I hugged my daughter, Ashley, when she returned home from school crying. She told me she was scared of going to the bathroom alone,because of Bloody Mary, and had wet her pants on the bus ride home. I wiped her eyes and kissed her forehead.
“The kids in my class said Bloody Mary would steal my soul if I said her name three times in the bathroom mirror,” she said rubbing her eyes.
“Bloody Mary doesn’t exist, Sweetheart. She’s a story people made up to scare each other.”
“But Mom, you said I would make friends with the kids here if I looked for the good in them. How can they be good if they try to scare me?” Her sobs receded into the focused expression of a child trying to make sense of the world.
“Trust me, Hon, everyone is capable of being good. Even not-real Bloody Mary could be nice if she wanted to be.”
That night, I surveyed myself in the bathroom mirror. The frown lines between my eyebrows seemed deeper; the corners of my mouth drooped lower. I had sworn during the custody hearing to provide a stable environment for Ashley. I massaged my temples and recalled my own childhood fears of shadowy closets and pitch black bathrooms. I pursed my lips. I wanted to shake every kid in Ashley’s grade for making her cry.
I locked my bathroom door and turned off the lights. In the darkness, I repeated the forbidden name in front of the mirror in an even and deliberate tone: “Bloody Mary…Bloody Mary…Bloody Mary.”
The luminescent face of a pale, young woman emerged in the mirror. Her eyes were dull black orbs. Her hair was matted and tangled with red clots of blood. She stared at me. I took a step backwards.
“I want your soul,” Bloody Mary shrieked. I trembled but then steadied myself. I wasn’t a helpless little girl anymore and Ben wasn’t here to save me. I looked into Bloody Mary’s soul-less eyes.
“You’ve come for my soul because I said your name three times in front of a mirror? That’s an overreaction.”
She blinked. “What?”
“This whole shtick is so melodramatic. What are you getting out of this other than making my poor kid wet her pants?”
“You summoned me. You can’t call me and then question my soul stealing. You know nothing about me.” Her voice had transformed from a paranormal screech into the whine of a petulant teenager.
“This is my fault? The only person who controls you is you, Bloody Mary. You need to rethink this haunting bathrooms gig.” I pointed my finger at her, echoing the jargon I’d internalized in couples counselling. I was about to continue the dressing down when Ashley began knocking on the door.
“Mom, who are you talking to?”
“I’m on my cell. I’ll be out soon.”
I returned my attention to Bloody Mary. She glared at me in the dark.
“You’re right, I don’t know you. Come back tomorrow. You can explain yourself then.”
Mary sighed and rolled her eyes.
“All right, but anger me and I will claim your soul.”
“Okay, whatever. I’ll see you tomorrow, and do something about all the blood in your hair, Mary — Maybe wash and comb it. You’re in bathrooms all the time.”
“My name is Bloody Mary.” She rattled the mirror as she disappeared into the darkness.
The following night I turned off the lights and summoned Bloody Mary to the mirror. She was sullen.
“Bloody Mary, why do you enjoy terrorizing people?” She assumed the shape of purple brooding clouds and drizzled blood.
I continued. “Why are you drawn to mirrors?” She returned to her regular form and stood silently, leaving the rest of my questions to bounce off the mirror’s reflective surface.
“Your hair looks better,” I said with an artificial smile. A dim light appeared in one of her eyes before she faded away.
I began calling Bloody Mary through the mirror twice a week; trying to tease out the roots of her behavior.
“Was your father abusive? Your mother, neglectful? What motivates you, fear or revenge, Bloody Mary?” I took quick showers and left the water running in the dark to muffle our voices.
Over the months her appearance improved. Her hair became shiny and tangle free. Her eyes developed deep brown irises that reflected centuries of loneliness and sorrow.
She no longer shape-shifted to deflect my questions. She forced her memories to surface and they would wash over her, leaving her voiceless and causing her to rock back and forth. During her breaks, I unpacked the burdens of my bitter divorce and laid them before the mirror. It was a relief to talk to someone who didn’t know us when we were Alicia and Ben: Happily Married Couple.
“I’ve heard you tell Ashley to look for the good in people. What happened to the good in Ben?” Bloody Mary asked.
“I lost track of the good in Ben.” I cast my eyes downward. “We alternated between skewering each other with insults and avoiding contact until I convinced myself there was nothing to salvage between us.” I put one hand on the vanity. “He said and did things to hurt me on purpose.” I rubbed my forehead. I was a failure at marriage. If I couldn’t apply my own advice to Ashley’s father, wasn’t I a failure as a mother, too?
Bloody Mary’s history began to coalesce in drops and trickles.
“I saw my mother drown,” she revealed after one of her long silences. I reached out and touched the image of Mary’s cheek in the mirror, attempting to brush away a tear that had escaped her now-human eyes.
We planned a girls’ night. I mixed Bloody Marys.
“I like the name,” she said. I placed her drink on the vanity and sat with my back against the bathroom door.
“Sometimes I eavesdrop on Ashley at school,” Bloody Mary said after her second cocktail.
“Her teacher has a mirror at the back of the class. I can hear what goes on.” Mary tilted her head to the side. “You don’t need to worry about her. You’re doing a good job.”
“You think?” I sat up straight.
“You should see her. She’s kind but she’s no pushover.”
“I hope so.” I leaned back, letting the door support my full weight.
“Trust me. I would tell you if you needed to worry.” Bloody Mary spent the rest of the evening creating pink fractal patterns in the mirror.
“I never want to see another Bloody Mary again,” she moaned the next night. I laughed and got her some water.
One weekend, when Ashley was at Ben’s, Bloody Mary arrived wearing an earnest expression. I waited for her to speak.
“We were robbed and murdered on our wedding day,” she whispered. She clutched a silver hand mirror to her chest. “This was James’ wedding gift to me.” Her pale cheeks flushed and became rosy and full.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“No, it was a secret I needed to tell.”
I nodded at her in the mirror. The dashed promises of my own wedding vows still colored my reflection.
“I can’t cling to the past anymore.” She lowered the hand mirror and held it at her side, out of view. “I need to leave. I need to figure out what I’m going to do now.”
“What about all of the souls you’ve stolen?” I bit my bottom lip.
“I’ve never stolen a soul — No one’s stayed long enough for me to capture theirs.”
I placed my hand on the reflection of her shoulder in the mirror.
“That’s not true,” I said.
“I’m sorry Ashley was afraid of me.”
“It’s okay, Bloody Mary.”
A smile flickered across her lips.
“Just call me Mary.”
I smiled back as she vanished from the mirror.
I parked my car at the curb in front of Ben’s house. I got out and tried to lean casually on the passenger side door. Ashley waved at me from the window. A minute later she skipped out the front door with her overnight bag. Ben followed her, stopping at the midpoint of his lawn.
“Hey, Did you have fun?”
“Yes! We saw a movie and went to the park.”
I inspected her appearance. Her hair was a mass of fly-aways and her pants were covered in dirt. I looked up at Ben. He put his hands on his hips and clenched his jaw.
“You’re welcome, Alicia.” His words were shaded with caution.
“I can’t wait to tell Rebecca at school about the movie.” Ashley bounced up and down next to me. I hugged her. We both waved at Ben after I started the car. I saw him shake his head as he turned to go inside.
At home, I went to my ensuite and looked at myself in the mirror.
“Thank you, Mary,” I whispered. I closed the bathroom door and went to help Ashley unpack.
© 2017 by Suzan Palumbo
Author’s Note: “Bloody Therapy” was inspired by my five year old who came home from school one afternoon and declared that she, “didn’t like Bloody Mary.” She had drawn a picture of medicine for Bloody Mary during art time and explained that we needed to give the medicine to Bloody Mary because, “the Bloody Mary Lady needs help.” I promised my daughter that I’d help Bloody Mary. This story is part of my effort.