"This is it," Grace announced superfluously.
Pleasant Oaks Asylum, the sign read. The oak beside it had seen better days.
Freddie studied the battered sign and scratched his head thoughtfully. "This place," he began, but didn't know how to continue.
Grace didn't need her father to finish his sentence to know how he felt. She grimaced. "Well, we came all this way... we should at least have a look inside."
Fred and Grace began to climb the long flight of stairs and Gloria followed without a word. She had been apathetic ever since they'd found her that night, lost in the numbness of mind that somehow made things easier to bear right now.
Finally at the top, they entered the imposing building. Though outdated, the large foyer looked reasonably well maintained.
A woman in white dashed out of the tiny office beside the entrance and reached the middle of the room with surprising speed.
"Welcome," the nurse chirped and opened her arms wide. "You must be the Dutiel family - oh, and this is Gloria, no doubt." With a certainty that spoke of much experience, the nurse's blue eyes flickered to the girl with the disheveled hair and impassive expression. "We've been awaiting you eagerly. We're so very happy to have you staying with us, and to welcome you into our cozy little family."
"Hold on," Grace interrupted brusquely and stepped protectively in front of her twin, "let's not get ahead of ourselves here. We are only here to have a look at this place today, nothing more."
While Grace said this, the nurse darted to the other side of the reception desk and assumed her welcoming stance once more. Ostensibly ignoring Grace's comment, she continued animatedly, "I'm sorry, but we're terribly understaffed at the moment, so I have to take over the receptionist's duties as well."
"Why don't you take a brochure," the nurse offered.
Grace walked up to the counter, taking control of the situation as usual. She picked a brochure from the meticulously arranged pile and glanced over the faded pictures and text. "Oh, we have one of those already," she said.
"Well then, put it back," the nurse hissed. Fred and Grace looked at her with wide eyes.
"Budget cuts," the nurse explained with a simpering smile, her tone friendly once again. "Can't be wasting those brochures now, can we?"
Grace nodded slowly and put the folded paper on the pile again.
The glare the nurse shot Grace came so unexpectedly that her breath hitched for a moment. Grace composed herself quickly, however, and moved to straighten the brochure to perfectly align with the ones beneath it.
"There," The nurse smiled sweetly, "A place for everything and everything in its place."
Gloria let her gaze wander while the nurse spoke, her chipper tone occasionally punctuated by sharp questions from Grace.
Fred appeared not to hear a word of what the nurse said either. Even in her apathy, Gloria felt distress at seeing her usually so carefree father frown like this. He looked ready to burst into tears at any moment - had looked like this ever since... that night.
In a reflex of self-preservation, Gloria's mind tried to plunge back into dullness. This was still much too painful for her to think about. But seeing her father's obvious sorrow kept Gloria's thoughts anchored.
These were the people she loved most in her life, and Gloria had hurt them like no one ever had before. Yet, in response they had shown her nothing but affection and concern.
With a pang of guilt, Gloria knew that she did not deserve any of it.
Lost in her gloomy thoughts, Gloria had no grasp of how much time had passed. Suddenly, the nurse was quiet and Gloria found herself face-to face with her twin, who spoke in an unbearably kind voice.
"Like we've discussed, the decision needs to be up to you. But, this place... I don't know." Grace glanced around, obvious disapproval on her face. "We can go right back home if you want."
Freddie said nothing. He only stared at Gloria with those big, sad eyes. She knew he blamed himself for this, just as Grace did.
She had caused them so much pain. Once again Gloria was overcome with shame and guilt. They were good people, much too good for her, and they deserved to live a life free of her.
The silence stretched out between them.
"Grace, Dad, I..." I'm sorry? It's not your fault? What were you supposed to say in a situation like this?
"I'll stay here," she finally rasped.
Grace looked aghast. She opened her mouth to say something when the nurse chimed, "Well then, we better get going!"
Heels clacked on the tile floor. The nurse was beside Gloria in a heartbeat and wrapped a strong arm around her shoulders.
"Oh, you will absolutely love it here," the nurse chirped as she led Gloria away. "We'll take such good care of you. Don't you worry, dear girl."
There was an audible sob, but Gloria did not turn around. She had done enough damage.
The nurse's grip was firm on Gloria's shoulder, fingers digging into flesh like talons into prey. Gloria barely noticed. She was sinking back into numbness. Painless, comfortable apathy.
"It's alright, Dad. She'll get better." Grace's voice broke on the last word, but she did her best to appear strong for her father, who was falling apart beside her.
Gloria barely registered the nurse's comments as she followed her through twisting hallways. "This is the therapy room," the nurse announced, "you'll be having your first session here tomorrow, once you're settled in."
A quick glance into the room revealed a man with graying hair sitting across from a woman in a hospital gown, but the nurse walked on at a pace that did not permit dawdling.
"Over here is Doctor Burroughs' office, but he is not to be disturbed under any circumstances."
As they reached the second floor, the nurse continued her tour, "Patients' rooms are in the West Wing, right here. The South Wing is currently under renovation and therefore strictly off-limits to all patients." If Gloria hadn't been this impassive, the nurse's scowl would have terrified her. "I hope I'm making myself clear," the nurse growled.
Abruptly switching back to her usual pleasant tone, the nurse simpered, "And this is where you'll be staying, dear." She pushed open a heavy door and entered before Gloria into a small room with two beds.
A skinny girl with wild hair hunched on one of the beds. She was pale as a ghost and her protruding bones were visible even through the baggy clothes she wore. Yet, on top of this emaciated body was a surprisingly round and childlike face.
She sat in silence and looked vaguely startled at the sound of the door opening. "Newcomer here", the nurse announced and immediately turned to leave. The girl's sunken eyes widened as she regarded Gloria. When the door finally closed behind the nurse, the girl's face broke into a grin.
"Well, welcome to the Tropical Paradise resort," opening her arms wide, the colorless girl beamed and gestured at the equally colorless room. The walls were bare except for one tiny framed painting of a lighthouse. The same painting that had been in the waiting room at the doctor's office.
Gloria wondered where these paintings were produced. Was there a factory printing these onto tiny canvases, packing them in crates and shipping them all around the country? Or was there a lonely artist painting these, locked in a room of fluorescent bulbs? Day in, day out, lighthouse after lighthouse.
Gloria gazed at the painting, thinking glumly that its presence made the small room even more depressing than if the walls had been completely bare.
"As you can see, we offer everything the heart desires - barred windows, peeling paint jobs, creaky spring mattresses - the whole shebang. Your welcome cocktail is waiting by the pool," the girl droned on happily. After a brief pause to adjust herself so she could gesture at the banged-up lockers behind her, she continued, "And over here we have our luxurious walk-in closets. The left one's mine. You can have the other one. Don't worry about the smell, you'll get used to it."
Gloria sighed and let her weight sink down onto the bed. Creak. The girl hadn't been lying.
"So, what r'you in for?" The girl asked with a smirk, leaning forward and resting her face in her palms.
"Uhm, isn't that supposed to be private between me and the doctor...?" Gloria had never been comfortable talking to strangers, but something about that piercing stare told her that she was probably not the only one who found this girl's presence particularly unsettling.
"Oh yeeeeaaah, the doctor," the girl grinned. "Trust me, I can keep a secret. I won't tell anyone that you're a crazy nymphomaniac - promise," she winked.
Gloria winced at the joke. It only reminded her too painfully of the lies people had told about her in high school. "I'd really rather not talk about it," she said.
The girl's cheery countenance changed instantly to one of intense affront. "Oh, I get it. We're all aloof now, all high and mighty - better than all these loonies that belong here in the loony bin, am I right?! Poor you, thrown in here against your will. Boo hoo. But listen, ever thought that these loonies might also be feeling like they don't belong here? That maybe you're not that special, not that different from us? You're here after all, and once you're here... Well, let me tell you, as delightful and fun as it looks right now, this place can get pretty tiresome after a while. And when that time comes, you don't want to find yourself alone."
Gloria bit her lip. Great. So her roommate was a psycho. Better not get on her bad side or Gloria might wake up one night with those pale spidery fingers wrapped around her neck. Then again, what did it matter?
"I never minded being on my own." Gloria mumbled, turning her back to her roommate as she curled into a tight ball on the small bed.
"Suit yourself," the pale girl scoffed.
This was it now. This was Gloria's life.
Despite the lumpy pillow and scratchy sheets beneath her, Gloria soon fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.