You can do it in a bathroom, curtains drawn, lights out. Any room where there’s a mirror. Some recommend the use of candles, but the best results can only be achieved in total darkness. Make sure the glass is clean. You don’t want to mistake dust or scratches for anything more than what they are. Say the name three times, five times, seven times: Bloody Mary, Mary Worth, Mary Jane. Variations of Mary and Bloody are best. Repeat the name. Tell the ghost in the mirror you believe in her. Tell her to Come out! Spin thirteen times. Stand perfectly still. Maybe she’ll appear. Maybe she’ll claw out your eyes. Maybe she’ll take you back into the mirror with her. Don’t stand to close. If your breath fogs the glass,you might fall victim to an illusion. This happened once to Laney-Jane and she came squealing from the girls’ second floor bathroom. Upon further investigation, we discovered that she’d been frightened by nothingmore than a patch of her own breath.
There were three of us then, the start of fourth grade: Sadie, Laney-Jane, and me, just Jane, but the others called me Kate, short for Katherine, which Sadie had baptized me in her parents’ kitchen sink. There could only be one Jane in the group. I’d wanted to be Medea or Athena or Daphne, something exotic and beautiful and straight from mythology. “They’re pagan,” Sadie explained, dunking my head into the lukewarm water, which tasted faintly of dish cleanser. “Why would you want to be a pagan? Saints live forever in the glory of heaven.” One counts, two counts, three counts, and I was Katherine, after the saint who was beheaded when the wheel couldn’t break her. Sadie was Catholic, and knew nothing about mythology: Only the name of a saint would do.
Sadie was the kind of girl most kids said was bossy, but as a fourth grader I was forever in her debt. The year before, I’d been the third grade outcast, the girl who wore dresses with dogs’ faces on the hems and plaid skirts in winter when everyone else wore jeans. If you stood too close you’d get Jane Germs. Not a clever taunt, but it caught on and the long and short of it was that most days I just wanted to die. But fourth grade came, I got new clothes and was placed in Ms. Arnold’s class where one day, between phonics and math, Sadie tapped my shoulder and said, “Aren’t you that weird girl?” When I turned around, expecting the worse from her, she was smiling, like being weird was a good thing and for the first time, I believed it was. Sadie was the girl who always talked during class, or passed notes, and when Ms. Arnold looked her way she would simply smirk. She didn’t try to be good. She didn’t even pretend. She knew, most of the time, that the worst that could happen was she’d get sent to the hall for ten minutes. Kids didn’t like her, exactly, but she knew how to amuse them. They would smile with her as she marched from her desk for the door, Ms. Arnold flashing her best teachers’ glare that did nothing to make Sadie even feel the faintest hint of guilt. Once, even, she’d gotten up in the middle of reading group, marched over to where I sat and yanked my hair so hard a few brown strands, no larger than spiders’ string, were left dangling from her fingers. I yelped, and we were both sent to the hall, since Ms. Arnold hadn’t seen anything and didn’t want to punish the wrong person.
“This is for your own good,” Sadie informed me. “Now people won’t think you’re some suck up.” We spent the rest of our ten minutes giggling about people in our class whom we didn’t like.
There were many games, as Sadie liked to call them, all of which she’d read about in the books she’d collected from the library. It started with Laney-Jane’s Ouija board, which Laney-Jane said she’d used to contact her dead grandmother, although Sadie swore anything store-bought could never really work. We moved on to dream-reading, crystal balls (my mother’s glass paper weight), palmistry (I was going to die a horrible, horrible death). We practiced levitating Laney-Jane, who never lifted light as a feather, stiff as a board from our fingers (although once her eyelids did turn very purple). We snuck out at sleepovers to visit the Orthodox cemetery near the school, with its tri-crossed crucifixes and oval pictures of the dead on their headstones, stiff as cardboard in their gray, old-fashioned clothes. We wore dimpled masks which we’d made from construction paper to scare demons, stuck knives in the hard ground beneath the graves and once, even, Sadie broke into the mausoleum and remained there until Laney-Jane and I thought for sure she’d been sucked inside the slate-cold walls by some avenging ghost. Then she’d leapt out, wearing one of the grimacing masks, and scared us half to death.
But nothing could top the mirror game. We kept a notebook filled with our findings, who and what, when and where: Laney-Jane, school bathroom, patch of breath; Kate, bathroom, Sadie’s house, shadow behind her left shoulder. We would ask kids in our class: had they played the game? what had they seen? what methods did they use to call the ghost? It was a weird, but virtually everyone had a story. The most popular books at the library were scary story collections and young adult spook fests, on stock for the sixth graders. We were that age where anything was possible, even if you didn’t believe in it. But even so, we could rule out tall tales immediately: if anyone claimed to have actually seen the ghost, we knew they were lying simply by the fact that they were still alive.
There was only one person who ever believed she had seen the ghost. We found her in class one November morning, sitting in one of the front row desks that no one wanted to be assigned. Her name was Althea Tillman and she came to us, Ms. Arnold explained, from a wonderful place called New Orleans. This was a city in Louisiana, and what river ran through Louisiana? Someone answered Mississippi and Althea looked blankly at the class, trying to decide how all this related to her. She was a pale girl, with cheekbones as flat as a blackboard and the tiniest of noses, making her look like she had no real face at all. Her eyes were bright and green, livelier than her face would have suggested. That first day, she looked like any normal ten-year-old in jeans and a tee shirt, except for a thick rope of beads, black as beetles, looped thrice around her small neck—or something like this. Althea was never seen without some gaudy piece of costume jewelry, or a funny hat or a silk scarf of the most god-awful color, like pieces from a grandmother’s closet. When Ms. Arnold asked the class to give Althea a warm Colby Elementary welcome, she fingered nervously at the beads, causing them to clatter together against her fingers. A few of the kids giggled. Althea raised her hand in what should have been a wave, but instead her palm hung in the air, perfectly still.
After school, Sadie and Laney-Jane came to my house with a large book titled simply New Orleans. We learned that it had been the first capital of Louisiana, and that cemeteries were above ground because the city was below sea level; Mardi Gras, at the height of tourist season, was a festival designed to ward off evil spirits; it was famous for its jazz, Creole cooking, hoodoo cults (“Voodoo,” Sadie explained. “It’s a typo.”), and a collection of haunted houses, making it one of Stateside Heritage Series’ top twenty spookiest places in the world.
The next day, we found Althea outside, waiting under the canopy at the bus turnaround. “We know all about where you’re from,” Sadie said, holding the book in front of her for Althea to see. “Why’d you move here?”
“My dad lives here,” she answered.
“We’re going to Kate’s house after dinner. You wanna come?”
She did. At exactly five minutes to six, she was on the doorstep. She wore a fuzzy purple hat that was too big, lace gloves, and a silk scarf with fat purple roses snaked around her neck. In her oversized womens’ purse, she had a miniature photo album with the word Love etched in gold cursive across its creamy cover. Inside were pictures of ivy-covered buildings, old-fashioned balconies as swirling as the lacing on cakes, broken slate sidewalks, the kind I’d seen in the lakeside towns in summer. “That’s my mom and me,” Althea said, pointing to a picture of one such balcony. The paint had peeled from the side of the house, but it still looked pretty. Althea and her mom were posed on the porch, waving at the camera. Her mother had Althea’s same flat cheeks and wild butterscotch curls, and in every picture wore flowing peasants’ dresses and silk-like scarves, large, loopy earrings and bracelets up and down her arms, her very own percussion band. Jeans aside, there was no doubt Althea was her mother in training. Only she hadn’t achieved a natural elegance yet, was still just a girl playing dress-up.
“Is that a ghost?” Sadie asked, indicating a smudge on the lower corner of the photograph.
“It’s a thumbprint,” Althea said.
“It looks like a ghost.” Sadie took the album and held it in the air above her head, like a photographer might. “If you see any weird marks in a photo, that means there’s a ghost in it.”
“I don’t have any of those. Just thumbs.”
“Have you ever been to a cemetery at night?” Laney-Jane asked.
Althea shook her head.
“We have,” said Sadie. “I broke into a mausoleum.”
“That would be scary.”
“It was scary,” I added.
From across the square we’d formed, Sadie scowled. “I was the one who went in there. Not you.”
I scowled back. I picked up a mask from the floor, one of the grotesques we’d worn to the cemetery. The mouth, nothing more than a round O cut from the paper, leered back. I think it was one of the ones I’d made. I was disappointed to see I’d forgotten to give her lips. Around me, the others chattered excitedly, Althea beginning to catch on.
“You know witchcraft?” Sadie asked.
“Everyone in New Orleans knows witchcraft. See this scarf ?” Althea pulled at the ends so they dangled and danced in her hands. “It’s hexed. The last woman who wore it died.”
From where I sat, I could see the tag, dangling from one end of the scarf. There was a name sewn in dark thread: D. Tillman.
“It was your mom’s,” I said.
Althea looked at me and scrunched up her face, so her eyes disappeared into the creases formed by her brows. “My mom’s dead.”
Sadie’s eyes swelled, fat as worms. “Was it the hex?”
“She had cancer. Anyway, it wasn’t her who died. It was this other woman.”
“It’s too long,” I said. “The scarf.”
Althea looked at the scarf, still in her hands. “I know. But I like it.”
The others giggled. “Ignore Kate,” Sadie said. “She’s cranky today.”
“I am not.”
Althea dropped the scarf and turned towards me. “I thought your name was Jane?”
“We call her Kate.”
“And I’m not cranky.”
I threw the mask down and snatched the album from where it lay on the floor. There were Althea and her mom at a lake, in swim suits. There they were baking cookies. (Even while baking, her mother had been an impeccable dresser.) There they were surrounded by women in broom skirts and men in short-sleeved button-downs, waving from a picnic table. Then there were just those of her mom: Her mom, reading; her mom, staring out the patio door; her mom, doing dishes, the light from the window making her hair glow, a halo of burnt gold. All in all, only a few thumb prints, and certainly no ghosts.
“Have you ever played the game?” Sadie asked. “Bloody Mary?”
Althea shook her head. Sadie looked at me—I was glad it was me, not Laney-Jane—and smiled.
“Everyone knows the game,” I said.
“It’s only the best ever! Mary was this girl who lived back in the 1800’s or something, and she was so pretty all the other girls hated her. So these other girls invited her over to play and when Mary got there, they scratched her all up so she was hideous. She died, and if you look in a mirror and say her name three…”
“Or five,” I added.
“…times, she comes out of the mirror and scratches you.”
“Oh.” Althea looked at Sadie, and then me and finally Laney-Jane, who just nodded. “Why would you want to play that?”
We looked at each other. No one had ever asked before. You just played. Finally, it was Sadie who said, “Well you aren’t supposed to let her scratch you. You jump out of the way first. We’ll show you.”
We marched to the bathroom, Laney-Jane first, me last with the notebook (I was the secretary!). Laney-Jane always went first, since she spooked easily, and if you gave her time to think things over there was always the chance she would chicken out. Sadie went second, and I was usually third, the order we always went in. But when Sadie emerged, having reported saying the name thirteen times and seeing a flash of light, like a camera flash (according to our research, Sadie was prone to seeing flashes of light, like camera flashes), and I started for the bathroom, she blocked the way.
“Let her go.”
And she looked to Althea, still standing near my parents’ door. Althea looked absolutely pale.
“It’s okay,” said Laney-Jane, “nothing will happen.”
“Just go in there, and tell us what you see.” This was Sadie.
Althea did. She came out a few minutes later, clearly disappointed.
“Nothing,” she said. Not even so much as a camera flash. “I’m sorry.”
She actually thought we were upset. Laney-Jane patted her shoulder and Sadie said something about it never working the first time. I didn’t remember seeing anything the first time, either. No one had patted my shoulder.
“This is stupid,” I said, and went into the bathroom. I locked the door and stood there in the almost total darkness, listening as someone whispered on the other side of the door. Someone else giggled. There was a towel pinned to the blind, which Laney-Jane must have put up, to keep out any excess light. I liked having a fresh start. I removed the towel, and pinned it up a second time. I turned on the lights before turning them off again. When I looked in the mirror, all I could see was the ghost of me: I smiled, but when I did, all my teeth shown, top and bottom mashed together, ready to bite.
“Bloody Mary,” I said. “Bloody Mary. Bloody Mary.”
Nothing happened. Nothing ever happened. I tried with Mary Worth. Mary Jane. Bloody before both these alternate names. I tried with Queen Mary I, the real Bloody Mary, who burned Protestants at the stake. She’d died of cancer, too.
I thought of Althea, standing in the hall in her long silk scarf and stupid hat, a skinned rabbit on her head. I wasn’t good with new people. I wasn’t outgoing and unafraid, like Sadie, or gentle, like Laney-Jane. I, too, was the quiet girl, the one who would always say something stupid if she dared open her mouth. I never knew what bands were hot, what clothing wasn’t, or what stores to hang out at and in what malls. It didn’t help that I’d seen something of my former self in Althea—her outrageous accessories, the way people had giggled when she’d snatched at her beads. How maybe she’d thought she’d looked nice.
“Diane Tillman,” I said. “Darlene Tillman. Daphne Tillman.”
But I must have had the wrong D., because no one came.
I still have the notebook. It was three quarters of the way full when we stopped the game. In it, you can trace our findings: Laney-Jane’s breath, Sadie’s flashes, my shadows. Ghosts of the things we were supposed to see, but never did.
Althea wasn’t with us long, but her findings are there, too. For the most part, they are much the same. She had learned how to make every trick of her eyes into just a little more. But unlike the rest of us, she was disappointed with these nothings. They weren’t significant to her the way they were to the rest of us. They were only beginnings, the winking eye that vanishes before you know it’s even there. Althea would spend most of her time in class pouring through the notebook, searching for rituals we hadn’t tried, patterns we hadn’t seen. She kept the notebook while she was with us, since it was agreed that Althea was far more interested in the findings than I would ever be. This wasn’t true, but we’d voted on this: three to one, I lost.
Then there was the first incident.
We were at school, outside the upstairs bathroom. Laney-Jane was inside and Sadie was lazed against the door, propping it shut. Laney-Jane had been more jittering than usual, and we couldn’t risk the possibility that she would bolt too soon. Althea and I were standing around her, like we always did. Althea wore a long, silver necklace with a miniature perfume bottle as a charm and a red scarf belted around her tiny waist. One end dragged longer than the other; every now and then, she stuck it to her teeth, as if it were something to gnaw. It was in imitation of Sadie, who was doing the same with the strings of her hoodie.
“Althea,” she said, not bothering to remove the string. It sat there, damp and purple, bobbing on her lips. “It’s really an odd name.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
(I’d asked the same thing, only substitute Jane for Althea. Wouldn’t it be easier just to call Laney-Jane Laney or just LJ? The answer: No.)
“It’s pretty old-sounding,” Sadie said. “Was it your grandmother’s name?”
“It’s my mother’s. Althea’s her middle name.”
Sadie nodded thoughtfully, expecting as much. “Its bad luck to be named after someone who’s dead.”
“She wasn’t dead when she named me.”
Althea wasn’t challenging Sadie, exactly. She was simply stating a fact. Her mom had been alive once. Obviously.
“What about Margaret?” Sadie asked. “It’s still old-sounding, but we can call you Maggie.”
Althea looked to the scarf, as if her mother might have been inside, and ready to give advice on the whole matter. “I’m not sure I like it.”
“Of course you like it. Who doesn’t like Maggie?”
“I don’t like it,” I said.
Sadie looked to me, and rolled her eyes. “You don’t like anything.”
I do, I wanted to add, but Laney-Jane knocked to be let out. Sadie went second, followed by Althea, the usual rotation since she’d joined our group. Needless to say, I didn’t like this development. But we had to make Althea feel welcome, didn’t we? I understood, of course.
Once she was inside the bathroom, we could hear her calling the name in a voice somewhere between a chant and a song. Not quite the monotone we usually used, but not melodious, either. She must have spoke-sang the name over a dozen times, and then over a dozen more.
Another fifteen, without pause. Sadie looked at the place where her watch would have been, only she wasn’t wearing one. “I like the name Maggie,” I whispered, just to let her know I’d meant no harm. “I just don’t think Althea is a Maggie.”
Sadie shushed me and pressed her ear to the door, in time for Althea to let out one final, determined “Mary.” No unflattering adjective, just the name, as if she were calling a real girl.
Then Althea screamed. She came crashing through the door so fast she sent Sadie wobbling backwards on her bum, some feet from the door.
For an instant, while Sadie sat stunned and Althea flew for the wall and Laney-Jane just stood there, watching them both, the door hung open, just enough for me to see inside. The lights were still out, but I could see right into the mirror. There was a very white face, quick as a shadow which, when you turn your head for just one second, disappears.
This wasn’t even the strangest thing: the face, from what I could see, looked just like my own. Only it wasn’t. My reflection had been floating, just as white, behind it.
Althea sat scrunched up against the wall, her face so pale it could have been transparent. The collar of her shirt had stretched over the ridge of her bone, where the chain of her lavaliere had gathered, a silver pool in the crevice of skin. Her eyes were damp; they were looking right at me.
“You saw her,” she said.
“Saw what?” Sadie turned to me, still on her bum, blue eyes flashing from behind a curtain of deer-colored hair. My own hands, I suddenly noticed, were shaking. So was Sadie’s entire body, too small to contain her excitement. Two teachers were racing towards us, attracted by Althea’s screams. Their students pooled into the hall, watching, but stayed near the classrooms. Althea didn’t notice this. She kept her eyes trained on me, waiting.
“Jane, tell them you saw her,” she said.
“Saw who?” Sadie, who’d leapt to her feet, was almost screaming. She whirled from me to Althea, trying to decide who was more interesting.
Sadie went quiet for once. This wasn’t a camera flash. Even Sadie, I thought, couldn’t believe this one. (As usual, I was wrong.) The teachers, who by this time knelt on either side of Althea, looked to each other. One tried coaxing her to her feet, but Althea twisted her legs beneath her so that she was on all fours. The scarf dragged, pinned beneath her knees.
“Tell them, Jane. We saw Mary.”
They were looking at me now: Sadie, Laney-Jane, the teachers, growing more concerned by the second. Even their students’ necks twisted like birds’ in my direction. They were older kids, fifth or sixth graders, so I wouldn’t have known many of them, but that didn’t matter. A few were whispering. It’s silly, I know, but I swear I heard someone say germs.
“I didn’t see anything,” I said.
I could have been honest. Sometimes, I’d like to think I had been, if only to convince myself that I had at least tried to be nice. But I knew better. I watched Althea slowly shrink into the wall, as if she were deflating.
I was too frightened to hate her. I’m sorry, I wanted to say, because I should have. But if I had said yes, we both would have been crazy together. Eventually, Althea let the teachers escort her away for the clinic, a china doll guided between them, which they were too afraid to touch.
Everyone watched their slow retreat except Sadie, who stared at me from beneath her bangs, almost expressionless. Then, without saying a word, she ran after them.
It was Sadie, and not a hall of faceless fifth and sixth graders, who wasted no time in telling virtually everyone what had happened. Only she wasn’t malicious about it. Althea had seen the ghost! She’d actually seen it! For the week following the incident, when Althea’s father kept her home, Sadie was bursting to tell anyone who would listen. I had thought that this would have been the end of Althea, as far as my classmates—and virtually, the entire school—were concerned. But the older kids couldn’t have cared less, unless they had siblings in the fourth grade, and even then it was no big deal. The younger ones didn’t count, anyway, and people closer to our age were at least willing to listen, whether or not they believed the story. Hadn’t everyone played the game? Maybe our group had more than others, but hadn’t we conducted the interviews? Hadn’t we seen things all the time? Althea’s performance was just extra special. It was good for a few more scares. Pockets of girls from our class raided the second floor bathroom during our usual recess sessions. I heard Sadie complain about this loudly over lunch, giving out a dramatic sigh and addressing Laney-Jane in a voice loud enough for the whole table to hear. Yes, she was saying, to no one in particular, I was there, and you weren’t.
“You’d have to ask Althea,” she’d reply, whenever anyone asked what the ghost had looked like. “But it was definitely a girl with brown hair.”
She and Laney-Jane were at Althea’s house every afternoon that week. They took her homework and cupcakes Laney-Jane’s mother had made. I never went with them. They never asked. In denying the existence of our beloved Mary, I had committed the ultimate blasphemy. Sadie refused to speak to me. I was permitted to sit at their lunch table, but no sooner would I set my tray down then Sadie would cluster her chair with Laney-Jane’s, who in turn would flash only the weakest of smiles in my direction. They talked exclusively of Althea. Althea was looking so much better! Althea had loved the oatmeal chocolate chip cookies! Althea was ready to start the research again. It would be scary, but she knew how important it was.
The only time they were truly forced to interact with me was when Ms. Arnold asked the three of us to lunch with her in the room, just us girls. I had thought for a few glorious seconds that Ms. Arnold had noticed that I’d strayed from the group, and would try, with all the power at her command as our teacher, to make Sadie take me back. As it turned out, it was one of those lunch dates where teachers like Ms. Arnold could grill you on things they were simply too afraid to ask. She’d even gone so far as to squish her rather large body into one of the ten-year-old sized desks, so she could join in our circle. She had to stoop low to reach her sandwich, so far over the desk that she looked like a goose, bending to take water.
“I’m so glad you girls have been kind to Althea,” she said, looking to each of us and no one in particular. Obviously, she hadn’t even noticed that neither Sadie nor Laney-Jane had said so much as “boo” to me all week.
“It’s so difficult, being new. It’s nice that she has the three of you.”
“Thank you, Ms. Arnold.”
“And your friend,” Ms. Arnold pressed, “is she coping well?”
“Yes, Ms. Arnold.”
And there it was, the reason we were there: “Has she ever—done anything like this before?”
At this point, she was looking directly as me. Sadie cleared her throat.
“No, she hasn’t.”
After lunch I told Sadie: I’d seen it. I’d seen the face.
Sadie stared at me, jaw slung down, one eyebrow arched into the crinkles of her forehead. “Do you expect me to believe that, Kate? Really, do you?”
But the day Althea returned, I found Sadie waiting for me after school near the front doors. “Althea wants to see you,” she said, fidgeting with the sleeves of her purple hoodie. She didn’t look at me, but at her own fists, balled inside the sleeves. Still, I was ecstatic. Sadie was talking to me again, and I hadn’t said a word to her!
“Why?” I asked, trying to match her I-don’t-care tone. I failed, and miserably.
Sadie shrugged, the whole thing beneath her interest. “She thinks you can help her. She said to meet her upstairs, by the bathroom.”
“Help her with what?” By this time my voice was shaking. I tried to sound cool, though. I stared Sadie straight in the eye until she stared back, twice as hard.
“She wants you to be there,” she said. “She thinks you saw her, too. I don’t think you did,” she added, in case there was any doubt. She might have still been mad but at least she was talking to me again. Why else would I fly upstairs, book bag thumping against the small of my back, to where Althea stood waiting at the bathroom door? I was more scared than I’d been at any point during our game, more scared even than I’d been in the cemetery, waiting for Sadie’s return from the mausoleum. But I was being given one more chance to return to the fold. I couldn’t ruin this opportunity. The last week had been the loneliest for me since I’d traded Jane Germs for Kate, and the prospect of going back, of spending the rest of my natural days friendless, was far worse than anything that could have flown from a mirror. Althea was waiting outside the bathroom. She’d put on her beige coat and a low-brimmed white hat, pulled down almost to her eyes. Her curls stuck out from beneath the brim as if they had decided their best course was to simply grow around the wool.
“Hi, Jane.” She never lost her smile. The hat dropped a little lower, and she pushed it back to her hairline.
“Kate.” She let the word roll over her tongue, the last and only time she ever called me by that name. “Jane’s a nice name, I think. Did you see Sadie?”
“Are you scared?”
I shrugged, like Sadie had done. It was easier to fake it, now that
Sadie was gone.
Her smile brightened, like one of the saints from Sadie’s book, gladly accepting her own gruesome fate. “Just stay here? Like before?”
She pushed open the bathroom door. In her beige coat, the same color as the walls, she was already a girl in the process of being erased. This wasn’t just another one of Sadie’s games; for Althea, this was real.
I never thought to ask why it was so important to her, to see the ghost. I know now that she’d been so desperate when the rest of us settled for our shadows and flashes because it meant maybe, if she could contact that world she could gain entry, or help someone come out—that this was what she’d been too afraid to tell us, maybe because she knew it was only the faintest of possibilities, not even one at all. But I didn’t think of it this way then. I’d never thought to ask why the ghost was important to her. I only thought that this time, when she called to it, whatever it was would be ready. It would be ready, it would scratch her up or worse and I would be there, the one witness, cradling her like an angel. That was how they would find us, a life-sized icon, a pieta. See? I would say, stroking Althea’s brown curls so that everyone could see her wounds. She came back. We alone were worthy.
From inside the bathroom, I heard her chanting, soft as the trickle of water. Although terrified, I stepped closer, hand against the handle, foot against the wood, like I’d seen Sadie do so many times. That was when the face appeared. It peered from behind my shoulder, a terrible grinning moon. The dimpled mouth was open, screeching. I screamed—and I hated myself for doing so, because I knew from the very first moment that this was no ghost.
The mask giggled.
“Look at you!” Sadie screeched from behind the mask, her own lips smiling from inside the lipless mouth. It wasn’t even a real mask, like the ones we’d made; this was constructed from loose leaf, and crudely cute, the holes of the mouth and eyes uneven and jagged. This was how far I’d fallen: I was now a monster, something to be called up, frightened, laughed at. “You are so freaked out!”
“I am not,” I said.
Behind the mask, Sadie’s smile grew. “Yes,” she said, “you are.”
Sadie tore off the mask. Her own face couldn’t have been any less frightening. Her eyes were too wide, her cheeks the same color as the white construction paper, stretched across her thin bones. Or maybe this is how I choose to remember her. Maybe at the time, I just saw her as the girl who’d once been my friend.
“You were so freaked!” She shrieked, like this was the most wonderful thing in the world. She held the mask back to her face, wiggling it, her own hair bouncing wildly around it.
“I did not,” I said, weaker this time. Sadie continued wiggling the mask. She might have done so forever had Althea not opened the bathroom door. She looked puzzled, as if she couldn’t quite grasp what had happened in the outside world since she’d been away.
“You frightened her,” she said. She wasn’t upset. I thought she was talking to Sadie, but she didn’t seem to notice Sadie was even there. She was looking at me, wondering how I had the nerve to scream when I knew very well that she’d been talking with ghosts. “Why did you frighten her?”
“She’s there!” Sadie pushed past Althea and into the bathroom.
Althea stepped back, startled, as if somehow the mask had rendered Sadie invisible until this moment. Then she followed Sadie inside, leaving me alone in the hall.
I went after them. The bathroom was dark except for one sad ray of sun streaming through the dust-strewn window. There were the stalls, doors stopped still mid-swing, the chipped porcelain sinks, the floor tiles mortared with mildew. The only thing eerie was the mirror, which had been polished cleaner than it had any right to be. Only our three faces stared back: Sadie, disappointed, Althea perplexed, and me, just there, behind them.
“She was really there?” Sadie held the mask up to her neck like a shield, just in case. The eyes on Althea’s reflection flickered to it.
“What’s that for?” she asked. But Sadie was still fascinated with the mirror. “Is that why you screamed?” Althea asked me, pointing at the mask. She didn’t need to turn around. There I was in the mirror, staring back, with absolutely no way of avoiding either of them. Althea’s eyes flickered back to Sadie. “Did you scare her?”
Sadie smiled, still looking at the mirror. “I didn’t just scare her. She almost had a heart attack!”
She smiled at Althea, the first time she’d bothered looking directly at either of us. I could do nothing but stand there, waiting for Althea to smile back, the greatest joke in the world. But she didn’t.
“That wasn’t funny,” Althea said. “It was mean.”
Suddenly, she didn’t sound so silly anymore. Whatever saint-like patience she’d mustered was slowly beginning to burn away. “You’re mean,” she said, becoming used to this idea. Her ghost was all but forgotten.
In the mirror, Sadie’s face went pink. “What did you say?”
“I said you’re mean.”
That was all it took, really, to end their friendship. Sadie whirled around, dropping both arms to her sides, ready to strike. She didn’t step any closer, though. “If I’m mean,” she said, “than you’re a little freak.”
Althea didn’t even wince, the way I would have. She stood there, glaring back at Sadie until finally it was Sadie who broke the gaze. She turned back to the mirror, and in it, I could see her mouth the word, freak. “No wonder your mom died,” she hissed. “She probably never loved you.”
At this, Althea’s lower lip quivered, but only for a moment. She took a step forward, not towards Sadie but towards me. She came so close I could touch her. “It’s okay, Jane,” she said, smiling at me as best she could under the circumstances. “We can try again.”
That was when I hit her.
It wasn’t a real punch. There was no fist, just my open hand swinging forward, a saber slash. And there, it struck Althea’s pink cheek, nails first. I could feel the skin peel beneath them. Althea stood there, stupid. She lifted her hand to her cheek to feel where the blood dots pimpled to the surface, the four lines growing red in the dim bathroom light. She opened her mouth—only it wasn’t a scream that came out, only a gasp.
When you look in a mirror, what is it you see? Is it your own face or something else, something beneath the glass you can’t recognize? Is it really beneath the glass or is it under your own skin?
But for now, I am still Kate. I push past Althea, still clutching her cheek, and scuttle as quickly as my book bag and winter coat will allow me to. I am at the cemetery before Sadie catches my arm. She doesn’t say a thing. She begins to skip and I skip, too, our arms linked. We skip past the cemetery, where the crosses stick like bones from the snow, waving hello. Although it’s near freezing, the sun feels warms and the sky is the deep blue that makes you hope the warmer days are finally coming.
We stick our tongues out at the crossing guard when she tries to cross us at the light. We skip through the snow drifts and even though it leaks into my boots I don’t care; I have more important things on my mind than just socks. I will need my notebook back; if we got started right away, I could still make up all the time I lost. I imagine that there couldn’t have been many developments in my brief absence.
Originally published in Winter 2011.