The basement was far more expansive than they had imagined. The stone steps disappeared into the water. A beam of light passed through the skylight into the door in the floor, reaching as far as the bottom of the water, with its level stone floor. It seemed like forbidden ground. Wet to their ankles, the three girls faintly lit up the darkness with their penlights. Ahead of them in the light they could see something like an altar. For a moment, they caught something in their penlights.
"I see something!" Risa shouted, ignoring that the water was up to the hem of her skirt, rushing over to the altar and picking up what lay there. It was really there. Michi and Aya knew something for sure, as well.
"The Ophelia Album..." Risa said in a trembling voice.
The "Ophelia Album" is somewhere inside that shrine, Mary had told them. How about it? I'll tell you the steps of the real curse one more time. First of all, you kiss a photo of the one you love one thousandth of a second before midnight. Then, you put the photos up on the back wall of the confessional. Everything so far is what I told you at the restaurant. Everything so far is the stupid girls' love charm. But the real curse - the curse that binds you to your lover - has more to it. This is the real curse. If you really want to be with them forever, then you need to put a photo of them and yourself inside the Ophelia Album. There's a theory that you put in the photos yourself, and there's a theory that you make a serious confession by putting the photos on the back wall of the confessional which then disappear and appear inside the Ophelia Album. I don't know which is the real one. Either way, the other will surely follow and grant your wish. You will become one - not here, but in the next world. That's the real curse that only affects girls. The album is a rumour, but there's a story that it's hidden somewhere in a shrine on the other side of the dam in front of that big mountain.
So, upon seeing the album, you would be able to know who had cursed whom.
Risa opened the album with shaking hands. There was pair after pair of old, sepia-toned photos of girls side by side. The water was cold, chilling Risa's feet. Michi told her to take the Ophelia Album bac upstairs with her, but Risa couldn't move. Most of all, she wanted to see for sure if her and Itsuki's photos were together inside it.
Risa's hands stopped flipping through the album. She was on the final, newest page. "This..." she said, left speechless. Aya and Itsuki's photos were next to each other. "So Itsuki liked Aya, too..." Risa murmured to herself in despair.
"No... This photo isn't of me."
"I think that's someone else."
Aya spoke first, followed by Michi. Michi remembered the "thing" that looked like Aya, and knew that it was the girl. But that wasn't Risa's issue. Itsuki had been cursed with the real curse by someone other than herself. That was what had left Risa in despair.
"But I put my photo side by side with Itsuki's on the back wall of the confessional. Why is Itsuki's photo in here with this girl? Did Itsuki love her? Did Itsuki curse herself?"
Risa remembered the moment Itsuki stole Aya's photo and kissed it. It had been for real. Just thinking of Itsuki being in love with someone else drove Risa crazy.
"No. Itsuki wouldn't do that," Michi said soothingly, but Risa brushed her off.
"I don't care... I'm going to Itsuki... and then I'll have her paint my nails again," said Risa, taking her student ID from her pocket and putting it on top of the photo of the girl who looked like Aya. She had left her photo beside Itsuki's inside the Ophelia Album. The curse began to stir.
"No, Risa," said Michi, and as she did so a bright beam of sunlight, like the midsummer sun, shone into the basement through the skylight. "It" is coming, thought Michi. "It" took on Itsuki's form. It was shrouded in white, not blue, light. So Itsuki is dead after all, thought Michi.
Itsuki, in the light in her summer uniform, smiled, standing there like like an apostle of God. The girls were left breathless by the divine Itsuki's sweet smile.
"Itsuki..." Risa murmured. She could see her.
Aya, turning to Michi, couldn't see her. Risa took Itsuki's hand and smiled softly.
"I pretended to like Aya, but it was you I liked all along, Itsuki... I mean it," Risa confessed. Itsuki smiled, as though having found a pearl inside its shell, and stroked Risa's hair. "So take me with you..." Risa pleaded.
Risa wrapped her outstretched arms around Itsuki. The two hugged each other tightly. It was filled with purity, like the image of the Madonna inside the chapel.
"Itsuki... I love you..."
Risa reached out and tried to touch Itsuki's lips, but Itsuki pulled away and shook her head, seeming to say no.
Risa tried to cling to her, but Itsuki erupted in white flames and vanished into the water. At the same time a long, thin white hand reached out from the water's surface and grabbed Risa's leg and tried to pull her under, like a demon predator. Risa vanished under the water. Despite only being ankle-deep, Risa was swallowed far into the depths of the water.
Michi and Aya, left speechless by the scene, called out for her loudly as though falling back down to earth, walking around in the murky water. But Risa was gone. She was nowhere to be found. They noticed that the summer light was gone. Itsuki's "it" was gone as well. And Aya was gripping for dear life onto Michi's hand.
"Don't go, Michi. Not you too," Aya said, squeezing her hand. It was the first true sense of human touch Michi had ever felt.
Their uniforms' skirts still wet, Michi and Aya returned to St. Loudun's in silence. The wind was still cold, and they shivered like chicks that had fallen out of their nest. Passing through the large gates, they went back to the dorm, wordlessly closing the doors to their rooms.
As she showered, Aya looked up in a daze at the sky out of the small, rectangular bathroom window.
"Risa... Risa..." she muttered over and over, repeating the name of the one who had just vanished before her eyes.
Then, she was stricken by grief. I can't give up, she told herself. Aya traced a promise in the steamy bathroom mirror with her slender fingers: "I will lift this curse." Then she began to cry.
All Michi and Aya told the headmistress was that Risa was missing. They lied, saying that they had wanted to go out together, but Risa hadn't been in her room. It was improper to lie, but they were hesitant to tell the nuns about what had really happened. In any case, Risa was gone. They had to at least tell her that. Millais' painting of Ophelia on the wall reminded them of the missing Kasumi, Itsuki and Risa. As they were making their report, the headmistress' expression didn't change at all.
"It's alright. Nothing will happen to you. I will speak to the police. Go on as you were," was all she said after they were done speaking.
There was no announcement made that Risa was gone.
As the boy absentmindedly watched the same old news as always, he thought about his father.
"This camera has a secret," he had said about this old thing that hardly even resembled a camera, but however hard he tried he couldn't recall his father's face - just his voice inside his head. "If you calm your mind and stare through the viewfinder for a long time, sometimes you can see ghosts."
"That's right. They're usually girls' ghosts. For some reason, all of the ghosts in this area are all young, pretty girls."
Leaving him with this, whether it was a lie or the truth, his father had suddenly been hit by a bike and died. After the funeral, the boy had trained the camera on the smoke rising from the crematorium and peered through the viewfinder. His father smiled at him apologetically from out of the smoke, then disappeared. That was how he learned that the camera really could pick up ghosts.
Ever since then, the boy had used the camera to search for ghosts. He had wondered if he could see his father again above the chimney, but he was nowhere to be found, and instead he had seen countless girls. Along the way, the spirits began feeling horribly close to him. For this reason, the things inside the TV seemed more like ghosts to the boy. It repeated itself, showing the same images as always. But those were happenings from another world; one that didn't seem as though it really existed.
So the school had a secret after all. Michi could tell from the headmistress' behaviour. Aya and Michi sat side by side on the bed in Aya's room and opened the Ophelia Album again. This would tell them everything. The truth was here alone. They had to be sure of what was inside.
"These girls... I wonder if they all wanted to be with their lovers, not in this world, but far away," Aya wondered. Her long eyelashes cast shadows on her cheeks.
"I guess since girls can't be together in this world, they want to be together in the next," said Michi.
Neither Michi nor Aya had experienced love, but they didn't really understand what it was like to feel it towards the same sex. As though slowly looking back across time, they turned the album's pages. They searched for the first page - in other words, the oldest photos.
Old, sepia-toned photos, their surfaces speckled and seemingly sandy, were on the very first page. Looking at the year written beneath, they saw that they were from the Meiji period. Beside a girl, wearing a hakama with her hair tied up with a large ribbon, young and vibrant like a plum, was another girl, with a somehow sad, determined expression on her face. This seemed to be where the curse began, the two thought, drawing a breath.
On the next page there was a photo of another girl beside a photo of the girl with the ribbon from the first page. The pages continued on with different combinations of the girl with others. Several pairs of totally different girls were mixed in amongst them, but then they returned to the girl with the ribbon. This repeated over and over.
"It looks like the girl from the first page was pretty obsessed with the curse."
"She's so pretty like you, Aya..."
"I'm not pretty."
"Yes, you are. I kind of get why everyone adores you so much."
Aya bit her lip.
"Maybe it's my fault. I moved everyone like that without ever knowing, and so maybe they ended up going away."
"That's not it," Michi said, trying to encourage her, putting her hand over Aya's shapely, statue-like one. "I'm sorry. That's not what I meant. It isn't your fault. You're popular for sure, but you aren't evil."
Aya squeezed Michi's hand. Michi took her hand away, trying to hide her embarrassment, and began flipping through the album's pages again. Different couplings began to increase in number along the way, but the curse was still focused around the girl from the first page. The photos of the ribbon girl kept going, the one beside it getting newer and newer little by little. The final photo was of a young girl who hardly looked old enough to have started elementary school. From there, there were several more pairings of different girls. There were even young boys and girls. There was only one page with just one photo on it, though perhaps the other had fallen out. On the two newest pages were photos of the girl who looked just like Aya.
The only girls featured more than once were the very first girl, and the girl like Aya at the end. The Aya-like girl and Kasumi. The Aya-like girl and Itsuki.
"If we figure out who the girl whose photo is in the start of the album all the time, do you think we'll learn the secrets of the curse?" Aya said.
Maybe Aya's right, thought Michi. But who would know about something from that long ago? Michi turned the page, her hand stopping on the page with only one photo on it. And then she realised something.
"Maybe... Mary knows something?"
"I don't think Mary would just coincidentally know everything."
"Take a look at this."
Michi pointed to the open page. The girl in the only photo was wearing the uniform of a nearby commercial high school.
"Isn't this photo of Mary?" Michi said, revealing her intuition.
"She's a lot younger than she is now... But she has the same features. Look closely."
Aya tried mentally comparing Mary to the girl in the photo. That very second there was a loud noise, and the pair reflexively shrank back. A blizzard blew inside the room, as though it had come in through the window. A single pebble fell amidst it. The window was shattered. The tiny shards of glass glinted all over the room like hail.
"Someone's outside the window..."
Another pebble was tossed inside the room. Stooping, Aya and Michi went over beneath the window pane. Another pebble flew over their heads. The girls could hear angry cries from outside.
As though the lone voice had pulled a trigger, several more voices chimed in.
"Murderer! Murderer! Murderer!"
Aya turned pale and murmured, "By murderer, do they mean me?"
"Of course not," Michi denied firmly./p>
"But that's what everyone calls me."
The jeers began again, as if in ridicule at Aya's grief-filled voice.
"Everyone knows that you're the one cursing everybody!"
Whose voice was it? The only ones who knew were the girls holding up pebbles and trampling over Aya's heart from below her room.
"Let's get out of here, Aya," said Michi, taking her hand. But Aya shook her head.
"I'll explain. Girls just get into a panic easily," she said determinedly.
Michi sensed immovable logic in her eyes. We were classmates for six years but I never really knew Aya, she thought. Aya was strong-willed.