Her mask shifted, ever so slightly, as the final client of the day left the room. She could hear the crunching and clunking of the white rings as they rubixed their way around her face, but she could never quite tell if everyone heard the noise or whether it was because of how tightly the mask hugged her head. The lips of the mask were the last to crunk into place, forming a rouged smile, wide and beaming.
“Doctor Ketch?” The tinny voice of her receptionist came through the intercom. Whether the tininess was the intercom itself or the natural timbre of the receptionist’s voice was long forgotten to the good doctor. “I’m going home now. Is there anything else that you need?”
“No thank you, Marionette,” Doctor Ketch replied, shocked slightly by the gaiety of her own voice. “Your work today has been wonderful. Thank you very much. I shall see you tomorrow.” The sound of that statement shocked her on a daily basis, but her face only ever looked like this to offer platitudes to the receptionist. As soon as Marionette had said her goodnights and the doctor had heard the surgery door slam, the mask twisted again to become its default resting form, emotionless and serene.
“Evenin’ love. What can I getcha?”
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“Good evening, Swazzle.” Demurely, Doctor Ketch perched on a bar stool and waited patiently while the mask arranged itself into a small, seductive smile. “Gin and tonic, please.”
“Gin and tonic,” Swazzle laughed, busying himself behind the bar with the preparations for her drink.
“What was the laugh for?” the doctor asked, the bottom half of her face resting in the smile white the top half rearranged itself to be quizzical, eyebrows cocked.
“Nah, nothin’. Laughing at myself as much as anything. You’ve come in here every night…well, every night that I’ve worked at least…for the last six months and ordered the exact same thing. I dunno why I ask any more.”
“Oh.” The mask whirred again, eyebrows unknotting. “Don’t most people who come into such places drink the same thing? The usual, I believe it’s called.”
“Right you are,” Swazzle answered, handing her the small glass. “See old Jack over there?” Swazzle leaned across the bar, close enough for Judith to recognise that he smelled of alcohol and crackling fire. Close enough for her to be thankful, perhaps for the first time ever, that the mask had nostril openings allowing her to smell the world. “He has a Blood and Sand.”
“Really?” Judith asked, her mask once again swirling around her head into its quizzical look. “He doesn’t look the type.”
“Aren’t you a psychiatrist?” Swazzle asked, pulling himself back across the bar and beginning to wipe it down. “You should know better than that.”
“Touché,” she chuckled, conscious of the slight lag before the mask twisted and turned into a grin. Conscious of the slight flicker of confusion across Swazzle’s face. “Battery is running low,” she explained through gritted teeth. “I’ll charge it when I get home.”
“Now you, my dear man. What’s your usual?”
“Me? Oh, simple tastes here, love. House draught is all I need.” The mask twisted again, behaving itself this time as it contorted into its demure smile and a wink.
At precisely 22:00, Dr Ketch settled onto her brown, leather couch and switched on The Nature Channel.
“The usual,” she smiled to herself. Swazzle had once called it boring, but what did he know? Being a psychiatrist was stressful and she welcomed the soothing comfort of her routine. The mask twisted once more, from the smile back to rest, and the loud crunching and grinding ringing in her ears reminded her of the blip from earlier that evening. “Display battery,” she commanded, happy as everything went dark but slightly agitated when the glowing red icon didn’t fill her vision. “Display battery,” she commanded again, her tone sharper. This time, a red glow did flood her eyes, but it wasn’t the familiar battery shape. “Warning : Battery Undetected.” She swore slightly under her breath. “Damn thing can’t fail. I can’t afford a new one.” She unclasped the buckled resting on her neck and gently pulled at the mask, bringing it away in two pieces from her head. She carried them over to the wall-mounted charger and gingerly placed them in, holding her breath until the red charging light turned green. “So, the battery’s fine.” The mask clunked a little, normal residue from the neural transmitters before it realised it wasn’t attached to her head anymore. “Please don’t let it break,” she begged no-one in particular. “I can’t afford for it to break.”
All of a sudden, there were three sharp knocks on the front door, and Judith’s heart froze. This didn’t happen. This wasn’t part of the routine.
“It’s Swazzle!” a voice called through the hallway. Dr Ketch knew that she should have felt better, that identifying the person should make it better, but she was startled and started to tremble.
“Go away please,” she stuttered. “I will see you at the bar tomorrow. What you need can wait.”
“No, it can’t,” Swazzle persisted. “I’ve got your coinpurse here. You left it in the bar.” Judith cursed under her breath again.
“Put it through the letter box, please.” She heard the flaps rattle, and then a grunt of frustration.
“It won’t fit.” A beat. “Please, just come and get it.”
“I can’t,” Judith replied. “I’m not decent.”
“Please, just put on a dressing gown or something and come and get it. I’m tired and I want to go home to bed.”
Judith looked down at herself, fully clothed, and took a deep breath. She knew Swazzle. She could trust Swazzle. As she approached the door, she shook her head back and forth and chanted to herself “I don’t like it. I don’t like it.” Deliberately, and as quickly as she could, she pulled open the door. Swazzle looked at her face and smiled.