The teacher smiled at me and adjusted her glasses when I made it back to class. I apologized profusely and explained what happened with my sister. She put her hands on my shoulder and said, with a smile, “Such a caring sister. Are you going to be okay?” While my mind was still back in the nurse’s office, I nodded and calmly took my regular seat.
Mayu’s seat in the next row was painfully-absent. I tried to distract my mind with the lesson, but it kept coming back to my sister. As I wrote and practiced, I thought of my sister’s first words: my name. Over and over and over and over...for months. Our parents couldn’t believe I remembered that when I could barely say more than a few words myself. But I did. I had to stifle a laugh as I remembered her little voice saying my name with such glee.
Amidst my note-taking, I absentmindedly made a sketch of my sister laughing. Some irrational part of me feared the worst. I took a few breaths and glanced out the open window. A spring breeze drifted over me at a moment when I most needed it. The smooth, brilliant green flutter of the trees outside the window brought calm to my heart.
My eyes wandered over a pair of girls in front of me. I never really talked to them, but they helped the class rep sometimes and seemed really close. The one with short, brown hair wrote something on a paper and passed it to the one with long, deep-pink locks and red bows on both sides of her head. When the teacher wasn’t looking over, she crouched down and read the paper. She covered a snicker with her hand and bent over to write something else.
For some reason, as I looked at the two of them, I had a momentary impression of a pair of teenage boys looking over yuri manga at an anime convention.
I grimaced and struck the idea right out of my head.
I just have my mind on opposite sex versions of people, I told myself. It was nothing more. It was bad to indulge such wanderings of the mind. I straightened my posture and refocused on the lesson. I let the quiet brush of the breeze occupy my reflective moments. In my head, I could still imagine my sister was right next to me and that everything was fine.
Then, I saw her standing over by the doorway with a piece of paper in her hand. She looked weary as she approached the teacher, who pulled her close and whispered to her for a moment. With her head down, Mayu only nodded and whispered back.
The teacher gestured to her seat. I felt a cold chill where once the breeze was a cool relief. Mayu slowly made her way over to her seat as though it was her first time sitting in it. I sniffled to myself and clutched my hands. I willed the day to pass quickly. I willed time to flow so I could just talk to my sister again and hug her tight and remind her of everything she seemed to have forgotten.
But class dragged along in far too many still and empty moments that tugged at my heart. When the chime came, I was beginning to gnaw on my fingernails. Mayu had only looked at me briefly. She seemed anxious with her composition work, like all this was new to her. I felt just as lost.
I walked over to her side as the teacher left. I crouched beside her. I found it hard to talk, but I told her, “I’m so sorry, Mayu. I wish I understood what happened.” Quietly, she answered back, “Me too…” I squeezed Mayu’s hand gently. She tensed up but didn’t pull away.
I told her that we only had two more classes for the day. She nodded and said, “I wish I knew what to say to you. But I don’t remember any of this.” I nodded back and said, “That’s okay. I’ll be right here.” She fought with a grimace and whispered, “And I wish that made me feel better. But you were never a girl until I looked at the picture on the paper and showed it to you...” Despite my sick feeling hearing that, I just smiled and told her, “Everything is going to be alright.”
The rest of the day passed in an aura of ominous quiet and unknowing. I wondered if the art papers were a curse. And I feared what more might happen if I or Mayu looked at them again. I knew Mayu still carried hers in her school bag, but she didn’t seem interested in looking at them any time soon. She only opened her bag quickly to take out whatever she needed for class.
When it was time to go home, after cleaning up the classroom, I finally felt released. My heart told me I should’ve asked for my sister to go home early, to rest and recover. But my mind doubted if it would’ve made a difference. After telling Mayu’s art club that she would have to leave early and my singing club the same, we walked home together.
Every so often, Mayu paused on a corner and just looked around. She marveled at houses in a row and apartments and trees and every little thing. My mind ran over the brain disorders I’d heard in passing on the news. But I didn’t know enough to have any clue what was wrong.
I swallowed and put my hand on her shoulder. She rocked, like she wanted to shake my hand off, but she settled. She panted and whimpered, “I’m so scared…” Instantly, I squeezed my sister tightly to me. I shrugged away the discomfort and the ache in my legs. I just held her and focused on spilling out my heart through my touch. I’d seen too many shows but I hoped and wished so much, that something inside me could reach out to her and make it all better.
I held that feeling till tears streamed down my face and I was whimpering against her. After a moment, she relaxed. She turned around carefully. I could see tears twinkling on the corners of her eyes. She repeated and continued, “I'm so scared. I don’t know what happened to you…or maybe to me…but thank you. It all feels strange, but you feel like the same person I love so much. Thank you…”
My spirit soared in her words. She still seemed uneasy, but I promised to drive even that bad feeling from her, as best I could. I held her hand as we took the train home. I even bought her candy and a soda. She marveled at both like they were rare treats. I clutched our bags in my lap. Mayu eyed her bag but soon relaxed and watched our city fly by through the window.
The girl across from us leaned on her hand and shut her eyes. Her light-blond hair looked a bit short for a girl and her skirt conservatively-long. Despite furrowing her brow, the girl soon napped. Mayu yawned as she watched her, then shook her head and said, “I never thought I’d see real anime people…”
She still thought all this was anime. I just nodded back to her calmly. After a moment, her eyes began to blink and she seemed ready to sleep. My poor sister. What horrible thing could make her feel as though the entire world had suddenly changed all around her? I guided her head to my shoulder despite the fact my back gave a press of pain.
As I sat there, I thought about the papers in our bags. Despite a rush of anxiety, I carefully undid my sister’s bag and sifted for her papers. All the familiar items from my last, merely-innocent, look at her bag were still there. It took a few tense moments, but I finally found the two, sleeved papers. Biting my lip, I slid the first one out. I averted my eyes, except for the edge of the paper. Then, I took a quick glance.
The first image I saw was of a strong but lithe man in a red, Chinese shirt and silvery pants. He had a smile, but he also had my sister’s face. He looked boyish but tall. He looked strong, like a fighter. It was a well-drawn image. I could feel the character on the page. It was what I expected from the artist.
I had a smiling boy with a striped-green shirt, pants, and a messenger bag which reminded me of my school bag. He definitely had my face, but he didn’t really seem anything like me. My other two were sillier. I asked for a skintight boy. I blushed remembering him. His outfit showed every inch of his firm, boyish shape. The flow of his shoulders. The ripple of his flat chest. The artist even left a small scar on his face, barely-hidden by his lengthy red hair and half-cowl. I thought of him as a pretty-boy villain, but I liked him.
Mayu’s other art was more like him. As no surprise to me, he was a catboy. And his long hair was white like snow. He wore a blue-green shirt that looked more like it was painted on than worn. The same went for his black pants. He was very muscular. I felt a little blush just looking at him. He almost looked real, despite the ears at the top of his head. For all the manly attributes, he still had my sister’s face and a hint of her smile.
I didn’t look at the images for any longer than I felt I should. I slipped both works into my bag and put all five images deep inside. I had an unshakable feeling that these images were just bad news, that they were responsible for my sister’s lost memories. I could imagine myself tearing them to pieces till there was nothing left that could possibly harm my sister. Then, I hoped the spell or curse or whatever was over her would be broken and things would be normal again.
I closed my bag and tried to put the images out of my mind. It wasn’t long before we came to our stop. I smiled at my sister’s sleeping features. I roused her as gently as I could. When her wide eyes popped open, I felt a hopeful moment where I saw nothing sad in her gaze. But the moment soon passed as she looked around and frowned.
I passed her bag back to her and we walked the rest of the way home. Sis sipped her drink slowly. I tried to keep from looking at her bag, lest she be tempted to peek and discover what I had done. I felt guilty. I’d taken from my sister. I meant it for her good but I couldn’t help but feel lousy as we walked. I felt even worse when she held my hand and tried to smile at me.
I felt better as we passed through a shopping arcade. My sister’s eyes brightened, and she was like a little girl again. She peered into every window and gasped at the smallest thing. It warmed my heart to see her so animated and gleeful. But it also hurt when she turned back to look at me with disappointment. I wound up buying her some mochi.
I led the way for Mayu. Left turn at the convenience store where dad always bought his cigarettes. And then just straight on past the apartments to our small house by the field. I noticed the art teacher who taught at another school was just coming out of her house. I gave her a wave. I never learned her real name. She just called herself something that sounded like "Aioli". Everyone said she was a foreigner; despite the fact she spoke perfect Japanese.
I noticed that Mayu had stopped walking beside me. I turned back. Mayu was staring straight ahead. She trembled and yelled, “YOU!” She burst past me and over to Aioli. I leaped ahead to grab my sister as she flailed. She yelled, “You did this! You made those pictures!” Aioli looked surprisingly calm. She folded her arms in front of her and said to my sister, “I do many pictures. Which are you talking about?”
Mayu turned away from me and reached into her bag. My heart gave a flutter as she gasped and panted, “They’re not here…What happened to them?!” She turned around and looked all over the place, softly saying “no” over and over. I almost opened my bag to give them back, but I held my hands at my side. Mayu shook her head and sought, “Where could they be…”
I put a hand on her shoulder. She quickly asked me, “Do you still have yours?” I bit down on my lip and asked her, “What’s going on sis? What did our neighbor do?” Mayu grit her teeth and glared at Aioli. “She did all this. She took my boyfriend away. She took our life away.” Aioli stared back at her and pronounced, “I did nothing of the sort.”
Mayu clutched her hands. “Well, if it wasn’t you, then it was another you in…another…world.” Aioli raised her eyebrows and remarked, “What about yourself?” Mayu shook her head. “I didn’t do this. I didn’t want this. I want my boyfriend. I don’t want a…” She paused and swallowed her words as I swallowed a grimace.
Aioli leaned against the wall of her house. “Sounds like there’s really nothing I can do to help.” Mayu shook her head. “I need the images. They were what caused it. I don’t understand how they did what they did but if I can use them again then maybe we can put things right.” Aioli shook her head too and remarked, “If you don’t understand how something works, how can you possibly figure out how to use it correctly?”
Mayu’s nostrils flared. “Listen to her, Neil. She’s the one responsible for everything. You have to remember. You have to remember us.” Her eyes begged me for something. I couldn’t even imagine being her boyfriend. It sounded gross and repulsive. Despite her begging eyes, I shook my head and said, “I’m sorry, sis.”
She lowered her head and reached for Aioli’s front gate. “Then, I’ll have to do it on my own. I have to retrace my steps. I know I had them back at the school. I’ll find them and I’ll fix this.” I took a deep breath and lied to my sister, “I threw them out the window of the train while you were sleeping. It’s better if you just forget them. They’re what caused you to forget everything…”
Each word I spoke to her, each lying word twisted a dagger of pain through my heart. Mayu’s stunned gaze as she slowly shook her head hurt the most. I bowed my head. She grabbed me, started slapping me, and yelled, “How could you?! You’ve forgotten! You’ve forgotten everything! I’m not sick! You are…and you threw away the only cure.” Her legs dropped out from under her and she sobbed with her head almost on the ground.
Aioli leaned back from the wall with her lips rigid. She asked Mayu, “Have you considered how your sister feels?” She spoke to Mayu, but her words echoed through me as I looked down at my school bag. Mayu shook her head. “It’s not real…” Aioli cut her off, “It’s all real. While I may not fully understand what’s going on, I tell you…this is all real. Your sister’s heart is real. The ground you’re standing on is real. Everything you remember is real…and everything you forget. It is real and, though it may be forgotten, it is never lost.”
Slowly, Mayu got to her feet and asked, “What do I do?” Aioli snorted. “You wouldn’t want my advice. But if I were to offer something, I’d say consider those who love you first.” She turned to me, but I turned away. To my surprise, Mayu slowly approached me and put her arms around me. “I’m sorry. This doesn’t feel like where we belong but I’m grateful to have you, even if you don’t remember. Even if you’re my sister here…”
They were all hard words to understand. After a moment, Mayu asked Aioli, “Do you have any magical paper which changes worlds or turns people into the images on the paper?” Aioli sighed softly. “Unfortunately, no. Sorry.” Mayu squeezed my shoulder. She seemed ready to ask another question of me. Then, she slowly shook her head and said, “Let’s just go back…to your and my house. I feel so…exhausted.”
And so, after bidding Aioli goodbye, I pulled open the door for Mayu. Mom was home. I told her all I could understand. Before long, she made a doctor's appointment for as soon as possible and left Mayu resting on the living room couch with a moist pad on her forehead. Mayu sighed at me and said, “At least mom is still the same…”
That was a good sign to hear. I watched cartoons with Mayu. Some of her usual laughter returned. Dad checked her forehead when he came home and agreed with mom. I was glad Mayu looked at dad with brightness in her face. Supper was subdued. I ate with Mayu nearby. None of the food seemed unfamiliar to her. I took that as yet another good sign.
Eventually, I took my school bag upstairs to my room. I shut the door and closed my eyes. I had no idea if I was doing the right thing. I couldn’t understand all of this. Aioli said this was all real. I believed her but her words were also strange. Nothing had happened to me. I was the same girl I’d always been. I wasn’t Mayu’s boyfriend. I was her sister.
Taking a breath, I carefully dumped the papers out of my bag. All five spilled on the bed, still in their sleeves. I peered through them carefully. I could pick out Mayu’s and mine. While I didn’t believe that looking at Mayu’s had changed me, I handled them all with equal care. I tensed up as a slip of paper fell out of one.
I scrunched my eyes for safety then slowly opened them. The paper just had writing on it. I read it carefully. I remembered the paper from when we first received the drawings but I hadn’t paid much attention to it at the time. I read and came to a stop on a line about burning the papers. It said…it would nullify all effects. My heart leapt. This had to be the cure for my sister. I would break the spell. I would burn them all.
I locked my door and opened the windows. I worried smoke would be noticed by our parents, so I tucked a blanket under the door. I didn’t want to burn them in anything which would catch fire. I examined my trash bin. It was metal. It would do nicely. I pulled out the bag and set the bin beside the window. I opened as many windows as I could to ventilate the smoke.
I pulled out my lighter and tucked my cigarettes further under the magazines in my drawer. I laid all five, sleeved papers in the bin. I lit the lighter and crouched over the bin.
Something kept me from just touching the lighter to the sleeves. I knew they would all burn up easily. I shook my head.
I took a bottle of water from my mini-fridge. I couldn’t forget that. But even with my lighter at the ready, causing my fingers to sweat even more, and water on the side, I felt frozen.
I shook my head. No time for cold feet.
I bent the lighter right beside the sleeve. I held it there till I thought I was going to drop it. And I blew the flame out.
I grit my teeth. Something was telling me to stop. Something was saying this was wrong to my sister and me. Aioli’s words, though I couldn’t understand them, were in my head. I couldn’t tell if I was doing this for myself or for my sister. I just wanted her back to the way things were before. I just wanted my happy life with her back.
I took a breath and told myself it was because I was burning my sister’s art. No matter if it was cursed or evil and this would purify things, it was hers. I looked through the sleeved papers I had. I singled out hers and set them aside. I still had to burn them eventually, but I would make sure that my papers didn’t have any curses on them.
I picked one at random and peered at the very end. I saw a dab of green. I knew it was the boy with the messenger bag. I’d burn that one first. I set it in the trash bin and, before I could change my mind, I lit the end of it. It quickly caught fire. The flame was a strange, unearthly color. It almost seemed alive. It stretched across the paper. It coiled and curled. It rippled like a snake, consuming everything.
Faster than I expected, the sleeve was consumed, and the entire paper turned black. Barely peeking through, I could see the boy with the messenger bag. The colors were all gone. The outline of his body unraveled till everything was blackness. Then, it all turned into a fine powder of soot. The flame smothered itself.
There was nothing left of the image. For a moment, I felt woozy. I leaned against my bed and took a breath. When I felt the wooziness pass, I emptied the soot into my trash bag. My trash bin didn’t even feel hot and I couldn’t smell the smoke anymore. With a deep breath, I turned my attention to my last two papers.