A Little Communism Goes a Long Way
Harmony House: Episode 19
“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, Schultz, the BangOn! show producer convinced the Jenson brothers that the contestants’ exodus from Houze brought on by the power outage from the storm should result in at least one of them being sent home. To stir the pot, Schultz opted to make the contestants vote on who should go. In solidarity after surviving a perilous night in the wilderness, the contestants mutinied by each casting a vote for themselves.
“This is unacceptable,” Schultz said. “You all were given clear instructions here. You signed up to participate in an elimination game.”
The old Brit appeared to be bothered. His polished veneer was showing some cracks. His face was red. There were bags under his eyes and his hair was sticking up in the back. From what Riley could see he was conferencing in from his phone in what appeared to be a bathroom.
“Well, sir, we did follow your instructions. Each of us did vote on the person we thought should go home,” Riley said when no one else spoke up.
“So, you expect me to believe that it’s pure coincidence that all six of you just happened to decide you wanted to go home.”
“It was a traumatic night,” Fran chipped in. “We could have died out there. Why wouldn’t we all be ready for this to be over?”
On the large display, Schultz’s face loomed like the surface of a planet, the acne scars on his cheeks like craters. He narrowed his eyes, sighed, and raised his glasses to rub the bridge of his hawkish nose.
“Jessie, we’ve all come to rely on your plain, direct point of view. Am I to believe that you, who have survived for days in the wilderness under much harsher conditions, are ready to throw in the towel.”
“The little camping trip was fine. I’m just done babysitting this crew. It’s not worth it,” Jessie said in an exaggerated caricature of himself.
“Well, I don’t believe that for a second. I’m not an idiot even though I’ve made a living entertaining them. You’re all making my job significantly harder. But chin-up. I’ve wriggled out of tighter spots. Don’t expect me to forget this little mutiny. Things are going to get much harder in the days to come.”
Riley scanned the room. None of the other contestants seemed particularly stirred by this threat. Some looked defiantly up at the screen even though Schultz could not see them. Others, like Deepu stared out the window, lost in thought.
“Right,” Schultz continued. “All the rules are still in play and there will be zero leniency going forward. I would strongly advise you to capture entertaining content. It’s viewer engagement that keeps our little enterprise going. Good day.”
The screen winked out and the six contestants were alone again.
“I don’t think he likes us very much,” Jayden said.
“Fuck him,” Deepu said, rising from where he had been sitting on the couch beside Riley.
He was so confident. Riley admired that about Deepu. Right or wrong, he had such confidence. At first, Riley had hated him. Deepu represented everything he despised but his feelings had changed. Sharing body heat with a person, and being enfolded in their arms made it hard to hate them.
Everyone was stirring now, poised to move back into the rhythm of what had become their routine when Fran spoke. She looked like a different person without her make-up and her hair unwashed– smaller somehow.
“Thank you, guys,” she said looking at each of them in turn and lingering on Riley last. “I um… I’m not sure why you didn’t do what I would have done and just vote me out, but I appreciate it.”
There were murmurs and nods around the group, but no one spoke so Fran continued.
“You guys know I love these games. I’ve watched them my whole life. Now that I’m in one, it feels really different. Does anybody know what we’re doing now? What’s our plan? It seems like we made an alliance, but that can’t last… can it?”
There was a long silence before Cam responded.
“Why not? Why does everything always have to be a competition? Aren’t their entire societies that live cooperatively?”
“I don’t know about that. But let’s be honest here. We all signed up to compete in a winner-takes-all game,” Jessie said.
“So?” Jayden said. “Why does it matter? You think it’s really any different than the game we all played before? I mean, it’s America, right? Doesn’t matter if you signed up for it or not, you’re competing. For shelter, for food, for love.”
“What are you saying?” Riley asked.
“I don’t know,” Jayden said, turning back to look at Jessie. “I’m just saying how we choose to live in here is no different than how we choose to live out there. We can choose. Most of us just choose to put ourselves first.”
Jessie’s face softened as he looked at Jayden. Riley thought something in his eyes changed. It was like that feeling on a gloomy day when the sun peeks through a small break in the clouds and then disappears.
“Competition’s not worked out so well for me,” Cam said, his voice little more than a whisper.
“Me either,” Jayden said.
“It worked for me for a long time,” Jessie said. “But I don’t guess I ever really thought about it working. That’s the definition of privilege, right?”
“So what, one night in the woods together and we’re all communists now?” Deepu said. “I think we’re all a little sleep-deprived, and things will look a lot different tomorrow.”
“Does it really work for you, man?” Cam asked. “I mean you act like you got the world on a string but that’s not what it seemed like yesterday.”
Deepu flushed, and his nostrils flared. The muscles in his jaw flexed as he stared out the window. Riley imagined he could see Deepu composing an answer in his head and then hitting the backspace key. His shoulders slumped and his chin dropped to his chest.
“You don’t know me,” he said. “Any more than I know you or anyone else here.”
“Maybe not,” Cam said. “But I’m starting to.”
“Let me make sure I understand what’s happening here. You’re all talking about quitting the competition, and not participating in the game. Is that right?” Deepu asked.
No one answered so Deepu continued.
“Because that’s what it sounds like. How does that even work? Why would you want to do that? We all came here for our own selfish reasons. Nothing against you guys, but this is not the living situation I’ve been looking for all my life. I’m looking forward to my own bed and showering anytime I want to.”
“I don’t think we’re deciding anything about the future here,” Jessie said. “That’s a fool’s game anyway. All we decided was not to throw anybody under the bus on the heels of surviving a fairly traumatic night.”
Jessie’s assessment seemed right to Riley and to everyone else too based on their body language. They weren’t an unbreakable alliance. This was not a permanent lifestyle, but maybe it was better than any other option open to any of them right now. He studied each of their faces in turn. They were all so different. They weren’t thrown together by chance. The diversity of their group was engineered in the same way stock photos are selected for corporate websites. They didn’t represent a naturally occurring phenomenon but something closer to a lab experiment which was something Riley knew a lot about. The difference was their keepers were not scientists. They were marketers trying to sell a thing, this Houze. But Houze was more of an idea than a product which is why Riley had fallen in love with it. It aspired to be more than a thing that could be bought and used. It was meant to be a solution to a problem that industrial progress and greed had compounded for the last two millennia.
Maybe their living together in Houze was not a proper experiment. It was not meticulously planned. There was no control. There really wasn’t even a proper hypothesis beyond making a spectacle of social interactions to generate viewer engagement and hopefully convert them into Houze customers. But like an experiment, variables were colliding and interacting, and changes were happening as a result. Riley felt changed and he could observe changes happening in the others too. He still very much wanted to win Houze. It would solve a lot of problems for him. But he also wanted to see what would happen next in the experiment. He didn’t want it to end yet.
Since Jessie had spoken, no one had said anything, but no one had made a move to break their quorum. Riley felt impelled to speak before the moment passed.
“I don’t like these shows. I never have. I don’t like watching people behave badly. I’ve seen too much of that in my life without having to go find it. I came here for two reasons. One, I love the idea of Houze, what it could mean for the world, and two, I’ve never had a place of my own, a proper home and I want that.”
He paused for a moment and studied his hands before continuing.
“I don’t like people too much, but I’m not ready for this to end, at least not the way these kinds of games are designed to end. I like the idea of doing it our way. So maybe Jessie’s right. Maybe we don’t have to decide anything here. Maybe we just agree to let things unfold.”
“I like that,” Jayden said.
“I like that too,” Cam said.
The others nodded. A large cloud moved slowly across the sky, unmasking the sun which filled Houze with its amber, autumnal light. The light touched every surface of the dwelling and warmed the forearms, shoulders, and upturned faces of its residents all so very different and all exactly the same. Riley imagined how they must look from the drone that was surely somewhere above them looking down as it rose into the sky creating a pastoral, cinematic shot. He understood that they were being observed but he was unsure if it was through a microscope or a telescope.
The others were starting to stir. The spell was broken and they were beginning to disperse into whatever small, private space they could devise.
“This morning, I noticed a black walnut tree at the edge of the field. I was going to go collect some. Anybody want to join me?” Jessie asked.
“Dude, I love walnuts. I’ll come,” Deepu said.
Jessie looked momentarily surprised but nodded.
“Great, let me grab a pack and we’ll go,” Jessie said.
He returned from the back bedroom with a small knapsack. He pulled his phone from his pocket and glanced at the screen where he made a few taps and swipes before shoving it into the bag.
“Best if we keep an eye on the time,” he said. “Let’s go.”
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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: