There was a small bathroom off of the gym changeroom. Grace knew it was almost never used. It was behind a beige door between two rows of lockers, and it only had three cubicles. The bathroom was L-shaped, the cubicles facing the sinks and mirrors, and then a corner that ended in a locked door. When Grace was younger, she and Eva had believed, or pretended to believe, that the locked door opened onto a secret passageway, which led down and underneath the school. Now they both knew it was a storage closet.
Two years ago (Grace and Eva were nine then), the school had had an influx of cash and new bathrooms had been built for the gym, with windows and sensor hand dryers and posters in steel frames that advised taking a stance on bullying. But this bathroom had remained, lapsing into a glum afterlife. Fluorescents hummed overhead, yellowish grey. The corridor to the storage closet was unlit, and Grace could remember when they had sat there on the floor, in the perpetual twilight, and pushed coins and small stones under the locked door, wondering what was on the other side of the black line. Grace wasn’t sure how long they’d done this for, or how long ago. She’d known Eva since preschool, which made it hard to figure out chronology. They lived two streets away from each other. They were only children, tidy in tidy houses. They took a circus arts class together, and went to the same camp in the summer. Grace knew Eva’s favourite foods, favourite books, what made Eva anxious, what she wanted. In university, when she was beginning to feel their hold on one another loosen, Grace read Emily Dickinson’s Where my Hands are cut, Her fingers will be found inside, and wondered at the process of separation, how it had begun without her fully noticing, when for so much of her life she had been unable to think of herself without also thinking of Eva.
The three of them stared experimentally into the distorting mirrors—Eva to Grace’s left, and Avery on her right. Avery was new, to the school and to Grace. She was plump and wore a kilt and button-down shirt, as though this was a private school, and Grace admired the costume, sensing it was a costume or disguise, like the red streaks in Avery’s hair. Inviting Avery was Eva’s idea, Eva who was trying to become a loud and daring person, on the lookout for new things and new people, like Avery. Grace understood she would need to be quicker, sharper, more dangerous, to keep up. She’d lined her eyes badly and put on a blackened metal choker of her mother’s, which made a warm rash on her neck.
They’d played Bloody Mary before, once, at Eva’s house during a sleepover, but nothing happened. This second try was Grace’s idea, though Eva had pounced on it, asking Avery along, bringing candles and a pack of Tarot cards, telling them that her mother had played something similar as a child in Kyoto, the game of Hanako-san, in which you must tap lightly three times on the third stall door in a third floor school bathroom and whisper are you there and a voice answers here I am and you push open the door to find a little girl in a red skirt, who might drag you to the underworld. Eva’s mother told her about Hanako-san because Eva told her mother about their plan to play Bloody Mary. Eva told her mother everything. These days, Grace told her mother nothing. She did not want to risk being interpreted. Evading her mother was a new but firm resolution, written in tiny script in the back of one of her notebooks. She couldn’t tell if her mother had noticed yet.
Avery and Eva squatted down, rummaging through Eva’s backpack. Cards, candles, incense, crumpled paper, a flattened plastic bottle, an oozing banana, crumbs, a brush clumped with hair. Grace shut her eyes: there was Eva’s smell, and Avery’s, stronger and unfamiliar and a bit sickening. Grace was very concerned with smells, since her own might suddenly overtake and undo her. Her mother lately wrinkled her nose, ordered Grace absently into the shower.
“Should I light the candles?” Eva asked, clutching them in one hand, the lighter in the other, flicking the lighter at Grace, who flinched.
“You afraid of fire?” Avery asked.
“No,” Grace said.
They each held a candle into the flame, watched the wicks stutter and catch. Eva turned off the light and Avery jumped.
“Fuck off, don’t do that.”
Eva, giggling, turned the lights back on.
“This is so creepy.”
They dripped wax in little pools beside the taps.
“Mine’s not sticking,” Avery said.
Grace took the candle from her, dripped more wax, held it carefully in the centre of the pool until it hardened. She hoped competence might make up for her shyness, her propriety, that she couldn’t figure out how to say fuck without sounding self-conscious.
Eva reached for the switch.
“Can I turn the lights off for real now?”
She spoke to Avery, who looked at Grace, who nodded. The lights went out.
◊ ◊ ◊
Grace and Eva’s mothers were not friends, exactly, though they had become friendly over the years, because of their daughters, because they were both artists who were married to lawyers, because they inhabited a similar strata of middling artistic success bolstered by spousal affluence that meant they knew many of the same people. Later, Grace thought that Eva’s mother had found her mother too literal, too chaotic, her chaos a form of aspiration; she was in fact fairly conventional, even the symbolic concerns of her paintings (sex, feminine childhood) skirting close to cliché, aiming for a wildness that had nothing to do with her actual life, her patient bombastic husband with his job in environmental law, her scheduled and enriched daughter, her hardwood floors and vacations. Or perhaps it was just Grace who thought that her mother was too conventional (this was when she was attempting to live in the woods with her girlfriend in a cabin with no toilet or running water, biking into the nearest town to salvage food from a dumpster behind the grocery store, an experiment that lasted until the first real snow). Grace loved the things Eva’s mother made: miniature interiors full of perfect furniture, empty of human figures, as though everyone on earth had suddenly vanished. Dollhouses without dolls, Eva’s mother called them, smiling from her stool, bent over her tools, wearing a headlamp. Grace would sometimes sit and watch her in her attic studio, while Eva, bored by her mother’s work, sulked downstairs or played computer games with her father, both of them flushed and happy, yelling at the screen. Grace never asked Eva’s mother what the arrangements of the rooms meant, suspecting she disliked the question. Grace imagined a sympathy moving between them as she sat quietly, watching Eva’s mother create spaces that seemed more self-sustained than any place Grace had ever been in, free of history, free of people. Grace knew that the work was praised for the sense of unease it carried, but to her, there was nothing safer than those empty rooms. She was old enough to realize that the peace she felt stemmed from Eva’s mother leaving her completely alone, not old enough to understand that was because Grace was not her child.
Grace was her mother’s subject. In another era, she would have been called her mother’s muse. She appeared in almost all the paintings, wearing petticoats, seated on strangely carved thrones, outlined in light from an obscure source, something about her face or body subtly altered. Sometimes her mother incorporated photographs, though with the face scratched out. Her first solo show had been a series about pregnancy in which a woman appeared to carry not a baby but an ornate tumorous growth, sprouting extra eyeballs and tufts of coarse hair. Grace had found an interview archived online in which her mother talked about the fear of the unborn baby, how it was linked to the fear of death, that other future the body carried. Something eating you inside. She was pregnant herself, with Grace, and in the photo above the article she glowed with health, beautifully curved, in a long dress, hair like honey falling from a spoon, humming with life, as though she would interrogate death but never actually die.
These days Grace still appeared, but seemed to stop around age eight, her present self too knobby and intractable. The more recent paintings had not been well received by the few critics who had noticed them (“exploitative kitsch”) and her mother had cried on and off for days, sometimes in bed, sometimes feeling her way around the house. Grace, who did not think of herself as cruel, had been privately pleased, her mistrust of her mother vindicated. She was growing prudish and severe, and would remain that way for a while, but it was a necessary step to developing a sense of decency.
When Grace was much younger, her mother took her to the library after school. They came out together, lugging books; she was looking up at her mother who shot her arm in front of Grace as though stopping her at the edge of a cliff. There was a man lying in the road, a car stopped in front of him and a woman getting out of it, all the cars stopped, a little ring of people gathering around the man, but Grace could see over their heads from the top of the steps. No one seemed to know what to do, even the people who were on their phones calling for help hoping someone else would take over, and the people not holding phones flapped their hands uselessly, not sure if they should touch the man. The woman who’d gotten out of the car bent over him. She was young, young enough that Grace could imagine being her, would have wanted to be her if she’d seen her somewhere else. She was wearing a white sundress printed with huge pink roses.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, are you okay?”
She was trembling.
“Are you okay, are you okay?”
The man began to howl, a keening sound that had no relationship to language, and as the howl grew louder his shirt grew red, soaking red, and it seemed to Grace that the sound he made was calling the blood out of him slowly, then faster.
“Oh God,” the woman said, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.”
Grace’s mother dragged her back into the library and held her on her lap, explained that the man would be fine, and Grace made a convulsive movement in her arms, suspecting a lie. When they went back outside at last, the man and the woman were gone, though the car was still there with the door open and the road was closed, a line of police tape around the red stain. The stain, beginning to dry, had a wobbling outline, the drops spattered around it, islands off the coast of an unknown country. Grace heard her mother gasp the way she did when the world astonished her, even as she covered Grace’s eyes with her hand and led her gently down the stairs. And there it was, in her next painting, the exact red shape; her mother must have taken a picture on her phone as she shielded Grace. Later, when she was attempting to create a story about her mother for herself, she thought of that as one of the first clues that her mother could not be trusted and was not decent. She could eat anything up, anything at all, and would not think twice about it.
Around the same time, Grace began to have dreams in which someone was shoveling earth into her mouth, gritty mouthfuls of earth that spilled out over her lips. She could not swallow so she choked but because it was a dream she kept on choking, spluttering and choking, as if her gullet could always be crammed fuller. Hard gobs at the back of her throat. She knew someone was feeding her, she could infer intention, an arm, thin as a spider, grasping the handle of the spade, stuffing her face with a regular motion that combined mechanism and ill will. As she spluttered and protested, she had the sense that there was a voice somewhere at the end of the arm, and that the voice was about to speak to her.
“Is it like being buried alive?” her mother asked (Grace was still telling her mother things then).
“No,” Grace said, “like someone feeding me dirt with a shovel, or maybe a spoon.”
“Being buried alive is a very common dream,” her mother said encouragingly.
“But I’m not.”
“It means a lack of control. Being buried alive. Or loose teeth, too. Do you feel a lack of control?”
“No,” Grace said.
In her mid twenties, she’d described the dream to a therapist when she’d briefly tried going to see one after her mother died. The therapist had suggested that the person attached to the arm, the voice she expected to hear, was her mother’s, which made Grace want to laugh and decide against this particular therapist. It reminded her of her mother, someone naïvely prodding her towards a conclusion, sure they knew what everything meant, or that understanding meaning would lead to something solidly attainable, a virtuous brilliance that would illuminate her life. When she thought about the dream, which still disturbed her even though she no longer had it, she wished she was not doubtful about repressed memory, wished she could believe that the dream was telling her something real, something she could recover knowledge of, work on, work through. It might have reassured her, diffused some of the dream’s power, the physical shudder of the dirt in her mouth. She would have preferred—no, not preferred—would have in some way been steadied by the thought that the dream, or her mother, if examined carefully enough, might reveal a single truth. But she didn’t have enough faith in interpretation. Things like the dream just bubbled up from somewhere, unexplained and unexplainable and you had to look at these things squarely sometimes, but not too much, not too often, because you just had to live. You lived with things that could not be made meaningful in the same way you lived with the shape of your nose.
◊ ◊ ◊
With the lights out, their three faces swam into view in the mirror, and the flames made them look solemn and melancholy, each one admiring herself, Avery dragging her hands through her hair and shaking it around her face.
“Close your eyes,” Grace said.
Avery and Eva shut their eyes, Eva squeezing hers tight as she always had, like a toddler faking sleep. Avery’s lids trembled, and Grace, who had kept her eyes open, thought she could see her looking. Grace, to make the moment more serious and to feel she was piloting the situation as she should, took Avery and Eva’s hands in hers and squeezed. Eva’s small hand squeezed back, Avery’s limp, her palm warm and a little damp. Grace could see her smiling in the mirror, as if she was making fun of her, making fun of the game, as if she had something Grace wanted that she would not give her. Grace hoped to impress her and didn’t know how.
“Bloody Mary,” Grace whispered.
It was Eva who’d talked to Avery first, from friendliness toward a stranger that then became fascination at the whiff of instability, of swagger. Eva was friendly. It was Grace who calculated social advantage, who didn’t risk herself. Eva and Grace were both sheltered and untested and were beginning to yearn for what seemed hazardous, at least by proxy. Avery walked herself home at dusk, or was picked up by her mother’s boyfriend, who waited by the schoolyard fence, something in his stance catching the attention of Grace’s prudent father, in the way that men sense the possibility of violence in each other, without saying so, and it manifests only as disdain, in the way Grace’s father looked over and looked away, his hand on Grace’s shoulder before she shook him off. Eva trailed after Avery, and Grace, as Avery’s hand tightened and hurt her, understood the lure of her.
“Bloody Mary,” Grace said.
Avery frowned and Grace wanted to know why and wanted Avery to concentrate and she let her hand drop and Avery, not meaning to or maybe meaning to, ran her finger lightly along Grace’s palm.
Later on, when Grace thinks of Avery and what she conjectured of Avery’s life she feels shame. She is drawn to people (as friends, lovers, causes) who seem more wounded than she feels herself to be. She is intrigued and energized by concealed or displayed hints of brokenness. Once, at 21, she passed by a young woman smoking in front of the dive bar near the other more self-conscious dive bar where she worked on Saturdays (this was itself an affectation, her parents gave her all the money she could want), the woman fraught, pulling on the cigarette, laughing into the face of the man standing beside her. She was a little older than Grace, and looked like she’d lived hard already, and might live harder. Grace saw, tattooed in clear capitals along the woman’s neck no one can save you but the words had the opposite effect on Grace: she wanted the woman, and she wanted to save her. She wanted, now, to save Avery, and it shamed her later, when she was trying to stop herself from thinking she could save people, because it was patronizing and self-serving and it made her unhappy. Grace wants some peace in her life now, she wants to live alone, she wants to build tiny rooms and fill them with tiny furniture but no people, Grace is still given to extremes.
“Bloody Mary,” Grace said.
Avery opened her eyes.
“There’s someone in the mirror,” Avery said, her voice so soft it was almost only breath.
“No, no, no, I don’t want to look,” Eva said.
“She’s looking at you, Eva,” Avery said.
Avery turned to Grace and winked, then reached over and lifted a strand of Grace’s hair and brushed it along Eva’s cheek and Eva screamed and opened her eyes and flung herself away from the mirror, knocking one of the candles into the sink.
Grace knew Eva’s fear was real; she recognized the way she threw herself backwards and the timbre of the scream and the candle guttered in the sink and Eva, tangled up in her skirt (she’d worn a long skirt, lacey along the edge), crawled away from the mirror, into the dead end of the L-shaped space. Grace could see her legs sticking out.
◊ ◊ ◊
When Grace’s mother died, Grace sat with the body in a room in the palliative care ward. Her father had gone to get them both some food. The death was a long time coming, and both Grace and her father knew the staff well, knew the places where the floor dipped, the toilet in the bathroom that didn’t flush. Her mother’s body was excavated: breasts gone, ovaries gone. Grace had given her mother a wig made of human hair, golden as Rapunzel’s, which cascaded over her sharp shoulders, bright on the faded blue of the hospital gown. Her mother, skeletal and rarely speaking, had allowed Grace to fit the wig over her scalp, had smiled into the hand mirror with such tenderness and gratitude, and Grace had been sorry for her secretiveness, for the way she’d left home, for her feeling, right up until that moment, that she would not keep her mother’s paintings or talk about her with friends, that she would let her be entirely dead. Now, as they both grinned conspiratorially into the mirror and her father couldn’t bear to look (he hated that wig, he thought it was monstrous), Grace felt with relief and panic that she had been wrong, that she would talk about her, constantly, obsessively, that she would even pardon her mother for thinking that Grace was hers to re-purpose, to keep.
Standing over her mother’s body, Grace gently loosened the wig and put it on her own head (her hair was very short). In the hospital room’s private bathroom, she looked at herself in the mirror, a vision of the kind of young woman her mother had wanted Grace to be. She shut her eyes. Googling idly one night while her mother slept in the hospital bed, she’d read that one theory behind the success of Bloody Mary games was called dissociative identity effect, meaning that if you stared at yourself hard enough and long enough you would cease to recognize your own face, and she thought of her mother, staring at Grace until Grace became someone else. She tried it now, opening her eyes and glaring at herself under the wig, her skin greenish with exhaustion and grief, but no other face appeared. Just herself, in all her terror.
After she’d sent her father home to see if he could sleep, she phoned Eva, who Grace didn’t even see that much anymore, Eva who lived with a man Grace didn’t like, and Eva left the people she was with and took a bus across the city and swept down on Grace out of the night, the only person she wanted near her, Eva with her hair wet because she always forgot to bring an umbrella, and Grace threw away the cigarette she wasn’t smoking and Eva held her and she howled, a huge sound like the man hit by the car and Eva didn’t say anything, rocking her under the orange streetlight.
◊ ◊ ◊
Grace switched on the bathroom lights. Eva was half lying, half sitting, her legs drawn up now to her chin, shivering.
“There’s nothing there,” Grace said. Avery snorted behind her, blowing out the candles. Grace crouched beside Eva, squaring her back at Avery. Grace put her hands on Eva’s shoulders and shook her, like she used to do when they fought, pulling Eva back, it’s nothing, there’s nothing there, I promise, I won’t ask you what frightens you, or why, I will just be here, I am here, I won’t persuade you of anything, you don’t need to be afraid.
“It’s just a game,” she said.
Kate Cayley is a writer from Toronto. Her collection of short fiction, How You Were Born, won the Trillium Book Award and was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award. She has published two collections of poetry. Her second short story collection, Householders, is forthcoming from Biblioasis.