The moment "it" entered Aya's body, the memories locked away in the back of her head were all released at once, leaping out like fireworks.
Aya watched the river flowing far below. Clear splashes. Aya was on top of a bridge. She released she was a young girl again. Her small hand was joined with another girl's. She was Maya. Maya was identical to Aya: her large, almond-shaped eyes; the high bridge of her nose; her flower petal-like lips. They were like two peas in a pod - they were twins.
A woman wearing grey crossed the bridge as if in pursuit of the two. The woman in her memories was the headmistress of St. Loudun's, but she had the exact same face as she did now. She wasn't young, but she wasn't old, either. She just had the same face.
The bridge, hanging high above the deep river flowing far beneath, was an unstable-looking suspension bridge made of wood and rope. It was the bridge to the shrine. Aya and Maya trembled, scared by the bridge's height and insecure swaying.
"I took you two in. In my exceptional compassion," the headmistress said kindly, "I have decided to allow you to live at St. Loudun's dormitory, with everything you could possibly wish for, and then send you to university in Tokyo - but only one of you." She looked between them, as though deciding their destinies. "One of you must be sacrificed in order for the other to be happy. For someone to live on means that someone else must be sacrificed. This is a curse that was decided long, long ago."
The headmistress had a faraway look in her eyes as she spoke. She thought back on the sad incident from the distant past. I betrayed the one I vowed to journey together with. Because of it, I'm still alive now. To keep going, I need more sacrifices. But that is the fate I brought upon myself, too. I must continue to make sacrifices for all eternity.
When the headmistress had been unable to endure the suffering, she had met these orphaned twins. That was when she had hatched the wonderful plan to split them up, sacrificing one and leaving the other to live.
She could smell red wine. So fitting for the moment when I am about to make an offering to God, thought the headmistress. The young twins desperately fought back their dizziness, as though seasick.
"It doesn't matter which of you is sacrificed. So, what will it be? Will you choose for yourselves? Or would you rather I made the choice for you?"
Her terrifying words made Aya cry. She couldn't choke back the rising sobs. "Mummy... Daddy..." she called.
The headmistress' face softened in amusement. "What are you talking about? You have no one left. Your parents killed themselves, leaving you two behind. I was the one who took you poor dears in. Let me say it one more time: your mummy and daddy are gone. No one is coming to save you. Do you understand?"
Maya squeezed Aya's hand tightly. She understood. When they had been informed of their parents' deaths, Maya and Aya had made a promise that they would live on together forever. On dark nights, and afternoons when they had no one to play with, they wouldn't be scared so long as they were together - that was what they decided. But I'm the big sister. I have to protect Aya. Maya made her mind up. I'll be the sacrifice to protect Aya. Her choice made, Maya took a step forward and glared up at the headmistress.
"Will I do? Let Aya go instead of me."
The headmistress smiled blissfully. "Such a pure heart you have, Maya. She would be happy, too. I'm sure she's been waiting for a girl so pure and sincere as you."
Maya turned to Aya, taking off her camellia hair ornament. It had belonged to their mother. They only had one, so since the day their mother had died they had swapped it each day and worn it in their hair. That day, it had been Maya's turn. She put it into Aya's hair.
"Think of this as me, okay? I'll always be by your side. Don't forget me," Maya said, as if trying to persuade her.
"Please don't go, Maya... We're going to be together forever, right?" Aya said clingily.
"You can't be. Maya is to be offered up as a sacrifice. That is why I brought you two here," the headmistress announced coldly, swiftly separating their hands and lifting the young Maya onto her shoulders. Without a hint of hesitation, she tossed her off the bridge.
"Maya!" Aya screamed.
In an instant, Maya flew through the air and fell down towards the river. Aya reached out from the bridge, almost falling. She could still feel Maya's warmth, having only been holding her hand mere moments before, but couldn't reach her. The headmistress grabbed onto Aya, leaning forwards, tightly and pulled her back. Maya vanished beneath the water.
"Take a good look. This is just the same as you having chosen Maya to be sacrificed. It wasn't me. You made Maya think that way. What a sinful child you are."
The words made Aya's vision grow dark. I killed Maya... At the bottom of the water, Maya would never hold Aya's hand again. She would never see her again. In grief and despair, dizzy like she were on a swing swaying in the wind, Aya passed out.
When she awoke, she was in the dorm at St. Loudun's. A cherry tree was in full bloom outside the window, a folded uniform on top of the chest. When she put it on for the first time, and put the camellia hair ornament in her hair, Aya forgot everything that had happened up until that moment. And that is how Maya, Aya's other half, vanished beneath the water with all of her painful memories.
When Aya was done telling of her sealed memories, for a while she looked down at the floor, still far away.
"Aya?" Michi said in a small voice. She felt like, at this rate, Aya would end up going somewhere far away. "Aya!" she said, loudly this time.
"It's okay, she's back."
Karatsu took his hand away and Aya's shoulders jumped slightly, her eyes opening. Tears began to fall from her big eyes like flowers. Even Aya herself had forgotten those sad memories, Michi thought.
"Why... why did I forget?"
"Because you were twins, you and your sister's souls were originally one. When she sacrificed herself, not wanting you to suffer, I think she took your sad memories with her soul to the other side," Karatsu said soothingly.
To confirm her returned memories, Karatsu opened the Ophelia Album, and arrived a a photo. It was the girl with the ribbon from the very first page, who was always half of the "cursed" pair - the final young girl "cursed" by her.
"I think she's your sister, Maya."
Maya wore the same hair ornament as Aya. She touched it softly. The last thing Maya gave me. The only thing she left me... And Aya finally figured out the key to solving her own mystery.
"Who is the woman in the photo beside Maya's?"
"Hmm. I've been wondering the same thing this whole time. Karatsu clapped his hands, his tone changing. "Anyway, there are lots of things we've got to resolve."
"Lots of things?"
"Right - this very town itself is cursed, so to speak. There are souls of girls unable to rest at peace all over the place. If we leave things as they are, more people will die. So we have to end it."
Listening to Karatsu speak, the boy thought, The things my dad said were true.
"Um... What exactly is it that you two do?" Aya asked again, and Karatsu grinned.
"We're volunteers, really. We help the spirits of those unable to rest at peace to cross over. There are three others, and we each have abilities - that we don't really talk about - that aren't exactly useful in this society. But putting souls to rest is always useful."
Aya had no idea what Karatsu was talking about, but for some reason she felt like she could trust him. Someone had to lift the curse, but it was likely impossible for them to do it alone. Maybe these odd people would lend them a hand. Michi thought the same thing. She felt like she had met the first adult she felt she could rely on.
"For now, let's go to the headmistress' office. I get the feeling that there's something suspicious there," said Karatsu.
"We intended to do the same. We need to make sure of what Mary told us."
Karatsu and the girls got into the van. Then Karatsu turned to the boy.
"You should go home for today. You're a child. You have a power like ours, and I think you can help us, but the place we're going is kind of dangerous for kids. Leave this bit to the adults."
What he was saying, then, was that the boy couldn't come. Usually the boy would have sulked and wanted to argue, but it was the first time someone older than him had told him to leave it to the adults. Something about it made him happy, and he automatically nodded obediently. And then, for the first time ever, the boy gave his own name: "My name is Susumu. It means 'proceeding down the path I found by myself'. My father named me."
Karatsu grinned. "What a great dad. If you meet his ghost someday, say hi to him from me."
It was also the first time anyone had called his father a nice person. "Okay." Susumu nodded.
Karatsu waved at Susumu from the driver's seat. Even as the car left, Susumu stood there for a long time, watching it go.
The van couldn't help but stand out in such a small town, but Karatsu and Makino didn't seem to mind at all. It was so imposing, it should in fact make people look away. People who are conscious of others' stares have no choice but to pretend not to have seen when they see people who don't care. Karatsu's driving was smooth, causing hardly any vibrations, and pleasant. Michi was silently surprised that such a brusque man could drive so silently. Like Susumu, her trust in him deepened further.
Pulling up in front of the school, Karatsu and the others got out of the van, leaving Risa to rest inside it. Michi was sure that the students would be watching through their dorm windows, but Michi could find no meaning in their spreading rumours about what was going on from a safe place.
"So, which way to the headmistress' office?" Karatsu asked, and Michi and Aya went inside the school.
When she stood before it again, the door to the headmistress' office seemed to even reject the one in front of it. Her power to sense "them" was getting more and more sensitive. She also got the feeling that the headmistress instinctively feared anyone else coming inside.
Karatsu held his hand up in front of the door. "You feel it too, don't you?" he said, and Michi nodded. Karatsu knocked, but there was no response. He closed his eyes.
He's using the same power as mine to search for "them", thought Michi. Makino, on the other hand, took foreign-made nutty chocolate from her bag, peeled back the silver paper and held it out to the girls, asking, "Want some?" The girls shook their heads and, glad she had it all to herself, Makino bit into it loudly.
"Be quiet, Makino." Karatsu looked up in irritation from his thoughts, glaring at Makino.
"You want some, too? It has caffeine and polyphenols in it. Might help clear your head."
"...It's alright. There's no danger here," Karatsu said calmly, turning to the girls. He's really trying to protect us, thought Michi. "It's locked, huh."
"That's okay. I'll just go and pop it open," Makino said, taking out a thin metal stick, like an earpick, and slipped it into the keyhole.
Makino put the stick into the doorknob on the headmistress' office's door, then moved her fingers two, three times. There was a click, and when she turned the doorknob the door opened. Makino looked at Michi and winked, with a look that said, What do you think of that?
Karatsu went inside first. No one was inside. Nor were "they" - just an intense, lingering presence of them. It was a first for Michi. She looked around the headmistress' room again. There was a long, mahogany desk opposite her, set in front of two windows. A glass paperweight shaped like a rabbit sat atop some documents on it. One wall was covered entirely with filing cabinets, the other with a waist-high closet. There was also a vase with peach blossoms in it. Above them hung Millais' painting of Ophelia.
"Why was it that you guys wanted to come here?" Karatsu asked Michi as he examined the Ophelia painting.
"Mary told us that the photo on the first page of the Ophelia Album is of the headmistress," Michi said, showing it to Karatsu. It was the album's first page, with the ribbon girl beside the girl with the brooding face.
"Hmm... So you mean that's the headmistress we met at the funeral service before when she was young?"
"Yes. It's just a rumour, but there's a legend that one of the two on the first page is the headmistress."
"Hmm... That means the old lady's been alive for a century," said Karatsu.
"It's impossible, right?"
"No, I wouldn't say that." Karatsu knocked on the wall beside Millais' painting of Ophelia.
"That's weird," said Makino.
"Yeah," Karatsu agreed, nodding.
"What's weird?" Aya asked.
"The noise," Makino said, putting her other arm through her old jacket.
"The other side of this wall is probably hollow. Let's take down the painting. Then we'll know."
Karatsu swiftly took down the painting. As he had said, there was another door, like a window. It was small, only big enough for one person to squeeze through at a time. Karatsu pulled the handle and opened it. That instant, Michi sensed "them". Michi was shocked that he had managed to sense it so clearly from outside of the office door. Stairs led down to a dimly-lit basement.
"Shall we go down, if you're not afraid?" Karatsu said with a bright smile. Michi wasn't worried about "them" being around as long as he was there. She nodded, and Aya and Risa nodded too. They had to ascertain the truth they were on the verge of finding out. They couldn't let anyone else die. She didn't want anyone else to. Aya agreed. Risa had been miraculously saved by the strange man. They had to find out the truth.
"I'll go first, just to be sure. You guys come down in order. Makino last," Karatsu said, stepping onto the stairs inside the door in his New Balance trainers. The two nodded once more.