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Authors: Liane Moriarty

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BOOK: Nine Perfect Strangers
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She paused again. She looked slowly around the room, as if she were satirizing a politician. The drama of her delivery was so deliberately hyperbolic it wasn't even funny. It
should
have been funny, yet it wasn't.

Masha repeated, “In ten days, you will not be the person you are now.”

No one moved.

Frances felt hope rise in the room like a delicate mist. Oh, to be transformed, to be someone else, to be someone
better
.

“You will leave Tranquillum House feeling happier, healthier, lighter, freer,” said Masha.

Each word felt like a benediction. Happier. Healthier. Lighter. Freer.

“On the last day of your stay with us, you will come to me and you will say this: Masha, you were right! I am not the same person I was. I am healed. I am free of all the negative habits and chemicals and toxins and thoughts that were holding me back. My body and mind are clear. I am changed in ways I could never have imagined.”

What a load of crap
, thought Frances, while simultaneously thinking,
Please let it be true
.

She imagined driving home in ten days: pain-free, energized, her head cold cured, her back as flexible as an elastic band, the hurt and humiliation of her romance scam long gone, washed clean! She would walk tall, stand tall. She would be ready for whatever happened with the new book. The review would have faded to nothing.

(She could actually feel the review right now, like a sharp-edged corn chip stuck in her throat, making it hard to breathe and swallow.)

She might even—and here she felt a burst of childlike anticipation, as if for Christmas Day—be able to zip that amazing Zimmermann dress all the way up again, the one that used to guarantee her compliments (often from other people's husbands, which was always so pleasing).

Perhaps her transformed self would go home and write a thriller or an old-fashioned murder mystery featuring a cast of colorful characters with secrets and a delightfully improbable villain. It might be fun to murder someone with a candlestick or a cup of poisoned tea. She could set it at a
health resort
! The murder weapon could be one of those stretchy green elastic bands she'd seen in the gym. Or she could make it more of a historical health resort where everyone wafted about looking pale and interesting as they recovered from tuberculosis. She could surely throw in a romantic subplot. Who didn't like a romantic subplot?

“There
will
be surprises on this journey,” said Masha. “Each morning at dawn you will receive your daily schedule, but there will be unexpected detours and plans that change. I know this will be difficult for some of you who hold your lives with tight fists.”

She held up her fists to demonstrate her point and smiled. It was a stunning smile: warm and radiant and sensual. Frances found herself smiling back and looked around the room to see if everyone else was similarly affected. Yes, indeed. Even the serial killer smiled at Masha, although it seemed as if his lips had been forced up only temporarily without his consent and the moment he got control back he was once again slack-jawed and sullen, pulling at a piece of thread on the fraying edge of his T-shirt.

“Imagine you are a leaf in a stream,” said Masha. “Relax and enjoy
the journey. The stream will carry you this way and that, but will carry you forward to where you need to go.”

Napoleon nodded thoughtfully.

Frances studied the still, straight backs of Ben and Jessica in front of her, somehow vulnerable in their slim youthfulness, which didn't make sense because they probably didn't say “oof” each time they stood up from a chair.

Ben turned toward Jessica and opened his mouth as if he were about to break the silence, but he didn't. Jessica moved her hand and the light bounced off an enormous diamond on her finger. Good Lord. How many carats was that thing?

“Before we begin our first guided meditation, I have a story to share,” said Masha. “Ten years ago I died.”

Well, that was unexpected. Frances sat a little straighter.

Masha's face became oddly jovial. “If you don't believe me, ask Yao!”

Frances looked across at Yao, who seemed to be trying not to smile.

“I went into cardiac arrest and I was clinically dead.” Masha's green eyes shone with crazy joy, as if she were describing the best day of her life.

Frances frowned. Wait, why did you mention Yao? Was he there? Keep your narrative on track, Masha.

“They call my experience a ‘near-death experience,'” said Masha. “But I feel that is the wrong terminology because I wasn't just near death, I
was
dead. I experienced death
,
a privilege for which I am eternally grateful. My experience, my so-called ‘near-death experience,' was ultimately life-changing.”

There were no coughs, no movement in the room. Were people rigid with embarrassment or still with awe?

Here comes the tunnel of light
, thought Frances. Hadn't they proved there was a scientific reason for that phenomenon? Yet even as she scoffed, she felt a tingle of goose bumps.

“That day, ten years ago, I temporarily left my body,” said Masha.
She said this with casual conviction, as if she didn't expect to be doubted.

Her eyes swept the room. “There may be doubters among you. You may be thinking, Did she really die? Let me tell you, Yao was one of the paramedics who took care of me that day.”

She nodded at Yao, who nodded back.

“Yao can confirm that my heart did indeed stop. We later developed a friendship and a mutual interest in wellness.”

Yao nodded even more vigorously. Did Frances imagine it, or did the other wellness consultant roll her eyes at that? Professional jealousy? What was her name again?
Delilah.

What happened to Delilah after she cut off Samson's hair? Frances longed to Google it. How was she going to cope for ten days without instant answers to idle questions?

Masha continued to speak. “I wish I could tell you much more about my near-death experience, but it is so hard to find the right words, and I'll tell you why—it is simply beyond human comprehension. I don't have the vocabulary for it.”

At least give it a shot. Frances scratched irritably at her forearm, which she understood from a clickbait article to be a symptom of Alzheimer's, although she couldn't be one hundred percent sure because she couldn't goddamn Google it.

“I can tell you this,” said Masha. “There is another reality that sits alongside the physical reality. I now know that death is not to be feared.”

Although still best avoided
, thought Frances. The more earnest people got, the more flippant she became. It was a flaw.

“Death is simply a matter of leaving behind our earthly bodies.” Masha moved her own earthly body with unearthly grace. She seemed to be demonstrating how one shrugged off a body. “It is a natural progression, like walking into another room, like leaving the womb.”

She stopped. There was movement at the back of the studio.

Frances turned and saw the youngest person there, Zoe, stand from her cross-legged position in one fluid movement.

“Sorry,” she said in a low mumble.

Frances noticed Zoe's ears were studded with a multitude of earrings in unusual spots Frances didn't even know it was possible to pierce. Her face was pale. She was so exquisite and heartbreaking, just because she was young, or maybe just because Frances was old.

“Excuse me.”

Both her parents looked up at her in alarm, their hands outstretched as if to grab her. Zoe shook her head violently at them.

“Bathrooms are just over there,” said Masha.

“I just need a little … air,” said Zoe.

Heather got to her feet. “I'll come with you.”

“Mum, no, I'm fine,” said Zoe. “
Please
, just let me …” She indicated the door.

Everyone watched to see who would prevail.

“I'm sure she is fine,” said Masha decisively. “Come back when you are ready, Zoe. You are tired after your long journey, that's all.”

Heather surrendered with obvious reluctance and sat back down.

Everyone watched Zoe leave.

The room felt unsettled now, as if Zoe's departure had put things out of balance. Masha breathed in deeply through her nostrils and out through her mouth.

Someone spoke.

“Listen, now this, ah …
noble silence …
has been broken, could I ask a question?”

It was the serial killer. He spoke belligerently, just like a serial killer, his mouth barely open, so that his words came out in pellets. He was clearly very upset.

Frances saw Masha's eyes widen ever so slightly at this infraction. “If you feel it's important right now.”

He jutted his chin. “Did someone go through our bags?”

12

 

Zoe

Zoe stood at the bottom of the stairs outside the heavy oak door of the meditation room, bent double, her hands on her thighs, trying to catch her breath.

Lately she'd been having the occasional mini panic attack. Not proper panic attacks, which she understood to be awful and had people calling for ambulances, just these mini episodes where suddenly out of nowhere she felt like she'd spiked her heart rate in a spin class. It was fine to be puffing and panting when she was doing a spin class, but not when she was sitting cross-legged on the floor doing nothing except listening to a madwoman talk about death.

She wondered if this was how it was for Zach. He used to say that asthma felt like someone had placed ten bricks on his chest.

Zoe put a hand to her chest. No bricks. It wasn't asthma. Just run-of-the-mill panic.

She could always trace back the causes. This time it was hearing Masha's mad thoughts on the wonderfulness of her near-death experi
ence. It had made Zoe remember the poem her uncle Alessandro had read at her brother's funeral, “Death Is Nothing At All.” Zoe had started thinking about how much she hated that poem, because it was all lies: her brother had not just gone into another room, he was
gone
, so
gone
, so silent, not a text not a post not a tweet not a word, and next thing she was struggling for breath and all she could think was,
Get out
.

She felt bad about breaking the noble silence, especially after her dad's sneezing created havoc in the room. The people at this retreat had no idea that those were her dad's most
subdued
sneezes. One of his students had once made a three-minute film called
Mr. Marconi Sneezes
which was just a montage of her dad sneezing at different times with a soundtrack. It had gone a bit viral.

“Did someone go through our bags?” said a man's voice from behind the door.

She'd put money on it being the seedy-looking guy who was nearly as tall as her dad and twice as wide. Zoe couldn't hear the response.

She climbed the narrow stone staircase and shoved hard to open the second heavy door that led back into the main part of the house.

She couldn't disappear for too long because her parents would worry, which wasn't at all suffocating. Ever since Zach died it was as if Zoe's life was in permanent jeopardy and only her parents' secret, ongoing vigilance would save her. Her mum and dad truly believed that if Zoe didn't get the flu shot, if her car brakes weren't checked every six months, if she didn't have a plan for getting home, she would die. It was as simple as that. And when they so casually asked a question like, “Are you getting an Uber?,” their faces averted, their hands busy doing something else, they couldn't disguise the dread beneath their words, and so she didn't brush them off, she didn't walk away when her mother stood next to her and tried to secretly listen to her breathing, even though, unlike Zach, who'd had asthma from when he was a child, Zoe had never had asthma in her life. She clamped down hard on her irritation and let them listen to her breathe and gave the answers and constant reassurances they needed.

She wouldn't disappear on them now. She'd just take ten minutes for herself and then she'd sneak back in and hopefully Mad Masha would have gotten everyone under control by then and they'd all be silently meditating.

There were no staff about as she wandered into the Lavender Room. It was lavishly lavender. There were multiple tall vases stuffed with sprigs of lavender, the soft furnishings and cushions were all in various shades of lavender, and just in case you'd missed the point,
pictures
of lavender adorned the lavender-colored walls.

Zoe went over to the window which looked straight out onto the rose garden, a rectangle of lush green grass bordered by high hedges, with garden beds of abundant white roses. This was where they would do tai chi at dawn tomorrow morning.

This place was all very nice, if dull—but it was kind of shocking if they really had searched the bags! Luckily Zoe had taken precautions just in case. She knew how to get alcohol into alcohol-free parties. She'd wrapped up her contraband like a present, using bubble wrap to disguise the wine-bottle shape, complete with a gift tag that said:
Happy Anniversary, Mum and Dad!
She'd checked when she got to the room and the present was untouched in her bag.

On Zach's twenty-first birthday Zoe was going to toast him at midnight with a glass of wine. When she and Zach were born the maths teacher at her dad's school had given them each a bottle of Grange, strange presents for babies. The bottles were probably meant to be in a temperature-controlled cellar but Zoe's family wasn't big on alcohol. The bottles had been sitting in the back of the linen cupboard, behind the bath towels, all these years, waiting for their twenty-first birthday. According to the internet, this particular vintage had a
beautiful limp aspect with a melange of dried fruits and spices and then a long, imperious finish
.

Zach would have found that description funny:
A long, imperious finish
.

Her eyes followed the softly curved silhouette of the blue-green hills
along the horizon and she thought of her ex-boyfriend and how hard he'd tried to convince her to join him on a surfing trip to Bali with a group of friends. He couldn't believe it when she insisted it was impossible. “I have to be with my parents,” she'd told him. “Any other time, just not January.” In the end he got angry, and then all of a sudden they were taking a break and next thing they were broken up. She'd kind of thought she had loved him.

She banged her forehead gently against the glass of the window. Did he think she
wanted
to be here with her parents? Did he think she wouldn't prefer to be in Bali?

Last January had been terrible, like her parents were burning to death from the inside, their internal organs being liquefied while they pretended that everything was just fine.

“Hello there. It's Zoe, isn't it? We met earlier. I'm Frances.”

Zoe turned from the window. It was the blond lady with the bright red lipstick whom her dad had accosted on the stairs. She was adjusting an old-fashioned giant tortoiseshell clip in her hair and she looked flushed in the face.

“Hi,” said Zoe.

“I know we're not meant to be speaking, but I feel like this has turned out to be an unplanned interlude in Masha's noble silence.”

“What's going on down there?”

“It's all got very awkward,” said Frances. She sat down on one of the lavender couches. “Oh dear, this is one of those swallow-you-up couches.” She shoved two cushions behind her back. “Ow. My back. Ow.” She wriggled about. “No. I'm okay. That's better. Well. You know the man, the grumpy-looking one with the hacking cough? Not that I can talk. Don't come too close to me, I don't want to infect you, although I feel like my germs are nicer than his germs. Anyway, he's getting very worked up because apparently he smuggled in a whole
minibar
, by the sound of it, and, well, this is embarrassing, but they took some things from my bag too, and I kind of felt like I should have been supporting the grumpy man. You know, like, that
is
a breach of
privacy, you can't do that, we have rights!” She punched a fist in the air.

Zoe sat on the couch opposite her and smiled at the fist punch.

“But I got embarrassed because I didn't want everyone to know I also brought in contraband that was confiscated, and I know this isn't an episode of
Survivor
, but I didn't want to form an alliance with that man, because he seems so … well … so I said I needed some air too, which I feel like was one of the bravest things I've ever done.”

“I brought in contraband too,” said Zoe.


Did
you?” Frances brightened. “Did they find it?”

“No, if they searched my bag they missed it. I wrapped it up like a present for my parents.”

“That's genius. What is it?”

“It's a bottle of wine,” said Zoe. “Really expensive wine. Oh, and a bag of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. I'm addicted.”

“Yum.” Frances sighed. “Congratulations. I like your ingenuity.”

“Thank you,” said Zoe.

Frances picked up a cushion and hugged it. “I'm perfectly capable of going for ten days without a glass of wine, I just … well, I don't know, I was being wicked.”

“I don't even like wine,” said Zoe.

“Oh. Did you just want to prove you could beat the system?”

“I brought the wine to toast my brother's twenty-first birthday. It's in a few days. He died three years ago.”

She saw Frances's inevitably stricken face.

“It's okay,” she told her quickly. “We weren't close.”

People usually looked relieved when she told them that, but Frances's face didn't change at all.

“I'm so sorry,” she said.

“It's fine. Like I said, we really … didn't get on.” Zoe tried to clarify it for her.
Don't stress! You're off the hook
.

She remembered her friend Cara, the day after Zach's funeral, saying, “At least you weren't close.” Cara was really close to her sister.

“What was your brother's name?” asked Frances, as if this was somehow important.

“Zach,” said Zoe, and the name sounded odd and painful in her mouth. She heard a roaring sound in her ears and felt for a moment as if she might faint. “Zoe and Zach. We were twins. Very cutesy names.”

“I think they're lovely names,” said Frances. “But if you're twins that means it's your birthday in a few days too.”

Zoe took a sprig of lavender out of a vase and began to shred it. “Technically. But I don't celebrate on that day anymore. I kind of changed my birthday.”

She'd officially moved her birthday to the eighteenth of March. It was a nicer date. A cooler, less tempestuous time of year. The eighteenth of March was Grandma Maria's birthday, and Grandma Maria used to say it had never once rained on her birthday and maybe that was true; everyone said they should check the weather records in case it was some sort of phenomenon only Grandma Maria had noticed, but nobody ever got around to it.

Grandma Maria had always said she'd live to one hundred like her own mother, but she died one month after Zach of a broken heart. Even the doctor said it was a broken heart.

“Zach died the day before our eighteenth birthday,” said Zoe. “We were meant to be having a ‘Z' party. I was going as Zoe. Which seemed really funny at the time.”

“Oh, Zoe.” Frances leaned forward. Zoe could tell she wanted to touch her but was stopping herself.

“So that's why I changed it,” said Zoe. “It's, like, not fair to Mum and Dad to have to celebrate my birthday the day after when they're still totally wrecked from the anniversary. January is really hard for my parents.”

“Of course it would be,” said Frances. Her eyes were bright with sympathy. “Hard for all of you, I imagine. So you thought it would be good to … get away?”

“We just wanted somewhere quiet, and a health resort seemed like a good idea because we're all
really
unhealthy.”

“Are you? You don't look at all unhealthy to me.”

“Well, for a start, I have way too much sugar in my diet,” said Zoe.

“Sugar is the new villain,” said Frances. “It used to be fat. Then it was carbs. It's hard to keep up.”

“No, but sugar is seriously bad,” said Zoe. It wasn't hard to keep up at all! Everyone knew sugar was terrible for you. “They've done all this research. I need to withdraw from my sugar addiction.”

“Mmm,” said Frances.

“I eat too much chocolate and I'm addicted to Diet Coke, that's why my skin is so bad.” Zoe put a fingertip to a blind pimple near her lip. She couldn't stop touching it.

“Your skin is
gorgeous
!” Frances gesticulated wildly, probably because she was trying not to look at Zoe's pimple.

Zoe sighed. People should be honest.

“My parents are exercise fanatics, but my dad has a junk-food addiction and Mum basically has an eating disorder.” She reflected. Her mother would not like any aspect of this conversation. “Please don't tell her I said that. She doesn't really have an eating disorder. She's just kind of weird about food.”

Even before Zach died Zoe's mother had been like that. She couldn't bear to see lavish displays of food, which was a problem, seeing as she'd married a man with a big extended Italian family. Heather suffered from heartburn and stomach cramps and other “digestive issues” she referred to only obliquely. She never saw food as just food. She always had some fierce emotional response to it. She was
starving
or
bloated
or
craving
something specific and unattainable.

“Anyway, what about you?” she asked Frances. She wanted to shift the focus; she'd revealed far too much about herself and her family to this stranger. “Why did you decide to do this?”

“Oh, you know: I'm run-down, I've done something to my back, I have a cold I can't seem to shake, I suppose I could do with losing a few kilos … just the normal middle-aged stuff.”

“How old are your kids?” asked Zoe.

Frances smiled. “No kids.”

“Oh.” Zoe was taken aback, worried that she might have made some kind of sexist faux pas. “Sorry.”

“Don't be sorry,” Frances said. “It was my choice not to have children. I just never saw myself as a mother. Ever. Even when I was a kid.”

But you're so motherly,
thought Zoe.

“No husband either,” said Frances. “Just two ex-husbands. No boyfriend. I'm very single.”

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