It Was a Cold, Dark, Stormy Night
Harmony House: Episode 14
“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.
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In the last episode, Jessie, grappling with the unexpected tranquility of his housemates and the lack of drama in Houze, finds himself surprisingly at ease with their presence. His overnight stay in the loft with Jayden, initially marked by caution and distance, evolves into an unexpectedly tender and emotionally revealing experience. Jessie confronts his grief over the loss of his son Mickey, sharing this intimate sorrow with Jayden. This encounter brings a sense of relief and human connection to Jessie, contrasting with his usual isolation.
It was dark.
Heavy weather had rolled in during the late afternoon, the gusts of wind buffeting their little vessel made the metal shell around them creak and the seal around the door whistle sympathetically. When the rain came, it pounded down on the glass and solar panels like a million finishing nails. At some point, it was mixed with hail which was so loud the six contestants could not hear each other speak without shouting.
Sometime after eight o’clock, all the power in Houze winked out once, twice, and after the third time, it didn’t come back on. Their personal devices were useful only in their capacity to be awkward flashlights because, with no power, there was no satellite dish, and with no dish, there was no connection to the outside world.
The assault of rain had retreated, and the house was not just quiet, but completely silent in the absence of all its major systems humming in the background.
“Well, this is just great,” Fran said from her seat in the corner of the couch. “What are we going to do?”
“I don’t understand. How can the power go out?” Cam said. “Wasn’t the big selling point of this place to be off the grid? Isn’t there some kind of backup generator thing-a-ma-jig?”
“The whole system is basically a backup generator,” Riley said. He was standing near the door and the light from his phone cast his face in stark shadow relief.
“It’s going to come back on, right? There’s gotta be some kind of auto-reset or something,” Cam said standing up from where he had been seated at the table next to Jayden.
“Not necessarily,” Jessie chimed in, his raspy baritone coming out of the pitch-dark hallway to the bedroom and startling everyone. “But they’ve probably got an alert system, so we won’t be stuck for long.”
“Well, it’s been over two hours,” Cam said. “So, I’m not holding my breath.”
“Someone’s got to do something!” Fran insisted. “Doesn’t one of you know how to fix it?”
“Oh sure,” Riley said. “Let me just jump outside and take a look. Oh wait, I can’t go outside unless I want to be disqualified.”
“But aren’t these extenuating circumstances?” Fran asked. “None of us would let you get kicked out if it came to that.”
“Yeah, I don’t know about that,” Riley replied before switching off his phone and plunging the house into darkness again. “I think I’ll just stay in here and wait it out with everybody else.”
“Oh my God, it’s so dark,” Jayden said. “Shouldn’t we keep at least one of our phones on?”
“They’re useless,” Jessie said. “Give it a minute. Your eyes will adjust, and it’ll be better.”
It was quiet after that. They sat in the complete darkness alone together as their pupils dilated. Every sound, no matter how small took on theatrical proportions in the small space. The whisper of Jayden’s tracksuit pants rubbing together as she crossed her legs. Fran’s exasperated sigh, for once not intended to telegraph her displeasure to the world, but simply a tiny release valve for her sanity. The furtive crackle, like a small animal creeping through dead leaves of Jessie scratching his beard. The syncopated drumming of Cam’s fingertips on the kitchen countertop as he worked through fingerings for ukulele tunes.
Gradually shapes began to emerge out of the ink. The large portal of the picture window skylight in the living room faded to a smoky blue-black. There was no moon and the cloud cover from the earlier storm had not broken apart to reveal any stars.
“Where’s Deepu?” Fran asked.
She hadn’t yelled her inquiry, but her voice startled everyone out of their inner narratives. No one responded right away.
“I thought he was next to you on the couch,” Cam said.
“No, he’s not,” Fran said. “I haven’t seen him since before the storm.”
“He’s probably in the bathroom,” Jessie offered, turning in that direction. “I’ll check. Nope, he’s not in there.”
“Well, where is he?” Riley asked, feeling his way along the wall toward Jessie. “I’ll check the bedroom.”
Riley fumbled around Jessie and made his way into the bedroom where he began to ascend the ladder. “Deepu, you up here?”
There was no response. Reaching the top, Riley could see by the ambient glow from the skylight that no one was in the bed. Halfway back down the ladder, he thought he heard something in the darkness in the nook below the bed. He paused in his descent to listen. After a few seconds, there was the unmistakable sound of a sniffle. Riley stepped down to the floor and moved slowly, arms outstretched like a blind person anticipating where the small desk was.
“Deepu?” he asked the darkness, his voice, little more than a whisper. “That you?”
No response. There was the faint rustling of fabric followed by another sniffle, but it was not coming from the desk. It was lower, under the desk. Riley pulled his phone out of his pocket and got down on his knees.
“Deepu? You okay?” he asked before turning the screen on from his phone.
It lit up the entire compartment under the desk in a painful lightbulb flash of whiteness. Through squinted eyes, Riley saw Deepu crouched in the corner under the desk, arms wrapped around his knees with his head down. He was trembling so violently that Riley could feel the vibrations through the floor.
“Sh, sh sh shut it off,” Deepu pleaded.
The easy, bro swagger of his voice was gone, stripped away like a veneer of cheap paint, revealing the voice of a child. Riley shut off his phone. He inched a little closer, reaching out his hand in the darkness.
“You find him?” Jessie’s voice boomed into the bedroom.
Deepu jolted, his arms flailing out, his head bumping up against the underside of the desk. He yelped like a cornered animal, reminding Riley of a time as a kid when he found an injured chipmunk in the toolshed.
“Yes,” Riley hissed. “Give us a minute.”
Jessie grumbled and Riley heard him step back out into the hallway. He continued to extend his hand until it bumped into Deepu’s shin.
“Sorry, Deepu,” he whispered. “Everyone’s worried about you. You alright?”
“Shhh… stay down. Be quiet…”
“Why, what is it?” Riley asked.
“He’s gonna get me… oh my God, he’s gonna…”
“Hey, I’m not sure what you’re talking about Deepu. But you’re okay. It’s okay. We just lost power is all.”
“No no no no no no… I can’t, I can’t…”
“Shhhh, it’s okay. Alright it’s okay. Just calm down. It’s just me, Riley. You remember me?”
Deepu’s words devolved into a panicked stream of whispered gibberish. Was he speaking Hindi because it wasn’t English? Riley didn’t need a translator to know what Deepu was saying though. Clearly, he was scared half to death, and he was having a break from reality. Riley had experienced such panic once before in his life, but he at least knew where he was. He wasn’t qualified to deal with this, better to get one of the others. He turned to go do just that when Deepu’s hand shot out and grabbed his wrist. His hand was cold and slick with sweat. His grip was like a drowning man’s.
“Hey, ouch, let go. I’m here, but you gotta loosen your grip,” Riley said.
Deepu’s grip relaxed a bit, but he didn’t let go. Instead, he pulled Riley closer to him, into the aura of his ripe body odor. It was the smell of fear. The smell of an animal in a trap. The smell of fight or flight. All animals release a kind of pheromone when put in life-threatening circumstances. It was a biological response from the reptile brain, utterly useless to modern homo sapiens. But this knowledge didn’t stop the fear from being transferred to Riley like the transmission of a virus and soon he felt his pulse pounding in his throat. He felt like the little girl he used to be, confused, powerless, and terrified. But he quickly, rationally tamped that down. He was Riley. He was a smart, capable, powerful, man. He took two deep breaths. He was okay. This was someone else’s nightmare, not his this time. He rocked back off his knees and into a more comfortable sitting position, understanding that he would likely be here for a while.
“Did something happen? Are you hurt?” Riley asked.
Deepu did not respond but Riley sensed some movement and thought maybe he was shaking his head.
“Do you wanna talk about it?”
Again, no response, but Riley’s eyes had adjusted, and he could make out the faint silhouette of Deepu’s head shaking back and forth. They sat there in the dark, huddled under the desk like two little kids. Deepu’s breathing started to normalize, and he was no longer shaking. In the other room, Riley could hear the others talking in hushed tones, likely speculating on what was wrong with Deepu. The strong smell of his body odor was starting to make Riley feel sick to his stomach, but he shoved that down. His mild discomfort was nothing compared to whatever terror Deepu had been experiencing. He tried to remember all the times compassion had been shown to him even in his most miserable states of which there had been many throughout his transition.
By degrees, Riley felt the tension ratchet down like a winch unwinding a steel cable, and Deepu’s body became slack.
“What happened? What did I do?” Deepu asked.
“Um, you didn’t do anything. I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Why’s it so dark?”
“We lost power. Don’t you remember the storm?” Riley asked.
“Storm? Yeah, yeah. It was raining, hard. Did I um… did I like freak out?”
“Uh… kind of? But nothing bad happened. We just didn’t know where you were.”
“Fuck. I’m uh… I have this thing about being in the dark. Not like normal dark in a movie theater, but like real dark. It hasn’t happened for a really long time. So fucking embarrassing.”
“You don’t have to explain. It’s okay. It’s a little scary out here in the dark. You’re not alone.”
“Did I… say anything crazy? Cause if I did…”
“No,” Riley said. “You didn’t say anything crazy and even if you did, I wouldn’t tell anyone.”
“Why are you being so nice to me?” Deepu asked.
“I don’t know. I guess it seemed wrong to be any other way. You seem pretty upset.”
“Sorry for what?” Riley asked.
“I’ve been kind of an asshole to you.”
“It’s alright. You ready to go out and join the others?” Riley asked, delicately extracting his hand from Deepu’s grip and beginning to move away.
“Yeah, but hey, what did I say before when I was, um, out of it?”
“Not much, you just seemed really afraid, like someone was trying to get you. You wanted me to be quiet. It’s like you were hiding from someone.”
Deepu sighed deeply. “Okay, but that was it? That’s all you heard?”
“Yeah, yeah that was it.”
“Okay, thanks. Again.”
“No problem,” Riley said. After a pause, he added, “If you ever need to talk about anything, I’m a good listener.”
“Thanks, but really, I’m cool,” Deepu said, his voice regaining the swagger that Riley found so repellent.
He accepted this but felt compelled to add one last thought before turning to leave. “You know, there was this lady I used to see. She helped me work out a lot of stuff. One thing that she said really stuck with me. She said, ‘It’s the things we keep locked away in the dark that keep us from being free.’”
“Yeah,” Deepu said, his tone flat.
He didn’t get it. He probably wasn’t ready. That was okay. Riley remembered that time before, that feeling of not being ready. That feeling of knowing something was coming but not being ready for it. It was like being sick to your stomach and knowing that you’d soon be hugging the toilet bowl and hurling the contents of your stomach into it, but for some reason, you just fought it off as long as possible. Why do we do that? Did anyone ever feel worse after throwing up?
Moving out into the hallway and back into the living room was like coming out of a cave. Riley could make out his four other housemates, see the whites of their eyes, the flash of their teeth.
“Everything alright?” Cam asked when Riley took a seat next to him on the couch.
“Yeah, everything’s fine. I think he just fell asleep then woke up and didn’t know where he was with all this craziness.”
The answer seemed to satisfy Cam and the others nodded sympathetically. Did any of them wake up the last few days and not feel more than a little out of sorts?
“Okay, I really have to pee now,” Fran said.
“Like I said before,” Jessie responded. “You’re welcome to step outside and do your business.”
“But you know I’ve already used my time today,” Fran said, her voice full of irritation.
“Sooner or later, we’re all going to have to go,” Cam said. “I mean, we’re going to have to figure something out.”
“Now that you mention it, I kind of have to go to,” Jayden said.
“Okay, so we’re all adults here, let’s figure something out,” Cam said. “All the power’s out so there’s no surveillance. We should be fine to pop outside, take a wee and pop back in.”
“There’s no surveillance that you know of,” Jessie said. “Those cameras out in the field could still have power.”
“And maybe this is actually a deliberate tactic,” Riley suggested. “A chance to test us and thin the herd.”
“You are both half-full kind of guys, aren’t you?” Jayden said.
“I say we all go,” Deepu said, his voice emerging from the hallway behind Jessie and surprising them all.
“What?” Jessie asked.
“I mean, if we all go out together at the same time, we all take the same risk. What are they going to do if they do catch us, end the contest with no winner? That wouldn’t make for a very good show.”
“Well look at you,” Jessie said, clapping Deepu on the back. “A budding anarchist. Five short days in the woods and he’s come around.”
It took some fiddling, but Jessie was able to figure out how to manually slide the glass door open. A few minutes later all six Houze contestants were positioned
in a wide circle in the middle of the field, facing one another and squatting in the tall, rain-soaked grass. It was decided this was the only completely fair way to do things. If they could all see each other, no one could make a run for Houze and lock the others out. It was difficult for some to perform such a private function in such a public venue.
“C’mon Jayden! I’m soaked and freezing out here,” Fran yelled.
“I’m trying, stop looking at me!” Jayden called back.
Eventually, everyone had completed their business to varying degrees of satisfaction and as a group, they were headed back to their dwelling.
“Maybe we should look under the hood while we’re all out here,” Riley offered.
“What do you mean?” Cam asked.
“He means we go open up the systems closet and see if there’s a big on switch that’s flipped to the off position,” Jessie said.
They all agreed this was a good idea, so they moved around to the back of Houze and switched on the flashlights from their devices. Riley suspected there would surely be a lock preventing just anyone from gaining access, but he was both pleasantly and unpleasantly surprised to find it was unlocked. He popped out a recessed handle and the hydraulic door lifted to reveal the inner workings of Houze.
There was a large water reservoir and filtration system, a hot water heater, an HVAC unit with air filtration, and a humidifier. These were all fascinating to Riley and he could have studied them for hours, but they were not what he was looking for. With Jessie hovering over his shoulder, they shifted to the right of the closet and discovered the large housing for the backup battery which had two bundles of wire protruding from it. One bundle terminated into a small box that contained a circuit board. They leaned in with their flashlights to get a closer look.
“I’m a little out of my depth here, but this looks like the main circuit board for all the electrical systems,” Riley said.
“Yeah, it looks that way,” Jessie said. “But I think we’re looking for some kind of breaker box. Maybe it’s this other panel.”
Jessie reached over Riley’s shoulder and popped open the cover of the box where the other bundle of wires terminated. Inside there were two columns of switches and a master switch at the top.
“Heh, I guess you were right,” Riley said. “There is a big switch that’s flipped to the off position.”
“Yeah, the lightning must have created a surge that threw the main breaker. There doesn’t appear to be any other damage that I can see…” Jessie said, his voice trailing off as he squinted to inspect the panel closer.
“So, should we just flip the main breaker back on then?” Riley asked.
“Yeah, I don’t see why not,” Jessie said. “Here goes nothing.”
Jessie flipped the main breaker which made a satisfying click and kicked off a series of other events. The LEDs on the main circuit board began flashing asynchronously from red to green, and the water and air filtration systems whirred to life making both men take a step back to join the others. What immediately followed was a low electrical hum that amped up in pitch and volume becoming a whine that made Riley take some additional steps back. After a couple of seconds, the whine climaxed in a kathunk that filled the night with blinding light. There were cheers and whoops from everyone as they squinted their eyes in the otherworldly glow of light being restored to Houze.
“Amen!” Cam shouted. “I never thought I’d be so happy to go back inside our little cracker box.”
“Hey, didn’t we leave the door open?” Fran asked. She and Jayden had moved back around to the front of Houze.
“It probably closes automatically whenever the power is restored,” Riley offered.
Fran stepped up to the keypad by the door. She punched in the code. The keypad chimed be-de-be-de-be and the small LED flashed red. The door did not open. Fran punched in the code again, this time more deliberately. The keypad responded with the same error. The door did not open.
“Are you sure you put in the right code?” Jayden asked. “5-6-8-9, right?”
“Yeah, that’s what I entered,” Fran said. “You wanna try?”
Jayden stepped around her and tried the same code with no success. The others were now all gathered around the door peering at their reflection in the glass.
“Well, this is great,” Deepu said. “What the fuck do we do now?”
“Maybe there was a memory reset when we recycled the power…” Jessie said.
“…and that would mean the system defaults would be restored,” Riley interrupted. “Maybe try some typical defaults like 1-1-1-1 or 0-0-0-0?”
Jayden attempted both codes. The door did not open.
“It looks like the network’s not back either,” Cam said looking down at his phone. “What the fuck are we going to do? We can’t stay out here all night.”
“Well, we can’t exactly break the door in or throw a rock through the window,” Jessie said. “Let’s just stay calm and think this through.”
“Why aren’t they helping us here?” Jayden asked. “I mean shouldn’t they be monitoring everything?”
“That’s a great question,” Jessie said. “They should have been here hours ago. Maybe there was a larger power outage that affected the command center too.”
“But surely one of the people monitoring things would have hopped on an ATV to come out here and check on us. Isn’t that their job? I mean, aren’t we their priority?” Cam said.
“Not necessarily,” Jessie said. “They might have assumed we were good because Houze is supposed to be off the grid.”
“Yeah, I’m sure they wouldn’t have been excited about hopping on an ATV in the middle of that storm unless they thought we were in a critical condition,” Riley said.
“Well, it’s about to get really critical,” Fran said, clearly getting more agitated. “I’m freezing.”
Fran had gone outside wearing only a T-shirt and jeans. The others were similarly underdressed except for Cam who was wearing a sweater and a light windbreaker.
“It’s not going to get much colder though, right?” Deepu asked.
As if on cue, a gust of wind pushed across the open field carrying with it, thousands of icy water droplets from the tall grass and the trees at the edge of the field. The contestants shivered collectively, some massaging their bare arms to erase the needling sting of the cold rain. The wind didn’t die down but became a sustained force buffeting around them and causing the low-hanging fog to break apart into gauzy whisps and dissipate, revealing glimpses of stars like tiny chips of diamond in the inky blackness.
“It’s the time of year when the temperature can fluctuate by thirty degrees in a few hours,” Jessie said. “But that’s beside the point. It’s cold enough now for hypothermia to set in if we’re not careful.”
The six of them huddled shoulder to shoulder, their backs braced against the wind.
“So, how exactly do we be careful in this scenario,” Cam asked.
Jessie did not have an answer.
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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: