The school's interior was like another world.
The blackness was absolute, as if the building itself had been woven from night itself. Islands of poorly lit ceramic tiles floated in the abyss, stepping-stones through the void. Ancient cobwebs laced the halls, heavy with the dust of untold decades. The walls reeked of mold and mildew, the paint and wallpapering disfigured with decay.
The Whisper led the way into the depths of the ruin, sometimes waiting at the end of a long hallway, sometimes lurking just around the corner, leering in her face before sifting away through a wall.
Ell grew more uncomfortable with every passing second. The darkness seemed almost organic, a living thing, trying with every passing second to consume her. She moved as quickly as possible from one light source to the next; a red exit sign, a flickering strip of fluorescent tubing, a band of white light cast from a forgotten desk lamp in the bowels of a decrepit classroom. A feeling of odd discomfort washed over her every time she passed a closed door, as if something monstrous lay hidden behind the flimsy wood panels...
The Whisper was singing.
Ell was somewhat surprised she hadn't noticed it before. The song was chilling in its calmness, a lilting tune murmured from a deformed mouth, a sound like honey and grating bones. The words trailed behind the ghostly monster as it drifted through the black recesses of the school;
“Hush, little baby, don't say a word,
Mama's going to buy you a mockingbird,
And if that mockingbird won't sing,
Mama's going to buy you a diamond ring.
And if that diamond ring turns brass,
Mama's going to buy you a looking glass...”
The song cut out as its voice became a hoarse rasp of expelled air. After a period of silence, the Whisper resumed the tune, this time without the words, humming softly to the empty corners.
After they had gone on for quite some time, the thing seemed to tire of the slow pace. It no longer paused to startle Ell, appearing farther and farther ahead. Ell's last glimpse of it was from the end of a crooked hall as it mounted a staircase, disappearing up onto the second floor.
She stopped, waiting for it to return, but it never did. Some ancient piece of machinery rumbled briefly in the basement below, and all was quiet.
Mei slipped out of Ell's hands, collecting herself in a puddle on the floor. It took her longer than usual to regain her shape, as if the poor light made it hard for her to remain together.
“Well, that was... odd. Should we follow it further, Mei? This place doesn't look very sturdy... I'd hate to fall through a floor.”
Mei shrugged. GO UP OR GO BACK. YOU CHOOSE.
“Well, we'll stay indoors, one way or the other. Maybe we should just find the room with the most light, and sleep there.”
She glanced about for a suitable place to settle down. The remains of what had once been a desk sat rotting in front of the nearest door, rendering it inaccessible. The next closest room was to the left, down a badly slanted passage that was partially submerged in a pool of stagnant water. Ell stepped in with little hesitation, pleasantly surprised to find that the dark liquid barely covered her shoes.
At the first pull, the door handle came loose from the decaying wood, leaving her clutching the now-useless knob. The cold metal reminded her of the bear trap she had been carrying, which she now realized was no longer with her. Perhaps dropped during her hallucinatory attack earlier. She briefly considered keeping the remains of the handle in its place, but in the end decided against it, dropping it into the black pool at her feet.
Back to the task at hand. The door was, for the most part, solid enough, but the frame was another matter. A swift kick snapped the wood panel clean off its hinges, sending it tumbling inward with a heavy thud. The room beyond exhaled a puff of cool, musty air, the dust of uncounted years curling about Ell's ankles. There was no light within, not even a flicker. It was as if a solid wall of black now stood before her.
“Lovely. Well, we can't sleep here, that's for sure. I wonder if schools have bedrooms. Daddy never mentioned them, but I guess they would have too, huh? Where else would the teachers sleep.”
Mei signed a question.
“No, silly, the students don't sleep here. They come from their homes. Don't you ever listen when daddy tells us stuff?”
She peered once more into the blackness, then shook her head.
“Too dark for you, Mei, and I have nothing to make a fire with. Besides, a fire probably wouldn't be wise in here. Everything's so dry and old...”
Ell stopped breathing.
The voice was one she knew. One she had heard in her dreams long ago, back when dreams were pleasant, enjoyable, before...
Ell frowned. She couldn't remember. She tried harder, willing her brain to match a face to the voice, but all that came was an ache, growing to jagged pain as she pushed to recall.
“Elinor, Elinor, Elinor...”
No one called her Elinor, not since she came to the hospital. 'Ell', father called her, and so Ell she was. Elinor was her name from before. The time before she had altered her world, had made the scary people leave her alone. Before the Whispers, and Mei. Before, before, before...
“Elinor... Where are you...?”
And suddenly, the bulb above her came on with an electric snap, cutting through the gloom. She squinted as her eyes adjusted, blinking a few times in the sudden brightness.
A flight of stairs rose before her, the dirty tiles rendered sterile white in the glaring light. Beside it, a second staircase had once led to the basement, but the inward collapse of the steps and the leftmost wall below now rendered that path inaccessible. Water dripped monotonously from a broken pipe, ticking steadily on the ruined stone.
Up was the only way left to go.
The stairs groaned as she placed her weight on them, but the concrete held. The guardrail, on the other hand, did not. It came free of its crumbling rivets as Ell placed her hand on it, and for one frightening moment, she was off-balance, leaning over the abyss. She righted herself quickly, drawing back to the safety of the wall. Moments later, the rail struck bottom with a sharp clang. Ell felt a shiver run up her spine.
“This place is falling apart. They really should do a better job at fixing these things. Someone could get hurt.”
“Ell, dear. You need to hurry...”
Ell took a deep breath, working her way sideways up the steps, her shoulders pressed against the wall. She wanted to stop. She wanted to go back, to take Mei's hand and run out of the school, away from the old abandoned rooms, away from everywhere, back home, back to father...
Her foot came down on the final step, and there was no going back.
Unlike the maze of dilapidated rooms cluttering the first floor, the second story consisted of only two sections. At one end, the teacher's lounge, devoid of furniture since the school's closing. At the other end, a hardwood gymnasium, equally empty. Ell emerged from the stairwell at the back of the gym, ducking under a termite-eaten beam that had fallen across the opening.
The court was wide and hollow, the polished floors dulled by age and dust. Pools of rainwater covered a good third of the remaining wood paneling, slowly draining out through cracks in the floor. The weather-worn roof sagged over the room, pockmarked with holes, more a sieve than a ceiling. One lonesome bulb cast a feeble glow in a dank corner, the tiny ring of light only magnifying the wretched murkiness of the auditorium.
Against the far wall, beyond the rust-eaten steel basketball hoop, was a stage. Its once mighty curtains had fallen prey to moths and mildew, leaving only tatters of red dangling from the high ceiling. A weird assortment of limbless mannequins lay piled in a corner, black with grime, their purpose and existence lost when the school's doors closed for the last time.
On center-stage was a piano, one in surprisingly good shape considering the conditions. The wood was a polished black, a grand piano of the sort one would expect to see in a museum or music hall.
Sitting before the keys was the Whisper.
It was motionless, limbs drawn up together like some great insect, its soulless eyes blacker than the night. Mei caught sight of it, jerked back, and fled around behind her human friend. Ell, on the other hand, stood her ground, staring defiantly at the withered creature perched on the piano stool.
“Are you... one of the bad things?”
The question echoed feebly off the walls, things, things, things.
She didn't expect a response, and was surprised when one came.
“Elinor, dear, I've missed you so...”
“So that was you earlier. I didn't know you could talk.”
A charred finger pressed down on a key, and the old piano responded with a golden note, ringing clear in the emptiness.
“What are you? You're... different, aren't you? You remind me of someone...”
“It's so dark in here. Won't you turn on a light?”
Ell blinked. Whispers hated the light. The light drove them away, it made them shriek and burn. If one had learned to live in the bright places... there would be nowhere to hide.
“Please, Ell. The darkness worries me so...”
“What can I... I don't know where the switch is.”
“Beside you, dear. Right beside your arm. Use your eyes. Such pretty eyes you have, since you were a baby... little baby...”
There was a control panel on the wall beside her, its casing hanging from one bent hinge. The first three switches did nothing. The fourth started some mechanical device high above, which shorted out in a flurry of sparks that cascaded down around her. The fifth switch activated a floor-level spotlight, throwing a ray of brilliance across the piano and its player, revealing the Whisper for what it truly was.
It was beautiful.
Or rather, 'she' was beautiful. Where once a mangled monster had sat, now only a white-clad woman remained. She was almost angelic, her golden hair cascading down about her shoulders. The room seemed brighter around her, as if the shadows themselves were shining. Her fingers tapped out the beginning of a song, the old piano ringing out the notes in perfect pitch, a melody to match the magnificence of the player.
As the prelude built, the woman's bright blue eyes again found Ell.
“It's been so long, Elinor. I've been desperate to see you.”
“Who are-” Ell winced, a dull pain shooting briefly through her temples. “Who are you? I think I know you, but I can't seem to... remember...”
“Oh, come now. You know me! Think, silly. I've known you your entire life.”
“Are you an angel?”
The woman laughed. “Dear me, no. You really can't remember me?”
A thought struck Ell, and she said without thinking, “Are you Mei?”
Again the woman laughed, a gentle sound that wove through the music as if part of the refrain.
“No, silly. Mei's right beside you. The light's moved, that's all.” She suddenly looked concerned. “Ell dear, what's wrong with your shadow? She seems frightened.”
Ell was growing even more confused. No one had ever seen Mei before, only father, and sometimes she wondered if he was just pretending. There was no one else willing to see the second girl. They all said the her friend was imaginary. They refused to call her real, yet this woman did.
Something was shaking within Ell's head, struggling against its mental chains. There had been someone, before the hospital, who talked to Mei just like Ell did. The memory brought a whole new wave of pain, but she didn't even care any more.
“I'm sorry, Mei thought you were one of the... one of the bad things.”
Ell took a few steps toward the light, allowing Mei to fully materialize behind her. The shadow girl peeked out around Ell's legs, hesitant to emerge.
The woman smiled at Mei, giving her a small wave. Mei jittered briefly, her version of a blush, and hid again.
As the music cascaded around them, Ell's tired brain finally, finally found what it was searching for. The memory brought with it a dizzying cascade of emotion; shock mixed with joy, pain wrapped in loss. For before her now was...
“Are you... you can't be... M... mother...?”
The woman sighed, her fingers tapping out the last measures of the song's crescendo.
“Yes dear. I'm your mother. Did you really forget me, after all this time?”
Ell didn't remember moving, but suddenly she was on the stage, arms wrapped around her mother, tears of pure happiness streaming down her cheeks. Her mother returned the hug, holding her daughter close. No words were spoken, no thoughts exchanged. Just the two of them, together at long, long last.
For that single priceless moment, Ell was truly, wonderfully happy.
“You were gone,” she finally sobbed out. “Daddy said you were gone. He said you died and went away.”
Ell's mother ran a hand through her daughter's hair, cradling Ell's head against here chest.
“Oh Ell. Dear, dear Elinor.” She let out a small sigh. “I am dead.”
There followed a long, long period of time, in which Ell felt a very odd sensation; one best described as the moment of weightlessness during a fall. A dreadful stillness, a false calm, as every part of her being tensed for the awful impact.
Without wanting to, she found herself looking up, up into her mother's face. That radiant face, so warm and familiar, those shining eyes, that brilliant smile...
...now turned to rotting decay; now a corpse's face, ringed in dry, brittle hair. The head lolled to one side, the white bones of a snapped spine jutting from her neck like a spear. The nose was gone, as was most of the skin and muscle. All that remained were the eyes, eyes now filled with such burning hatred that the devil himself would have flinched under its glare.
“I'm dead, Ell. Don't you remember? You killed me. You killed me, Ell.”
Ell couldn't blink, couldn't break its gaze. The eyes were everywhere, no matter where she looked. The walls crawled with them, creeping, staring, accusing. Above, below, in the light and in the dark, in her head, in her heart. Everything was black but the eyes, the eyes, the eyes...
The world was full of eyes, and Ell could not look away.
“You killed me, Ell. Now say you're sorry, say a prayer... and die with me, dear, dear, darling Elinor.”