Ell came awake
with a gasp. For a single terrifying moment, the nightmare clung to
her, unwilling to let its prey escape, but in the end, reality
banished the last figments of the night into whatever hellish void
bad dreams occupied. Despite the cold sweat now lining her brow, Ell
still felt a sense of pride; she hadn't screamed out loud this time.
The dream had been the same as it always was, never varying, returning to haunt her every time she closed her eyes. Always waiting in the back of her mind, lurking beneath her thoughts, like a black spider dangling in a dark corner. The doctors had told her father that it was a variant of PTSD, the result of traumatizing childhood memories. Two years of unsuccessful therapy later, and the dreams had become commonplace; a part of normal life.
In truth, Ell rather liked them. It reassured her to see that the monsters were still safely locked away in her head, unable to interfere with the real world.
Blinking away the last threads of sleep, she rubbed her eyes with the back of her left hand. Her right hand was cuffed to the metal bar in front of her, as it always was when she left home. Daddy had told her it was for her protection; to keep her from getting lost. They let her wear it over her sleeve, so the metal wouldn't cut into her wrist. She didn't like it much, but there had been no choice in the matter.
The train car was the same as it had been when she dozed off; quiet and empty. Although it was a modern train, it had been modeled in a manner reminiscent of a Victorian-era house, all varnished wood and shades of tan and gold. A bronze plaque over the door bore the name of Ell's home in fancy calligraphy: Elm Hope Hospital.
The leather seats squeaked as the train's heavy wheels shuddered over a rough patch of rail. Mei, sitting on the seat beside Ell, shivered. The smaller girl hated leaving the hospital, and was deathly afraid of loud noises. A ride in the train, especially for such a long trip, was almost more than she could take.
Ell reached over, patting Mei's shoulder. “It's okay, Mei. I'm right here.”
Mei's shivering quieted, but she still looked uncomfortable.
Ell tried to cheer her up. “I had the dream again. The Whispers are still right up here, Mei.” She tapped her head. “They're angry, but they can't get out. You're completely safe.”
“Oh, you're awake, Ell?”
Ell ground her teeth in frustration, turning to face Dr. Mortimer. The man was hazy and indistinct, flickering in and out of existence on the seat next to her.
“Who are you talking to, Ell?”
“None of your business, Mr. Mortimer.”
“That's Doctor Mortimer, my dear girl. And please, call me Jared. Did you sleep well?”
“Yes. The scaries tried to kill me again.”
Dr. Mortimer frowned. “Hmm. Did you take your medication?”
With a second “hmm”, Dr. Mortimer drew a notebook from his shirt pocket, scribbling a few notes.
“I was just telling Mei about it. She doesn't like train rides.”
Dr. Mortimer sighed. “Ell, Mei is your shadow. She likes train rides if you do.”
“She does not.”
“She likes whatever you think she likes. Look, I know Dr. Hurie says that imaginary friends are good for you, but I would strongly suggest that you try to make real ones. You remember poor Anna back at Elm? She sits in her room all day because she doesn't have anyone to talk to.”
“That's because she's crazy. She only says numbers.”
“So, you should still socialize with her. Imagine she's talking to you in code, or something of the sort. It's better than talking to something that doesn't exist.”
“You don't exist, Mr. Mortimer. I don't like you. Please go away.”
Dr. Mortimer sighed again, turning to the window as his image began to waft apart. He was on the verge of disappearing altogether when a thought occurred to him. “Ell, were you lying earlier? About your meds?”
“No. I really did take them. Even though they taste like rubber. Now go away, I like it better when there's no one else around.”
The doctor chuckled. “No one except the ten of us. Don't forget your travel partners, Ell. Elm Hope doesn't charter a train just for you.”
Ell turned, staring into his eyes. “There is no one else on this train. Just Mei and me.”
Dr. Mortimer threw up his hands in surrender, his colors blending together like spilled paint. “Fine, fine. No one else, Ell. Whatever you say.”
As the doctor vanished entirely, Ell turned back to Mei. “He likes you, he really does. He didn't want to embarrass you, that's all.”
Mei's fingers moved across the seat, spelling out letters and images in the crude sign-language Ell had taught her. It was their only means of communication; everyone knew shadows couldn't talk.
“Oh, don't be mean. He's a nice man, even if his mustache does look funny.”
A muffled snort emanated from the air where Dr. Mortimer had been sitting, but Ell ignored it.
The train began a wide turn, and Mei's slender frame moved with the sun, ending up in the seat across from her friend. Ell was about to say something to her when the inter-train communication system coughed static overhead. “Attention passengers. The train will be reaching its destination in ten minutes. Supervisors, please assist your patients in departure preparations. That is all.”
Ell sighed, glancing out the window at the dense foliage rushing by. There had been a time when she had wanted to explore the world outside, to climb the towering pines, wade through the streams, jump on the slabs of shale rock that dotted the countryside. Her father, Dr. Anderson, had been overjoyed at the thought, and offered to take her hiking on a trail system near the hospital. They had packed lunches in blue backpacks, taking the car two miles to the trail head. Mei had gone as well, just as curious as Ell.
The three of them arrived in the evening, the sun already red on the horizon. Her father led the way, commenting excitedly on various flowers and mosses. Ell grew a bit annoyed at his constant chatter, but the outdoors seemed just as nice as she had thought it would be. Not scary at all.
The trail was three miles long, circular. An easy walk, even for one unaccustomed to long periods of activity.
They made it half a mile.
It started with the crickets, calling to the sky in low chirps and whines. They reminded Ell of the Whispers, hissing through the dark places, lurking behind trees. The rustle of leaves in the wind became hushed footfalls, the forest noises turning to the monotone murmur of the Things...
By the time they made it back to the car, the forest had become a swarming mass of creatures, hiding in every shadow, clawing at Ell's legs from under boulders and fallen logs. Mei had curled herself inside Ell's shirt, trying desperately to hide from the unending terror of the night.
The trip back to Elm Hope had been a quiet one. Dr. Anderson didn't say a word the whole way, his eyes never leaving the road. Ell found out later that her father blamed himself for her “breakdown”. She did her best to assure him that it wasn't his fault. After all, no one could have known that the Whispers would find a way out of her mind. He had just wanted her to be happy, and she appreciated that.
He didn't seem very encouraged by her words, and eventually they stopped talking about it altogether. She hadn't been off the hospital grounds since.
Actually, that wasn't strictly true: this was the third train trip she had taken in the past two years. However, each time she was careful to stay indoors, whether it be in the train, the station, or the “Big Hospital” that was always the destination of these long rides.
“Five minutes to arrival. Please secure loose belongings. Supervisors, have your patients ready to disembark upon arrival.”
Ell gave her handcuff a shake, listening as it clinked against the rail. It wouldn't be removed until the train had come to a stop, another aspect of the supposed security she didn't approve of. It hurt her arm to keep it stretched out the whole time.
Dr. Mortimer flickered into being once more, but his eyes were not on Ell. He was squinting out the far window, his face betraying his confusion. “What is that...? Something on the tracks... I hope the driver sees it-”
The locomotive's brakes locked with an earsplitting shriek.
Ell's head struck the metal handrail, dazing her. Somewhere up ahead, there was a thunderous impact, followed by the grinding cacophony of steel grating on steel. Moments later, the world twisted 90 degrees, and Ell fell against the wall of the train. Something heavy landed on top of her, only to be torn away as the train car struck a tree, spinning like a top.
For a while, everything was noise and confusion. The train's own momentum tore it apart; metal crunching, glass smashing, baggage thudding against the walls, floors, and ceiling. Ell was flung about like a rag doll, her fingers clutching the bar to keep the handcuffs from wrenching her arm off.
The train car struck another tree, this time dead center, shearing in half amidst a cloud of sparks. Cables flapped loose as bits of rock, glass, dirt, and wood ricocheted off every surface.
Then the train was airborne, falling, and for a brief moment, Ell's window showed blue sky and clouds...
The train hit the ground, smashing everything that was not already broken. Ell's head struck something very, very hard, and the world went black.