They found the school just before nightfall.
The building had clearly seen better days. Ivy and creeper vines covered most of its surface, and flowers grew from cracks in the stone steps. The large wooden nameplate above the door dangled by one corner, its letters long since faded beyond coherence. A single bulb jutted from the wall beside the defaced sign, flickering and dimming as it struggled for life.
Mei wobbled in the unstable circle of brightness, staying close to Ell's shoes, her white eyes ticking from side to side like the arm of a metronome.
Ell felt rather apprehensive as well. “This is a creepy place, Mei. Who builds a school in the middle of a forest? How will the children find it? They didn't think this through.”
She ran a hand over the crumbling brickwork, shaking her head. “Maybe that's why it's all run-down. No one could find it after they built it.” She giggled nervously.
“At least the power's still on. Maybe someone's inside. I hope it's a nice person with food. I'm kinda hungry.”
She knocked on the door. The noise echoed hollow, fading into the depths of the dilapidated school.
No answer. The few unbroken windows watched her with an empty glare, cold and uninviting.
“Well, someone left the lights on. Maybe there's a back door.”
Mei stretched herself out and wormed through the cracks in the stone, ignoring Ell.
“Oh, all right. Stay in the light. Don't worry, Mei. The Whispers can't find us all the way out here...”
Somewhere in the darkness, something muttered to itself. Ell froze, listening. A bush rustled, a twig cracked sharply, and a weird, ghostly form slithered from the forest. She caught a glimpse of wrinkled black flesh, an arm grossly elongated... and turned away quickly. If she didn't look at it, it might not notice her.
The Whisper was alone, dragging itself in alarming silence through the grass. Ell couldn't remember ever seeing one by itself. The things usually appeared in droves, saturating her nightmares, tormenting her in her sleep. This one was different, somehow.
Mei had seen it too, and retreated beneath Ell's foot, shivering violently. Moving as little as possible, Ell reached down and scooped her up, hugging the shadow close to her chest.
The monster paused, its arms twitching about as it rasped a few unintelligible sentences to itself. Ell risked a peek in its direction, and immediately wished she hadn't; it was looking right at her with the shriveled mess it had in place of eyes.
Then it moved, but not in her direction. Instead, it wafted towards the school, its deformed arms stretching out as if to draw the entire building into itself. Gnarled fingers wrapped around the sill of one empty window, and the thing heaved itself up and over, dissolving into the darkness within.
Ell remained still for another minute, her heart thumping in her chest, waiting to see if the thing would return.
It didn't. The empty window remained devoid of life; the Whisper was gone.
Mei was no longer in Ell's arms, pooling on the ground. She spelled out a long word that took Ell a minute to decipher.
“H-a-l-u-c-i-n-a... oh, right, daddy says that sometimes. Hallucination. No, I definitely saw it, Mei. I thought you saw it, too.”
Mei shrugged, turning herself upside down. She signed out several words in rapid succession; WE SEE THINGS THAT ARE NOT THERE.
“Like Dr. Mortimer? He was different. I could wish him away, and he'd be gone. Just like all those other imaginary people back home. But when I tried to make that Whisper go away, it wouldn't. He just... went inside. He kinda looked different, too. The ones in my dreams are flickery and shifty, like old coats. That one was all solid and gross. Like Mr. Flannigan was last year, before the men in white took him away. Except Mr. Flannigan didn't move around at all.”
Mei twisted herself into a question mark.
“You remember him. Daddy said he was 'dead'. I think that means I can't imagine him any more. He's never tried to talk to me since then, anyway.”
There was a sound inside the school, a heavy rumble, like a steel drum being rolled across the floor. Ell turned, pressing her face against the door's dusty glass pane. The interior was not as dark as she had been expecting; a few lights flickered sporadically within, illuminating the peeling paint, dark doorways, and cracked floor tiles.
“Looks spooky, Mei. Like that horror movie with the hotel and the man with the knife...”
Mei rustled a pebble, and Ell glanced down. The shadow flexed her arms, smiling with half its head.
“Silly, I wasn't scared. As long as you're around, nothing can hurt us. Nothing but the Whispers, and they are all right-”
Something splatted across the interior of the glass. Ell turned her head in surprise, and found the Whisper's watery eyes staring back at her. She recoiled in horror, trying her best to flee, but every motion had suddenly become sluggish, as if she were swimming in wet concrete. The Thing was most certainly solid now; she could make out the rotting tendons stitching its makeshift face together. A good deal of its face remained on the glass as it pulled away, taking a step back. Ell found she could move again, but for some reason she hesitated, morbidly interested in the weird creature standing inside.
It lifted its hand, pointing at Ell, then beckoned with one long, long finger.
“You want me to come in there?”
The Whisper didn't seem to hear, continuing to wiggle its index finger back and forth.
Ell still wasn't sure. “How do I know you won't hurt me?”
The thing's arm dropped to its side, and it stood perfectly still, staring at her...
“What's in there?”
To her surprise, the Whisper made a noise with its mouth, as if trying to speak. It might have been a cough, or maybe it had something stuck in its throat, but the sound conveyed meaning somehow, a simple command: “Come.”
“And if I don't?”
The Whisper screamed, a demented, high-pitched keening noise, and slammed itself against the door with such ferocity that the glass cracked and shattered. Ell jumped back with a tiny gasp of fear, lifting her hands to fend off whatever attack might be heading her way.
The door seemed to sag on its hinges, the faint smell of mildew and stagnant water wafting from the crack. Nothing moved within; all was still. The creature had vanished.
Ell took several deep breaths, trying to calm down. “Mei, are you okay?”
Mei bobbed into view on the ground, her small hands clinging tightly to Ell's ankles. The shadow was obviously frightened, but she still managed a feeble smile and wave.
“I think... I think we have to go in there, Mei. I don't want the Whisper to be mad...”
The shadow's nod was barely perceptible.
Ell grasped the door handle, but stopped suddenly as she caught sight of her hand. Somehow she had cut herself. Hair-thin trails of blood drew lines across the backs of her fingers, seeping slowly across the skin.
“The glass. It must've hit me when the window broke.”
Her theory was proven correct seconds later, as further inspection revealed several small shards stuck firmly in the lattice of cuts. She picked one out, wincing slightly, holding it up to her face.
A single drop of blood rolled down its edge, falling to the ground as a perfect orb of red.
“It's very pretty, isn't it, Mei?”
She turned her hand palm-up, allowing a few more drops to fall free. They pattered to the ground, spreading across the pavement like miniature roses.
“I don't bleed often. So... nice...”
The world was tilting, slowly, softly. Ell almost let it take her, the exhaustion of her long trek across the countryside finally beginning to present itself.
Mei contorted into herself in sudden fright, and Ell shook the haze from her head, bringing life back into focus. Inside the school, at the far end of the long main hallway, the Whisper waited; silent, staring, lifeless as a corpse. Its arm was outstretched towards her, its meaning obvious.
Again, the rasping voice: “Come...”
Ell suppressed a shiver, drawing open the door. Her shoes clacked on the dusty floor, surprising a cockroach that had been resting nearby. A light flickered on above her, buzzing loudly before dying with an abrupt pop. Ell swallowed, her throat suddenly dry.
“Don't worry, Mei. I'll stay in the light. We'll be fine. We'll be fine...”
The door clicked shut behind her, and Ell was inside the school.