Growing up by the ocean, Gloria was used to being woken by the cawing of seagulls in the mornings. Their grating sounds were always accompanied by a pleasantly sharp sea breeze, but today there was nothing but a damp odor.
For a moment, Gloria was disoriented.
Then she remembered.
Midnight Hollow lay in a dark valley, far from the shore. Tall mountains blotted out the sunlight for most of the day. The only nearby water was a large lake, so murky with algae that it looked black as ink.
The source of the cawing hadn't been gulls, of course, but a murder of crows flying by.
The lake had to be where the musty odor was coming from, Gloria reasoned. At least she hoped it was that.
Though, honestly, there was no way to tell.
Everything in this old building smelled mossy and moldy to Gloria.
The communal bathroom was no exception.
Gloria's bare feet felt every sharp edge where the cold tiles didn't line up evenly. She would need to find some slippers to wear, she thought, but for now she had no time to waste.
She knew there was only one functioning shower, and for once nobody else was in here.
Gloria gasped when a raised voice suddenly echoed through the room.
"Shut up," the pale girl screeched, her face almost touching the wall, "I hate you! You suck, you horrible piece of--"
Gloria was about to turn on her heel and leave silently when the girl noticed her. "Oh, the shower," the girl said, tucking a strand of her wildly disheveled hair behind her ear. "I'll leave."
"You don't have to," Gloria mumbled, "I can wait if you're... uh... using it." She glanced at the spot on the wall where the girl had directed her anger until a moment ago, but nothing about it stood out to her. In a bout of curiosity she asked, "What were you..."
"Ugh, just venting," the girl said. "I know it looks nutty, but sometimes it helps to let it out even if there is no one to yell at, you know? Besides, I'm already in the loony bin - might as well act like it."
Gloria looked at the pale girl and wondered if she had been too quick in her judgement. The girl was obviously lonely, and having met some of the other patients, Gloria could understand her eagerness to talk to someone new.
"I'm sorry about the other day," Gloria said, trusting that she didn't need to elaborate any further. "I'm Gloria, by the way."
"I'm Ally," the girl said, "Allegra. But I prefer Ally." Her entire demeanor still unsettled Gloria, but the friendly tone was reassuring.
"Ally then," Gloria smiled.
“So what’s your therapy goal,” Ally blurted out abruptly.
Immediately, Gloria was taken aback again. “Oh, it’s …" her voice trailed off. 'Isn’t that private?' was the first thought on her mind, but that was what had made their first conversation go wrong. She wasn't going to make that mistake again. "I'm supposed to paint and write," she said.
"Cool," Ally replied simply. “Mine is to be Leader of the Free World!”
Gloria stared at her in disbelief.
Ally kept an expressionless face for another moment, then burst out laughing. “Got you,” she snorted, “got you good, huh? Leader of the Free World! Like that's ever going to happen!”
Gloria tried a smile. “Heh, yeah…”
Ally's laughter died down slowly, but finally she wiped a tear from the corner of her eye and added more calmly, “Nah, I’m gonna be an astronaut.”
Gloria still wasn't sure what to make of Ally, but the simple thought of having one friendly face to turn to had given her a new sort of courage.
Like the rest of Midnight Hollow, the 'Sun Room' never saw much sun. It did, however, hold a good supply of canvases and several tubes of paint.
For a moment, the empty white surface before her was daunting. What was she supposed to paint? Her mind was as blank as the canvas. All her ideas just seemed stupid. She'd never been good at this. Why had she thought things would be different this time?
Gloria was about to drop her brush and do something else instead when she realized that, well, there was nothing else to do. She sighed.
It's okay, she told herself, this one won't be a masterpiece yet. And she laid down her first stroke.
"Whatcha paintin'," the gaunt man mocked in a childish voice, but Gloria didn't even hear him.
She smiled to herself as a lighthouse slowly began to materialize.
Blue for the ocean, yellow for the light. Red for the red stripes of the lighthouse, leaving the white ones blank. And then finally, Gloria managed to unscrew the top of the dried up tube of green to paint the grass.
She was putting down the colors in their respective areas meticulously, rubbing the brush back and forth, making sure to fill empty spaces as best she could. Sometimes the thick paint just wouldn't cooperate with the texture of the canvas, but Gloria persisted.
When she was finished, Gloria took a step back and frowned. All the colors she'd put down had made perfect sense to her. The ocean was blue. Grass was green. So why did her painting look nothing like what she had seen in her mind? It resembled the crude drawing of a child, nothing more.
Her first tentative attempts at writing felt equally clumsy.
"Music group," the nurse announced and promptly began strumming the strings of the old guitar in a haphazard way.
Discordant or not, the music seemed to draw in the other patients. The room filled up quickly.
Needless to say, their presence made Gloria uncomfortable. Trying to find the right words was difficult enough - having someone standing right behind her as she did so only made it worse.
She felt like all eyes were on her, piercing stares fixed on her back.
She tried to tell herself that she was just imagining it.
But eventually it was too much.
Gloria saved her text file, turned off the computer and slunk out of the room, careful not to attract any attention.
Meals, the nurse had explained, were up to the patients to prepare. It was supposed to keep them in touch with the real world, she had said.
As for Gloria, her real world experiences with kitchens had never included anything like this.
Everything was shabby, filthy, or both. A thin layer of greasy dust covered every surface. However, a viciously growling stomach wouldn't let Gloria ponder this.
She opened the fridge, selected a few reasonably fresh looking vegetables, and got to work.
Considering the mediocre tools and ingredients she'd had, the ratatouille turned out surprisingly good.
Things were okay. But whenever her mind strayed to the life she'd left behind or how she had gotten here in the first place, Gloria quickly forced her thoughts back on the present moment. One bite, then another.
The task of eating done, Gloria did the dishes. This kitchen certainly didn't need any additional dirt.
Focusing on the present moment became difficult when the only toilet in the building was occupied.
This had probably been the biggest test of Gloria's willpower all day, but she stayed strong and persevered, making it in the nick of time.
The thin sheets on Gloria's bed felt just a little less scratchy that night.