Bridget ducked behind the remains of a burned-out Impala, crouching low as the zap-zap-zap of blaster fire split the October night. The sound was already familiar enough to turn her stomach. Not just because it meant another survivor had been spotted—because there was nothing she could do to help whoever it was. She huddled against the wheel, making herself as small as possible. She didn’t think she’d been seen. She’d know for sure in a few minutes, when the patrol reached her position. There was nothing to do but wait.
It was still hard to believe that aliens were real, not just science-fiction bullshit for the geeks in the computer club to obsess over. Maybe they’d been science-fiction bullshit once, but not anymore. This was real. Some guy on CNN had called them blasters when the aliens first landed, before anybody had a clue how destructive their quaint-looking little ray guns really were. He’d laughed when he said it.
That was sixteen hours ago, nine hours before the start of the homecoming game, and eleven hours before the game’s untimely end. Nobody was laughing now, least of all Bridget, who’d been chosen for the unenviable duty of leaving the safety of the gym and crossing the ruins of town to get what Amy was saying the squad would need.
(They’d all put their names into the sacred gym bag, and when Maddy—who was Squad Leader, even though there was barely any squad left—pulled out Bridget’s name, she couldn’t argue. The gym bag’s word was law.)
She wished she’d been allowed to stay in uniform. She would have felt safer that way, more confident, more in-control…more like herself. A Fighting Pumpkin was always a cheerleader on the inside, but there was still an undeniable security in being a cheerleader on the outside, a safety of sorts in their matching orange and green uniforms. Present a united front. Look your best, and you’ll be the best. But she would have been too visible if she’d worn the school colors outside; they would have stood out like a floodlight against the scorch marks and gummy ash covering everything in town. Better to blend in. Better to make it back to the gym alive.
The blaster fire tapered off. Bridget managed to huddle down even further as she waited to hear the slithering sound the aliens made when they moved. She didn’t want to see them almost as badly as she wanted them not to see her. She’d seen the aliens on the morning news, before the shooting had started, but it hadn’t prepared her for the reality of them. The TV couldn’t show the way they smelled, or the way their sticky-looking skins seemed to bend the light, as if even it didn’t want to touch them.
(Amy had described them best. She’d looked at the pictures being flashed across the emergency broadcasts, sniffed, and said they looked like what you’d get if you let Dr. Frankenstein play with a giant squid, a spider, and a Pomeranian. She then went on to explain that Frankenstein was the doctor, not the monster. As if anybody cared. She would never have made the squad if she weren’t the only one who could do a perfect back-handspring every single time. Plus, it was good to have a brain around, if only because the principal kept refusing to cancel finals.)
Finals were cancelled now, along with Homecoming, cheerleading, and everything else about the world that mattered. The only question left was whether the human race was getting cancelled. Things didn’t look good for the home team.
The sound of tentacles slapping against broken pavement drew closer to Bridget’s hiding place. She clapped a hand over her mouth to block the sound of her breathing, squeezing her eyes shut. They’d pass or they wouldn’t. If they passed, she’d start running. If they didn’t…
If they didn’t, the sacred gym bag had been wrong. She wasn’t the one.
The slapping sounds passed the car, getting softer as the alien patrol moved on to search for more survivors. You missed one, thought Bridget. She still stayed where she was, counting slowly to a hundred. The sounds didn’t resume. Uncurling herself, she rose, her precious burden clutched against her chest.
* * * *
The invasion started at 5:30 a.m. Central Time on the third Saturday in October—Homecoming Weekend for high schools across America. The aliens came in enormous saucer-shaped ships before scattering out in smaller vessels that looked sort of like flying Winnebagos. Those outer space motor homes touched down wherever there were people, opening their doors and spilling dozens of squid-spider things into the streets. Some people panicked. Some people fired guns at them, but the bullets just bounced off their invisible shields. The aliens kept moving, seeming to ignore the people of Earth, no matter what those people did.
The adults promptly went out of their minds, which is basically what adults are for. At least half the squad was under house arrest, but of the fifteen girls on the Fighting Pumpkins Varsity Cheerleading Squad, fourteen were at the locker room on time. Jeanne was fifteen minutes late; her father actually locked her in her bedroom when she said she was going to the game with or without his permission.
(“I waited until he went back to the living room and snuck out my bedroom window,” bragged Jeanne, after she’d finally shown up. Her pride turned into hysteria when halftime turned into a bloodbath and she realized she’d never see her family again. It was almost a mercy when one of the blasters caught her in the back, reducing her to ash and blackened bones. Almost. Annoying or not, she’d been a Fighting Pumpkin, and Fighting Pumpkins were supposed to take care of their own.)
The entire football team showed up for the game—naturally—and so did enough of the opposing team for the coaches to decide they should go ahead and play. “We’ll show those aliens what it means to be American!” said Coach Ackley, and everyone applauded.
It was a good game. It would have been a better one if the aliens hadn’t shown up at halftime and opened fire on the crowd. It took them less than five minutes to kill almost a hundred people and send the survivors scattering like quail.
(According to the videos Amy had downloaded to her phone, the aliens actually attacked at the same time all over the world. Bridget really didn’t care. She didn’t have to smell the entire world getting fried, just the people on the field. So much for the home-team advantage.)
They never even got to finish the game. Funny, the things that stop seeming like the end of the world when the world is really ending.
* * * *
Bridget pressed herself against the gym wall outside the locker room door, praying she’d managed to get the secret knock right. One missed beat and they might leave her outside, alone, in the dark, with the aliens.
She’d been waiting just long enough to be on the verge of total panic when the door creaked open and Amy whispered, urgently, “Get in here before you’re spotted.”
Bridget was only too happy to oblige.
Maddy, Betsy, and Kathryn were waiting in the shower room. The power was out all over town, but they had flashlights, and the screensaver on Amy’s laptop gave off a soothing glow. The girls were sitting on a pile of gymnastic mats they’d dragged over from the equipment cage. Bridget blinked back sudden tears as she realized, again, that this was it; this was the squad. This might even be the entire high school. She hadn’t seen any survivors in her trek across the town.
Maddy rose as Bridget and Amy approached. Her eyes were only for the bag Bridget clutched against her chest. “Is that it?” she demanded. “Did you get it?”
“Right where Amy said it would be.” Bridget held out the bag, opening it to display the contents: a box of dinner candles and a shabby old book in a plastic library dust jacket. The word WITHDRAWN was stamped across the width of the pages in gory red. “I got matches, too.”
“Good,” said Amy, taking the bag from Bridget’s unresisting hands. “We’ll need them.”
Maddy looked Bridget up and down. “Go get your uniform on. You’re going to want to be in your colors for this.”
Maddy was the Squad Leader, and she was a senior. Questioning her went against every bone in Bridget’s body. She still found the strength, somehow, to ask timidly, “Is this really going to work?”
“It has to.” Maddy shrugged. “There’s nothing else left to try.”
Bridget nodded, accepting Maddy’s words as truth. According to what Amy was able to find before the school wireless cut out, the aliens had taken out everything that was thrown at them, including most of the United States Armed Forces, and a Chinese nuclear bomb. They’d been most of the way to conquering the planet when the connection died. Everything had been tried, and everything had failed.
Everything except the impossible. Bridget glanced at the three girls now sitting cross-legged on the shower floor, all of them focused on the book in Amy’s hands. It would work. It had to. If it didn’t…
Well, if it didn’t, it wouldn’t be their problem anymore. With that reassuring thought at the front of her mind, Bridget turned to creep back to her locker. If she was going to die, she was going to do it with her cheer pants on.
* * * *
Five girls in orange and green uniforms stood in a circle in the center of the shower room, their eyes fixed on the gym bag on the floor in front of them. Inside the bag were five slips of Betsy’s rose-scented pink notebook paper, each with a girl’s name written on it. No one moved. Bridget was barely breathing. For the second time in a single night, and the second time in her entire life, she was afraid of what the sacred bag might ask of her.
“Everybody understands what they need to do?” asked Amy, eyes still fixed on the bag. She’d taken out her contacts, replacing them with the glasses she was only allowed to wear when nobody outside the squad would see her. Aliens didn’t count.
Nods from the other girls. Bridget forced herself to nod with them. The bag was going to pick her. She knew the bag was going to pick her. Why were they even bothering?
Because it was tradition, and tradition must be observed, even at the end of the world—maybe especially at the end of the world. “Then it’s time,” said Maddy. She picked up the bag, giving it a shake. “Who wants to pull the name?” No hands were raised. This wasn’t like deciding who was going to go pick up the pizzas, or who had to go tell Coach Ackley the freshmen had been peeping in the girls’ locker room again. This was too big.
“You do it, Maddy,” said Kathryn. A murmur of agreement ran through the other girls. Maddy was Captain. She’d pick the one the gym bag wanted. That was how the power worked.
“All right.” Expression grave, Maddy plunged her hand into the gym bag, rummaged around, and came up with a single slip of paper and the strong smell of roses.
Please, thought Bridget.
“Bridget,” read Maddy. As one, the five sighed. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be.” Bridget wiped the back of her hand across her eyes, smearing tears and mascara. No one was going to say anything. Not now. “I came to tryouts on my own, remember? I cheered my heart out. That’s why I’m here.”
“Fighting Pumpkins forever,” said Betsy.
It was a good thing to say. “Fighting Pumpkins forever,” said Maddy. One by one, they took up the cheer, chanting it in a whisper barely louder than a sigh. Amy passed out the candles and the books of matches, while the other girls dug out their compacts, with their tiny, perfect mirrors. Only Bridget didn’t bother. Her mirror was going to be bigger than that.
“It will work,” Amy said, folding Bridget’s fingers around the matchbook. “Believe it’s going to work like you always believed the home team was going to win. Home team advantage.”
“Home team advantage,” Bridget echoed, and stayed where she was as the others stepped forward, one by one, to hug her and head for the exits. Maddy was the last to go.
“She’ll make them pay for this,” she said, squeezing Bridget’s shoulder, and then was gone.
Not allowing herself to look at the candle in her hand, Bridget turned and walked after the others. She wasn’t heading for the exit. She was heading for the bathroom, and the full-length mirror on the bathroom wall.
* * * *
Everything was silent. Bridget looked at her reflection, wishing she looked braver, or at least less afraid. Portrait of a cheerleader about to die. Maddy was right; she felt better knowing she was going to do it in the school colors. Other schools could laugh about their stupid mascot and garish uniforms, but real school spirit wasn’t being badass with a mascot like a Tiger or a Wolf. It was being proud to be a Pumpkin.
Her hands were shaking hard enough that it took three tries to light the candle. The match flared orange, even brighter than her uniform, before dimming into candlelight that bleached her reflection phantom-pale. She mustered a wavering smile, and waited, still watching her reflection.
The bathroom window was open, just a crack. Enough for her to hear the first handclaps, like gunshots breaking the night, followed by Maddy’s well-conditioned voice bellowing, “Ready? Okay!”
That was the signal. Doing her best to tune out the rest of the squad cheering outside the gym, Bridget fixed her eyes on her reflection. Don’t look away; Amy’s book says you can’t look away. If you looked away, it wouldn’t work.
(“We’ve all played that stupid game,” Kathryn had said before they voted, before the squad agreed to try Amy’s crazy suggestion. “It never works. She never comes.”
“That was before we knew what the rules were,” said Amy.
“What are they?” asked Betsy.
But it was Maddy who answered. Maddy, who’d seen her boyfriend die on the football field; the only Squad Leader in Fighting Pumpkins history to lose a homecoming game and the majority of her squad in a single night. “There aren’t any,” she said, and that was when Bridget had known they were going to go through with Amy’s plan, desperate and strange as it was.)
“Bloody Mary,” whispered Bridget. “Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary—” The sound of blaster fire was starting up outside; the aliens were taking the bait, drawn by the irresistible lure of four teenage girls in skimpy pleated skirts cheering their hearts out. It didn’t matter what part of the galaxy you were from. No one could resist a cheerleader.
“BLOODY MARY, SHE’S THE ONE!” screamed the Pumpkins outside the gym. “BLOODY MARY, I KILLED YOUR SON!” Each of them would have a compact on the ground in front of her, but they couldn’t be sure they’d be able to maintain eye contact long enough to call her name the required thirteen times. That was why one of them had to stay behind, and miss the final cheer. Dying sucked. Dying without your squad around you was worse.
“—Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary—” That was six. The blasters were still firing. Betsy wasn’t cheering anymore, and neither was Kathryn. It was just Amy and Maddy outside, cheering their hearts out for the last, and least appreciative, audience they would ever have. Was the mirror getting blurry, or was she just crying again?
(“See, if you hold a candle and look in the mirror while you say her name thirteen times, she’ll come.” Amy had been talking nonsense, but they were taking her seriously because after you’d seen your teammates fried by giant alien squid with ray guns, ray guns, for God’s sake, nonsense didn’t sound so bad. “She’ll scratch your eyes out. That’s the bad part.”
“So what’s the good part?” demanded Maddy.
“If you tell her you’re the one who killed her son, she’ll kill everybody she can get her hands on.”
They’d gotten very quiet after that.)
“Bloody Mary.” Amy wasn’t cheering anymore. It was just Maddy, and the sound of blasters. “Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary.” That was ten, and Maddy screamed, just once, before the cheering from outside stopped completely. That horrible slithering sound was everywhere, coming from every direction. They were inside the gym. They were inside the gym.
(She was really going to die. No last minute reprieve. No third-act hero. She was going to die with her Fighting Pumpkins cheer pants on, and she wouldn’t even get one of those stupid yearbook memorials, because there was no one left to write it.)
“Bloody Mary.” Eleven. The mirror was definitely getting blurry, and it definitely wasn’t tears. “Bloody Mary.” She could almost see the face behind her own, and oh, God, if she was going to stop, it had to be now, but how could she stop, when she’d heard the squad gunned down, and the slithering just kept getting closer? Alien or evil ghost-witch-woman from inside the mirror?
Bloody Mary might be evil. But this was homecoming weekend, and on the Planet Earth, she by-God had the home team advantage.
“BLOODY MARY!” Bridget shouted, abandoning all pretense of quiet. “BLOODY MARY, I KILLED YOUR SON!”
She only saw Mary for an instant as she lunged out of the mirror, hands hooked into claws and descending toward Bridget’s eyes. Then came the searing pain, and she was falling, candle wax covering her hand in a spray of burning droplets. Her head slammed against the tile floor hard enough that she heard bone cracking.
“Go Pumpkins,” Bridget whispered, as the sound of the blasters started up again. A new sound came with it, dentist’s-drill sharp and inhuman. She smiled despite the pain as she realized what it was. The sound of aliens, screaming. “Gimme a ‘B’…”
Bridget kept cheering in a whisper as she bled to death on the bathroom floor, not caring that there was no one left to hear her. The sound of Bloody Mary laughing and the screams of the aliens stood in well for the roar of the crowd. She died with her cheer pants on, knowing to the last that she’d done what every cheerleader dreams of.
She’d cheered the home team to victory.
* * * *
About the Legend…
Bloody Mary—also known as “Mary Worth” and “Hell Mary”—is a common ghost story and slumber party spook, although she seems to be most popular with girls, who tell each other in hushed voices about the way Mary can be summoned. Stand in front of the bathroom mirror with a candle in your hand, call her name three times, and she’ll appear. A darker variant says that if you call her name thirteen times and tell her that you’re the one who killed her son, Mary will come out of the mirror and kill everyone she can get her hands on.
We threatened each other with Bloody Mary during slumber parties when I was a kid, but I was never brave enough to chant her name in front of the mirror. I was too afraid of the damage she might do—because I always believed that she might hear me.