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Authors: Liane Moriarty

Nine Perfect Strangers (28 page)

BOOK: Nine Perfect Strangers
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47

 

Frances

They collected everything they could find that would work as a possible lock pick: one hairclip, one belt buckle, one bracelet. It was Frances's bracelet and she had nothing else to contribute except ignorant enthusiasm, so she stayed out of the way and the lock-picking committee became Ben, Jessica, Napoleon, Tony, and Carmel. They seemed to be enjoying themselves destroying her bracelet and discussing exactly what was needed: “teeth to push the pins out” or some such thing.

She went instead to talk to Zoe, who sat in the corner of the room, hugging her knees.

“You okay?” Frances asked, sitting down next to her and putting a tentative hand on the curve of her back.

Zoe lifted her head and smiled. Her eyes were clear. She looked lovely. Not like someone who had spent the previous night tripping. “I'm fine. How was your … experience last night?”

Frances lowered her voice. “I don't approve of what Masha did, outrageous etcetera, your mother is right, drugs are bad, illegal, wrong,
just say no and all that … but I have to admit, I'm with Steve Jobs: it was one of the most fantastic experiences of my life. What about you?”

“There were good and bad parts,” said Zoe. “I saw Zach. We all saw Zach. You know … hallucinated him, we didn't really see him.”

“I thought I saw him too,” said Frances without thinking.

Zoe turned her head.

“I saw a boy,” said Frances. “With you and your mum and dad.”

“You saw Zach?” Zoe's face lit up.

“Sorry,” said Frances. “I hope you don't think that's disrespectful. Obviously, I never knew your brother. It was just my imagination, creating his image.”

“It's fine,” said Zoe. “I like that you saw him. You would have liked him. He would have talked to you. He talked to anyone.” She stopped. “I don't mean that in a bad way—”

“I know what you're saying.” Frances smiled.

“He was interested in everyone,” said Zoe. “He was like Dad. Chatty. He would have asked you about, I don't know, the publishing industry. He was the biggest nerd. He liked watching documentaries. Listening to these obscure podcasts. He was fascinated by the world. That's why …” Her voice broke. “That's why I could never believe he'd choose to give it up.”

She banged her chin against her propped-up knees. “When he died we weren't talking. We hadn't been talking for, like, weeks. We used to have these really big screaming arguments over … lots of things: the bathroom, the television, the charger. It all seems stupid now.”

“That's what siblings do,” said Frances, seeing a flash of her own sister's pursed lips.

“We had this thing where if the fight got really bad we'd stop talking to each other and it was like a competition to see who would talk first, and the person who talked first was
kind of
saying sorry without saying sorry, if you know what I mean, so I didn't want to be the one to talk first.” She looked at Frances as if she were telling her something truly terrible.

“I used to have a very similar arrangement with my first ex-husband,” said Frances.

“But I could tell there was something not quite right with him,” said Zoe. “That week. I could tell. But I didn't ask him. I didn't say anything. I just ignored him.”

Frances kept her face neutral. There was no point saying, You mustn't feel responsible. Of course she felt responsible. Denying her regret would be like denying her loss.

“I'm so sorry, darling.” She wanted to envelop the child in a big, probably unwelcome hug but she settled for placing a hand on her shoulder.

Zoe looked over at her mother. “I've been so angry with him. It felt like he did it on
purpose
just to make me feel bad forever, and I couldn't forgive him for that. It just felt like the meanest, cruelest thing he'd ever done to me. But last night … this sounds stupid, but last night, it felt like we talked again.”

“I know,” said Frances. “I talked to my friend Gillian, who died last year. And my dad. It felt different from a dream. It felt so vivid. It felt realer than real life, to be honest.”

“Do you think maybe we really
did
see them?” There was so much tremulous hope in Zoe's face.

“Maybe,” lied Frances.

“It's just, I was thinking how Masha said that after her near-death experience she realized there was this other reality, and I just thought … maybe we sort of accessed it.”

“Maybe,” said Frances again. She didn't believe in alternate realities. She believed in the transcendent power of love, memory, and imagination. “Anything is possible.”

Zoe lowered her voice so much that Frances had to lean in close to hear. “I feel like I've got him back now, in a weird sort of way. Like I could text him if I wanted.”

“Ah,” said Frances.

“I don't mean I
will
text him,” said Zoe.

“No,” said Frances. “Of course not. I understand what you're saying. You feel like you're not fighting anymore.”

“Yeah,” said Zoe. “We made up. I used to always be so relieved when we made up.”

They sat in silence for a few comfortable minutes and watched the lock pickers crouched down next to the door.

“By the way, I forgot to tell you: I read your book during the silence,” said Zoe. “I loved it.”

“You loved it?” said Frances. “Really? It's fine if it wasn't your cup of tea.”

“Frances,” said Zoe firmly, “it was my cup of tea. I
loved
it.”

“Oh,” said Frances. Her eyes stung, because she could see that Zoe was telling the truth. “Thank you.”

48

 

Zoe

She lied. The book was so, so sappy.

She had finished it yesterday morning (there was nothing else to do here), and it was fine, she kept turning the pages, but you knew from the very beginning that the girl would end up with the guy, even though they hated each other at first, and that there would be trials and tribulations but it would all work out fine in the end, so what was the actual point in reading it? At one stage the girl fainted into the guy's arms, which, like, was romantic or whatever, but did anyone ever really faint in real life? And if they did, was anyone ever really there to conveniently catch them?

Also, where was the
sex
? It took, like, three hundred pages to get to the first kiss, and the book was called
Nathaniel's Kiss
.

Zoe preferred books about international espionage.

“I thought it was a fantastic book,” she told Frances, perfectly poker-faced.
Your country is depending on you, Zoe.

“Maybe you're still high,” said Frances.

Zoe laughed. Maybe she was. “I don't think so.”

She couldn't believe she'd got high with her
parents
. That had been the freakiest part of the whole experience. The fact that her mum and dad were there with her.
Whoa
, she kept thinking.
There's Mum. Whoa. There's Dad
. Worlds collided with volcanic sparks and supersonic booms.

She felt like she could spend the rest of her life remembering everything that happened last night. Or it could all disappear. Either way was possible.

But one thing that wouldn't change when she left here was her mother's revelation.

She and her mother had barely spoken to each other this morning. Right now she was doing sit-ups, although Zoe noticed that she was doing them with less …
aggression …
than usual. In fact, as Zoe watched, she stopped and lay flat on her back with her hands on her stomach, staring at the ceiling.

All these years Zoe had longed for someone to blame other than herself. After Zach died, she'd been through all of his technology: his phone, his email accounts, his social media. She
wanted
to find evidence that he'd been bullied, that there was something going on in his life which was nothing to do with her that could explain his decision. But there was nothing. Her dad had done it too. He'd met up with every single one of Zach's friends, interviewing them, trying to understand. But nobody understood. All his friends were devastated, as baffled as his family.

Now it seemed possible that there was nothing going on in the outside world. It was all in his head. It was the effects of the asthma medication making him temporarily lose his mind.

Maybe. She would never know for sure.

Her mother's revelation didn't exonerate Zoe, but it did give her someone with whom to share the blame. For just a moment, she allowed herself the pleasure of hating her mother. Her mother should not have let him take those stupid tablets. Her mother should have read
that leaflet
like a responsible mother.
Like a mother with medical training.

But then she remembered the sound of her mother's scream that morning and she knew she could never truly blame her.

It had been so wrong, and almost
childish
of her mother to keep this a secret, but that very childishness made Zoe feel better. For the first time ever, she saw her mother as just a girl: a girl like her who made mistakes, who screwed things up, who was just making it all up as she went along.

Yes, her mum should have read the leaflet about the side effects, just like Zoe should have gone into her brother's bedroom when she saw him lying on his bed. She should have walked into his room, sat on the end of his bed, grabbed his gigantic foot, given it a shake, and said, “What's wrong with you, loser?”

Maybe he would have told her, and if he
had
told her, and if he'd made it seem serious enough, she would have gone to her dad and said, “Fix it,” and her dad would have fixed it. She looked at her dad, the only innocent one in their family, on his hands and knees peering at the lock. He'd get them out of here. He could fix anything, given the opportunity. He just hadn't been given the opportunity to fix Zach.

It wasn't okay, it would never be okay, but it felt like hard knots in her stomach were loosening and she wasn't resisting. Other times when she'd started to feel better, when she'd found herself laughing or even looking forward to something, she had immediately pulled herself up. She had felt as though getting better would be forgetting him, betraying him, but now it seemed like there might be a way to remember not just the times they fought, but also the times they laughed so hard their faces hurt, to remember the times they stopped talking, but also the times they talked, about anything and everything, to remember the secrets they kept from each other but also the secrets they shared.

Zoe studied Frances's profile as she too watched the group of lock pickers. Frances looked younger today, without all that bright red lipstick she wore every day even when she was doing an exercise class. It
was like she thought her red lipstick was a piece of clothing she couldn't be seen without.

Zoe felt all at once as if she
was
Frances, a middle-aged lady who wrote books about romance but fell for a romance scam; and she was her dad, who cried all the time without even knowing he did it, on his knees now trying to pick a lock; and she was her mum, so angry with the world but mostly with herself for the mistakes she'd made; and she was the hot guy who won the lottery but didn't seem that happy about it; and she was his wife with the incredible body; and she was the gorgeous gay divorce lawyer; and she was the lady who thought she was fat; and she was the man who used to smile and play football. She was all of them, and she was Zoe.

Wow. Maybe she
was
still high.

“It means a lot to me that you liked my book,” said Frances, turning to face her, eyes shiny. It was sweet. It seemed like Zoe's opinion really mattered to her.

Well done, kid
, said Zach.
Thou droning, dog-hearted dewberry
.

Zach was still there. He wasn't going anywhere. He was going to stick around while she finished uni and traveled and got a job and got married and got old. Just because he chose death didn't mean Zoe couldn't choose life. He was still there in her heart and her memory, and he was going to stay beside her, keeping her company right until the end.

49

 

Ben

They got nowhere trying to pick the lock. Ben could tell straightaway that it wasn't going to work. They didn't have the right tools and the locking mechanism was newly installed. There was some swearing and tetchy remarks: “You try it then!”

People kept coming up with suggestions for the security code, but that red light kept flashing its mean little
fuck you
rejection signal. Ben hated that red light.

He reckoned even his friend Jake, a locksmith, wouldn't be able to do it. He'd once asked Jake if he could pick any lock anywhere. “With the right tools,” Jake had answered.

They didn't have the right tools.

Finally, Ben gave up. He left Carmel and the older men, Napoleon and Tony, to their useless endeavors and went and sat up against a wall with Jessica, who sat chewing on her false fingernails. She looked at him and smiled tentatively. Her lips were dry and chapped. They had kissed forever last night, in front of people. Sometimes Masha had been
there, sitting right next to them, and they just kept right on kissing, like two horny teenagers on public transport.

But it had felt different from being a horny teenager because there was no end goal. He wasn't doing the kissing just to get to the sex. The kissing was the point. Ben felt like he could have done it forever. It wasn't like sloppy drunken kissing, it was hyperreal, like every part of his body had been involved. He couldn't pretend he'd hated his first experience of drugs. It had been incredible. Was this what his sister had destroyed her life for?

Would Ben steal in order to experience that again?

He thought about it. No. He still didn't want to do it again, thank God. So he wasn't an addict from that one time he tried drugs.

His mother had been telling him that ever since he was ten years old, her face haggard with worry over his sister. “It only takes once, Ben, only once, and your life is ruined.” He'd heard it over and over, like a bedtime story. The story was about how the beautiful princess, his sister, got taken away by the evil monster of drugs. “You must never ever, never ever, never ever,” his mother would say, holding his arm so tight it hurt and looking at him with such terrified intensity he always wanted to look away, but he had to maintain eye contact because if he looked away she would start the
never ever, never ever, never ever
chant again.

He didn't need his mother to tell him that drugs ruined your life. The evidence was right there in front of his eyes. He was only ten when it started, and Lucy was five years older, but he still remembered the old Lucy, the first Lucy, the real Lucy who got taken away. The real Lucy played soccer and she was really good. She sat at the dinner table and ate her dinner and said stuff that made sense and laughed when something was
funny
, not for hours at a time at nothing, and if she lost her temper it was normal anger, not the anger that turned her eyes red and mean, like a demon's eyes. She didn't steal, she didn't break things, and she didn't bring home skinny, rat-faced boys with matching red demon eyes. He didn't need to be told never ever, never ever. He knew what the monster did.

Ben's poor mother would have a panic attack if she heard he'd been given drugs.

“It's okay, Ben,” said Jessica quietly, as if she'd read his mind. “You're not an addict now.”

“I know that.” He put his hand over hers and wondered if maybe the couples counseling had worked. Although, if so, why didn't he feel more elated? Maybe it was the crash after the high. That's what got people addicted. The highs were so great, and the lows were so shit in comparison that you'd do anything to get back to the high.

He and Jessica had talked. He remembered that. They'd talked about so much. About everything. Maybe more than they'd ever talked in their entire relationship. They talked about the money. He remembered he'd told her he didn't like the way she'd changed her face and her body. It was strange, because that had seemed like such a big deal before, like the biggest deal ever, and now it seemed like absolutely nothing. Why had it mattered so much? So he didn't like her puffy new lips. Why was that the end of the world?

And the car. She'd been the one who scratched the car. That didn't seem to matter much either now. It was like those smoothies had sucked all the air out of their arguments, and now they were all wrinkled and deflated and kind of embarrassing. Like they'd both been making a whole lot of fuss about nothing.

There was something else they'd talked about too. Something he thought might have been more significant. He'd remember it in a moment.

Jessica pulled out her shirt and sniffed her cleavage. “I stink. I'm going to try and have a sponge bath at the bathroom sink.”

“Okay,” he said.

“I need to wash my face,” said Jessica. She ran a hand over her cheek.

“Okay,” said Ben. He glanced at her. “Not a single person in this room will care if you're not wearing makeup.”

“There will be a single person who cares,” said Jessica as she got to her feet. “Me.
I
care.” But she didn't seem angry.

He watched her walk toward the bathroom.

Are we fixed? Do we have the right tools now?

He wanted a Bacon 'N Egg McMuffin. He wanted to be at work with the guys listening to FM radio, making cars beautiful again. He was going back to work when they got home. He didn't care if they didn't need the money; he needed the work.

How much longer would they be left down here? He had to see
sky
. Even when he was working, he never spent a full day without going outside to eat his lunch.

He remembered a TV show he'd seen about a guy in jail who might have been wrongfully convicted and how he told his mother that he hadn't seen the moon in seven years. Ben experienced a full-body chill when he heard that. That poor, poor schmuck.

“Hey. Mind if I sit here?”

It was Zoe, the girl who was here with her parents.

She sat down next to him.

When he'd seen her over the last few days he'd wondered why someone of her age, who was obviously fit and sporty, would choose to come to a place like this. Now he knew.

“I'm sorry about your brother,” he said.

She glanced at him. “Thank you.” She pulled on her ponytail. “I'm sorry about your sister.”

“How do you know about my sister?” asked Ben.

“Your wife mentioned it—when we heard about what was in the smoothies yesterday. She said she was an addict.”

“Right,” said Ben. “I forgot that.”

“It must be hard,” said Zoe. She flexed her toes.

“It's hard for Jessica,” said Ben. “It's like she has to keep hearing the same old story. She never knew Lucy before the drugs, so to her, she's just a messed-up junkie.”

“You never really get anyone else's family,” said Zoe. “I broke up with my boyfriend because he wanted to go to Bali this week, and I said I couldn't go anywhere, I had to be with my parents for the anniversary of my brother's death. He was like, ‘So are you going to have to spend
that week in January with your parents
for the rest of your whole life
?' And I said … ‘Uh,
yeah.
'”

“He sounds like kind of a jerk,” said Ben.

“It's hard to pick the jerks,” said Zoe.

“I bet your brother would have picked him for a jerk,” said Ben, because it wasn't hard for a guy to pick the jerks, but then he wanted to kick himself. Was that an insensitive thing to say on the anniversary? And maybe her brother wasn't the type to be on the lookout for his sister.

But Zoe smiled. “Probably.”

“What was your brother like?” asked Ben.

“He liked science fiction and conspiracy theories and politics and music that no one had ever heard of,” said Zoe. “He was never boring. We disagreed on basically everything there is to disagree on.” For a horrible moment he thought she might cry, but she didn't.

She said, “What was your sister like? Before the drugs? Or beneath the drugs?”

“Beneath the drugs,” repeated Ben. He thought about it:
Lucy beneath the drugs
. “She used to be the funniest person I knew. Sometimes she still is. She's still a person. People treat addicts like they're not real people anymore but she's still … she's still a person.”

Zoe nodded, just once, almost businesslike, as if she heard what he said and she got it.

“My dad just wanted to cut her off,” said Ben. “Have nothing more to do with her. Pretend like … she never existed. He said it was a matter of self-preservation.”

“How did that work out for him?” asked Zoe.

“It worked out great for him,” said Ben. “He left. Mum and Dad got a divorce. He doesn't even ask about Lucy when I see him.”

“I guess everyone has, like, different ways of coping with stuff,” said Zoe. “After Zach died, my father wanted to talk about him all the time and my mother couldn't bear to say his name, so …”

They sat in silence for a few moments.

“What do you think is going on here?” asked Zoe.

“I don't know,” said Ben. “I really don't know.”

He watched Jessica walk out of the bathroom. She looked across at Ben and smiled, a bit self-consciously. It would be because she wasn't wearing makeup. These days he hardly ever saw her without that gunk plastered all over her face.

He looked at his wife and he knew that he loved her, but at the same time a thought occurred to him. All that kissing wasn't reconnecting. It was saying goodbye.

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