Risa finally brought it up. Itsuki gave up, resigning herself to it. The same conversation as always began.
"Do you know the way to cast the curse that only affects girls, Itsuki?"
How many times had they been over what came next? It seemed to Itsuki that Risa wanted to repeat it like every other day again. "I have no idea. Do you know how to do it?"
"No. But you can do it if you have a photo. So, if I just had a photo of Aya..."
When she thought about it afterwards, Itsuki didn't know why she did it. Maybe she was annoyed by Risa saying the same old things - but that probably wasn't it.
"I'll give you one, then."
Itsuki had grown tired of this drawn out repition day after day, and sought some kind of change, even if only a small one. And, as if to provide that opportunity, Itsuki had a photo of Aya in her bag. Itsuki took it out. The second she saw it, Risa's eyes shone. Itsuki's heart ached a little. It was the faint pain she always felt when Aya made Risa's eyes sparkle.
"Where did you get this?"
"Oh, nowhere in particular..."
"I mean, Aya doesn't like having her photo taken, so I didn't think anyone had one..."
"Does it matter? There, you've got one," Itsuki said, purposefully bluntly. Risa picked up the photo.
"Aya really is so pretty..."
"I gave you the photo, so you can go and curse Aya and make her all your own. That will make you happy, right?" Itsuki said meanly.
What's wrong? Why are you acting so mean, Itsuki...?" Risa's round eyes clouded. Risa looks so cute when she's bullied to the verge of tears, Itsuki thought. So, like always, Itsuki went to cheer her up, when suddenly a plate piled high with cake and ice cream from the dessert bar was placed on the table, and a woman of unknown age, her brown hair tied into twintails with ribbons, sat down beside Risa. It's Mary, thought Itsuki. Even the tearful Risa was on guard.
Mary was one of the few celebrities in town - enough that malicious rumours said that if you saw her, something bad was about to happen. A charm to prevent it was even amidst the school's rumours. She may have been like an urban legend, but Mary was a real person. And now she sat before Risa and Itsuki.
She wore a white blouse with a white rose-patterned cardigan, as well as a pure white apron dress. She had deep red lipstick on her strangely pale, heavily made-up face. Her eyelids were held up with tape, making them wide and round, and she had too-long eyelashes. In her odd outfit, she would call out all too familiarly to the students of St Loudun's.
Mary drew closer to Risa, as though one of the girls in her class. Risa subtly shifted away, affording her a glimpse at the photo she held.
"I've heard the stories. You're in love with that girl, aren't you? You're thinking about cursing her, aren't you?" Mary seemed to be trying to drag a love story out of Risa.
"It's fine, it's fine. I know what it's like. I was your age once, you know, even if you don't believe me. I cursed Taruho Saginomiya. She may not be very nice, but even her cold face was charming once." Itsuki ignored Mary, talking to herself. If she gave even the smallest reply, she would get dragged in. She'd heard that a timid first year middle schooler had been made to listen to Mary talk at the restaurant for six hours without even being allowed to use the toilet and wet herself. That wasn't an urban legend; that was true.
"Taruho Saginomiya... You mean the nun?"
Itsuki tried to convey with her eyes that Risa, carelessly getting involved with the conversation, should leave her alone, but it was too late. Mary, however, didn't answer Risa's question, stuffing mint ice cream inside her red-painted lips. Red and green mixed, and she scooped up the overflow with her discoloured tongue. I guess we're okay, she thought, but she was wrong. Of all things, Risa had to ask Mary the thing she wanted to know most.
"Hey. Do you know how I'm supposed to curse her?"
Risa's eyes shone, and she leaned fowards.
"You kiss the photo of the girl you like a thousandth of a second before midnight. There have been girls who have imitated this before, but that alone won't cast the curse." This suggestive tone was enough for Risa. "So...?" she asked, without waiting for a response.
As though pleased by Risa's reaction, Mary's red lips formed a broad smile. She probably just wanted someone to take interest in her, and was happy enough if they paid even the slightest notice. How sad, thought Itsuki. Making a show of looking around her and making sure that no one was listening, she announced her special secret to Risa.
"Put a photo of you and the one you love side by side on the back wall of the confessional. If you do that, your wish will be granted. Most girls don't know about this."
"Really?" Risa took Mary's story seriously. It had to be made up, and even if it was true it was meaningless. Curses don't exist. Deciding it would be best for Risa not to talk to Mary any longer, she slapped Risa's hand. As though awakening from a dream, Risa's face became serious once more, just like Pavlov's dog. Itsuki stood.
"Uh, we have a curfew, so please excuse us."
Standing behind as though to hide Risa, Itsuki forced a smile and hurriedly took the receipt. Mary seemed not to be done talking, and watched them leave bitterly, but turned back to the cake in front of her and shut her eyes at its sweet scent.
"What a wonderful smell. Why do sweet things please people so easily? Perhaps it's because they always have poison in them." Feeling creeped out by Mary talking to herself like the witch from Snow White, customers began to leave the restaurant one by one. Had they tried to listen, they would have realised that the things she said were an omen of things to come, but even if they did, none of them would have taken her seriously. Most people turn away from the truth.
On the outskirts of town was an abandoned plot of land, containing only sparse grass. On paper it was not abandoned but farmland, and seemingly attesting to this there were mulberry trees planted there, but they weren't being used for raising silkworms. Taxes must be low if something was declared as farmland. That would be why there was empty farmland scattered all over town.
There was a boy who spent his whole time with his camera aimed at the irrigation ditch that flowed through the area. The boy constantly scanned the water's surface and the area surrounding the ditch through the viewfinder of the camera, but hardly ever clicked the shutter. The camera itself was like a small, old wooden box, with grips on the top and bottom, and at first glance didn't look like a camera. The boy's body stiffened, preparing himself for what was about to happen. Figures approached.
"Hey, do you seriously sneak photos of the girls at St. Loudun's?" called a mean voice from behind. A few boys, slightly older than him and probably students from the commercial high school in town, surrounded the boy. They roughly stole the navy backpack from his back. Inside it was the boy's special album, containing photos he had taken. In a panic, he tried to take it back.
"Photos of girls?" The album was opened. The male students huddled around it.
"Seriously? Girls from St. Loudun's?"
"What about them getting changed?"
The students let out vulgar-sounding comments, deriding the boy. But there's nothing like that in there, he thought. There's only photos of silver-glinting pools of water, tree-enshrouded scenery around St. Loudun's like a mountain ridge, and a wintry pool with the lingering scent of chlorine. The student shut the album as though bored.
"What do you take these photos for? Some kind of art?"
"Ghosts," the boy whispered softly. He had no reason to tell people like this the truth, but it seemed stupider to lie. Just as expected, the students looked around at each other in exaggerated confusion.
"Is there something wrong with you?"
"What the hell does that mean?"
The students took turns rebuking the boy, but he seemed to be used to the abuse and didn't react. One of the students threw the album down hard on the asphalt, scattering the photos on the ground. The boy began picking them up one by one. The students were unhappy with how used he was to being bullied.
"I don't give a damn about ghosts; some photos of girls in their swimsuits, pleaaase." The students laughed. The laughs quickly became tained with agression. One of them shoved the boy. Another slapped him across the cheek. Yet another kicked his thin leg. The boy drew in his head like a turtle, wrapping both his arms protectively around the camera. The camera was a precious item he had received from his dead father.
The boy put strength into his legs so he wouldn't fall, stiffening his body, awaiting the next attack - but it didn't come. He heard a voice.
"I'll give you a photo of me if that'll do."
The voice didn't relieve the boy even slightly, and he grimaced. The students turned around, and there stood Mary, wearing her white frilly outfit and grinning. The shadows of the grass behind her twisted, fluttering like flames.
"Or perhaps you'd like a kiss?" Mary added, purposely altering the tone of her voice.
The students took a look at the blue veins standing out on the woman's wrinkly hands and displayed over the top shock. Mary copied them, pretending to go to embrace them. With a cry, the students stumbled away. Like both performing their promised roles, it looked ridiculous to the boy. It wounded him far more deeply than being bullied.
After the boys left, Mary turned to the boy. "Let's go home."
I'd rather you just let them keep hitting me than go home with you, the boy thought. But he could only follow after her, because he had nowhere else to go.
"Stupid white monster..." one of the students spat venomously from behind them. The words wounded the boy even further.
And then the earth - faintly, but clearly - trembled. It was an earthquake, so small it probably wouldn't even show up on the news.
"Even the earthquakes in this town are boring," one of the students grumbled, in hatred of their unchanging, inescapable lives.
The following day, the boy walked around, peering through his camera once more. He had sneaked onto the grounds of St. Loudun's, passing through the campus and cutting down a hallway. There was a pool. Drained of the wintry water, it looked like the coffin of a giant whale. A puddle of water that had dripped from the tap reflected the winter sky. That part alone was faintly blue, the remanider the cold grey of concrete.
The boy loved the scenery here. He loved anywhere with water. Ghosts stay by the waterside. This camera can take photos of them, he recalled a voice saying once. It was his father's voice. So the boy always waited for ghosts, by irrigation ditches or water fountains on school grounds, in place of his father, who would never come back.
The girls in class dozed off as the afternoon sunlight shone through the windows. Today was for studying. Standard classes were already over in anticipation of exam season. The students who were taking exams in the next few days at private or independant school were frantically solving problems, but those who had no recommendations or had already been accepted had nothing to do. They idly flipped through books, stringing together meaningless sentences in pencil inside their notebooks like poems. Kasumi stared vacantly out of the window. As she did so, she saw something pass by the first floor water fountain, like a midsummer mirage. It finally came to a stop, and turned into Aya.
"Aya?" Kasumi murmured quietly.
Michi, hearing her, was the only one to turn around. She looked outside too. Despite wearing her eyepatch, she could see "it". Oh, my period came. That's why I can see "it" with my left eye, thought Michi. She tried to switch the eyepatch from her right eye to her left, but she could even see "it" on the right, too. Its body was transparent, wavering in the breeze. With both eyes, she could see its silhouette more clearly. "It" turned into Aya.
It was Aya. But Aya was alive. She did see "those" as living people occasionally, so Michi wasn't surprised. It was common for "them" to slip out of the bodies of people sleeping, or those who were strongly attached to something. What surprised Michi more was that Kasumi could see "it". So, wanting to make sure, she put her eyepatch back on, and moved closer to Kasumi, whispering in her ear in a way that surprised even her, "Kasumi - you just saw Aya, didn't you?"
Kasumi seemed unsure how to respond for a moment, but nodded.
"I saw Aya too, by the fountain."
Michi's response made Kasumi's eyes sparkle, and she replied, "Let's get out of here and go search for Aya."
The girl so boldly saying such a thing wasn't the introverted Kasumi she knew. Michi instantly regretted what she had done. She had definitely seen Aya, but if it was one of "them" then she should go and check it out by herself. So far she had always been the only one who could see "them", and been sad by herself, but learning that Kasumi could apparently see "them" too made her judgement lapse.
Kasumi dragged Michi out of the classroom by the hand. Michi wasn't comfortable with holding hands with other girls, so she regained her grasp on the sleeve and cuff of Kasumi's uniform. Kasumi had never sneaked out of class before, but when she looked at Michi's small hand grabbing onto her white cuff, courage welled up from somewhere inside her. Oh, it's because I'm graduating soon, she thought to herself.
The hallway was dimly lit, and winter still hung in the air. Michi strained her left eye. She sensed a white shadow pass by in front of the shoe boxes at the entrance. She wanted to chase after it. Michi squeezed Kasumi's hand, then went out to the front through the exit. Two trees, looking cold with their bare branches, overlooked the pair.
They followed the red brick road that led to the pool, their regulated footsteps mixing iwth the sound of the chapel bells. Water from the pool flowed through the drainpipes and into a channel, which Michi and Kasumi followed. They couldn't see Aya anymore, but Michi followed along the edges of the water. "They" were usually by the waterside. Sometimes on a summer day, butterflies would gather in front of puddles, and on most of these occasions "they" were there.
Michi finally realised that she had been holding Kasumi's hand the whole time, and let go, with a quiet apology. It now seemed ridiculous that they had chased "it" so far. Michi took a palm-sized digital camera from her pocket and turned it on Kasumi, peering through it with her left eye. Kasumi showed in the viewfinder.
"Why are you taking photos?" Kasumi asked, looking curiously back at Michi. "We're looking for Aya, right?"
"I'd prefer you," Michi admitted unexpectedly, and regretted it. It sounded like a confession of love. In a panic, she tried to clear up the misunderstanding. Michi wanted to say that when she looked through a camera with the eye that could see "them" that they vanished, and instead she saw a normal world; that this was what she'd prefer. I should tell her what I've always wanted to say, thought Michi.
"I've taken a photo of you before, haven't I?"
"You remember the photo I took of you for our art assignment?"
It was a photo in which Kasumi, wearing a dress like Millais' Ophelia, floated in water decorated with flowers. They had been a pair in art class to model together, and take photos of each other. Aya had chosen music. Kasumi had wanted to do music too, but had been forced to take art due to a lack of places. So many people had applied for music, wanting to hear Aya sing. Kasumi had taken a photo of Michi, too, though it was no more than a simple portrait - but that was the first time Michi had taken a photo not for the negative purpose of being able to see a world without "them".
Somewhat embarrassed, Michi kept talking, still peering through the viewfinder. She could feel Kasumi staring her straight back in her eyes, concealed by the camera, the whole time. After joining the school, Michi had only ever taken photos of landscape. She would aim her camera at areas devoid of people, look through the viewfinder and, reassured that no one was there, take the photo. But Kasumi was there. She hadn't noticed it when she had been looking through the camera. This had happened a few times. Kasumi existed in this world, but she always managed to blend into the scenery, and she would never realise Kasumi was there until she printed the photos out. This was why Michi was able to aim the camera naturally at only Kasumi.
But when she had taken the photo of Kasumi as Ophelia, that had been different. It was too embarrassing to say out loud, but she thought that that was the first time she had taken a photo to express somethnig. So, despite being irritated by Kasumi's indecisiveness, she was irreplaceable as the one who had granted Michi the joy of creating something. She was the only one in her class she would consider a friend, if Kasumi felt the same way, so Michi decided to go ahead and say what she felt.
"I was wondering if I could submit that photo to a competition."
Michi had always wanted the world at large to see her expression, and she had never said it before, but didn't think she would ever get the chance again.
The breeze, ruffling Kasumi's straggled hair, flowed like spilled musical notes. The white school building reflected the light; the final traces of the ending winter. Kasumi in her viewfinder. For some reason, it seemed to her like the real Kasumi was somewhere else, and the one in front of her was fictional.
"Something like a Rookie of the Year prize for photographs. If I won, maybe I could turn professional. But that's not why I want to do it. I want to leave behind that photo for everyone to see. I don't really know how to put this, but I think that when we all grow up, you'll look at it and cry. I mean, in that photo, you're so..."
The rest wouldn't come out. What was she trying to say? She suddenly started to cry. She was so...? What was Kasumi so...? Michi, wanting to know, wiped away her tears and went to look at Kasumi through the viewfinder once more. Kasumi didn't reply. She simply stared at the ditch. Feeling like she shouldn't look too closely at Kasumi, Michi squeezed her eyes shut, blinking just once. But the instant her eyes opened again, Kasumi had vanished.
Michi looked away from the camera. She turned to look all around her. Kasumi, who had been in her viewfinder only moments before, was nowhere to be seen.
There was no response. She ran over to where Kasumi had been standing. The only thing that remained of Kasumi were the well-polished black shoes she had been wearing, sitting in a pile of leaves. Kasumi had disappeared right before Michi's eyes, as though she had been spirited away.
My stomach hurts, thought Michi. Her periods on odd-numbered months were strangely heavy, and it was March.