APPROACHING NIGHT

2016-193-Approaching-Night--Book-I-of-Seluna-Final

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Almost everyone is convinced I’m mad. But I’m not sure I believe them.

Seventeen-year-old Seluna doesn’t know why she was admitted to an all-female insane asylum called Silver Hill. She doesn’t know exactly how she makes inanimate objects come to life. And she can’t figure out the reason for the sadistic and brutal experiments on girls here—many of whom are never heard from again.

When Seluna sneaks out to the moonlit, forbidden garden behind Silver Hill, she meets a mysterious boy swimming in a pond. She senses there’s a connection between him and what’s happening at the asylum, but he’s not telling what. Then there are the screams from down long halls and the constant absence of light. No doubt they’re all part of the scheme concocted by the merciless head of the facility, Dr. Catron. He’s growing more and more frantic and violent in an attempt to find the person—or thing—he’s looking for.

Yes, there’s a lot Seluna doesn’t know about Silver Hill. About why moonlight, madness, and murder are following her. But she needs to find out fast . . . before she becomes the next victim.

(Set in the nineteenth century of an alternate world called Hartlandia, Approaching Night is a YA gothic, paranormal fantasy).

Chapter 1

“Try, Seluna. Just try.”

“I am trying! But it’s like I told you, Laura: nothing’s happening.”

“But sometimes, it does.”

“Well, now is not one of those times.”

I leaned my head against the bottom of the flimsy bed frame. Sitting with my back perpendicular to the center of the mattress, I continued looking at the wooden horse. I didn’t know why I couldn’t animate it. A glint of moonlight shone through the narrow room’s high window onto the horse. As I stared at the toy, I thought I saw it move.

Then a cloud must have passed over the moon, because suddenly, there was very little light in the room. The only other illumination came from the dimmed gas lamps behind both beds, and the tiny window on the door, the one with bars on it. Most of Silver Hill’s windows had bars on them.

“Maybe the horse is defective,” said Rose. She was on Laura’s bed, lying sideways, and leaned over to get a closer look. She brushed curly red hair out of her eyes. It wasn’t truly red; I could see the dark roots peeking out from beneath. “Where’d you get it, anyway?” she asked.

“It’s my little brother’s. He said I could have it to keep me company while . . . while I was away.” Tears welled in Laura’s eyes. “He really believed it would, too. Of course, he’s only three. It was his favorite toy, too.”

“Then I’m sure it’s not defective,” I said firmly. I reached over to where Laura was sitting on the floor, legs crossed, against the other bed. With a reassuring squeeze of her knee, I repeated what I’d told them both before.

“It’s true I can animate objects, and temporarily make dead things come to life. But that doesn’t mean I can always do it. And when I can’t, I’m sure it says more about me than the object itself. So don’t fret over it.”

“I know.” Laura took the horse and moved it up and down with her hand, making it prance on the nightstand between beds. “It’s just . . . that’s so magical, you know? I’m really keen to see more of it.”

I shrugged and adjusted my skirts. I didn’t really think of my ability as magic. It wasn’t even particularly useful, so I rarely thought about it at all. Although I would have liked to use it to make Laura smile more. When she smiled, it was one of the few times her pale hair and skin didn’t make her look like she never saw the sun. Rose’s complexion was darker, almost tawny brown. But there was a sallowness there as well, like she could use a holiday.

“Eh, Laura, you’re fourteen years old,” Rose said. “Isn’t it time you quit playing with toys?”

Laura made a face and stopped moving the horse back and forth. “I’m not playing. I was just . . . demonstrating what Seluna could do with it. Besides, you’re sixteen. Shouldn’t you be able to tell when someone is playing and when they’re not?”

“Hey, have some respect for your elders,” Rose said. “After all, I’m the oldest one here.”

“Ahem.” I coughed.

Rose scrunched up her nose. “Oh, right. I forgot you’re seventeen, Seluna. Well, old lady, astound us with your wisdom and experience. Do more you know what.” She indicated the wooden horse.

“Do more of what? What are you girls doin’?” A low, matronly voice boomed through the door’s tiny window, and two piggish eyes appeared behind the glass. Nurse Cutter.

All of us gave a start, and Laura quickly hid the wooden horse behind her back. One didn’t know if it was strictly forbidden, but then again, precious objects could be confiscated here for any reason. Or for no reason at all.

“Nothing!” called Rose. “Just . . . playing jacks.”

“Jacks.” We saw the tiny eyes squint into even smaller slits in the woman’s doughy face. “Ain’t that a form of gamblin’? Like card playin’?”

Rose and Laura looked at each other with wide, fearful eyes. They had no idea what to say.

“Not the way we’re playing,” I replied smoothly. “We’re playing the, ah . . . the boring way.”

“Well, all right, then,” said Nurse Cutter. “But nothin’ too overstimulatin’. It’s almost time for lights-out.”

“Yes, Nurse Cutter,” we chorused, and heard her footsteps grow fainter down the hall.

“That was a close one.” Rose took a cigarette out of a secret pocket in her bodice and patted a different pocket, looking for a match. Silver Hill allowed patients to wear their own clothing most of the time, but did not permit skirts with pockets.

“Rose!” Laura’s big blue eyes grew even bigger when she saw the cigarette. “You know you can’t smoke that in here!”

“Or anywhere at Silver Hill,” I reminded her.

Rose gave an exasperated sigh and let her head flop back on Laura’s pillow. “I know, I know! But if I don’t do something I’m not supposed to, I’m going to go mad!”

“They say we’re mad,” Laura said softly. She held her brother’s horse in her lap, stroking its head. “That’s why we’re here.” She put the toy on the comforter and continued watching it. Suddenly, we heard the sounds of squeaking gurney wheels and pained groaning. Rose jumped off Laura’s bed and went to the door’s window. She stood on her tiptoes and tried to look out.

“What’s happening?” Laura asked. She and I got up and stood next to Rose, but there was only room at the window for one.

Rose hopped up and down, trying to get a better view. “Ugh, I can’t see anything! Seluna, you look. You’re the only one tall enough.”

Although I had only a few inches on these girls, it was just enough to allow me to peek over the bottom of the window. I squinted. I could typically see better in the dark than others, but it was still difficult to see anything in the shadowy hallway. I could just make out a girl strapped to a gurney, struggling to regain consciousness. The head of the asylum—Dr. Catron—was walking alongside her.

“What’s going on? Who’s out there?” Laura’s voice trembled.

“Hush!” chided Rose. After a brief pause, she asked, “Yeah, Seluna. Who’s there?”

I turned to face them both. “If you two don’t be quiet, we may be the next ones out there!” I hated to be so harsh, but it did shut them up fast. I turned back to the window.

“What shall I put down as the diagnosis, Doctor?” It was a nurse speaking this time, but not Cutter. I didn’t recognize this one.

“Early-onset nervous disposition with vague hysterical tendencies.” Dr. Catron’s melodic voice was assured and condescending as always. “She’ll soon be feeling much better. Won’t you, my dear?”

His tone was anything but caring, and the returning moans were anything but sounds of someone about to feel better. The gurney’s wheels continued squeaking, growing softer and softer until they disappeared entirely behind the echo of a slamming door.

I backed away from the window. Frowning, I sat on Rose’s bed and told both girls what I’d seen. They sat on the opposite bed, and the room was silent for a few minutes.

“What do you think they did to her?” Rose asked grimly.

“Don’t know,” I replied.

“I shouldn’t ask,” Rose sighed. “Ought to know better.” She found a match and lit her cigarette.

“Maybe she . . . needed it?” Laura clutched a pillow to her chest and rested her chin on the top.

“Doubtful,” I muttered. “You know, Rose, smoking can kill you.”

Rose took a long drag and blew a ring of smoke while looking at the ceiling. “Being here can kill you.” Another long silence. It wasn’t as if any of us could disagree.

Rose took a few more puffs, and her bangs fell into her eyes. “Ugh! These stupid curls!” she snapped. “And they won’t let us have hairpins. Wish they’d at least let us get a bloomin’ haircut in this place.”

“Doubt they’d trust us around sharps, like scissors, even if someone else were doing the cutting.” I absentmindedly examined my own waist-length, coarse black hair.

“You can use my ribbon, if you like.” Laura motioned to the ribbon, tied into a large bow at the back of her head. It held back her long, wispy hair from her face while the rest draped over her shoulders.

“Nah.” Rose waved away the offer. “Then what will you use to keep the hair out of your face, Laura-lie? Hey, why don’t you try that reanimation thing again, Seluna?” She stuck the cigarette in one side of her mouth and grabbed the wooden horse from where Laura had left it on the comforter. “Just one more time?”

“Ooo, yes! Please do!” Laura nodded and seemed to perk up, setting the pillow aside and clasping her hands in her lap.

I shrugged. “All right, if you want. Though I don’t know why this time would be any different.” I took the horse from Rose and put it in my own lap, staring at it.

Rose rooted around inside a different pocket in her bodice and finally found what she was looking for: a compact mirror. The outside was ornate silver filigree; it must have been a gift. Perhaps a gift from Rose’s family before she came here. No one ever saw their families once they were admitted.

“Rose!” Laura exclaimed, her mouth making a little O. “You know we’re not allowed to have those!”

“She’s not allowed to have cigarettes either.” I smirked at Rose. She took the cig from her mouth just long enough to mouth “sod off.” Then she rolled her eyes and looked in the compact’s mirror to fix her bangs.

“What a couple of ninnies you two are,” she said. “Now, are you going to move that thing or aren’t you, Luna?”

I sighed and looked at the wooden horse again. I tried to concentrate, but the truth was, I didn’t really know how I was able to do what I did. Sometimes, things moved, sometimes, they didn’t. It had been that way ever since I was a little girl.

Laura’s eyes were glued to her brother’s toy. Rose glanced over every so often, but mostly kept looking at the compact and adjusting her bangs. She sighed and turned the mirror this way and that, trying to get them just right.

That was when it happened. A bit of light reflected off the compact, and in the glint, I saw the horse give a jump, as if someone had startled it. Animation would be much easier now that I had some momentum. I smiled and made the horse canter and kick, back and forth along my legs. Laura drew in a sharp breath and tugged Rose’s sleeve. Annoyed, Rose turned and opened her mouth to protest. Then she saw the horse moving, and let out a low whistle.

“You did it, Seluna! You did it! That is so neat!” Laura squealed. I made the horse paw at my knee the way they pawed at the ground in real life.

“Not so loud, Laura,” Rose whispered. “You want Nurse Cutter to hear us?”

Cutter’s voice came again as if on cue. “Did what, ladies? What did Seluna do?”

How had Cutter snuck up on us? We hadn’t even heard her heavy footsteps come down the hall. My concentration on the horse broke, and it fell lifeless once again in my lap.

“Er, she won,” Rose said quickly. “Seluna won the game. Good show, Seluna.” Laura chimed in with mock congratulations as she grabbed the horse and shoved it under her pillow. Rose quickly put the compact away and snuffed her cigarette out on the floor. Then she hid the butt under her mattress and waved both hands in front of her to dissipate the smoke.

“Bedtime, ladies.” Cutter’s voice was firm. We heard the heavy clink of keys unlocking the door as she entered the room.

Any way you looked at it, Nurse Cutter was an intimidating figure. She was at least six feet tall, with hair pulled back in a low, tight bun. It was bad enough she could bellow like a sea captain. But the woman weighed three hundred pounds if she weighed an ounce. She could subdue the most uncooperative patient in seconds, not that many were foolish enough to be uncooperative. Her starched white uniform and nurse’s cap never looked comfortable. Maybe that was why she was always in such a foul mood.

We all stood quickly when Cutter came in. “Seluna,” she pointed at me, “time to go back to your room.” Rose rotated the heel of her left boot on the ground behind her to erase the stain where she’d put out her cigarette. She and Laura looked at me sympathetically.

“Sorry, Seluna,” Rose whispered as I turned to leave. “We’ll see you tomorrow. Hopefully.” Laura nodded and tried to give an encouraging smile.

“We’ll see what Dr. Catron says about that,” barked Cutter. The woman had ears like a bat’s. “Personally, I think you three girls ’ave ’ad quite enough socializin’ for one week. ’Alf an hour each day for the past two days. It’s enough to overstimulate anyone, much less a bunch of lunatics.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Laura wince. One never got used to hearing oneself referred to like that. Cutter put a large hand on my back and led me into the hall. Her enormous set of keys jangled as she locked Rose and Laura inside their room.

“Ten more minutes, ladies,” she called to them, gruffly. “Enough time for you to get washed and dressed for bed. Then it’s lights-out.”

We walked the long, dark hallway and up the stairs to where I slept. Despite the girls’ sympathy, I didn’t really mind my room. Cutter said I was put in the attic garret because of overcrowding. But more girls came in every day, and there were plenty of empty rooms. I often wondered if there was another reason the staff kept me separate from everyone.

I remember when I first saw the garret, the day I arrived at Silver Hill. The unfinished attic was no match for the biting winds of late winter, although it did have a crude fireplace in the chimney that ran through its center. I learned quickly that it didn’t work, most likely because of a blocked flue. There was a thin, stained mattress on an iron cot, just below slanted and rotted wooden beams. A mountain of dust and cobwebs greeted me when I arrived. They covered the assorted junk that had piled up over the years: small pieces of bric-a-brac, extra washbasins, broken stools. I’d made a cursory attempt at cleaning, but it did little good. Staff wouldn’t let girls near anything that could be used as a weapon, like a broom.

No place like home, I thought tonight, as Cutter turned to leave.

“Far too nice a place for a lunatic,” she muttered, but not so low that I couldn’t hear. “I know staff in other ’ospitals that don’t ’ave rooms as nice. Not this one, of course. Dr. Catron is very good to us nurses.”

I’ll bet he is. Needs someone to do his dirty work for him, after all.

“Evenin’, child.” Cutter shut the heavy wooden door behind her as she left. This one didn’t have a window where one could see out. I heard her keys jangle again as I was locked in.

“Evening, Nurse Cutter,” I replied. I didn’t know why she made a pretense of politeness. It was clear she didn’t care what kind of evening we girls had, or what kind of lives, for that matter.

I groped around till I found my candle and matches; there were no gas lamps in the attic. The staff must have forgotten there were matches up here, or they would certainly have removed them as another potential weapon. I dearly wished I could light a real fire; it was freezing. I wondered if it ever occurred to the nurses that “lunatics” got cold the same as other people.

In the end, I just put my dark lace shawl over my shoulders. It didn’t offer much protection from the chill, but it was all I had in terms of outerwear. I didn’t bother getting into my nightdress; it was warmer in my day clothes. With the candle lit, I gazed out the small, round window that overlooked the asylum entrance. It had been only a week since I’d walked up the broken steps to see the following letters etched in stone:

Silver Hill: Lunatic Asylum for Unmanageable Females.

The asylum was a large, imposing structure. It was daunting just to look at, let alone go inside. Set deep in the rolling moors of the Westernlands, Silver Hill was like a fortress. It was even surrounded by a moat. And once you were inside, there was no getting out. Girls who managed to run away were quickly caught, lost in the miles and miles of woods that grew past the moors. Ghostly, snow-tipped trees stood around the back and sides of the asylum. The edifice rose high above the land and seemed to glare down, as if challenging one’s right to be there. Truly, it lived up to the name “Silver Hill.”

I recalled how I’d had to tilt my head back to get a complete view of the building. It was at least six stories, with stone turrets and crumbling chimneys. I tried to pretend it was a castle, but it wasn’t like the friendly kind in fairy tales. For one thing, it was covered in ivy and moss, as if nature were trying to take back what was hers. For another, outside it was eerily quiet. There weren’t any birds singing, or squirrels scampering about. It seemed even the animals were too frightened to venture near.

As I walked up the entrance steps with Nurse Cutter that day, I couldn’t help but marvel at how magnificent Silver Hill must have once been. We came into the main hall, and I gaped at the balconies supported by a dozen enormous Corinthian columns. Then there was the sweeping, semicircular staircase that was the room’s only way to the second floor. And my jaw nearly dropped at the long walls of mirrors in gilded frames on either side.

This part of Silver Hill was said to have been modeled after a similar room in the royal Palace of Versailles. I wondered if the mirrors there had the same effect. The ones here made the space seem much larger than it really was, as if it went on forever. As if there was no escape. Unless one could fly, of course.

That was because the hall’s shining glory was a large, circular stained glass window. It stood high on the wall opposite the entrance and just above the top of the staircase. In stunning detail, it showed the Greek goddess of the moon in her chariot, pulled by silver-winged horses. There was a chandelier in the center of the hall, but without many candles. I didn’t know where the money from asylum admissions was going, but it certainly wasn’t towards the lighting. The only real illumination was from the moonlight shafting through the stained glass window. It was one of the only ones without bars.

Actually, the near absence of light didn’t bother me. I felt more comfortable in the dark anyway. More alive. My senses tingled, the blackness draped around me like a warm cloak. I wouldn’t mind if it were always night.

But from what I could see of the inside of Silver Hill, it wasn’t much better than the outside. All had fallen into decay and ruin. Paint was peeling from the walls and gilding on the mirrors, falling off in chips and flakes. Some of the stairs and railings were broken; many places were mildewed. As Nurse Cutter and I traversed the asylum, it was clear that numerous windowpanes had been smashed, maybe from girls trying to escape before the bars were put in.

“’Ave to get that swept up,” Cutter said the first time we passed one window. “Bad enough patients try to get out. But them big shards of glass on the floor is just an invitation to slice themselves open.” My eyes widened. “Miserable mess to clean up it is, too.” I wondered if she meant the glass or the blood.

On our way to my room for the first time, we went by the cafeteria, where I saw another broken window. It had to lead to the back of Silver Hill. I surmised this because the cafeteria was right next to the kitchen, and most kitchens were near the backs of large residences. It was then that I saw a long, dark vine coming through one pane where the glass was missing.

“Are they going to clean that up as well?” I stopped and nodded at the vine. Gods only knew what kind of animals could crawl up the vine and right into the cafeteria. Not that I had anything against animals, if any were eventually brave enough to come to Silver Hill. I just wanted the wild ones outside, where they belonged.

Nurse Cutter turned around and glared at me. “You just mind your business. Them vines is part of Silver ’ill’s old gardens is all, and Dr. Catron will do whatever ’e sees fit with them. We don’t ’ave money to waste clearin’ away all them tangled, thorny dead leaves and things. Which is forbidden to the likes of you, anyways. You ain’t allowed to go out there. Now keep walkin’.”

Forbidden. Just like sharp objects, cosmetic supplies, and too much socializing. Apparently, gardens were bad for a person’s health as well. Whatever happened to the curative powers of fresh air?

A deep yawn brought me back to the present, and the image of my first impression of Silver Hill dissolved. I moved away from the garret window. It was definitely time to go to sleep. I wondered what kind of day Dr. Catron had planned for us tomorrow. I crawled under the covers—nothing more than an old horse blanket—and shivered. As I drifted off, I could have sworn I heard another long, low moan that ended in a scream.

***

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