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Fran's Got Game
Harmony House: Episode 6
“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 followed Jayden, the nanny from Queens into the orientation to meet the other five contestants of Houze. Everyone participated in an awkward icebreaker after which the Jenson brothers and Evangeline Baron joined BangOn! Media director, Schultz in telling the contestants more about what they could expect when they move into Houze at its secret location in the Great Smokey Mountains of eastern Tennessee.
The rain had started coming down in hard, noisy sheets just as their bus was lumbering out of the hotel parking garage and into the congested rush hour traffic of downtown Atlanta. As the bus lurched and crawled along, trying to make its way to the interstate, the six contestants settled in for the long drive.
Everyone was quiet. There had been a lot of talking during the two-hour press conference and then in the follow-up one-on-one interviews with various magazines and publications that had stretched through lunch and into the afternoon. No one had the energy to muster small talk now. Everyone seemed to be in their own thoughts, contemplating what they had signed up for.
The tour bus the company had chartered was luxurious with a generous seating area, six sleeping bunks, and a full bathroom. Upon boarding everyone had quickly staked out a private space, some retreating into a bunk, others choosing to put on headphones and stare out at the rain. There seemed to be a general understanding that they would all have ample opportunity to get to know each other in the days and weeks ahead so for the five-hour road trip, they could do with a bit of solitary time.
The press conference had been a success at least as far as most of the contestants could tell having never been a part of one. There was a roomful of reporters leaning forward in folding chairs, notebooks and recorders in hand. The whole scene was surprisingly like it was portrayed in the movies. Most of the questions seemed to fall into one of three categories: why would you want to do something so crazy? what’s your strategy for winning? where will you live if you win?
From Fran’s perspective, none of the others’ answers had been particularly compelling. Except for Deepu, they had all seemed pretty uncomfortable in front of all the cameras and while he definitely basked in the attention, his answers were wooden and even awkward. Had none of them actually prepared for this? She found this surprising. For her part, she had been prepping for years.
Fran had loved reality shows since she was a girl. She got hooked on them when her uncle Mateo lived with them for a couple of years after he was injured in an accident at work. Every day after school he was there on the couch in front of the TV eating a bag of chips and smoking a cigarillo with the window open to the fire escape. Fran had loved the syrupy sweet smell of the smoke and used to beg him to let her try a puff. He never did. But they had logged hours together watching countless dramas unfold on desert islands, in exotic resorts, or in fancy New York City penthouses. Regardless of the location, the real people cast in these shows were always captivating.
Over the years, Fran had auditioned for a number of shows but never been selected. The one she’d most wanted to be on was The Bachelor. She knew in her bones she had what it took to beat out the other hopefuls and be entertaining while doing it. But the casting people had passed her over. Fran had all but given up on living her TV dream until a couple of months earlier when a friend from her professional network mentioned that their agency was helping with a media campaign for a new reality show about people trying to live together in a tiny house. It wasn’t sexy and prime time like The Bachelor, but Fran was a realist. She was a forty-two-year-old divorcee who had spent the last twenty years working at the same small agency where she’d started right out of community college. She was not prime time talent. But she’d leveraged every trick she knew about marketing and everything she’d learned from watching decades worth of reality TV and she’d gotten herself a spot.
Now she wasn’t so sure she wanted it. She’d been so desperate just to win something for once in her life, that she hadn’t paid much attention to what she’d signed up for. This was not a luxury resort where she’d be spending the day in a bikini fighting off the handsy advances from her co-stars and monologuing about it to a camera crew. She was going to literally be sharing a bed with some randos in the middle of nowhere Tennessee!
The early promos her friend had sent over when she first heard about the contest were hot. Houze looked like this fresh take on Big Brother. Like Big Brother, just smaller, literally. She hadn’t wasted any time in putting together her audition video and applying. Then a couple of weeks later when she saw some TV spots for the contest during one of her favorite home and garden shows, it looked like a completely different thing. The thing she signed up for looked sexy, fast-paced, and fun. The thing she saw in the new ads was all serious and purposeful with a grave old man narrating over shots of climate crisis propaganda and ending on a fly-through of the tiny house.
But then she’d won! For whatever reason, they’d picked her when nobody else had. So, she dropped everything and committed. If Fran was being completely honest, there wasn’t much to lose. Her life the last few years had been sad and pretty empty. Since Davis had left her eighteen months ago there had been too many weeknights in a bathrobe in front of the TV with a glass of wine that turned into a bottle. It would have been easier if he’d left her for some younger piece of ass or something. That would have stung, but at least it would have made sense. Men did that kind of thing all the time.
After ten years of marriage, he had just woken up one day and said he wasn’t happy, said she wasn’t who he thought she was, and he wasn’t sure he even knew who he was anymore. He cried and he told her he was sorry. He let her keep the townhouse. Fran had waited to hear about him quickly shacking up with someone else, someone he worked with or some old flame, but he hadn’t. Within a month he’d quit his job and a few weeks after that, taken a mission trip to South America. He never came back. She had gotten a few postcards from him and an email on her birthday. He hadn’t left her to find someone sexier or younger. He had rejected their whole way of life. He had rejected who she was, or at least who he thought she was.
“At least you didn’t have kids,” her mom had said. “God works in mysterious ways.” Her mom had a way of always making her feel worse. She and Davis had tried for kids for seven years.
It was getting dark as the bus rolled north on I-75. When they boarded a couple of hours earlier, she had perched at the end of one of the couches at the front of the bus and had just been staring out the window for most of the trip. She needed to get her head in the game. She paused the music she’d been listening to but kept her earbuds in so she could listen to what was going on without having to engage if she didn’t want to. She stretched and turned around in her seat to take in the rest of the cabin.
The bioengineering guy Riley was talking quietly with the black guy (Cam?) who wore eyeliner on the couch opposite her. The nanny was sitting on the couch beside her engrossed in some novel and Deepu was on his laptop at the little dining table. She couldn’t see the old crotchety guy, so she figured he was either in the bathroom (gross) or sleeping in one of the bunks (also gross). It dawned on her that this space was probably about the same size as what would soon be their shared home. She would have to buck up if she wanted to compete in this thing.
“… I mean what’s the worst thing that could happen right? Two queers in the backwoods of east bumfuck Tennessee,” Cam said.
“Well, I grew up in bumfuck Georgia and I can tell you it’s not as progressive as the movies make it out to be.”
Riley had this strange voice with a crazy Southern accent that had taken Fran a while to figure out, but this snippet of conversation just made it clear. He was a she or used to be a she. That was unnatural and so unnecessary. We were the way God made us to be. God didn’t make women only for them to decide to be men. That was just chaos. But this opinion was not a popular one to hold these days, and if she didn’t make friends with these two, she wouldn’t last long. At the end of the day, people made their choices and if those choices meant they would burn in hell when they died, then that was really their business wasn’t it?
Fran made a show of putting away her headphones and stood to stretch in the middle of the cabin.
“Are we there yet?” she asked, smiling as they both looked up.
“Not even close,” Riley said.
“You’ll know when we are because you’ll hear banjo music,” Cam said.
Fran laughed and sat back down, this time a little closer to them. She leaned forward and asked, “So what do you guys think about all this? Are you nervous? Cause I sure am.”
Riley shrugged and frowned in response.
“I’m not nervous. I mean, it’s not as though we’re going to be performing exactly, right?” Cam said, pulling the new phone they were issued out of his breast pocket. “We just have to log a few minutes of babble into this every day.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Fran said. “Have you turned yours on yet?”
“It’s fairly bare bones,” Cam said. “There’s basically three apps. You’ve got the media app for recording and uploading stuff, a messaging app, and a settings app to control the house. That’s it.”
“Well, I’m sure that’s not exactly it,” Riley said. “There’s probably several other things on there that you can’t see.”
“You mean like spy stuff?” Fran asked. “Apps to record us when we think the phone’s off?”
“Maybe?” Riley said. “Wouldn’t surprise me. I mean we basically signed our lives away with that contract, right? I didn’t read all of it but basically, the gist is they can do whatever they want as long as we’re in the contest.”
“Well, aren’t you a little ray of sunshine,” Cam said. “Anyway, doesn’t matter much to me. I’ve got nothing to hide and nothing to lose. One thing I am curious about though is our stuff. I mean did anyone question what happens to the stuff we packed? There was nothing in the rules about how much we were allowed to bring.”
“I don’t know. I figure that’s all part of the game, right?” Riley said. “They leave it up to us to sort out. I mean how unpopular is the person going to be that brings in a ton of shit that everyone else has to step over. The whole point of Houze is minimalism. How much can you live without?”
Fran thought about her four bags stowed in the cargo hold below and frowned. She suddenly felt like she had shown up to a cookout in a ballgown. How could she be so stupid? What could she live without? She’d have to figure that out in the next three hours. But there were a lot more bags down there than just hers. She wasn’t the only one who might have overpacked.
“How many bags did you guys bring?” she asked, trying not to sound too curious.
“I brought a backpack and a small duffle,” Riley said.
“Same, but I also brought a little Uke. What’s life without a little music, right? It honestly was not hard to pack a small bag. All I’ve got in the world could fit in a small bag now,” Cam said.
It seemed like an opportunity and Fran was tempted to make a show of asking him why, but she was too preoccupied with figuring out what to do with all the crap she had brought. She knew she’d be a pariah if she waltzed in with everything she had packed. But the rules stated that she’d have to choose to leave. No one could kick her out if she met her obligations. Yeah, but that was just magical thinking. She knew the power of social pressure and she knew herself enough not to expect that she would suddenly become this person impervious to popular opinion. This made her immediately think of the crusty old guy. He probably never gave a hoot what anybody thought of him in his whole life. Well, he had to have a weakness. Everyone did.
As if on cue, there was a loud snuffling snort from the bunk down the hall followed by a buzzsaw drone that sounded like the sinuses of someone with a lot of practice.
“Holy fuck,” Deepu said, looking up from his laptop and turning in the direction of the sound. “We’ve got to live with that? I know we weren’t allowed to bring weapons, but does a pillow count?”
Everyone laughed. Even the Nanny, Jayden smiled, and her belly shook as she covered her mouth with her book. Fran studied her more closely. What did she bring? She looked like a person used to having the comforts of home. Maybe they could commiserate about both being silly women who overpack. It was an angle, at least something to start with until Fran could learn more about her.
These other people were smart, but she doubted that they knew as much about reality shows as she did. Alliances were the key. It didn’t matter whether you were singing or flirting or making a hut out of bamboo, in order to last in one of these contests, you had to be liked up until the point at which you had enough power to influence a cut. And from there it was just a matter of staying on the right side of the cut.
Fran was beginning to get excited.
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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: