The monster rose to its feet, staring down at her with bloodshot, lidless eyes.
“You've lost so much, Elinor. Your home, your mind. Me. You blocked it all away. You hid in your little fantasies. You coward.”
Cold fingers curled around her neck. Ell let out a strangled gasp, clutching at the Whisper's crushing grip.
“It's your fault. You made this happen. I would have loved you forever, dear. You were my precious little girl, my baby girl. And you paid me back with this.”
Bones shrieked as the Whisper tried to move its head, succeeding only in further tearing its decomposing neck.
Ell struggled to draw breath, rasping out words in short bursts. “I... didn't...”
“You did. You did, you did, you did. The knife was sharp, but your wrist was weak. You left me like this, to drown in my own blood, to die on the floor! Can you imagine the pain as my life leaked away? I couldn't even scream. All I could do was lie there as you stared at me, waiting to make sure I would die. Do. You. Remember?”
And Ell did remember. She remembered forgetting something, purposely cutting it out of her mind forever... and she never, ever wanted it to come back.
As if sensing her thoughts, the Whisper lifted Ell off the ground, shaking her like a rag doll. Its voice grew more menacing with every passing second, turning slowly from human to monster.
“You don't deserve this, Elinor. I loved you, yet you are the one still alive. I cared for you, but in the end you get a warm home and I get a little box under the ground, with no light and no air and no one but the worms to talk to. You hateful little creature. You should be the dead one.”
The school was peeling away, the walls stripped to bare boards, the floor rolling like the ocean. The roof disintegrated, whirling up into the cyclone turning in the Whisper's black eyes. The monster's mouth opened, stretching grotesquely, wide enough to encompass Ell's whole head. It slurred out words, every syllable seeming to drag, as if played from a wind-up music box that had run down.
“Show your sadness. Show me that you love me. Join me here. Join me in this pretty little grave. Stab yourself. Jump through the window. The power box is open; a little jolt, a minute's pain, and you'll be with me. We'll be together, Ell. Together forever.” Its voice became a shade more human, “I miss you, Ell.”
Ell felt hot tears running down both cheeks. She couldn't breath. Her head hurt. It was taking all her will to stay sane this close to the Whisper. And the sad truth was, she really did want to die.
She had lived all this time in her own world, alone, safe, happy. Mei was there if she wanted a friend, a friend who never left, who would never disappear, who would always listen, always care about her. But now she saw how things truly were. She thought she had been rescued, but in truth she had never left that little white room. Inside there was pain, but the pain was familiar. Outside there was chaos and terror and new ways to hurt. For all these years, she had shut it out. And now this thing, this monster in her mother's skin, stood before her, stood inside her unbreakable fortress, and there was only one way out. An awful, unthinkable way, a freedom from the guilt that ate at her, from the past she had buried.
She looked up, and the Whisper was no longer before her. The storm had abated; the room now filled with a wispy fog, hiding whatever lurked near her. She could still feel its stare. It was there, wrapped in the mists, waiting. Watching.
A breath of wind wormed through the cracks in the roof, toying with Ell's hair as she approached the closest wall. Her limbs felt stiff, her eyes glazed and unfocused. The gym's paneling was intact; the destruction of the room had been a figment of her imagination, a nightmare brought to life by the Whisper.
Ell rapped her knuckles against the hardwood, testing its strength. Sturdy, but there were weak spots, mildew-eaten patches. One such section drew her gaze, waterlogged and sagging inward. She lifted a leg, lashing out with her heel.
The first kick hurt her foot; there was a support beam behind the wall. A drop of white-hot anger fell in the emotional void consuming her heart, and she struck the wall again, this time with all her strength. The wood bucked and caved with a crack like a gunshot, and a large section tumbled outward into the empty night.
It landed moments later, splintering on the pavement far below.
Ell peered out the opening, observing the outside world with disinterest. Scattered light poles illuminated the school's entry road, its worn paving cracked and full of potholes. To her left, it lead around to the parking lot behind the school, where she had entered. To the right, the road twisted off into the blackness of the forest. Everything was shades of shadow, colorless in the night.
The room's fog had grown thicker, curling up around her, creeping out and down through the hole she had made. It smelled odd, too, a familiar acrid scent. She ignored it, focusing on the task at hand. Two stories wasn't far, but if she did it right and landed on her head...
Or she could mess up and break her legs or back instead. No one would find her here, and she could never drag herself to civilization with a broken bone. The prospect of slowly dying of starvation was not an appealing one. The thought of dying at all made her eyes begin to tear up again. Father would never know what happened to his little girl. No one would ever find her body. And poor Mei...
Her eyes looked again to the ground, and she was startled to see another pair of eyes staring back. Someone on the ground, looking up at her...
It was Mei, arms stretched wide, waiting to catch her.
The Whisper had felt her mood change. Ell turned slightly, saw it lunging at her, its broken face contorted in a rictus of hate... and, with a small smile of victory, Ell let herself drop.
The fall was a short one. A sudden rush of air, a blur of stone and fog as the walls rushed past, and Ell landed squarely in Mei's arms.
The impact jarred them both, and Mei staggered a bit, half-dropping her human friend. Ell regained her footing as quickly as she could, wincing slightly as her feet struck the solid earth. Her heart was pounding from the adrenaline rush, thundering in her ears, but as far as she could tell, she had remained uninjured from the fall.
The Whisper had jumped, too. Ell didn't realize it until the thing came crashing down a yard away, its tortured lungs letting out the most hideous scream she had ever heard in her life.
Bones snapped, something squished, and the Whisper lay still.
Ell blinked, taking a tentative step closer. She half-expected it to spring back to life, to twist up and strike at her, but it did not. The grotesque creature remained where it was, slowly melting into the concrete.
A gust of wind shook the trees around the girl, sending a chill rattling up her spine. The hole she had jumped from seemed an eternity away, a great darkness high in the wall. It was only from below that she truly realized how long a drop it had been. If Mei had not been there to catch her...
“Thank you... I thought I was going to die.”
Mei nodded weakly, shrinking back down to the pavement. Shadows weren't supposed to be solid, though this wasn't the first time she had broken the border between the worlds of two and three dimensions. Ell generally discouraged the process for fear that the shadow girl would injure herself, but this time she was very glad for it indeed.
She took a tentative step forward, wincing as her foot came down. The landing had hurt, but at least she wasn't...
Wasn't dead. She let herself think it. She could have really died. She could have vanished from the world, just like the others she had seen back home. Her body would have stayed, but her mind would be a big black hole, with no Ell inside.
“I... I don't feel well at all. I think... I think I need food. I haven't eaten for a bit now. Not that I'm complaining, you see. Just daddy says I need to eat, or I... I won't... ugh...”
She bent over and vomited on the pavement. She hadn't eaten in almost twenty-four hours, so it didn't take long to empty her stomach. Dry heaves followed, one after the other, until she was left curled in a ball, arms around her knees, shaking.
Mei settled around Ell, conforming to the human girl's silhouette on the pavement. Her head pressed against Ell's, her round eyes arched upward in worry.
“It's... okay. I'm okay. Just feel a bit... sick. Need to eat something soon.”
A cloud of cold fog rolled over the pair, blown by the light wind. The breeze also carried the sharp, stinging smell of wood smoke.
Ell lifted herself up on one arm, scanning the woods for the telltale flare of a fire. The possibility of encountering other people out in the wilderness didn't even register; the light was all she needed. A glow to pass the night under. A familiar warmth to....
She found the source of the smoke, and her heart sank.
The fire was in the school. Smoke curled from the first-floor windows, and an ominous orange glow flickered through cracks in the wall. The blaze was spreading, from the looks of it, tracing a slow but steady path through the bowels of the decrepit structure. The crackle of burning wood stabbed the air, only to be buried in the roaring crash of the second story collapsing in on itself.
Ell rose slowly to her feet, carefully avoiding the mess she had left on the road. “Fire... but the wood was soaked. There was nothing to burn...”
Mei signed a few words, her outline growing stronger in the increasing light of the fire. W-I-R-E-S.
“Wires...? Oh, electrical wires. I guess that could start a fire. I wonder why they left the power on. No one's been here for forever. All the books have been moved out, too. Daddy said that regular schools have tons of books, and I didn't even see-”
A man rounded the corner of the school, and Ell nearly jumped out of her skin.
He was not a short man, but he didn't seem unusually large, either. A dark-colored mask of some sort covered his face, the firelight reflecting off the round glass eyes. Aside from the mask, his build and looks culminated in the sort of ordinary that people tend to ignore, right down to his battered leather jacket and faded blue jeans.
The man saw her immediately, freezing in his tracks. He was holding a plastic canister in his left hand, an object Ell instantly recognized. Marilyn, the gardener back home, used one to refill the lawn mower when it ran out of gas. A fuel canister. But why would he need that...
It was the other hand that worried her more. She new little of guns, but even so, she could tell that the weapon the man held was somewhat more sophisticated than a standard hunting rifle.
A gun for hunting people.
With great care, the man set the gas can down, shifting to conceal his weapon behind his back. His voice, when he spoke, was largely muffled by the mask he wore, but Ell was still able to make out the words he spoke.
“Are you... Ellie?”
Ell didn't answer.
“It's okay, Ell. I'm Roy Morwin, I work with Lakewood Search and Rescue. I'm here to help you. Are you hurt?” He took a step forward, the gun clicking against something metal in his back pocket.
Ell took a step back. “How did you find me?”
The man hesitated. “We found the train. There weren't many people on board, so we figured out you were missing pretty quickly. I've been tracking you all night.”
“Will you take me home?”
Another pause. “Yeah. My car's a bit far off, but if we go to it, I'll drive you right home. I'm sure they miss you, Ellie. Let's hurry now, okay? Everything will be alright.”
He was lying.
She didn't know how she knew, but there was no doubt in her mind. The way he said the words, the way he held himself. The smooth, calming tone he used, like how one speaks to a cornered dog. She didn't trust him at all.
“Why do you have a gas can?”
Roy didn't answer right away. The only sound was his breath hissing softly in and out of the mask's respirators. Inside the school, the fire now curled beneath the roof, the muted roar of the inferno blending with the cacophony of snapping, flaring wood.
“Ell, listen to me...”
Ell inched back a step, and Roy moved like a striking snake, whipping the rifle up, locking the bolt in the same motion. Ell tried to duck out of the way, knowing that it was futile; Roy was only fifteen feet away, a point-blank shot, even with a rifle. A novice could have hit her at that range, and there was no way Roy was a novice.
In the end, he never pulled the trigger. A deafening crash from the now-skeletal remains of the school turned his head; it also saved his life. A massive beam, engulfed in roiling flames, had come lose from the wall, tipping outward, descending on the two like a heaven-sent sword of fire. Roy hurled himself backward as the building continued its collapse, showering him with live embers and bits of burning material. The gas can he had been carrying was mostly empty, but there was still a small amount left, enough to ignite with a dull thump under the sudden firestorm.
Roy batted away a burning chunk of drywall with his forearm, swearing as the live embers burned into his jacket. He brought his rifle up to face-level, aiming blindly into the cloud of fire and smoke.
Something moved beyond the blaze, and he snapped off three shots in rapid succession.
He thought he saw his target stagger slightly; then the cloud of smoke consumed him in choking, churning blackness.
As the wall fell in fiery ruin on her assailant, Ell didn't waste a single moment. Pausing only to grab Mei's hand, she turned and ran up the service road, away from the school, away from Roy and his black mask, away from the memories now burning in that great funeral pyre. It did not matter that she ran into the darkness. There was no thought now but flight, escape from the immanent danger of the hollow orange glow. Her feet pounded on the pitted pavement, drumming out all other noise.
A sharp crack sounded behind her, and an old tree to her left splintered, wood chips stinging her cheek. The second bullet missed as well, passing her at incredible speed, thudding against something far ahead.
The third shot struck her shoulder, knocking her forward. She righted herself quickly, still running, not comprehending what had happened.
The pain came an instant later, a crimson wash of agony that ripped into her brain with deadly ferocity. Her arm went numb, flopping uselessly at her side, waves of pain hammering into her skull with every step. The stars grew dim above her; what little light there was faded away.
Her knees struck the pavement, her leg muscles still twitching, trying to propel her onward. With the last of her strength, she reached out, grasping at the air, searching for something, anything...
And Mei was there, standing before her, gripping her hand with a soft strength no human could hope to muster.
“Mei,” she whispered, and her thoughts became tiny bubbles, popping one by one, until all that remained was a dream floating in the darkness. A quiet dream, comforting in its terror.
A dream of a white room...