Back in the present, Elaine buys a slice of pizza and returns to the studio. She tries calling Ben, but he’s in Mexico. It’s dark outside, so she crawls back into bed. She looks through the phone book, and doesn’t find any Campbells, or any other Risleys, or Josef Hrbik, or Cordelia. She remembers earlier on in her relationship to Jon, when she got angry about a woman who walked into his apartment while Elaine was in bed and threw a bag of spaghetti at Elaine and Jon—Elaine didn’t yet realize that the woman might have had a key and a reason to come in, so Elaine was furious at the woman instead of upset with Jon. However, Elaine didn’t pity her and actually somewhat admired her, for having the courage of her bad manners; at that point, Elaine felt herself to be far from being able to do anything like that.
Elaine still cannot seem to settle in to Toronto, and seems uneasy with spending this much time alone—this shows her tendency to retreat to the past when left to her own devices. She reflects on all of the people who have been important in her life, which suggests that she has integrated them into her own identity to a degree. The specific memories about Jon involve a scene with another woman earlier in that relationship that indicated that he was actually having an affair with Elaine, and already had a girlfriend. The way that Elaine reacted to the woman entering the apartment shows her discomfort with other women and her tendency to trust men instead. Elaine seems to see herself as in competition with other women, which might have its origin in her complex relationship to Cordelia, but may also have deeper social origins. However, Elaine also immediately admires this woman for her freedom and courage, which shows that she has a desire to exhibit that kind of wild emotional behavior and still does not see it as a part of herself.
One time when she goes to dinner at the Smeaths’ after church, Elaine overhears Mrs. Smeath and Aunt Mildred talking about her. They insult her and her family, and make it clear that they find them inferior and “heathen.” They even discuss the way that the other girls treat her and say that it serves her right and that it’s God’s punishment. Even though they notice her watching, they do not apologize. Elaine is frozen with hate—but she can’t go as far as to hate her friends, so she directs all of her hatred at Mrs. Smeath, because she knew about and approved of the activities that Elaine had thought were secret all of this time. Elaine pictures Mrs. Smeath’s bad heart floating in her body like an evil eye and looking at her.
The moment that Elaine overhears this conversation between Mrs. Smeath and Aunt Mildred marks the end in her hopeful relationship to religion. She now has come to see the illusions of love and care as falsehoods designed to make her see herself as all the more abnormal. The version of religion faith shown here is one of endless striving, where a person can try to fit in and follow the rules, but ultimately cannot escape their background. The way that these adult women treat Elaine resembles the way her own friends treat her, with cruelty disguised as helpful gossip, but is all the more unforgivable as the two are adults: it cannot be disguised as mere childhood games that Elaine will escape with age.
Elaine stops singing along to hymns when she goes to church, and she stops praying to God. When Grace notices, she tells Elaine to tell God that she’s sorry, and says that that is what she does every night. This surprises Elaine, as she doesn’t believe that Grace thinks she has done anything wrong. One day, while walking behind Cordelia, Grace, and Carol, Elaine sees a paper with a picture of the Virgin Mary on the ground, and decides to pray to her instead. She picks it up and takes it home, and although the girls tell her not to take trash off the streets, they don’t seem to notice that she’s brought it with her. Elaine tries to picture what Mary would look like and prays harder and harder to her, squeezing her fists into her eyes until they hurt. She think she sees a face for a second, and then sees a heart that almost looks like her red plastic purse.
Elaine’s act of rebellion is not to reject the church outright, but to start praying to the Virgin Mary, who seems to represent a kind of feminine protection that Elaine sorely lacks. Elaine does not believe in rituals designed merely for false apologies—in fact, the apologies that Grace suggests Elaine make to God are reminiscent of the false modesty that the young girls showed earlier in the novel when they pretended to think they were bad at cutting out figures from magazines for their scrapbooks.
One day in the middle of March, Elaine starts laughing with the other girls when Cordelia falls. They were on their way home towards the wooden footbridge, and Cordelia slipped down a hill. Enraged at the laughter, she throws Elaine’s knitted hat down the ravine and makes her go fetch it. Elaine considers refusing at first, because the girls are not supposed to go down in the ravine, where bad men were reported to have been seen in the past. However, she knows that if she comes home without her hat, she will have to explain herself to her mother. She also fears what Cordelia might do if she refuses—she does not want her to get angry, never speak to her again, or push her off the bridge. Cordelia also tells her that once she has gotten the hat, she should count to a hundred before she’s allowed to come back up to the bridge.
This passage contains one of the novel’s most significant climaxes. Significantly, the moment is marked by a reversal of roles: Elaine laughs at Cordelia in much the same way that Cordelia always belittles her. This laughter becomes the catalyst for the ultimate power play: Cordelia throwing Elaine’s hat down into the ravine, that symbolic place where bad men and dead bodies abound, and demanding that Elaine follow after it. Cordelia does not touch Elaine physically even now, and makes no concrete threats. Nothing actually binds Elaine to the decision to go down to the ravine after her hat, except the secrecy behind their manipulative dynamic and the extent to which Elaine has already internalized Cordelia’s authority. Elaine does not have an identity independent of Cordelia at this point—she cannot say no, because she cannot imagine justifying her decision, even if she is able to feel a sense of resentment towards the task.
Looking at her hat, which has landed on the ice, makes Elaine angry—she thinks it’s a stupid hat and she’s angry that it belongs to her; she never wants to wear it again. Nevertheless, she steps into the creek and is immediately immersed up to her waist in the freezing water. The girls leave while she she’s fetching her hat, hence the counting to a hundred. After wading into the icy water, Elaine feels frozen in place in the river and has a hard time moving her feet. She thinks about what Cordelia said once, about the water being made of dissolved dead people. She manages to pull herself to the side but she blacks out in pain from the cold, unable to move until she sees and hears the figure of a woman on the riverbank, who tells her to go home. She thinks it’s the Virgin Mary.
Immersed in the icy water, Elaine has a near-death experience, both in terms of the risk to her body and the sense she has of being immersed in dead bodies via the cold water. The vision she has of the Virgin Mary frees her and rescues her, though it’s unclear to what degree her vision is attached to reality. What is clear, however, is that this vision allows Elaine to separate from Cordelia and to follow orders from someone more connected to her own internal voice—still a projection, but one that has Elaine’s better interests in mind.
Elaine finally manages to haul herself out of the ravine once the lights are already all out. Nothing hurts anymore, and she feels like she’s flying. Once on the lit main path, she sees her mother walking quickly towards her, having not donned her coat or put on a scarf or mittens. She throws her arms around Elaine, who explains that she fell in the river because her hat accidentally fell over the bridge. She lies and says that Cordelia, Grace, and Carol had not been with her, and says that a lady helped her. Elaine stays home from school for a couple of days. She spends the time thinking back on what had happened, remembering Cordelia throwing the hat and her mother running towards her with clarity but feelings fuzzier about the river of dead people and the appearance of the Virgin Mary.
In the aftermath of her near-death experience, Elaine returns to her mother and finally manages to break off her toxic relationships. This encounter with her mother is interesting, as the urgency indicates that her mother had already had enough reason to worry about Elaine, though she had not intervened to this point, and as Elaine still defends Cordelia and lies about their presence at the bridge. Even after the ultimate betrayal, Elaine has no interest in publicizing their dynamic. However, she does get lost in her own memories, which are already disappearing, much as they did when the girls buried her alive—in some ways, forgetting seems to be a protective mechanism, a way of stepping out of time to an extent and rewriting the past, though it could also be interpreted as post-traumatic repression.
Elaine receives a get-well card from Carol, and a rehearsed telephone apology from Cordelia. When she gets back to school, Cordelia accuses her of telling on them because her mother had called all of their mothers, and says that Elaine deserves punishment. However, this time Elaine contradicts her and says that she didn’t tell. When Cordelia calls her insolent, she turns around and walks away. She has finally realized that the whole situation was a game, and hears hatred and need in their voices when the girls follow her. She quits Sunday school and refuses to play with any of the girls anymore, even when they try to lure her back with kindness. She makes friends with a girl name Jill, with whom she plays games like Old Maid, and slowly forgets about her old friends.
When Elaine finally walks away from Cordelia, she proves that the nature of these games all along had required her to be complicit: as soon as Elaine refused to harm herself, the girls had no power over her. One of the novel’s deepest lessons lies in this moment where Elaine rejects Cordelia, as it demonstrates the degree to which people who victimize desperately need their victims—they desire and need this power over them, but it’s a power that they can never fully possess.