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Authors: Liane Moriarty

Nine Perfect Strangers (26 page)

BOOK: Nine Perfect Strangers
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Heather focused on her breathing. She was determined to keep a tiny part of her brain safe and sober and in charge of monitoring the effects of the psilocybin and LSD; one brightly lit office window in a dark office tower.

She knew, for example, that in reality her son rotted beneath the earth; he was not really there with them. And yet he seemed so real, and when she reached out to touch his arm, it was his flesh: firm and smooth and tanned. He tanned easily and he was hopeless about putting on sunscreen, even though she nagged.

“Don't go, Zach.” Napoleon jerked upright and reached out his hands.

“He's not going, Dad,” said Zoe. She pointed. “He's still right there.”

“My boy,” sobbed Napoleon. His body convulsed. “He's
.” His sobs were guttural, uncontrolled. “My boy, my boy, my boy.”

“Stop that,” said Heather. This was not the place, not the time.

It was the drugs. Not everyone reacted the same way to drugs. Some laboring mothers got plastered on just one whiff of nitrous oxide. Others screamed at Heather that it wasn't working.

Napoleon had always been susceptible. He couldn't even cope with coffee. One long black and you'd think he'd taken speed. An over-the-counter painkiller could send him loopy. The only time he ever had a general anesthetic, which was for a knee reconstruction the year before Zach died, he'd had a bad reaction when he came out of it and scared a poor young nurse to death by supposedly “speaking in tongues” about the Garden of Eden, although it wasn't clear how she understood what he was saying if he was
speaking in tongues
. “She must be fluent in tongues,” Zach had said, and Zoe had laughed so much, and there was no greater pleasure in Heather's life than watching her children make each other laugh.

Watch your husband
, she thought.
Monitor him
. She narrowed her eyes and clenched her jaw to maintain focus, but she felt herself drift hopelessly, inevitably away on a sea of memories.

She is walking down the street pushing her two babies in a big double stroller and every single old lady stops to make a comment and Heather is never going to make it to the shops.

She is a little girl staring at her mother's stomach wishing she could make a baby grow in there so that she can have a brother or sister but the wishing doesn't work, wishing never works, and when she grows up she will never have an only child, a lonely only.

She is opening the door of her son's bedroom because she's going to do a load of washing and she may as well scrape up some of the layer of clothes on his floor and her whole body resists what she is seeing and she thinks, I'm doing a load of washing, don't do this, Zach, I want to do laundry, I want to keep this life, please, please let me keep this life, but she hears herself screaming because she knows it's too late, there is nothing to be done, the life of one second ago is gone.

She is at her son's funeral and her daughter is delivering a eulogy, and afterward people keep touching Heather, so much touching, every
one wants to paw at her, it is repulsive, and they are all saying, Oh, you must be so proud, Zoe spoke so beautifully, as if it's fucking school speech night, not her son's funeral, and can't you see my daughter is alone now, how can she live without her brother, she never even existed without him, and who cares if she spoke beautifully, she can't even stand, her father is holding her upright, my daughter can't even walk.

She is watching Zoe take her first steps at only eleven months, and Zach, who has never even considered such a thing, is shocked, he can hardly believe it, he is sitting on the carpet with his little plump legs stuck out in front of him and he is looking up at his sister with big astonished eyes and you can see he is thinking, What is she DOING? and she and Napoleon are laughing so hard, and maybe wishes do come true because this is family, this is what she never had, never knew, never dreamed, this is a moment so perfect and funny and this is her life now, just a string of perfect, funny moments one after the other, like a string of beads that will go on forever.

Except that it won't.

She is alone in Zach's bedroom crying, and she thinks that Napoleon and Zoe are somewhere in the house crying too, all alone crying in separate rooms, and she thinks families are probably meant to grieve together but they aren't doing it right, and to distract herself she goes through Zach's drawers for the hundredth time, even though she knows there is nothing to find, no note, no explanation, she knows exactly what she will find—except that this time, she does find something.

She was back.

Napoleon still rocked and sobbed.

Had she been gone for a second or an hour or a year? She didn't know.

“How are the Marconi family feeling right now?” Masha sat in front of them. “Could this perhaps be a good opportunity for a family therapy session about your loss?”

Masha had multiple arms and multiple legs but Heather refused to acknowledge her multiple limbs because it was not real, people simply
did not have that many limbs. Heather had never once delivered a baby with that many limbs. She was not falling for it.

“When you say it's your fault, Napoleon, are you referring to Zach?” asked Masha, all faux concern.

Heather heard herself hiss, “Jesus fucking Christ.”

Heather was a snake with a long forked tongue that could whip from her mouth and pierce Masha's skin, shooting venom through her veins, poisoning her, the same way Masha had poisoned Heather's family. “Don't you dare talk about our son! You know nothing about our son.”

“My fault, my fault, my fault.” Napoleon banged his head against the wall. He was in danger of concussing himself.

Heather gathered up all her mental strength to focus her mind and crawled around to face Napoleon on her hands and knees. She grabbed his head between her hands. She could feel his ears against her palms, the warmth of his stubbled skin.

“Listen to me,” she said in the loud carrying voice she used to cut through the screams of a woman in labor.

Napoleon's eyes rolled about, bulging and veined with blood, like a frightened horse.

“I pressed snooze on my alarm,” he said. He repeated it over and over. “I pressed snooze on my alarm. I pressed snooze on my alarm.”

“I know you did,” said Heather. “You've told me so many times, darling, but it wouldn't have made a difference.”

“It wasn't your fault, Dad,” said Zoe, her lonely only, and it seemed to Heather that she spoke very much like a zombie, not a university student, and that her young beautiful mind was already fried like an egg, sizzled to a crisp. “It was my fault.”

“Good,” said Masha. The Poisoner. “This is so good! You are all speaking from your hearts.”

Heather turned and screamed in her face. “Fuck off!”

A pellet of Heather's spittle flew in a slow arc from her mouth and hit the target of Masha's eye.

Masha smiled. She wiped her eye. “Excellent. Release all that rage,
Heather. Let it all out.” She stood, and her multiple limbs drifted about her like an octopus's tentacles. “I will be back momentarily.”

Heather turned back to her family. “Listen,” she said. “Listen to me.”

Napoleon and Zoe made eye contact with her. They were all three in a temporary air pocket of clarity. It wouldn't last. Heather had to speak fast. She opened her mouth and began to tug an endless tapeworm from deep down in her throat, and it was making her gag and vomit, but there was relief in it too, because at last she was wrenching it free from her body.




The walls no longer breathed. The colors were fading. Zoe felt like she was sobering up. It was like that feeling at the end of a party when you walked out of a stuffy room into the night air and your mind cleared.

“Zach was on medication,” said Zoe's mother. “For his asthma.”

Why did that matter? Zoe could tell that her mother thought she was sharing something momentous here but she had learned that what was momentous to your parents was often not that momentous to you, and what was momentous to you was often not that momentous to your parents.

“I like to call it Zachariah's Theory of Momentous-ity,” said Zach, who was still there with them.

“Don't tell me your theories. I'm all alone, taking care of the parents,” said Zoe. “And it's an onerous responsibility, thou fuckwit, because they are both cray-cray.”

“I know, I'm sorry, thou mangled pox-marked clack dish,” said Zach.

“I need you to concentrate, Zoe,” said her mother.

“I know he was on medication for his asthma,” said her dad. “A preventative. So what?”

“One of the side effects can be depression and suicidal thoughts,” said Heather. “I told you the specialist wanted to prescribe it to him and you said, ‘Are there any side effects?' and I said … I said … ‘No.'”

The regret dragged at her face like claw marks.

“You said no,” repeated Zoe's father.

“I said no,” said her mother. Her eyes were pleading for forgiveness. “I'm so sorry.”

A cliff face of momentous-ity loomed in front of Zoe.

“I hadn't even read the leaflet in the box,” said her mother. “I knew Dr. Chang was the best, I knew he wouldn't prescribe anything with dangerous side effects, I trusted him, so I just said, ‘No. It's all fine. I've checked.' But I lied to you, Napoleon, I lied.”

Zoe's dad blinked.

After a while, he said slowly, “I would have trusted him too.”

“You would have read the leaflet. You would have gone through it so carefully, reading every word, asking me questions, driving me crazy. I'm the one with the medical training but I didn't even read it. I thought I was so busy at that time. I don't know what I thought I was so busy doing.” Her mother rubbed her hands down her cheeks as if she were trying to smear herself away. “I read the leaflet about six months after he died. I found it in his bedroom drawer.”

“Well, darling, it wouldn't have made any difference,” said her dad dully. “We needed to get the asthma under control.”

“But if we'd known depression was a possibility we would have monitored him,” said Zoe's mother. She looked desperate to make him understand the full breadth of her guilt. “
would have, Napoleon, I know you would have!”

“There were no signs,” said her dad. “Sometimes there are no signs. No signs at all. He was perfectly happy.”

“There were signs,” said Zoe.

Her parents turned to her, and their faces were like those clown faces
at an amusement park, turning back and forth, mouths agape, waiting for the ball to drop.

“I knew he was upset about something.”

She remembered walking by his bedroom and registering the fact that Zach was lying on his bed but he wasn't looking at his phone or listening to music or reading, he was just
lying there
, and that was not Zach. Zach didn't just lie on his bed and stare at the ceiling.

“I thought something was going on at school,” she told her parents. “But I was angry with him. We weren't talking. I didn't want to be the first one to talk.” Zoe closed her eyes so she could not see the disappointment and pain on her parents' faces. She whispered, “It was a competition to see who would be the first one to talk.”

“Oh, Zoe, sweetheart,” said her mother from far, far away. “It's not your fault. You know it's not your fault.”

“I was going to talk on our birthday,” said Zoe. “I was going to say, ‘Happy birthday, loser.'”

“Oh, Zoe, you stupid-head,” said Zach.

He put his arm around her. They never hugged. They weren't that sort of brother and sister. Sometimes when they passed each other in the hallway they randomly shoved each other for no reason at all. Like, hard enough to hurt. But now he was hugging her, and talking in her ear, and it was him, it was Zach, it was absolutely him, he smelled of that stupid Lynx bodywash which he said he used ironically but he totally used because he believed the ads about how it made the girls think you were hotter.

Zach pulled her close and whispered in her ear. “It was nothing to do with you. I didn't do it to get at you.” He gripped her arm to make sure she got his point. “
I wasn't me




He would do anything for his girls, anything, so he took the dreadful, heavy secrets they'd been carrying and he saw the relief with which they handed them over, and now he had his own secret, because he would never tell them how angry their secrets made him, never ever, never ever ever.

The walls continued to pulsate as his wife and daughter held his hands and he knew this nightmare would last an eternity.




Ben and Jessica sat cross-legged on cushions facing each other. Their hands gripped each other's forearms as if they were on a narrow beam and trying to maintain their balance. It was glorious to see. Ben spoke directly from his heart and Jessica listened, transfixed by his every word.

Masha guided only when necessary. The MDMA was doing exactly what it was meant to do: dissolving barriers. They could have spent
in therapy to get to this point. This was an instant shortcut.

“I miss your face,” Ben said to Jessica. “Your beautiful face. I don't recognize you. I don't recognize us or anything about our lives. I miss our old flat. I miss my job. I miss the friends we lost because of this. But most of all I miss your face.”

His words were crisp and clear. There was no slurring. No equivocation.

“Good,” said Masha. “Wonderful. Jessica, what do you want to say?”

“I think that Ben is body-shaming,” said Jessica. “I'm still me. I'm
. I'm still in here! So what if I look a bit different? This is the fashion. It's just fashion. It's not important!”

“It's important to me,” said Ben. “It feels like you took something precious and fucked it up.”

“But I feel beautiful,” said Jessica. “I feel like I was ugly before and now I'm beautiful.” She stretched her arms above her head like a ballerina. “The question is: Who gets to decide if I'm beautiful or not? Me? You? The internet?”

Right now, she did look beautiful.

Ben considered for a moment.

“It's your face,” he said. “So I guess you should decide.”

“But wait! Beauty is …” Jessica pointed at her eye. She began to laugh. “Beauty is
in the eye of the beholder

She and Ben laughed and laughed. They clutched each other, repeating “beauty is in the
of the beholder” over and over, and Masha smiled at them uncertainly. Why was that funny? Perhaps it was an inside joke. She began to feel impatient.

At long last they stopped laughing and Jessica sat up and touched her lower lip. “Look. Fair call. I might have overdone it on the lips last time.”

“I liked your lips before,” said Ben. “I thought you had beautiful lips.”

“Yeah, I get it, Ben,” said Jessica.

“I liked our life before,” said Ben.

“It was a shitty little life,” said Jessica. “An ordinary shitty little life.”

“I don't think it was shitty,” said Ben.

“I feel like you love your car more than me,” said Jessica. “I'm jealous of your car.
was the one who scratched it. That was me. Because I feel like your car is a slutty girl having an affair with my husband, and so I scratched her slutty face.”

“Wow,” said Ben. He put both hands to the top of his head. “
. That is … wow. I can't believe you did that.” He didn't sound angry. Just amazed.

the money,” said Jessica. “I love being rich. But I wish we could just be rich and still be us.”

“The money,” said Ben slowly, “is like a dog.”

“Mmm,” said Jessica.

“A great big out-of-control pet dog.”

“Yeah,” said Jessica. “Yeah. That's right.” She paused. “Why is it like a dog?”

“So, it's like we got a dog, and it's the dog we always wanted, we dreamed of this dog, this dog is our dream dog, but it's changed everything about our lives. It's, like, really distracting, it barks all through the night wanting our attention, it won't let us sleep, we can't do
without taking into account the dog. We have to walk it, and feed it, and worry about it, and …” He scrunched up his face, working it out. “See, the problem with this dog is that it
. It bites us, and it bites our friends and family; it's got a really vicious streak, this dog.”

“But we still love it,” said Jessica. “We love the dog.”

“We do, but I think we should give the dog away,” said Ben. “I think it's not the right dog for us.”

“We could get a labradoodle,” said Jessica. “Labradoodles are so cute.”

Masha reminded herself that Jessica was very young.

“I think Ben is using the dog as a … story to explain how the lottery win has impacted your lives,” she said. “A metaphor, that is.” The word metaphor came to her a fraction later than she would have liked.

“Yeah,” said Jessica. She gave Masha a sly, shrewd look and tapped her nose with her forefinger. “If we're going to get a dog we should get it before the baby comes.”

“What baby?” said Masha.

“What baby?” said Ben.

“I'm pregnant,” said Jessica.

“You are?” said Ben. “But that's awesome!”

Masha reeled. “But you never—”

“You gave my pregnant wife drugs,” said Ben to Masha.

“Yeah, I kind of feel really angry about that,” said Jessica to Masha. “Like, I think you should go to jail for a very long time for this.”

BOOK: Nine Perfect Strangers
5.9Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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