"You know your mother said the same thing when she was your age," Sara's grandmother said. There was a crackle of interference, and Sara could picture her, sitting in the chair by her bed and twisting the phone cord around her fingers.
"I know, Gramma," she said, smiling. "You've told me."
"She couldn't stand it any more, she had to get out, she was going to live by herself, she didn't need the shrine and the shrine didn't need her... and in the end, after she had you, she came back. I knew she would. I've lectured you enough about your responsibilities, so I won't start, but it's not really about that anyway. It's about where your home is. That's why I'm not worried about you."
Sara rolled her eyes. "I'm glad you're not worried, Gramma."
"Don't 'Gramma' me as if I don't know what I'm talking about, ya little punk."
Sara laughed. "Stop talking like that, it sounds all wrong. I have to go and study now, okay?"
"I'm glad you're working hard, at least. You've taken your chance – don't waste it." She paused a moment. "What is that in the background? Are you listening to music while you're talking to me?"
"No, it's my next-door neighbour. She plays the piano."
"You didn't mention a neighbour."
"I don't know her very well."
"You should be making friends," her grandmother said, disgruntled. "They don't know how to be good neighbours in the city – "
"I'm hanging up, Gramma, goodbye!"
After she'd put the phone down, she did make a valiant effort to concentrate on her work, but after the third time she got to the bottom of a page with no memory of what she'd just read, she had to admit she was too tired. At least tomorrow was Sunday, so she'd have the whole day to catch up. Leaving her books out on the table to make sure she'd see them first thing, she made her way to the bathroom at the end of the hall, yawning.
When she lay down to sleep, she could still hear the sound of her neighbour playing. She didn't mind the noise much – it had always been the silence that bothered her in Karasawa Village – but the melody was so sad, and never seemed to vary or develop. It just circled around to the same place, over and over, like someone trapped in a maze...
There was no way she'd get back to sleep feeling as edgy as she did now, so she hauled herself out of bed. She could get a glass of water, or maybe even reheat some soup, then finish her assigned reading, maybe get an early start on her laundry...
That was when all the lights went out.
Next door, someone screamed – not a cry of surprise, but a full-throated, terrified shriek. The fading adrenaline from the nightmare thudding through her anew, Sara started to run across the room, only to strike her shin painfully on the low table and fall with a crash. The scream came again.
Moving more carefully this time, Sara made her way towards the door, groped for the key hanging on its hook, and stepped out into the corridor. Almost immediately, someone ran into her at full speed, and they went down together in a tangle of limbs.
"Who's there? Who's there?" The voice was right in her ear, and the person on top of her was fighting wildly, lashing out with a panicky strength.
"It's – Washizuki," Sara managed, dazed and winded. "I live next door, stop hitting me!"
The blows stopped, for which she was thankful. She managed to pull herself out from beneath the other girl's weight, then helped her up too.
"I have to get out of here," the girl gasped. "Please, I need to get out." Now she was clinging to Sara's arm as if to a lifeline, which made it difficult to navigate the dark hallway. Sara wasn't even sure she was going the right way until her outstretched hand encountered the elevator doors. Even the emergency lights in the stairwell had gone out, which made it an endeavour to reach the bottom, and it didn't help that the girl kept moaning with fear, sometimes hitting out at the darkness as if she thought something were there. It seemed like hours before they reached the fire exit and tumbled out into the open air, where the reflected light pollution from the clouds was bright enough for them to see what they were doing.
"All the street lights have gone out, too," Sara said, looking away while the girl leaned against the car-park barrier and gasped for air. "It must be a big outage. I hope they'll get the power back on soon."
"I'm sorry," the girl said in a small voice. "I couldn't – I just – "
"You're scared of the dark?" Sara asked gently.
The girl nodded. "I don't know what came over me. I guess I just panicked."
"It's okay." It had been raining. The pavement was wet beneath Sara's bare feet, and the breeze was cool. She wished she'd thought to grab a coat as well as her keys. She kept expecting other people from the building to come outside as well, but she guessed it must be late enough that they were all asleep. The only sound was distant traffic, the echoing rattle of trains, and the odd car trundling past at low, careful speeds. Their white headlights splashed across the parking lot and made the girl in her white dress look luminous and ghostly.
"Did you say your name was Washizuki?" she said, after a silence.
"Yeah, Sara Washizuki."
"I'm Shiori Hasebe. Thanks for helping me out. And for being so nice about it."
"It's really okay."
"You don't have to stay out here with me," Shiori said half-heartedly, and visibly relaxed when Sara said she was going to anyway.
After that, Sara's attempts at conversation fell flat. Shiori seemed preoccupied, slow to answer, more interested in trying to huddle up small enough to disappear. Eventually, Sara gave up and waited, growing colder and colder. Some of Shiori's anxiety must have rubbed off on her, because once she looked across the car park and got a shock to see a figure standing on the other side, against the railings. Or was it a figure? There was so much ivy growing over and around those railings, it might just have been a shadow among the vines. She stared at it for a long time, but couldn't tell for sure.
Suddenly, from beside her, Shiori said, "Do you..." Sara looked at her expectantly, waiting for her to go on, and she said all in a rush, "Do you believe people can be cursed?"
Sara felt a chill that had nothing to do with the wind. "What do you mean by 'cursed'?"
Shiori gave her a long, frightened look. She opened her mouth, and at that moment, the lights came back on. Shiori started as if at a gunshot, then jumped to her feet. "I have to go. Thank you, again. I'm sorry. Thank you."
She bolted back inside. Sara stood up more slowly, rubbing at the goosebumps on her arms. Just before she reached the doors, she remembered the figure she thought she'd seen standing on the other side of the car-park. She looked back, but there was nothing there at all. It was impossible to tell whether she'd really seen anyone.
By the time she got back into her apartment, she was more than ready to go back to sleep, but before she did she climbed up on a chair and got down one of the suitcases from the top shelf of her wardrobe. Inside was the Camera Obscura, right where she'd left it when she thought she'd never need it again. She didn't think she'd need it now, but her grandmother had warned her and warned her to be careful, to keep it within reach, and it would be reckless to ignore the bad feelings she was getting out of pure stubbornness.
She put it on her bedside table and crawled back into bed, drawing the covers tight around her before turning off the light. As she was falling asleep, she thought she heard Shiori start to play the piano again next door. She thought she heard crying, too, but perhaps that was only a dream.
"Nothing, Gramma, I'm just tired. I haven't been sleeping well."
Her grandmother said nothing, waiting for Sara to get antsy and start spilling confessions, but Sara had lived with her too long to be taken in by that old trick. She continued folding laundry in the silence, and finally, her grandmother said, grudgingly,
"I don't hear any music tonight. Where's your neighbour?"
"I think she must have gone away," Sara said, and didn't feel guilty for the lie. "I went to knock on her door after you said I should try making friends, but there was no answer." She didn't mention that there'd been a man in her apartment, frantic with worry, asking whether Sara had seen anything strange, because his sister was missing. "I haven't heard anything since." That much was true, at least.
Her grandmother seemed to know something was wrong, even so, because her next question was, "You're keeping that camera close, aren't you?"
"Of course. Gramma, I have to go, I have a lot of reading to catch up on. I'll call again next Saturday, okay?"
That night, she had the dream about Kanon's disappearance again. For just a moment, when she woke, she thought she heard someone playing the piano next door. She thought her limbs were pinned, and a weight was resting on her chest. She thought someone was crouching by her bed.
It was the camera she reached for first, when she could move again, but the light from the flash showed nothing, and when she switched the lamp on, there was nobody there. And though she kept dreaming of Kanon, that was the only time she dreamed of Shiori.