Read Nine Perfect Strangers Online

Authors: Liane Moriarty

Nine Perfect Strangers (27 page)

BOOK: Nine Perfect Strangers




Heather woke but did not open her eyes.

She was lying on her side, on something thin and soft, her hands pillowed beneath her head.

Her body clock told her it was morning. Maybe around 7
, she would have guessed.

She was no longer high. Her mind felt clear. She was in the yoga and meditation studio at Tranquillum House and today was the anniversary of Zach's death.

After years of nausea she'd vomited up her secret and now she felt shaky, strange and empty, but also better. She felt
, which, funnily enough, was exactly what Tranquillum House had promised. Heather would have to write them a glowing testimonial:
I feel so much better after my time at Tranquillum House! I especially enjoyed “tripping” with my husband and daughter.

Obviously they would leave this place immediately. They would not eat or drink anything provided by Masha. They would go straight to
their rooms, pack, get in the car, and leave. Perhaps they would go to a caf
in the nearest town and order a big fried breakfast in Zach's honor.

Heather wanted to spend this year's anniversary alone with her family talking about Zach, and tomorrow, she wanted to somehow mark her children's twenty-first birthday in a way that wasn't about shame or grief, or everyone pretending to forget that this was Zoe's birthday too.

Napoleon had been saying it for so long: we have to separate Zach from the way he chose to end his life. There was so much more to Zach than his suicide. One memory should not eclipse all the other memories. But she hadn't listened. She had somehow thought that his unhappiness that one day nullified everything else that he did in his life.

Now, all at once, she knew that Napoleon was right. Today they would mark the anniversary of his death by pooling their best memories of his eighteen years of life, and the grief would be unbearable, but Heather knew better than anyone that the unbearable could be borne. For the last three years she'd been grieving Zach's suicide. Now it was finally time to grieve his loss. The loss of a beautiful, silly, smart, impetuous boy.

She hoped that his sister would cope today. All that rubbish about “not being close” to Zach. Heather's heart ached for her. The child adored her brother. They were ten years old before they stopped creeping into each other's beds at night when they had nightmares. Heather would need to tell her over and over that it wasn't her fault. It was Heather's failure alone. Her failure to notice her son's change in behavior and her failure to give anyone,
including Zach himself
, a reason to look for it.

And at some point today they would report the madwoman's actions to the police.

Heather opened her eyes, and saw that she was lying on a yoga mat, face-to-face with her sleeping daughter. She was still asleep, her eyelids fluttering. Heather was close enough to feel Zoe's breath on her face. She put her hand to her cheek.




Frances pulled the headphones from her head. They got caught in her hair. She tugged them free, her eyes still shut.

She was on a flight. The only time she fell asleep wearing headphones was on a flight.

She could hear the sound of far-off construction. A drill. A jackhammer. A digger. Some such thing. It was an intermittent mechanical roar. A lawn mower? A leaf blower. She lay on her side, drew the blanket up over her shoulders, and tried to make herself sink back into deep, delicious sleep. But no, there was the sound again, pulling her inexorably up, up, up, and it wasn't a machine, it was the sound of a man snoring.

Had she got drunk and slept with a stranger last night? Good Lord, surely not. It had been decades. She didn't feel any of the symptoms of a hangover, or the shame of a seedy sexual encounter. Her mind felt clear and bright, as if it had been pressure-cleaned.

Her memory clicked into place in one solid block.

She was in the yoga and meditation studio at Tranquillum House,
and yesterday she'd drunk a delicious smoothie containing hallucinogenic drugs resulting in an extremely beautiful, remarkably vivid dream that had lasted forever, about Gillian and her dad and her ex-husbands, with many symbols and visual metaphors which she looked forward to interpreting. Yao, and sometimes Delilah, and sometimes Masha, had kept interrupting her lovely dream, asking irritating questions and trying to steer her in certain directions. Frances had ignored them, she was having too much fun, and they were aggravating her. She sensed that after a while they gave up on her.

She'd been in space.

She'd been an

Also a butterfly!

She'd been on a sleigh ride with Gillian across a stunning starlit sky, and more, much more.

It was like waking up the first morning back home in your own bed after a long international holiday to multiple exotic locations.

She opened her eyes to darkness and remembered her eye mask. The sound of snoring got even louder as she pulled it off. Her eyes didn't feel gritty or blurry. Everything was in crisp color. She could see the vaulted stone ceiling above her. Rows of downlights. They were all switched on.

She sat up and looked around.

The man snoring was Lars. He lay on the stretcher next to hers, flat on his back, still wearing his eye mask, a blanket pulled up to his chin, his mouth wide open. His body twitched in tandem with each snore. It was pleasing to hear someone so good-looking with such a loud, unpleasant snore. It kind of redressed the balance.

Frances reached over with her bare foot and gave his leg a gentle shove. Henry was a snorer. Once, toward the end of the marriage, he was wearing shorts, and he'd looked down and said confusedly, “I don't know why I'm always getting these bruises right here on my calf. It's like I keep bumping into something.”
My right foot
, thought Frances. She felt terrible about that right up until their last day together when they fought over the division of cutlery.

She scanned the room.

Tony—she would not be calling him “Smiley”—had just sat up on his stretcher. It looked like he had a headache by the way he rested his forehead in his hands.

Carmel was also upright and was attempting to comb her fingers through her black frizzy hair, which stood out in a wild halo around her head.

She met Frances's eye. “Bathroom?” she mouthed, although she'd been in the studio as often as Frances.

Frances pointed to the toilets at the back of the cellar and Carmel got to her feet, staggering a little.

Ben and Jessica sat shoulder to shoulder against a wall, drinking bottled water.

Heather and Zoe lay face-to-face where they had fallen asleep on a yoga mat. Heather was absently caressing Zoe's hair.

“Need water?” Napoleon crouched down with difficulty on his long legs in front of Frances and offered her a bottle of water. “I'm assuming it's not spiked with drugs,” he said. “I guess if we're worried we could just drink from the tap, although they could do something to the water supply if they really wanted.”

“Thank you.” Frances accepted the water, suddenly desperate for it, and drank nearly the whole bottle in one go. “Just what I needed,” she said.

“I guess it's a good sign that they left us with water,” said Napoleon. He straightened. “They haven't completely abandoned us.”

“What do you mean?” asked Frances. She stretched luxuriously. She was
looking forward to breakfast.

“We're locked in,” said Napoleon apologetically, as if he were the one responsible. “There doesn't seem to be a way out.”




“I'm sure this is all just part of the process,” said Carmel. She didn't know why everyone looked so worried. “They're not going to leave us down here for much longer. It's all fine.”

The time, according to Napoleon, the only one among them with a watch, was coming up to 2
, and they had still not heard from any of the staff at Tranquillum House. They had been down here for close to twenty-four hours now.

They all sat in a circle similar to the one from the previous day, when they'd introduced themselves. Everyone looked exhausted and grimy. The men needed shaves. Carmel was desperate to brush her teeth, but she wasn't especially hungry, even though she hadn't eaten for coming up to
forty-eight hours
, so that was kind of wonderful. If appetite suppression was one of the side effects of last night's perfectly enjoyable drug experience, then she was all for it.

Each of them had confirmed for themselves that the only access point to the room was the heavy oak door at the bottom of the stairs,
and that the door was undeniably, irrefutably locked with what looked to be a brand-new gold security keypad next to the door handle. Presumably there was a code that would unlock the door, but multiple combinations of numbers had been attempted with no success.

Frances had suggested that the code might be the same as the one given at the front gate of Tranquillum House.

Napoleon said he'd already thought of that but had no memory of the number.

Carmel had no memory of it either. She'd been crying when she arrived at Tranquillum House, suddenly struck by a memory from her honeymoon when they'd stayed at a hotel with a similar-looking intercom. It seemed stupid now. Her honeymoon hadn't been
great. She'd gotten a terrible UTI.

Ben thought he remembered the access code for the front gate, but if he did, the number didn't work.

Tony thought he remembered too, although he remembered one digit different from Ben's, but that number didn't work either.

Carmel suggested the phone number for Tranquillum House, which for some reason she was able to recite, but they had no luck with that.

Frances wondered if the code was related to the letters of the alphabet. They tried various words: Tranquillum. Cleanse. Masha.

Nothing worked.

Zoe wondered if it was meant to be a kind of a game. An “escape room.” She told them there was a bizarre craze where people
themselves to be locked up in a room for the pleasure of trying to work out how to escape. Zoe had been to one before. She said it was great fun, with multiple clues concealed in what looked like normal objects. For example, Zoe and her friends had to find and assemble the parts of a flashlight hidden around the room. The flashlight could then be used to shine a light on a secret message in the back of a wardrobe with further instructions. A timer counted down the minutes on a wall, and Zoe said they got out just seconds before the timer went off.

But if this was an escape-room game it seemed it was a very tricky one. The yoga studio was virtually empty. There were towels, yoga mats, stretcher beds, water bottles, headphones, eye masks, and burnt-out candles from the night before and that was it. There were no bookshelves with messages in books. No pictures on the wall. There was nothing that could feasibly represent a clue.

There were no windows that could be smashed in either the men's or the women's toilets. No manholes, no air-conditioning ducts.

“It's like we're trapped in a
,” said Frances, which Carmel thought was melodramatic but then the woman wrote romantic fiction for a living so you had to allow for an overactive imagination.

Eventually, they'd sat back down, dispirited and disheveled.

“Yes, this is all just part of the process,” said Heather to Carmel. “Spiking our drinks with illegal drugs, locking us up, and so on and so forth. Nothing to worry about, it's all fine.”

She was using a very sarcastic, familiar tone for someone Carmel had only just met.

“I'm just saying we should trust the process.” Carmel tried to remain reasonable.

“You're as deluded as her,” said Heather.

So that was definitely rude. Carmel reminded herself that Heather had lost her son. She spoke evenly. “I know we're all tired and stressed, but there's no need to get personal.”

personal!” shouted Heather.

“Sweetheart,” said Napoleon. “Don't.” The gentle way he scolded his wife made Carmel's heart ache.

“Do you have children, Carmel?” asked Heather in a more civilized tone.

“I have four little girls,” said Carmel carefully.

“Well, how would you feel if someone gave your children drugs?”

It was true that she wouldn't want a single drug to cross their precious lips. “My children are very little. Obviously Masha would never—”

“Do you have any idea of the serious long-term health consequences we could all be facing?” interrupted Heather.

“I feel worse than I've ever felt in my entire life,” said Jessica.

“There you go,” said Heather with satisfaction.

“Well, I feel
than I've ever felt in my entire life,” said Carmel. It wasn't entirely true, there was the teeth situation, but she did feel quite good. Her mind was filled with images she hadn't yet had a chance to interpret, as if she'd just spent a day at some incredible immersive art exhibit.

“I feel pretty good so far,” admitted Frances.

“I do have a significant headache,” said Lars.

“Yeah, me too,” said Tony.

“I feel like I might be down a dress size.” Carmel pulled at the loose waistband of her leggings. She frowned, trying to remember some important revelation she'd come to last night about her body. It didn't matter … it did matter … it was the only one she had? Somehow it didn't seem quite so profound and transcendent a revelation when she tried to pin it down with ordinary words. “Although I'm not trying to change my body
. I'm just here to get healthy.”

“Healthy?!” Heather banged her palm against her forehead. “This place has gone way beyond bloody dieting!”

“Mum.” Zoe put her hand on her mother's knee. “Nobody died. We're all still here. Just … please, relax.”

“Relax?!” Heather took Zoe's hand in hers and shook it. “
could have died! Any one of us could have died! If there was anyone with underlying mental-health issues that could have been exacerbated, or heart issues! Your dad has high blood pressure! He should never have been given drugs.”

“People probably think you're the one with mental-health issues,” murmured Zoe.

“That's not helping,” said Napoleon.

“Can't we just pick the lock on the door?” said Frances, and she looked hopefully at Tony.

“Why are you looking at me? Do I look like I have a lot of break-and-enter experience?” he said.

“Sorry,” said Frances. Carmel could see her point. Tony
look like
someone who might have dabbled in a bit of breaking-and-entering in his youth.

“We could try. We'd need something to pick it with,” said Ben. He patted himself down and came up with nothing.

“I'm sure there's no need to panic just yet,” said Napoleon.

“It's obviously a kind of problem-solving exercise and eventually she'll realize that we can't solve it.” Lars yawned, then lay down on a yoga mat and shielded his eyes with his arm.

“I think they're watching us in here,” said Jessica. She pointed to a corner of the ceiling. “Isn't that a camera up there?”

They all looked up at the tiny security camera with a flashing red light above the blank television screen.

“Yao told me they had some kind of security intercom system,” said Frances.

“Me too,” said Carmel. “On the first day.”

It felt like a hundred years ago.

Heather leaped to her feet and addressed the camera. “You let us out immediately!” she shrieked. “We did not come here to spend the anniversary of our son's death
locked in a room with strangers

Carmel flinched. She had forgotten the anniversary was
. The woman was allowed to snap and snarl as much as she wanted.

There was silence. Nothing happened.

Heather stamped her foot. “I can't believe we're
for this.”

Napoleon stood and pulled Heather into his arms. “It doesn't matter where we are today,” he said.

“It does,” Heather cried quietly into his shirt. Suddenly she seemed diminished, all the rage gone, just a tiny, sad, traumatized mother.

“Shhh,” said Napoleon.

She was saying something over and over and it took a moment for Carmel to distinguish the words: “I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry.”

“It's okay,” said Napoleon. “We're fine. Everything is fine.”

Everyone looked away from what seemed like an unbearably private moment. Zoe avoided looking at her parents also. She went to a corner
of the room, put one palm against a wall, stood on one leg, and held her ankle in the other hand, doing a yoga class for one.

Carmel looked at the blank screen of the television, suddenly desperate to be far, far away from this family's pain, which so dwarfed her own. She felt a sharp stab of homesickness. Her home was beautiful. She recalled this as if it were brand-new information. Not a mansion by any means, but a comfortable, sunshine-filled family home, even when it had been trashed by four little girls. She'd been the one to renovate it, to make it beautiful. People said she had “an eye.” When she got home she would remember to enjoy it.

“I might see if I can kick that door down,” said Tony.

idea,” said Carmel. People were always kicking down doors in the movies. It seemed quite simple.

“I'll do it,” said Ben.

“Or I'll ram it.” Tony limbered up, rolling his shoulders.

ram it,” said Ben.

“The door opens inward,” said Lars.

There was a pause. “Does that matter?” asked Frances.

“Think about it, Frances,” said Lars.

Tony looked deflated. “Let's try to pick the lock then.” He put his fingertips to his forehead and breathed deeply. “I'm starting to feel a little … claustrophobic. I want to get out of here.”

So did Carmel.

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