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Fourteen Outfits Might Be Too Many
Harmony House: Episode 8
“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, the contestants riding the bus to the remote location of Houze in Tennessee got one last stop in civilization. We had dinner with Jessie and learned more about his life and his past. He walked away from his job as a mobile app developer in hopes that winning Houze would allow him to retire in the wilderness. We also learned that he’s been an environmental activist. But one event more than anything else has shaped who he is. He lost a child.
The six contestants stood staring at the pile of luggage in the dirt by the gravel road. The sound of the SUVs that had dropped them off was growing fainter, an insectile hum lost in the chorus of other insects who owned the absolute darkness of the woods that surrounded them.
It was a lot of bags. It was a lot of stuff. It must have been obvious to all of them, but no one seemed willing to acknowledge this truth. The only light source was from what Deepu presumed was the “command center” just up the gravel driveway from where they stood. He had never ridden on the back of an ATV, but he didn’t imagine it was going to be easy to hold onto his aluminum Jürgen Traveler Wardrobe and matching roll-aboard carry-on, and his TernTek backpack as they bounced over boulders, hurtling through the woods at twenty miles an hour.
Grandpa Jessie, the self-important fuck was the first one to grab his stuff. He smugly shouldered his small day pack and with one hand, grabbed his duffle that looked like a complimentary gift you got for opening a bank account. The earnest nerdy guy (Rudy? no Riley) followed close behind with his version of the same thing. The two of them headed up the driveway toward the command center.
“It’s so dark out here,” the heavy woman said. She was hugging herself and peering out into the woods across the road.
“Yeah, this is not what I had in mind when I signed up,” Fran said moving toward the pile of luggage. “I was thinking we would be somewhere tropical.”
“Yeah, that would be a no,” the black guy said. “Is this one yours, Fran?” he asked, pointing to a large roll-aboard bag.
“No that’s mine,” the heavy woman said moving forward to claim it.
“Oh okay, I’ll just set it here so I can get to mine,” the black guy said.
“Thanks, Cameron. Can you also hand me that pink one and the book bag next to it?” she asked.
Cam handed the bags to her, and she struggled a bit but was able to shoulder the book bag and put her other smaller bag around the handle of the roll-aboard. He grabbed his soft leather duffle and backpack and together they followed the other two.
“That just leaves you and me,” Deepu said, picking up the TernTek backpack from the six remaining bags and dusting it off.
Fran looked pretty upset. She was absently chewing one of her polished fingernails as she shook her head slowly back and forth.
“What was I thinking bringing all this stuff?” she said. “I’m so embarrassed.”
“Don’t sweat it. We’ll figure it out. We might need to make two trips, but let’s just get them up to this place. Come on.”
Deepu was able to stack one of her carry-ons on top of the Jürgen and with his other free hand, grab her largest suitcase. She extended the handles on her other two bags and together they turtled their way up the driveway having to stop a couple of times to adjust their grips and prevent the stacked bag from sliding off the Jürgen.
When they walked around the side of the cabin structure the company insisted on calling a command center, the others were already huddled around six ATVs. Two of the ATVs had small trailers attached to the back. Grandpa and nerd boy had already plopped their duffels into one of them. Grandpa was helping the heavyset woman get her large roll-aboard into the other one.
Deepu frowned at the small amount of space remaining in the trailers.
“I guess we’ll have to make two trips?” he asked no one in particular.
The producer had been standing by the back door of the command center and he stepped forward and responded. “That’s not gonna be possible,” he said. “It’s two miles up to the site over rough terrain and you all have to enter the house at the same time. It’s a non-negotiable shot Schultz wants us to capture.”
“So, what, I’m just supposed to leave all my things?” Fran said, her voice raising a few cents higher than her normal pitch.
The producer just shrugged and held up his hands. “This is for you guys to sort out. From this point forward, you’re the governing body of Houze. You’ll have to decide together how to solve the problem. All I know is I have to get you all up to the house before midnight, and…” he looked down at his watch, “it’s now 11:15.”
“Well, what are we going to do?” Fran said turning to the group.
It was silent except for the sound of the crickets and cicadas. Then Riley spoke up.
“Well, doesn’t it only seem fair that we all pack in the same amount?”
“Okay, okay, so I need to leave these two bags behind,” Fran said, offering up the one handbag and smaller suitcase.
“Well, technically, it’s volume we’re concerned with here, isn’t it? Not necessarily the number of bags…” Jessie said.
Deepu saw how this was going to go given his meet-cute with Grandpa at the airport. He turned to the producer. “Excuse me, but if Fran and I do leave some of our bags, will you be able to keep them somewhere safe for us?”
“Sure, we can lock them up here in the command center with everyone’s phones. But you’re going to need to hurry. We’re leaving in five minutes.”
While the others waited, Deepu and Fran hauled all their bags across the deck of the cabin and through the French doors into a great room. It appeared that the “command center” was really just a vacation home the company probably rented out. Most of the furniture had been removed from the room to accommodate a couple of long desks with several large computer monitors on them. At one of the desks, there was a woman sipping a cup of tea as she peered at one of the screens.
On the screen, Deepu could make out the unmistakable silhouette of Houze sitting on top of a grassy hill. All the lights were on inside the little structure, and it looked like an alien spacecraft had landed in some farmer’s field. The warm rectangles of light were like a little oasis of civilization in the wilderness. Something about the image reminded him of a sci-fi comic from his childhood. His feelings of anxiety at what to do with his things were quickly replaced with the same tingling excitement he’d experienced in childhood whenever he read adventure stories.
“I thought there weren’t going to be any cameras on us?” Fran asked.
She had dropped her bags beside his and was looking at the monitor with him. The woman sitting at the desk turned around.
“Oh, that’s right, there are no cameras inside Houze, only these three cameras stationed outside so we can monitor for safety…”
“And also, to make sure everyone plays by the rules,” Fran interjected.
“That’s correct too, but mostly my job is to make sure that there’s no threat to anyone’s safety while you’re inside.”
“Threat?” Deepu asked. “What kind of threat are we talking about?”
“Well, I don’t know exactly but there’s a fair amount of wildlife out here. Bears, mountain lions, and possibly curious locals,” the woman said, smiling as she said this last bit.
“Sorry, I’m Fran, what’s your name?”
“I’m Jemma,” the woman answered, standing up to offer her hand.
“Jemma, should we be worried?” Fran asked.
“Oh, no. Sorry, I wasn’t trying to make this sound dangerous at all. You guys will be totally safe. Kyle and I are just here to monitor things in general. He’s from FutureAbode and he’ll be keeping an eye on all the utilities and systems in Houze. I’m here to monitor the satellite uplink and to make sure you guys are able to send your daily videos through to the producers.”
“So, you’re saying if there is any real danger out there, we’re screwed because the two of you are about as outdoorsy as us?” Fran asked.
The woman frowned. Deepu didn’t appreciate Fran assuming they were alike in every way just because they both might have overpacked for this thing.
“Well,” the woman stammered. “We’ve got safety protocols and it’s not like we’re on the moon out here. You’ve got nothing to worry about.”
“That’s right,” added the producer from the bus as he came up behind them. “But you do need to consolidate your bags quickly or you won’t make it onto the ATVs and into the house by midnight.”
Deepu and Fran quickly set about opening all their luggage there in the middle of the room. He wished there might have been a bit of privacy. He felt like he was at the airport being shaken down by TSA, an experience he’d had too often in his life. What did he actually need? What was essential? Underwear, socks, pants, shirts, but how many of each? He had packed four pairs of shoes. That was dumb. They could only be outside for thirty minutes a day. He set aside all but one pair of Nikes. He was placing his consolidated things to take into the large wardrobe case when he sensed someone standing over him.
“Hey dude, not trying to make it harder here, but I know the space inside and out and that suitcase you’re trying to bring is going to be like bringing in a chest of drawers. You’re gonna regret it.”
Deepu looked up. This was Kyle presumably, the guy from FutureAbode. He looked like a stoner with his long greasy hair, ripped jeans, and faded t-shirt from some band Deepu had never heard of. White guys like this had always pissed him off. They were so comfortable wearing whatever tired shit they wanted to because this was their birthright. They belonged here and they didn’t have to try like everyone else. Deepu looked down at the fourteen perfectly folded bundles of clothes he’d packed. He had carefully matched outfits to go two weeks without repeating a look. His style was clean, neutral earth tones mostly with the occasional pop of color, a subtle hint of pattern here, and a bit of texture for contrast there.
He had grown up in hand-me-downs from his older brother which their parents typically bought from thrift stores and church sales. He was always that brown kid in ill-fitting jeans and polo shirts with some random local business’s logo on the chest. Kids had called him “floods” throughout third and fourth grade because his pants were always a few inches above his ankles. The bullying was relentless. At home, his tears and humiliation fermented into a sour hostility toward his parents. They had done the best they could trying to navigate the vast cultural divide between the country that would always be their home, their frame of reference for everything, and this sprawling country of brash abundance. They probably could have bought him new clothes that fit, but it wasn’t their priority. They were always looking at the long term, saving for financial independence, saving for college. But all that frugality, all that planning was pointless. They were killed before they got to see him start high school.
“Yeah, okay,” he responded to the guy, his voice flat and even. “Thanks. I’ll consolidate more.”
Fuck it. He was going to win this thing even if he had to do it with three outfits. He unzipped his backpack and dumped the contents of it out onto the floor. He selected three of the compact bundles of clothes from the large bag and crammed them into the empty backpack, leaving just enough room for his toiletry bag. He transferred everything he’d dumped on the floor into the big suitcase, pausing to consider the four books he’d brought. He picked one and shoved it into the backpack and put the rest in the large suitcase before closing the lid.
He shouldered the backpack and stood so he was eye to eye with Kyle who nodded to him with an approving frown.
“Right on, bro. That’s what I’m talking about. Travel light and keep your powder dry,” he said.
“Can you put my bags somewhere so I can get them after I’ve won this thing?” he asked.
“Sure can,” Kyle said. “But hey, just some food for thought. It’s gonna be cold as balls here in another few weeks. You may want to consider a heavier coat.”
Fran had worked through a similar exercise, though she had not made quite the same level of sacrifice, opting to bring a shoulder bag and her small roll-aboard. Kyle helped them carry their bags down a hallway to a large walk-in closet where they stowed the extra luggage after Deepu had retrieved his down-filled jacket from the smaller suitcase.
Together they walked back out to join the others. The other four contestants were each standing by their own ATV that was manned by someone from the company. Deepu helped Fran put her suitcase into the remaining spot in the trailer behind the ATV that Riley would be on.
“Alright, it looks like we’re ready to roll out!” the producer said.
He walked over to one of the two unmanned ATVs, threw his leg over it, and sat down.
“One of you can ride with me and Kyle can take the other.”
Before Deepu could choose, Kyle patted him on the shoulder. “Come on bro, let’s do this!”
The six ATVs rolled out of the gravel lot single file and climbed up the gentle grass slope of the hill behind the cabin before picking up a narrow dirt track that wound its way around the crest of the hill before entering the tree line of the forest. The sawing call and response of the crickets and cicadas in the deep woods faded beneath the whine of the ATVs’ electric engines and the woosh of cool night air blowing past them as the caravan picked up speed.
Not wanting to put his arms around Kyle, Deepu held onto the roll bar behind his seat as the ATV bumped along, pulling up the rear of their group. This ride reminded him of the summer he’d traveled back to Delhi with his father when he was twelve. One of his cousins had a scooter and he had ridden on the back every evening when they had gone out cruising.
Deepu looked up. High above, in the deep azure strip of sky, he could make out the pinpricks of stars between the black silhouette of trees in the canopy. The ATV jumped over a large root, kicking both of their butts up off the seat and nearly causing Deepu to fall off the back of the machine.
“You alright back there, dude? You might wanna hang on to me. It’s gonna get worse,” Kyle yelled over his shoulder.
Deepu frowned and wrapped his arms around the driver’s midsection, locking his hands so he could avoid the intimacy of gripping the guy’s belly. They continued to dip and climb along the narrow track through the trees. Beyond the throw of the vehicle’s single headlight, it was impossible to see anything in the surrounding darkness. How much further was it? Was the girl just fucking with them about wild animals out here? Should he be worried about a bobcat pouncing from behind a tree and just picking him off the back of the ATV?
The caravan slowed as it navigated up and around the steep switchbacks that cut into the side of a large mountain. The bumping and back-and-forth motion was beginning to make Deepu nauseous and his fear of being eaten was quickly replaced with his fear that he might hurl half-digested pizza all over Kyle’s back. The ATVs sputtered and whined, their electric engines straining to battle up the mountain. Ahead of them, he could see the five bouncing lights of the other vehicles navigating the snake-like curves of the trail as the turns got steeper and tighter near the top. Then suddenly, one by one each light disappeared. What the fuck? Where did they go? Deepu was about to ask when he realized that they had simply gone over the top of the ridge to the other side.
When they crested the summit and bounced down the other side, the trail became a straight-away, the branches of the trees on either side reaching across to give the illusion of a tunnel. Kyle cut back on the throttle, so they were barely rolling. He looked back over his shoulder to talk to Deepu.
“Hey man, you’re gonna love this. It’s like fuckin’ Star Wars! You ready?” he shouted.
Without waiting for Deepu to answer, he shouted “Hang on to your butts!” before cranking the throttle wide open. The ATV lurched forward causing Deepu to gasp and then shudder from a shot of adrenaline that made him laugh out loud.
They rocketed forward. The trees became a blur around them, and the rushing wind was the only sound he could hear. Ahead of them, there was an opening, a yawn at the end of a tunnel that got bigger with every passing second. As they approached, Deepu could see that it was the open sky, and it was the rich blue-black of a velvet jewelry box. When they burst out of the tree line, they were in a wide-open field of tall grass and the sky was an enormous bowl of stars like a planetarium. Kyle switched off the headlamp and slowed down, so they puttered along. Deepu could see the lights from the rest of the caravan ahead of them in the distance getting smaller as they wound through an improvised trail through the tall grass. He was unprepared for the feeling that had overcome him in this brief journey through the woods. He drew in a deep breath and could feel tears moistening his cheeks, partly from the cold wind, but not entirely.
Kyle switched the headlamp back on and increased their speed so they could catch up with the others. As they rounded the top of the bald and veered slightly left, Deepu could see what they’d seen earlier on the camera feed. There was no comparison. Houze sat like a gleaming bar of golden light alone at the top of the ridge in an ocean of grass.
It seemed at once like a terrestrial beacon in the wilderness and a spacecraft for visitors from another world with the sharp geometry of its windowed frame and the warm glow of light it cast in the darkness of the curving landscape that surrounded it.
The six bobbing lights that approached Houze across the vastness of the high, open pasture were like a string of lights being pulled into its orbit, each one winking out as it reached its destination.
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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: