and he wore a subtle amount of eyeliner that made his large, dark eyes even more intense and theatrical.
He took the marker and before standing, took a sip from a large water bottle he’d brought with him. He walked slowly to the board and immediately wrote his name in all capital letters. C A M E R O N.
“Hey everyone, I’m Cameron – you can call me Cam if you like. I’m a lot of things, but for the last few years, I’ve mostly gotten paid for being a UX designer. As for a secret truth… I love country music. Ewe, right? For passions, I’ve got loads. I’m a singer, a writer, a photographer.”
“And why do you believe you were selected, Cameron?” Schultz asked.
“Maybe because my audition video was completely, embarrassingly raw and vulnerable? Not something I normally do.”
“Right, perfect,” Schultz said. “We’ve just got one left to go…”
A smallish young man whom Jayden had not noticed previously stood up without being prompted and met Cam halfway. He had neatly cropped hair, studious glasses, and the faintest whisper of stubble like a shadow on his jawline. Following Cam’s lead, he first wrote his name on the board, having to extend his arm completely to write R I L E Y at the same height.
“Hi ya’ll, I’m Riley. I’m a student of Bioengineering at MIT. Going for my doctorate there. Let’s see, secret truth… I’m kind of a romantic person which is kind of a weird thing for a scientist to be. As for passion, my passion is my work and my activism. They’re one and the same – how can we coexist with the rest of life on this planet in a sustainable way?”
The others who had gone before nodded, some with a look of humility or even embarrassment at the triteness of their answers.
“Riley, why do you think you were picked to live in Houze?” Schultz asked.
Riley looked around the room. “Well, I know it wasn’t for my personality and I don’t think I’ve got looks for television so I’m guessing I was picked because of what I just said. I believe in the mission behind Houze.”
“Very good, well said. Okay, I believe that’s a good segue into meeting the folks behind the mission. Eve, Scott, Chris, would one of you like to go first?”
The three partners of FutureAbode had been sitting against the back wall observing as they sipped their coffee. Jayden had noticed the attractive blonde when she first came in. It was hard not to given her long, bare legs and bright fuchsia fingernails thrumming on the bowl of the coffee cup, the rim of which was smudged with that same shocking kiss of color from her lips. In contrast, the two men sitting next to her mostly blended into the landscape of the conference room. They could have been any of the dads she had worked for over the years. J. Crew-wearing white men with confident smiles.
On closer inspection, for brothers, they looked quite different. The taller one was wearing a rumpled, tan sport coat, a collarless button-down, jeans, and work boots. He was barrel-chested, and his large hands gave the illusion that the cup he held was a smaller size than the one the woman was drinking from. The other man was like a more refined, compact version of the same thing. He wore a fitted, designer suit with a brilliant white shirt and no tie. Where his brother’s wavy hair was a few weeks past a proper cut and hung loose and shaggy, his was combed back and smoothed into a sculpted form that reminded Jayden of guys who modeled watches or hocked cologne in fashion magazines. The brothers shared the same nose and close-set eyes.
The younger one was about to stand when the blonde touched him on the sleeve and gave him a quick nod to indicate that maybe she should go first. The woman stood and tugged down her skirt before walking over to the board to face the room.
“Hi you guys! We’re so excited you’re finally here with us! We’ve been so anxious to meet you. But I’m getting ahead of myself. My name’s Evangeline Baron and I’m the CMO for FutureAbode and this contest is my baby. It took more than a little convincing to get these guys on board,” she nodded in the direction of the brothers who smiled stiffly and nodded back. “But they came around.”
“I believe I’ve spoken with most of you at least over text at this point and you all should have received the information packet from our team. You’re in for a big adventure but before that happens, we have to cover a few things today. There’s going to be a big press conference right after this where the world will get to meet you for the first time. Don’t be stressed, you’re gonna be great!”
Jayden surveyed the faces of the other contestants and felt certain that no one felt stressed but her. If they did, they didn’t show it.
“Okay, we’re going to talk more but first let’s let you meet the guys who made Houze. Scott, Chris?”
The two men stood together. The younger one set his coffee cup down and took the lead.
“Hi folks, I’m Chris Jenson. It’s so nice to finally meet all of you. I feel like I already know you. We’ve been looking at your faces for so many weeks leading up to this big day. Scott and I have been making houses since we were kids. We were kind of nerds, shut-ins really and we became fascinated with creating living spaces. I think it started with a video game that we were obsessed with where you could design these infinite landscapes and structures. Anyway, we went our own way and pursued different interests, but we always came back to this common passion. Scott was always tinkering in his garage or backyard.”
At this point, Chris nodded to his older brother who smiled and took another sip from his coffee.
“Anyway, about five years ago, we decided to get serious about making our dream a reality. It was time— past time for us to do our part, to share our innovation with the larger world. And you guys are here for the maiden voyage. How cool is that? Eve was right when she said this contest wasn’t our idea, but we’ve come to realize it’s a special opportunity to get the world’s attention. You were all selected by us because we believe you can be ambassadors for our little house with big ambitions. Scott, you wanna tell them a little bit more about Houze?”
“Hey everybody. I’m Scott. My brother’s a much better public speaker than me so I’ll keep it short and stick to what I know. Make no mistake, this contest is a publicity stunt, but Houze? Houze is very real, built on solid principles of sustainability that we believe are essential for all of our survival. It wasn’t built for six people to live in it. You’re likely gonna be uncomfortable. It’s gonna be a little bit like camping in a really nice hotel room in the middle of nowhere.”
“You’ve all read the rules of the contest by now. You’re going to be spending twenty-three and a half hours inside Houze together daily, so I want to give you a tour of the 500 square feet you’ll be living in.”
From a console on the wall by the door, Schultz tapped a few buttons which quickly lowered a projector screen over the whiteboard, dimmed the room lights, and started a projector. He handed Scott a remote. Scott pressed a button, and the large screen was filled with a blueprint of Houze. He walked over to the screen and starting at one end of the drawing, walked them through each feature of the structure. He completed his tour of the layout at the utility enclosure at the end of the structure where all the major systems for the house were located.
“As you’ve hopefully read by now, Houze is designed to be completely self-sustaining, but it’s not magic, and it’s not built for the kind of load you’re going to be putting on it. You can’t all take a shower on the same day. You can’t take more than a five-minute shower, or you won’t have drinking water for several hours. If you set the thermostat to sixty degrees and run the AC for an entire day, you may not have lights later that night. Again, the status for all these systems can be easily monitored from the main console, here. There’s also a mobile app on the devices you will be issued. Anybody have questions about the house before we move on?”
Jayden had about a hundred questions but waited to see if anyone else would ask first. Surprisingly no one spoke up right away until Scott was about to move on then the stylish Indian guy asked, “So we’re not able to bring our own phones?”
“That’s correct. You’ll each be given the latest model of the Ning XR to use. You should know that the phones will not be equipped with anything but a couple of apps and you will have no way to install new ones. You’ll have a phone and basic messaging app to chat with anyone you like on the outside. Where you’ll be there’s no cell service, so you’ll be connected through wi-fi using a satellite dish on top of the structure.”
“What, so no social media apps?” The Indian guy’s question had the urgency of a smoker who was told they had to leave their cigarettes at home.
“That’s right. For your own safety and the integrity of the contest, you won’t have any type of public apps on your phone. Your phone also won’t have GPS. Again, the point of this experiment is to be off the grid.”
“But what if something goes wrong? What if there’s an emergency?” Fran asked.
“You don’t need to worry. We have a command center less than two miles away and we will be directly monitoring all the systems in the house. You will all be completely safe,” Chris said.
At this point, Schultz stood up and joined the brothers so he could explain further.
“The primary purpose for your devices is actually to record and broadcast your experience in Houze. There will be no camera crews to document your story. That will be up to you. As part of the requirement to stay qualified, each of you must record at least ten minutes of content daily. This is at your discretion, and it won’t be live. You’ll record and edit as you like and submit it. Our producers will take it from there. You will receive one notification as a warning when you’ve not met your daily obligation.”
The old British guy paused briefly to study the room before continuing. He smiled impishly as he delivered the next piece of information.
“We’ve added in one bit of spontaneous fun though. Once every day at a random time, one of you will be selected to livestream. Your device will notify you and you have one minute to respond and turn on your camera to stream whatever’s going on. If you refuse, you will be disqualified and asked to leave, forfeiting the prize.”
This was a new wrinkle for all of them and Jayden started to feel more anxious. She could tell the others were also stirred by the news, but judging by the smiles and chuckles, they seemed exhilarated by the idea. Schultz drifted back to the console by the door and the lights came back on, and the projector shut off.
“We’re running a bit behind schedule and I want to make sure everyone gets a break before the press conference. Any more last-minute questions before we head up?”
The old guy Jessie cleared his throat and spoke up a bit more loudly than Jayden felt was necessary in the small room.
“Yeah, where in the hell are we going to be?”
“That’s the million-dollar question, right?” Chris said. “We scouted for weeks and settled on the most beautiful piece of land you’ve ever seen. It’s a pristine site in the middle of the Great Smokey Mountains National Park.”
Scott stepped in here. He was clearly excited about the location and his smile seemed genuine to Jayden. She was beginning to like this one.
“We’ve set up the house on top of a natural bald with panoramic views of the mountains and surrounding wilderness. It’s a private tract of 200 acres that backs up to the national park so you will truly be isolated.”
“But that’s all we can tell you,” Chris interrupted. “Again, our goal here is to preserve your safety and to ensure that the contest goes as intended.”
“Okay, people,” Schultz said. He looked down at his expensive watch. “You have roughly twenty-eight minutes to break before we need you up in the large banquet hall. Should be just enough time to go freshen up, put on your best shirt.”
“And enjoy our last bit of privacy for a long time,” Cameron said, arching his eyebrow.
“Quite right, quite right,” Schultz added. “Off you go!”
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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: