A lonely snowflake drifted from the pale sky, turning softly as it fell, a displaced star in the cold wilderness.
Ell paused to watch it float past her nose, taking care to not disrupt its passage with a careless breath.
The crystalline flake dipped, then rose, pirouetting like a white-clad ballerina. It reminded Ell of a woman she had seen once before, years ago, standing in Elm Hope's foyer. Her dress had been as white as the snow, swirling about her ankles as she walked. She had reminded Ell of a wilting flower, still holding great beauty even as, with infinite slowness, it passed away.
Father's voice joined the memory, soft and sad; “I don't know what to tell you, ma'am. Anna was doing so much better. I had very high hopes for the CCR treatment, but... well, everyone reacts differently. The good news is, the damage is reversing itself, albeit slowly. She will return to how she was, and we'll be right back where we started.”
The woman nodded, her exhaustion visible even to younger Ell. Ell had seen father speak to many newcomers, there in that foyer. Some had been in tears; some had threatened him, shouting and cursing. The woman did neither, accepting his words with a quiet calm. When she spoke, her words were like fragile glass, almost swallowed up in the silence of the empty room; “I know how hard you work. All of you. We are grateful. Anna is grateful.”
Ell's father adjusted his glasses “At least she's responding now. The treatment has woken up her mind. Whatever we do from here on out will have a much more, ah, noticeable effect. Positive. A positive effect.”
The woman bobbed her head again. “Thank you. Can I... can I see her?”
“Not today, I'm afraid. She's sleeping off the anesthesia. Tomorrow, for sure.”
The old clock in the corner had chimed then, sounding out the hour. Ell could not remember how many times it rang, only that it continued in steady cadence for a good deal of time. Father and the woman had stood, heads bowed, until the final echoes were lost through Elm Hope's corridors.
With a small sigh, the woman in white turned to leave, drawing her purse over her shoulder. Father did not follow her. He looked as though the world itself had been placed on his shoulders.
At the door, the woman hesitated, one hand on the latch, as if she did not have the strength to use it. Then she turned back, and there was something in her eyes Ell had never seen before, an emotion that, even looking back on it now, she could not place.
“Does she... does she ever ask for me...? Does Annabelle... remember me?” Her voice had cracked when she said 'remember'.
Ell's father had not spoken immediately, but Ell had seen his hand tighten almost imperceptibly on the pen he had been holding.
“...No, ma'am. The numbers Anna says are entirely random. They have no meaning. Your daughter is just... lost inside her head. Don't worry yourself, there is hope. We will get her back.”
The woman tried to smile, failed, and turned away, becoming a solitary snowflake wafting slowly down the road.
As evidenced by the snow, the air had indeed grown colder. The warm spell had passed; the grass lining the broad road was pale and brittle with morning frost. Ell stuffed her hands into her pockets, but the fabric was damp and cold. With a small shiver, she put her hands under her arms instead.
“It must be nice to be a shadow. You can walk forever, and you don't have to breathe, and you don't get cold...”
A thought struck her, and she looked down at Mei. “I guess I never really asked you that. Do you get cold?”
Mei shrugged, tipping her head as far back as she could. The shadow girl seemed to be fully recovered from her exertions earlier that day, walking beside Ell with no visible discomfort. Mei had helped Ell with her injuries before, a feat which had badly confused Dr. Hurie on several occasions. The healing was an ability Ell greatly valued, but one that came at a cost. Cuts and scratches were easy to wipe away, but broken bones took great effort, sometimes causing the shadow pain, and that was the last thing Ell wanted for her only friend.
“So... cold? Yes? Is that a yes? No?”
Mei stuck out her tongue.
“Fine, you goof. I hope you are cold. Or maybe you like it that way...”
“She likes whatever you think she likes...”
Ell blinked, glancing about for Dr. Mortimer, but of course he wasn't there. He really had been gone a long time... back home, and even at the city hospital, no matter how well she hid, he would always find her; pestering her about her pills, hurting Mei's feelings with his blunt mannerisms, jotting notes in his stupid notebook.
“Something on the tracks... I hope the driver sees it...”
“But there aren't any tracks here.” Ell said out loud.
Mei glanced up at the sound of her human friend's voice.
“Sorry. Talking to myself. Daddy says crazy people talk to themselves. Am I crazy?”
The shadow grinned, signing something with great speed.
“Slow down, I can't figure you out when you do that.”
With exaggerated slowness, Mei signed Y-O-U A-R-E S-T-R-A-N-G-E.
Ell gasped in mock horror. “And you're a fruitcake. Meany.”
Mei crossed her arms and pretended to pout, rolling her face around until her features were completely upside-down. Ell giggled, brushing a tangled strand of hair back over her ear.
“We should sing a song. That's what other people do on long trips. Well, I'd sing, and you can pretend. What one should I do? I don't know very many.... hm...”
After a minute of thinking, her eyes brightened.
“We could do that one father used to sing us, when we were little. How did it go... it was about the baby, and the mother would buy her all these nice things so she wouldn't be sad... I'm pretty sure I heard it a bit ago, though I can't think where. How did it go?”
“The song is 'Hush little baby', I believe,” Dr. Mortimer said, and coughed.
Ell jumped, turning to face the doctor. The older man was sitting beside the road, leaning against a weathered metal signpost. His clothes were quite disheveled, and his tie was unpinned, dangling off to one side. Both lenses in his spectacles were cracked, the metal frames noticeably bent. A thin line of blood oozed from a small cut near his hairline, working its way from his forehead to his chin,.
Something about him unnerved Ell. It wasn't the blood; in small amounts, the crimson liquid was actually quite fascinating to look at. Something about the doctor's position... The way he sat like a broken doll, unmoving except for his glassy eyes, one arm resting on his chest, the other twisting at an unnatural angle behind him. Ell almost, almost, wished him away, but at the same time, she found it comical that a man as stuck up as Dr. Mortimer would sit contentedly in the cold, soggy dirt.
“Dr. Mortimer, your head is bleeding.”
The doctor's eyes slowly crossed as he attempted to examine the bridge of his nose. “Hmph. Never mind it, I'll put a band-aid on it later. Right now, I'm more worried about you! You haven't been keeping up with your mediation, have you?”
“I only have one pill left, so I'm saving it. Do you have more?”
Dr. Mortimer laughed. “I'm not real, Ell. How can I give you any?”
“Hasn't stopped you before.”
“Hmph. Well, I don't have any, regardless. You know it's dangerous to be out here all by yourself.”
Ell drooped a bit. “I didn't mean to. Daddy's train broke, and there was no one around. I looked for you, but-”
A dead, bloody face staring at her. Rain pouring down in sheets, twisted metal, the smell of fire.
“But?” the doctor prompted.
Ell blinked, and the images were gone.
“But you weren't around, and the train tried to float away, and I fell in the water, and there was a school-”
A Whisper with golden hair. Fire. A man with glass eyes and a black metal gun...
“Ell? Ell, are you feeling okay?”
Ell wasn't. She felt dizzy, and a bit sick to her stomach. “N-no. I think I'm... missing bits. In my head. There are spots where I know something was there, but now it's all jumbled.”
The cut on the doctor's forehead was bleeding a good deal more than before, dripping from his nose and chin onto his shirt-front. “You need to take that last pill, Ell. I'm serious, you cannot keep on like this. Do you want to make yourself ill again?”
“No. I will. It's just... I need to get home, and I don't know where it is, or if I'm going the right way, and I want... I want to see daddy again.” She could feel her eyes starting to tear up.
Dr. Mortimer took his notepad from his breast pocket, scribbling something she couldn't see. “Ell, look at me.”
Ell did as she was told. The doctor's calm eyes met hers, and he smiled reassuringly.
“Everything is going to be fine. Take your last pill. Don't wait until later. And whatever you do, don't worry. You're almost home.”
With some effort, the doctor turned his notepad around, holding it up in front of his face. The page was flecked with red, but Ell could still see what Dr. Mortimer had drawn: An arrow, pointing up to the sky.
Her gaze lifted, and she saw for the first time the sign on which the doctor had been leaning. In bold type, it read: 'WELCOME TO LAKEWOOD, HOME OF THE LAKEWOOD PACKERS'
And below that, in slightly smaller writing; 'ELM HOPE INSTITUTE, 7 MILES'
Ell looked down again, and found that the doctor had vanished. Perhaps he had wandered off, or gone back into her head, or maybe he had never been there at all. She didn't really care.
Her hand dug into her pocket, coming out with the final pill. She popped it in her mouth, wincing at the rubbery taste, and swallowed hard. Slowly, she looked down at Mei, who looked back at her with eyes like twin moons.
Then, with a joyous noise that was half-laugh, half scream, Ell took off running as fast as she could push her legs to move. All terror, all sadness, all madness forgotten, she ran as she had never run before.
Before her now, distant but growing ever clearer, lay the familiar rooftops, the old roads and driveways, the realm of knowing that had been her home since her mind had begun its tired record of life.
Seven miles to Elm Hope.
Seven miles to Home.