Though she only told of it afterwards, Aya said she had a dream then. She awoke deep in the forest, where she could feel a sea breeze. Maya was staring at her.
"Where am I...?"
"The moonlit forest. Take a look. Isn't the moon pretty?"
"It really is... It's so bright, like in the middle of summer... I can't even see the stars. Hey, Maya, am I dead?"
"No. I broke your curse. I was lonely by myself, but you remembered me, so I'm not alone anymore."
Aya remembered Maya's clinging gaze as she had fallen from the bridge. "Maya... I'm sorry, Maya. Sorry for letting you sacrifice yourself for me."
Aya hugged Maya tightly, wearing her completely dry uniform. "I'm going to be with you forever, now, Maya. I won't leave you again. I won't leave you alone. I'll never leave this forest again."
"I'm already dead, Aya. You have to get out of this forest."
"I won't. I don't want to leave you. Anyway, I'm cursed. The headmistress told me so."
"You're not cursed, Aya. I think I came back to tell you that." Maya smiled and gently kissed Aya's tears. "I didn't curse you. That's all I wanted to say. You can go," Maya said, touching Aya's hair. She took out Aya's hair ornament and dropped it beside the water at their feet.
Aya stared at Maya, and noticed tiny flecks appear on her face, which gradually grew larger and turned into black stains. The stains grew bigger, the black eating away Maya's whole body. She heard the faint sound of bones cracking.
"Look away from me now," Maya said sadly. "Turn your back, don't look around, and run." She could hear Maya singing Ophelia's Song in the distance.
"I finally broke my own curse, too. I died so long ago, but I still had your memories from back then, so my body aged to 17. Isn't that strange? You were the only one supposed to grow up... So, become an adult. Live for me, too, because I couldn't. That's my final wish."
"It's okay, Aya. Don't look at me as I crumble."
Maya's voice gave her a shove in the back, and Aya ran. Several times she wanted to turn, but she resisted it desperately, trying to uphold Maya's final wish. Don't turn back. Become an adult.
Yomotsu Hegui gives you form
Lighting a single flame
Fleeting dreams become not love
Leave for the real world and do not turn back
Rain began to fall. The water pooled in no time at all, becoming a distant riverbank. Then, Aya heard Mich calling her from beside the water.
Taruho Saginomiya and Takashi fled through the depths of the forest. They arrived at the top of the dam embankment. Taruho embraced the much larger body of Takashi.
"Oh Takashi, my dear Takashi."
Taruho had been a third year in high school when Takashi had been in the traffic accident. He was still a second year in elementary school, a darling child with graceful features and a friendly smile, who behaved cutely like a little girl. His sister Taruho included, the entire family doted upon him. Taruho's family was old and rich, so when Takashi had been unconscious he had been nursed with as much care as possible. Three months later, he miraculously awoke, and the family were overyjoyed. Taruho thanked God.
But when her brother regained the ability to speak, the first thing he said was: "Where did she go?" The first thing Takashi said upon surviving was not about himself, his father or mother, or even Taruho herself, but that. The family were speechless.
The girl who had been riding on the bicycle with Takashi, and had been in the accident with him, died instantly. She was Takashi's girlfriend. Taruho had first learned of her when they got in the accident. They had both got on the bicycle and tried to sneak out of town. The accident was caused by the error of a man driving a large truck, so Taruho's family simply paid a small sum of money to the girl's family and didn't even leave flowers.
"Where did she go?" Takashi would repeat, like a broken record. Even after the oxygen tube, drip and respirator were removed, and he was done with rehabilitation, he kept asking. "Where did she go?" A little while afterwards, as if paying for Takashi's accident, their parents too got in an accident and died suddenly. Takashi still said nothing. Ever since the accident, he had hardly spoken.
After Takashi's accident, Taruho joined a Catholic university, got her teaching licence and became a nun, and returned to her local school of St. Loudun's, deciding never to marry or have children, and live for Takashi.
Takashi was now 21. He was tall, with long, graceful limbs and dazzling white teeth, and Taruho loved him. While Taruho was at school, Takashi spent the afternoons alone inside the forest. At first, he made a small, silver coffin the size of his palm. Inside it, he put a single pearl. It was something he had given the girl when they left town, promising to someday make it into a ring and give it to her. When he woke up and could walk, he had found it shining in the grass near where the accident had happened like the evening dew. He put it in the small box and buried it beside the water.
Every day after that, Takashi prayed in front of the small gravestone. Then finally, one day, as if his wish had been granted, he met his Ophelia. It was a beautiful, 17-year-old drowned body that washed up by the water's edge. Takashi thought the girl had come back, but the coffin with the pearl in it was too small for her. Then, he found a shiny silver coffin that was more befitting of Ophelia. That was the tank.
Takashi was not, in fact, the only one who saw the beautiful 17-year-old corpse. Kasumi, unable to sleep before her induction ceremony and leaving the dorms she had just moved to, saw a white shadow by the water and went to the dam, seeing Takashi pick Ophelia up. Kasumi could see "it" a little, too. Then at the induction ceremony she saw Aya, who looked just like Ophelia, and fell in love with her.
Now that Takashi's Ophelia had returned to the underworld, the pearl should be floating alone at the bottom of the tank. Then all of Taruho's distant, fun, painful memories flooded back. She and the still young Takashi had opened a photo album in the large sunroom in their house. It was the Ophelia Album. Takashi's photo was in it.
"If there's a girl you like, put her photo in here," Taruho said, stroking his head. "You'll be together in the next world. In exchange, I won't let any living woman have you while you're alive."
Takashi flipped through the album alone, staring hungrily at the photos of a young Maya and the first student to be cursed. Then he pointed to Maya's photo, with his expressionless face and blank eyes.
"You like this girl, Takashi? Alright. I'll copy it and put it beside yours."
Takashi didn't respond. Taruho wondered what he was looking. He hadn't been himself ever since the accident. She wanted to see him smiling innocently again. That was her only wish.
Maya had been called back to this world again with the yuukon curse. Taruho realised straight away that Takashi was hiding a drowned body in the tank. She would never forgive any woman who went near him, but she saw no problem with a corpse, so she thought she had to let him keep her. Taruho knew that the body was Maya's, so when Aya noticed her presence she drugged and imprisoned her. She had planned to eventually kill her in secret, but the foolish students had cast love curses on themselves, and tried to get near the place where Takashi's Ophelia was. Taruho thought she had to kill them for Takashi's sake.
Having run all the way to the side of the water storage tank in the forest, Taruho finally crouched down.
"...I'm tired, Takashi." Takashi let out a white breath. "It's hard work killing people, you know."
It was true. It seemed to Taruho like the fatigue had hit her all at once. Takashi held out the album he had been hiding on him to the crouching Taruho.
"Yes. Let's look at the album... Your dear girl is in there."
The two sat side by side, turning the pages of the album. Takashi turned to the newest page. There, side by side, were photos of him and Taruho.
"Takashi..." He wrapped his arms around the surprised Taruho's shoulders and smiled slowly. "Can I... really be your Ophelia?" Takashi nodded slowly. "Are you sure you don't want it to be her?" Taruho said, referring to Maya. But "she" was just "she" to Takashi.
"The girl I was looking for is the one I killed on my bike."
"Takashi...? You can talk?"
Takashi smiled. "Yeah. I wonder why, even though I could never talk to you until now. I feel like someone's saying that I don't need her anymore. I was cursed for a long time - something like a curse I put on myself because I couldn't forgive my own sins. But it's broken now." Takashi took Taruho's hand. "But because I cursed myself, you committed lots of sins, too. You have to pay for that. So this is the final curse. I cursed you. Sorry." Takashi smiled sadly.
Finally realising that he had been searching all along for the girl he lost in the accident, Taruho felt saddened. They hadn't even sent flowers, nor been to the funeral. She wished she had. She wished she had cried, for Takashi. Then he wouldn't have had to burden himself with all of it. He had carried her with him the whole time.
"No. I'm happy. I've always wanted this." Taruho drew her face close to Takashi's. "Thank you, Takashi, for breaking my curse. I don't have to kill anyone anymore."
Takashi lifted Taruho to her feed and entered the lake. Taruho buried her face deep against him. Takashi began to sing the Ophelia Song. Taruho sang it too. Their song steadily disappeared into the water. A few days later, they were found holding hands, floating on the surface of the lake. With that, the curse was probably broken completely.
Then, the graduation ceremony arrived. It was the last day they would wear their black uniforms with white collar and cuffs. Aya sang Ophelia's solo in front of the entire school. Her pure voice echoed around the chapel, tugging at their heartstrings. The tale of a lover unable to turn and go back to the land of the dead was their passing girlhood. That was what they all thought as they listened to Aya sing.
Ritsuko had researched and found out that Ophelia's Song had only the first part, and that the second had been written by someone else. It had apparently been published in an old girls' magazine column from the Meiji period. Ritsuko said that it was by a girl called Mio Takaishi, the same name as the girl fixated on the headmistress. She cursed the headmistress, sacrificing girls, but Michi and the others thought that maybe at the same time she had also written down the way to break the curse. The headmistress had never known this, simply having the students continue singing the second part of the song that she left behind. That day, however, the headmistress had not been present at the graduation. They heard that she had taken responsibility for the incident and resigned.
Ritsuko had posted the facts of the series of cases on a video site, but no one believed them. They all thought it was simply a kind of urban legend, or nothing more than a fabrication. Kasumi and Itsuki's deaths were put down to the serial killings of the nun. She had been found dead in the lake with Takashi, so the investigation ended there. The police had no interest in the truth aside from that. So many people had died - it should have caused a massive stir. And yet it didn't, neither amongst the police, nor the general public. No one had any interest in murders in small towns.
The curse unfolded like the short, week-long war the country had unexpectedly got itself embroiled in overseas. As the girls had spent their time shut away, people had foolishly believed that the country being able to participate in war made it mature. Then, in battle, people of this country had killed those from others, and foreigners had killed people of this country, but no one called that serial murder. In any case, real war excited people, and the people of this country mourned the nun as if that was what she had been. That is something far more scary than a horror novel or a game.
Despite this, the things that happen in this small town are in a distant world. The town is unlikely to change - unlike the girls.
The basement room in the shrine vanished, as did the hidden room behind the Ophelia painting in the headmistress' office. Even if you took down the painting, only a wall was there.
"So that means that the other world was joined momentarily to this one," said Ritsuko, her graduation certificate in one hand. "I'd like to research more into it, though. I wish the Japanese police had something like an X Files division." The X Files division was something that had been on an old TV show that apparently referred to a team specialising in occult investigations. Seeing her say it with a straight face made Michi and Aya laugh together.
"You're not wearing your eyepatch anymore?" Aya asked Michi.
"I don't need it anymore. I realised that I can't see "them" anymore. I guess it must be because I'm adult now, not a girl. I'm kind of sad, but you can't stop the hands of the clock. It's time to open a new door."
Aya didn't really understand what Michi was saying, but hearing her say "new door" with such fresh eyes, she didn't seem to need to say any more. Our girlhood sank along with that coffin. Risa moved over to them.
"Um, I never thanked you two or anything, so, thanks for saving me."
The three held hands beneath the blooming cherry tree. We'll never be cursed by the curse that only affects girls again, thought Aya. We're joined in this world not by a curse, but by hands, bodies, and feelings.
"What are you going to do now that you've graduated?" Michi asked Risa. "Are you really going to get married?"
"No. I'm not going to get married to the person my parents chose. I cried and begged, and they agreed weirdly easily. I'm going to nail college."
"You're fulfilling Itsuki's dream in her place?"
"More like I feel like I have a little bit of confidence that I can do anything. It might not go well, but I'm not fulfilling Itsuki's dream instead of her - I think I would make her happier for me to grow up well," Risa said, her face not that of the fawning girl who always chased after Itsuki.
"Good luck, Risa," Michi said, patting her on the shoulder. Risa smiled, embarrassed.
"Oh, right - it looks like Waka actually passed an audition. Not for FruitsGirls, though. Looks like some other group," Ritsuko said in surprise. Whether the war had started or ended, apparently what was most important to Waka was making herself an idol. "And even more unbelievably, I hear Nagi passed along with her. She's so plain, but it looks like Waka applied on her behalf and she got in."
"So that's why they're not here, even though it's graduation. I guess they've already gone off to Tokyo. Feels kind of like the first time we get to see someone we know have their dream granted right in front of us."
"What about you, Ritsuko?" Aya asked, catching a falling cherry petal in her palm.
"I'm going to university in Canada. There's a little university in Montreal where you can study modern folklore." Michi was surprised to hear the name of somewhere much further away than Tokyo come up. Ritsuko smirked. "I won't stop uploading occult videos once I'm in Canada, though."
They all laughed.
This is how we spend our last day as girls. We sang that song as our farewell to our childhoods. Everyone becomes an adult someday. I have to cherish each season that Maya didn't get to see, Aya thought.
Susumu waited for his mother outside of the factory on the outskirts of town. He didn't have the camera with him anymore. The sunset siren sounded, and Mary came out in her work clothes. She rubbed Susumu's head gently. The two began walking home.
"I think I'm going out shopping for clothes at the weekend," Mary said as if remembering it. "Normal clothes, without white frills on. I'm going to be more like your mother. So..." Kazumi Yamada said, holding out her hand to the boy. Susumu took it.
As they walked along, the sky changed from a brilliant peach to violet, then a deep indigo.
When the graduation ceremony ended, before Aya travelled off to her school in Tokyo, Aya and Michi climbed the mountain with the tank. They looked down over the town from atop the hill. Such a small town. They could see everything from where they were. All of the last camellia blooms had fallen to the ground, giving off the sweet scent of spring.
"I've decided to go to a photography school in Osaka," Michi announced to Aya. "It's not Tokyo, and it's pretty halfway going somewhere so close, but I guess Tokyo is still too far away for me," Michi said honestly. She had wanted to go to Tokyo with Aya, but hadn't had the courage.
Aya nodded quietly. The two overlooked the town for a while in silence, feeling it was the last time they would ever come to this hill.
"I want to take one last photo of you," Michi said suddenly.
Michi wanted to cling onto the passing season, so, in order to remember someday the strange time she spent with Aya, she wanted to capture it in a photo. Michi peered through the viewfinder, and in it she saw not just Aya, but several girls. They were the girls from the album who had died from the curse. Kasumi and Itsuki were there, too. All of the dead girls still surrounded Aya, smiling. They all stood there, as if alive, trapped innocently within their own eternal adolescence.
"What's wrong?" Aya asked.
"Everyone's hear," Michi said, her voice tearful. "They're all around you, smiling, like they're alive. I shouldn't be able to see them now, even without my eyepatch, so why...?" Michi lowered the camera. "It's okay. I won't take one."
"Wasn't it in The Little Prince, that you can't see with your eyes what's really dear to you? If it's in your heart, then that's all that matters. It's all there, as a memory. A photo can't capture that."
Aya touched Michi's cheek. Their faces drew close. Michi wanted to press her lips to Aya's soft, full ones, but drew away silently.
"Goodbye," said Michi.
"Goodbye," said Aya.
This is when we go off and become normal adults, thought Michi. Holding Aya's hand, they walked down from the hill. But we'll never forget this, thought Aya. We were all cursed by the curse that only affects girls. Someday we'll remember it for a moment and cry.
The cherry season ended. The headmistress floated slowly on top of the water tank inside the forest, with its vibrant new buds. A smile was on her face.
The painting of Ophelia in the headmistress' office moved. Inside it was a door that never should have been there. The new headmistress came out of it. She was said to be the niece of the dead headmistress, but she looked identical to her. And that is how the curse that affects only girls began again.