White, whiteness on white. A dream that stretched into the distance as far as the mind could see in rolling curtains of numbing cold snow. A dream so blank that the mind screamed for stimulation, begged for colors and depth and even pleaded for pain that would at least remind one that life still existed on some hidden dimension.

Whiteness so lonely that I even screamed for Ell.

I awoke at noon the next day, I'd forgotten who I was and where I was, as if my mind were a tabla rasa on which to write an entirely new world. I found this disturbing - intensely disturbing and only slowly did my memory return.

There are no torments like those of the mind. As my senses returned, the events of past two nights revealed their indelible mark and I cringed mentally. But strangely, I felt like my body had been badly mauled too, something you sense rather than actively feel when you're a quadriplegic. That wasn't something a dream could do to you.

"Someone sure worked you over," I heard a gentle voice say from a chair propped against the wall at the foot of the bed. "I was afraid you were going to die this time."

It was Laura, I could barely see her from where I was and what I did see made my heart break. She'd obviously slept in that chair the last night, watching over me like a mother hen. If I'd doubted before whether she could care for this broken excuse for a human being, now I was certain her heart was made of gold. I was humbled.

"Thank God you're here," I muttered weakly. "I thought I was losing my mind."

"Perhaps you are," Laura stared. "I've never heard anyone rant and rave in their sleep like you have."

I was stunned for a moment, wondering what I'd blurted out in my dreams. My senses were finally returning now, and with them the desire not to seem too foolish in front of Laura.

"I must have said some pretty weird things," I offered, though for the life of me the dreams I'd just been having were so devoid of any sensation (like sensory deprivation) I couldn't imagine what I could have been babbling.

"Who is Ell?" Laura asked, her lips pouting slightly.

"She knows," I thought to myself, but out loud I said:

"Why, you are Ell," I replied without missing a beat. "Ell is the letter, L., the first letter in your name, Laura. It's my nerdy programmer's shorthand way of thinking of you. I dream a lot about you."

"Pretty strange way to think of someone, as a letter," Laura needled, unsatisfied with my explanation. "And how did you get cut up so badly? By this Ell in your dream?"

"I don't know, I don't think so," I stuttered. "Remember, this is the first time I've been conscious since I was found in the gutter." I dizzily recalled being slashed by Sapphire and thought that was what Laura was talking about.

"You probably haven't seen the damage yourself, have you?" Laura thought out loud, seeing my confusion. "Here, I've got a mirror," and after rummaging in her purse, she came over to the bed and pulled down the sheets half way.

I looked timidly at the reflection, not sure what I would find.

My body, no longer in my lightsuit, was covered with livid red scars, ugly as raw meat, as though I'd been through a shredder. It was as though I'd been pecked at by vultures.

"This Ell of yours is a dangerous woman," Laura half smiled. "I've never seen a dream do this to someone."

There was a bandage taped along my left side and the blood that had oozed through showed it must be the knife line, but that should have been the extent of my injuries. Only I looked worse, like raw steak. Hopefully this was something Sapphire the cat woman had done, at least she was real! But deep down I suspected this was Ell's work, something that had happened in a virtual world. Virtual or not, If Ell had dragged me behind a car she could have scarcely done better at chewing me up.

"God, no wonder I feel like hell," I smiled weakly.

I should have screamed, I should have run crazed as a loon out of the hospital and down the road shrieking at the utter impossibility of it all, it had only been a dream. But instead I was a paralyzed mass of flesh, forced to accept the impossible, and then laugh about it. An insane man should as a matter of courtesy be allowed to devolve into a frenzy, but I knew there was nothing I could do. There was no place to run, Ell was real, as real as a cold rain or the smell of sage and she would find me wherever I tried to hide.

It was quite a while before I regained my wits, before I stopped chattering uncontrollably to Laura. She was my grasp on reality.

"Laura, I truthfully don't know how this happened." I lied, but who would have believed the real story?

"If you love me, Steve Heller, you better tell me the whole story and you better tell me now!"

How did Laura know I loved her? Of course she knew, she expected it, so I proceeded to tell Laura the story of how I'd followed Sapphire James out of the concert down a dark alleyway and been attacked by her. Except I didn't add the part about being chased by a panther and the mysterious apparition of Ell, only that I remembered being knifed and then running and blacking out.

"I was running, running as fast as I could and still they kept gaining on me," I ended up panting the end of my story, some of the visceral fear even then returning.

"But you can't run," Laura mused. "You're barely able to walk a hundred feet without being afraid of falling over. Yet, how else could you explain the fact that you ended up two miles away from the Palladium when you were found?"

"I don't know, Laura. All I know is everything was a haze, everything passed me by in a neon blur."

"Loss of blood, maybe? And all those small cuts, where did they come from?" Laura asked.

"Perhaps the rats got to me," I suggested and Laura shuddered. "All I know is I woke up in an alley the next morning and I don't have a clue how."

Laura got up from the chair. "I don't know what happened the other night," she said earnestly, looking at me with a meaning in her eyes much deeper than I could fathom. "But I do believe you saw Sapphire and that disturbs me - it means you're still in danger. Right now, though, we've got to work on getting you back on your feet again."

Laura left, promising I'd hear from her again that evening.

I was glad she was gone. I had to think about what had happened, about whether I was still sane. I knew no psychiatrist could cure something like this, its the kind of thing humans wish were not true but know is: sometimes dreams can become real

God, you can't imagine how Ell glowed in my mind now like a hot ember. Or was it Laura who was there and my mind had just distorted her image in some Freudian transformation? Whatever was going on, I knew I didn't want to ever dream again. Not like that dream . . . .

---Chapter 18---