Ell's hearing returned first.
The noises were a confused jumble, barely registering in her shell-shocked brain. Gradually, they became more distinct; the crackling of a fire burning nearby, the sound of rain drumming on the metal above her, the rumble of distant thunder.
Then the smell hit her, and she gagged, fighting the urge to throw up. The lingering odor of smoke and burnt rubber permeated the air, as well as a sickly aroma she couldn't quite place. Something about it reminded her of the surgery back home. Not exactly a chemical smell, but not a normal one, either. It made her stomach queasy.
She tried to move, and was pleasantly surprised to find that she could. Her lungs drew in air, then expelled it painlessly; no broken ribs. She ran her hand over the place where her head had struck the wall. Aside from a thin trail of blood cooling on one cheek, it was as if she had never hurt herself in the first place. Far too little injury for someone who had just survived a train wreck.
Something clattered nearby, and Ell finally opened her eyes, peering into the dimly lit interior of the train. She was lying on the right wall of the passenger car; the train had come to rest on its side. The car itself was a twisted husk, pitted and blackened from the fire that must have raged while she slept. A corner of her gray shirt was still smoldering, but a quick series of slaps sufficed to douse the embers.
Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted Mei, jittering behind a shredded seat. The shadow was trying to stay in the one ray of light provided by what appeared to be a burning suitcase. Noticing Ell, she waved frantically, signing out gibberish in her panic.
“Don't worry, I'll be right there! Don't try to move.”
Ell got to her feet, steadying herself against the side of the train. The handcuffs had broken during the crash, which was a stroke of luck. Trying to get free of them would have taken a considerable amount of time.
She worked her way through the rubble, stopping beside Mei. “Hold on, I just need to get some light. Daddy taught me how to make a torch, so I'll put one together for you!”
Glancing around the destroyed train car, she finally saw what she wanted: a metal pipe, protruding from the headrest of one of the leather benches that hung from the wall. The flickering fires outside the train illuminated it in eerie contrast, throwing a black silhouette across the interior of the coach.
Ell walked over to the pipe, glass crunching beneath her shoes. She grasped it with both hands, pulling as hard as she could, but the pipe was stuck fast. The seat itself swayed, held in place by a single bolt. Ell took a step back, just in case the seat broke free and fell, but she was not to be deterred from her objective. She tried again, this time gripping the pipe in one hand and placing the other on the headrest as leverage...
Her hand hit thin air, about eight inches from the seat.
For a brief second, the world seemed to tilt, and she saw a balding man staring back at her, his eyes blank and unfocused. He was upside-down, held in place by a misshapen section of wall paneling bent across his knees. Rainwater from the damaged ceiling dripped from his lower lip, ticking out a steady cadence on Ell's shoes.
The metal pipe jutted from his forehead like the horn of a demented unicorn, holding the cadaver in place. There was blood on everything. On the man's suit, on the pipe, dripping from his hair, coursing over the seat, pooling on the floor...
And then he was gone, flickering out like a candle in the rain.
Ell remained on her feet, unmoving, eyes wide and unfocused. She was paralyzed, unable to speak, unable to breathe. Her brain had been knocked for a loop; all conscious thought halted as she tried to comprehend. Images rushed in like a tide, only to flow smoothly back out, leaving nothing but empty space. Emotions boiled up, even as she fought them back, refusing to acknowledge any sensation other than complete, utter blank.
Time ticked by, the seconds measured by the rivulets of water, falling drop by drop to the floor.
Then Ell was back, ripping the pipe free from the dead man who wasn't there, who couldn't be there, who she would never, ever, allow to exist in her world. She turned away, shaking the rain and the... the rain off of her torch-to-be. Light was all that mattered now. Save Mei. Save herself.
Tearing a strip of fabric from her sleeve, she wound it tightly around the end of the pipe. Elm Hope's cold-season uniforms consisted of two layers, a waterproof exterior and a thick cotton interior. She peeled the layers apart, tossing away the rubbery exterior. The cotton would serve as an excellent fire starter.
Mei was still in the corner, the suitcase blazing steadily beside her. She had calmed down a great deal, and was now bobbing beside the fire, watching Ell work. Ell smiled reassuringly, dipping the makeshift torch into the flames.
As the fabric began to burn, she lifted it up, illuminating the battered shell that had once been a rail car. Mei fluttered into view behind her, now a more proportionate size.
“Okay, Mei. Now we have some light.”
The torch sputtered, growing dim as the cotton burned to embers.
“Well, darn. It was a good idea, too. Hold on.”
Tearing a chunk from a low-hanging seat cushion, Ell drew out a mass of stuffing, piling it on the floor. A thick tree branch had become lodged in one of the smashed windows, and all it took was a good tug to dislodge it. She broke the smaller shoots apart, adding them to the kindling, then tossed the remains of the torch onto the pile.
It took five minutes for the wet wood to finally burn. White steam curled about the roof, drifting through ragged holes into the storm beyond.
“You still there, Mei?”
Ell waved her hand experimentally beside the fire, smiling as Mei waved back from the wall.
“So, we're okay. Well, I bumped my head, but other than that, we're okay. Everything's good now.”
The shadow on the wall stretched out an arm, forming spindly letters in crooked sign-speak.
“Hey, I wasn't going to leave you. Anyway, don't thank me yet. We still gotta get home somehow.”
Mei signed out another phrase: S-C-A-R-E-D.
“I know, Mei. I am, too. But if anything happens, I'll protect you, okay? We can't stay in here. We need to find help. I'll carry you if you want to sleep.”
Mei nodded. Fluttering a hand in front of her face to signify a yawn, she gradually lost her shape, merging with Ell's inanimate shadow on the wall.
Ell smiled. “Good girl.”
Moving cautiously, Ell re-lit her torch, this time using a collection of twigs and cushion stuffing to fuel the burning end. She made her way to the place where the train had been split apart, peering out.
The night loomed before her, a curtain of fog and misty rain concealing whatever might lie in wait.
Far off, deep in the oblivion of night, Ell thought she heard a faint, faint voice, whispering the words of some old forgotten lullaby. Then it was gone, and all that remained was the hiss of rain.
“Well, ah... I guess we'll look for help in the morning, Mei.”
The shadow did not appear; Mei was fast asleep.
“Okay. Here we stay.”
Ell propped the torch against a wall, out of reach of the glistening sheet of water outside. Leaning back against one of the leather cushions, she yawned. The wound on her temple was beginning to throb, but she ignored it, drowning all feeling in the deep abyss of sleep.
The rain shower continued to dwindle, the patter of water on the train roof becoming all but inaudible. Eventually, the droplets ceased to fall altogether, leaving a cool breeze in its stead.
The train had derailed on a steep hillside. Burning debris littered the hill, popping and crackling in the wind. The grass shimmered in the dancing light of the fires, dewdrops twinkling like a million garnets.
The bulk of the wreck lay on its side along the ravine floor, its warped frame partially submerged in the rushing river that cut through the valley. The heavy locomotive had somehow remained atop the tracks, standing a lonely watch over the scene of the disaster. An inferno coiled about its bodywork like some macabre funeral pyre, casting an orange glow across the hills. There was no sign of life, no cries for help, no screams of the dying. Nature consumed all in the peaceful calm of night.
Slowly but surely, morning crept into being, dawning gray and bleak through a cover of clouds. A low fog drifted through the tall grass, pale wisps coiling through the wreck. A solitary sunbeam played across the landscape, drawing back minutes later to the safety of the overcast sky.
Ell yawned and stretched, squinting in the pale daylight. Rising stiffly to her feet, she surveyed the night's carnage that now lay stretched before her resting place. “What a mess. It'll take a lot to fix Daddy's train. Oh, I hope he won't be mad...”
Absently, she ran a hand through her hair, twirling a lock around her index finger. There seemed to be no way out of her train car without wading into the river. The frothing stream was swollen from the night's rain, over two feet deep at its shallowest point. Ell watched as a whole tree floated past, its branches stripped bare by the current.
“What do I do, Mei? We can't stay here.”
Mei didn't answer. The pale light made the shadow girl blurry and indistinct, her thin form barely manifesting on the scarred floor. Ell tipped up her heel, allowing the shadow to sift under it. It was Mei's shelter of last resort; the lightless space beneath Ell's shoes. Mei hated to go there, as she felt it was degrading to a shadow of her stature. Ell found this sentiment ridiculous, but she respected her friend's wishes. Today, however, there was no other choice.
“Sorry, Mei. The sun is hiding. I wonder if-”
The floor beneath her lurched, knocking her off balance. The incessant pressure of the rushing torrent was dragging the train car from its resting place. Ell covered her ears as the train's bottom, previously the roof, grated against the stream bed, ratting the ruined seats above her.
Then it was over, at least for the moment; the car was forced parallel to the river, coming to an abrupt halt with its ends digging deeply into the rocky banks. The final jolt threw Ell against the wall, her breath leaving her in a rush. She staggered forward, half-crawling, half-running, as the train struggled to resist the current.
In the end, the deluge was too strong. With a groan that seemed to shake the universe itself, the decimated train car came loose.
The sudden lurch sent Ell face-first into the frigid river.
The cold was shocking. It was like being rolled from one's bed into a bathtub filled with ice-cubes. Water was everywhere, in her eyes, in her ears and nose, creeping down her sleeves. Her head breached the surface just long enough for a breath, then she was under again, pinwheeling beneath the waves.
A rock appeared; more of a boulder, really. Ell struck it head-on, the impact cracking something in her chest. The pain paled to insignificance in the numbing, freezing vortex that now threatened to suffocate her.
She rose again from the torrent, coughing out the stale air. Her fingers caught hold of a floating log, and she clung to it in desperation. The river tore at her clothes, trying to drag her back, to crush her once and for all in the icy depths, but she would not let go.
In the end, she must have passed out. The next thing she was aware of was sand beneath her cheek, and the gentle lapping of waves at her feet. The cloud cover was breaking up; warm patches of sunlight played across her back.
She lifted her head, squinting against the light. Mei lay beside her, awake but unmoving, her round eyes staring up at the sky.
Ell sighed in relief.
“Hey,” she rasped, reaching out her hand. It hurt to speak, to breathe, but for now, she was just happy to be alive.
Mei didn't respond at once, watching the clouds roll by. Eventually, Ell let her hand drop, smiling and shaking her head. “You do love the sky, don't you? Well, fine. I don't care. Enjoy it all you want.”
Getting to her feet, Ell took in her surroundings. The river had deposited her on a tiny sand-bar, only a few yards from dry land. Beyond the grassy shoreline, an evergreen forest rose, glistening with raindrops in the sun.
With some effort she made her way to the riverbank, pausing at the first of the trees to catch her breath. Noting the wet branches, she reached out, giving one a tug. Droplets rained to the ground in a shimmering shower, pattering softly on the pine-needle carpet.
“So pretty here...”
A pebble bounced off her back, and she turned in surprise. Mei was standing on the beach, one foot in the water, signing one word over and over: H-O-M-E.
Ell sighed. “I know, Mei. I want to go home, too. It can't be too far, right? We were only on the train for a few hours. We just have to find a road or something, and we can walk back.”
Mei nodded, a jack-o-lantern smile filling her face. The grin would have terrified most people, but Ell was quite used to it.
“Let's go. I don't want to be out here when it gets dark again.”