Saturday, February 18, 2017

Chapter 6: Getting to Know You



Contrary to what Ally had claimed on Gloria's first day, Pleasant Oaks Asylum boasted no barred windows.


There was no need - steep rocky cliffs all around the aging structure deterred anyone bold or desperate enough to attempt escape that way.


No, the only safe exit was the front door.


Which, of course, was firmly locked at all times. The keys were in the nurse's pocket, making them about as accessible as if they had been on the moon.

As far as Gloria could tell, help needed to come from the outside. She was surprised and somewhat hurt that it hadn't already - by now Gloria would have expected at least one visit from her sister. A few minutes with Grace were all Gloria needed, she was sure of that. If her family knew what was going on here, they'd bring her home in a heartbeat. But there had been no sign of any of them. Not even a single letter.  

Looks like university is too much fun to waste a thought on little old me, Gloria thought glumly.


Brooding over this wasn't going to accomplish anything though. Gloria resolved to bide her time and let the nurse believe she was back to quietly working on her therapy goal, while actually hatching a plan to escape.

The computer desk provided a strategic vantage point.


Through covert glances from the corners of her eyes, Gloria could observe the nurse's comings and goings, while continuing to type at a steady pace.

The emerging story, tentatively titled Lonely Galaxy, was fraught with clich├ęs and redundancies, but Gloria could not deny that she was having fun writing it. However, with her attention so divided, she soon noticed that the adventures of a wandering space pirate had drifted off into a sappy love story.

It made her feel awkward and even a little embarrassed, until she reminded herself that no one else would ever read this anyway.


 Suddenly, she saw her chance.


Always keeping an eye on the nurse's back, Gloria approached the antique telephone on the reception desk. Just one quick message to Grace and everything would be in motion.

Gloria closed her hand around the receiver and lifted it to her ear.


Silence. Not even a beep. This phone was a prop, nothing more.

Alas, she hadn't expected it to be this easy.


There was another phone in the building. And this one, Gloria knew, was perfectly functional.


Getting to it was the problem.

The nurse only left her office door unlocked while she was inside and guarded her ring of keys jealously. With the nurse's outlandish strength and keen alertness, Gloria saw no possibility of taking the keys from her by force or sleight of hand.

What she needed was a distraction.


"You really do belong here if you think I'm messing with that bitch," Ally hissed, then shot a furtive glance over her shoulder to make sure she hadn't been overheard. "Seriously, Gloria," she continued even more quietly, "just forget about this crazy plan right now. Believe me, you haven't seen the worst of her yet."


Ally had been her first choice, but fortunately Gloria wasn't completely on her own anymore.

Cathy had proudly presented Gloria with a few randomly chosen tools - a small victory that didn't quite balance out the damage caused by their misadventure in the South Wing. Still, they enabled Gloria to repair the ancient computer whenever it refused to turn on.

And even though she would not utter even a single word, Cathy always had a friendly smile for Gloria. In a place so deprived of any form of compassion, even this tiny gesture filled Gloria with gut-wrenching gratitude.


However, as soon as Gloria even mentioned the nurse, Cathy's smile faded and was replaced with a look of sheer terror. She'd refused to listen to Gloria's plan, covering her ears with her hands and shaking her head stubbornly until Gloria left her in peace.

There was no help to be found here.


And then there was this guy.


"What's the point," he groaned.

"To get help, of course. To be able to leave." Gloria was beginning to get more than a little impatient. 'What's the point' seemed to be the young man's catchphrase and his go-to reply to everything. It had taken Gloria minutes of insistent prodding before he had even revealed his name to her: Simon Merriweather.

"Come on, Simon," she cajoled. Gloria never imagined she would have to argue the case of why one would want to escape this horrid place, but here she was doing exactly that. "Don't you want to get out of here?"


"Again, what's the point," Simon said. "Why would I want to 'get out'? Just look at it." With a listless gesture, he indicated the bleak landscape outside the window. "It's just as dreadful as it is in here."

At this, Gloria lowered her brush, exasperated. "But you wouldn't have to stay here. You could go anywhere, do anything..."

Simon let out a dismal sigh. "I'll be just as miserable as I am now."

Gloria didn't miss a beat. "Only if you choose to," she said fervently. "Don't you see? It's all up to you. It's your life. You make the choices." With every word she said, she felt herself stand just a little straighter. "Sure, things will happen that are out of your control, but it is still up to you to decide how you'll react. And you can lay down and let it happen, or you can get up and do something about it!" She smiled to herself, reflecting on the truth of these words. Then, with a jolt, she realized just how bizarre it was to hear them spoken in her own voice. It sounded more like something her sister would have said.

 Gloria had always been the one on the receiving end of these sort of speeches. Delivered by her eternally enthusiastic twin, the seemingly interchangeable phrases of encouragement had rung hollow to Gloria. Yet here she was now, attempting to coax Simon out of his melancholy. This wasn't like the gloomy girl from Starlight Shores at all.

But somehow, it felt right.


 Simon furrowed his brows, let out an irritated moan and finally scoffed, "Oh, to be born an optimist." And with that, he slunk off.

Gloria sighed. There went another potential ally. Still, she had to grin despite herself. Her, a born optimist?


Gloria wiped the brush and took a step back. Things were looking grim. Simon had been her last hope of finding someone to create a distraction, but instead he turned out to be the least likely candidate to be of any help. 

All she had to show for her efforts were this mediocre painting and a few ungainly paragraphs of a story that couldn't quite find its genre.

On the plus side, she'd finally figured out how to mix a more subtle green.

*


 But sometimes, at the most unexpected moments, a glimmer of hope appears.

The walls of the therapy room were lined with certificates made out to a Dr. Wayne Burroughs, yet Gloria had not spoken to him once. She'd caught glimpses of him here and there, but he always seemed to disappear before she could approach him. Now she watched silently as he exchanged a few words with the nurse.

Of course she couldn't be sure what the doctor was like - he could be even worse that the nurse for all Gloria knew. But she didn't think so. The older gentleman always wore a kindly smile on his placid face and all his interactions with his patients looked friendly and polite.

Maybe things could be so much simpler. It was worth a try.


Gloria stayed hidden around the corner until the nurse finally stopped talking and turned to leave.


"Dr. Burroughs," Gloria called as she darted towards the man, who did not seem to hear her and continued to walk away.


"Wait, Dr. Bur--" She burst through the door just moments after him, but he was already gone. Taken aback, Gloria surveyed the room to see where the doctor had gone, when a different sight caught her attention.


The colossal man who had so aggressively defended his card house stood on one leg, swaying dangerously. He whimpered as he struggled to keep his balance.


Gloria quirked an eyebrow and before she could stop herself, she asked, "What are you doing?"


 Her question was met with an angry glare. "You're making fun," he accused, then wobbled wildly before regaining his balance again.


"What? No, no, I'm not. I swear," Gloria placated and instinctively took a step back. As amusing as this scene may have been to others, Gloria still felt far too intimidated by the man's enormous presence to see any humor in it. "I- I just wanted to know what's wrong--but it's none of my business. I'm sorry."


As Gloria turned to leave, the man's deep voice mumbled, "Stuck."


"Huh? What," Gloria began, but then saw the problem as thick fingers gestured downward.

The man balanced precariously on a dark floor tile, making sure to avoid letting his hovering foot get anywhere near the surrounding lighter tiles. He was obviously playing some sort of game, much as Gloria might have done when she was a child. But this man was dead serious about it.


A potted plant was not in its usual place, obstructing a dark floor tile and with it the man's path. Jumping to the next unoccupied square would have been a far too challenging physical feat.

"Knob is stuck," he complained morosely.


"A knob?" Gloria was confused. She thought she'd grasped the situation, but now she looked around, trying to find this knob the man was talking about. A doorknob, maybe? She couldn't see how that would have any bearing on his predicament. Carefully, Gloria asked, "Knob? Which knob?"

 The man's face contorted in annoyance. "Me! I'm Knob! And Knob is stuck."


"Knob wants to go play," he explained, making a sweeping gesture toward the Sun Room, "but can't. Stuck."

Gloria's eyes followed along the path he had indicated. It was the longer way around, going past the main entrance and the kitchen instead of the much shorter route in the opposite direction. "Why don't you just go the other way around," she offered.

Knob tensed in a look of intense dismay. "Scared," he muttered.

"Scared," Gloria repeated, dumbfounded.


Knob nodded and clenched his teeth as his eyes darted back over his shoulder. A lone bust stood on a pedestal, its unseeing eyes keeping watch over the shorter path to the Sun Room.


Gloria couldn't help but smile. How had she ever been frightened of Knob?


At Gloria's smile, he pouted angrily, "Laughing at Knob!"

"No, I'm not laughing at you, Knob," she assured him. "Here, let me help you."


Gloria crouched down and pushed the heavy pot up against the, back to its usual place.


Knob's face split into a wide smile. "Thanks," he boomed and with that, he hopped...


... and skipped...


... along...


... his way.

As Gloria stood watching Knob make his ponderous way over the dark floor tiles, a wave of sorrow hit her. How could such an innocent spirit survive under the tyranny of the nurse? She needed to find a way out - not just for herself, but for the other patients as well.


"You're no fun at all," a gruff voice came from behind.


 Gloria spun around and found herself face to face with the smugly grinning gaunt man.

"You're pretty cruel, you know," he said with a lopsided smirk. "There isn't much in form of entertainment around here, and you just go ahead and spoil mine."


Gloria was spared the need to reply when she caught sight of the man she'd been chasing before all this.

"Doctor Burroughs," she called once more as she broke into a run.


Finally, in front of the Sun Room, she caught up with him. Knob was now settled on a large rug, happily occupying himself with some worn children's toys.

 When the doctor still did not react to her repeated calling of his name, Gloria cautiously tapped him on the shoulder. "Uhm, excuse me, Sir?"


 At this, he turned and broke into a friendly smile. "Oh, good day, Miss. I don't believe I've had the pleasure."


"Yeah, we haven't got the chance to talk yet," Gloria began hastily, "But I have something important I need to talk to you about, so I'll get right to the point."

"A forthright attitude is most admirable," he said with a nod, and Gloria launched into her account.


 Gloria explained her grievance with the nurse, first circumspectly, as she tried to gauge the doctor's reaction. When the doctor nodded understandingly and furrowed his brows in commiseration with the mistreated patients, Gloria gained the confidence to speak more directly. All throughout, he listened intently, occasionally stroking his mustache in a thoughtful gesture.

Finally, Gloria finished her account of the nurse's erratic behavior, "Anyway, I thought you should know. I'm sure you must be very busy, but it can't go on like this. Something needs to be done."


The worry on the older man's face was obvious, but he managed a reassuring smile, "Those are some serious concerns, but unfortunately they are not surprising in the least. This kind of conduct is unacceptable, however, and I promise I will look into the matter with the utmost urgency."


A great sense of relief washed over Gloria. "Thank you, Doctor Burroughs," she breathed.


At this, his eyes widened in surprise. "Me? A doctor? Oh, no, young miss," he chuckled. "You have me mistaken."


Now it was Gloria's turn to be perplexed. "W-what," she blurted, "You're not... but I-- Who the heck are you then?!"


"Why, I'm the Baron of Periwinkle," he announced with a graceful flourish of his arms and a bright smile. When Gloria did not reply, he dipped her a courteous bow and sauntered off to join Knob on the floor of the Sun Room.