Harmony House: Episode 17
“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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Hi there. Chances are, if you’re here with me on episode 17 of “Harmony House,” you’re either a fan or you’ve been searching for a rehab center by the same name and are really confused and unreasonably persistent. If it’s the former and you are indeed a fan of this little story, I wanted to give you a heads-up that as of this week, the beginning episodes will start disappearing behind the paywall of the Catch & Release archive. So if you’ve been meaning to coax a friend to hop on board and try out “Harmony House,” for free, now’s the time.
In the last episode, the six contestants of Houze, locked out after a power outage from a big storm were forced to find a way to survive exposure to the elements. Cold and soaking wet, they built an improvised shelter under Jessie’s leadership. To keep from freezing, they stripped off their wet clothes and huddled together naked inside the shelter waiting for dawn and some hope of rescue.
Some of them might have experienced the faintest suggestion of sleep but it was not what any of them would ever call sleep. Constant awareness of one’s immediate surroundings and the discomfort of one’s own body are antithetical to what modern humans consider sleep. Riley imagined this was how all humans used to sleep. A percentage of the body shut down, but the system was armed, and the pilot light did not go out.
The handful of hours huddled in the dark had stretched to a surreal length. Riley’s physical and mental anguish had not lessened as he imagined it might have for the others judging by their relative stillness. He allowed himself to be held by Deepu. It was a surrender of sorts, being held. It was the most natural and unnatural thing. It was not sexual in this case, it was survival.
Cam had emerged as their unlikely alpha and continued to direct their pack throughout the night. Okay, campers, turn over now, let’s warm up the other side. Riley admired the comfort Cam had inside his body and the ease with which he touched and could be touched by others. He was fearless in this way, or so it seemed. Riley imagined it must add a whole new dimension to life being able to inhabit your body so completely and to luxuriate in the pleasure of moving, dancing, hugging, holding, and caressing.
His clothes were still very damp, but not dripping wet. Shucking his clothes off like the others was never in the realm of possibility, though he had imagined how it would feel. The thought of his skin against Deepu’s was fantastical, both unimaginably repugnant and thrilling. Riley had never been intimate with anyone and did not understand the language of it.
Deepu had said nothing directly to him as they had alternately spooned each other and shivered through the night, but he did feel there was a conversation going on. At some atomic level, he felt he better understood Deepu. After the first rotation, when Cam instructed them all to turn over and Riley had wrapped his arms around Deepu, he felt a settling in Deepu’s body, a heaviness. Riley could not comprehend such relaxation. His breasts hurt. The wet fabric of the compression bra felt as if it was permanently grafting onto his skin. At home, he never slept in one. Worse, the one he was in was the tightest of the three he had brought, the one that was more like a medieval corset, flattening not just his chest, but his belly too. Breathing was a struggle.
No one understood. Some of them might tolerate him or even accept him, but no one understood what it was like. For most people, being naked was the essence of being oneself, the truth, the equalizer. For Riley, it was the opposite. The body he was born with was a lie. He didn’t have the money for surgery, or more accurately, he hadn’t prioritized it. He had put everything into his education. His body was just the vehicle that carried his brain around, and that approach worked for the day-to-day life he had designed for himself, but it did not work here. There was nowhere to hide, no place to escape.
The labor of breathing was too much now, and each breath was a convulsing shudder. Deepu wrapped his arms around him even tighter thinking Riley must just be cold. Riley wanted to scream and pull himself away, but he had no control over his body. He was too weak without oxygen.
“Riley,” Deepu whispered. “What’s going on? Are you okay?”
Riley could not respond. He was beginning to hyperventilate, taking gasps of breath like a fish flopping around on a dock.
“Hey guys, Riley’s in trouble,” Deepu said. “I don’t think he can breathe.”
“Move, let me get to him,” Cam said.
Cam was up and scrambling over the others to get to Riley. He crouched in front of him, his face inches away.
“Hey, can you hear me? Riley, can you speak?”
Riley just continued convulsing uncontrollably. Deepu was shoulder to shoulder with Cam, hovering over Riley.
“What do we do?” he said urgently. “Is he sick? What’s going on?”
Cam’s hands were on Riley’s face, trying to determine if he had a fever. There was more light now and Cam could see the outline of the binder beneath Riley’s wet t-shirt. He attempted to work his index finger under the taut fabric, but it was impossible.
“We’ve got to get him out of this thing,” he said. “It’s restricting his breathing.”
Cam grabbed the bottom of Riley’s shirt and tried to pull it up. It was awkward in the cramped space with Riley lying down. When Riley realized what he was doing, his eyes flew open wide, and he shook his head fiercely. “No, no, no.” The words were more air than sound.
“Riley,” Cam said, his voice gentle and his face directly in front of Riley’s. “Sweetie, you can’t breathe. This is an emergency. Your binder is too tight, probably because it’s wet. I’m going to help you out of it so you can breathe. No one’s going to look, okay?”
Riley did not respond or express consent, but he stopped shaking his head and he allowed Cam to begin to work the t-shirt off. It was impossible. Cam made eye contact with Deepu. He mouthed the words, HELP ME. Deepu worked an arm under Riley to lift his shoulders off the ground, so Cam was able to strip off the shirt. Deepu had never seen a binder before. It looked like some puritanical sports bra to him. Even in the dim light, he could see how deeply the hem at the back was cutting into Riley’s skin.
“That’s it. That’s good,” Cam said. “We’re almost there.”
Deepu was moved by the assuredness and gentleness Cam had in this situation. In a few seconds, he had the black binder skinned off Riley and was draping the damp t-shirt back over him. Riley was still shivering, like they all were, but his breathing had begun to normalize. His eyes were squeezed shut.
“Okay, that’s better, right?” Cam said. “Let’s get you warmed up.”
Cam took the outside position, turning Riley toward Deepu, so Riley could be between them. He tucked himself in behind Riley and wrapped his arms around him. As he did so, he pushed Riley into Deepu’s back. Deepu’s dysphoria was alarming to him. His mind was having trouble processing the cold suppleness of the breasts pressing into his back with the person he’d come to know as Riley. He tried not to recoil or make any movement or sound that would make Riley feel worse than he already did. Deepu understood that he was beginning to feel something that he recognized but was foreign to him. Empathy. As foreign and undesirable as these breasts were to him, they must have been unimaginable to Riley who had to look at them every day, bind them up every day.
Tears pricked Deepu’s eyes and he swallowed hard. What was wrong with him? First, the incident last night when the power went out, and now this. His emotions were like a television and someone else had the remote. Fran pushed her butt back into him and pulled his arm tightly around her middle. In any other universe, this would have turned him on and at some reptile brain level, it did. But the sadness he felt for Riley and his fear that they might die out here, overshadowed any feelings of lust he could typically muster with little more than a strong breeze.
Fran had also become less and less attractive to him as he observed her. The way she spoke about anyone different chafed him. He knew he could be a selfish, narcissistic asshole but it wasn’t because he thought other people were less than him, it was just because he only thought of himself.
Everyone was still and it might have just been his imagination, but Deepu felt the six of them were breathing in unison. Riley had warmed up and his breasts were no longer cold, water balloons pressing into his back, but a softer extension of himself. It was surreal to be lying naked in the middle of the woods, covered in mud and wet leaves but it felt normal for the six of them to be huddled together like a pack of dogs. He couldn’t imagine another way.
When he opened his eyes again it was much brighter, in fact, so bright he had to squint. The rays of the rising sun were peeking through a gap in the handiwork of their improvised roof-slash-wall. The unrelenting drip of icy water that had burned stinging constellations across his exposed side all night had slowed to a random drop every minute or so. He watched as the sun rose, marveling at how quickly it moved and filled their den with its glorious warmth.
Soon everyone would be up, and they would have to figure out whatever they were going to do next, but he was not in a hurry for that. There was something about this experience that had awakened him, nourished him in some way that he would not have been able to explain to the Deepu of last week. Survival was elemental and so much easier than whatever it was he did every day in his job.
His view of the sunrise through the mouth of their shelter was suddenly obstructed. Jessie had risen to a sitting position. The silhouette of his beard and thick, hunched shoulders made him look like a caveman. As much as Deepu didn’t like the man, he loved him for saving their asses last night. Everyone has a part to play. It was so basic, and he felt stupid even having such thoughts, but it was true. At least it was true of the others. Deepu could not imagine what value he added and that was troubling. He was not one to reflect. Reflection was uncomfortable and even painful – better to keep moving forward.
“Who wants coffee?” Jessie said.
The old man’s voice was as gruff as always, but he had a wry smile when he turned to face their clan. With the dirt and stray leaves tangled in his beard, Jessie appeared to be a wild Chieftain. Deepu couldn’t help but smile back as he rose onto his elbow.
In the light of day, modesty returned to the six. They averted their eyes as best they could and struggled back into their clothes which were still very wet and cold. Jessie scrambled out of the shelter first and the others followed. They stood together facing the rising sun, its light filtering through the branches and leaves that were glistening with the deep blush of peak autumnal color.
“Well, this is useless,” Cam said staring at the dark screen of the device he had pulled from his pants pocket.
The others pulled out their devices and in turn, acknowledged that theirs were also dead, batteries either drained or the hardware damaged from the rain. Some of them mumbled their disappointment without much feeling, as they shoved the objects back into their pockets.
Fran cocked her head abruptly in a way that reminded Deepu of a bird. She took a couple of steps out of their circle.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Do you hear that?” she said. “I think it’s an engine.”
After a few seconds, it was clear that it was an engine, and it was getting louder. The group picked their way through the underbrush and back onto the track they had found last night. They followed it back out to the field. The open sky was impossibly blue, and the morning sun shimmered over the wet grass lighting a billion tiny prisms. The whine of the approaching engine became more distinct and recognizable as an ATV. A moment later they saw the vehicle break from the tree line a hundred yards away from where they stood. The rider had the throttle wide open and was cutting a straight line through the grass toward Houze.
Without any discussion, the six of them struck out across the field, moving like a pack of wolves with a singular mind, or at least that’s how Deepu imagined it. He was cold, hungry, exhausted, and very angry. He guessed the others must be of a similar mind. They could have fucking died out here. Nobody had signed up for that. On further reflection, Deepu was not so sure that was true, at least from a contractual standpoint. He didn’t read all the fine print, but he wouldn’t be surprised if he had basically signed his life away.
Once they were within thirty yards or so of Houze, Deepu recognized the mysterious visitor on the ATV, now peering into the large glass window as Kyle. Kyle, the dude who had helped him repack his suitcase and piloted him up to Houze on that first night. Kyle, from FutureAbode, the one whose only job was to monitor the situation and keep them safe. As they approached, Kyle must have sensed their presence because he whirled around and was visibly startled to see the motley pack of them. He began walking forward to meet them, his hands up, palms out in the universal gesture of don’t-kill-me.
Fran was at the front of the pack and was the first to speak.
“What in the actual fuck happened? We could have died out here!”
Kyle’s face looked pained. His teeth bared in a scowl as his squinted eyes passed over the six of them. “Ah shit, what happened to you guys?”
“Well, let’s see,” Fran shouted. “We almost died of exposure because you locked us out of the fucking house! Where have you guys been?”
“Um, what?” Kyle seemed genuinely confused. “You guys were locked out all night?”
“Yeah,” Jessie said, “we were. Did you not pick up on the fact that Houze completely shut down last night?”
Kyle looked sheepish. His eyes were no longer able to meet theirs. “Um, no. We knew that power went out on our camera. The storm knocked everything out last night, but Houze is made to be off the grid so… we just assumed…”
“You just assumed?!” Cam said, stepping out in front of Jessie. “You didn’t think maybe it was part of your job to take a ride up here and see for yourself?”
“Well, I’m sorry, I should’ve but the weather last night was…”
“Bad? Yeah. It was bad. We were out in it all night, huddled together in a lean-to,” Cam said.
“What? Why did you all go outside?”
“As fun as it would be to explain it all to you right now, we have folks here who might need medical attention,” Jessie said. “Can you get us inside ASAP so we can warm up?”
Ten minutes later they were all inside, wrapped in blankets and sipping hot coffee. No one spoke for a while. It felt too good just to be sheltered and warm. They just listened to Kyle recount how all the power had gone out at base camp and how a flash flood had washed out the forestry road. Since there was no cell service up here, he and Jemma had no way of knowing what was going on in the outside world, or Houze for that matter. He continued to apologize profusely for not coming out to check on them.
No one seemed in critical condition. The color was coming back into Riley’s face as he explained to Kyle how they had reset Houze and inadvertently locked themselves out. Kyle had listened while he worked furiously in the kitchen to put together what breakfast provisions he could. There had been no prepared breakfast delivered by drone this morning, so he had shoved packets of instant oatmeal and grits into a backpack along with some breakfast bars.
As he was passing out mugs of oatmeal, Deepu asked, “So, what now? Is that it? Is the contest over? Are we all disqualified? Do we file a joint lawsuit for near death by exposure?”
“Um, dude. I don’t know what happens now. That’s not my department,” Kyle said.
“Well, what is your department, Kyle?” Fran asked. “Besides your ability to boil water, do you have any other skills?”
Deepu winced. He was equally annoyed with this hippy man-child, but there was no point in berating him further.
“Well, I do know everything there is to know about this dwelling, and I will be doing a complete maintenance check on it just as soon as I’ve finished boiling water.”
He attempted to level his gaze on Fran for emphasis, but he didn’t have the constitution for that. After a pregnant pause, he continued.
“I’m gonna get the network back up and get everything back online. I’m sure my boss and the BangOn! guys are going to want an update.”
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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: