When they went out into the hallway, several students surrounded them as though they had been lying in wait. Something was strange in their eyes - almost like they were possessed. Something about them reminded her of "them".
"Aya's come out!" shouted a serious-looking, glasses-wearing student, a Bible in one hand. Michi wondered if the girl had really been in her class. She had never spoken to her, at least.
"Let's just talk this through," Aya said calmly, but a faint smile appeared on the girls' lips. They had no intention of having an upfront discussion with anyone. We're in trouble, thought Michi. The girl with the glasses moved over to Aya, suddenly slapping her across the cheek with the flat of her hand.
Aya looked like she would fall over from the surprise attack, but didn't move. Then, the circle around Aya and Michi tightened. Someone reached out and yanked Aya's long hair. More hands joined in. When Michi tried to stop them, she was dragged away and forced outside of the circle, leaving Aya alone in the middle of it. Aya was pushed and kicked, but because they were still holding onto her hair she couldn't even fall down.
"Stop it, all of you! You've gone mad!" Michi shouted, but no one listened.
She rammed into the girl grabbing Aya's hair. She let go, and Aya fell to the ground. For a moment, the girls' circle loosened. Michi reached out for Aya inside it, grabbing her by the wrist and pulling her out, then running. The girls gave chase. Out of breath, the pair ran down the long hallway and arrived at a landing. Voices of reproach from below were shot up at Aya. Surrounded on both sides by angry girls, they had nowhere to go.
As Aya and Michi stood there, someone reache dout from behind and pushed Aya down the stairs. Aya covered her head, hitting the stairs with her shoulders and rolling down them. Michi ran after her. Apparently having cut herself, bright red blood pooled at her feet.
"Blood!" the glasses-wearing girl screamed with excitement. Her excitement infected those around her in an instant.
The girls shrieked the sinister words, drunk on them, getting even higher off it.
"Stop! You're all crazy! What are you saying!?" Michi screamed.
"If you kiss Aya's photo, you'll be cursed and die!"
"Girls were killed because of Aya!"
"They were all cut up!"
"It's the curse's fault!"
"It's Aya's fault!"
"What do you mean, the curse!?" Michi shouted, but it was drowned out.
"If you kill Aya, you'll die!" shouted the girl who had grabbed Aya's hair earlier.
There are people, children and adults alike, who always keep their heads down and hide themselves away behind others, who only step forward when the time comes to ridicule someone. Michi was well aware of that. This girl was one of them.
"Why do you die if you kiss her?"
The girl flinched at Michi's calm question, but immediately replied, "That's what everyone says."
Oh, this is one of those "everyone does it" times, thought Michi, remembering when "everyone" had bullied her in the past.
"That's right. If you kiss her, you die."
"If you kiss her, you die."
"If you kiss her, you die."
They all screamed it. What selfish people. The only thing they will ever live for is shouting out the same thing as everyone else and ridiculing people. The thought made Mici sad. It was so terrible that she almost felt like she couldn't trust anyone anymore. They were far worse than any ghost.
The girls' voices melded together as one. The sound reverberated in her ears, like the shriek of cicadas in the middle of summer. It sounded almost like an actual spell. The words had magical powers. The girls were all casting their own curse with words. Cruel words hurt people more than any curse. They had realised that instinctively, shouting them over and over.
Aya's body trembled. How could she save her? She noticed Aya's lips growing pale. However strong she was, she couldn't bear this. It excited the girls even further. Michi thought. The answer was simple. The girls had created their own lie, making it into the truth, without so much as trying to find out the reality of it. But I can show them for sure myself that it's a lie. Michi helped Aya sit up. Then, steeling herself and softly whispering Sorry, she pressed her lips against Aya's.
The girls gasped and fell silent. Aya didn't seem able to take in what was happening, either. Michi moved away. As she did so, she felt a reluctance to leave her. She wanted to touch Aya a little more.
"See?" Michi said calmly, looking slowly around at each girl in order in the eye. "I kissed the real Aya - not a photo - and nothing happened to me." The sweet sensation of Aya's lips gradually came back to her, and Michi started to feel embarrassed. "Aya isn't the cursed girl," she announced, then took Aya's hand and pulled her steadily to her feet.
No one tried to block their path any longer. It wasn't that the girls believed what Michi had said; they were simply overpowered by her. They had been attacked by the weak, prostrating themselves before the strong. But that didn't matter. What was important was that at that moment, Michi felt as though as long as she waswith Aya, they could take on anyone in the world. It was the first time in her life that Michi had ever wanted to protect someone other than herself. Michi understood clearly that if she was at fault for Kasumi's death, it was because she had been weak. If I had gotten stronger sooner, Kasumi wouldn't have had to die, she thought with regret.
Aya and Michi left the school, taking the album with them. Despite it being the afternoon there was no one around - standard fare in this town. The town where St. Loudun's was seemed to have left time behind and forgotten about it. Most of the shutters on the shops were still down, like a zoo on a rainy day.
When Michi and Aya finally found the shop they were looking for it was just the same, the words on the sign hidden by rust, with no way to tell what kind of shop it used to be. Beside it was an outside staircase that led up to the second floor, where there was apparently an apartment. There was no door through which to visit the shop's residents, and left without a choice Aya and Michi knocked on the shutters.
After a while, the shutters opened and a woman came out. It was Mary. Today she wore her white apron dress. Assuming that "Kazumi" would come out, the two girls were a little surprised.
"Oh. This outfit? I was just about to go out into town," Mary said with Kazumi's face. "Come on, come in."
Michi and Aya went under the shutters. They could smell dust and mould. It smelled like old times.
"So you found the Ophelia Album."
"Yes. It was at the shrine, just like you said it would be."
"So it was still there, hm? I wish it had just vanished," Mary said bitterly, at the same time flipping through the album with a hint of nostalgia. The page with the girl who looked like Aya and Kasumi side by side was the newest. "So these girls are gone..." Mary murmured. She turned the page. Unlike the others, there was only one photo there. "I take it you realised that this photo is of me?"
"Nothing I can do, then, is there? I have to tell you everything."
There were marks of a photo having been taken out from the album. She pointed to it, red nail polish against the blue veins.
"Do you know whose photo was here?"
Michi and Aya looked at each other, then shook their heads. Mary smiled sadly, then took a photo out of the pass case in her pocket. It showed a girl in a St. Loudun's uniform.
"This is the photo that was in here." They still didn't know who she was. "Taruho Saginomiya. Your teacher. She's a nun, too. If I said she was the literacy teacher, would you know her then?"
She looked like a completely different person from the girls knew as the nun, in her grey outfit, who never so much as smiled.
"Taruho Saginomiya was a student at St. Loudun's right from elementary school. She always passed by my state school on the way to hers, wearing that black dress with white cuffs that you're wearing right now. The boys at my school went crazy whenever they saw her, some of them even bringing cameras and sneaking photos of her, selling them to everyone. No one had smartphones or anything like that back then. I was one of the ones who bought a photo of Taruho Saginomiya from them."
"She was so enticing that even I - a girl - was obsessed with her," Mary said, staring out of the window as if recalling the days of the distant past. The afternoon sunlight was soft, clouds steadily floating past in the blue-grey sky as though to alert them to the changing season.
"If I could have one wish, even now, it would be to be reborn as a pretty young girl like you guys, go to the same school as Taruho Saginomiya and become her friend. Eventually, I cursed her. I had known about the curse that only affects girls since right after joining high school. I bought a photo of Taruho from the boys and put it side by side with mine inside the album. The album has been an offering at that mountain shrine by the dam for ages, and because I'm from the area I knew about it. I was serious. But somehow, Taruho found out." Mary began telling the story of that day.
That day, in my boring high school uniform I, Kazumi Yamada, was called to that shrine by Taruho Saginomiya, in her black dress, giving off light like a white moon. It may sound like a strange comparison to make, but that was how divine she looked. When she summoned me I thought that the "curse" had come true, so I practically flew there. But the curse was a lie after all. Taruho pointed to my photo in the Ophelia Album, looking at it like something vulgar.
"Would you please not do things like this? I don't like it. It makes me feel dirty."
Even my ears were red.
"But I... love..."
"I already have someone dear to me," she said coldly, and took her own photo out of the album.
All of the other pages have pairs of girls next to each other; mine is the only one all by itself. Isn't it silly?
Mary smiled sadly. "After that I turned into a bit of a juvenile delinquent, but it didn't last long, and after I left high school I got a job at a credit union; my boss tried to set me up with someone and I said okay because I didn't care, and that's how I ended up becoming the second wife of a guy with a kid and marrying into this shop. It used to be a photo studio. We would take photos of the people from town for matchmaking, weddings, shichi-go-san and all those things, then carefully develop the camera film afterwards. But not long after, my husband died..."
Mary glanced around the shop. Several old photos in frames were on the walls.
"I started wondering what to do with my life, and thought I had to do something... To be honest, I know it's weird for an old lady like me to be wearing such cute clothes. But I was cute-ish myself once, and I couldn't dress up cutely back then, so I felt like I wanted to get that time back..."
Wind blew threw a gap, making the fluorescent light sway. The wall above the gas stove was stained black with soot. Aya and Michi didn't know what to make of Kazumi talking in her own voice about Mary.
"Will that do? Now you know what my photo was doing inside the album."
"Um, would you tell me one more thing?"
"Do you know who this person is?"
Mary peered into the album, narrowing her eyes at the photo Michi pointed to.
"Ahh... Right. I should've told you about that."