“Serenity calms the broken mind”.
This was the motif that led Walter Fairweather, founder and benefactor of Elm Hope Hospital, to direct a sizable portion of the construction funds towards the development of a large, unusually elaborate garden park at the rear of the facility proper. A square acre of gravel paths, rare flowering bushes, and grand Weeping Willow trees, all for the exclusive enjoyment of patients in need of a quiet stroll.
At the park's center stood the towering elm tree for which the compound was named, its ancient branches protecting the benches below from sun and rain. Beyond the tree, a well-trimmed hedge maze offered more adventurous walkers the opportunity to exercise both their legs and their brains, and saw frequent use from patient and employee alike.
The park remained open through the night, catering to those whose unique disorders rendered them unwilling or unable to sleep. Solar-cell lamps, some large, some small, shone throughout the garden like fluorescent blue fireflies. They would eventually dim to nonexistence as their batteries ran dry, but for now, they shone strong and pure.
Ell had wandered the garden many times before, sometimes with Father, sometimes alone with Mei. The other doctors would usually leave her alone for the duration of her walks. After all, she was perfectly safe; the area was enclosed on all sides by a heavy iron fence, and beyond that, the trees and thickets grew so thick one could not have cut their way through with a machete. There was nowhere for her, or any of the patients, to go. Beyond the unearthly lights and the beauty of nature, it was still nothing more than a sprawling, well-decorated cage.
On this visit, Ell did not wander. She ignored the many familiar trails, choosing instead to sit quietly beneath the elm, hands folded in her lap. The full moon stared down at her between the wisps of cloud, distant and uncaring.
Mei sat to her left, floating in the aura of one of the solar lights. Her round eyes were turned to the sky, counting the few stars she could see through the patchy cloud cover. She seemed at peace, the terror of their pursuers already forgotten.
Ell's eyes were not on the sky. She looked instead upon her home, though there was little to see from outside. Elm Hope loomed against the horizon, black on black, dead and cold. The only sign of life came from the occasional flickers of light as a Whisper passed a window, untiring in its quest, yet hopelessly lost in the labyrinth of the hospital halls.
There was some irony in the lights they now carried. Before, they had been of the darkness, drawn to the lightless places, the dark waters, the deep crevices that the sun could not touch. Now they were made flesh, and the night they once called home blinded them, forcing them to grope about in the dark. They were still strong, still monstrous in power and anger, but they were no longer limitless as they had once been. Evolution had become a snare for its masters.
Ell knew she was not safe. The Whispers were lost now, but they would not be lost forever. Sooner or later, one would wander into the garden. It would see her. It would come for her. In her dreams, it had been a brief flash of pain, and then her eyes would open to the morning. This time, there could be no awakening. Only the bleak, unknown nothingness that awaited her on the other side.
Even so, she did not run. There was nowhere to run to. The garden was empty. Daddy was not there. No one was, not even the passing ghosts that had tormented her for so very long. Only Mei was left for her. A living shadow that had followed her since before she could remember. Her only true friend, through all the hurt and nightmares.
Really, she was just tired. Tired of running, tired of the medicine and the doctors, tired of the White Room that would never leave her in peace, that would haunt her dreams to her last breath. She could not go on. There was no reason to go on. When the Whispers came, she would not try to escape, not this time. This time, they would take what they wanted, and the passing dream she called life could finally end.
Faint flickers of color pricked the night; hallucinations, the beginning of the confusion that would soon be upon her again. It had been at least an hour since she had awakened. Almost six hours since she had last taken a dose. In a short while, as the madness grew in intensity and terror, she would have to take her pills.
Unless the Whispers found her first.
She reached into her pocket, and her fingers settled on Roy's tablet-case. Perhaps the new pills would make her well. Perhaps they would kill her. She had been told to never, ever take unlabeled medicine, except when Dr. Mortimer or a nurse gave them to her.
The tablets rattled as she shook them into her palm, and she glanced about in some nervousness. On Elm Hope's second floor, a face appeared briefly at the window, but Ell wasn't sure if it was real or just a part of her imagination. Either way, it vanished just as swiftly as it had come.
Ell turned her attention back to the medicine. The garden's lights reflected off the pills, making them shimmer in her hand. She lifted them up to eye level, staring at them as if, through sheer force of will, she could somehow force them to divulge what secrets they held.
The trance was broken at last by Mei, who, tired of stargazing, had drifted across the moonlit grass to lean up against Ell. The sensation was both heartwarming and unnerving; the shadow girl rarely took solid form unless absolutely necessary, and only then if she felt entirely safe doing so. Perhaps the Whispers' new corporeal forms gave her a greater sense of security... she no longer had to view every patch of darkness with fear.
Ell reached out her free arm in an attempt to hug her friend, but was disappointed to find that her arm sank through the shadow with little resistance. Mei seemed to sense Ell's intent, pressing in closer and coiling her wispy arms around Ell's neck in an attempt to comfort her. Having no idea how to respond, Ell settled for running a hand through Mei's curly hair.
Despite the danger, Ell could not resist the urge to speak to her friend. “Sometimes... sometimes I wonder why you chose to be with me. I mean, you're a shadow. You can go wherever you want, and you can play with anyone you find. You could have found a nicer girl. When I met you, I had those evil things in my head, trying to eat me. But you didn't run away. You still wanted to play with me... even when no one else would...”
A tear rolled slowly down her cheek, and she let out a quiet sniffle. Mei made no attempt to answer, but her huge, perfectly circular eyes conveyed her feelings perfectly. It was as though, in that moment, the two shared a single soul, mirroring thoughts and emotions.
Ell looked again to Elm Hope, and her eyes steeled.
“I'll beat them, Mei. I'll kill those stupid monsters. Then I'll cut the broken bits right out of my head, and I'll protect you forever and ever.”
Without further hesitation, she downed three of the silver-flecked pills in a single swallow. Then, doing her best to hold Mei close, she waited to see what would happen.
She did not have to wait long. The blackness of drugged sleep consumed her at once, pulling her down into its empty depths. She could feel the White Room, hidden somewhere deep below, but for now she floated above it, lost in the space between dreams.
After several seconds of darkness, the first strings of imagined realities began to form. It started with a sensation, a feeling as though she stood on a dense pane of ice. It was ice that grew ever thinner, slowly cracking apart beneath her feet. As the fractures grew, she could see lights and images below the surface, flickers of things remembered and things forgotten.
She stood not on ice, but on her own memories. Memories slowly giving way beneath Roy's medication.
Her feet slid, or at least she imagined they did, and she fell on her hands and knees. Her eyes were now close enough to the ice to see the scratches on its otherwise smooth surface. They were clearly man-made, sometimes words, sometimes pictures, sometimes random letters with no order or reason. Her eyes traced some of the coherent ones:
“Not real. Not real. Not real.”
The phrase 'not real' was repeated more times than any other marking, covering most of the glassy floor. The cracks in the ice seemed to move through the letters, linking the words, weakening the structure until...
The ground gave way without a sound, showering down around her in pieces no larger than grains of sand, whirling behind her in a crystal cloud as she fell through.
She still slept, but it was as though she were awake at the same time, watching someone else's dream. In the dream, she saw a little girl, dressed in Elm Hope's patient uniform. Her black hair ran in tangled strings over her shoulders, gritty and unkempt, looking as though it had not seen a comb in several years. Her eyes, unusually blue and large, stared out at the world with a flat disinterest. Seeing everything, yet registering nothing.
Her hand, when she lifted it, was white-skinned and cold. After a minute, Ell realized the girl was reaching out to her, as if pleading with her to come closer. She tried to move, but she had no form, no body to move with.
The other girl spoke. The words were said in Ell's voice, a flawless mimicry, chilling in its perfection.
“Time for the truth.”
For some reason, that one sentence terrified her more than any threat.
“Wait, I don't-”
The girl was gone, and Ell was falling again. Falling into memories, pieces of her past that held more terror than the Whispers ever had. She had no mouth to scream, no eyes to close. Inside her own mind, there was nowhere to run.
At long last, the Truth had found her.