A light breeze wafted by like an elegant poem through the air. The water shimmered like jewelry as the two young girls, dressed in kimono’s, darted across the riverbank. Natsuiro looked onwards as her younger sister, Haru, stood beneath a decorated lantern hanging from above with a cherry blossom petal held tightly in between her fingers. As another gust of air passed through, she raised her hand and let the petal loose. They both watched as the lone petal flowed like a note dancing across a musical score. It tumbled in the wind and beneath the bridge stretching across the river from over their heads as it traveled its way into the sunset down the stretch of the river. Dissipating in its warm glow.
Natsuiro raised her head and wiped her face as she flickered her eyelids open. The water surrounding her had chilled to room temperature and her fingertips pruned from saturation. She stepped out of the tub and swung her robe over her body. Running her hands through her hair one last time as she stood in front of the mirror staring back at herself. Black with a slight hint of brown, her hair was parted from the side and hung down just above her shoulders. Her eyes, almond shaped with just a slight upward arch at the tips. A young, but stern face. She carefully dragged a strand of hair hanging over her forehead and brushed it back to the side, running her hands all the way down and pushing her hair behind her ears. Somehow, she could never seem to understand her own appearance no matter how long she stared at herself. Turning towards the window beside her, she looked out at the vast darkness of the night.
It was 7:30pm; Kyoto, Japan.
As she stepped beside her bed, she lifted an old photo taken back when she was just a young child. Her entire family surrounding her. She gently brushed her thumb across Haru’s face. At times it felt like it was just yesterday; sometimes it felt like a lifetime. As she placed the picture back down the stand gave way and it came tumbling down to the floor beneath her feet. She reached down to pick it up when she noticed something odd. There was a white object protruding from behind the photograph. Perhaps some kind of paper slipped behind the picture frame. That’s strange, she thought to herself. How did that get in there? Curious, she quickly opened the back of the frame and removed the mysterious object. Sitting at the edge of her bed as the night breeze slipped through the window, gusting the curtains forward, Natsuiro examined the lone item. It was an old polaroid photo with a staunch white surface from corner to corner. She pondered to herself with a muddled skew to her expression. She thought back to the day she’d placed the picture into that frame. She was almost certain that nothing had managed to make its way in there as well. Especially not a polaroid film. As her curiosity got the best of her a sudden bang jolted her. Nearly making her jump up from her seat. She looked onwards with her eyes wide open at her room door that had just slammed shut. Her mind shut off for a second as the shock ran through her body. Slowly gaining control of herself, she carefully walked towards the door. With her hand on the handle, she eased it open and peered through the gap. Stepping out from her room, she checked around to see if anyone was there; her heart slowly beginning to pick up pace. “Hello...” she called out, but the apartment fell into silence as she nervously listened for the slightest sound. She carefully glanced around the apartment as though she could feel an ominous presence sharing the space with her. Returning to her room, she noticed the strong breeze blowing through her window as the curtains danced elegantly in its breeze. Realizing now what had caused her door to swing itself shut, she let out a sigh of relief and calmly made her way back to her bedside. She looked back at the photograph once more; analyzing it closely when her phone began to vibrate viciously against the top of the dresser behind her. The two jump scares in such a short period of time paid its toll as hesitation trickled over her. An eerie aura dripped down her skin like the chill of a lone stream of water. When she checked her phone, she saw a message that read, “come find me, when the minute hand strikes five.” Before responding, Natsuiro stared at the number diligently, trying to remember if it belonged to someone whom she may have known, but her mind drew a blank. Then without warning, the clock on her phone screen precariously switched from 8:01 to 8:00pm. As odd as it may have seemed, the worst of the phenomenon didn’t show itself until she noticed that not only her phone, but other clocks in the house; her wrist watch, her alarm clock, the time ticking by on the wall above the television, all rolled back by one minute. She could only think back to herself and say,
The next day, 11:55am
Sitting in class at the nearby High School, Natsuiro pulled out the polaroid from her pocket and looked at it once more. Nothing but white stretching from top to bottom. A pale voice traveled around the room, uttering words about Ko-Shinto and such. As wayward minded as she was, Natsuiro wasn’t focused at all. Only being drawn into the world surrounding her by the sound of the bell. Class was now over, and the entire room began to shuffle around as Natsuiro stuffed the picture back into her pocket. Casually looking at the clock as she got her belongings ready, she doubled back and checked the time once again. Did the minute hand move backwards just now? she questioned herself. The time read 11:59am. Could her eyes just be toying with her? She beheld her gaze on the clock as if waiting for reality to suddenly shift back to normalcy. Just then, a hand laid itself on her shoulder. Standing at the desk behind her was her close friend, Akane. Just on time as always. “Natsu-chan,” she bellowed in her usual cheery voice. “If we go now, we can make it without anyone noticing,” she shiftily dared to Natsuiro; and with an inquisitive glare, Natsuiro conformed.
Peering over the banister from way up at the top of the school building, Akane yearned her arms forward as she embraced the vast freedom preceding her. “The cherry blossoms are blooming earlier every year it feels,” she mentioned as they both looked down at the school campus. Akane lurked her way further and further over the edge while Natsuiro, kept herself grounded as a sense of vertigo crept up on her. She pulled back from the ledge and leaned her back against the banister; finding the view of the rooftop much more comforting than a 50-foot drop. Akane soon followed suit as she fished a snack from her lunch bag resting beside her feet. Pulling out a pack of dango she often purchased from one of the nearby convenience stores. She took a bite out of the Japanese delicacy, dragging one of its sticky mochi balls into her mouth, before gesturing the stick towards Natsuiro, who shook her head. They both relaxed as the breeze brought with it a calming sensation. Natsuiro then searched for the photo in her pocket and showed it to Akane, who glanced at it for a moment and, with a mouth stuffed from cheek to cheek, asked, “what is it?”
“It’s a photograph,” Natsuiro replied. Akane then took a huge gulp and followed, “I know that, what I meant was, why are you pointing it at me?” Natsuiro then explained to her how she found it but was bugged by the fact that she had no clue as to where it had come from. Akane took the photo from her and looked at it once again, then glanced back at Natsuiro. “It was hidden in one of my picture frames, but… I can’t remember ever putting it there.” Natsuiro continued to explain as though she could feel a lack of consensus coming from Akane. With her expression turned sideways, Natsuiro furled her eyebrows. “I can’t even remember the last time I saw a polaroid film,”
“A lot of people use them actually,” Akane informed. “They take photos with these, then take a photo of the photo with their phone so that they can post it on the internet… If it sounds stupid, it’s because it is stupid.” Akane could feel apprehension in Natsuiro’s aura, and quickly moved to assuage her concern. “Maybe it was an old family photo that got mixed in with your things when you moved back here,” she added, “perhaps it was already in the frame and you just didn’t notice. Things are hidden in plain sight all the time.” While handing back the photograph Natsuiro defended her curiosity by claiming, “It’s not like it’s been used, I don’t even own one of these cameras.” While dragging the last mochi ball off the skewer and into her mouth, Akane rejoined, “It’s just overexposed.” Natsuiro peered down at the photograph once more. “It’s been used already, but its overexposed,” Akane reiterated. “Too much sunlight. Maybe, whomever took the picture kept it hoping that it would still develop properly.” Natsuiro took a closer look at the film and noticed a bit of color peering through its otherwise all white surface. “Is there anyway of fixing it?” she asked, to which her friend informed, “probably not.” Disappointed, Natsuiro placed it back into her pocket and the two of them returned their gazes back out towards the horizon of Kyoto. With the remainder of their lunch break ticking by, the two of them let their bodies sink into the chilly, but unusually warm atmosphere of the March afternoon. “Have you been noticing anything strange lately?” Natsuiro markedly asked out of the blue, but before her friend could answer, the creek of an old door swinging open with force startled the two girls from behind. “The roof is off limits!” Back downstairs, now!” An agitated voice hollered at them. Standing at the door was a slender man dressed in a shirt and tie. A typical schoolteacher. Natsuiro and Akane glanced at one another as they apologized and quietly made their way towards the door. “Eat your lunch in the classroom or underneath a tree like everyone else does,” the teacher nagged as the two girls passed him by. Akane mocked the teacher’s posture as the two laughed and hurried down the staircase.
As they approached the hallway Akane turned to Natsuiro and waved goodbye before heading back off to class. Not in any rush, Natsuiro walked down the halls of the old school building, casually making her way through its corridors. She approached the library and stopped to peer inside. No one was there, which left a somewhat eerie atmosphere. However, the light seeping through the window irradiated the room in a calm and elegant manner. She walked through its aisles and grazed her hand across the books on the shelves. Eventually arriving at a table placed just in front of a window hidden in the back corner of the room. Time ticked on by as she sat alone, allowing the echo of silence to take her mind adrift.
Dark and drizzling. The water reflected the headlights of the passing cars, creating a shimmer across the road. Natsuiro followed behind an anonymous girl down an unrecognizable path.
“Where are you going?” she hollered out to the strange figure in front of her. Her words feeling like whispers in a vast void.
“That’s the question that you should be asking yourself,” The girl replied, turning her head towards Natsuiro ever so slightly. Barely peeking over her shoulder, Natsuiro could only catch a sliver of her profile. The two of them now stood in the middle of a crosswalk as the rain gradually grew heavier. “Natsu, it’s about time you woke up to reality,” the girl said as she turned her head back forward. Headlights from an approaching car stretched its graze between the two girls, like a river of light parting them onto two vastly different worlds. “I’m trying to help you,” Natsuiro cried out.
“Maybe the person who needs help is you. Look in the mirror for once in your life,” The mysterious girl replied before walking off and leaving Natsuiro behind. Just then the car blew its horn, drawing Natsuiro’s attention towards it. As she looked back in front of her, the girl had already vanished from sight. Peering back over at the vehicle, the beams from its headlights gradually expanded as it engulfed her. Submerging her view in a bright light.
The sound of a chair sliding against the floor pulled Natsuiro back into reality. “I didn’t even have to go searching for you this time, I just came straight here.” Natsuiro looked towards a man standing on the opposite side of her. The man, a teacher, sat down in the chair and rested his arms on the table. He then glanced out of the window and let out a sigh. Natsuiro quietly watched him, before also turning her gaze towards the window. “You can’t just keep doing whatever you want, Natsu. You have to put your head back on straight at some point.” Natsuiro didn’t reply as she simply beheld her gaze on the view outside. “Do you plan on spending another semester in a library staring outside of a window?” Both frustration and concern poured from his words, yet again he was only met with silence in return. The teacher sat up straight and changed his approach. “When was the last time you spoke with your mother? She called me the other day because she was concerned you haven’t been answering her calls.” Natsuiro chuckled as she looked down at her hands in her lap. “Concerned? After all those times she barely had two words to say, and now all of sudden she’s concerned? She lost that privilege a long time ago.” Attempting to reason with her, he responded, “you need to stop being so hard on everyone. Not only is it making it difficult for those around you, it’s affecting you as well. You have to stop making the sky seem like it’s falling over your head.” Frustrated, Natsuiro stood up and began walking away. The teacher then rose from his seat as well.
“Natsu, I’m only trying to help.”
She said not a single word as she marched onwards towards the exit. As she stood in front of the door, she looked towards him and said, “I’m heading back to class, so you don’t need to keep your damn leash on me anymore.” The teacher then abruptly replied, “Class is over, Natsu.” She paused for a moment. “You’ve been here for over two hours. Everyone already left for home.” There was a slight quiver in her lips as though she intended on saying something, but ultimately Natsuiro maintained her silence and walked out quietly.
Walking down the hallway, she pulled out her cellphone and scrolled through to her mother’s number. She hesitated for a while before locking her phone and placing it away. She arrived at the shoe lockers and crouched down as she slipped her feet into her sneakers. Making sure to tie her shoelaces perfectly. Just before departing, she turned to glance up at the clock in the hallway, watching closely as the second hand rotated its way into a full circle. As it passed twelve Natsuiro locked her focus on to the minute hand. It shifted. Moving in a clockwise direction. She looked at it almost disappointingly as she wrapped a red scarf around her neck, turned forward and headed through the school exit.
On her way home she passed through an old shrine that sat atop a hill in the center of the town. An easy shortcut from the school to her apartment. It was empty and eerie as usual, and the sun had already begun to set behind it, casting it into shadow with a string of light lining its contour. The cold breeze began to pick up pace as the day grew chilly with the dimming sunlight. Natsuiro felt her phone vibrate and dipped her hand deep into her bag when the sudden sound of the shrine bell ringing startled her. The trees rustled and birds darted out across the sky above her head. She looked around in a fright but is relieved to find that she was the only person there; save for a black cat sitting on the bottom step of the shrine entrance. Her phone’s vibrating drew her attention once again. This time, laying on the ground at her feet. It must have slipped out of her hand during the commotion she thought to herself. She reached for it and brushed it clean. There were two messages written across her screen from, yet again, an unknown sender.
“Come find me.
“Before it’s too late.”
The messages sent chills down Natsu’s spine. Her eyes squinted with ambiguity. as she replied, “who is this?” Only to be left unanswered.
Back home, Natsu resigned to her apathy in her usual space on the floor in front of the tables. She stared endlessly at the clock; again, watching as the second hand went by. At the turn of the new minute, the clock moved forward. She closed her eyes and let out a gasp of air. Casually checking her phone, she noticed a new message from Akane.
“Konbanwa!” the message read followed by a grinning emoji.
“I stopped by your classroom after school ended but I didn’t see you there. Did you head home early?”
The two of them would normally meet up after classes and walk home together, but her losing track of time had thrown a rock in their routine.
“I was just in the library, completely lost track of time.”
“Did Kisetsu Sensei come looking for you again? He was probably pissed!”
“I guess you could say that.”
“You did seem kind of out of it today, did something happen?”
“Just a bit stressed recently I guess you could say.”
“What was that question you asked me earlier? Something about noticing something stranger?”
“Oh… it was nothing, I thought I saw something down on the campus. I don’t think it was anything important.”
“Well, alright. I have to get back to studying before my mother glues my hand to my pen. I’ll see you tomorrow, yah?”
“Yeah sure, see you tomorrow.”
Natsuiro swung her head back as she slumped lower on to the floor. She began visualizing a rainy night. Trekking through the mud hastily. Panting as her heart raced, trying her hardest not to slip and fall. Time was of utmost importance. She couldn’t afford to waste even a second. “Wait. You have to slow down,” a familiar voice called out from behind. Was it Akane? She thought to herself, never once looking back to see who it was. The trees began to part as the view of a road slowly made itself more visible. Police cars lined the road and men and women in uniform gathered around. Natsuiro kept heading straight forward nonstop. Suddenly someone grabbed a hold of her. Desperate, Natsuiro reached out her hand. The officers up ahead all turned to her with solemn expressions drawn upon their faces. In between them she caught a glimpse of an unforgettable scene. A girl’s body lay lifeless across the floor. Their eyes unforgivingly met one another’s. The world around Natsuiro was silent. She couldn’t hear a thing. She didn’t even realize how much she was yelling.
Haru’s name escaped her mouth as she jumped awake. Back inside her apartment. She’d dozed off without realizing. Still sitting on the floor in her school uniform. After making her way to her bedroom she pulled the photograph from her pocket. Taking a look at it once more, she noticed that the developed portion of the film was much larger and more visible than before. Now taking up the entirety of the top right corner. She Looked at it closely, trying to make out what the image might be. Eventually she conceded defeat as there just wasn’t enough for her to go off. She turned to the clock beside her bed and watched in disbelief as the clock flicked one minute in reverse. It read 7:28p.m.