A girl he doesn't know is standing just inside the whispering room. She's behind the curtain, so all he can see are her black shiny shoes, and the hem of her black skirt. She must be one of the girls from the academy.
His mother left for work a few minutes ago, or he'd call for her. Then again, maybe he wouldn't. He's too used to her not being there. She's told him what to do if things go wrong, if he hurts himself when she's at work, if something breaks, if someone knocks on the door and wants to come in, but he can't remember if she ever told him what to do about a stranger already in the house.
"I know someone's there," he says.
"I can't see anyone," says the girl behind the curtain.
The number for the factory is pinned up on the wall next to the telephone, in mother's big, round, girlish writing, but he can't get the numbers right at first. His fingers keep hitting the wrong buttons, because he keeps looking over his shoulder to make sure the girl isn't following him down the hall.
Then he remembers that his mother won't even be at the factory yet. It takes her twenty minutes to walk. Even if he calls, she won't be there, and he'll still be in the house by himself with the girl.
He returns to the curtained room with his schoolbag. It's heavy enough, he thinks. But when he draws back the curtain, there's nobody there, only the long room, cold and quiet. The curtains are half drawn, and with the sun on the other side of the house, it's dark.
She's not here. The air feels lighter. Probably she was never there at all. He should be leaving for school now, anyway.
But he's never been in this room before, and now he's actually here, it's not so scary. He hasn't heard the whispering in years. Still, it's not like any other room in the house. It's a little like a shrine, a little like a museum. His mother once told him they used to take photographs in here, before the studio went out of business, but there's a bigger, brighter studio at the front of the house, and he can't see why they'd come to this dark one instead. All the pictures on the wall are of women, and look very old.
Over by the window, there are several cameras under glass, and no dust at all. He wonders if his mother cleans in here when he's asleep. He's never seen her coming in or going out.
At school he thinks of the cameras all day, one in particular. It was bigger than the others, with a top-mounted viewfinder and a face painted on it like an antique clock. It was... special. His own face gleamed back at him from the glass lens, like a secret only he knew.
At the end of the day he runs all the way home to look at it again. He expects the glass case to be locked, but the lid lifts easily and silently. The camera is heavier than he expected. Through the viewfinder the world ripples a little.
He surveys the wall of photos, the chair against the white backdrop near the door. He presses the shutter button, but there's only a dry click, no whirring from inside.
As he's leaving the room, the girl sitting in the chair turns to watch him. He doesn't let her know he's seen her this time, and she doesn't speak.
His mother gets home late again, too tired to cook, unloading a pile of sandwiches on the table. The camera is still hanging around his neck, and he wonders if she'll tell him to put it back. She only says, "So you've been in there, have you? I thought you were scared."
He doesn't remember telling her that. It must have been a long time ago. "Do you know if there's any film that works with this?"
"Oh, probably. Boxes and boxes of film in the attic. I'll look tomorrow. I'm too tired now."
She'll be too tired tomorrow, as well, but it's all right. He's not afraid to go in the attic. She tells him what sort of film to look for, then goes out into the back garden to smoke.
When she comes back, he blurts out, "Did this belong to my father?"
"What gave you that idea?" She shakes her head. "It was my father's, actually – your grandfather, Susumu. But it's not really anyone's. It's a trust, do you know what that means? Everyone who lives here has to sign an agreement to say they'll look after that room and everything in it, because of its historical importance." She picks up a sandwich, looks at it, puts it down again. "But the house has belonged to our family for a hundred and fifty years, so it might as well be ours. Just be careful with it, all right?"
He thinks that's all, but she stops him in the passage. "Are you okay? Did something happen today?"
But he can't tell her he was frightened of a girl who wasn't there. Anything coming from downstairs will have to pass her room to get to his, he tells himself, and he's glad. There are times he wishes his mother were more like the women he sees waiting around the school at the end of the day, but he can't picture any of them standing in the hallway, smiling at the dark, like she does.
He suddenly wants to wrap his arms around her waist and bury his face in the stiff crinkles and scratchy lace of her dress, her faint smell of tobacco smoke and perfume and powder. But he'd have to shift the bulky weight of the camera from his chest, and before he can do it, she gives him the usual brief squeeze around the shoulders. "Don't stay up playing with that thing."
In the moment before her bedroom door closes and leaves the hall in darkness, he knows the moonlight will be falling between the half-open curtains in the whispering room: blue underwater light, and someone sitting in the chair.
"Are you sure nobody's home?"
"I can't see anyone." It's more than that. The place is empty, she can feel it. She hoists herself up through the window, and helps Hanami in after. There are still two chairs posed before the dusty white backdrop, and Mio moves one aside while Hanami examines the cameras.
"This is the only one with film in it," she says, holding up the biggest, the one with the top-mounted viewfinder and the face like a clock.
"Go on, then." She seats herself in the single chair.
Hanami lifts the camera, then lowers it. "I don't like this one."
Mio is caught between exasperation and affection. "It's the same one they used," she says, indicating the girls on the wall who look on, impassive.
"How do you know?"
The same way I know nobody's here but us. "Just take my picture, and I'll take yours, and we can go. Is there enough film for both?"
"Just." Hanami bows her head to the viewfinder, and Mio realises she doesn't like the camera, either. They're looking at each other, and yet in different directions. She can't see Hanami's face, but she can see her own, reflected in the dark glass.
She should be sitting next to me, not standing over there.
"Hurry up. Just take it."
She feels she's been waiting in this chair for years. It's cold in this room, so cold, and the air is heavy. Something's wrong. Hanami isn't answering her, and she isn't taking the picture.
Mio looks down, and her skirt is billowing out around her knees, and her hair is floating around her face. The light falling from the half-curtained windows is blue and wavering, and when she looks to the back of the room, she thinks she can see their pictures already hanging there side by side. Already decades old.
Now she's standing in a different room where Hanami kneels with her head bent, the way she bent over the camera, only this time she's praying, and won't turn to face her – and if she did, Mio would see she's old, too.
Now she's back in the photo studio, but it's not Hanami holding the camera. It's a boy. She's never seen him before. He walks past without so much as a glance in her direction. Is he a ghost? she wonders. Then, Am I?
Now there are flowers falling like rain. A scent of summer in the air. She closes her eyes, and breathes in water.
A month ago he watched the girls emptying out of the academy, pouring down the road with suitcases and bags, to catch trains or get into their parents' cars. A month from now they'll start to trickle back, but Susumu will be gone by then.
The spirit room is just the same: still air, soft carpet, silence and light. All the unsmiling girls still stare from their photo at the future they were denied, and now they look young to him. The single chair still rests against the white backdrop, ready for another occupant, but Susumu doesn't think there'll be one. Times have changed.
The lid of the glass case still lifts without a catch, without a sound, and he places the Camera Obscura back down on the green velvet he took it from more than a decade ago. Beside it, he lays his album of ghost pictures, mist and sunlight gathering on water. He will go, but the camera must stay: it's part of the trust. It's not for long. He'll be back.
He still sees her sometimes, in the empty chair. He can't remember when he stopped being afraid of her.
The day is like a dream, quiet and hot, the sky yellow with haze. In the woods the twigs snap under his feet, tinder-dry, but in the swampy shade near the water tank, there are violets growing.
The door isn't locked.
Summer never comes in here. Cold, damp air, dripping walls, the dark. Of course, they drained the tank back when that little girl was found: nothing else can be here, but she is, all the same. If he had the camera, he would be able to see her, just under the water.
One by one, he casts in the flowers he brought. They are suspended for a while, light floating in darkness, then one by one they sink, as if the water is gathering them.
He doesn't know if they bring her any comfort, but it's the least he can do.
As he's retracing his steps through the breathless wood, he feels the earth shiver beneath his feet. A deep rumble rises from below like thunder, then dies. After that, the air feels fresher, and a breeze springs up, cooling his face, bringing the smell of rain.
It's not over. She'll be in the spirit room again tonight, with the rain against the window sending blue shadows rippling down the walls. But they have time: a year, or two, or three. Time for him to meet the woman with a camera like his, and learn whatever she can teach him. Maybe there is a way for him and Aya to end the curse. The girl in the water has waited all this time – she can wait a little longer.