"Don't worry, I got my name back." Happy, pure smile; green eyes flashing in the midday sun.
"Will we meet again sometime?"
"I'm sure we will."
Chihiro's hand tightened unconsciously over his.
"Promise?" She looked up, her eyebrows drawn together in seriousness. He looked back evenly; assuredly.
"Promise. Now go – and don't look back."
Chihiro flew down the stone steps in a rush. She tripped on the last one and nearly fell face-first into the satiny green grass the swayed gently up to her knees. She quickly regained her balance, and was self-conscious enough to pray that Haku hadn't noticed her clumsiness. It would be her luck that his last sight of her would be her nearly flattening her nose after tripping over nothing but her own feet. It would be a poor last memory.
Wait – last memory? She would surely see Haku again, wouldn't she? At that thought, suddenly a maniacal, anxious fear clawed its way up Chihiro's throat. The sun still shined blindingly in the sky, yet the world around her grew dark and ominous, as if a thick veil was blocking her vision. The shadows stretched and morphed beneath her feet, and she felt the sudden, desperate urge to turn around. She needed to see Haku; she needed to tell him something – that he was in danger! In danger from what? She didn't know, but she heard a long scream of terror coming from behind her. The voice could only belong to Haku. Chihiro tried to spin around and race back to the steps, but the shadows surrounding her suddenly became physical, undulating creatures made up of oozing black slime. The disgusting goo sucked at her feet like quicksand, leaving her immobile. When she whipped her head around, searching for Haku in the blackness, sticky black fingers clamped over her eyes, making it impossible to see.
"Haku!" She screamed, fighting blindly against the black muck that seemed to be seeping into her bloodstream, turning it to sludge and making her movements thick and heavy with each breath she took.
"Chihiro!" She could barely hear his voice – it sounded soft, faint, and so, so far away.
"Haku…"she coughed as the air grew more and more difficult to breathe. Each expansion of her ribs was a struggle, and the slime contracted around her diaphragm like an anaconda with each exhalation.
"Haku, you promised! You promised that we'd be together again! I need you! I need to tell you –"
Suddenly the ground buckled beneath Chihiro's feet. The black slime, the field, and everything else disappeared, and she found herself plummeting down into a rich night sky. Stars swirled past and galaxies lit her descent, but Chihiro hadn't the heart to admire their beauty. Grasping at the air she writhed in the grip of a fiery agony, and screamed the only name that existed as loudly as she could.
Chihiro bolted up in bed, her hand shooting out in front of her and knocking the vase of flowers off of her bedside table. It crashed stridently to the floor, but she hardly noticed. Her hand, still outstretched, still reaching, was shaking like a leaf. Sweat dripped off her brow and onto the smooth cherry wood floor of her bedroom in her parents' apartment. For a moment all she could do was sit in bed, gasping, with her left hand clutching the air. Then she brought her knees up to her chest, folded her arms, and wept.
The weeping was soft and fragile, and short-lived. She had already cried enough tears to fill a basin, and it seemed with each event there were less and less to shed. Granted, tonight was slightly different from the rest – this nightmare had been more violent, and much more terrifying than most others she had experienced. Usually when she woke up from these dreams it was with a filling of intense sadness and regret – not fear. And the sadness was often more than enough to make her cry and wake up in a cold sweat. Haku's face, still young and sincere, rippled beneath her closed lids, like she was looking at his reflection in a pond. It was the face of the boy she'd met eight years ago, and the one she would never see again. The pain was like a lance in her belly, and Chihiro lowered her head in shame.
… After returning from the spirit world, and finding her parents, Chihiro's days had been filled with the longing to see Haku again – just to talk to him, to ask him how Yubaba, Zeniba, Boh, and Lin were doing. The Kohaku River was over 3 hours away by car, but each day for nearly a month after returning, Chihiro had been itching to go and visit, despite her parents' ultimate refusal to drive her. Finally, after four weeks of waiting, without a word – from the spirit world or otherwise – Chihiro had risked it all to go see him. Without telling her parents, she had skipped school, and used her lunch money (only about 1000 yen) to catch a street car out of the humid Niseko suburbs. Because she was only a small child, the operator had generously agreed to let her ride most of the way into the city for her small amount of money, but for policy's sake had had to let her off in the city's main square. Chihiro hadn't minded being forced out of the car, nor had she minded walking the 3 miles to the city's lower west district, where warehouses and poorly-kept apartment complexes dominated. She had grown up in the city as a little girl, and had known that each step that she took was bringing her closer to the Kohaku River, that ran from its mouth at the coast to a lake just outside of the city. Just a few short steps separated her from Haku. She hadn't realized fully until that last hour before reaching the river how quickly Haku had become everything in her life that represented home, family, and friendship all in one. He had worked his way into her child's heart and become her rock in uncertainty, as well as the person she most longed to see each morning and night. She was more than excited, and quickened her pace as she stepped into the last twisting alleyway separating her from the urban river.
Chihiro's breath had caught in excitement and she couldn't stop the smile that lit her face as she skidded around the last corner separating her from the Kohaku River's left bank.
"Haku!" she yelled in joy as she smashed herself against the steel railing that lined the riverbed. Her voice had bounced back at her, hollow and void, as her eyes adjusted to the scene before her.
The early morning fog had swept in from the bay, covering everything with a bronze sheen. But beneath the glinting moisture was devastation below. The stone walls around the riverbed were still intact and the railings secure, but the river itself was dry; bone dry. Chihiro couldn't believe what she saw – she had scampered down the stone steps to the riverbed to get a closer look. The soil was not moist, nor were there any plants growing; all was dead and silent and still. Trash, boulders, and rubble had been discarded in piles along the riverbed, and broken glass littered the edges of the dry bed, making it a hazard to walk along them. Chihiro couldn't remember for certain whether it was tears or the heavy mist that had been clouding her vision, but before she knew it she was on her knees in the barren dirt and her hands were cut from catching herself on the shards of broken beer bottles. Her blood mixed with the dry dust as her joy flew north on swift, unrelenting wings…
Chihiro lifted her head and mopped her pale cheeks with her ratty, threadbare quilt as she relived the memory. Her parents had found her that day, bowed like a willow to the wind in the empty riverbed. Naturally, they'd been furious, but more than that concerned. They couldn't understand her deep, deep sorrow, nor could she explain it. Only she knew Haku – and only she knew that a river spirit could not possibly exist when his river had dried up completely. It didn't make any sense that he could survive without the source of his spirituality on earth. That day when she found that empty river, she had realized that her dearest friend was dead. And worse, it was all her fault.
It would have been better had she not ever visited the spirit realm – or if she'd just disappeared into nothingness instead of eating the realm's food. Then she never would have become friends with Haku, never would have helped him find his true name, and never would have given him a reason to leave the spirit realm and return to his river. If she hadn't done any of these things, Haku would still be alive and maybe, just maybe, she would have been able to figure out some way to get back to him on her own. But now it was all useless, anyways.
A small part of Chihiro had died that day, and even though life and love did go on, she never really felt that she had gotten that missing piece of her heart back. It had died with Haku, and with his river. From then on, eight long years later, no matter how cheerful her life became or how full of light, the dreams persisted once every few weeks, as a reminder of the one person she had lost along her journey. She had never gone back to that riverbed. And, she thought, her head hanging between her knees and her breaths shallow with fatigue, she never wanted to.