Harmony House: Episode 18
“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 six contestants were still in the woods huddled together in their makeshift shelter. To avoid hypothermia they had stripped off their wet clothes and clung to each other for their collective body heat. Riley was the exception. He was unable to remove his clothes for fear of revealing his bound chest. This choice became life-threatening as it was restricting his breathing. Cam and Deepu worked to get him out of the binding and pulled Riley into the warmth between them. At sunrise, the group emerged from the shelter. All of them had survived the night.
It had been a mostly sleepless night for the Jenson brothers. Scott had grabbed a few minutes on the couch in his office once he realized he had done everything he could until power was restored at the command center. Chris had not slept at all. He was too busy playing through all the possible scenarios of their situation. He had been unable to reach Schultz or anyone from BangOn! which hadn’t helped his stress level.
“Dude, things are gonna be fine. This is a hiccup, a blip. It’s not like anybody’s suffered here. They sat in the dark for a couple of hours,” Scott said between yawns as he sat up on the couch.
“You don’t get it, do you? If it gets out that Houze shit the bed because of a little rainstorm, how do you think that will play in the press?”
Scott was unaccustomed to being the unworried one. So, the house lost power for a bit. These things happened. The important part is that it came back on. The ragtag crew of contestants were all probably just waking up and about to enjoy another day of smelling each other’s farts. He was about to say these very words to his brother when his phone started to vibrate across his desk. He stepped over to pick it up.
“Hey Kyle, talk to me,” he said.
“I’m up here at Houze with the contestants. Sorry I couldn’t get back to you sooner, but power’s been out all night.”
“Yeah, I figured. What’s the situation?” Scott asked. “Hold on. Let me put you on speaker so Chris can hear. Go ahead.”
“Not good man. They were locked out of the house all night and had to sleep outside.”
“What? What are you talking about? All of them? How?” Chris asked.
“I don’t have the full story yet, but from what I gather Houze lost power earlier last night during the storm. No power, no toilet so they all went outside together to do their business, nobody wanting to risk getting kicked out. Before they went back inside, one of them went into the closet and flipped the breaker…”
“…and that locked the door and reset the password to the default,” Scott interrupted. “Fuck. Well is everybody okay?”
“I’m no doctor, but I think so. It got down in the forties last night and they weren’t dressed for it so I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of them come down with something. They look like it was a rough night.”
“Alright, we need to get Schultz on this right now,” Chris said, pacing. “This is his game to figure out. We can’t fucking send them all home, but they can’t all stay, right?”
“How’s that conversation going to go?” Scott said, looking from the phone on his desk to his brother. “Sorry you almost caught your death last night, but here’s a one-way ticket back home. Thanks for playing.”
Chris didn’t answer. He sighed and placed his palms over his eye sockets then resumed his pacing circuit around Scott’s office.
“Hey Kyle,” Scott said. “I want you to make sure the video conferencing set up is working so we can talk to them as soon as we get ahold of Schultz, then I want you to figure out why the fuck things shut down last night.”
“Yes sir,” Kyle said.
“And Kyle?” Chris added. “Don’t tell anyone shit or make any promises.”
“Got it, boss.”
Within seconds of Scott ending the call, his phone began to vibrate again. He answered it immediately and put it on speaker.
“Schultz, we have a problem,” he said.
“Good morning gentlemen. I gathered as much when I woke up this morning to see nothing on my monitor and no fresh content in the queue. What’s going on? I’ve been unable to reach Jemma.”
Chris took the phone away from Scott and quickly recounted the events that had transpired as they understood them. They could hear the measured hmms and ahhs and I sees, coming from Schultz as he listened to the story.
“Well chaps, this is precisely why we didn’t do a live show! Chin up, we’ll get this sorted,” he said, his tone the same evenly polished veneer they had come to expect.
“What is the plan then?” Chris asked. “At least one person needs to go, right?”
“Quite possibly,” Schultz said. “We need to review the data to determine whom that shall be…”
“Wait a minute,” Scott interrupted. “You’re telling me that we’re just going to decide who to send home based on who has the fewest likes on social media?”
“Well, what else would you propose?” Schultz asked. “We went dark for more than twelve hours. There’s no footage from anyone and Fran’s spontaneous livestream never happened. We can’t exactly advertise that Houze experienced a complete system crash. There must be a dramatic distraction and a bit of spin to get us back on course. This is an elimination game, so we eliminate someone and build a backstory as to why.”
“How bout we not do that,” Scott said, the irritation rising in his voice. “This is our game, but it is a game with rules. We can’t just break them if it suits us.”
“Somebody’s got to leave the house, man,” Chris said. “That’s the point of this, right? It’s what they signed up for. It’s why the people are watching. If nobody goes home, it’s a pretty boring fucking game.”
“I dare say your brother is right in this case, Scott.”
“I don’t think this is smart,” Scott replied. “It will backfire. You cheat somebody, it will backfire.”
“You make a fair point,” Schultz said. “I agree someone should be sent home, but I don’t think it’s us who will choose. Who knows, after a night in the rough, someone may be ready to go. If not, we will make the contestants do it. It’s just what we need at this point to stir the pot a bit…”
Scott looked over at Chris, and mouthed the words, “What the fuck?”
He had been against this whole business from the beginning, but he had gone along and now he was strapped to the mast, and they were a long way from land. It was only going to get uglier and more distasteful. He knew he had to get used to it and just focus on his job which was to make sure Houze didn’t fall apart. He was tired.
Chris just stared back at him and shrugged his shoulders. Scott realized his brother was also lashed to this sinking ship, but he was tied to an oar instead. Scott flopped back into his desk chair and looked out the window as he listened to his brother paddle them further out to sea.
“Right, it’s settled,” Schultz said after another five minutes of discussion with Chris. “I’ll inform my team and then we’ll dial into Houze and deliver the news.”
The contestants had drawn straws to see which three of them would get to take a shower and who would have to wait until the next day after the water supply had replenished. Jessie had been one of the lucky ones, but he gave his spot to Riley who looked terrible.
Fran would have killed for a shower, but no such charity was bestowed upon her. She wasn’t exactly sure what had transpired overnight with Riley because she had her own problems, and besides hadn’t Riley brought that on himself? If he would just accept being a woman as God intended, he wouldn’t have nearly suffocated by squishing his boobs into oblivion. His boobs. The whole thing was just unnatural.
The others seemed to really care about Riley though, or at least to pity him, so Fran figured she needed to be more careful about showing her disdain. It wouldn’t be the first time she had been persecuted for her beliefs and had to hide who she was to survive. Everywhere you went these days it was like that. Forget acceptable, it wasn’t safe to tell anyone that you believed marriage should be between a man and a woman, that life starts at conception, that women trying to be men and men trying to be women was a mental illness. America had turned and it was rotting. The anything-goes mentality means that everything goes, slides into the swamp and we’re no better than animals.
Fran felt disgusting. Her hair was a limp, tangled mess. She had done her best to remove stray leaves and God knows what else from it, but she was dirtier than she’d ever been in her life. She sat at the kitchen table across from Cam who was mostly ignoring her as he pretended to study something on his device, which seemed to be working again after charging. She had been counting on him as an ally but that seemed unlikely now.
That’s okay, she didn’t need any of them. She was no quitter. She was the daughter of a decorated marine, and Sargent William Bristow, God rest his soul, had taught her to persevere. Whenever Fran felt her confidence ebbing, she found it helpful to invoke the memory of her father. Once when he’d caught her in a lie about where she’d gone after school, he’d made her stand for an hour in the kitchen with one arm extended holding her grandmother’s bible in the palm of her upturned hand. Every time she’d whimpered or lowered her hand more than an inch, he had added five more minutes. He hadn’t yelled or even raised his voice when she failed to keep the hardcover edition aloft. He’d just sat there in the kitchen chair, his eyes locked on hers. Do it again Franny. Pick it up and do it again. Your body is weak because your mind is weak. Lying is weakness and you are not weak.
But she was weak. She had failed him so many times over the years. She just needed to be liked and that need had led her to stray from what was right every time. She got that quality from her mom. Sargent Bristow hadn’t cared about being liked. He cared about what was right. He had a code. Fran didn’t have a code or maybe she did, but it was a flexible one with footnotes and an appendix of addendums full of assumptions and escape clauses.
What she had inherited from her father was the insatiable desire to win. He had been a ruthless competitor. He never let her win a game of checkers or chess or even slapjack. The night before he was deployed the last time, they had played a marathon game of Monopoly that didn’t end until almost two in the morning when she finally forfeited despite having hotels lining the high-rent sides of the board. She had been so angry at him for not just conceding the loss to his daughter. She had thrown her stack of money down on the coffee table and stormed off to bed. That had been the last time she saw him. She was twelve.
No one was talking. Fran looked up from the rim of her coffee mug which had been holding her full attention. Only hours before, they had been naked together and now no one was even able to make eye contact. It seemed they were all just waiting to see what was going to happen next.
Jayden sat on the couch next to Deepu. Riley was still in the shower. Jessie stood by the window looking out across the field. Probably reliving the glory of his house of sticks and mud. Fran smirked.
“Why are you smiling?” Cam asked.
“Was I smiling?” Fran said.
“You definitely were, but that’s okay, you don’t have to share.”
She was formulating something snarky to say when a loud, disembodied voice filled the space. Jayden and Deepu looked up at the wall where the large display was.
“Greetings everyone, please gather around. We have an announcement to make.”
Without question it was the British guy, Schultz. Fran and Cam rose from the table and walked around the partition so they could see the display. As they did, Riley appeared in the hallway, a clean, citrusy-smelling cloud of steam issuing from the bathroom in his wake. Fran and Cam took the section of couch perpendicular to Jayden and Deepu. Fran ended up sitting directly under the display and could make out the individual hairs in Schultz’s goatee.
“Firstly, I want to say how sorry I am that you spent such a miserable night locked out. All of us here are so relieved that everyone is okay. Obviously, none of this was according to plan, so we’re all having to be flexible and adapt. Because this is a competition, the game must go on. To that end, someone will be going home because of what happened last night. I understand that we don’t have a definitive answer on who first left Houze unsanctioned. For this reason, you will be deciding who will be leaving the competition…”
Since Schultz began talking, the temperature in the room had been steadily rising. At this point, the group’s collective outrage escalated from flaring nostrils and fidgeting hands to everyone responding at once, with their version of righteous indignation. They hadn’t done anything wrong! Why should they be penalized for Houze’s failure? The old Brit just waited patiently, nodding until the wave died down.
“I understand you’re all very upset. But I will remind you that this is exactly what you signed up for. We won’t be having a discussion here. Someone will be leaving Houze today. Before we get down to voting, I will first ask if there is anyone who’d like to volunteer to leave at this point. Does anyone feel unable to continue after last night?”
The five contestants did not make eye contact with each other but instead studied their hands, and stared out the window or back at the screen.
“Okay, I like the spirit!” Schultz said. “I understand that some of you don’t have functioning devices at the moment so we will have to do this the old-fashioned way. Kyle, will you pass around some paper and pens please?”
On cue, Kyle pulled a small notebook from his coat pocket and began tearing out sheets of paper.
“I’ve only got one pen,” he said. “Anybody else got one we can use?”
No one offered.
“Okay,” Schultz chimed in. “We’ll make do with the one pen. On your piece of paper, you will each write down one and only one name. This is the person you feel should be removed from the competition. You don’t need a reason. You won’t have to explain yourself. Your vote will be anonymous. Kyle will collect your votes in his cap, and we will tally them here on the spot. You have ten minutes to deliberate. I will come back on in just a moment once you’ve all voted.”
Kyle began distributing the sheets of notebook paper and was interrupted by one last comment from Schultz.
“Oh, and just a word of warning that you will all be on camera for this next bit. So, if you’d like to fix your hair or change your shirt, now would be the time.”
The monitor winked to black, and the five contestants were alone again with Kyle. Their boiling outrage from moments before had reduced to a simmer. No one spoke at first. They collected their ballots and returned to their previous positions. Kyle stood awkwardly by the door for a moment, unsure of what to do with his hands. Eventually, he opened the door.
“Um, I’m just gonna step outside here for a few minutes and check on a couple of things.”
Alone again, the energy in the room changed and the six contestants began to look at one another. From one face to the next the expression was a variation on the same theme. Something had shifted in them overnight. They were not the same people, at least not completely. They had survived together. They had formed a tenuous collective conscience. Now they were being asked to destroy it. No one wanted to speak.
“Y’all this is bullshit,” Cam said, at last breaking the tension and voicing the words they all felt. “I know we aren’t family, but this, this is not how it should be.”
“Well, it’s how it is, right?” Jayden countered. “You heard him. We have to vote someone out.”
No one could challenge that. Rules were rules. Regardless of their social status or political leanings, all six contestants understood compliance. It was what ensured a paycheck every two weeks. They all made eye contact with each other briefly before averting their gaze and looking inward. Each seemed to understand their vulnerability in that moment. Not one of them was safe. Not one of them was inoculated with the collective love and acceptance of the group. Eventually, all eyes turned toward Jessie. He smiled in the frown that they had all come to know in the previous days. He sighed.
“I don’t know why you’re all looking at me. I can’t tell you what to do.”
There was silence again as each of them returned to balancing their own scales. After a moment, Fran spoke softly, her voice catching at first. Fresh tears were tracking down her dirty cheeks.
“I know you guys want to kick me out. I can feel it. You probably think I’m this horrible person. Maybe I am. I don’t know. I just try to follow my faith the best I can. I know that’s not cool or popular these days. I’m not a good Christian. I try so hard to be but… God’s not done with me yet. I know that.”
No one spoke. Fran stood up from where she had been sitting on the floor and moved to where she could see everyone. She looked at each of them, making eye contact. Riley didn’t look up from the slip of paper he worried between his fingers.
“I’m sorry I’ve been so awful to you, Riley.”
Riley didn’t look up and when he responded, his voice was low and flat. “So what, now that you’re in trouble, you’re going to pretend you care? You think there’s something wrong with me. You’re afraid of who I am.”
“But I do care. I do. You must believe me. I just don’t understand. We all get a little bit lost…” Fran said.
“No, I’m not lost. Maybe you’re the one who’s lost, Fran. You know the way you’re feeling right now, like you’re on the outside, like any minute you could be cut loose? I’ve spent my whole life feeling that way.”
Fran scanned the room, looking for some support but no one looked up. No one spoke in her defense.
“Maybe I am lost,” Fran said. She hugged herself and began to cry. “My life’s so empty. I like these competitions, because there are rules and if you follow them, you can win. But I followed all the rules, and my life… my life sucks. I’m alone. Right now, this thing is all I’ve got.”
“Welcome to the club,” Cam said. “You think it’s different for the rest of us? None of us would be here if we had something better at home. If we had a home.”
“Look, we’re running out of time here,” Deepu said. “We’ve got to vote. It sucks, but that’s the way it is. It’s not fair, but life’s not fair. Somebody has to go.”
“Somebody has to go when they decide they want to go,” Jessie said. “That’s the way this competition was set up. What these guys are doing now is turning us against each other to make better ratings and to move this thing along because they fucked up.”
“Does anybody want to go now?” Jayden asked. “I thought I did after last night, but now I don’t think I do.”
No one spoke, allowing enough silence to feel as if they had considered the question.
“But if we don’t vote they’ll just randomly pick someone,” Cam said.
Deepu stood up and walked to the window. “Probably wouldn’t be random,” he said. “They’ll pick whoever’s the least popular in the ratings. It’s what I would do.”
“But at least it would be on them, not from one of us,” Cam said.
“They can’t openly break their own rules,” Jessie said tapping on the window with the pen. “It has to look like someone’s forfeited. It won’t look that way if they don’t get the tearful goodbye video. I don’t want to go home, but I won’t let them do it this way.”
There is murmured agreement from the group.
Jessie turned to face the window, placed his slip of paper on the glass, and in big, block letters, scrawled his name for everyone to see. He capped the pen, stepped over to the table, and placed it there with his vote.
Jayden walked over to the table, picked up the pen, and wrote her name, leaving her slip of paper below Jessie’s. The remaining four followed with Riley being the last. He studied the five handwritten votes on the table, each with a name scrawled by its owner. Their handwriting was as different as they were. He picked up the pen and hovered over his blank slip of paper with it for an uncomfortable amount of time. He looked up from the table and stared at Fran. She looked like a neglected child with her limp, greasy hair, and dirt-smeared cheeks. Her eyes still glistened with tears. She gave a firm-lipped smile before she looked away.
Riley turned his attention back to the slip of paper and wrote his name.
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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: