Carefully, very carefully, Gloria dragged the brush over the canvas. In the past she'd agonized over her attempts at painting, judging her ideas trite and discarding things before they were ever finished.
Now she found herself smiling at the array of bright colors on her palette and simply taking pleasure in the act of making a mark.
When she needed a break from painting, Gloria sat down to write. Lonely Galaxy was coming along nicely, the romantic subplot taking a more prominent role with every chapter. For Gloria, who had never even kissed a boy before, it was a purely hypothetical and imaginative exercise. It turned out to be a welcome distraction from constantly mulling over her escape plans.
Writing often posed some unexpected difficulties, however.
Not a day went by without having to do some sort of maintenance on the ancient computer. Today it was a dried up macaroni lodged between the blades of the fan. Gloria made a face and tossed it aside before reassembling the parts.
It hadn't been the first time she'd found scraps of food inside the computer. She supposed she shouldn't be surprised--watching the other patients' struggles in the kitchen, it was a miracle there hadn't been any fires so far.
She sat in the dining room, eating leftover waffles from another patient's less disastrous attempts at cooking, when the gaunt man entered. Gloria tensed and kept her eyes fixed on her plate.
To Gloria's relief, he took a seat and began to eat without uttering a word. Then, after a few moments, he said between bites, "May I suggest Rod?"
Gloria glanced up, confused. "Uh, excuse me?" The gaunt man had done nothing but make her feel uncomfortable ever since she'd arrived. Was this another one of his tricks?
"You know, Roderick, or Rod for short. It's catchy, it's manly and it has that certain something that a good-looking space pirate needs. Incidentally, it also happens to be my name." He had continued to eat as he spoke, but now he turned his face toward Gloria with a smirk, "It'd be perfect for your protagonist."
"Wha-" A sharp intake of breath almost made Gloria choke on a bite of her waffle and sent her into a coughing fit. "You--you've been--"
"Reading your book, yeah," Rod finished Gloria's gasp, "It started kind of slow, but I have to admit, I'm totally hooked now." He took another bite of his salad and chewed thoughtfully. "It really surprised me too. Looking at you, I would've never taken you for the naughty type, but that scene with the purple alien chick?" He let out a whistle and raised his eyebrows. "I was so stunned, I spat my macaroni all over the computer."
Well, that solved the mystery of the broken computer.
The realization did not stop the flush from rising to Gloria's cheeks. Sure, she had known that her writing hadn't been private--anyone could access the text file on the shared computer. But why did it have to be him of all people?
"You--you shouldn't eat macaroni at the computer," Gloria finally managed, her voice meek and quiet.
"But what else am I supposed to snack on when I read the next chapter?" Rod asked incredulously. When Gloria didn't reply, he rose to leave. "Anyway, see you around. Can't wait to read what they find in that secluded nebula."
Gloria sat stunned for a moment, then raced after him. "Wait," she called, "Rod, wait!"
She'd asked Ally, Simon and even the timid Cathy, who had all refused to help her. For the past few days, Gloria had racked her brain for a new plan that didn't require another sim's help, but maybe she had just found an unexpected ally.
It didn't take long for Gloria to explain her plan to Rod. "A few minutes, that's all I need," she finished, "And soon we could all be out of here!"
Rod had been listening raptly. Now he smiled, making Gloria's hope surge. She grinned back at him, "So, you'll do it?"
"Oh, hell no!"
"But it's cute how you came up with this," he laughed.
Gloria's face fell. Great, what else had she expected from this guy? Of course he was just making fun of her again.
At Gloria's dejected look, Rod's tone grew serious. "Look, kid, I appreciate what you're trying to do, but you have no idea what you're up against," he said gravely. "My advice? Go back to your little stories and try to forget how miserable this place is. You'll get used to it. Eventually."
And with that, he left.
Gloria sighed. You'll get used to it? Was this really all she could hope for in this place? She tried, and failed, to stifle a sob.
"Don'cry," a deep voice boomed, making Gloria gasp in surprise. She spun to find Knob emerging from the kitchen.
"Don'cry," he repeated. "Knob can help."
It soon became clear that Knob had overheard the entire conversation with Rod and unlike everyone else, was willing to help.
"Are you sure?" Gloria asked, her brows knit in concern. "It could be dangerous, and I have no idea if its going to work at all."
Knob shrugged. "It's okay. Glo-ya helped Knob," he explained, "so Knob helps Glo-ya."
Everything was in place. Gloria stood hidden behind the stairs, watching the nurse's office from the reception area.
With a loud roar, Knob began his task in the adjoining kitchen.
He bellowed in fury, clanging pans an pots and sending plates flying to smash against the tile floor.
Just as Gloria had hoped, the racket made the nurse dash out of her office without locking the door behind her.
Before it could close, Gloria had rushed inside.
The landline phone she'd been eyeing through the window of the nurse's office was on the desk before her. This was what Gloria had come for! But now that she was here, she was taken aback by something that hadn't been visible from the outside:
Untidy stacks of paper littered the floor all around the desk. Newspapers, envelopes and loose sheets of paper had been thrown and tied together carelessly in a half-hearted attempt to create a semblance of order.
Gloria made her way through the chaos, carefully stepping over the large stacks until she came within arm's reach of the phone.
Angular numbers and symbols were displayed on a small blue screen on the receiver. The phone was long outdated by today's standards, but Gloria speculated that it still had to be the most modern thing in the entire building. It was more than enough for her.
Right beside the phone lay a file. It was open, revealing a photo that caught Gloria's attention. She recognized herself, looking glum and disheveled.
For a brief moment Gloria's curiosity flared, but she gritted her teeth and reached a determined hand for the receiver. This was no time to get sidetracked. For now, Knob's distraction was still working audibly, but the nurse could be back at any moment.
Fortunately she knew her sister's cell phone number by heart. Gloria dialed Grace's number and raised the receiver to her ear, her hands shaking with anticipation.
The three discordant notes made Gloria's breath hitch. Wrong number?! How could this be? Had Grace changed her number without letting Gloria know? No, she wouldn't. Maybe Gloria had made a mistake in her haste. She lowered the receiver to double check and stared at the black words flashing on the glowing blue screen:
Enter prefix for external line
_ _ _
"WHAT?!" she blurted, then quickly covered her mouth with her free hand to silence herself. "No! Nononono, oh crap, no," Gloria hissed. An internal line? This couldn't be! She was so close. She frantically punched numbers into the phone at random, but quickly gave up on that pointless effort.
Gloria took a deep breath. She needed to keep a clear head now. "Think," she urged herself and then dropped to her knees.
She began to shuffle through the stacks of paper all around her. A three digit code. It had to be written down somewhere - maybe in an instruction manual or even just a piece of scrap paper. It had to be around here... somewhere in the most chaotic pile of clutter Gloria had ever seen.
The sheer futility of her task brought tears of frustration to Gloria's eyes. She wiped them away angrily and continued to rifle through the papers. "There's still time," she tried to reassure herself. The noise of clanging pots and Knob's roars, now joined by the nurse's shrill screams continued to fill the air.
Gloria couldn't afford to lose her composure now, even as she watched her carefully constructed plan crumble all around her. An internal line! How could she have anticipated an obstacle like this? All she needed was a minute to talk to Grace...
Grace. Just thinking about her made the tears well up again, causing the words before Gloria's eyes to swim. She missed her twin sister more than she had ever thought possible. For a moment she even imagined that she saw Grace's handwriting.
Wait, could it be? Gloria blinked away the tears and took a closer look at the sheet of paper in her hand. Yes, she'd been right! The neat, rounded handwriting was unmistakably Grace's, in a long letter addressed to Gloria. Right beneath it on the pile was another one, and then another.
Gloria felt her throat constrict as she skimmed over letter after heartfelt letter. Grace had been writing to her several times a week, asking how Gloria was and apparently replying to letters she'd received in return. But how? Gloria was sure she had never seen any of these letters before, let alone written back to Grace.
Then it hit her.
Gloria rose to her feet and reached for the folder she had spotted on the desk before. In a typewritten font it read Patient file: Gloria Dutiel. And as she had expected, there it was: a sheet of paper torn from a notebook, with one sentence repeatedly written on it.
The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. The phrase that contained every letter in the Simlish alphabet, penned in Gloria's own hand. Gloria vaguely remembered the day the nurse had commanded her to write it, though at the time she hadn't questioned her reasons.
Now they became painfully clear, as Gloria discovered a half-finished reply to Grace's latest letter underneath it. The words were blunt, but written in Gloria's own handwriting. Don't come, it said, and stop writing so often. My recovery is keeping me busy and I have no time to spare for meaningless chitchat.
Gloria was outraged at the thought of how heartbroken Grace had to have been to receive such crude replies from her own sister. Furiously, she pushed the folder aside, revealing another patient file beneath it.
This one belonged to Roderick Harris and held contents similar to Gloria's. Letter after letter, each shorter and more discouraged than the last. And underneath this folder, more of the same.
Familiar faces looked up at Gloria, though their names were new to her. There was the man she had mistaken for the doctor, until he had introduced himself as 'The Baron of Periwinkle'. His patient file revealed his real, much less remarkable name: John Smith.
Then there was the ever silent 'Chatty Cathy', or Melody Cortéz as her patient file proclaimed.
Another revelation waited beside a photo of a plump face wearing a placid smile. Somehow, through abbreviation and probably his peculiar diction, Norbert Chesterfield had become Knob.
"Norb," Gloria muttered to herself and smiled. She could still hear his thundering voice coming from the kitchen.
Each of the files contained letters, notes or postcards, though none were recent. Undoubtedly the senders had received he same discouraging replies that Grace had, but unlike her, had given up eventually. Gloria felt a surge of pride at the tenacity of her twin.
There were Allegra Wilde and Simon Merriweather, whose files also contained much the same as the others. Gloria pushed them aside. The file she found underneath gave her a jolt.
Eliza Thorne's sharp features were framed by messy strands of ash brown hair, but even without her tight bun and headdress there was no mistaking her. The nurse's cold eyes stared up at Gloria, as piercing as their real life counterparts.
Gloria leaned in closer, her chest rising and falling rapidly with her shallow breaths. Yes, beyond any doubt, this was a patient file on the nurse herself. But that made no sense!
As she leafed through the papers inside the file, a typed letter caught her eye. I looked like it had been through a lot, having been crumpled and laid flat again several times. Entire sentences were crossed out and furiously scribbled notes had been added all over. Still, the original words were visible under the splotchy ink.
Dr. Wayne Burroughs
Pleasant Oaks Asylum
28 Swallow Street
SimNation Association for Mental Health
Dept. of Logistics and Coordination
1550 Bayshore Highway
Her behavior has been extremely
I therefore have to ask that she be
Dr. Wayne Burroughs
Gloria swallowed and let her eyes dart over the letter once more. Her heartbeat was a dull thudding in her ears, drowning out the sound of her irregular breathing in the otherwise silent room.
...the otherwise silent room?! Gloria tensed, straining to listen for a moment. No more clanging pans and pots, no more shattering plates. Even Norb's roars had subsided. In the blink of an eye, Gloria was on her feet and rushed out the door.
She only barely avoided crashing into the nurse in her haste. Gloria froze. This was it. She'd been too slow, gotten sidetracked inside the office and now she'd been caught. Now the nurse had her, and she'd put Gloria into solitary confinement again.. or worse. Should she try to run? To fight? Gloria doubted she'd best the nurse at either one of these things. There was no escape.
Gloria trembled as she met Eliza Thorne's icy blue eyes.
"And what might you be doing here, young lady?" the nurse inquired sweetly.
Gloria staggered back. "I... uh... n-nothing," she stammered.
"Well, that won't do at all." The nurse's menacing glare bore into Gloria, who shrunk back. "You should be working on you therapy goal!"
"Oh! Uh, yes, of course," Gloria exhaled. The nurse hadn't seen her come out of her office! Her heart racing, Gloria tried to steady her shaky voice. "I-- I'll go do that right now."
Her plan of sneaking into the nurse's office to use the phone had been a failure, and even more risky than Gloria had initially thought. Dangerously violent, the patient file had said, and Gloria did not doubt it for a second. Attempting it again would be reckless.
Even if Gloria could manage to get inside once more, she still needed to find the three digit prefix for accessing the phone's external line. For a brief moment, Gloria had thought that freedom was within her grasp, only to have her hopes dashed by this unexpected obstacle.
"An internal line," she muttered to herself. She shook her head in dismay as her thoughts began the familiar downward spiral toward resignation.
Then, suddenly, Gloria stopped in her tracks. An internal line. An internal line! So there had to be another phone somewhere in the building.