Harmony House: Episode 12
“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.
In the last episode, Deepu and Cam had a conversation on camera lamenting the lack of excitement in the contest so far. Deepu revealed his plan to sell the prize to the highest bidder if he wins. Cam, having lost everything plans to keep Houze if he’s the winner. We learned a lot about Cam’s past and his emotional struggle. Cam has a peaceful moment during his outside break but loses track of time. He rushes back, nearly missing the curfew, which would disqualify him from the competition. Because it’s too close to call, the show’s producers force the housemates to vote on his fate. Riley, ever the conscience of the group makes a plea about fairness. The anonymous vote comes back four to one and Cam is allowed to remain.
Nothing was happening like it was supposed to in a proper reality show. Fran should know, she’d seen enough of them over the years. They were just six very different people living in a tiny place, eating pretty horrible food three times a day, and sleeping together like grown-ups in a church lock-in. There were no alliances, no scandalous trysts, and no big shouting matches. It was boring.
But it was better than work. God, she didn’t miss being in the office. The closest thing to work was just the obligatory ten minutes of footage she had to shoot every day and that she didn’t mind much. It was her one chance to try to make it feel like more of a show, so she did her best to give the producers something a bit juicier than Jessie’s point-the-camera-at-the-grass-and-watch-it-grow contributions. This morning Fran had shot her footage from the dining room table while Riley and Jessie were taking their outside break, Jayden was sleeping in the loft bed, Cam was in the shower, and Deepu had his headphones in and was talking to a friend. She applied some subtle makeup, made sure her hair looked okay, and positioned the camera so the angle wouldn’t make her cheeks look too saggy or show the wrinkles on her neck.
She had whispered her monologue, recounting the story of how Cam almost got disqualified. She tried to make the stakes seem really high and did her best to work up some emotion so that tears were in her eyes as she expressed how incredibly glad she was that Cam had not been booted, especially after all that he’d been through. She was proud of one line that she had to do several takes to get just right at the end: “He may be a lost soul, but he didn’t deserve to go out like that. Thank God we were given the chance to save him. We all know it was Jessie who voted to get him out.”
She imagined how the producers could take this bit and score it with the right music to tease out the emotion. Maybe there would be a cut to some of the footage Deepu shot of Cam gasping for breath after his sprint back before the old guy had made him turn it off. She wished she could see the final product. She wished there was someone to provide them with some direction, but that was not going to happen. Any action, any excitement at all would have to be generated by them.
Fran got up from where she had been sitting at the small desk under the loft in the bedroom so she could walk around and stretch her legs. The six of them had fallen into a kind of etiquette where they rotated through different stations in the house to have a bit of privacy. For instance, she knew when she got up that she would be surrendering her spot at the desk. It was more or less understood that no one had ownership of any one spot, especially not a coveted one.
She heard repetitive grunting just outside the bedroom door and for a second the reptilian part of her brain perked up a bit. But when she poked her head around the door, she realized it was just Jessie doing push-ups in the narrow hallway. She slid the door open and stood over him, watching him pump up and down because there was no way to walk around him. He was in pretty good shape for a man his age and she tried to imagine being under him. God, she was bored. But not really. This was a game she had often played when riding the elevator with a stranger or being put into a small breakout group at a work conference. What if they were trapped together? What if the world shut down and there was some kind of apocalypse, and they were the only survivors? Would they fall in love, as unlikely a pairing as they might be in the real world? It was a fun exercise, a cheap thrill in an otherwise monotonous existence. Did other people do the same thing or was it just her own depraved mind?
“Sorry,” Jessie blustered, pushing himself up to a standing position. “I didn’t mean to block the hallway. I have to exercise my core every day otherwise my lower back locks up.”
His face was bright red and beads of sweat covered the dome of his head and face. The air in the tight corridor was warm with his exertion and she could smell his body odor, which was not unpleasant. He had not turned that corner where he smelled old. That curious, stale smell that old people had always depressed her. He backed toward the restroom so she could pass.
Deepu was seated on the short side of the sofa scribbling in a notebook. Jayden was stretched out on the sofa watching some documentary on the big screen but she had headphones in so it wouldn’t disturb the rest of the group. Houze had a decent selection of entertainment choices, but it wasn’t infinite, and she knew the couple hundred movies and TV shows would soon become tiresome.
Riley was seated at the dining table steeping some tea and staring out at the gloomy day. She really didn’t want to have to make conversation with him. Fran considered herself a people person, but she found Riley off-putting on a number of levels. He was just so eager and earnest and brainy and well, unnatural. But it was unavoidable in five-hundred square feet not to have to talk to everyone at some point. She smiled and walked into the kitchen.
“It’s a good day for tea,” she said, trying to project warmth.
“Yeah, it’s kinda dark out there today,” he said.
“It really is,” she said.
Fran walked to the wall of cabinets and opened a couple before she found the tea.
“The water’s still warm in the kettle,” Riley offered.
“Thank you,” she said.
She selected a packet of Earl Grey, dropped the bag into a cup, and poured hot water over it. The smell of Bergamot reminded her of Kyle. He was a tea drinker, not a coffee drinker and he used to be meticulous about preparing his tea. He only used loose tea leaves and had a tea ball contraption with a built-in timer to ensure the perfect steep. How on earth did they ever get together? His tea-drinking and contemplation, his slow, deliberate, and conservative way of doing everything in direct opposition with her fidgety squirrel brain, impulsiveness, and fiery temper.
But God had brought them together, or so she had believed. They had met in a Christian singles social group that got together a couple of times a month, sometimes to do volunteer work and other times to do some outing like a trip to the botanical gardens or maybe a hike. He hadn’t been attractive to her at first. In fact, she hadn’t really even noticed Kyle among the other dozen or so eligible bachelors until they did a weekend camping trip that had turned into a disaster. Twenty-eight at the time, Fran had never camped or spent any time in the woods, but she was eager to nudge the process of finding her soul mate and figured that a couple of evenings under the stars might be just the ticket. Two of the guys she was very interested in were big outdoorsmen and they were planning to be there. She had spent most of a paycheck gearing up so she could look the part, going so far as to even take her new hiking boots out in the empty lot beside her apartment complex to distress them.
Everything had started to slip sideways from the very beginning of their trip when half of the people who had RSVP’d canceled last minute to attend a baseball game. That left her and one other girl she really didn’t like with five guys for the weekend. She hadn’t been prepared for how far they would hike into camp and by the time they got to the remote spot she had open blisters bleeding inside her new boots. Before they could even get their tents up, it had started to rain in cold, drenching sheets that turned the open field into a mudslide. The two guys she had been interested in had seemed more interested in getting really drunk and shooting their guns. The other two guys had come on pretty strong and made her a little afraid. The slutty girl had hooked up with one or both of them on the second night, leaving her and Kyle huddled together over his little propane stove to warm up some water for Ramen.
He had been a perfect gentleman and made her not only feel less afraid, but also less ridiculous for not knowing how to do anything. She had brought a can of baked beans but had forgotten to bring an opener. He shared his Ramen and gave up his waterproof sleeping bag so she could be more comfortable. Fran never would have considered his type before that night, but she thought it was a sign. Everything that had happened to bring them together on that fateful weekend seemed too unlikely to just be happenstance. It must have been in God’s plan for her.
Fran steeped her tea and sat down at the table opposite Riley. He seemed to know she didn’t like him because he didn’t do what he did with most of the others, which was to launch into some little interesting factoid about Houze or his degree program. He just gave her a close-lipped smile, took a sip of tea, and continued to stare out the window. Did he not think she was smart enough to talk to or did he just think she was a bitch? She would win him over, she decided.
“So, what is bioengineering, exactly?” she asked. “I mean I sort of know what it means but it’s a pretty broad field. What part of it are you interested in?”
“You really want to know? Okay. I’m interested in ways the human body can be improved or augmented with technology.”
“Oh, like a robotic hand?”
“Yeah, that’s one example. There’s been some success there, but the results are uneven. It turns out that the fine motor skills we take for granted are really hard to achieve and most people find the prosthetic too clumsy to be of any real value.”
“So what area are you interested in then?” Fran asked after taking another sip of her tea.
“I’m interested in the brain and how to hack it.”
“Isn’t that more like neuroscience?”
“It involves neuroscience because it requires an understanding of the brain, but it’s different because it involves using an engineered solution to disrupt a cognitive process.”
Fran could see that Riley was tuning up for a lecture. If they had been in the outside world at a cocktail party, she would have found some excuse to escape, but here she was resigned to having to hear him out. It wasn’t so bad. Maybe she’d learn something she could use. Fran smiled and nodded at Riley, encouraging him to proceed.
“I mean, take a neurodegenerative disease like Parkinson’s,” Riley said. “There’s a treatment called deep brain stimulation that’s been successful in completely removing some of the horrible symptoms of the disease like uncontrollable tremors and stiffness. The treatment involves a tiny electrode surgically implanted deep in the brain and hooked up to a device that can generate a steady pulse of electricity at a frequency that disrupts the signals that are causing the erratic loss of motor control.”
“I think I’ve heard of that before. Is that something you’re working on?”
“No, but it’s inspired by that work,” Riley said. “I want to figure out how a similar technique could address mental health disorders.”
“I see,” Fran said, genuinely interested at this point. “What kinds of disorders? You mean like deviant behaviors?”
Riley made a face at this, his brow furrowing and his lips stiffening into a frown. What had she said to offend him? After an uncomfortable silence, he asked, “What do you mean by deviant behaviors?”
“Uh… I wasn’t thinking about anything specific. I was just trying to understand what types of um, disorders you would be trying to treat…”
“Generally, the word deviant isn’t used anymore because it implies some moral judgment. It’s like saying that a person is good or bad because they feel or act a certain way.”
“Well, I think some things are good or bad, right?” Fran asked. “I mean, someone who has an urge to molest children is probably bad. What’s wrong with calling that deviant behavior?”
“Pedophilia is a criminal offense and someone who commits such a crime likely has a mental illness, but I don’t think pedophiles are the only group most people are thinking of when they use the word deviant.”
There’s an extended silence after Riley’s statement and Fran can’t maintain eye contact with him. She feels a strong urge to try to fill the silence, to backtrack into safer territory, but she can’t find words that won’t make her sound like she’s admitting guilt or worse, trying to lie to cover up her true beliefs. It’s not her job to teach this person about God’s plan. In her teens and early twenties, she had been naïve enough to get into debates with a lost soul, but those days were behind her. Live and let live was her philosophy at this stage of life. She worked with gays and could be friendly, even social, laughing at their bawdy jokes and flamboyance but that didn’t change the fact that they were deviants and would not have a place in heaven. It was not her job to save them or even to point out that they were choosing a life where they would not know God’s love but instead, the eternal fire. It was too sad to contemplate and at some point, she had learned to shut it off. It was the only way to operate in a world of sin.
Fran took another sip of her tea. Riley cleared his throat and pushed back from the table. “I’m gonna go and have my break outside now.”
“Okay, sounds good!” Fran chirped, looking up from her mug and smiling hard.
Riley moved quickly, knocking the chair over as he was trying to make his way to the door. He picked it up and pushed it back under the table and then exited through the front door. The few seconds of outside air that whooshed in every time one of them left Houze was like a cleansing breath filling the entire small space with a reminder that there was a world beyond the smell of their collective body odor barely masked by the signature fragrance of Houze.
That could have gone better, Fran thought but then what did it matter if Riley liked her or not? She’d spent her whole life trying to be liked, worrying about being liked.
“Didn’t he go out once already today?” Deepu asked, looking up from his notebook.
“How should I know?” Fran said.
“He likes taking a couple of little breaks rather than one long one,” Jayden said, not looking away from the entertainment screen.
“Sounds like the two of you bonded,” Deepu said, smirking.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Fran said. “Besides, we were having a private conversation.”
“There are no private conversations here.”
“You’re right about that,” Fran said, standing from the table and taking her mug to the sink to rinse it out.
Deepu joined Fran in the kitchen. He opened the small refrigerator and retrieved a cardboard container that had his leftovers from lunch. He opened the carton, sat down at the table, and picked up the remaining half of an avocado and cheese sandwich.
“You know why you pissed him off right?” he asked with his mouth full of sandwich.
“Oh, I’m not sure he was pissed off, was he?” Fran said. “I mean, I know it was awkward but…”
“Um, yeah he was legit pissed off. You all but called him deviant.”
“I did not! I said no such thing,” Fran said, turning from the sink to face Deepu.
“Maybe not, but you were thinking it so hard Cam probably heard you in the shower.”
“So what? Now we’re all guilty for things we think?”
“Hey, I’m just stating a fact. Whether you said it or thought it, you pissed him off. Probably hurt his feelings.”
“So, what if I did? I’m not the first person who thinks what he is… is… unnatural. I mean if God had intended her to be a him, he would have made it so. C’mon, you’re telling me that your people are okay with the whole trans thing?”
Deepu stopped chewing and gave her a withering stare. He shook his head slowly. “What the fuck are you talking about when you say, my people? Who do you think my people are exactly?”
Fran felt all the blood from her body rush into her face. She swallowed hard. What in the hell was wrong with her? She hated to say the wrong thing and she really hated to make other people uncomfortable and yet here she was two for two in less than five minutes. She struggled to push through her embarrassment so she could begin to formulate an apology when Deepu broke into a smile and chuckled.
“Dude, I so fuckin’ had you going! You thought I was going to be all upset thinking you’re a racist,” he said. He then half stood from his chair and leaned forward, dropping his voice to a conspiratorial level. “I’m all about freedom to be who you wanna be, but Riley,” he sucked air in through his perfect teeth, “kind of a tool if you ask me.”
Fran felt the endorphin rush of instant relief, like that feeling when a cop puts his lights on right behind you on the interstate and then pulls around you to pursue someone else. “You’re such a jerk!” she squealed and shoved Deepu back into his chair.
She pulled out a chair and sat down across from him. He was handsome, striking even. She’d noticed that right away in the orientation. He wasn’t exactly her type. She’d never dated anyone ethnic like him, but that was the old Fran. Anything was possible. At the very least, she had a kindred spirit in Deepu. He wasn’t some politically correct snowflake. He was practical. He knew how to operate in the world. That was a phrase her father had used a lot to describe anyone he admired. While her mother was a demurring woman of faith, always the first to volunteer at church, her father was loud and confident, a career military man.
“You like the food?” she asked him, gesturing to the carton in front of him.
“It’s fuel,” he said. “I’ve had worse. It’s hard to mess up a sandwich. So, seriously, what’s your deal? It’s none of my business but are you like super religious or something? Is that what bothers you about Riley?”
“What does that even mean, super religious? You make it sound like a disease or something. I believe in God and the holy trinity. I believe there are consequences to the choices we make in this life. What do you believe?”
“I believe in God too, I guess… but not like your God. My family’s Hindu but I don’t really practice or anything.”
“Hmm, I confess I don’t really know much about your faith. You’re Indian or Pakistani, right?”
“Indian. American really, probably as much as you are. And hey, let me just say, for your own political survival, you need to say less when you’re not sure about something. India and Pakistan— very different places. If you called my Uncle Pakistani, it would not go well.”
“I’ll remember that when you take me home to meet your folks,” Fran said, flashing a smile.
“So, what are you, like Mexican or Spanish?” Deepu said. “I’m kidding. Sort of.”
“My Dad’s Mexican but my mom’s Irish Catholic, born and raised in Jersey.”
“So, half immigrant as opposed to full immigrant like me.”
“I guess we’re all immigrants, right? It’s just a question of where and when. I kind of felt like an immigrant but only when I stayed with my dad.”
“Wow, so your parents are divorced. I wouldn’t have expected that, being Catholic and all. Isn’t that not allowed or something?”
“No, my Dad died when I was twelve.” Fran noticed a change in Deepu’s face. “What? What is it?”
“Nothing. It’s just I lost both my parents at the same age. They would never have divorced though.”
Fran wanted to know so much more but was afraid to ask. She had already overreached enough for one day.
“Yeah,” was all she said in response.
She knew firsthand how other people’s well-meaning sympathy felt. It was never more than a thin disguise for their morbid curiosity.
They sat in silence after that, lost in their thoughts. Fran wondered if Deepu was thinking about his parents or if he was thinking about her. Did he like her? Did he find her attractive? Stupid. It doesn’t matter. That’s not why you’re here. You need to stay focused on the game. But what’s wrong with a little entertainment? What’s the harm in being distracted? The monotony of the days here would soon drive her crazy without some fantasy or other to keep her mind occupied.
“I think I’m going to go outside and take my break before it rains,” Deepu said, pushing back from the table.
“You want some company?” Fran asked.
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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: