Suffer the Little Children

There were several Bloody Mary stories. Emily’s favourite was the one where Mary killed the girls who had been tormenting her, one by one, in different ways, while she was still alive. In another version, Mary killed herself, and then haunted the bullies to death afterwards, but Emily didn’t like that one as much.

One of the girls – Megan – had told her the story first. In Megan’s story, Mary went after people who went into St Winifred’s graveyard after dark, because that was where Mary was buried. Emily had gone to the graveyard – safely in daylight – to find Mary’s grave. She had found a grave marked Mary Hadley, 1879-1891, Suffer the Little Children to Come to Me. When she looked it up in the old newspapers in the library, she found that Mary had drowned herself in the river, or fell in by accident; that was what the girls who saw it said.

The newspaper report said there were three witnesses: Alice Wade, Florence Stringer, and Ethel Morris. Emily looked at the obituaries, and found that Alice died three weeks later when a slate came off a roof and decapitated her in the street. Florence was trampled to death a month after Alice’s funeral, when something spooked the horses pulling a cart. Ethel burned to death when her dress caught light when the drawing-room fire threw out a spark, only two weeks after that.

Emily’s parents had moved here last year, just in time for Emily to start Year 8 at her new school. She had had lots of friends at her old school, and she had been sad to leave, but she had also been excited about making new friends. That had lasted less than a week. The other girls wouldn’t sit next to her, and they made fun of her accent. One time, she had thought things were getting better when she was invited to a party – only when she got to the place, she was the only one there. The real party was somewhere else. And someone took photos of her waiting, in her party dress, for a party that was never going to happen, and posted them on social media.

She didn’t dare tell her parents how awful it was. Her dad had got a big promotion, and her mum had got a good job too. They had explained carefully about how much more money there would be, and how much better it would all be, and how they could have a bigger house. And Emily truly hadn’t been against moving – only she hadn’t known it was going to be like this.

She could understand why Bloody Mary had killed the other girls.

Emily hitched her school bag onto her shoulder and ignored the catcalls and rude comments as she made her way through the crowd at the school gates. She kept her eyes down and hoped that it wouldn’t progress beyond taunts. Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me, she thought to herself, wishing it was true.

This time, she was lucky; it was good that she was old enough that mum didn’t feel the need to check on her in the bath any more, and the school uniforms had long sleeves that hid the bruises. As soon as she turned the corner, she started to run, and was home in less than ten minutes. She let herself in, and heard her mother shout from the kitchen, “Hi love! I’ve put your costume on your bed. You’d better try it on and see if it still fits.”

Emily dropped her bag, her stomach sinking. “What costume, mum?” she called back.

Her mother came out of the kitchen, a dab of flour on her nose. “Halloween – trick or treat tonight, Em; don’t you remember?”

“Yes. Thanks, mum,” she said, her voice sounding hollow in her own ears.

Her mother smiled. “That’s a good girl,” she said. “Let me know if it doesn’t fit.”

After dinner, Emily put the witch costume on, with its long lace dress and stripy stockings. She had been proud of it last year; she’d gone trick-or-treating with her friends, and they’d had a great time. When her parents had asked her about it this year, she hadn’t wanted to admit that nobody had asked her to go with them. She’d go out, and hide in the graveyard by Mary’s grave until she could justify going home. She spent a lot of time in the graveyard, so her parents wouldn’t realise she didn’t have any friends. It was also the one place she could guarantee she wouldn’t see anybody from school.

“Bye, Mum, Dad.”

“Bye, love,” her mum replied.

“Have a good time!” Dad added.

She stepped out into the dark, carrying her broomstick and a velvet bag for sweets.

Emily had been intrigued by the Bloody Mary stories. Because she had nothing else to do, she had carried on reading. In 1923, Helen Stark, aged eighteen, had been hanged for murdering two girls she worked with. Helen said they had tormented her until she couldn’t bear it any more and Bloody Mary had given her the idea. In 1965, Susan Collier had poisoned six girls in her class at school with arsenic; according to the newspaper, she was adamant that Bloody Mary had made her do it. She had been locked up in Broadmoor; Emily had found a newspaper report from last year saying that she had died.

Emily looked both ways; her heart sank – she could see groups of trick-or-treaters in both directions. There was no way to avoid them. But maybe they wouldn’t recognise her in the witch outfit.

She started off down the street, walking quickly. If she could time it just right, she might get past as the group was occupied with being given sweets.

“There she is!” shouted a girl’s voice. Megan.

“Em-er-lee,” yelled someone else, in a nasty imitation of Emily’s accent. Chloe.

Emily ran.

Unfortunately, she didn’t run fast enough. Girls were allowed to do rugby now, and Emily hit the pavement hard as she was tackled from behind.

“Good one, Lauren!”

Laughter.

Someone kicked her, and Emily’s fear suddenly ratcheted up to terror. She knew about that girl who had been attacked and kicked to death a few years ago. Her parents had talked to her about it, how people in groups could be dangerous because they did things that they’d never do alone, because they all egged each other on.

The terror gave her the strength and determination she needed to shove away, and get to her feet. She was – amazingly – still holding her broomstick, although she’d dropped the bag. She screamed, swinging it around in a wild arc, and when the girls leaped back, she ran.

She could hear them behind her, yelling and laughing, but that was costing them breath they should have been using for running. She reached the gate into the churchyard and swung through it, gasping as she cut across the familiar grass, stumbling and staggering over gravestones. The pursuit was further back now – they wouldn’t come into the graveyard after dark, not without encouraging each other a bit more. But she still wasn’t safe.

Then her foot hit a rabbit hole and she pitched forward.

Her head hit Mary Hadley’s gravestone, and everything went black.

Mary Hadley opened her eyes. Her head hurt; she put her hand up and it came away bloody. She got to her feet, finding her balance on unfamiliar legs.

Then she heard it. The unmistakable cruel sound of girls who had cornered their victim.

But Mary knew how to deal with bullies now.

She picked up the broomstick.

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