In the beginning, there was chaos. Noises, bright lights, the taste of vanilla, a flush of warmth across her cheeks. Metal eating sparks as it ground backwards up a stony hillside, taking shape and form as time drew itself back. Pain, but only for a minute, then...
There was a metal cuff on her right wrist.
Ell could feel it, but it wasn't her arm she was looking at. She sat within the confines of someone else's mind, watching through eyes that moved against her will. Blurry shapes emerged slowly from the dream mire, and she found herself staring at a bronze plaque: Elm Hope Hospital.
The seat beneath her shuddered, and she knew where she was.
Elm Hope's train.
The memory continued piecing itself together. The train's interior grew around her, glowing in the light of the reborn sun. The muted rumble of the heavy wheels reached her ears, almost imperceptible beneath the melancholy violin music playing over the train's sound system.
“Oh, you're awake, Ell?”
Dr. Mortimer. He was there as well, and for once he was free of flickers and missing bits, sitting there as solid as she was.
“Who are you talking to, Ell?
He was not alone. There were others in the train coach. In the seats, standing in the aisles, looking out the windows. They wore the same insulated uniforms that she herself wore, cut from the same dull gray fabric, each bearing the gold 'EHH' monogram on the left cuff. Who were they? Their faces were indistinct, their voices garbled and chaotic. Did she know them? Why were they here, in her dream?
“They were always there, Ell.”
The words spoke outside the scene, filtering in through the cracks.
“You know them, but you chose to forget. Do you see them now?”
For the briefest fraction of a second, she did see them. A little boy, his arms and legs contorted into unnatural positions, grunting like an animal as he jerked and twitched in his seat. An overweight man, drooling on his shirt front, staring into space with eyes that rolled rhythmically from left to right and back again. A dark-skinned girl, pushing a spoon around on a metal tray, her mouth forming an endless string of useless sounds.
There were others as well, many others. Broken people, on every side, in every seat.
Broken like her.
She didn't want to see them. They scared her. They needed to go away. There was no room for others in her world. They needed to vanish. As she had done countless times before, Ell wished them away, pushing with her mind against the overwhelming sights and sounds now flooding her senses.
With growing horror, Ell tried again, straining with all her might to eradicate the outsiders from the scene before her, but it was no use. Something was forcing her to see it. She could feel it now, some invisible thing, holding open the blinds that had so long obscured the truth. She tried to turn, to face the presence, but she was bound to the actions of her past self. Doomed to observe a world that was no longer fluid, no longer bent to her will.
Dr. Mortimer's voice, drawn out painfully as the memory slowed to a crawl, “Some... thing... on...the...tracks... hope... the... drive... er... sees... it...”
A sudden, jarring shock. Confusion and carnage, and the train car came loose. Passengers flung about like bits of paper in a hurricane, smashing into and through the walls and windows. Screams, steel rending, bones breaking. An inferno flashed through the tumbling car, setting everything ablaze. The skin on Ell's hands charred and bubbled, but even in her memories, it did not hurt. There was, or had been, no time for pain.
The flaming train car struck a tree, tearing both the train and an unfortunate patient in two. A severed leg tumbled past Ell's head, and she found herself free-floating, staring out into the empty sky in the last instants before the crash came to its inevitable conclusion.
Rain pattering on metal above, hissing softly on the grass outside. The turbulent rushing of the bloated valley stream racing under the wrecked car. The acrid smoke burned in her lungs, making her eyes water.
“Don't worry, I'll be right there! Don't try to move,” she heard herself say. Talking to Mei. Ell couldn't actually see the shadow girl yet; the interior of the train was far too dark, despite the blaze both inside and outside the wreck.
“Hold on, I just need to get some light.”
She was going to make a torch, she remembered now. It was odd to both remember the scene and relive it at the same time. First she would need something to serve as a handle. There had been a pipe, if memory served. Already her past self had risen, her eyes probing the darkness for the items she needed. There it was; the metal pipe...
Stuck through Dr. Mortimer's head.
The lethal debris had struck him just above his nose, driving clean through his skull and into the seat headrest behind it. Had it not been for the shredded paneling wrapped around his legs, he likely would have been dangling from the pipe alone. Blood ran almost as plentiful as the rain, black in the firelight, as though the doctor was bleeding pitch.
Ell's past self couldn't see him. She was getting too close, the hideous corpse looming undetected before her. The revolting mess was almost literally touching her... the real Ell tried to recoil from the images, but again found herself stuck in place, like a fly in a spider's web.
Memory-Ell reached out and touched the blood-soaked face.
Even the dream-lock couldn't hold as Ell's younger incarnation finally saw the cadaver. The memory exploded into a blazing cacophony of lights and stereo feedback. Emptiness closed in, and she lost all sense of time and place.
Rhythmic footfalls on the grassy earth. Old pines blanketing the hills in endless forest, stretching to the horizon.
“What are you doing, Mei? Shadows shouldn't touch things. You aren't solid.”
Talking to no one. Ell searched her field of vision, but Mei was nowhere to be seen. It didn't make sense. Her friend should have been there, walking at her side. Instead, there was nothing but a useless, ordinary shadow, stretched lifeless and dull at her feet.
“Oh, cheer up. Shadows can do other neat things! You can't be hurt, for one thing. No one can ever punch you or kick you, or stick you with a needle. And you can grow really tall when the light's right. I'm solid, so I can't do that. I'm stuck like I am...”
Something beneath the leaves. Rusty teeth, springs, and chain.
“What have you found, Mei?”
Ell watched her younger self brush the leaves from the trap, then yank her hand away as she realized what it was.
“Be careful, Mei. This was made to bite bears, make them hold still so hunters can shoot them. I think it's broken, but there might be others. Watch where you step.”
Skips in time, like bad frames in an old film reel. Black, color, black, color...
Clarity of sight returned, and Ell now perceived two worlds, side-by-side.
Through the eyes of her past self, she saw a world warped by madness. A world dancing with fire and phantoms, surreal landscapes and twisted terrors. A reality that bent ever closer to the breaking point with every minute that passed.
The truth was there as well, superimposed over the memory. The Ell of the past fought against nothing more than twigs and leaves, thrashing about in the throes of imagined danger.
The convulsions grew more and more severe, ending at last as the medicine took hold.
As the nightmares receded, so did the memory itself. Ell found herself plucked from the past, tumbling down a passage walled with endless moments from her life. She reached out in a futile attempt to slow herself, and realized that her mind had granted her a body again. It was frustratingly useless; the tunnel offered no handholds, nothing physical to grab hold of. Helpless in the rushing torrent, like a leaf down a storm drain.
Her fingers brushed against the torrent of images, and the tunnel filled with a mess of displaced time.
The old school, black and decrepit. The ancient stage, stripped of fantasy. No monster, no mother; even the piano had been false. Sounds and letters formed a helix around her as voices from the past vibrated the walls.
“Are you... one of the bad... things?”
The reply came right on its heels, but it was not her mother's voice;
“Elinor, dear, I've missed you so...”
The voice was her own. She had been talking to herself the entire time, changing her pitch and tone as she played the roles of both herself and her perception of her mother.
Another strand of noise curled through her recollections; bits of a song, an ambiance played to match her performance. It wormed through her dream, black and grotesque, devouring great swathes of remembrance as it thrashed about.
Though eyeless, it seemed to sense her staring at it, turning abruptly in her direction. With a great lurch, it hurled itself upon her, crushing her against the tunnel wall. Crystalline fragments of thought collapsed beneath the sudden force, and Ell fell through, out into the abyss once more.
The living song followed her, oozing through the hole it had made, clawing after her with amorphous limbs and misplaced teeth. As it broke free of the tunnel, it burst into flames, burning away until all that remained was a lone figure, free-falling after her into the eternal night.
“Ours is a different gift. It's not something you can hold or unwrap. It's inside of you. Inside your heart.”
Even in the dream, she felt afraid. “You're dead. I saw you die.”
And she had. She remembered him singing, a single photo-perfect image burned forever into her brain. The madness no longer projected horrors over the image, but even without the mental turbulence, Roy's neck and mouth still appeared to shine like fire, as though a miniature sun burned within his throat.
She remembered fighting back. The same song, with sounds no human could possibly make, as though her heart itself had begun to resonate with music.
And he had died. As the song broke his mind, Roy had driven the knife through his own throat. His blood had been sickly crimson as it ran in rivulets down his jacket front.
“I live only in your mind, little girl. Did you really think this would be enough to free you? You think you've figured it out? You've only seen the faintest glimmer of the truth. The pills, Ell. Take more. If you want to be free forever, take them all.”
“Why would I listen to you? You tried to hurt me. I already see things the right way. I don't need more.”
The Roy-song laughed. “You've gained a lot, true. But look what you've lost.”
It pointed behind her. With some effort she managed to turn mid-fall, looking down into infinite space. There was something down there, something rushing up at her with alarming speed. She threw out her hands to protect her face, though she was well aware the immense velocity would turn her bones into paste when she hit.
Fortunately, there was no impact. One moment the distant object was bearing down on her, the next she was lying flat on its surface, her face pressed against cold steel. The door from her dream. An ominous, impenetrable portal, the ultimate barrier between her and whatever lay below.
Mei was on the other side.
Ell could see her through the material, floating in an expanse as white as the world on Ell's side was black. Cut off from her human host for the first time, the shadow seemed dazed and disoriented, turning slow somersaults in the blank abyss.
Mei stiffened at the sound of Ell's voice, her perfect-circle eyes hopping about in sudden confusion.
“Mei, what are you doing? Get out of there!”
Although it was obvious that the shadow girl still couldn't see her, Mei still flattened herself against the other side of the door, trying desperately to pass through. Ell lifted herself up, searching for a handle or latch, but there was none. No way to open it. No way to get in, or out.
“Mei,” the word was almost a sob, “Mei, don't leave me out here. Don't leave me. Come back. Please.”
“Still think you're right, little girl?”
Roy, standing next to her on the steel of the door. Or was it Roy? He looked wrong... like two people at once, his features melting and shifting between faces.
“Where are you, Ell?”
Cracks in the sky. The dream was breaking up.
“Ell, I'm here! Ell!”
Not Roy's voice. Who was calling her?
Something giggled in the dark.
“Bye bye, Ell!” said the voice of nightmares and creeping things.
Ell's eyes opened to the moonlight.
Ell gave herself a minute to adjust, squinting at the stars. The ground felt incredibly solid beneath her, every tuft of grass and lump of earth a testament to the truth of what she now beheld. Elm Hope sat where she had left it, firm and unshakeable. The old elm tree rustled its leaves above, standing watch over her like some mythical guardian.
Ell almost jumped out of her skin, the voice was so loud and close. Someone was standing in the dark, less than fifty feet away. A weak band of light played across the bushes as the figure took an uncertain step forward.
“Ell, are you out here?”
She knew the voice. Father. He had come to her, after all.
“You're probably playing hide-and-seek, but now's not the time. It's not safe. There's a fire, and it's spreading. You need to come with me, right now!”
In any other circumstance, Ell would have immediately risen from her resting place and run to her father's side, but two things now held her back.
The first was the rather pressing fact that Mei was noticeably absent from the nearby pools of light. The dream had been more than a dream, then. Somehow, Mei had become trapped in Ell's mind, stuck in the empty cage the Whispers had once occupied.
The second was something even deeper than her worry for her friend. The new medication had indeed been a superior formula, smashing its way through a great number of the mental blocks that had been building year after year in her traumatized neural pathways. It had brought revelation, but more than that, it had given her a taste of freedom; freedom from the mental oppression, an end to the Whispers' reign of terror, the final collapse of the great web of lies and delusions that had been woven across her past.
In that one brief flash of realization, freedom had become her morphine, and her addiction was absolute.
Moving with catlike silence, Ell got to her feet. A tangled mass of roses still separated her from her father, hiding her from his eyes. He would try to stop her. He would take the new drugs away. She couldn't let him, not now that she was so close.
The hedge maze. Father had always gotten lost trying to find her among the maze's well-pruned walls. Maybe he would be angry later, but she would make him understand, once she had really freed herself. The thought sent a chill down her spine. Total control. Total freedom. Safety forever.
Her eyes turned one last time to Elm Hope. The Whispers... what were they, really? Men in black armor, like the storybook knights the nurses had told her of? Perhaps nothing at all, a nightmare figment brought to life through imagination alone... or perhaps they were true demons, floating up from hell, tormenting her for some sin she had long since buried beneath her daily imitation of peaceful life.
Father came around the corner slowly, unsteady in the dark, his feet catching on the uneven stones. The tiny pen-light bobbed about, searching over the creeping foliage, vanishing into the blue garden lights. Something moved, and he jerked about, brandishing the light before him to ward off the night.
The dim circle of luminance traced a path down the trunk of the elm, coming to rest on the mighty tree's gnarled roots. The grass there seemed matted, as if a weight had lifted from it only moments earlier. An empty container of some sort sat nestled among the green, its lid open, its contents no longer present.
A cricket chirped once, and the night sat empty.