Sixty three years ago.
Once the pupils had fled and the teachers had left for home, the school building turned into a spectacular corpse. Grey, flaking walls. Dead windows devoid of life. It rested there, surrounded by low walls and peoples’ indifference. Come morning, tortured students would once more shuffle through the doors, entering their own particular level of hell. Like most places of suffering, it was a place of power. Cameron liked power, and he liked a quiet place to smoke. He got both here.
"Oh look, it’s little Rollie." Teag shoved away from the wall he had been leaning against, smirking at the shorter boy that had dared to approach them.
"Sod off, my name is Roland." Roland had just turned thirteen; Teag was fifteen, and the difference between them was a foot and a helping of stubble. It didn’t stop the shorter boy from trying to push past, towards Cameron.
"That’s a mighty big name for a spaz like you." Teag pushed back, hard enough that Roland stumbled and nearly fell. But he just grit his teeth and clenched his fists.
"Sod off. I’m not talking to you." The blow came fast, hitting Teag in the stomach with enough force to make his breath whoosh out.
"Ow, you little wanker!" He rubbed his stomach, making a short rush after the younger boy, who jumped back a few steps, fists still raised. "Cameron doesn’t want to talk to your chubby arse."
"Give it a rest, Teag." Cameron’s voice made Teag pause and Roland lower his fists with something like hope in his eyes. "Kid wouldn’t bother me with nothing. He knows what happens then, right?" The threat was almost friendly, it was a sunny evening and the wall was warm. He was the uncrowned king of Bridgnorth Boys School, and there was peace in his kingdom.
"It’s my sister." Roland’s voice cracked a little then, the desperation he’d been hiding shining through the dirty glasses.
"Reena?" It took Cameron a moment to place the kid, but he knew Loreena. Knew she had a little brother with the same thick, greasy mop of hair. "Look," he continued with a tired sigh. "If you think I’ve been banging her you’re barking up the wrong tree and you’re way too little to do anything about it." Fifteen was a man. Thirteen was a child. That was just the way it was.
"She’s in the hospital." Sharp words, a stab bringing a larger reality into schoolyard shuffles.
"Someone bust her up?" Girls were not immune, but they rarely ended up in hospitals. Not a code really, more practicality. You didn’t need to teach girls lessons the same way, most already knew their places.
"Sort of." Roland looked away.
"Was it the Wallers?" They were the first Cameron could think off, the other school in town had some nasty kids, and for a show of force like that, girls were perfect. Especially ones he had been kissing.
The word was small enough that Teag stepped closer, raising his hand. “Pipe up kid, or I’ll smack you.”
"It was Bloody Mary!" The threat of a slap was real enough to make Roland nervously cover his cheek, when he had been bravely facing fists before.
"That’s rich." Teag groaned and looked back at Cameron. "You want me to whup him for you?"
"I thought I told you to shut it, Teag." Cameron’s voice had that particular shade of patience that never boded well for anybody.
"But, Cam…" Teag was interrupted by a blow to one shoulder, hard enough to rock him and make him stumble back, far harder than Roland’s jab before. Cameron rubbed his fist and stared down the other boy.
"Go and nick some beer," he ordered.
"But…" Teag protested.
“Go." That was an order, not a suggestion, and Teag muttered and walked off, leaving Cameron and Roland alone in the concrete wasteland that was the schoolyard.
"You want a smoke kid?" Cameron offered the younger kid one from the pack. Smoking was a ritual of adulthood. Or peace-making.
"No thanks." The shake of is head was almost shy, as if the fight from earlier had left him.
"You’re what, thirteen?" Cameron guessed. "Old enough to start."
Roland shook his head, looking nervously at the ground. “My dad would smell it.”
"I get it." Three little words, and none of them a lie. Cameron did get it. Dads and their dislikes. There was a moment of silence that was almost companionable, before he broke it so he wouldn’t appear weak. "What’s he doing about your sister?"
"He thinks someone attacked and tried to rape her." From the sound of Roland’s voice it was equally likely that his dad blamed Loreena as her attacker. Good girls stayed at home.
"And you don’t." Cameron lit up the cigarette, trying to judge the pudgy little kid in front of him. It was surprisingly hard.
"I know who did it." No hesitation, he stared at Cameron as if to dare to call him a liar. "Bloody Mary."
"You told me already." Cameron kept his face blank, his voice neutral. "Why do that by the way? Tell me?"
"I’m asking you, kid.” Cameron put the slightest hint of force into his command, letting his voice carry through.
"Because I knew you wouldn’t laugh at me." The confession was fast enough that Roland looked surprised as the words stumbled out.
"Kid, I could laugh at you for a dozen reasons. You’re fat. You’ve got glasses. You’ve got greasy hair, and you’re a scaredy cat." But that wasn’t what Roland had meant, and they both knew it.
"I’m not fat. And she’s real." Roland swallowed hard, staring at Cameron as if he dared him to object.
"You keep saying that," Cameron drawled, fishing for the truth.
"I saw her." Words of quiet conviction.
"Did you now?" Interest sparked, if he had been a cat, Cameron would have been swishing his tail. As it was, he sucked on his cigarette instead.
"At the hospital. In the mirror in the bathroom." Roland was breathing faster now, as if just remembering brought back the urgency he had felt when coming here.
"Don’t see your face all torn up. She didn’t like your chubby little cheeks?" Cameron reached out and pinched his cheek. To his surprise, Roland slapped his hand away. Well now, the kid had guts.
"I’m not stupid," he protested. "I didn’t say her name. But I saw her there. Looking out. At my sister."
"So you ran here."
"No." Roland shook his head, daring Cameron to touch him again. "I smashed the mirror. Then I smashed all the mirrors close by that I could find so she’d be safe. Then I ran here."
"Cops ain’t gonna like that," Cameron said with an appreciative laugh. "Vandalizing hospital property. Nor is your dad," he added after a moment’s thought.
"I’m not going home." There was a quiet terror in Roland’s voice, but for once it didn’t seem to be about his dad. "Not until I fix this."
"You?" Cameron couldn’t help the laugh. "If you’re the big man here, why are you talking to me then?"
"Because I don’t know how," Roland admitted, his frustration evident.
"And you figure I do?" Cameron remembered being thirteen and frustrated, changing like the world was changing, but not sure into what. The older kids had seemed like they knew everything, but it didn’t take him long to figure out they were just making shit up. Same as the adults.
"Everybody says so." It was too flat to be flattery.
"And didn’t everybody tell you I’m a dick too?" People came to him for help at times, but to beat people up. Not catch dead girls in mirrors. He had no idea how word had got out about what he sometimes did in his spare time.
"They did," Roland freely admitted. "But I’d owe you. And they say you like it when people owe you." His voice trembled just a little.
"You trying to play me kiddo?" No voice there, just an honest question. The kid seemed legit.
"No, I swear!" Roland held up his hand as if he was taking a vow. "I’m just trying to save my sister."
"Ah, what the hell." Cameron stubbed the cigarette out and ran a hand over his short hair. "I’m in kid. Never picked a fight with Bloody Mary before."
The house was small, the dirty bricks shoved up right against its neighbours. Too close to comfort, claustrophobic little walled backyards. They were standing in one now, Cameron first, Roland hovering a step behind. The girl that had opened the kitchen door stared at them both, her mouth an angry frown.
"What are you doing here Cameron? You broke up with me, remember?" She crossed her arms over her chest, fifteen and filling out faster than the boys could handle.
"I remember we weren’t together at all," Cameron protested, puffing his chest up a little. "And that ain’t why I’m here, Eve. It’s about Reena."
"Shit, listen, I don’t know anything." Eve made a move as if to close the door, but Cameron had taken hold of her wrist, hard enough to cause her to gasp.
"She went to your party." Quiet, calm words. Stating facts. "I know that. And now she’s in the hospital." He wasn’t threatening her. Not really. Not yet.
"She was attacked on the way home, alright? I told the cops." She tugged defensively at her arm, but he didn’t let her go.
"Well, you lie to cops, you don’t lie to me." Cameron’s voice grew hard as he filled it with will. "Tell me the truth.” The word stung his throat a little, like it always did. Commands were simple, truth was hard. They did not get along, him and it.
"I… it was just a bit of fun," she defended herself, and this time he let her go. "You know how it is." She rubbed her arm, bruises waiting to bloom under the skin.
"I know." Cameron nodded, mostly to get her to continue talking. She didn’t protest when he pushed past her, into the kitchen. Her parents weren’t home, not on Wednesdays.
"We were playing truth and dare," she started, closing the door after Roland had stepped in as well, looking a bit lost inside a stranger’s house. "She picked a dare, so Rosie told her to call for Bloody Mary."
"Where did she do it?" Cameron looked around, the kitchen clean and tidy, the couch where they had made out not a month ago.
"Upstairs bathroom." She pointed at the narrow stairs. "The rest of us waited outside. She had a candle and everything."
The old rules, passed down from child to child. Say Bloody Mary thirteen times while looking in a mirror in a dark room. Hold a candle. Look deeply into the mirror and she will appear and tear your face off. Or worse.
"You were planning to hold the door shut, weren’t you?" Roland raised his voice for the first time, an accusation spat at her back as they climbed the stairs.
"It was just a bit of fun," Eve defended herself. "Scare her a bit. Hold the handle and tell her it wouldn’t open. That the Bloody Mary would get her."
"She did." Roland sounded grim.
"Who are you anyway?" The question was filled with annoyance, Cameron was one thing, but Roland was just an annoying little brat.
"Reena’s kid brother," Cameron supplied, stopping outside the bathroom door.
"Anyway," Eve continued with a guilty look at Roland. "She started screaming and yanking at the door. And when it didn’t open I guess she must have opened the window and jumped. Tried to get home and got attached by some creep." It was the story she told herself every time she went to the bathroom.
"You don’t seem very sorry." Roland glared at the taller girl, his fear and frustration finally having a target.
"That’s because she thinks I dumped her for Reena." Cameron was running a hand over the door, only half paying attention to them.
"You did, you bastard." She raised her voice, but Cameron didn’t even look at her.
"You weren’t my girl. Neither was she. Just a bit of fun." He caught Roland looking at him from the corner of his eye. "What’s that look for kid?"
"Nothing," Roland lied." Are we going to stop it?" He looked at the bathroom door as if it held a lion behind it.
"Yeah." Cameron pulled back his hand and nodded.
The bathroom was small and dark. They had hung blankets over the narrow window since the sun had not gone down yet. The bathtub had a slight drip, each droplet making Roland jump. The candle in his hand flickered unsteadily.
"This is a really bad idea." The hot wax stung his hand, but he just bit his lip and stared into the dark mirror.
"Don’t be a wuss." Cameron was a darker shadow on the loo. Roland could hardly make him out.
"Will it even work on a boy?" He had pictured himself brave, but faced with this he went hunting for excuses. He had seen her once; he didn’t want to see that terrible face aimed at him.
"Just man up and do it." The impatience in Cameron’s voice was a greater threat than the dark mirror. "And it will. You’re her brother."
"I don’t even know why it worked this time," Roland mumbled, willing to do anything to postpone this until he could his courage once again. “People’s been doing this for ages.”
"Synchronicity. Sight. You’ve got the Sight, your sister must have it too. Eve was pissed at her because she thought I had dumped her over Reena. She wanted revenge. So did Bloody Mary."
"Never you mind that. Just call her."
Roland sucked in a deep breath, then spoke loudly. “Bloody Mary.”
The candle flickered. The bathtub dripped. The street outside fell silent. His own breathing felt too loud. “Bloody Mary,” he spoke again, looking deep into the mirror.
His face was reflected there, scared, frightened eyes behind the glasses. His hair was standing up; he resisted the urge to smooth it down. “Bloody Mary.” More wax dripped over his hand, the hot burn turning into tingling discomfort as the wax hardened and tugged at his skin. This place smelled odd. Not citrus.
"Bloody Mary," he said, voice cracking a little. Was Cameron even there? He didn’t see him in the mirror.
"Bloody Mary." He tried to count on his fingers how many times. Five. The tub still dripped.
"Bloody Mary." This was ridiculous. He had been imagining things. There was nothing that could come out of a mirror.
"Bloody Mary." The dripping tub started running, and Roland chanced a look behind him to see if Cameron had turned the faucet on. But when he turned back he saw a glimpse of movement in the glass.
"Bloody Mary." He was scared now, and the tub was running and the bathroom smelt weird.
"Bloody Mary." Nine times now, and Cameron made him jump as he shifted. But he didn’t say anything.
"Bloody Mary." His throat was dry. The bathroom smelled of blood. The water in the tub sounded heavy. Almost alive.
"Bloody Mary." Eleven times, still enough to turn on the lights and get out. Right? Eve would not hold the door shut this time. Not by herself.
"bloody mary." Almost there. The words were small and dry, he was six again, afraid of the dark and the things that lurked there. The things he saw but which his daddy said was lies. You got whupped for lies.
"bloody…. mary…" Maybe she would think he was a girl, his voice had cracked like one, filled with half a sob. He kept staring into the mirror, waiting for something to reach out for him, ready to jump back.
He had not been prepared for something to rise from the tub. It was a shape, a shade, a ruined face and bloody shoulders. The bathroom smelled of blood and the flickering candle betrayed just enough to terrify him. He nearly dropped it as he backed up against the door. It should be gone, he wasn’t looking in the mirror, but it was here, with him. In the bathroom. The tiny bathroom. A girl with a maimed face and red shoulders, her skin in flecks, shed like dandruff.
He screamed and fainted.
“Wait." Cameron’s voice, a steady word in the dark, and impossibly, the ruined girl stopped. Bloody Mary halting, turning towards the boy that had grabbed her arm.
"You’ve got it all wrong," Cameron continued. The candle kept burning on the floor, wax pooling around it. Roland was a pale lump next to it. He supposed he couldn’t blame the kid; this apparition had been coming for him. But now it was looking directly at Cameron himself, and he reached out to run a hand over her shoulder. Slippery. Bloody. The dress drenched in it. "There’s no other girl, babe."
Bloody Mary wasn’t a monster, she was a myth. An idea intruding on reality, a fear shat out among the living. There was not one Bloody Mary with a confused origin, there were a multitude. And there was one. The glass half empty and half full. She was Mary queen of Scots. She was Mary Worth. She was Black Annis and Mary Hell and right now she was just Mary. Mary who had died. Mary who had lost her boyfriend to another girl and had taken that anger with her to the grave. Anger shared by Eve unleashed on Loreena. This was between girls, but what was between girls except boys?
"You’ve got it all wrong," Cameron whispered, in the voice he used to get the girls to do what he liked, and forgive him for it. "There never was anybody but you, babe." He ran his fingers over her maimed face, feeling the cuts there. The flaps of skin. The red flesh underneath. She smelled of offal, but he had a strong stomach.
And so he kissed her.
Wet. Red. Dead. There was an appetite in her, but it was dwarfed by his own. She had terror, but he had will, and then he had her. Knew the moment. Knew her heart. “I left you because you’re not good enough.” Knew her heart so he could break it. “I’m sorry babe, but it is true.” She was frozen, caught in the trap of a life she had already lived, but with a difference. “You’re boring me, babe. I can’t stand to look at you anymore.” Hard words, with a pity to them that cut worse than knives. “Look at yourself.” He turned her towards the mirror, the corpse like putty in his hands. Self-destruction. He knew that intimately. How to bring it out. “You’re ugly. I think you should just fuck off and leave us all alone.”
He could feel her form crumbling in his hands like the girl had crumbled once upon a time. Hate turned inwards. Rage directed at herself with nowhere else to go. The serpent eating its tail. She never said a word, but he saw her eyes as she fell apart and faded, as the blood evaporated, as the faucet resumed its steady drip. He was her eyes and if he had a heart maybe it would have broken a little as well.
Lucky for him he’d never had that problem.
Earlier works in the same universe: Dreamcatcher, Regrets of the Living, The Whale Problem, Thieves and Coppers, The Hunger and the City, The City, Throw back the little ones