It towered over her, a grotesque convalescence of maimed faces and razor-blades swimming in a sickly mess of filth and rotten flesh. It was a reminiscence of every ugly thing, every scream of pain, every image of agony she had ever driven to the farthest reaches of her soul. It did resemble her father to some degree, at least as much as she could remember of him, but only what she could see of it out of the corner of her eye. Wherever she looked directly, she was greeted with maggots, dangling intestines, dead frogs, and nests of creeping black spiders.
“You ran away from me, Ell. You've been a very, very bad girl.”
Ell met and held its gaze, even as its eyes became twin pools of dripping, oozing blood.
“You can't hurt me.”
It laughed, the effort causing it to cough out a severed arm.
“Of course I can't. But... you... can.”
Elm Hope's train appeared from nowhere, a mangled mess of steel crunching together around her, skewering her, slicing into her skin. It was free-falling, dragging her down like an anchor, a sickly dream-fall that made her stomach turn...
The drop ended abruptly, and her head cracked against the earth.
It hurt. Really, really hurt. It felt like her skull had broken into a million pieces.
The train turned to fog, and she lifted herself up.
“I was fine. I got up after the fall, and I was fine. Mei fixed me when I went to sleep.”
“MEI ISN'T REAL!” the Evil roared, and she was falling again, this time from the second floor of the ruined school. The concrete raced up at her, and she hit feet-first, breaking both her legs. It felt like someone had hammered nails into her shins.
Teeth gritted so hard she could hear them grinding together, Ell forced herself up on the broken bones. “Mei... caught... me... I was... fine...”
“It was you, the whole time. Don't lie. Lying is a sin, and sinners go to hell. Mei isn't real. Mei isn't REAL!”
An impact on her shoulder; Roy's bullet, tearing a white-hot hole through cartilage and sinew. She fell again, and this time she remained on her knees. Even though she knew it to be a dream, she couldn't keep the tears from streaming down her face. Still she stared the nightmare creature down, her determination matching the fury in its eyes.
“I know... why... you won't let me keep Mei...”
In the pickup truck, the front compacting as it struck the ditch, throwing her through the windshield. Glass shards like a thousand needles jammed into her skin, bruised skin as she landed and rolled.
“Mei's always there... always... helping me... protecting... me...”
Roy's song, like a chainsaw in her head. She could feel liquid trickling across her body, whether sweat or blood she couldn't tell.
“She's... my... friend.”
The injuries were random now, cuts, scrapes, and abrasions from throughout her entire short life. The monster was barely human now, roaring at her in a million hate-filled voices.
“It's all that's left. I would have killed you a hundred years ago, so so so long ago, but you made that absurd, infernal shadow. She's all that's still in the way. Hate her. Hate you. Hate YOU!”
Slowly, Ell uncurled from where she had fallen. There wasn't much of her left, yet she still lifted herself to her feet, spitting blood from bruised lips.
She lifted her broken hand, showing it to her father.
“I know she's not real.”
The blood-wet finger bones showed through her lacerated skin, held in place by little more than paper-thin tissue.
“But I didn't make her, not really. She was always there, I just made her a body to stay in.”
Black threads curling through her flesh, sewing together the torn skin, meshing fractured bones, mending displaced muscle.
“She's real, because I want her to be.”
Mei drew back from Ell's hand, like the midnight tide rolling back from the sand. Ell flexed her now-whole fingers, and balled them into a fist.
“As long as I believe in her, she won't go away. And as long as she's here...,” Ell took a step forward. “You can't be a part of me.”
Ell lifted the lighter, the one that had followed her, dream to dream, every night of every year since her sixth birthday. She clicked it once, and watched the tiny flame dance in front of her face.
The shadow she cast was as big as her dream. Mei bent, her enormous frame rattling the air, and crushed Ell's father beneath her behemoth grinning face.
A single gnarled finger protruded from underneath the shadow's bulk, shuddering briefly before taking on the form of a tiny black centipede, skittering away as fast as its legs would take it.
Ell giggled, waving to the fleeing insect.
For as long as he had been employed at Elm Hope, Dr. Richard Anderson had hated the garden maze. It wasn't unsightly, really; the gardeners did an excellent job keeping both the maze and the surrounding grounds in good shape. The real issue was the danger it represented. A cry for help would be muted by the greenery, and even if it were heard, a wandering patient in need of medical attention would go unaided for several valuable minutes as response crews attempted to navigate the labyrinthine hedge walls.
The oversight committee disagreed with him. The necessary personnel had been well-trained for just such an occasion, they said. The layout of the maze would be memorized by all staff members, and a new, high-tech patient-tagging system would ensure that anyone lost would easily be found.
Of course, they never actually got around to installing the system, but no patient ever seemed to go missing, so the whole issue was swept under the rug and forgotten. Anderson did his best to forget as well, but the thought was always there, nagging at the back of his mind.
Now, stumbling along in the dark, he mentally cursed every designer, builder, gardener, and arrogant official that had ever had the vaguest semblance of association with the maze's creation. Knowing every twist and turn of the maze did little good when the one he was looking for did not wish to be found.
He hoped with all his might that Ell did not attempt to go back inside. The armored police were not who they seemed to be. If they happened across her first, it would all be over. For him, for Ell, for the hospital itself. That could not be allowed to happen.
There. A quiet sort of scream, more a strangled gasp. Anderson moved as softly as he could, hiding the flashlight's beam in his shirt. The night was dark, but the moon was bright, and the eerie blue lamps did a fair job lighting the leafy corridors.
Another noise. Anderson stopped, listening. Had it been a... laugh? It had sounded like one.
It came again, soft, effeminate. Ell, for sure. She had to be...
Right in front of him. She stepped from the undergrowth, the unnatural light on her white-gray uniform wreathing her in a ghostly aura. Her eyes turned to him, looked at him, looked through him. Blind to reality. With all that had been happening, he was not surprised. She was hiding in her mind, as usual. Most of the time, she trusted him, but on occasion her fears consumed her beyond any ordinary coping mechanisms. At that point, no person could hope to get through to her, even him.
Reflexively, Anderson reached into his pocket, drawing out a small bag of powder. Might as well take a dose. It had been years since the Thing inside Ell had woken up, but he couldn't take chances, not with what was about to happen.
The grainy mixture tasted like salt and lemon juice, but he swallowed it without reaction.
“Ell? Can you see me?”
Her eyes may have focused; it was hard to tell in the dark.
She took a hesitant step forward. “Who... are you?”
Anderson relaxed a bit. She had let him in.
“It's me, Ell.” He turned his flashlight upwards, illuminating his face. “It's your father. I've come to get you. There are some... very bad men, back inside. They want to take you away, Ell, but don't worry. I'm not going to let them.”
No response. That was alright. He kept talking, his voice calm and soothing. “We're going to go somewhere, Ell. I'll take you to a happy place, just like home! Would you like that, Ell? Just you, your friend, and daddy.”
Ell giggled. “Daddy number two.”
The night seemed to grow colder as Anderson slowly realized what Ell had said.
Someone standing behind her, a looming black shape hiding in the shifting shadows. Dr. Anderson shone the flashlight full on Ell, trying to see...
He caught only the briefest glimpse before the flashlight died, the light somehow torn from the glass bulb by the grinning terror at Ell's back. Without a second thought, he dropped the useless object, turned, and ran.
How had she gotten him? He'd taken the powder, that should have stopped the baseline effects of the death-song. There must have been something else, something he hadn't accounted for. It was all a hallucination. That... creature could not be real. A side-effect of Ell's little secret, nothing more. Had to get back, get to his office. The rest of the mixes were in the drawer, if he could make it in time.
And then he was out of time.
Ell appeared from nowhere, standing in his way. She was smiling, waving to him.
“I'm leaving now, but it's okay, daddy. I'll take care of myself. I'm a big girl, and Mei's going with me. Isn't she big too, daddy?”
The night was alive, eating his mind, dragging him down to the ink-black end. The last thing he saw were the eyes, twin circles of pure white set above a crescent smile, watching his soul tumble into the eternal abyss.
There were no screams, Ell was glad of that. Only the quiet whistle of the dry wind drifting through the garden. She'd never seen Mei actually eat a person, although the shadow had always had an air of unseen violence about her. It was sort of cool to watch.
Though the shadow-girl no longer possessed a physical form, Ell could still feel her, a great shifting presence undulating in the black sea of lightless places. Fused with the night itself, Mei was limitless, fearless. The shadows no longer bound her, for she was all shadow.
Ell stretched out her hand, felt Mei move in response.
They had passed through the fire unharmed. Now, together, nothing could stop them.
“Let's go, Mei. This place isn't our home. We'll find a new one, okay?”
The garden offered no direct route of escape, so together the two girls made their own. The fence bent and tore, the woods curled out of the way as dreams and reality unified.
Ell's eyes were set on some far-off place, a place only she and Mei could see, somewhere beyond the silent forest walls. The journey of fear and dreams ended here amid the blue light and stars, and where it ended, a new one began. United they went together, hand in hand, through forest and thorn-wreathed thickets. Elm Hope was lost to the forgotten past; a new world now awaited them.
At last, they were free.