Joseph Marlin took a sip of coffee, compared the time on his silver watch to the time displayed on the truck's dashboard stereo, and returned his attention to the road. Despite his initial dislike of the long periods of car travel, he had grown to love the early-morning commute. The flat gray of the sunless sky, the distant shapes that grew into deep-green coniferous trees and rocky hills. The solitude. The long emptiness of the endless highway.
Just him, nature, and the dull rattle of the old pickup's engine.
The radio coughed out static, and he reached over to adjust the volume control. The radio was as old as the truck and rarely worked, occasionally offering up ten or fifteen minutes of music or talk radio before fading back into silence. Joe wasn't a poor man, far from it, but between house payments and supporting his wife and children, buying a new radio was fairly low on his list of priorities.
It was almost 5am. If the radio would work now, he might catch the news, or a weather report. He tapped the power button and waited.
After a solid minute of dead air, a male sportscaster's voice found its way to the speakers. “...wraps up the Lakewood Packers' championship, and it looks like they'll be taking home the gold again this year. You know, Mike, I've seen some great plays this year, but I think you'll agree that...”
Static collapsed the sound, and Joe twirled the channel knob, trying to get the most out of the radio's brief period of functionality.
Higher up on the AM band, he found another station, this one a news report.
“...thought to be a tragic accident, it is now possible that the deadly train wreck just outside of the county's East district was actually caused by an improvised explosive device intentionally placed on the tracks. The catastrophic crash resulted in the deaths of all thirty of the train's passengers. The operator's name has not yet been released, but early reports have now informed us that he was in guarded condition at Lakewood General's ICU until about midnight last night, where he died from complications related to his injuries. Police have no suspects at this time, but the investigation is ongoing. Chief of Police Harold Irving is asking that any person who may have...”
Gone again. Joe twisted the knob halfheartedly, but radio was dead.
He had heard about the crash a few days ago. A whole group of people from the mental rehabilitation ward had been on-board, along with a bunch of doctors and a few therapists. They had been on the way to the Burlington medical center in the city, when... boom. The worst accident Lakewood had ever seen.
And now, they were saying it wasn't an accident... he would have to look it up on the internet when he got to work. He took another sip of his coffee, squinting out the window at the trees blurring past. What would it have been like, inside the train? Peace and quiet, like it was now... then suddenly, noise, fire, and finally, the cold blackness of death.
He chuckled dryly. How morbid. Not the best thoughts to start a morning.
Something caught his eye, coming up on the right. At first, he thought it was trash, or maybe a dead animal, lying in the shallow culvert beside the highway. It was large, whatever it was, bundled in white cloth, roughly the size and shape of a...
It was a human, sprawled lifelessly in the dirt.
Joe slammed on the brakes, ignoring the old truck's squeal of protest, craning his neck to see out the passenger-side window. A sports car that had been tailgating him for several miles swerved around him, the other driver leaning on the horn as he tore past. Joe ignored him, bringing his truck to a stop in the gravel beside the road. He fought with his seat belt, dialing on his cell with his free hand. Nine, one, one...
A 'No service' message blinked at him from the tiny screen. Angrily, he tossed the phone on the passenger seat, throwing open the truck door and scrambling out into the cold morning air.
“Hey! Hey, you okay?”
No reply. He could see now that it was a girl, barely more than a child, lying on her face in the ditch. The white uniform she wore was streaked with mud and grime, and seemed to be burned in several places.
She didn't appear to be breathing.
“Hey... stay with me, okay? You hear me? Hello?”
The ditch was slippery, and he almost fell on her trying to reach the bottom. Reaching her at last, he rolled her onto her back, trying desperately to think what he should do next. A pulse. Check for a pulse. He pulled her limp wrist from the mud, noting with alarm the freezing coldness of her dead-white skin, and pressed his thumb into the artery just below her hand.
He tried another point, closer to her sleeve. Still nothing. His hands were starting to hurt from the frigid air and the damp of the grime coating the body. He stood, his breath coming in short bursts as panic rose in his chest.
Help. He had to get help. Someone who knew what they were doing. He felt bad about leaving the girl where she was, but he needed to get back into cell range, call emergency services. One last time, he tried for a pulse, this time on her neck. He had no idea what he was doing. He was a mechanic not a doctor. If she was alive, her heart wasn't...
Her eyes were open, staring at him through the soggy strands of hair matting her face. Joe lurched back, the sudden motion almost sending his feet out from under him. She was definitely conscious; her eyes followed him as he moved, and her chest now rose and fell with shallow breaths. Beyond that, there was little motion; she was in bad condition.
“Oh Lord... can you hear me? What happened?”
Her mouth moved ever so slightly as a single syllable slipped from her lips: “Mei...”
Then her limbs convulsed, and she curled into a ball, her body wracked with violent shivers.
Without further thought, Joe stepped forward, scooping her up into his arms. She was heavier than she looked, but he didn't care. His only thought was to get them both to the warmth of the truck cab, and from there to a hospital.
“Don't die on me, now... hold on... just hold on...”
Ell's dream was slow to form, but form it did, building itself with a calm familiarity grown from years of repetition.
First to come were the walls. The White Room rose around her, painfully bright and pale in the light of the solitary bulb swinging in slow circles above. The air was cold, a numbing cold that glazed the walls with an icy sheen. Snowflakes drifted through the dream, slipping in and out of sight, powdering the floor.
With little warning, the chill left her, replaced with a feverish warmth. The snow began to melt, became raindrops pattering from wall to floor to ceiling, eventually becoming steam, fogging the light bulb and making the ground slick beneath her feet.
The door stood before her, its outline barely visible. It had appeared long ago, tempting her, drawing her towards the inviting darkness outside. For the first time in a long time, she was hesitant to go. Eventually she would have to. There was no other way out, from the room or from the dream.
Finally, she reached out, pushing open the white wood panel.
A long hallway stretched before her, its wooden walls decorated with picture frames, its floor lined with red carpeting. Small chandeliers glistened golden above, bathing the passage in warm light.
The dream had changed. It had never changed before, not in all the years she had been forced to endure it. Always white, then black. Never another room. Never.
The hall had four ways out. The first was the room she had come from. Further on, two oak panel doors stood parallel to each other, identically shaped, with matching brass knobs. They seemed to bend towards her, as if drawn to her by some unseen force. Both made her nervous, but not nearly as much as the last door.
The final door was of solid steel, a flat gray slab affixed to sturdy hinges several inches thick. It surface was scarred and worn, its latch secured with a heavy padlock.
Ell knew, in that odd knowing that comes in the macabre depths of dreams, that the door was somehow... alive. Not in the sense that it could move about, or breathe or think or speak. It was simply aware of her, watching without eyes, sensing through the strings that wove the walls of sleep around it. And in the same knowing came a calm shiver of violence, like a predator waiting in silence for the prey that must inevitably come to it.
Ell no longer wished to look at it, Her hand moved of its own will, grasping the handle of the nearest wooden door, drawing it open.
She found herself looking into her own eyes, reflected back in a mirror that filled the entire doorframe. She was somewhat startled by how disheveled she appeared; her uniform looked as if it had been buried underground for a month or so. A dull reddish stain on her left shoulder drew her eyes, almost unnoticeable beneath the filth coating the previously white fabric. Something had cut her. It must have been some time ago, as the wound did not bleed or even hurt. Nothing to worry about, then.
Growing tired of the mirror, she turned back to the hallway, and found that it had changed. It was a subtle change; the colors were different, some lighter than before, some darker. The walls looked less and less like wood paneling, and more like stone painted to look like wood. The light had grown pale and harsh, cold and unfriendly.
The hall wanted her gone. It wanted her to leave.
Ell reached for the other wooden door, but it was already open. The hall shifted suddenly, and she fell through the opening into a dense white fog.
Slowly, the mist sifted away, lost in the forgetfulness of dreams. She was somewhere else now, lying on her side. A vehicle of some sort; a big one. The wheels thrummed and bumped across smooth pavement, rocking her gently on the seat. A bobble-head figurine mounted on the dashboard nodded to the rhythm of the engine, smiling at her with perfect plastic teeth.
Moving as little as possible, she tilted her head, peering down at the driver's seat.
No driver. Of course not. A dream car had no need for drivers. The wheel spun back and forth on its own, guiding the car as it continued its journey into the gray morning.
No answer. The shadow was probably unable to enter dreams, and even if she could, she was unlikely to enter Ell's Whisper-filled nightmares. Ell felt a pang of sadness. It was so lonely without the round-eyed apparition.
“Nevermore...” something whispered, and Ell stopped breathing.
“I see eyes...”
“All around, around and around...”
“Lies. Lies and liars, liarsssssss...”
A Whisper crawled into sight, a terrifying monster-shaped hole in the air, bubbling over the windshield like black tar. Its misshapen teeth dragged across the metal roof, a slow, keening shriek that set Ell's hair on end. She forced herself to relax, taking a deep breath. The dream would end when they got her. They always got her in the end. Maybe they would be nice and eat her whole. Once, before, they had cut her up first... and even in dreams, pain hurt.
“Hey, you awake?”
Ell twitched, and looked again at the driver's seat. There was a man there, his thinning hair and uneven beard exaggerating his apparent age. He was blurry, hard to focus on, as if she were looking at him through murky water. She pulled away from him, drawing up against the vehicle's door.
Humans didn't belong here. It was her world. Her dream. He didn't belong.
“Just lie still. We're going to get you help. You're safe now.”
Why wouldn't he go away? Why couldn't he just shut up and vanish? She wanted daddy...
“Cold as rolling, thin and small...”
The Whispers were speaking. Real words. Understandable, definitive words. Before, they had been barely audible, a quiet hissing of the “s” sound, a soft breath forming the “wh”. Mesmerizing, even calming. Now they were loud, jagged phrases, harsh and broken, hissed through slimy mouths and deformed teeth. It was all wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong...
The whispering monsters heard her thoughts, and took up the chant;
“Wrong, wrong, wrong wrong wrong...”
“And tall and long...”
“Wrong song... burned swan...”
Ell wanted to wake up. The dream was too real. Everything was out of control. She needed light. She needed to go to a place where it was all white; complete, total blankness. No color and no people and nothing at all..
“Hey, stay with me! Hey!”
Abruptly, the man's voice dropped in pitch, becoming a guttural, gurgling rattle. Ell's eyes found his face, and it was no longer a face; now a bubbling, rotting mask, set atop a thousand gleaming teeth.
“Hungry... are you hungry? Is your stomach empty...? Let me help you... I'll just... eat... your... INSIDES!”
That said, the Whisper abandoned the wheel and lurched at her, its jaws gaping wide enough to bite her entire head off.
Ell had barely enough time to scream before the Whisper's mouth gnashed shut... inches in front of her nose.
The monster struggled, worming about, trying to free itself from whatever it was caught on. Its teeth clicked together as it bit at her, its rotten breath flecking her face with saliva, but it was unable to move.
At first, it seemed the Whisper had become entangled in the vehicle's seat belt. Black bands coiled about it, somehow gaining purchase on the murky slime of the creature's skin. It took Ell a minute to realize the bands were moving; tightening on the Whisper's neck and body, crushing bones in its ribcage with audible snaps. Then she realized...
The bands were actually arms, wispy arms of shadow, belonging to a girl as black as midnight, with wide eyes as bright as a full moon.
Mei did not reply, too preoccupied with holding the Whisper at bay. The shadow was clearly terrified, her empty, jack-o-lantern mouth gaping in a silent scream. Still, she held fast, wrenching the possessed man away from her human friend, her arms stretching longer and longer as they meshed about the Whisper.
The monster realized it was being attacked, and bit down violently on the nearest strand of shadow. Mei's frame erupted in jittering bulges as she recoiled violently. The bite had hurt her. A lot.
“Leave her alone!” Ell shouted. Despite her fear, she drew up her leg and drove her heel into the Whisper's jaw.
It was like kicking a rotten pumpkin. The monster's head exploded in a mess of oily slime and off-white teeth, splattering and clinking against the driver's-side window. Mei pulled herself from the remains, curling around Ell, flattening across the human girl's skin, preparing for the next attack.
One down, seven to go.
The other Whispers were slow to act, muttering and hissing at each other, apparently confused by their brother's demise.
Then, as one, they abandoned the vehicle, leaping out of sight beneath the windows.
Ell lifted herself up to a sitting position, looking about in confusion.
“Why did they...”
The dead Whisper's foot was still on the accelerator. Ell noticed the trees flying past outside, a split second before the truck left the road. A brief moment of weightlessness followed, oddly familiar...
The truck went from seventy miles per hour to dead stop, compacting the hood and sending the engine block right through the middle of the cab. Had Ell been buckled in, she would have found her legs separated from the rest of her body by the sudden appearance of the front axle, which was driven up through the floor and out the back window by the force of the crash. As it was, she was thrown through the front windshield in a shower of glass fragments, hitting hard and rolling painfully on the rocky ground.
Something was broken. Maybe several somethings. In her arms for sure, maybe in her legs. She had to fix it, quickly. Before it started to hurt.
“Mei... I broke a bone. Can you put it back together?”
Mei wasn't in great shape herself, curling into complex shapes in the shade of a nearby oak tree. Her edges were rough and uneven, and her facial features swam about like flowers floating in a black puddle. Nevertheless, she drew herself across the ground, running a hand across Ell's arm.
Her fingers found a lump, and Ell winced.
Mei moved around to Ell's face, signing out a complex series of motions that translated to a rather simple phrase; T-H-I-S W-I-L-L H-U-R-T.
“I know. It's okay. I'll be all better when you're done.”
Mei hesitated, then shrugged, drawing herself together. She moved like a liquid across Ell's body, finding bruises, fractures, cuts from the glass. Then, lifting her head one last time, the shadow looked Ell in the face, her eyes filled with worry.
“It's okay, really. I'll probably scream, but I won't move. I promise. Go ahead.”
Mei began, and Ell managed four seconds before the screaming started.