He opened the Ophelia Album. Photos of Kasumi and the girl lay side by side. He spoke to the girl. He had to report to her that Kasumi had successfully been dispatched.
"You know," he began, talking to the girl's photo, "I still can't ride a bike properly. I wonder why not? If I can't ride a bike, that means I can't take you far away from here."
In his imagination, the girl gently covered the his hand with her own, with a soft smile that said, It's okay. Her smile gave him courage, and he said, "I'll practise, so wait for me, alright?" and closed the Ophelia Album.
"I have to put this back," he said, gently touching the long, black, waist-length hair of the girl in his head. I love her, thought Takashi. I would do anything for her. It gave him determination. Leaving the forest with the coffin, he climbed his secret staircase. In the basement no one knew about, Takashi returned the album to where it had been before. Sure that the girl would be happy because "she" had called her, he was happy, too. Finally he heard the bell signalling sunset, and hurriedly left.
Night fell. The empty darkness was meaninglessly profound. Constellations twinkled in the night sky, sometimes falling as snow - metaphorically, of course. This time, someone who wasn't him showed up in the secret place where the Ophelia Album was kept. The unknown person picked the album up, looking at Kasumi's photo inside it. Yet another foolish girl put her own photo in the album to curse herself, thought the person. "Very well," they whispered. "I'll grant your wish. I'll curse you." I won't forgive any woman who tries to get close to him. I will punish you. They stared at Kasumi's photo again. They had to take a long, hard look, to make sure they got it right.
Then they shut the door tightly, locked it and climbed the stairs, exiting onto a hill blooming with red camellias. They went back to their home and let out a pleased sigh. They headed for the bedroom in the darkness, silently stroking the hair of the dear person in the bed so as not to wake them. "I'll protect you. You belong only to me," they whispered in their ear. But who were they?
As always, the boy had his camera pointed at the irrigation ditch. Water for farming flowed down from the top of the dam on this mountain, though not much farmland was left in the town, now mostly residential. It was a daily custom of his to train the camera on the flowing of this now meaningless water.
Even if he couldn't take photos of any ghosts beside the ditch, there were plenty of other things to photograph. As he tried to get shots of ghosts the boy realised how beautiful empty scenery was, and began to take pictures of it. That was what the photos in the album were of.
Something cut across his viewfinder. Thinking it was a fish, he lowered the camera and peered into the water with his naked eyes, but nothing was there. But something made him freeze - and then, thinking it was one of "them", the boy looked through the camera at the water's surface once more. Perhaps it had been swept away - he could see nothing in the stream, despite the use of the camera. Wondering if it had been a hallucination, he aimed the camera upstream from the vicinity of the bridge. He often caught images of "them" from the bridge.
And then the boy finally saw "it" - drifting slowly upstream in the water. Not downstream, but up. On the other side of the viewfinder he saw a girl, eyes closed and arms folded across her chest, lying on her back, steadily drifting the wrong way up the stream. It made no logical sense, but it didn't seem unnatural.
The girl was Kasumi. She was one of the girls the boy always observed through his camera. She opened her eyes slightly, her strawberry red lips smiling, like a flower. The flower was like a star in a field. Like a fish being born and going against the current, Kasumi drifted upstream. Going against the flow she went up and up. A brilliant, complex dark blue shadow was cast beneath her body onto the pebbles beneath the water, changing shape every few seconds.
Kasumi's thin hair swayed in the water like the open wings of a bird, her cheeks as pale as the white collar on her uniform. She drifted steadily up the stream, as if aiming for the underworld. Ahead of her was a culvert. Starting with her head, then her white collar-encased neck, then her voluptuous chest and finally her slender legs, poking out slightly from beneath her dress, were swallowed up by it.
The boy watched this through the viewfinder. He didn't feel like clicking the shutter. It didn't seem like something he should be photographing. As she vanished into the culvert, a strong wind suddenly blew, rustling the leaves. The boy finally realised that his whole body was covered in goosebumps. Oh, so my body felt fear, he thought. But I forgot all about it because she was so beautiful.
The river flowed from upstream to down, silently, as though nothing had happened. Clouds covered the sky, leaving the area dark.
Even after school finished and dinner came around, Kasumi still didn't come back. Michi, unable to bear it, went to a nun and, without mentioning "it", told her how they had sneaked out of class, and that Kasumi had walked off into the mountains by herself. The nun simply told her that it wasn't her fault, but that she mustn't tell anyone else; that she must have had some kind of troubles or worries, or a boyfriend from outside the school, or some other kind of reason to disappear for a few days, which was actually very common. Michi knew there was no way, but couldn't argue.
But, in such a small world, the fact that one of their classmates had vanished spread in the blink of an eye. Some people said that the reason Kasumi had disappeared, leaving only her shoes behind, was because she had been spirited away. In Kunio Yanagita's "Tales of Tono" they had read in modern literature class, most of the girls who were spirited away left their footwear behind when they went missing. It had said:
Just like in other regions, it is common for women and children who stay out after dusk to be spirited away. At a house in a place called Samuto in Matsuzaki Village, a young girl removed her sandals, left them beneath a pear tree, and vanished...
Michi recalled the image of Kasumi's shoes sitting there alone. It scared her. From the first time, she was scared from the bottom of her heart that it had not been "them", but her own carelessness. It's my fault Kasumi got spirited away, she thought. Michi knew that the responsibility for Kasumi's disappearance lay on her, for not stopping her following "it".
Despite this, Michi couldn't take in the fact that it had all happened right before her eyes, and she had wanted to shift the blame for something she didn't understand onto something she didn't understand. It was what her mother had everyone else had done to Michi, and now Michi had done it to "Aya".
Michi tried to process the fact that "Aya" had taken Kasumi away. It was Aya's fault that Kasumi was gone. She tied the eyepatch tightly over the eye that could see "them", taking the digital camera from her pocket and gripping it tight as the only symbol of reality that she could trust, isolated herself and hid away inside her shell, going back to desperately hating "Aya".
In her room at the dorm, Risa remembered what Mary had said at the restaurant. She had heard the rumours of Kasumi's disappearance, but didn't care much. Her head was full of the things she had heard from Mary.
I wonder if what she said is true. A curse that only affects girls. Maybe I should try casting it on Aya.
Risa took out the photo of Aya, and then another - the photo of Itsuki from inside her student ID. It was Itsuki's old photo from her middle school ID, that she had asked for a long, long time ago. Risa loved Itsuki, but honestly, she loved Itsuki just as much. She loved them both, and could never pick one over the other.
Aya, who seemed like a young girl forever, and Itsuki, mature and sure of her path in life. They were both Risa's ideal. When she compared their photos side by side, they seemed like a good fit. She tried imagining them together, but quickly snuffed out the thought. If that happened, she would be all alone. I don't want to become a normal adult by myself, with those two in my heart, and live a boring reality, thought Risa. Then she imagined Itsuki being snatched away by Aya. I have to decide, she thought.
Risa stared at the photos of Aya and Itsuki for a while, then finally made up her mind and kissed Itsuki's photo. It was a thousandth of a second before midnight. The curse awoke once more. Next Risa sneaked out of her room and, as told by Mary, posted photos of herself and Itsuki on the wall behind the confessional.
Now Aya can't have Itsuki, Risa thought. I'm so glad Mary told me how to cast the curse. After repeating, Please grant my wish, a few times, Risa left the confessional.
The moon moved slowly. Someone arrived at the large, arch-shaped chapel, and looked at the photos, then whispered: "...This girl has it wrong. You have to put your photo beside hers." The person compared their two photos, then tore down the unneeded one, tossing it to the floor. Then they put her photo in its place and - satisfied that they were such a good match - put their pictures carefully side by side on the last page of the album.
A blue shadow stood behind them. She shook her head sadly. The person replaced the album and left the school, hurrying off to where "she" was. They had to let her know that a fresh sacrifice was on its way.
At lessons the next afternoon, Aya appeared in the classroom, but Michi, wearing her eyepatch and shutting herself off, couldn't see her. Wearing her long, thin black hair like a dress, she walked between the desks, her movements graceful. No one noticed Aya. If Michi took of her eyepatch, she would have seen Aya and been shocked, because it was the Aya that had been outside the window when she had been in the classroom with Kasumi the day she vanished. Just like then, it was like Aya was really there.
Aya approached Risa, staring absentmindedly out of the window, her textbook open on the desk. Birds sang on campus. They were thrushes. Risa looked up. The girl who looked like Aya put her lips to Risa's defenceless ones.
"Ah..." Risa said, startled by the realistic sensation. Someone kissed me just now, she thought.
Aya stroked Risa's hair. To everyone else, it must have looked like Risa's hair was dancing in the breeze. The girl who looked like Aya silently left the classroom. Itsuki suddenly looked over at Risa in the seat in front of her, hearing her voice. As she did so, Risa's hair was ruffled unnaturally in the opposite direction to the wind blowing in through the window.
"Aya?" Itsuki called, somehow feeling as though Aya was there. Risa turned to look at Itsuki.
"Was Aya here just now?"
Itsuki shook her head non-committally in response to Risa's question. She didn't know any more than that. Even if Aya had been there, it would've been like the midday moon right now: a silver blur in the sky. You couldn't see it clearly, but it was there. Had it really been Aya, or someone nameless?
"Someone kissed me..." Risa murmured, tracing her lips with her indx finger. Risa's chest filled with sweet, pleasant honey. But her murmur echoed more loudly that she thought in the quiet classroom.
"Risa?" The nun stood in front of Risa's desk. "You are to be disciplined."
"Why...? Did I do something wrong?"
"You were having a sinful dream, weren't you, Risa? Am I right?"
Risa remembered the kiss, her cheeks flushing. It was as good as admitting her crime. The nun cracked her whip on the top of Risa's desk, startling Risa back to reality.
"You may not leave your room at the dormitory for twenty four hours," she said in a scolding tone. "Nor are you allowed meals. If you understand, then please leave the classroom immediately."
Risa stood. Itsuki looked like she wanted to say something, but Risa shook her head. She wanted to be alone so she could think. Aya had kissed her. Does that mean that, though I chose Itsuki, Aya chose me? thought Risa. Or perhaps she truly loved Aya more, so she had that dream, and Itsuki had sensed it? If so, she would be too embarrassed to look Itsuki in the eye.
White snowflakes mixed with the rain falling from the grey sky, deep red sasanquas blooming in complete contrast beneath it. The sleety snow melted on the red brick pathway, water droplets turned to dew dyeing it black.
"God, that's annoying," Waka said with slight annoyance, fixing the ribbons that held her ringlets up in twintails.
"What is?" Nagi asked soothingly, playing with her braids.
"Itsuki's making fun of me, isn't she? I mean, I've got letters from guys I don't know a few times now and I even got pretty far in that FruitsGirls audition."
"FruitsGirls? You mean that idol group? How far did you get?"
"The preliminary interview... But there was a member who had a personality too similar to mine, so they had to let me go this time."
"Huh? Did the producer say that to you?"
"Well, obviously that's what happened. That main girl, Chiaki Nakajima, is just like me!"
Nagi was as impressed as ever. Waka truly believed it. The way she acted rubbed everyone the wrong way, but not Nagi. She was jealous.
"It's good to be so positive," Nagi said quietly, and Waka lifted her index finger.
"That right there! That's why Itsuki is making fun of me. She says things to me like, 'Oh, Waka, you can be positive about anything. Oh, Waka, you could be an idol with that stupid personality of yours.' Isn't that horrible? I'm not stupid."
To Nagi, it seemed like Itsuki wasn't making fun of Waka, but accepted her like she did. But Nagi didn't know how to put it into words properly to explain it to her. Nagi's vocabulary wasn't very large, and she knew she couldn't convey what she wanted to say to others.
"Yeah. I guess it is."
So all she could do was non-committally agree with whatever the other person said. Nagi had nodded her way vaguely through everything in life. But Waka nodded deeply at Nagi's words. That's what I like about Nagi, she thought. Nagi never said a bad word about anyone. Everyone was always making fun of Waka. Nagi had been the first one to simply affirm her thoughts.
Waka and Nagi left the classroom, heading for the back of the confessional. For some reason, a photo of Risa lay on the floor inside. As she wondered what to do, Waka immediately noticed it and picked it up.
"Risa is kind of annoying, but not enough to curse her," Waka said, taking a photo of Itsuki from her bag.
"Are you really going to do it?" Nagi said in an attempt to pacify her. Waka nodded
"Of course. I'm going to curse Itsuki. Everyone is spreading those rumours about Kasumi putting the love curse on Aya and Aya taking her away, right? Then let's make Itsuki disappear, too."
Like Kasumi and Risa, Waka and Nagi had been talking idly at the restaurant when Mary taught them how to do the curse.
"Right," Waka said plainly. Nagi couldn't make herself say, 'There's no point in doing this.' Seeing Nagi's anxious face seemed to calm Waka's anger a little. "It's okay, I'm not serious. Besides, there's no way the curse exists or anything. But I don't like holding grudges. This is a way for me to let all of the annoying things out, so it doesn't all build up and stop me being cute."
Nagi felt reassured. Just cursing people wouldn't hurt anyone - curses don't exist. It was better than saying something nasty back, and obviously better than bottling it all up. Waka is so great with these things, thought Nagi.
"But what about the photo of Aya? Do you have one?"
"Yeah. I got it from Itsuki. Itsuki secretly takes photos of her and sells them to anyone who wants one."
"And the photo of Itsuki?"
"Here," Waka said, showing her a photo of Itsuki with her hair in pretty waves. "It's a photo of Itsuki from when she was a model at a salon in Tokyo over summer break. I went there and saw the photo of her, and it shocked me. I guess Itsuki is cute enough to make it as a hair model, anyway."
"What about this kiss? Are you going to kiss the photo/"
"It's not like I could ask Itsuki to kiss Aya's photo, could I?"
Feeling like Waka had said 'But it's only a joke' made Nagi embarrassed. Nagi took everything seriously, so her answers were vague. Laughing, Waka put the photos of Aya and Itsuki side by side on the wall behind the confessional.
"Now I feel much better. Itsuki doesn't annoy me anymore." Waka stretched out her arms, then tore down the two photos, surprising Nagi. "Well, it would be a waste after going to all that trouble to get photos of Aya and Itsuki. I like photos of cute girls. I collect them."
Oh, I see, that's why she picked up Risa's photo without hesitation, thought Nagi, feeling sad at being left out. Then, suddenly, she said as though she had just remembered, "Oh, give me a photo of you next time," then added, "You're cute, too, so I like you as well."