The forest seemed to go on forever.
Ell trudged along, stepping over fallen branches and the occasional rotting stump. The day had grown warmer, unseasonable weather for late fall. Steam rose from the endless conifers, creating the illusion of a woodland on fire. The beauty was lost on Ell, who had grown bored of the scenery and now paid her surroundings no mind. Under normal circumstances, the trees would have bothered her, skeletal arms beneath a bulging skin of green, perched atop stocky wooden legs. Pine trees, however, were a different matter; more like tall women in garish green dresses. So much more lively than their oaken counterparts.
Every Christmas, her father purchased an evergreen for the hospital foyer. Ell had spent hours watching the staff decorating the towering tree, wrapping it in blue and gold tinsel, adorning its branches with glass baubles of every shape and size. Strands of multicolored lights set the room aglow, ringing the tree in a halo of light.
“Are they fireflies?” she had asked.
“What?” said her father.
“Fireflies. In the little glass jars.”
“Oh, the lights on the tree? No. No, they are electric lights. There's this tiny little spark, see, and it makes a bit of wire inside the lights glow. When you plug it in, see”
“You're making that up. They're fireflies.”
Her father thought for a very long time before answering. “You're right. They are fireflies.”
“Aren't they sad? Stuck inside those tiny jars.”
“No, Ell. They are special fireflies. They like the jars.”
“So what is the point of their ex-y-stance?”
Her father looked startled. “What? Existence? Where did you learn a word like that?”
“Dr. Heimlich said it. He was reading a boring paper the other day, and he said 'point of existence', in a funny British accent. I asked him what it meant, and he said it means poor... pur... porpoise?”
“Purpose. Yes, I suppose. He said that?”
“Well, first he told me to shut up, but then I stole his clipboard and told him I'd eat it if he didn't tell me. So he told me.”
“Ah. Well, Ell, the fireflies' purpose is to make us happy. That's all they want. If you are happy looking at them, they will be happy, too. That's their purpose.”
Younger Ell nodded. “I see.”
Then, a minute later, “They must be very small fireflies...”
A stick snapped nearby, bringing Ell back from her memories. Mei had stopped in surprise, staring with moon-shaped eyes at two broken sections of twig beneath her foot.
“What are you doing, Mei? Shadows shouldn't touch things. You aren't solid.”
Mei drooped a bit.
“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...” she let her sentence trail off. Something was beneath the dirt and branches. An odd-colored rock, all but invisible amid the dead pine needles.
“What have you found, Mei?”
The “rock” was actually man-made, some sort of mechanical device...
A bear trap.
Ell snatched her hand away, but there was no cause for alarm; the horrid mechanism had been set years ago, and had long since rusted beyond any hope of further use. Its orange teeth were blunt with age, and several parts rattled loosely as she lifted it up for a closer look.
“Hmm. 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.”
The trap was tethered to the ground with a thick chain. The heavy links, perforated and deformed by years of rust, popped with little resistance when she pulled at them, plinking to the ground in rough disharmony.
“I don't know, Mei. Should I keep it, or not?”
The shadow didn't reply, sitting sprawled on the ground. Ell rolled her eyes, reaching down and tapping the shadow with the bear trap. Mei contorted at the touch, a huge smile filling her face again.
“Silly, you worry me sometimes. Do you want the trap, or no?”
Mei shrugged, uninterested.
“Fine, I'll keep it for me. I'm not sure if Dr. Mortimer would approve, but I haven't seen him for a while now. Maybe he'll finally leave me alone. Wouldn't that be nice?”
Mei shrugged again, curling around a tiny green bug that happened to be passing beside her.
“Hmph. No help you are. Well, if there's a trap, then someone must have put it here. Maybe they'll know how to get back to daddy.”
Ell turned the toothy snare over, looking for anything that might indicate the owner. If there had been identification, it was long gone, eaten by corrosion. The remains of the chain yielded no information, either.
Finding no further clues, Ell gave up, returning to her journey through the endless trees. The trap dangled from her fingers, jingling against the broken handcuff, clinking out her steps. Without direction, without any point of reference beyond the sun, the pair walked onward, oblivious to the hopelessness of their goal.
They had no map.
They were utterly, completely alone.
“This way, Mei.” Ell called, then began humming to herself as she walked.
The forest grew thicker, oaks and willows filling the gaps between the conifers. Above, the clouds had all but vanished, leaving only the vast void of endless blue. Ell's legs had begun to tire, but still she trudged on, unwilling to spend the night outside. She could already imagine the softness of her bed, the smiling face of Maria, the hospital chef, as she served dinner, the...
A hand closed around her ankle, sending her face-first into the sparse grass. She twisted around, flailing about her feet with the metal trap, but there was nothing to hit; the hand was gone. For a minute, she stayed seated, trying to get over the shock.
A tree crashed to the ground beside her with a mighty crunching of branches and dead leaves. As Ell scrambled back, it burst into flames. The surrounding trees followed suit, becoming a conflagration that filled the sky with black smoke. Faces swirled through the fire, howling, moaning, screaming in wordless terror. Ell rose to her feet, fell to her knees, found that she was still standing, lurched backwards and landed on her face once more.
“Help...,” she gasped out.
“Help, help, help!” The words were echoed by the lurking apparitions in a mocking melody of madness.
A headless body crawled past, chasing after a dog.
The ground became water, and the world sank below the surface, leaving Ell standing alone on a plane of glass.
An ancient ship broke the surface, its rigging writhing beneath tattered sails. The water became clicking bones that rose into the air, spinning slowly off into the black sky.
“Medication,” said Dr. Mortimer, chewing on his pocket watch.
“Medication,” said Mei, in Dr. Mortimer's voice.
The words swam lazily through the air, turning several shades of green before finally penetrating the dreamlike haze in a flash of realization.
The pills her father gave her, to keep the bad things away. In the zippered pocket in her shirt.
Ell fumbled for the bottle, her arms heavy with fatigue. The hallucinations grew ever closer, worms and darkness and grinning skulls. The Whispers were there, too, whispering non-words louder and louder...
Her hand came up, and the bottle was there, clasped tightly in her numb fingers. Her hands seemed so far away, every motion leaving double images in their wake. There was pain as well, a sharp stabbing pain in both her temples, growing more severe with every passing second.
Three pills in the bottle.
She shook one out of the container, but her hand wasn't there to catch it. It tumbled to the ground, becoming a white caterpillar that squirmed away into the flames and shadows. In a sudden surge of desperation, she brought the bottle up to her mouth, tipping both of the remaining pills in. She swallowed hard, feeling the soft pills slide down the back of her throat.
Then she squeezed her eyes shut and waited.
Gradually, the pain, noise, and fear drained away, folding back into the recesses of her mind. The forest rose whole and quiet around her, glowing in the evening sun.
Mei was lying at Ell's side, watching her with hollow eyes. The shadow showed no signs of having witnessed Ell's visions, contemplating her human counterpart with a flat disinterest.
Ell took a deep breath, wiping perspiration from her brow. She had completely forgotten the medicine. Usually, her father would remind her about it, and she would take them then. “A pill every four hours” was what he said. Anything longer than that, and it was only a matter of time...
A brief search around her feet turned up the lost pill. She popped it back in the bottle, screwing the lid on tightly. One more dose. She had just taken a double, which would probably make her sick, but it would keep the scary things away for a good eight hours.
Eight hours to find home.
“Home,” she found herself saying, her voice so hoarse and dry the word was almost unintelligible. She coughed to clear her throat and tried again. “Home. We need to go home, Mei.”
Mei's eyes drifted from Ell to the pill bottle, a surge of apprehension making her outline jitter and blur.
“I know, I know. One more. There are lots more at home, Mei. We'll make it. Don't worry. Daddy will be there when we get back.”
For some reason, Ell found herself blinking back tears. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, rising unsteadily to her feet.
In the distance, the edge of the sun touched the horizon, burning blood-red as it slowly slipped away.
Night had come.