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The Last Stop In Civilization
Harmony House: Episode 7
“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 on the bus with all six contestants as they traveled through the pouring rain to the remote location in Tennessee where Houze is located. We sat next to Fran and learned more about her background and shrewd competitive nature as she studied the others, sizing them up.
Just after eight o’clock, the bus rolled to a stop right outside of Knoxville so that everyone could stretch their legs and get something to eat. Stepping off the bus they were met by a producer from the BangOn! Media team who informed them that this was to be their last stop in civilization. When they reboarded in an hour, they would be asked to surrender their mobile phones and any other devices they brought with them until after the contest concluded.
The rain had mostly stopped except for a drizzly mist that fogged up glasses and made the backlit signs of shops and restaurants across the large parking lot blurry. The shopping center was unremarkable and could have been off any suburban exit from any major highway going into any major city in America. Assembled from the corporate franchise Lego kit for mixed-use developments it had a big orange block where you could buy home improvement stuff, a green block where you could buy overpriced coffee, a brown block if you wanted a burrito, a red block if you wanted pizza and handful of small wildcard blocks where you could get General Tso’s chicken or a cupcake the size of your head.
Jessie had opted for the eggroll joint, not because he was a fan of American Chinese food but because it was the only place in this concrete wasteland that appeared to be locally owned. He saw that a couple of contestants had paired up to get dinner together, but he was happy to go his own way. He ordered the veggie fried rice and a spring roll and ate it while standing at a high-top table by the fogged-up storefront window.
He stared down at his phone, checking a few last-minute things without much enthusiasm or interest. For someone who had spent much of the back half of his career developing mobile apps, he really couldn’t care less about the technology anymore. It was a utility, that was all. Out of habit he opened his email and deleted a screenful of spam. He switched over to his news app and scrolled through the headlines without committing to anything. Four swipes deep he saw a little story about Houze and tapped into it. There was a little video clip from the press conference and short bios of each of the contestants. They dubbed him the radical environmentalist and managed to find a photo that made him look like a cult leader. He zoomed in and squinted trying to figure out where the hell the photo had come from. It was from a demonstration four years earlier where he had been protesting another pipeline project and had been arrested. Did they photoshop his beard? Christ, they did. He knew his beard wasn’t that wild and unkempt, at least not back then.
He finished his meal and pushed the plate aside. The food was terrible, but he refused to waste any of it. He was about to pocket his phone and head out for a little walk to get some air before heading back to the bus but decided instead to open his photo album. He went to his favorites and scrolled slowly through the collection, pausing for a few seconds for each photo to take in the shape of the small face, the twinkle of light in the enormous blue eyes, and the curvature of the chubby little fingers. He felt the familiar tightening in his chest and the sting of tears in the corners of his eyes which he closed. He took three shuddering, deep breaths and mouthed his mantra. When he opened his eyes, the screen had dimmed, gone to sleep.
He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out the phone the company had given each of the contestants earlier that day. He had fleetingly entertained the idea during the long bus ride of breaking into the device and overriding the security so he could do whatever he wanted or needed to do once they were in lockdown, but ultimately, he’d decided it wasn’t worth it. For one thing, it would be wrong and unfair to the others. For another thing, and maybe this was more important, he really didn’t care that much. He was tired of trying to control the outcome of every situation and manipulate the world to serve him.
He woke up the device and unlocked it. He launched the camera app and then unlocked his personal phone, scrolling back up to his favorite in the favorites collection. He lined up the shot and snapped a single photo of the photo. He pocketed the Houze phone and navigated to the settings of his personal phone where he found the reset option. He tapped affirmative through the series of security prompts designed to prevent anyone from accidentally deleting their world and depriving the big tech company of its open vein of data and revenue. Jessie watched the progress bar indicating that everything on the device was being deleted shrink. When the process completed, he powered off the phone.
On the way out he stopped at the cashier. “Hey, you got a paperclip I can borrow?”
The kid behind the register looked confused for a minute but then rummaged through a couple of drawers and produced a small paperclip that had been holding a stack of receipts together. Jessie nodded a thank you, took the paperclip, and bent one end out into a simple tool he could use to eject the tiny SIM card from his phone. He pocketed the SIM, bent the paperclip back into shape, and handed it back to the kid.
“Anybody you know really need of a new phone?” he asked.
“What’s wrong with it?” the boy asked.
“Not a thing. It’s the latest model. I’ve got no need for it. Here, you take it and give it to someone who needs it. Or just keep it if you like.”
The boy looked incredulous. He craned his neck to look around the mostly empty dining room as if to ensure the coast was clear for this illicit transaction then he stretched out his hand to take the phone. Jessie handed it to him, nodded, and turned to leave.
“Um, thanks?” the boy said to his back.
Jessie waved a dismissive hand over his shoulder and pushed through the door that made a little bundle of bells jingle above him. He loved that sound. It reminded him of the way all businesses used to be.
He checked his wristwatch. He still had twenty minutes before he had to be back, so he walked slowly up the sidewalk along the Lego storefronts. His mind was mostly peaceful. He made a mental note of this. It was a practice he had been trying to develop, the ability to randomly inspect his own emotional state and appreciate any period of relative peace. He continued to walk and focus on his breathing. After a few minutes, he felt someone in his peripheral vision.
“Hey, mind if I walk with you?”
It was the MIT kid with the hillbilly accent.
“Sure, whatever makes you happy.”
They walked for the length of a storefront in silence. He could see the kid glance over at him a few times, trying to figure him out. Finally, the kid spoke.
“Today at the press conference, you said something that stuck with me.”
“Yeah, what was that?”
“You said: ‘Look after the land and the land will look after you, destroy the land and it will destroy you.’ Where did that come from?”
“It’s an aboriginal proverb I think but it could be Native American. It’s the same ancient wisdom that nobody these days seems to comprehend. Hell, it’s not even wisdom, right? It’s just common sense.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. I know we met at the icebreaker thing, but I’m Riley.”
The kid offered his hand. Jessie turned and stopped for long enough to shake it. He was surprised at how small the hand was. But the grip was firm, honest.
“Jessie,” he said in response, and they continued to walk. While he would much rather have just walked in silence, he knew that was weird, so he tried to make conversation. “So, you’re a student at MIT, is that right?”
“Yes sir, going for my doctorate.”
“Whew, that’s a commitment.”
“Yeah, it sure is. Some days I think it was a really stupid decision,” Riley said.
“Do you love it? I mean, do you love what you’re studying?”
“More than anything else but I get really stressed when I think about what I’m going to do with my life.”
“Yeah, me too,” Jessie laughed. “But hey, you’re doing something right if you love what you’re doing. You’d be surprised how hard that is for most of us.”
They looped around, cutting back through the parking lot toward the bus. They didn’t talk anymore, and the silence seemed okay, at least to Jessie. He was relieved not to have to feign interest or be entertaining. Why did he always feel compelled to come off as this wise old fuck from central casting anytime he was in the presence of someone a few years younger. It was annoying.
The producer must have seen them coming because he stepped off the bus to greet them. He was holding a medium-sized metal lockbox, and he opened the lid as they approached.
“Hello gentlemen, hope you had a nice dinner. Before you get back on, I need to collect your phones.”
Riley sighed and dug into the front pocket of his jeans. He unlocked the screen and took one last, longing look at the thing before powering it off and placing it in the box. Seeming to sense his discomfort, the producer reassured him.
“Don’t worry, we’re going to lock them up in this box and keep them for you at the command center. When you leave the contest, you will get your phone back.”
“How do you know that Riley here won’t win the whole shooting match?” Jessie asked.
“Oh, I mean, if you win, you’ll obviously get it back too. Sorry,” the producer said to Riley before pivoting to Jessie. “Okay Jessie, how about your phone?”
“I got rid of it,” he said.
“Huh? What do you mean?” the producer asked.
“I mean I gave it away to some kid working the register at the restaurant over there,” Jessie replied, nodding in the direction of Wok & Roll.
The young producer looked at Jessie suspiciously. He was clearly conflicted, not wanting to be rude, but also not wanting to get fired for failing to do his first important job.
“Look, I get it, it’s really hard to give these things up. They’re more addictive than cigarettes, but…” the producer tilted his head in a ‘work with me man’ kind of gesture and extended the box in Jessie’s direction.
“You want to check?” Jessie said, raising his arms up. “It’s okay by me, really. I just have the one phone you guys gave us.”
The producer stared at him for a few seconds more before making up his mind. “Okay, I believe you. You guys go ahead and get onboard.”
Ten minutes later they were back on the interstate and rolling on toward their unknown destination. The producer, who had ridden in the black SUV with the rest of the support crew was on the bus with them now. He stood up by the door holding onto one of the overhead cabinets for support as the bus swayed slightly back and forth. He reminded Jessie of a camp counselor somewhere in the cobwebs of his memories of childhood. The guy was just missing a whistle and clipboard.
“Okay folks,” he said, trying to get everyone’s attention.
All six contestants were squeezed into the couches in the main seating area. They stopped talking and looked at the producer.
“We’re about an hour and thirty minutes away from our destination now. The bus won’t be able to get us all the way to the site, so we’ll be transferring into a couple of SUVs when we exit off the highway. When we get to the command center we will unload once again and then, using ATVs, we will shuttle you through the woods and up to the ridge where the house sits. Everything’s in place and your new home is ready for you to move in. The clock officially starts at midnight after the last of you have crossed the threshold and the door is closed.”
“You will all need to remember the rules Schultz covered in this morning’s orientation. You are only allowed 30 minutes outside of the house every 24 hours. This is tracked and monitored from the phones we gave you which I recommend you keep on you at all times because that’s the only way you’ll be able to respond if you are selected to live stream.”
“Any questions so far? No? Good. What else am I forgetting? Right, meals. Meals will be delivered three times a day at 8 AM, noon, and 6 PM. The first meal will be delivered tomorrow morning.”
The producer paused and looked down at a small notebook he pulled from his jacket. Jessie studied the other contestants as they fidgeted in their seats. Without their phones, everyone seemed lost, unable to figure out what to do with their hands. There was a palpable mixture of anticipation and anxiety vibrating in the air. Jessie examined his feelings and discovered he shared some of this anxiety. It was a novel addition to his familiar feeling of detachment. It was a means to an end, this whole circus. He needed to keep that in mind if he was going to endure. He had endured days without food in the backcountry where he got so hungry, he ate grubs. He had endured nights so cold that even in a tent with his body wrapped in two layers of clothes and cocooned in a down sleeping bag, he shivered until daybreak.
But all these endurances had been solitary. He wasn’t so sure he could endure the company of other people but if he could, the prize would surely be worth it.
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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: