1/06

...I decided a small bit of tweaking was in order, seeing as how I started this tale about two years ago...no worries, REAL update soon. :)

Why are you gone?

The simplicity of the words almost frightened her, nearly as much as the salty, frigid water covering her to the waist. A cool hand, pale as moonlight, gently cupped her cheek, running a thumb softly over her cheekbone, smudging away the moisture falling from the eye above it.

When she opened her mouth to speak, she was unable to do so, as though her voice had entirely fled her throat, and a moment later, the hand dropped from her face. A small splash could be heard across from her; from the sound, something small and heavy had been dropped into the cold, shadowy water. Her heart hammered in a strange staccato against her ribs as her silvered surroundings melted away.

The shrill buzzing of the alarm clock startled Chihiro quickly awake. Another weird dream, she thought blandly. She was utterly sick of these strange sequences playing out in her mind at night. They held a sense of not being make-believe, not fantasy, not a mosaic of released stress. No. They seemed to her to be terribly symbolic, and yet the meaning escaped her. A soft male voice, a caress on the cheek, and the inability to respond to a simple question. Something lost in the water, the scene dissolving into nothing.

Chihiro put a hand to her temple, where she could feel her heartbeat through the thin skin. This has got to stop. What the hell is wrong with me? Her parents, she knew, meant well, but if they caught wind of this latest abnormality, it was done; she'd no doubt see the inside of a psychiatrist's office. The very last thing Chihiro wanted, considering the odd things that might come trickling out of her mouth. Things that were like the vague imprints left on a second sheet of paper, once things have been written on the first; not quite memories, just scraps of images, shreds of sound. She might let her tattered mind show, expose claims of running endless baths, of befriending a shadow; perhaps he would coerce her to admit that, sometimes, for reasons she didn't know, she would mistakenly refer to herself as "Sen".

It was like knives behind her eyes, every time she came close to remembering. It was, she admitted to herself, probably enough to make her insane; that is, if it hadn't already. So, mostly she pretended that she didn't feel halved, nor worn through in spots, and certainly not forgetful. Denying helped day by day, but there were times when she would see a flash of steel-gray eyes, or catch a whiff of some strange, heady herbal fragrance, and the knowledge of her amnesia soured her little pretend.

She was kidding herself, she knew that, as surely as she knew how inadequate the effort was. As much as she didn't understand the connection, she knew that this "Sen" was still inside of her, and although buried, although nearly immobile for all of the impediments Chihiro had set against her, she remained the childlike voice in the back of her head, always whispering...

It cannot be undone.

"Shut up," Chihiro hissed aloud, wanting more than anything for Sen to stay quiet, even if only for a day. Living as a normal teenager, even for a mere twenty-four hours, was a luxury she had never experienced.

"CHIHIRO!"

Chihiro rolled her eyes at her mother's call, and climbed out of bed, shoving her feet into her slippers and sighing. And so begins another day, she thought with an inward groan, allowing her worries to sink to the back of her mind. She walked briskly out of her room, grabbing her bathrobe from the hook by the door as she passed.

The water felt unusually hot on Chihiro's skin; ridiculously, her skin felt chilled, as it would if she'd really stood waist-deep in cold seawater...Stop it, she scolded herself, pulling conditioner through to the very ends of her long hair and wishing she could stop thinking such absurd things.

After her shower, Chihiro quickly ran a comb through her wet hair and went into her room to pick out an outfit for the day. Pulling on the jeans lying on the floor of her closet and snatching a T-shirt at random from the drawer, she quickly finished getting dressed and jammed her feet into the nearest pair of shoes, which happened to be rather worn sneakers.

Glancing in the mirror, she heaved a sigh. Fitful sleeping did not appear to agree with her. She rummaged in her purse for her eyeliner, and hurriedly rimmed her eyes in black, thinking vaguely as she did so that this was unlikely to make her look any more well-rested. After carefully blotting over her purplish under-eyes, she decided her appearance was unlikely to improve too much further, and, scooping her book-bag onto her shoulder, took the stairs down to breakfast.

"Chihiro, sit up straighter," her mother chided as she set a plate of scrambled eggs in front of the girl, who was staring sullenly at the ceiling and dragging a hand through her damp, already-tangled hair.

Chihiro shot a glance at her mother, and in an act of what she herself knew was needless defiance, slid lower in her chair, not stopping until her chin was level with the table's edge.

Her mother didn't appear irritated, but Chihiro was experienced enough to pick up on the little subtleties betraying that, in fact, she quite was. Her right hand, which rested atop the chair next to Chihiro, fingernails painted like large cranberries, was looking a bit white-knuckled. Her face was set in neither a smile nor a frown, but a small movement back near her ear showed the tiniest muscle working in her jaw.

Chihiro didn't have much time to contemplate her mother's silent anger, or to feel remorse, for that matter, because her father swept suddenly into the room. He dropped the day's newspaper at his place setting, and went over to the coffee pot to pour himself a fresh mug. All this he did without more than a half-smile to his only child, who sat back in her seat and stabbed at her eggs, unenthused.

As the minutes wore on, Chihiro's mind began to stir, drudging up those prickling, uncertain feelings once more. The air in the kitchen seemed to warm and thicken, as though Chihiro were standing over a cooking pot. Lately, it seemed she'd begun to feel this way around her parents with alarming frequency. She knew, in some sheltered compartment of her heart, that she'd been deprived of parents, effectively orphaned, during that time that eluded her memory. But in the present, the novelty of being part of a family again had very much worn off. She'd dissolved the natural childhood bond of dependency, the ties that bound her instinctively to the two awkwardly silent adults sitting with her. And although the details were hidden from her, she was deeply aware of the lost connection, aware that she had changed, and so had her family life, although she could not recall the circumstances. The present state of her relationships with her parents seemed to consist mostly of going through a set of daily motions.

"Chihiro," her father said suddenly, biting the word off, rustling his newspaper as he unfolded the Business section. His eyes met hers over the top of his paper, narrowing slightly. "Don't forget to come straight home after school. We need every set of hands we can get."

Chihiro closed her lips firmly against a sarcastic retort. She wouldn't forget. Her family had finally grown tired of the robin's-egg color of their house, and was painting it a bland shade of tan. Chihiro much preferred the current bright blue to the boring oatmeal color her parents had selected, but had failed to sway them.

Sighing, she nodded and picked up her slice of jelly-smeared toast, nibbling experimentally on the corner. She really wasn't hungry. The recurrence of her strange dream had stripped her of any appetite she may otherwise have had upon waking.

After a few more moments of utter silence, save for the occasional rattle of the newspaper and clink of silverware against plates, Chihiro abruptly stood; so abruptly, in fact, that her chair skidded two feet backwards as she did so.

"I'm going to school," she informed her parents, with a hollowness to the words that surprised even her. Her mother glanced up from her food and smiled slightly, her previous anger having melted away. Her father didn't bother to remove the paper from before his face.

"Goodbye, Chihiro."

"See you this afternoon," her mother said, before digging into her eggs once again. Something about that simple action was almost entrancing; Chihiro found with a sickly feeling that she couldn't look away. As her mother closed her lips around a forkful of food, something in Chihiro's mind distended, reached the breaking point, and snapped violently, like a rubber band that's been pulled too tight. Her breath caught in her throat. No.

One of the fragments of memory was materializing, gaining in size and clarity, overtaking her vision. In front of her very eyes, an image flashed: her mother and father, shoving food relentlessly into their mouths. Completely forgetting she existed. There was a sensation of emptiness, as though her parents were the only figures on a landscape she couldn't quite see. But she did clearly see them stuffing themselves, indulging in insufferable gluttony, appearing to be spellbound. And suddenly, in a second flash, they were pigs. Pigs.

Let me take you to see your parents.

Her father lowered his paper, wearing a worried expression identical to her mother's. "Chihiro?" he queried slowly. He sounded as though he was speaking through water; his voice sounded garbled, like a record being played backwards.

A scream crashed irresistibly against her clenched teeth, but rather than release it, she turned on her heel and fled, ran, as though something nightmarish were chasing her. Nearly knocking over the vase in the front hall in her hurry, she flung open the front door and rushed out into the street. Suddenly, she was unaware of her surroundings; she could only sense the scream as it won, gushing from her mouth with throat-tearing force.

"CHIHIRO! You forgot your backpack!" Her father had come to the door to shout; there was a delay of several seconds before his daughter's odd condition seemed to register. "Chihiro! Come back here right this instant!"

But Chihiro had the strangest sensation of losing control of her feet; they were somehow taking her into a run, then a sprint, as though they didn't actually need her direction at the present time. It felt as though every muscle and tendon was straining towards a common goal, one that she did not know. She was being drawn somewhere, that much was certain; she couldn't pretend that it didn't frighten her.

You must never come back here without me, do you understand?

Her breath was coming in short gasps now, her horror finally screamed out. She gulped air as she ran, her heart threatening to burst from her chest. A sensation of going downhill, although she couldn't be entirely sure. Her vision was blurry, the trees she knew must be surrounding her appearing as nothing more than gray-green blobs. Her legs began to burn, like the centers of acid-splashed wounds. The throb at her temples had been dull till this point, but as her breathing started to hitch, that ache sharpened almost unbearably.

And suddenly, she stopped.