Harmony House: Episode 16
“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, the founders of FutureAbode, Scott and Chris Jenson were enjoying a relaxing evening with their significant others as they casually watched the latest episode of Houze and commented on the pros and cons of the show and it’s declining ratings. Their evening was interrupted when Scott discovered that all the major systems in Houze were down. What they didn’t know is that the six contestants were stranded outside of the structure soaking wet as the temperature dropped to hypothermia inducing levels.
“It’s almost three miles back to the command center I think, but I don’t remember exactly how we got here. Does anybody else?”
The others looked at Riley and shook their heads before all eyes in their huddle turned to Jessie. The rain was picking up again. Their clothes were soaked. Most of them were actively shivering, their arms vibrating against one another.
“Don’t look at me,” he said in response. “I wasn’t paying attention any more than the rest of you on the ride out here. I know it’s that direction, but I couldn’t tell you where the trail picks up, especially in the dark.”
“Well damn,” Fran said through chattering teeth. “If you don’t know how to get us out of here then we’re screwed.”
“There’s only a couple of options, right?” Cam said. “We either break into the house or we try to make it to the command center. If we stay out here in the open, we’ll catch our death.”
“You’re right about that,” Jessie said. “We should try the most obvious option first before we take bigger risks.”
“So, we try to break in,” Riley said. “Are you thinking by force or some other way?”
“We’ll have to try both,” Jessie answered. “Why don’t you guys search around the field for some large rocks while me and Riley look into overriding the door lock?”
The group divided, Jessie and Riley, going back to inspect the door while the others dispersed in the surrounding field, their bodies hunched forward following the throw of light from their phones. They looked like rovers on the surface of Mars searching for samples to collect. Had any of them ever taken an Anthropology 101 course at some point, they would have known that there would be no large rocks in this field. It was land that had been meticulously cleared of large rocks for more than two hundred years as they were not conducive to plowing and turning over soil. But they searched on, glad to have some purpose.
“It’s not looking good,” Riley said, squinting as he closely inspected the frame of the door, trying to understand the locking mechanism. “I don’t see any way to get at this thing. It’s like a car window, sealed tight.”
“Yeah, we’re going to have to bust in more than likely… and…” Jessie ran his fingers along the seam of the large glass door. “Even that’s going to be tough. This tempered glass is super thick and might even be bullet-proof.”
One by one the others returned to join them, all of them empty handed except Cam who presented a walnut-sized piece of quartz. Jessie looked at it and shook his head.
“That won’t do it,” he said.
“So, it’s option two then,” Jayden said. “We walk out of here.”
“Yup, that’s about the only plan I’ve got,” Jessie answered.
“Well let’s not fuck around here any longer,” Deepu said. “It’s that way, right?”
He didn’t wait for Jessie to nod before he started in the direction they all remembered coming in that first night. The others fell in behind Deepu. Fran locked arms with Cam. Riley followed behind them. Jayden hung back a beat, waiting for Jessie to bring up the rear. The six trudged through the tall grass, their wet pants plastered to their legs, their shirts soaked and clinging to their goose-pimpled torsos.
At the edge of the forest, they paused just under the canopy where it was only slightly drier. Jessie turned and looked back, expecting to see the glowing cube of Houze, but it was gone. Could the rain be so hard as to make it invisible from this distance? But then he spotted it. Its silhouette was a small, chiseled notch on the curve of the high meadow. Without its illumination, it was more an obstacle than a beacon. He was about to comment on the extinguished light but thought better of it.
He wasn’t particularly worried. Jessie had spent many nights alone in the elements. He was accustomed to the feeling of smallness and a sense of one’s insignificance in the natural world. In fact, it’s something he had always sought out at points in his life when the illusion of his importance clouded his vision.
But he was worried about the others. He turned and followed Jayden. The rain was still coming down like icy needles. The group had stopped in the middle of a small clearing in the woods. Jessie looked around but didn’t see what he had expected to see, the old forestry service road they had ridden up on. He was trying to recall the route. Was it all on a single gravel road or had they turned at some point and navigated along a path through the trees? He realized he had paid no attention because he was a passenger, just taking it all in.
“Does anyone remember the road? Wasn’t it right here? Was it more of a dirt track leading up to the field?” he asked.
He understood too late as he looked around at the others that it was a mistake to ask the question. They were expecting him to have all the answers. He was the elder here. He was their wilderness guide. Deepu and Riley spoke at once and canceled each other out. Deepu, certain of the road, Riley recalled a trail.
They were in it now. Jessie was not a leader. He had spent his life avoiding this responsibility. He knew himself. He worked best alone. But there was no choice here as he looked at the faces of the others, their eyes wide, their wet hair clinging to their skulls. They appeared as children, helpless and shivering, wanting someone to tell them what they should do.
“Alright, I know there was a forestry road. We took it for most of the way up. We had been going too fast for it to have been a trail,” he said.
“Well, where is the fucking road?” Deepu asked.
“It would’ve ended at the field. My guess is when you set out for what you thought was the opening for it in the trees, you were wrong,” Jessie said.
“So, we go find the right opening then,” Riley said.
“Yeah, that’s correct,” Jessie said.
He turned and started back out to the field without waiting for the others to agree or disagree. He knew his role now and he accepted it. There was no room for anything but confidence and certainty. He tried not to be distracted by the numbness of his toes as he tromped back through the twenty yards of wet underbrush. He wished he hadn’t worn flip-flops. For someone who prided himself in always being prepared, he was woefully unprepared at this moment, and it made him very angry.
Back under the open sky, the rain was more intense, and he had to squint to see anything beyond a few feet in front of him. He could feel the others close behind. He looked right and then left trying to get his bearings. His instinct told him they should go to the left, but he couldn’t be sure. Rather than sit still and debate, he started trudging through the tall grass with the open field and Houze to his right. He looked closely for signs of an improvised track through the field or an unnatural gap in the tree line that would indicate the road.
After walking at least a hundred yards to no sign of the road he began to question his instinct to come this way. Why wasn’t there an easily discernable track through the grass? The rain and darkness made it impossible.
“Hey, are you sure this is right?” Cam yelled from somewhere behind him.
“The opening for the road is somewhere along the tree line,” Riley answered. “We just have to keep walking until we find it.”
Jessie was glad not to have to answer and show his irritation and uncertainty. He kept moving at a quick clip, his eyes scanning back and forth.
“Jessie, where’s the house?” Jayden asked.
“It’s over there,” he said gesturing to his right without slowing. “The lights went out, but it’s there.”
“Why did the lights go out?” she asked.
“Hell, I don’t know but we don’t need to worry about that right now. It’s not going to save us.”
Finally, Jessie saw what he had been hoping for, an obvious break in the trees that meant a road. When they reached it, he felt a sense of relief. They huddled at its mouth, at the edge of the field.
“What are we waiting for, let’s go,” Deepu said.
“I’m just trying to get my bearings,” Jessie said. “There might be more than one road.”
He looked back out at the field trying to see where Houze was in relation to them. This felt too far to the east, but he couldn’t tell without being able to see which side of Houze they were looking at in the dark. He stepped away from the huddle to look down the road into the near-black woods. It seemed narrower than he remembered it. He started walking. The others followed close behind.
After a few minutes of walking Jessie expected the road to become gravel and to widen. Most of these forestry roads were fairly well maintained even if rarely used. But the road didn’t become more obvious, in fact, it narrowed. After a few more paces it came to a fork. Not good. He had no recollection of turns they had made coming up that night.
“Well, this is great,” Cam said. “Which way do we go now?”
Jessie didn’t answer. He only sighed and pushed the wet hair back from his forehead.
“We just pick a direction and keep going. It is a road, it’s bound to lead us back to somewhere, right?” Riley said.
“Maybe, but maybe not,” Jessie said. “These are old logging roads. They may not lead to anywhere but deeper into the woods.”
“So, what do we do?” Jayden asked.
Jessie hated to hear the fear in her voice and wanted to have a ready answer that would make her less afraid. He had an answer, but it wasn’t one any of them would like. People’s instinct in this situation was always to take action, to keep moving. But when you’re lost, that’s the wrong thing to do unless you're threatened by some immediate mortal danger.
“We stay here,” he said, turning to face the others.
“What!” they said in unison.
“We stay put and find a way to keep warm until morning,” he said. “Striking out in what is likely the wrong direction will only get us more lost and further from rescue when they do come looking.”
There were some murmurs indicating agreement and nods from the others. Fran was quiet and just staring blankly ahead. She was not in a good place. Jessie feared the others would start going south too and he couldn’t afford that.
“Alright folks, we’re gonna be just fine. I’ve done this before so trust me. We need to improvise some kind of shelter and we need to work together to do that, okay?”
They all nodded.
“Okay, let’s break into two groups and look for some material we can use. What we’re looking for is a fallen tree or a large outcropping of rocks. If we can’t find either of those, we’re looking for some smaller, downed trees that have fallen at an angle, maybe hung up in another tree. Cam, you and Fran come with me. Riley, you take Jayden and Deepu. You’ll need to go off the road to find what we’re looking for but don’t stray too far from it. Whistle repeatedly if you find something good and we’ll make our way over to you. If we find a good option, we’ll whistle for you to come find us. Everybody good with that?”
Deepu opened his mouth like he was going to comment but then closed it and nodded. Riley set off down the right fork with Deepu and a reluctant Jayden. Jessie would have preferred to keep her and Riley close as he preferred their company, but he needed to keep Fran close. She was not doing well.
Once they had separated from the other group and stepped off the road, Jessie began giving specific directions. Instructing them to scan the forest floor for sheltering material. They were fortunate in that this was a densely wooded area with lots of pine trees which meant lots of deadfall that could be easily broken apart and assembled. If it wasn’t so dark and raining, Jessie could have built a small cabin in a couple of hours and loved every minute of it.
In short order, he found a downed tree that had gotten hung up in the branches of another tree. It was not rotted but stable, and the angle was perfect for improvising a shelter. He was about to give instructions to Cam and Fran when he heard whistling and shouting from the other group. Jessie was slightly annoyed, certain that whatever the other group found was not going to be as good. But there was no time to debate.
They followed the sound of the others, making their way back across the road and into the woods on the other side. After a minute of picking their way through the underbrush, they saw the other group huddling in front of a large bolder at the bottom of a shallow ravine. It was perfect. Jessie was relieved.
“This is great!” he shouted. “Good work. Okay, let’s divide and conquer so we can get this done. Jayden, can you and Fran clear away all the rocks and debris from here under this ledge? We want an area big enough for the group to huddle together. Once it’s cleared, gather up dead leaves and scatter them there to create some padding and insulation.”
They set to work without hesitation, happy for something to focus on. The bolder was massive and looked like the prow of a ship poking out of the ground. It created a natural shelter, not as good as a cave, but better than Jessie had hoped for.
“What should we do?” Cam asked.
“Let’s look in the immediate area for tree limbs that are small enough to drag here and can be broken into poles. We need to create a wall here between the top of this bolder and the ground,” Jessie said gesturing to make his point.
The rain continued to come down relentlessly, but they worked fast, Jessie giving instructions as he began to assemble the shelter. It was coming together quickly with everyone pitching in. He was pleased to discover an important material he had not expected to find. Some old vines creeping up a nearby tree worked well as cordage to bind the logs together that Riley and Cam were bringing to him. He showed them how to lever the larger branches they hauled back between two nearby tree trunks and break them.
Within half an hour they had a wall of logs standing up against the rock and the shelter was enclosed. As he was binding it with the vines, he told them to go and look for large patches of moss, telling them to scrape it up and roll it like turf. After a few minutes Riley, Cam, and Jayden returned with armfuls of it. Jessie instructed them how to drape it over the pitch of the wall and how to work it into the spaces between the logs.
“Yeah, just pack it in there. Jam the muddy roots between the poles. Bring as much as you can. When we get the surface area covered, we want to put a layer of wet leaves over it,” he said.
Fran was crouched inside the shelter hugging her knees. Deepu was trying to comfort her. That was good, better to have him tending to her. They had enough help with the construction. Jessie continued to fill the gaps in the improvised roof with smaller branches and globs of mud. He was able to find some pine tree bows with lots of needles left on them, so he draped them on top. Anything they could add to slow down the rain and keep out the wind was critical.
Twenty minutes later, they were all huddled under the shelter. It was wet and still cold but not as wet and cold as they would have been without it. They were packed in tightly and the heat from their breath and bodies gave the smallest promise of warmth. Being out of the wind and the rain was a huge improvement. Rather than sheets of it pelting down on them, just a few icy drops managed to filter through the layers they had assembled.
“We need to try to dry out our clothes, right?” Cam said. “I mean, as much as possible. We can’t keep any warmth we generate if our clothes are soaked.”
“Good idea,” Deepu said through chattering teeth. “Let’s just pop them in the dryer.”
“I’m serious,” Cam said, disregarding Deepu. “I’ve watched my share of survival shows. If someone falls into an icy lake the first thing you do is strip off their wet clothes, right, Jessie?”
“Yeah, it could help, but we don’t have any ability to make fire to dry things out.”
“Well, I’m not going to be shy and y’all shouldn’t either,” Cam said, beginning to skin off his t-shirt. “We need to combine our warmth and the wet clothes are blocking it.”
Jessie, who was nearest the small opening of their shelter moved back a bit to make room for Cam to wiggle out of his pants. The frigid rain needled into his lower back, and he shivered. Jessie could hear some of the others beginning to struggle out of their clothes too. He could not see anyone’s faces except for Cam and Jayden who were nearest to him. He quickly removed his shirt and squatted to shimmy out of his pants, grateful he’d worn underwear.
“Okay campers,” Cam said, “I’m gonna get close now, it’s not like I wanna marry you or anything.”
There were some mumbles of consent, and someone giggled as Cam opened his arms and wrapped them around the bodies closest to his. Jessie hung back for a moment, the cold rain stinging his bare back, but then Jayden reached out and grabbed his hand. She pulled him into the warmth of the group.
They stayed like this for a few minutes, just breathing as waves of tremors rippled through their collective organism of interlaced arms. Jayden’s hand rubbed urgent circles on Jessie's wet back.
“You’re freezing,” she said. “It’s not fair for you to be the one in front of the door. We should take turns.”
“It’s okay,” he said. “I’m fine.”
“Jayden’s right,” Cam said. “We need a better plan. Here, I’m gonna lay down on my side with my feet to the door. Fran, you get in front of me, and Jayden, you lay behind me. We’ll create a spoon train. It’s the best way to share the heat from our cores and no one person is stuck by the door.”
There was some shuffling in the dark as they struggled in the wet leaves to assemble as Cam had directed. Deepu tucked himself in front of Fran. Only Jessie and Riley remained crouched. Jessie noticed Riley was still fully dressed. He forgot all about his awkwardness in this situation and felt horrible for his friend. Unsure of the right thing to do, he lingered, wanting Riley to choose who his spoon mate would be, but Riley didn’t move.
“Oh my God, soooo much better,” Fran said. “What are you guys waiting for?”
Jessie was relieved to hear her voice. It had been a while since she’d spoken. He waited for Riley to answer or make a move, but Riley didn’t move. Jessie wanted nothing more than to go and tuck himself in behind Jayden but that seemed selfish. Just as he was about to fall on the sword and take the position in front of Deepu, Deepu spoke.
“C’mon dude, get in here,” he said, gesturing to Riley.
“I’m uh, fine here,” Riley said.
“No, you’re not man, I can see you shivering from here,” Deepu said. “Take off your wet clothes and get over here.”
“I don’t want to take off my clothes,” Riley said, his voice barely audible.
“We’re all friends here. Nobody’s trying to hook up. We’re just trying to survive,” Fran said. “Just take off your damned clothes and stop being such a snowflake.”
“I don’t want to take off my clothes,” Riley said again, this time his voice breaking.
There was an awkward silence. The wind picked up outside. They could hear it pushing around their little shelter, taking off stray leaves and branches. Their collective breathing seemed so loud, each of them shuddering in the cold. Finally, Deepu broke the silence.
“Hey, it’s cool. It’s alright, come get in here next to me. Leave your clothes on. I guarantee you’ll be warmer.”
Riley hesitated momentarily but then crawled into the space in front of Deepu. Jessie was sure Riley’s wet clothes were shockingly cold against Deepu’s naked body, but he embraced him and said nothing. Jessie was always happy when people proved him wrong. He wanted to believe people were better than what they showed most of the time.
He crouched and stepped around to the back of the spoon train and tucked himself in behind Jayden. The softness and warmth of her body were transcendent and for a few seconds, he just luxuriated in the intimacy. It was the strangest confluence of sensations on his body, the wet leaves and earth beneath him, Jayden’s warm flesh against him, the splash of rain on his feet, and the cold air to his back. He shuddered, partly from the cold and partly from childlike exhilaration, overwhelmed by the feeling. Overwhelmed by feeling in general. It had been so long since he felt anything. Jayden pressed her back into him and reached around for his hand. Finding it, she pulled it around to her breast.
The six housemates lay curled into one another like some human centipede beneath a boulder in the woods as the world outside threatened to tear itself apart. They shivered as one, they breathed as one. The former, with longer intervals, the latter growing more regular and even.
We really are animals, Jessie thought. We draw comfort just from the proximity of our bodies.
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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: