The Cure for Modern Life
CHAPTER ONE The Kindness of Strangers
Was Matthew Connelly a bad man? He’d never once asked himself that question. Make of it what you will. Of course it would have surprised him to know that, as he walked toward the bridge that night, a little boy was asking the question for him. Because Matthew didn’t notice people like this boy, he never wondered what they were thinking about, or if they thought at all. They were as invisible as the ants he’d crushed under his feet as he walked through the streets of Grand Cayman the weekend before, with Amelia and Ben, the happy couple, deliriously grateful to have found each other, all demons of the past behind them—and all thanks to him. His matchmaking was a good deed from their point of view, pure and simple. To Matthew it was something else entirely, something he didn’t dwell on but accepted as another delicate operation in an extremely complex job.
The boy watching Matthew, who gave his name as Timmy or Jacob or Danny, depending on the situation, was only ten years old, but his mother said he was closer to forty in his harsh judgments of other people, by which she usually meant his harsh judgments of herself. And it was true; the boy took an almost instant dislike to Matthew Connelly. It wasn’t just that the guy looked too young to be so filthy rich, with a fancy topcoat that had to cost more than it had cost to feed Isabelle for her entire life, or even that he was obviously in a hurry, striding up Walnut Street like he had somewhere important to be, though it was way past midnight. It wasn’t even the loud, idiotic singing the man was indulging in as he walked, as though no one could possibly be outside on that frigid November night in Philadelphia except Connelly himself, who no doubt considered the journey a reason to pat himself on the back that he was always up for a little exercise. No, the real thing that condemned him, from the boy’s perspective, was the position of his hands, which were jammed so far into his pockets that all you could see were the tops of what surely were the most luxurious leather gloves sold on the planet. So he wasn’t cold, which meant there was only one reason his hands were like that. He was a selfish person, the kind who wouldn’t lift a finger to help anyone else. The kind of person his mother called a “natural-born Republican bastard,” even though she didn’t believe in her son’s hands theory, preferring instead the simpler principle that all rich people were bastards.
Still, the boy, who ended up naming himself Danny that night, had no choice; he had to try. He grabbed three-year-old Isabelle in his arms, groaning under her weight, and ran up the concrete stairs as fast as his scrawny ten-year-old legs would carry him. He had to be standing on the bridge when the man got there, blocking his path. As the guy came closer, Danny proceeded to yell and scream and cry: “Help! Please, mister! My baby sister! Help!”
The tears weren’t real because he never cried, but the fear made his frozen hands shake harder. Isabelle had been throwing up all day and his mother had told him a million times that if you throw up for too long, you can die. Protecting Isabelle was his sacred duty and he would do it no matter what, even if he had to die himself. It was part of the code of honor he’d adopted a few months after his sister was born, when he’d sworn himself in as a knight. This was after he’d read a book about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, which his mother had stolen for him from the library, but he wasn’t playing some stupid pretend game. Even the book said that knights weren’t only in the past, and anyone could be one. True, the boy had never met another knight, but that wasn’t surprising since knights had to sacrifice everything to uphold the code, and that was hard, even for him. But whenever he wanted to renounce his knighthood and go back to being a regular kid, he remembered his honor and how no one could take it away from him—not his mother, not the cops, and certainly not this selfish asshole who wasn’t going to stop, Danny knew, no matter how much he begged.
That Danny turned out to be wrong had nothing to do with his ability to judge men like Matthew Connelly. On that particular night, there was something about Matthew that even a very wise, very hardened ten-year-old boy/knight couldn’t guess from the man’s appearance. The rest, Danny had gotten right, uncannily so. It was true that Matthew was what most anybody would call rich, given his upper-six-figure salary; his stock options at Astor-Denning, the pharmaceutical company where he was a VP; the top-of-the-line Porsche 911 he’d bought with last year’s bonus; his property investments across the city—though he was leasing the loft where he’d lived for the last two years, an upscale but not intimidating place, perfect for his friendships with scientists. It was also true that he was walking quickly, not because he had a flight to Tokyo in the morning, which he’d put out of his mind, but because it felt good to move; not as wonderful as it had on the dance floor, but still good. The idiotic humming was a carry-away from the club he’d just left, a way of remembering the woman he might have taken home with him if this were a normal night, yet it had been anything but.
At seven-thirty he’d gone out to dinner with a nationally known med school professor who’d agreed to testify before the FDA on behalf of Astor-Denning’s new diabetes drug. Matthew’s goal was to make this guy happy, to give him the right food, the right wine, the right conversation, even, if necessary, the right women. But the only thing the good doctor really wanted was to try MDMA: ecstasy. He was recently divorced; he thought he needed a drug that would “release” his emotions about his ex-wife. Matthew agreed to make a few phone calls, though he hoped he wouldn’t have to listen to the guy’s emotions as they were released. When the doc insisted that they try the drug together, Matthew’s first reaction was to smile and nod and decide he wouldn’t swallow it. The illegal part didn’t bother him, but he didn’t want to lose control of the meeting. But then the doc said they’d know they were “tripping” when their pupils dilated, and Matthew realized it might not be easy to fool this doc, even if the guy was high. Whatever happened, he could not let this important contact decide he was a liar. What the hell. The E was pure, according to his source, and he had a brilliant medical professor at his side. What could go wrong?
The fiftysomething, fat, balding doc had had the time of his life, running around the club, groping one woman after another, telling each of them, “I know I’m on X, but the way I feel about you is so intense, it has to be real.” Matthew was much more subdued, but he enjoyed the experience, too. And he felt proud that he’d forced himself to leave the club alone—after the doc left with some blonde—even though the pill was still working, knowing it would give him a cheerful walk home, which, damn, he needed for a change. The trip to the Caymans last weekend, meetings and conference calls and putting out fires all day, wining and dining research partners five nights out of seven: all of this was making him feel unusually tired, though he was determined to prove that nothing had changed, despite the fact that he’d just turned forty. He was in great shape. He could always party like it’s 1999 , even if that particular phrase was one he kept to himself, fearing it would date him with the hot twentysomethings he invariably found himself attracted to rather than women his own age.
With the pill’s help, he floated painlessly down thirty-one blocks from Old City to the bridge, no side effects except a little teeth-chattering. He lived on the West Philly side of the river to enhance his intellectual cred with academics, but the loft scored him points for being hip, too, because uptight people were afraid to live there even though the building was more like a suburban gated community than an edgy inner-city neighborhood, and his Porsche was probably safer there than anywhere in the city. Walking on the Walnut Street Bridge at night did make him a little nervous, which was why he usually took a cab home, but now nothing bothered him, not even some screaming kid standing near the stairs to the river.
When he reached the kid, he noticed the boy was holding what looked like a bundle of clothes, except that it was making sounds like a kitten (or were they words? Whatever it was, that sound was so sweet), and Matthew found himself bursting into a smile. “Can I hold it?” he said, pointing at the bundle.
He just wanted to see what could make that brook sound, but the dirty boy wasn’t cool. He frowned and said, “What? Are you a perv or something?”
Matthew wasn’t sure why, but the question made him feel so happy he started laughing. “No, I’m not,” Matthew said, still grinning. “Am I supposed to be?”
The boy cursed under his breath. “You’re drunk.”
“Wrong again,” Matthew said, and then he blurted out something he would never have told another adult, especially in his condition, given his strict policy of avoiding emotional entanglements. “I’ll have you know that my father died of cirrhosis of the liver. I am not now and have never been drunk. So there.” He stuck his arm out, pointing one finger playfully at the kid. “Take that!”
The boy looked away then, lost in thought, but Matthew was too busy trying to see over the top of the bundle to care what the dirty kid was thinking about. Even if he’d known the kid was thinking about drugs, he wouldn’t have cared. What was the boy going to do, have him arrested for swallowing his first-ever tab of E? After a minute, Matthew said, pointing at the bundle, thrilled that he’d figured it out, “It’s a little girl!”
“Duh,” the kid said. “It’s Isabelle, my sister.” He pulled the blanket down just enough to expose the largest blackest eyes Matthew had ever seen. Doll eyes.
“She doesn’t look like you,” Matthew said. The little girl was a light brown color, while the boy was chalky pale, even under the dirt. “She’s so adorable. Can I touch her?”
Before the boy could answer, the bundle shook and heaved like a volcano about to erupt, and Matthew took a confused step back as the little girl let loose with a stream of vomit that covered the boy’s hands before spewing all over the ground, with one big splat landing on one of Matthew’s handmade Italian shoes.
“She’s sick,” the boy said, sounding depressed. “That’s why I stopped you. I’m sorry.”
Matthew smiled at the humanness of it all. Puke. It happened to everyone, didn’t it? It had happened to him a few hours ago, right at the beginning of his trip. “I know what she needs,” he said, before he could stop himself. “Emetrol and Gatorade.”
“Where do I get that?” The kid’s tone was much lighter now, sweet even. “All the stores around here are closed.”
Matthew thought for a moment. He was happy, but not stupid; yet he didn’t see how this scrawny kid could pose any threat. Not to mention the downstairs guard at the loft: a 275-pound former boxer who would rush to his aid at the push of a button. He could give the beautiful baby the Emetrol and Gatorade and send them on their way, with cab fare for wherever they usually go at night, which he didn’t want to think about. He wanted to stay happy.
“All right, come on.” He looked up at the dark sky and laughed.
“I haven’t got all day.”
“Great,” the kid said. “Just give me a minute.” He pointed below the bridge, presumably to the riverbank at the bottom of the stairs.
“I left something. I have to get it or Isabelle will cry.”
“We don’t want that,” Matthew said, though he was thinking that maybe he should go ahead and walk home without waiting for them. He’d just remembered the plane to Tokyo at 8:37 in the morning. His plan had been to be in bed by one-thirty, then up by five-thirty, showered, packed, and on the road to the airport by six-thirty. He’d sleep on the plane, too, but the four hours would buy him the energy to do the packing and stand in the annoying line at airport security.
He was still working out the details in a fuzzy-minded way—he could easily make it to the Philly airport by seven, but he’d have to take a cab, so he didn’t have to park—when the kid handed him the bundle. “Just hold her. Stand right here.”
The kid’s voice was reluctant, and so was his expression each time he looked back while he rushed away, but Matthew didn’t care. All night he’d felt like touching everyone, but holding this baby was like having a little bird in his hands, a beautiful bird that cooed delightedly every time his finger stroked her cheeks. This sound was better than dance music, better even than the Bach playlist on his iPod. It was like the voice of heaven, he thought. Why didn’t the radio play this child cooing all day long? Why wasn’t it being broadcast from the loudspeakers at Franklin Field right now?
When the kid returned, dragging a garbage bag—and a skinny woman—with him, Matthew was still talking to the baby, listening to her sweet, lilting babbles that seemed to be answers in another language, though he was pretty sure he heard the word yes and positive he heard multiple nos . But still, he felt better when the boy told him the woman was their mother. This made him feel peaceful and warm, knowing these two kids weren’t out at night by themselves. They had a mom, though she was sick, too, obviously. During the short walk to the loft she puked twice, dry heaves, quick and quiet and over before the boy had time to stop. Unless he had no intention of stopping. He shot his mom several dirty looks, which struck Matthew as pointless. She couldn’t help it if she was sick. Puking was human and oddly touching. The simple act of retching made anyone seem vulnerable.
They finally made it to Matthew’s building and went up the elevator into his apartment. Matthew found the Emetrol in the guest bathroom medicine cabinet and told them the Gatorade was in the fridge; then he headed to his bedroom, just planning to change his shoes because the smell of vomit was bothering him. Somehow he ended up on his bed. What happened after that wasn’t strange, since he’d swallowed two Ativans on his walk home, knowing E was an amphetamine and afraid he wouldn’t get to sleep for hours, but it was extremely unfortunate, since he passed out before he had a chance to get rid of the boy and his mother and even the beautiful-voice baby, who he knew he wouldn’t want to see in the morning. Without the pill’s effect, music was just music and puking babies were an annoyance. And strangers looking for handouts were worse than annoying; they were weak and irresponsible and, nearly always, absolute believers that they were morally entitled simply because they were victims.
What Matthew thought of as the victim mentality taking over America was a perpetually sore subject for him, and never more so than in the last month when, as his boss so colorfully put it, Matthew had been driving a hundred miles an hour, in a convertible, trying to outrun a shit storm. The potential disaster had surfaced on an ordinary Thursday night when he was in bed with a woman, dozing after sex while she watched inane TV. Later he would wonder why no one on his media surveillance team knew that this pseudo news show was going to mention Galvenar, but at the time, his reaction was more primal. He went into the bathroom and punched the wall hard enough to make his knuckles bleed, though the wall, embarrassingly enough, was absolutely fine.
By every standard, Galvenar had been Astor-Denning’s most spectacular success, and one of the most successful launches in the history of pharmaceuticals. The medicine was approved by the FDA for chronic pain, but it also had a stunning array of off-label uses, which had led to AD’s stock climbing steadily ever since the drug had come on the market two years earlier. In the last quarter alone, its sales had reached 1.32 billion. Matthew had no intention of letting some idiot who fancied himself an investigative journalist ruin all this, especially with the non-news story that two men had died of heart attacks while taking a long list of meds that just happened to include Galvenar, which this jackass journalist had the nerve to suggest could be “the next Vioxx” and have to be withdrawn from the market, like Vioxx, for the “safety of the public.”
That same night, Matthew started making damage control phone calls. First, the AD legal team threatened the network with a lawsuit if they didn’t issue a statement that Galvenar had been specifically tested for cardiac side effects and judged absolutely safe, even in doses sixteen times larger than either of the men had been taking, which was all true: Galvenar wasn’t even in the same drug class as Vioxx. After the retraction aired, Matthew had his staff reach out to journalists, suggesting they might want to ring in on the “scare tactics” used by this network to boost ratings. More than a dozen had taken the bait, including a handful who wrote for prestigious newspapers. In the meantime, the PR firm drones were planting more testimonials for Galvenar on sites like patientsays.com and manufacturing outrage in pain community chat rooms about television shows that didn’t understand suffering, with frequent references to Galvenar, the gave-us-our-lives-back miracle drug. Then, over the last few weeks, Matthew had personally contacted all the scientists who’d signed on to the research results, just to gauge their reactions, but few of them had heard of this TV report and those who had thought it was another example of the public’s ignorance about cause and effect. Finally, he’d gone with Ben and Amelia to Grand Cayman last weekend, without telling anyone about the trip, even his boss. His boss didn’t know anything about that situation, but even if Matthew had forced him to hear every detail of the last twenty years, all the way back to when he and Ben and Amelia were in college, the boss might still have concluded that Matthew was being so careful it bordered on paranoid. But to Matthew, there was no such thing as too careful. Not when billions in profit were at stake.
Thankfully, it had all blown over now. Well, almost. On Saturday, a Japanese television station had picked up the discredited story, and now Matthew was going to Tokyo with a PR exec, just to make sure the newest big market for Galvenar wasn’t having any second thoughts. His job was simply to present the clinical trial data again and emphasize the impressive safety record in the postmarket, while the PR rep, a heavy hitter, played off what the Japanese (and the rest of the world) already believed: that the American media and government seemed to be obsessed with scaring the hell out of everyone, turning our country into a nation of frightened brats.
Matthew was all too aware that Japan and Europe didn’t like U.S. pharmaceutical companies, whose products they considered vastly overpriced, but they didn’t think the companies were Big Meanies. Only in America. He had dreams of telling all these whiners that the solution was simple: just stop taking any of the products from evil Big Pharma. Put your money where your mouth is. See how you feel about dying at forty, the way your great-great-grandparents did.
This point of view, harsh though it undoubtedly sounds, was not something Matthew had chosen to believe; he was sure about that. Of course he would have preferred to see the world the way he had last night on E, but he knew that rosy outlook was deeply and utterly false, a mere alteration in his brain chemistry, not in the way things really operated. Case in point: last night, he’d stupidly tried to help a poor family, and what was the outcome? He’d not only been inconvenienced, he’d been robbed.
He discovered this after his shower, when he was dressed and packed, but he couldn’t find his wallet. He was already planning to wake up the kid and tell him they had to leave, but now he was furious. He grabbed the boy by the hands, lifting him from the hardwood floor (vaguely wondering why the kid hadn’t slept on any of the furniture or even on the thick oriental rug), and said, “All right, you little thief. Where the fuck is my wallet?”
The boy rubbed his eyes. “I tried to warn you. Don’t you remember? I kept shaking you, but you wouldn’t wake up.”
“If I wouldn’t wake up, then how could I remember?”
“I tried to stop her. I even tackled her, but she shook me off.”
He smirked. “You’re saying the baby robbed me?” Then all of a sudden it hit him. The baby was still asleep, tucked into the corner of his leather couch, with throw pillows all around her. Of course he wasn’t talking about his sister; he was talking about his mom, who Matthew suddenly knew wasn’t sick like the little girl. She was sick like an addict. This was why the kid hadn’t sympathized with her last night. Of course.
“You’re telling me your mom rolled me?” He was shouting. “I let you in to help your sister, and you bring along your mom, who you know will steal whatever isn’t nailed down?”
“I wanted to tell you to lock everything up, but you passed out.” The kid’s voice had an edge to it, but then he said, more quietly,
“I’m really sorry.”
“What else did she take? My wallet and what else?”
“Money in the desk drawer. All the prescription drugs in your bathroom. I think that’s it.”
He kept more than five thousand dollars in the desk drawer. His emergency fund, in case of a bird flu–like disaster that would temporarily close down banks and ATMs. The medicines he didn’t care about, except Lomotil, which he always took on trips overseas, for diarrhea. He couldn’t imagine why a druggie would want it. The Percocet he’d gotten for his knee injury last year, the samples of Vicodin for a toothache a few months ago, the Ativan he took for occasional anxiety and sleep: all of those made sense, but Lomotil? Dammit. Now he’d have to pick up Imodium at the airport. Another thing to do, and time was short already.
“I made her leave your driver’s license,” the kid said, pointing at the end table.
“How thoughtful,” Matthew snapped, though he was relieved to see it lying there. He absolutely had to have that and his passport, or he’d miss his plane.
As he walked into his bedroom to get his keys and watch and cell phone charger, he yelled to the kid that everyone had to go now. “I’m leaving and you and your sister are, too. Sorry, but this isn’t a shelter. I have to go to Japan and you’ll have to go back to wherever the hell you came from.”
“How long will you be gone?” the kid said, following him.
Matthew spun around. “Why?”
“This building has the most advanced security system in the city. If you’re thinking you’ll sneak in after I’m gone, give it up.” He snapped the band on his Rolex to emphasize his point, and forced himself not to wince. “The one and only reason I’m not calling the police right now is I don’t have time.”
“That’s nice,” the kid said sarcastically.
“Why aren’t you waking up your sister?” He had the charger in his briefcase, along with his tablet laptop and the second corporate Amex he was supposed to use only in emergencies, but now he couldn’t find his goddamn cell. It was in his pants when he fell asleep, wasn’t it? Had it fallen on the floor? He knelt down to look and said, “I told you to get out. If you don’t, I’m calling the security guard to throw you out.”
The boy watched him as he looked around the bedside table, under the bed, everywhere he could think of. Then he said, “Have you ever brought kids back here before?”
“You know I haven’t,” Matthew said, because he was suddenly sure this kid did know. This boy’s eyes were cunning, suspicious, nothing like the innocent child he’d seen the night before. Fucking E. He’d never take it again as long as he lived, if he could just get through this morning and on the plane.
“I don’t think you want to call the security guard.”
“Oh, really?” Matthew stomped over to his bedroom phone and picked up the receiver. “We’ll see about that.”
“I mean,” the kid said quickly, “how will it look when I tell him that you brought me back here for sex?”
“What?” he said, though he’d heard the kid perfectly. “You scheming little—”
“I won’t hurt any of your stuff. I swear. It’s just, I have to let Isabelle sleep. Even with all your yelling, she hasn’t woken up because she’s really sick. I can’t take her out yet or she might die.”
“Boo hoo hoo. And how is that my problem again?”
“It isn’t your problem. I know. But I have to protect my sister.”
Matthew was still holding the receiver, but his finger was hesitating on the 7, the number for security. He didn’t know the security guard beyond awkward hellos in the hall and the less awkward giving of frequent tips, including five hundred dollars last Christmas. What if the man was some kind of kiddie advocate? What if he’d been abused by his father or his priest? The world was full of whiners, crying about what happened to them in their childhood. Unfortunately, even a 275-pound security guard might turn out to be one of them.
The boy stood with his arms crossed, watching Matthew. Matthew was watching him, too, and suddenly he remembered the kid’s name. He’d introduced himself last night in the elevator. His manner had been surprisingly formal. “I’m Danny, sir. Thank you so much for helping us.”
Matthew smiled as it hit him that the kid was bluffing. He told him so, looking straight into his eyes. “You won’t do it because you want to be better than your mother. She’s the liar, not you.”
“Whatever you say,” Danny said, smirking like a monkey. A clever monkey; Matthew had to give him that. “But I’m gonna do whatever I have to do for Isabelle. If that means putting you in jail until they can prove you didn’t have sex with me? Guess you’d miss your plane and all, but if you don’t care about that, then—”
“All right, all right, Jesus Christ!” Matthew banged down the receiver. It was 6:49; he had to go. “But you better get out of here before I get on that plane or—”
“I swear we’ll leave as soon as she has a chance to sleep. Just tell me how to lock the door.”
“It locks automatically. All you have to do is shut it when you get the hell out.” As he walked back into the main room, he was still yelling, “Because once I’m on the plane, I’m calling security. I’ll tell them the whole story and you can try your sex lie; be my guest. I’m sure they’ll realize you’re a little shit long before I’m back in the country.”
He glanced at the baby girl as he walked to the closet for his coat. She did look so peaceful lying there, and she had a beautiful face, just as he remembered. For a split second, he felt sorry for her and her lying brother, but then he realized he still hadn’t found his phone. When he asked Danny if his mother had taken that, too, the kid sighed and nodded.
“I really am sorry, mister.”
“Not as sorry as I am,” Matthew said, walking to the door. “And not half as sorry as you’re going to be if you aren’t gone before the police arrive.”
Of course he was furious; he had too many problems to deal with this mess. And he didn’t want homeless people in his house, but as he reminded himself as he stepped on the elevator, who would?