It's existence made her sad.
A grey and molted white scar in the horizon, sticking out like a splinter in the field of overgrown, waist-high grass. It's harsh and industrial color among the vibrant greens, blues, and pastels, the harvest golds and reds, every color of each passing season, clashing horribly.
Penny always knew she was a creator. She was right-brained, she saw the world through color and emotions. If she could create emotions in people through her acting or actions, then she was successful. And when she couldn't reach enough people through portraying someone else on screen, she decided to use photography as an outlet in her spare time.
One day, she drove until she hit trees and field. Locking her car, she shouldered her bag, digital camera in hand, and walked. And walked. And walked, snapping pictures. Sometimes stopping, crouching, laying down, leaning, taking in ever perspective. By climbing onto a rock and trying to take an upward shot of a tree, she happened to see the looming shadow of the building. At first, it was a shadow in the far distance, barely a lowlight between the fall-colored branches. But something made her pause and want more, a closer look.
Ominous and haunting. The first words to cross her mind when she found herself on the forgotten path leading up to it. Penny had to watch her steps, divots and holes made by animals littered the path, topped off with grass so high, it nearly reached her waist, making it hard to look before she stepped.
She found she couldn't stop taking pictures. The path, the crumbling walls, weathered steps leading to a rotting door. Penny half expected her vision to turn black and white and some silent film background music to start playing. A rusted metal plaque near the door, words nearly faded or filled in with dirt read Halfway House of Southern California. She didn't dare wipe away the dirt before she preserved a picture of it.
The building sent a shiver up her spine, sending a tingle to her brain. She decided to explore the outside of the building and the grounds, save the inside for another day. If it was abandoned, she wanted to make it sure it was still standing another day instead of crumbling on her today. When she finished, the sun was casting the last orange rays and taking it with, any other opportunities to take pictures with her simple camera. Penny began the trek back to her car at a somewhat leisurely pace, until an owl hooted. Then she all but sprinted back.
When she got back to her apartment, she Googled the name she'd found on the nameplate and felt that same shiver run up her spine once more. She'd stumbled upon an abandoned mental asylum, empty for the last 40 years or so. The wimp in her wanted to never go back and find new stomping ground. But after looking through her pictures, even before she fixed some of the exposure and quirks on them, it made her heart hurt to think she'd miss out on the inside of the structure.
Penny stayed up until one in the morning editing and posting her shots on her new website. It wasn't public, yet. But she was slowly cataloging each and every one. Baby steps and little triumphs for her, for now. There was time to conquer later.
At least once a week, she went to her little asylum, as she affectionately called it over time. And each visit, she would explore a new part of the building and go back to the previous if it was a new part of the day.
Rooms that looked frozen in time, chairs tucked under conference tables, beds made pin straight, piles of paperwork and file folders on desks. It was like all the patients and doctors decided to move and take nothing with them. Dust, dirt, and dead insects littered every surface, leaves and grass crunching with every step she took.
She found herself moved by the delicacy in the simplicity the old building held. In how every shadow blanketed a secret, the sunlight creating halos and natural glows. The kitchen was full of broken dishes, twisted cutlery, and dented tin cans with the labels faded, their contents unidentifiable.
It took Penny about three months to cover almost ever inch of the asylum.
Some of the last rooms Penny photographed were places she knew would hold the ghosts of former residents. The clinic room with a musty, lingering smell of anesthetics. A room with a standing tray of surgical tools, a curtain, and a worn and cracked leather chair with broken straps. Tiny drops of blood stained the floor, crescent gouges impressed in the armrests of the chair. And a small room, squares of fabric covering the walls, floor and ceiling. She assumed this was the isolated padded room typically found in movies. But the padding looked like it had been either worn down or rodents had gotten in the pockets of the walls.
Every flash of her camera brought a ringing to her ears that echoed groans.
That night, as she did her laundry, Penny found herself crying over the washing machine.
“What is it, Sheldon?” She tried to make her voice sound normal, but she didn't put much effort into it.
“Has someone caused you distress? Should I know about a rogue whom I should report?” He cautiously shuffled into the laundry room and set his basket of clothes on the washer next to Penny, looking around the room.
She shook her head. “No, sweetie. I've just got a lot on my mind.”
“Oh. Would you be so kind to try and refrain from such emotional exhibitions in public in the future unless you are truly distressed so that I may properly assess how to react and defend myself?” Penny gave him an incredulous look. “And you, too, of course. If the opportunity allows.”
“Oh, Sheldon.” Despite his flinch to avoid her, Penny patted him on the double-sleeved arm and left.
Penny wanted to create. She wanted to wipe away the sadness and sorrow and the pain. To liven up her world. And her world currently consisted of The Cheesecake Factory, the apartment building of Los Robles, and the asylum. She couldn't do much about her work and 4A and 4B were fine. It was the empty and fading soul of her beautifully depressing Halfway House that had taken root in her mind.
It was while watching a man present his girlfriend with a colorful bouquet in her section that Penny came up with an idea.
Penny gave up buying shoes, she stayed off eBay, and went cold turkey on alcohol. She penny-pinched, driven by her vision, and if the boys noticed anything different—like the lack of packages addressed to her or her newly adopted temperance and early nights in—they didn't say a word. Except Sheldon, who scolded her for missing Halo Night once. The one constant Penny kept was her routine time with the guys; like Halo, Chinese, and laundry.
Enlisting people to help and to finagle costs to match her slim budget had been the hardest part, but once Penny had a crew of sorts, she knew it was all going to work. Starting with the upper level—the patient rooms—she and her volunteers began laying down the eight inches of dirt, mulch and top soil, which took two days. The lower level took nearly four, the rooms were bigger and had more things to work around. Penny was insistent nothing be disturbed. They left the entry way bare for the traffic, intending it for last.
Every step of the way, Penny would pause in her labor and photograph the people and the stages. Almost like watching a building rise from the ground up, like a spindly flower slither up from the ground.
Bernadette and Amy were the first of her friends to find out. They followed her after her shift at The Cheesecake Factory and before Penny could explain the whole project, they threw on a pair of gardening gloves from the pile at the steps and asked what they could do. Penny was all to happy to show them the Parrot and Triumph tulips and how to properly bed them.
Of course, she snapped pictures of her two girlfriends with dirt on their faces and easy smiles gracing their features as they handled the plants with care.
Howard followed next, of course. Then Raj, which made Penny happy. The more help they had, the quicker they could finish with as few flower casualties as possible. She found it hilarious to see Howard handle the pussy willow stalks and him not say a single word. But seeing as he had thousands of branches to root down and only a couple hours to work in, he seemed to be going in a methodical pace. Despite his creepy candy coating, he was a good guy and a hard worker.
Raj was with a group of older men who were starting the planting on the first floor, in the kitchen. Penny had asked her more tender and careful volunteers to do the kitchen and dining room, as she hadn't wanted to move the broken china or metal and those who were now rooting hydrangeas were the ones she knew wouldn't hurt themselves in the mess, despite the layers of soil.
Her picture of Raj tenderly patting down a blue hydrangea and Howard with an armful of branches spoke of their character she knew they had in them.
Leonard had come by the day the entire upper floor had been finished, impressed. “What brought this on, Penny? This is incredible!”
She wiped some sweat from her forehead and took a drink of water before answering.“I wanted to bring something to life.”
He blinked at her. “It's an insane asylum.”
“It was abandoned, Leonard. It once had people and activity in it. But, I dunno, even then I don't think anything was really living in here.” She shrugged. “I thought I could maybe I could show people the beauty in something so sad and taboo.”
He smiled warmly. “And now you've got yourself a giant garden.”
Penny laughed. “No, once we're done here, I suspect no one will visit for a long time. I probably won't. I hope the flowers take and reseed and cycle. I would like to come back in a few years and see most of the rooms still flowered.”
“I wish I could help. My allergies are already acting up, though.” Leonard fingered some trowels and shears sitting on the bannister.
“Send Sheldon down here to help. He can stand in for you.”
Sheldon refused to work.
He did however, slowly and methodically look over ever inch of complete space.
“I must say, Penny. You've created a giant garden out of some useless space. While I am not a fan of dirt people or nature, I find your initiative and design quite brilliant.”
Penny huffed. “Don't tell me that's a bazinga.”
“Hardly. I mean it. You organized twenty people, twenty-four should you include those in our social circle who have deigned to get their hands dirty, had local greenhouses and florists donate almost all of your materials, and it all looks quite pleasing.” He patted her on the back gingerly, then quickly withdrew his hand to apply hand sanitizer.
“Thanks, honey.” She smiled at him warmly. Adding to her surprise, he returned the smile.
“To that, I've seen the website you've designed...”
“How?! I don't have it public yet!” Penny yelped.
Sheldon gave her what he passed as an exasperated look. “You mooch off of our wifi. It's quite simple to see check your history, among other things. Your site is fully functioning, it just hasn't been broadcast, or 'gone live' yet.” He paused, watching her face for a reaction. When he was pleased she wasn't going to punch him or harm him in some violent way, he continued. “While your design could use some tweaking, your photos are acceptable.”
Penny grinned. “Thank you.”
Penny worked on the room with the blood stained floor with Amy and Bernadette two days later. She planted thorny red roses, despite the warnings of the greenhouse who provided them. But Penny made sure that she and the ladies all wore jeans, long sleeves and thick gloves while working in the room.
She'd decided the roses for this room when Amy told her the room had most likely been the location of the lobotomies and electroshock therapy.
Nine hundred daffodils fit in the old padded isolation room, bright and large-petaled.
Along the left and right walls, small path stones were laid in the halls for everyone to be able to see the finished rooms. The stairs that lead up to the second floor were now covered in ivy and daisies, except the stepping stones near the railing leading up and following the same pattern as the downstairs to showcase the bedrooms. Raj had, just before they laid the final step of soil and flowers—hyacinth—in the entry, set rambling ivy and roses on the walls to take hold in years following. He hoped, at least, according to Howard to belayed the whispered sentiment.
Penny cried as she thanked all the people who'd helped, taking their pictures, making sure to take down their emails and other details for her site. After the volunteers had left, it was just her and Sheldon, their other friends had finished up that morning.
“Do you want the grand tour before we go?” she asked. “I've gotta make sure we don't leave anything behind anyhow.”
“If you insist. But there had better not be bees already in here lurking,” he drawled, making sure to follow the set footpath and not crush the precious flowers. Penny just shook her head and chuckled to herself.
Each room they walked past, it was like pieces of the people who had once lived there were returning from the ground up. Vibrancy and the smell of perfumed earth was slowly seeping into the walls. The plaster and drywall (and brick in some rooms) may have been grey, but the flowers were making up for the lacking color. The rooms reminded her of the pictures of fields of flowers, but it was like someone Photoshopped a portion of those pictures between four walls, then cleverly leaving the things like beds, dressers and mirrors in place.
With the upstairs clear, they walked the paths to get the places like the therapy room—the chair choking on the cheerful color surrounding it—and doctor's office—not a bottle of morphine or bandage, nor case folder out of place—out of the way quickly and taking their time to admire the delicate laying and pattern of flowering in the kitchen that was full of booby traps under the dirt.
“Penny, I'm puzzled.”
Penny turned to look up at Sheldon. “Why, what's wrong?”
“Why did you do this?” His mouth was set in a frown, but his hands were twitching nervously at his sides.
She thought a moment about how she could say this to Sheldon in a way his beautiful mind would understand. “I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to show myself that I matter. That I have the power to create. I know I can destroy. I was halfway there before I did this—destroying my life. It seems like all my friends now are accomplished and brilliant and will be known for so many great things and I...I just wanted this little piece. To bring light to some place full of shadows and shame.
“I knew if I could do this, I would be able to do anything.” She watched as the wind blew in from a busted window frame and made the various hydrangea colors sway.
“Penny, I am constantly saying you have the potential for so much. It is exasperating when you would choose to continually go about the wrong direction. I will say again, this isn't my taste, I'm much more analytical. But this...it is quite brilliant.”
Penny whipped her head up to look at Sheldon, shocked that he'd given her such a glowing compliment.
She was met with his hesitant lips.
But it was over as quick as it happened.
“May we depart now? It's nearly dinner time and I'd hate to throw my schedule off because of some silly flora.”
She snapped herself out of her shocked stare and dug in her pocket. “Just a sec, okay? I need to do something real quick.” She brought out her camera and quickly took a shot at Sheldon. Ignoring his protest, she looked at her new photo and felt smugness grow on her face.
It was Sheldon leaning on the doorway, his body half turned towards her, a sea of blossoms behind him, his eyebrow quirked up and a miniscule grin of amusement gracing his face.
“We can go now.”