Face of Madness – Blake Pierce

Zoe let her eyes drift to the familiar, well-worn arm of the chair. The leather was cracked in different directions from the grip and trace of many hands and fingers, a fact that used to make her mind go into overdrive, making calculations and tracking patterns. Her special ability, the power to see the numbers in everything around her, had so often been a hindrance rather than a help. But now, looking at the leather, she was able to see only a chair and not an equation. She looked away, still focused on the moment and the question at hand. “I am looking forward to tonight,” she said, smiling at Dr. Lauren Monk, her therapist. The woman had changed her hair recently, cutting in a dark fringe above her dark eyes, and it suited her. She looked five years younger. “Tell me about your plans,” Dr. Monk said. Her head rested at a tilt on one of her hands, and she was studying Zoe closely. Zoe couldn’t help but notice that her notebook had remained closed for the duration of the session, and the pen dangled loosely in her hand. “I am doing something I have never done before,” Zoe said, feeling the flush of excitement color her cheeks slightly. “A double date.

John and I, along with Shelley and her husband.” “You feel that you’ll be able to thrive in this situation?” “Yes.” Zoe nodded her head, knowing it was the truth. Not only because of Dr. Monk’s help, but also because she had come to trust John, after dating him for months. Shelley, her partner at work, had also proven time and again that she could support Zoe whenever she needed it. “The exercises you gave me have been keeping the numbers down. I don’t think I will be overwhelmed. Not this time.” Dr.

Monk’s lips quirked upward briefly as Zoe spoke, as if she’d heard something that made her extremely happy. She had a beauty mark half an inch above the right edge of her mouth, and it jumped up too. With a flourish, she set her notebook aside firmly on the table, setting the pen on top of it neatly. “Zoe, I’m going to say something, and please don’t take it the wrong way,” she said. Her expression was all captured mirth, as if she didn’t want to reveal how happy she was. “I think it’s time we stop seeing one another.” Zoe raised an eyebrow. “You think I should see a different therapist?” Dr. Monk laughed. “No, Zoe.

What did I say about taking it the wrong way? I don’t think you need to see a therapist at all.” “We are… done?” Dr. Monk nodded in confirmation. “You don’t need me anymore.” Zoe cast her eyes around the room that Dr. Monk employed for her therapy sessions: the certificates framed in black wood on the wall, the bookshelves full of psychology books, the potted plant in the corner. A sudden pang of nostalgia hit her, something that she didn’t often feel as an FBI agent—always in one place only for long enough to not yet be used to it before the case was done. It was the sensation of leaving a place for the last time. “What if I start to lose control again?” Dr. Monk leaned forward, placing her hand on top of Zoe’s where it rested on the arm of the chair.

“If you ever need me again, all you have to do is pick up the phone and make an appointment. You’ll always be on my patient list. But this is our last regular session.” Zoe nodded, letting it wash over her. She was done with therapy. No longer needed it. It had been a long series of months sitting in this chair, and she had put a lot of work into trying to change. Hearing that she had at last been victorious was really only confirmation. She knew, as she looked inside herself, that she had conquered the worst parts of her mind, tamed them and trained them. She cast her eyes around the room again, a little self-test.

The numbers were still there, whenever she wanted them to be. She could know at a glance that there was one fewer book on the shelves— perhaps Dr. Monk had taken it down to read or given it to someone for study. She knew the bookshelves were seven feet tall, and that Dr. Monk probably had to stand on something to reach the volumes at the very top. But when she looked again, concentrating this time on staying calm, she just saw a bookcase filled with books. Like everyone else did. She felt a curve lifting her lips, without her permission. A real, natural smile, something that came to her rarely. She felt stronger than she ever had.

Better. More ready, for whatever might be coming her way. “Thank you, Dr. Monk,” she said, getting to her feet and holding out her hand. The doctor shook it, gripping her tighter for a moment with a watery smile of pride, and then escorted her to the door. “Please don’t take this the wrong way,” Zoe said, playfully, as she turned on the threshold. “But I hope I do not have to see you for a long time.” Dr. Monk answered her with a glittering smile. “I feel the same,” she said, closing the door on her with a laugh.

Zoe squared her shoulders. Personal victories required celebration. It was just as well, then, that she had somewhere special to be. *** Another door opened at Zoe’s knock, several hours later and in a different part of town. Despite Dr. Monk’s words of support, she felt jittery now and nervous, her hands seemingly unable to stay still. She turned the handle of her bag over between her fingers, twisting the thin strap one way and then another. Dr. Francesca Applewhite’s still-slim frame was wrapped in a comfortable robe, and her graystreaked dark hair bounced up and then down in its neat bob as she took Zoe in from head to foot. “Zoe,” she said, clearly trying to choose her words carefully.

“I wasn’t expecting you. You look lovely. But, ah… what happened to your eyes?” Zoe almost crumpled, her gaze hitting the floor. She knew she had failed. “I need your help,” she said miserably. Dr. Applewhite moved forward immediately, taking her by the elbow. “All right, my dear. Come in, come in.” Zoe followed her beloved mentor into her comfortable home.

The corridor was lined with framed achievements: both Dr. Applewhite and her husband were accomplished, and though they had never had children, the certificates and awards spoke of academic careers and lives lived in the service of research. “I have never done it before,” Zoe whined, hating even as she did so the way her voice sounded so defeated and high-pitched. “I thought it would be easy. I watched YouTube tutorials to see how to do it but…” Dr. Applewhite paused, turning to place a hand between Zoe’s shoulder blades as she guided her along. “Don’t worry. It’s an easy fix. We’ll get you sorted out. Big night tonight, is it?” “Date night,” Zoe said, already feeling better at the prospect of getting help from the one person who had always been there for her when needed.

Although perhaps that wasn’t fair. She had known Shelley only for a relatively short time, compared to Dr. Applewhite, but she had never let Zoe down either. Even at the times when Zoe had been angry at her for presumed slights, she had always later come to see that Shelley had made the right choice. A few months ago, when they had worked together to bring down a serial killer targeting people with Holocaust memorial tattoos, Shelley had put all of her faith in Zoe to focus their resources on finding the killer when they already had a different suspect in custody. It had worked, and they were more in synergy now than ever, working instinctively to solve their cases and trusting one another implicitly. Come to think of it, John, too, had never let her down. He was always the one who showed up, often first, often waiting for her. He had never become frustrated or angry when Zoe needed to cancel a date because she was out on a case in another part of the country, even when it came up last minute. Somehow, gradually and without realizing it, Zoe had managed to surround herself with the kind of people on whom she could depend.

“All right, sit on the edge of the bath,” Dr. Applewhite said, ushering Zoe into a white, marblelined bathroom and bustling over to a cabinet. It turned out to be full of various makeup and skincare products. She drew out a bottle of something which she tilted against a cotton pad, a swift and practiced motion. “What are you going to do?” Zoe asked, eyeing the bottle with alarm. All of this was beyond her normal understanding. She had never been the kind of woman who tried to look pretty. She kept her brown hair cropped short for convenience, and everything was about the job. Practicality. Comfortable, plain clothes that were easy to move in, flat shoes for running.

A clean face, because she had to be on the road at the drop of a hat, and rain could fling mascara into your eyes just when you were on the heels of a suspect. The field of beauty was alien to her, save for a few experiments in college that had never gone well. “Tilt your head back, and close your eyes,” Dr. Applewhite said. Without thinking, Zoe obeyed her blindly. Dr. Applewhite was a full four inches shorter than her, and didn’t have far down to lean now that Zoe was on the edge of the bath. “I’m going to take off these panda eyes you’ve given yourself and start again. Let me guess—you couldn’t get them even, so you kept adding a bit more to each side to try and make them equal?” Zoe nodded, then froze as the feel of the cotton wool pad soaked in something wet swept across her closed eyelid. “I have the eyeliner with me,” she said.

“I am sorry for coming over like this. I didn’t know who else to ask for help.” “Don’t worry,” Dr. Applewhite said, her voice a little distant with concentration. “I’m always here for you, Zoe. You know that. Now, give me the eyeliner.” Zoe fumbled in her bag to hand it over, then obediently closed her eyes again. Dr. Applewhite’s firm and steady hand brushed over each of her eyelids again, one by one, a light pressure that flicked out a well-practiced line.

“There,” Dr. Applewhite said, sounding quietly pleased with herself. “Take a look.” Zoe opened her eyes, blinking in the bright lights of the bathroom while her eyes readjusted. She stood and headed to the bathroom mirror, and caught her breath. Dr. Applewhite had drawn elegant, thin lines with the black paint, sweeping along the curve of her eyelid and then flicking out just a tiny tail at the edges. The liner drew out the darkness in her brown eyes, contrasted it against the lighter flecks of color in her irises. Zoe had never seen herself like this before. She looked exotic.

Feminine. “Happy?” Dr. Applewhite asked. “I can do something else if you want.” Zoe nodded, biting her lip. “Happy,” she said. “Tonight must be special,” Dr. Applewhite said, sitting down on the closed lid of the toilet. Zoe resumed her position on the side of the bath, perching there like a teenager. “I am going on a double date with John, Shelley, and her husband,” she explained.

“I wanted to make an effort.” “Well, you look beautiful,” Dr. Applewhite said, gesturing to the deep crimson dress Zoe had picked out. “I’ve never seen you wear something like this.” Zoe looked down. She had, at first, felt uncomfortable with the way the dress dipped low across her cleavage, the way it clung to her hips and the slit in the fabric that ran to her lower thigh. She had been even more uncomfortable in the shoes, though the heel was barely more than an inch high. It was all new to her. “I wanted to show him that I can be…” She sought the word. “Womanly.

” Dr. Applewhite leaned over and grasped Zoe’s hand in hers. “He knows that already. John has stuck with you this long. You don’t have to change for him.” “I know.” Zoe hesitated, trying to sum up the feeling. “It is more that… I want to.” Dr. Applewhite smiled, a deep and genuine smile that seemed to stem from her eyes and reach her lips second.

“Things are getting serious with him.” It wasn’t a question, but Zoe felt compelled to answer it anyway. “Maybe. Tonight…” Zoe took a deep breath. This was the thing that was really making her jittery with nerves, the thing that had pushed her to make more of an effort with her appearance. “Tonight, I want to talk with him. Really talk. About our future, and where the relationship is going.” Dr. Applewhite’s eyes, lined as they were with the wrinkles of a life of frequent smiles, were shining with moisture.

Everyone seemed to be like that around her lately. Zoe wondered if flu season was getting an early start. “What do you hope for him to say?” Zoe looked down at her bitten fingernails. She had attempted to put on some nail varnish that morning, but it had not gone well. In the end, she had scrubbed it all away and resolved to focus on her face. “I do not know,” she admitted. “Things have been going well between us, but sooner or later they have to go forward or stop. I am…” Dr. Applewhite spoke up, completing the sentence for her. “Afraid?” Zoe inclined her head.

“A little.” “And what about the numbers?” Dr. Applewhite asked, cutting right to the heart of the matter as she always did. “Does he know yet?” “No,” Zoe sighed. The number of people who knew about her secret, her ability to see the numbers in everything, she could count on one hand. Shelley, Dr. Monk, Dr. Applewhite, and her physician. Those who had to know, and those who had worked it out for themselves. “Do you think you might tell him?” Dr.

Applewhite prompted, gently. Zoe turned her hands over, studied the lines on her palms. Some people, she knew, believed that you could read a fortune there in the length and angle of the lines. It was the kind of thinking that might have been addictive for her, if she had believed any of it. “Perhaps,” she said, tracing the line that she knew was thought to be connected to love. “Depending on tonight.” Dr. Applewhite stood abruptly, starting to bustle around. She hid her face from Zoe to busy herself in the bathroom cabinet. “I hope it goes well,” she said, her voice strangely strained.

“I really do.” “Thank you,” Zoe said. “I mean, for everything.” To her surprise, Dr. Applewhite spun around then and swept her into an embrace, a light clutch and squeeze around her shoulders. When she released her, Dr. Applewhite was patting at her eyes, turning Zoe toward the door with a gentle push. “I don’t know why you’re wasting time with an old woman like me,” she said. “You’ve got a big date to get to. Go on, now.

Go have fun.” Privately, Zoe wondered if it was going to be fun after all. There was a lot riding on the outcome of her conversation with John, and this was also a chance to make a better impression on Shelley’s husband than she had the last time she met. As she stepped out into the street and headed for her car, Zoe felt the weight of pressure settling on her shoulders. It joined the nerves thrumming through her, until she almost thought she might drive straight home. But, sitting in the driver’s seat, she squared her shoulders one more time and faced dead ahead. She was going to get this done, even if it was going to be the death of her. It was too important to chicken out now.

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