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Authors: Liane Moriarty

Nine Perfect Strangers (12 page)

BOOK: Nine Perfect Strangers
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Once the silence was over and they were allowed to talk again, Napoleon and Frances would get on like a house on fire. Napoleon would listen with genuine interest as Frances humble-bragged about how her children were studying at Harvard or Oxford or taking a gap year in Europe, where they seemed to be visiting more nightclubs than museums.

Heather wondered idly if she should suggest to Napoleon that he take the opportunity to have an affair while they were here. Perhaps the poor man craved sex, and Frances would be a fine buxom choice.

Heather knew the exact date she'd last had sex with her husband. It was three years ago. If she'd known it was going to be the last time she'd have sex for the rest of her life, she might have bothered to remember the details. She was sure it was good; it generally was good. It just wasn't possible anymore, not for Heather.

She sat on the end of the bed, and Napoleon came and sat down next to her. She could feel the warmth of his body along hers, but their bodies didn't touch, as per the rules.

They waited for Zoe, who was going to knock on their door once she was showered. That was the plan. Then the three of them would wait,
silently
, for the bell and go downstairs together for the first “guided sitting meditation.”

Zoe was fine. Of course she was fine. She was a good girl. She would do what she said she would do. She always did. She tried so hard to be
everything for them while they tried so hard to pretend that she wasn't their only reason for living.

Heather felt the pierce of grief as sharp as a samurai sword.

She could always hide the rage, but never the grief. It was too visceral. She put her hand to the base of her throat and a tiny mouselike sound escaped.

“Just ride it out, sweetheart,” murmured Napoleon. He spoke so quietly it was almost a whisper. Without looking at her, he took her hand, enfolding it in the warmth of his palms, breaking his beloved rules for her.

She clutched at him, her fingers locked into the grooves between his knuckles, like a woman in labor holds her partner's hand as the pain tries to drag her away.

11

 

Frances

The bell rang for the first “guided sitting meditation” and Frances opened the door of her room at the same time as Ben and Jessica next door. Nobody said anything, which Frances found almost unendurable, and they all avoided eye contact as they walked down the corridor toward the stairs.

Ben wore the same clothes as earlier, while Jessica had changed into skintight yoga gear, revealing a figure so magnificent Frances wanted to compliment her on her efforts. It took a lot of commitment and silicone to look that good, and yet the poor kid didn't sashay as she deserved; rather she
scurried
, her shoulders hunched as though she were somewhere out of bounds and trying to escape notice.

Ben, on the other hand, had the stiff, stoic walk of a man being taken off to prison for a crime to which he'd pled guilty. Frances wanted to take them both out to a bar and listen to their life stories while they all ate peanuts and drank sangria.

Why was she even thinking about
sangria
, for heaven's sake? She
hadn't drunk sangria in years. It was like her brain kept tossing out random suggestions for every type of food or drink she was going to be denied for the next ten days.

Just ahead of them on the stairs was the chatty giant Napoleon together with his family. The mother was Heather
. Heather Like Leather
. The daughter was
Not-showy Zoe
.
Well done, Frances, you're a genius.
Although what was the point of her excellent name-remembering skills? She wasn't at a cocktail party. She wasn't even allowed to look at them.

Napoleon walked in a very odd way, head bowed like a monk, each leg lifted and dropped with agonizing slowness, as though he were pretending to be a spacewalker. Frances was nonplussed for a moment and then remembered the instructions about mindful walking during the silence. She slowed her pace and saw Jessica flick Ben on the arm to tell him to do the same.

All six of them walked down the stairs in mindful heel-to-toe slow motion, and Frances tried not to notice the absurdity of it. If she started laughing she would become hysterical. She was already quite light-headed from hunger. It had been hours since she licked the Kit Kat wrapper.

Everyone yielded to Napoleon as the most enthusiastically mindful walker and they all followed him mindfully through the house and then down the stairs to the cool and dark yoga and meditation studio.

Frances took her place on one of the blue mats toward the back of the room and attempted to imitate the posture of the two wellness consultants who sat in the front corners of the room, like exam supervisors, except that their legs were folded like origami, their hands resting on their knees, thumbs and fingers touching, irritating half smiles on their smooth, tranquil faces.

She noted once again the big television screen and wondered if desperate guests ever crept down in their pajamas and tried to get a late-night TV fix, although there didn't seem to be a remote anywhere.

As she tried to make herself comfortable she registered a slight but
noticeable improvement in her back after her massage. The pain was still there, but it was like one of multiple bolts had been fractionally loosened.

She sniffed. She understood from her long-ago course that meditation was mostly about breathing correctly, but right now she couldn't breathe. People would think of her as the aggravating sniffling lady at the back of the room, and when she inevitably fell asleep she'd suddenly jerk awake after doing one of those loud snorty snores.

Why hadn't she gone on a
cruise
?

She sighed, and looked around the room for guests she hadn't yet met. To the right of her was a man of about her own age, with a pallid, unhappy face. He sat stolidly on his mat with his legs stuck straight out in front of him, cradling his big solid belly on his lap as if it were a baby that had been handed to him without his consent. Frances smiled kindly at him. It was nice to see someone here who truly
needed
a health resort.

His eyes met hers.

Wait. No
.
Please, no.
Her stomach lurched. It was the man who had stopped on the side of the road and witnessed her screaming and banging on her horn like a lunatic. It was the man with whom she had freely discussed her menopausal symptoms.
The serial killer on vacation.

She had not cared what the serial killer thought of her because she was never going to see him again. She had never considered that he might also be checking in to Tranquillum House, because he was driving in the opposite direction,
away
from Tranquillum House,
deliberately
misleading her.

This was fine. This was highly embarrassing, but fine. She smiled again, her mouth pulled down in a self-deprecating way to show that she was mildly mortified that she was going to spend the next ten days with him after he'd witnessed her roadside meltdown, but she was a grown-up, he was a grown-up, what the heck.

He sneered at her. He absolutely, most definitely, sneered at her. And then he looked away. Fast.

Frances loathed him. He had been so arrogant on the side of the road, telling her he couldn't let her drive. Was he the police? No. (She felt like they were generally better groomed.) Of course, she would absolutely give the serial killer the
chance
to redeem himself—first impressions could be wrong, she'd read
Pride and Prejudice
—but she rather hoped he would continue to be loathsome for the next ten days. It was invigorating. Probably speeded up the metabolism.

Two more guests came into the room and Frances gave them her full attention. She would befriend them the moment she was allowed to speak. She was excellent at making friends. She felt quite sure that the serial killer was
not
excellent at making friends and she would therefore win.

The first was a woman, whom Frances guessed to be in her mid to late thirties, wearing an oversized brand-new-looking white T-shirt that hung almost to her knees over black leggings, the standard outfit for an average-sized woman who starts a new exercise program and thinks her perfectly normal body should be hidden. Her thick black woolly hair was tied back in a long braid with glinting gray strands and she wore red-rimmed cat's-eye glasses: statement glasses favored by those who want to appear quirky and intellectual. (Frances had a pair.) The woman had a flustered look about her, as if she'd only just made her bus and she had lots of other places to be today, and might need to leave early.

The flustered lady was followed by an
astonishingly
handsome man with high cheekbones and flashing eyes who paused at the front of the room as if he were a movie star walking out onto the set of a chat show to rapturous applause. He was perfectly stubbled, perfectly proportioned, and deeply, deservedly, in love with himself.

Frances wanted to laugh out loud at the sight of him. He was too good-looking even to be the tall, dark, and handsome hero in one of her books. The only way it would work would be if she put him in a wheelchair. He'd look great in a wheelchair. Honestly, she could probably get away with removing both his legs and he could still play the lead.

He sat himself down on a yoga mat in the easy manner of someone with a daily yoga “practice.”

The tendons of Frances's neck began to ache from the strain of trying to hold her body so she didn't see the serial killer in her peripheral vision. She rolled her shoulders. Sometimes she exhausted herself.

She turned her head and looked directly at him.

He sat slumped, poking his finger into a hole near the hem of his T-shirt.

She sighed, looked away. He wasn't even worth loathing.

Now what?

Now … nothing. They were all just sitting here. Waiting. What were they meant to be
doing
?

The desire to interact was an irresistible itch.

Jessica, who sat directly in front of Frances, cleared her throat as if she were about to speak.

Someone else coughed discreetly at the back of the room.

Frances threw in a cough too. Her cough sounded quite bad, actually. She probably had a chest infection. Would they have antibiotics here? Or would they try to cure her with natural supplements? In which case she'd get sicker and sicker and eventually die.

All this coughing and clearing of throats reminded her of being in church. When was she last in a church? It must have been for a wedding. Some of her friends' children were starting to get married. Girls who wore fuck-me boots in the eighties were now wearing mother-of-the-bride outfits with pretty bolero jackets to conceal their upper arms.

At least at a wedding you could quietly chat to the other guests while you waited for the bride. Compliment your friend on her pretty bolero jacket. This was more like a funeral, although even funerals weren't this silent as people murmured their soft condolences. She was
paying
to be here and it was worse than a
funeral
.

She looked dolefully around the room. There were no nice stained-glass windows to enjoy like in a church. There were no windows or
natural light at all. It was almost dungeonlike. She was in a
dungeon
on an isolated property with a group of strangers, at least one of whom was a serial killer. She shivered violently. The air-conditioning was on too high. She thought of the inscription Yao had showed her from the convict stonemasons and wondered if the place might be haunted by their tortured spirits. She'd set a couple of her books in haunted houses. It was helpful for when you wanted your characters to leap into each other's arms.

Napoleon sneezed. A high-pitched shriek of a sneeze, like a dog's yelp.

“Ge
sun
dheit!” cried the handsome man.

Frances gasped. He'd broken the noble silence already!

The handsome man clapped his hand to his mouth. His eyes danced. A wave of laughter ballooned in her chest. Oh God, it was like trying not to laugh in class. She saw the handsome man's shoulders shake. He chuckled. She giggled. In a moment she'd be
crying
with laughter and someone would order her to leave the room “until she could control herself.”

“Namaste. Good afternoon.”

The atmosphere changed instantly as a figure strode into the room, altering the particles of air around her, drawing every eye, bringing the coughs and sneezes and throat-clearing to an instant halt.

The laughter trapped in Frances's chest vanished. The handsome man went still.

“A very warm welcome to Tranquillum House. My name is Masha.”

Masha was an extraordinary-looking woman. A supermodel. An Olympic athlete. At least six feet tall, with corpse-white skin and green eyes so striking and huge they were almost alienlike.

In fact, Masha did seem like a different species, a
superior
species, to every other person in the room, even the handsome man. Her voice was low and deep for a woman, with an attractive accent that made certain syllables shift sideways. Namaste became
nem
aste. The cadence of her speech rolled back and forth between broad Australian and what
Frances picked as exotic Russian. Indeed, the woman could easily be a Russian spy. A Russian assassin. Like all the staff, she wore white, except on her it looked less like a uniform and more like a choice: the perfect choice, the only choice.

The muscles on her arms and legs were sculpted in clean, sleek lines. Her hair was bleached platinum and cut so short she'd be able to shake her head, doglike, when she got out of the shower and be ready to face the day.

As Frances's eyes ran over Masha's exquisitely toned body and she compared it to her own, she sank into herself. She was Jabba the Hutt, all pillowy bosom and hips and soft oozing flesh.

Stop it
, she told herself. It wasn't like her to indulge in self-loathing.

Yet it would be disingenuous to deny the aesthetic pleasure of Masha's body. Frances had never bought into “everyone is beautiful,” a platitude only women had to be sold, as men could be beautiful or not without feeling as though they weren't really men. This woman, like the handsome man, had a dramatic, almost shocking, physical presence. Frances had to talk or write or flirt or joke or in some way
act
before she could make an impact on people around her, otherwise, as she knew from experience, she could stand at a counter in a shop and be ignored forever. No one could ignore Masha. All she had to do for attention was exist.

For a long agonizing moment Masha surveyed the room, turning her head in a slow arc that took in their cross-legged, silent subservience.

There's something demeaning about this
, thought Frances.
We're sitting at her feet like kindergarten kids. We're silent, she speaks.
Also, the rule was no eye contact, and yet Masha appeared to be inviting it. She set the rules so she could break them.
I'm paying for this
, thought Frances.
You work for me, lady.

Masha met Frances's gaze with warmth and humor. It was as if she and Frances were old friends and she knew exactly what Frances was thinking and found her adorable for it.

At long last, she spoke again. “I thank you for your willingness to take part in the noble silence.” I
thenk
you.

She paused.

“I understand that some of you may find this period of silence particularly challenging. I understand, too, that the silence was unexpected. Some of you may be experiencing feelings of frustration and anger right now. You may be thinking: But I didn't sign up for this! I understand, and to you I say this: Those of you who find the silence the most challenging will also find it the most rewarding.”

Mmm
, thought Frances.
We'll see about that.

“Right now you're at the foot of a mountain,” Masha continued, “and the summit seems impossibly far away, but
I am here to help you reach that summit
. In ten days, you will not be the person you are now. Let me be clear on this, because it's important.”

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