Zoe closed her eyes, tilting her head to lean against the back of the sofa. It didn’t matter either way. Outside her open curtains, darkness had fallen over Bethesda, and she hadn’t bothered to get up to turn the lights on. In the distance, yellow pinpricks in the skyline told her that Washington, D.C., was still awake, and she was tired of staring at them. That was not her world anymore. All she saw when she looked at it were the numbers: the floors in every building and how many windows they had, the distance from the ground, the amount of time it would take a falling object to hit the sidewalk from any given window. The number of buildings, the divisions of streets and the angles at which they intersected each other, around and around in her head, until all she wanted to do was bury herself in darkness and shut it all out for good. And then, with her eyes closed, her other senses would take over. The seconds ticking audibly from her watch, which she had days since taken off and thrown across the room so that she would not be able to hear it anymore. She could still count them. Even the bubbles popping from inside the bottle of her beer began to take on a pattern of their own: calculating the time between pops, the volume left in the bottle, the velocity of the bubbles’ movement when she squinted at the liquid in the half-light. Zoe took another swig, thinking that finishing the bottle would serve two purposes: one, removing the popping bubbles from her immediate vicinity, and two, dulling her senses. Maybe the next bottle would not pop quite so loudly.
One of her cats, Euler judging by the particular sound of his delicate claw-grips in the fabric, eased himself casually along the back of the sofa and spread out behind her, making almost no noise as he settled his furry warmth against her short-cropped dark hair. But he did make noise. He had a heartbeat, a breathing rhythm. As quiet as they might be, they were there, and with everything else shut out, Zoe knew she would soon begin to count them. She stirred slightly, reaching for her cell phone. It lay uselessly on the arm of the sofa, turned off. She hadn’t turned it on in days. At the beginning, when she first came home from the case that had gotten her suspended, she had left it on. There had been messages, notifications, alerts, all ringing and buzzing and annoying the hell out of her until she switched it off. Then she would turn it on once a day, read the messages, turn it off.
Now she didn’t even want to do that. It was too much. Zoe wasn’t expecting anything new anyway. She had cut everyone off, shut them out, and over the weeks they had stopped trying. There would be nothing from work—after she had badly beaten the murderer who took the life of her partner, Special Agent Shelley Rose, SAIC Maitland had had no choice but to send her home. Not before she’d solved the case, and she took grim satisfaction in that. Not that it was enough. She’d still let it happen. Let him kill Shelley right under her nose. Zoe shifted her weight on the sofa, staring at the phone, calculating its dimensions, weight, the outline of each button on the side.
Even the numbers were better than thinking about that. And it wasn’t just the FBI who weren’t contacting her anymore. Zoe had been dating John for long enough to start trusting him, to think about telling him about the numbers; she’d even planned it, set a date. But after Shelley’s death, there didn’t seem to be any point in seeing him again. He’d called daily at first. Then texts, three a day, two a day, one a day. They had petered out rapidly, until John stopped trying. He’d sent her a message that she had by now memorized: I’ll be here if/when you want to talk. Nine words. Thirty-eight characters.
And that was the last message he had sent, twenty-seven days ago. Zoe knew without looking, because her internal clock wouldn’t stop counting, that it was a few hours away from being twenty-eight. Each day slipped away with the same intolerable length, an equal measurement stretching out behind her and in front of her, the same thing over and over again for as far as she could see. Zoe was reaching for her second beer of the night when she flinched hard, almost dropping it on the floor. The knock on the door was forceful, numbers instantly flashing through Zoe’s head: the weight of the fist doing the knocking, the velocity, the force. And she knew, without a doubt, who was attached to that fist. “Zoe?” The voice floated under the door and through the quiet apartment, too loud. Dr. Francesca Applewhite had come by almost every one of the twenty-seven days since John’s last text, and every day before that, too. Thirty-six knocks on the door.
Given that Dr. Applewhite almost always knocked in a pattern of four raps—one, one-two, one—that was one hundred forty-four individual knocks, impacts on the frame, on Dr. Applewhite’s knuckles. And Zoe had never opened the door once. “Zoe, I just want to hear your voice,” Dr. Applewhite said. “Just let me know that you’re okay.” Zoe’s eyes slid closed. Dr. Applewhite’s voice came through the door at sixty-five decibels, only slightly raised from normal speaking level.
Just loud enough to be heard through the door. Through the apartment. There was nowhere Zoe could go where she couldn’t hear the voice calling through the door. It was too small of a space. She had tried. “Zoe!” Sixty-nine decibels. Zoe clamped her hands over her ears, trying not to hear the numbers anymore. “Go away!” she shouted, unable to stop herself. “Just leave me alone!” There was a soft noise in the corridor outside. “All right, Zoe.
” Sixty decibels. Low and calm. “I’m going now. Just call me if you need anything.” There was a hesitant pause, a wait for a response. Zoe said nothing. Finally Dr. Applewhite’s footsteps walked away, Zoe tracing their path to the stairs, knowing from the sound that Dr. Applewhite still weighed one hundred twenty-nine pounds. Zoe rubbed a hand over her eyes and took the beer out of the refrigerator.
She cracked it open and took a long swig, draining as much of it as she could manage in one go. Almost exactly one-half, she noted as she measured the volume with her eyes. She turned to look at the sofa but did not move, the apartment seeming stiflingly close now, too small, too circular a space for her thoughts to rush around in. She couldn’t stay here, not with the numbers, not for the whole of the rest of the night. She couldn’t listen to them echoing in her head with no response. They were everywhere, and even though she knew they were also out there, at least the numbers outside of the apartment would be new. She waited seventeen minutes after the last of Dr. Applewhite’s audible footsteps to allow her time to be out of the neighborhood entirely, downed the rest of the second bottle of beer and threw it in the trash, and went to put on her shoes. *** Zoe stumbled, almost tripping over a loose stone on the edge of the sidewalk. On closer inspection, it transpired that the stone was actually part of the sidewalk itself, an edging slab put in during construction.
Well. They shouldn’t have put it there. Zoe straightened carefully, making sure not to wobble over again. She looked up at the street and realized where she was with a sinking feeling: the same place she often ended up when she attempted to wander through the night after a few drinks. Or during a few drinks, since she had carried the rest of the six-pack with her, and now her hands were empty. It wasn’t exactly a short walk, which meant that she had deliberately come this way, even if she couldn’t remember actually making the decision. Still, here she was, right in front of that same house. The house that Zoe normally never would have dared to stand in front of. It was no coincidence that she only came here at night, under the cover of darkness, and when the alcohol had stripped away some of her nerves. It meant they weren’t likely to see her, and she could stand there and wallow in her guilt like a coward, and never actually do anything.
It wasn’t as though she didn’t want to. Zoe wanted more than anything to go up to that house and knock on the door. She wanted it to open and for Agent Shelley Rose to be standing there, her blonde chignon perfectly in place, her pink lipstick without a smudge. She wanted Shelley to smile and say something like, “Read to go, Z?”, and they would get on a plane together and go solve a murder, and everything would be all right. But it wouldn’t, because Shelley was no longer there. Shelley was in the ground. Zoe had watched them do it, watched them lower her into a fresh pit while her husband and daughter watched at the side of the grave. She had wanted to say something then, but she couldn’t. She wanted to say something now, but she still couldn’t. She didn’t deserve that closure.
Shelley’s husband, left without a wife. Shelley’s daughter, left without a mother. Zoe could knock on the door now and tell them that she was sorry, that it was all her fault, that she hadn’t been able to stop it. She could have shouldered all the blame, taken their hate, whatever they wanted to throw her way. Made them feel better. But whether it was for their benefit or her own, she couldn’t do that. It wasn’t just about what she deserved. It wasn’t even about whether she had the guts. Zoe looked up at that house and tried to think of something that she could say to them, and all she could think was the house has five windows facing the road, each divided into four panes; the door is six and a half feet tall; the path to the door is six feet long and contains twelve paving slabs; each paving slab is half a foot long, or 15.24 centimeters, or six inches, or 0.
167 of a yard, or… Zoe had no words to tell them. She only had numbers. She turned away from the familiar house and all of its dimensions, forcing herself to take the necessary steps toward home. Every time she ended up here, she felt even lower than when she set off. But still, her feet kept finding the way. Sooner or later, she was going to have to stop going out at all. The risk wasn’t worth it. And Zoe couldn’t see any way out of this mess—this mess that she had created. She could only sit at home and leave her phone turned off, and ignore the calls that would come when her suspension was up, and let it all fade into someone else’s memory. CHAPTER TWO Elara Vega looked at her watch and raised her eyebrows, the gesture meant only for herself.
She was alone, after all; her colleagues had all left, mostly at six when their workday was over. But Elara’s work was everything to her—had always been everything to her. No, that wasn’t quite true, she reflected as she gathered her things and moved her notes into an orderly configuration for the morning. There had been a time when other things had mattered more. She had raised her son, and for a time there had been her husband, although the divorce came twenty years ago. Two years after that the son had moved out to go to college, and since then, she had been alone. She liked it that way. Just her and the stars and planets, eternal and yet fleeting. Elara glanced over her tidy desk, checking for anything astray. If there was something she had learned in her fifty-nine years of life, it was that keeping things tidy was a lot less effort than cleaning up a build-up of mess after it had had time to settle.
Satisfied, Elara grabbed her coat from the back of the chair and shrugged it on, heading for the door. She was still straightening the collar as she stepped out into the hall, where a janitor was running a mop in smooth circles over the floor. She always felt bad when she stayed late enough to interrupt the cleaners. They had a job to do, and here she was, walking over the newly washed floor in her boots. The planetarium was set up with office spaces, corporate and event rooms, and facilities branching away from the central theater, which led directly to the main foyer and the exit. Elara stepped out into the dark space, always slightly eerie at night with the whole building in darkness and all of the chairs sitting silently empty. It had always reminded her of those apocalyptic movies when the characters would come across something poignant: an abandoned theater, the covers on the seats slowly rotting, the projection equipment gone to ruin. She crossed the floor quickly, wanting the comfort of the foyer and the night air. She was halfway across the front of the seats when a familiar whirring noise started up: the mechanical noise of the projector coming to life. Elara’s steps faltered, and she looked up and around herself in wonder.
The stars and planets had burst into light overhead, swirling around until they settled into their places for the beginning of the presentation. She had seen it a hundred times, had even taken part in checking the accuracy of the new astral maps a few years ago when it was updated, but it was something new to be standing right in the middle of it like this. Feeling that you could almost reach out and touch the stars… But who had turned the projector on? All of her colleagues had gone home, and it wasn’t supposed to be on at this time of night. Orchestral music was beginning to blare, so loud it drowned out everything else. Elara frowned and began to turn, thinking that she would investigate the projection room— But she was on her knees, staring at the floor. How had she gotten here? Just a minute ago, she had been—but there was a pain in the back of her head—a clattering impact she remembered, louder even than the music—and she found that her legs wouldn’t lift her, and neither would her arms, and everything was throbbing— There was something else now, something at the back of her neck—another pain—a hand, gripping her tightly, with no thought for the delicate skin. Elara dimly tried to struggle free, wanting the pain to stop, but the hand gripped her more tightly, the ache coming to her from some distant place far away. Like another planet, maybe, shrouded by distance and the light from other stars. She was moving —being moved, by the back of her neck—being taken somewhere, her legs dragging helplessly on the ground. Elara fought to get her feet under her, to stop them from skidding and bouncing on the smooth floor, but nothing seemed to be working properly, and the music was so loud and the lights were so bright, and something hot was falling down her forehead and getting in her eye.
She found herself looking down into something round, metal, the light bouncing and reflecting off something glinting and moving inside—off water—and then— The cold water was a shock to her system, making her gasp out loud, the one action she had managed to fulfill with clarity since the projector turned on. It was unfortunate that it was also the one action that, in this case, was inappropriate: she inhaled only water, not air, feeling it rush into her mouth and down her throat with a panic that overcame the confusion and pain in her head. She only knew that she had to get out, to get away, to haul herself back to the surface and the air again. Elara struggled, latching her hands onto the sides of the metal bucket, feeling it move under her in a sickening lurch, but somehow she went with it. There was something over her shoulders, pressing down on her, stopping her from raising her head up out of the water. She felt her vision darkening, black spots appearing in front of her eyes, dancing along with the flecks of light that reached down into the water, playing off the bubbles all around her as she thrashed desperately to raise her head. Elara tried with one last effort to simply fall backward, to tip the bucket and the water away, but her throat was convulsing and her vision failing, and she knew she had nothing left. A painful contraction in her chest forced her to try to suck in one last breath, but she found none, and then there was a blackness so absolute that there was nothing—not even the glimmers of stars millions of light years away, dying in another galaxy, perhaps already dead.