Tears streaked Ell's cheeks, but for the first time in a long time, they were tears of joy. Her arms were wrapped tightly around Daddy, and his were wrapped around her, and there they sat. Neither spoke, neither moved. Time stood frozen as they held each other, and no force on earth could have torn them apart.
She was vaguely aware of the doctors and orderlies crowding the room, examining her, making calls on cellphones and radios, hurrying about in a frenzy of activity. They didn't matter to her. They were not a part of her world. There were only two here, in that space that had been, for so very long, empty and desolate. The two corner-pins, unmoving points in her long existence of fear and turmoil.
Mei, her only friend.
Father, her only protector.
No one else was needed.
Eventually, her father rose to his feet, still cradling her in his arms, and walked with her through the hospital's tiled halls. A group of medical personnel followed a short distance behind, still taking readings and shouting to each other, parading behind father and daughter on a winding journey to Elm Hope's second story.
Ell's room was the last on the right, number 406, the largest room the Children's Ward had to offer. Everything was how she had left it. Her six clean uniforms still hung in a neat row in the tiny closet, and an empty water glass still stood on the nightstand, where she had forgotten it only days ago.
Only a few days. It seemed like an eternity longer.
The blinds were pulled half-down over the picture window, allowing only a small amount of gray light to sift in. Outside stood the forested mountains she had seen so many times before, still resolute against the pale sky. If she could have, she would have reached out and hugged them.
Her father placed her gently on the white bed, her bed. The sheets were soft and cool, and smelled faintly of cinnamon. She let herself sink into the bedding, the comfort almost more than she could bear.
She turned her head, looking up at Daddy. His graying hair and beard were a bit longer than usual, but his eyes were still an unwavering blue, like twin rings of azure steel.
This was the man who had held her when she cried, had carried her when she could not walk, had given her warm clothes to wear and good food to eat. Father had given her a home when the Whispers had eaten her old one. They had been strong then, too strong for her or Mei. Her father had torn her from them34. He had taught her to fight them, to seal them in her dreams. Because of him, she could fight back. With him at her side, nothing could hurt her.
Father's face wrinkled slightly as he smiled at her, and he placed a hand gently on hers.
“Welcome home, Ell.”
Mei found her way onto the bed, pressing up against her human friend. Her transparent fingers settled atop Ell's and daddy's, holding as best she could. She set her head on Ell's shoulder, a grin like a crescent moon splitting her face from ear to ear. Tiny tremors jiggled her edges; the shadow was laughing, a laugh without sound, a laugh that was felt, not heard. A joy that only the heart could understand.
Ell closed her eyes, realizing for the first time how thoroughly exhausted she was. Days without sleep, days where the only dreams had been of madness and chaos. Now... now there was, at last, peace. Peace to sleep. Peace to dream...
A tiny wisp of a question drifted through her mind, and she asked, “Daddy... is this real? It feels like I'm awake, but sometimes I can't tell...”
Her father considered in his usual ponderous fashion, then shook his head slowly.
“If it's a dream, it's the best one I've ever had.”
Ell gave him a tiny nod, and let the silence wash over her.
In the darkness, the Whispers were waiting.
She could feel them, trapped in their tiny cage, seething with anger. They felt her coming. They knew she would soon be in their reach again.
They also felt her father, and with his presence, it wasn't Ell who was afraid.
Everything was as it should be. The nightmare had, at last, drawn to a close.
“I apologize, Dr. Anderson, but time is of the essence here. Is there no way to convince her to cooperate?”
Ell frowned, taking another bite of the hot chicken-noodle soup she had been eating. The words were drifting through the air from all directions, neither male nor female, slipping through the cracks in her mental walls. Stupid, stupid imaginary people, interrupting the first good meal she'd had in several days. She didn't want to talk to them. She wanted to eat.
Daddy answered for her. “I'm sorry, sir. Ell has a... unique aspect to her... personality. The outside world is often too much for her, so she is rather in the habit of tuning everyone out. It's not something she can be talked out of. She has to make up her own mind.”
The unseen speaker let out a soft hiss. “I don't think you understand, doctor. The key to this entire affair may rest within your patient's mind. More people could get hurt, more damage could be done. If she is unwilling to hear me-”
“I can hear you.” Ell said.
There was a click as the owner of the disembodied voice set a pen on the table, and for a moment, Ell could actually see him. An older man in a black suit, eyes like stone, very tall and thin. Bits of him kept appearing and disappearing, like lights being turned on and off.
He leaned forward, becoming very solid with startling suddenness. “I'm so glad you've decided to talk to me, Elinor. My name is-”
“John. You said that when you came in. Don't call me Elinor. My mom calls me that.”
The man blinked. “Your mother?”
Ell nodded, looking down at her soup. “Yeah. She's not here any more.”
John's eyes never left her. “Oh? Where did she go?”
“Don't know. Can't remember.”
He seemed to accept that, taking a small device from his pocket and tapping on the touch-screen. Ell, finding her soup bowl empty, slid it off to one side, pulling over a plate with two slices of garlic bread on it.
“So, Ell. How did you get back here?”
John blinked. “The entire distance? On foot?”
Ell paused for a minute, thinking. There had been a truck... or had there? It might have been part of a dream she'd had. Sometimes they seemed the same as real life. John was staring at her, waiting for an answer. She didn't want to bother him with dreams, and anyway, the memory of the truck was beginning to hurt her head, so she decided to stop thinking about it.
“On foot. With Mei.”
“Mei? She is...?”
Father coughed slightly. “The notes. Page two.”
John glanced down at the papers arrayed before him. “Ah. The shadow. Is she in the room now, Ell?”
Ell glanced behind her back. Mei was standing against the wall, watching the group talk. Seeing Ell looking at her, the shadow girl lifted a hand, waving hello. Ell waved back, then turned again to the man in the suit.
“Yes. She's always with me. Well, sometimes she hides when we're playing, but usually we're both in the same place.”
“Was she on the train with you?”
The Train. Things burning, metal screaming at her, cold rain, darkness for miles.
“Yes. I don't want to talk about the train. The crash was scary.”
“I know, Ell, but I want you to think of the train before it derailed. Was anything odd? Did anyone seem to be acting... funny? Out of the ordinary in any way?”
Ell frowned, swallowing the last bite of toast. “I was the only one on the train.”
John vanished for a moment, leaving Ell staring at the painting behind where he had been sitting. He returned moments later, his brow turned down slightly into a frown.
“Let's move forward a bit. You got out of the wreck, in the dark. Did you try to help the... ah, never mind, you wouldn't see other people. Damn.”
“What does “damn” mean?”
The older man's eyes became very wide, and he coughed out a small laugh. “It's not a good word. Don't try to remember it.”
John leaned in again, resting his elbows on the desk. “Okay, Ell, I want you to think very, very hard, and give me any answer you think of, no matter how small you think it is. Did you talk to any... imaginary people when you were on the train?”
Ell thought about it. “Just Dr. Mortimer. Is he back, too?”
John's eye twitched slightly. “No. No, I'm afraid he's... gone home. I don't think he'll be back.”
“How about after the train? Did you talk to anyone on the way home? Did anyone try to... get you to go with them? By that I mean, did anyone ask you to get into a vehicle, or try to force you to walk somewhere with them?”
Father started to say something, then decided against it, waiting to see what Ell would say.
Ell tried to remember if she had met anyone, but the memories of the last few days were a blur. All she really remembered was walking alone, through trees, through dark halls, down the long road to Elm Hope. No one to guide her, no one to hold her, just Mei at her side.
And a man in a mask with shimmering eyes of plate-glass, his voice a distorted rasp. I'm sure they miss you, Ellie. Let's hurry now, okay?
“Roy,” she breathed.
John's head snapped up. “What?”
“There was a scary man. In the woods, near the old house... no, wait, it was a school. I think he burned it, so it might not be there any more. He said his name was Roy.”
The suited man was typing furiously on his phone, suddenly tense and alert.
“Where was this exactly, Ell?”
“I don't know. I ran really far, in the dark, after he tried to hurt me...”
“Hurt you?” John asked.
“In the dark?” Ell's father said at the same time. Ell didn't know who to answer first, so she didn't reply at all. She searched about for something more to eat, found there was nothing left, and sat back in her chair, folding her hands in her lap.
With a final tap on his phone, John replaced it in his pocket. “This is exactly what I was afraid of. This 'Roy', or whatever his name really is, was trying to finish the job. Where is he now?”
“I don't know. I think he was... well, the school was on fire, and it... fell on him.”
John suddenly snapped his fingers. “The Montgomery schoolhouse. I had reports of a fire there, that must have been it. I'll have to see if they found a body, but until we know for sure... I assume Elm Hope has modernized security?”
Ell's father nodded. “Only the best. Of course, if this man has the expertise you've described to me, it would take a good deal more to keep him out.”
John sighed. “Agreed. We'll post some of our people here, both inside the building and out on the grounds. In the morning, we will begin phase two, if you are in agreement with that.”
From the look on his face, Ell's father was not. “I thought we had discussed this... I don't think it's wise, even in light of recent events.”
John frowned, irritated. “We need the girl alive and in one piece, which will not happen if she is... if we don't go to phase two. Before, it was just a precaution. Now, it is a necessity.”
Turning in his chair to face Ell, he spoke with greater gentleness. “Thank you for talking with me, Elino-, um, Ell. It was nice meeting you and Mei. Have a good night, and I'll see you in the morning.”
Turning back to Ell's father, he said, “I have to make a phone call. You have till morning to make your decision, doctor or my superiors will make it for you. Good evening.”
Standing, he left the room, closing the door behind him.
Ell's father seemed ill at ease. He half-rose from his seat, as if to follow the man, but thought better of it and sat down again. Noticing Ell staring at him, he attempted a reassuring smile, but his face betrayed the worry he felt.
“Is something the matter, Ell?” he asked.
After a minute, Ell answered.
“Can I have more soup?”