Itsuki stood up by the water's edge, where red bamboo berries were scattered. She was wearing her summer uniform. With a ribbon tied around the waist, it made Itsuki look slightly childish. She was wet through, her bare skin exposed to the midwinter chill.
So it was Aya who called me here after all, thought Itsuki, and as soon as she said Aya's name mentally, Itsuki collapsed amidst the green foliage that spread across the water's edge. Everything went black momentarily. Then a flash tore through it. The earth shook. Itsuki's eyes said nothing. The smell of vegetation. The sweet scent of lilacs, lily of the valley, ylang ylang. It was the smell of body lotion - her body lotion.
Have you ever dreamt about being killed? Having your head pulled clean off? The words spilled from Itsuki's lips like some kind of poem. And then, just like she'd said, Itsuki's head was separated from her torso. Her head rolled inhumanly across the floor. What were shown in her half-open eyes? She could see someone's hand. It gripped a large knife. White clothes stained with blood splatter. Itsuki's head rolling. I've been killed, was Itsuki's final thought.
Encountering a murderer was like an absurd, boring curse from a simple horror movie. A pool of blood, such deep red that it appeared black, spread through the green, like the shadows of fish swimming beneath the waves. On the hands lying there was blue nail polish...
The dawn was golden. It slowly turned into violet, seeming to seep into Itsuki's body, the surrounding area engulfed in the sound of darkness. Seeking a final meal before night fell, the ants climbed up her blue nails...
The funeral - in name alone - ended. Kasumi's death left Risa in despair. If Kasumi had been killed, then there was the possibility that Itsuki might be, too. No - she might even be dead already, thought Risa. For the first time, it was so much that she wanted to die. However hard things got she could usually fix them by retreating into her shell and shutting down her mind, but someone had actually died. She couldn't take it. She wanted to see Itsuki.
She prayed that Itsuki would show up, like Aya had, and take her away with her. Then, something touched Risa's ear. She felt a pair of lips. She knew who they belonged to instantly.
"Who's there? Aya?" she said, her voice trembling.
"It's me," said Aya.
Why had Aya shown up when she was thinking about Itsuki? Risa felt bitter. But it was Aya who stood before her.
Her straight, glossy black hair, hanging to her waist. Her almond eyes, surrounded by eyelashes, set inside deep eye sockets. Aya was so beautiful she looked like she had been carefully constructed by God. She smiled at Risa.
"Risa. If you're in that much pain, shall I cast the curse that affects only girls on you? Then I'll take you far away from here - isn't that what you just prayed for?" Aya's beautiful voice seemed to tickle at Risa's ears sweetly. She held out her hands, putting them to Risa's cheeks, then brought her face close to Risa's.
"I'll kiss you..."
She softly placed her lips against Risa's. Her tongue played with Itsuki's. Risa bent backwards, Aya running her hands over her body. Her head spun. Aya's fingers were as cold as ice - Just like a corpse, thought Risa. Then, finally, Aya's fingers slowly explored the deeper parts of Risa's body. Risa let out a small moan. Confirming Risa's reaction, Aya took her lips away.
"See? The curse feels good."
Aya put her lips to Risa's once more. Risa automatically slipped her tongue through Aya's lips and though, Oh, I see. Kasumi must have done the same thing with Aya. Itsuki, too. This is the curse. This is the curse that only affects girls.
They held each other tight, pressing their small, quietly excited chests together. Aya's cool body felt good. They wrapped their arms around each other's back. Aya's delicate body was so precious. How long should she hold her for? How many times should she kiss her? Until you fall into the depths of the water, someone's Aya-like voice whispered.
When she opened her eyes, Risa was in an empty classroom. The classroom clock had just struck midnight. There was a dim glow outside the window. It's snowing, thought Risa. But the late snow did nothing to cool Risa's burning body.
In front of her, as though telling her to do it, was a photo of Aya. Another set of lip marks, besides Itsuki's from that day, were on top of Aya's. They were Risa's. I just kissed her, thought Risa. My curse ritual has already started.
Then she had to complete the curse. She should put her photo beside Aya's behind the confessional in the chapel. Then if she prayed, her voice would lower and then rise. Then she would be able to reach Aya. Itsuki would surely be there, too. Risa couldn't think anymore. She ran towrds the chapel amidst the falling white snow.
The chapel, with its arched ceiling, was cold. Risa entered the confession room. There was snow on her hair and shoulders, decorating her black dress like flowers. It was time to perform the curse ritual. She would become one with Aya again, and never be able to come back... Itsuki would be waiting for her, too.
Risa put up Aya's photo first, then reached up to put her own photo, taken from her student ID, beside it. Then it'll all be over, she thought. Suddenly, someone grabbed her hand. The arm was thin, but dragged her outside with considerable strength. It was Michi.
"Don't! If you do the curse ritual you'll die for real."
Feeling like Michi was poking her nose in where it wasn't wanted, Risa freed her hand. She wanted to leave her alone to do it, because she was doing it so she could die. She glared back at Michi. And then she was left speechless. Wasn't that Aya standing beside Michi? Had Aya come for her, even though she hadn't completed the ritual yet?
Risa stared at her. She was definitely there. But her conviction was a little different to the conviction she had felt about the Aya she kissed in the dream earlier.
"Is that the real Aya?"
"Yes," said Michi.
"Aya was locked up in the chapel tower. The bald man who arrived here in the big black car today found her. She'd been drugged and sleeping this whole time."
"So was... that the discipline...?"
"She's still kind of out of it."
Risa couldn't get her thoughts in order. If the Aya in front of her was the real one, then who was the Aya who had held her so sweetly? Had she imagined it?
"But just a while ago, Aya and I..." Risa closed her eyes, remembering the feel of Aya's lips.
"That wasn't Aya," said Michi, taking down the photo from the wall and showing Risa.
"Right. That photo isn't of me. Take a close look at it," Aya said, looking at Risa.
Did as she was told, Risa compared the photo of Aya to the Aya before her. The photo showed the bewitching Aya who had shown herself to Risa earlier, but the Aya there with her now, compared to the one she had kissed before, seemed somehow younger. There was definitely something different about them.
"Then who did I see?"
"I don't know, but I've seen her, too."
"But I kissed Aya," Risa said automatically.
"I've never done that with a girl." Hearing this, Risa turned bright red with embarrassment.
"Was it really not you...?" Risa looked down at the floor, hiding her cheeks with her hands. She didn't want them to see her blushing. "Then who cursed Kasumi and Itsuki? Everyone thinks it was you."
Michi thought. "Everyone" was too good of a coincidence. They could spread rumours irresponsibly, but let someone else take the blame.
"I don't know, but Michi said she saw a ghost that looked just like me, too."
It was one of "them", not a ghost, Michi wanted to say, but stopped herself. She didn't know how to explain it properly.
Aya touched Risa's hair gently, brushing away the melting snow. It had stuck to her hair when she passed through the corridor.
"Will you trust me?"
The snow fell to the floor, crating black stains. With that as a signal, Risa looked at Aya as if awoken from a dream. So it is Aya in front of me, she accepted, and nodded. She couldn't believe that this wasn't the Aya who had kissed her, but they were definitely different. Risa knew the difference between kissing someone you loved and someone you didn't. It reminded her of her betrayal of Itsuki.
"Thank you, Risa."
Aya finally smiled, like a flower opening up.
This Aya is kind of sweet and gentle, thought Risa. She's not that Aya. The other Aya was cold - like a corpse. More than anything else she rejected people, toying with them. She had been attracted to those kinds of people since she was small. But this Aya was warm. Aya gently soothed the fire inside her heart. She wouldn't curse her.
"I understand now, Aya," Risa said, looking at her. It was the first time she had spoken about her thoughts and feelings on the same level as someone else. I've only ever looked up at people - Itsuki, too. She felt deeply apologetic towards Itsuki for it.
Aya took Risa and Michi's hands, and then explained about being cursed by a ghost that looked just like her, and how she had been locked up in the room in the tower by someone after confessing about it in the confessional.
"What's happening at this school? I feel like I'm the one who has to solve that mystery. I mean, this all started with me seeing a ghost identical to me..."
Aya felt responsibility for that most of all. She felt as though it was her who had cursed Kasumi and Itsuki and brought about their disappearances.
"But if you and Michi saw the same ghost, then I'd like you to help me. Please," Aya said, looking between them seriously.
Risa nodded. Aya was relying on her, and treating her as an equal. It resounded with Risa far more than anything like the kiss in the dream. Michi nodded firmly as well. So this is what it means to be of a shared mind, thought Risa. The snow had stopped, the moon illuminating the night sky.
Morning came. At dawn, the wind blowing from the south, there was no sign of the snow except for the occasional black stain. The atmosphere had finally begun to seem as though the seasons were changing.
A hand tapped the shoulder of the boy as he stared at St. Loudun's Academy For Girls through the viewfinder of his camera. He was surprised. There stood Aya, Risa and Michi. They surrounded the boy swiftly. He had been surrounded by male students in the past, but never female ones, leaving the boy even more on edge than usual.
"We're not going to slap you or anything. Where is Mary right now? I know you're her son."
The boy slowly hung his head and blushed at Michi's words. It embarrassed him so much to hear her called his mother that he could die. Being embarrassed of his mother made him feel childish, doubling the embarrassment. He could see the girls' shoes, polished to a shine.
"Take us to her," Michi said firmly, and the boy simply nodded, then worried that the girls knew about it.
A green fence surrounded the prefab building. A middle-aged woman wearing work clothes and rubber boots, a large white hat on her head, came out of the door with "side entrance" written on it, holding sandwiches for discarding and a cigarette. The boy pointed to her.
"That's... my mother."
He hated calling her his mother, but he didn't want to scornfully call her 'Mary' like everyone else did.
"Huh? That's Mary?"
The girls couldn't reconcile the woman standing there with the name. The Mary their knew was a little over the top and odd, wearing white ribbons with a white apron dress and bright red lipstick. The woman the boy had just pointed to, however, was just a normal lady looking with confusion at him.
"Does that old lady really know the secrets of the curse?" Michi whispered to Risa. Calling her an 'old lady' hurt the boy a little.
Risa, a troubled expression on her face, weakly said, "Well, that's what I heard at the restaurant." She was uneasy about Itsuki.
"Do you need something?" The high voice, not matching the work outfit, was definitely that of Mary.
"Have a seat," Mary said, inviting them to sit down on a bench in the break room right outside the factory. The girls sat down on it timidly. Mary casually held out the sandwiches she held in both hands. The Mary in front of them looked like she was exhausted by living, words they had only read in books. They called her an old lady, thoughtlessly and without malicious intent, but there was no more than a decade in age between them.
"These are from the factory, but you can have one if you like."
They were sandwiches, like the ones you would find at the local supermarket or convenience store, and didn't look tasty in the slightest. They were made using cheap margarine and dry, perhaps due to the rough dough the bread was made from - not the kind of thing to excite the tastebuds. The girls shook their heads. This alone made the boy feel hurt at his mother being scorned.
"Well, that's fine, too. My boy won't eat them, either."
Mary opened the sandwich, carrying it - with its artificially bright pink ham and preserved fresh cucumber - with apparently difficulty to her mouth. She didn't even attempt to hide her slovenly behaviour, threatening to the girls who hurt her with their youth alone.
"Um... There's something we'd like to ask you, Mary..."
"Yamada," Mary muttered.
"My name. Kazumi Yamada. Average, isn't it?"
Silence fell for a while. It really was average, but it was a much better fit for her. Out of nowhere, the girls felt something close about the name "Yamada", like she was really there.
Risa boldly spoke up. It was her who had gotten mixed up in her story at the restaurant. That had been the trigger. She had to ask for herself.
"Um... You're a graduate of our academy, aren't you, Ms. Yamada?"
"That's a lie, of course. I couldn't even pass the entrance exam for your high-class, expensive, recommendation-only school. I'm not all that clever. I wanted to go there, though. That uniform you're wearing - the white collar and cuffs, the black dress - I wanted to try it on, just once. I went around in my ugly commercial high school uniform, asking anything I could about your school. The teachers, the chapel, silly rumours... I was obsessed," Mary said as Yamada, staring absently at the grey sky.
"But, um, M-Ms. Yamada... Risa said she heard from you at the restaurant how the curse is done..." Michi said, bringing her back on topic.
"Restaurant? ...Oh, right - you're that girl."
She looked at Risa. Risa stared straight back, without averting her eyes. She had to let her know that they were serious.
"You said there was more to the curse..."
Kazumi turned her face away. "I don't know anything. It's just a rumour, right? Anyway, it's not like I was a student there or anything. How would I know?" she said, seeming almost angry. Risa sensed that she was hiding something from them.
"Um... My friend who was with me then, she was... killed," Risa said, telling her the words she never wanted to say.
"Killed?" Kazumi looked at the girls as though she really was surprised. "But it's not been in the news, or on TV, or..." she said, then, "Well, I guess this country isn't that kind of place," as if defeated.
The girls' school had no TVs or newspapers. No one made the effort to read the paper, and Waka could get videos and information about idols on her smartphone. But Kasumi's death not having made the news at all shocked Risa. It felt as though the whold was ignoring them all.
"I cursed her after hearing about it from you. It's my fault she vanished and got killed," Risa said, speaking the truth in front of everyone. Aya and Michi looked a little surprised. "Just like you said, I kissed a photo of the one I loved a thousandth of a second before midnight, then put our photos side by side on the back wall in the confessional... And then Itsuki vanished..." Risa explained desperately.
This time, Michi spoke. "Kasumi... my best friend... went missing, too. She was chasing after a vision that looked like Aya, and vanished right in front of me." It was the first time Michi had referred to Kasumi as her best friend.
"Vision? Can you see ghosts?" She thought she saw Kazumi's eyes glimmer beneath her slightly swollen single eyelids.
"Yes. Ever since I was a child." It was the first time Michi had ever told someone the thing she had never told anyone. She had to tell Kazumi the truth, or she wouldn't see how serious they were. She was nervous about how the other two would react, but both Aya and Risa reinforced her with a "please".
A little pressured by the girls, Kazumi moved her mouth, as though about to say something, but changed her mind and said, "Sorry, but I don't know any more than this," unwrapping another sandwich and stuffed her face with the horrible-looking thing as if to suppress the words. "Anyway - is it true that idiot girl at your school failed her idol audition?" Kazumi said, forcing her face back into that of Mary.
A rose sat in the room of St. Loudun's headmistress. It had been cut three days earlier, and its scent was already beginning to fade. Taruho compared herself to its wilting petals, staring absentmindedly at it.
"Sister!" the headmistress scolded Taruho in an oddly restrained manner for not listening to what she was saying.
"I apologise, Headmistress, but I am troubled at the moment."
"Indeed. The curse that only affects girls may be no more than a rumour, but the students are still so obsessed with it. It appears that now, what used to be a simple love charm between the students has turned into a rumour that you will see Aya Tsukimori's ghost and be spirited away."
"They're so easily tempted by those things at such an age..." Taruho said, not touching on Kasumi's murder or Itsuki's disappearance. At the same time, she felt neither nostalgia nor fondness for herself at that age.
"You are right."
Taruho and the headmistress continued the conversation, gauging each other and feigning indifference. What they searched for was each other's despairs, so their conversation sank to the depths of water without leaving so much as a ripple on the surface, like searching for the location of a dead butterfly.
It was that night, a full moon in the sky above St. Loudun's, that they received notification of the second body - Itsuki's. The students couldn't be told yet, however. Even if they weren't told, they would spread rumours at the mere sight of that black vehicle, with its luggage rack, pull up at the school. That this time it was Itsuki who had been cut up, and that it was the curse again. In any case, the rumours would flare up in a second, and be forgotten just as quickly. The girls didn't want the truth, so there was no need to tell it to them. That was the only thing upon which Taruho and the headmistress saw eye to eye. They would, of course, notify the police, but now wasn't the time for them.