"Chihiro! Chihiro, answer me!"
Someone was shaking her. Smooth, long-fingered hands grasped her shoulders and shook her from side to side like a doll. Chihiro's eyes cracked open the tiniest fraction. Everything above was blurry, and the sound of rushing water almost blocked out the sound of her head pounding. Am I dead?
There was a flash of green, and then everything went black.
It felt like hours later that Chihiro woke up to darkness. Her head was pounding like a steam engine, and when she rolled over a splitting pain ran its way up her side. She gasped and fumbled around for a light. Her searching hands encountered a small bedside table, a glass vase filled with flowers, and a small alarm clock. Chihiro froze. She was in her room, in her bed. How on earth did she get here? She massaged her aching temples, trying to remember. She remembered getting hit by that car – and thinking that she was going to die. As the reality of the experience sunk in she started shaking violently.
"It's okay – you're okay." She chanted to herself as she rocked back and forth on her quilt. It wasn't helping. She felt her torso and head carefully for injuries, then wiggled her toes and flexed each muscle. Her side wasn't bandaged, but it felt like the pain she'd felt was caused by a deep bruise on the right. And most confusing of all was the distinct smell of…saltwater. Her clothes felt wet, and her hair moist and frizzy. She sniffed her shirt, dazed. It smelled like she'd just taken a swim in the ocean. She reached up and flicked on her overhead lamp to be sure. A pair of vibrant, clover-green eyes met hers in the light.
"Chihiro" His smile of greeting was thin and didn't reach his eyes. He stood from where he'd been sitting at her oak writing desk and extended his hand formally. "Hello, again."
For a moment Chihiro just stared at him. She could feel her eyes getting impossibly wide, but couldn't do anything to stop it. Then, even worse, her eyes began filling impossibly fast with tears. Haku's already-dead smile turned into a confused grimace as she continued to sit, staring at his open palm, her eyes slowly misting over. Then, in one fluid movement she tore from the bed, smacked his hand away and threw her arms around him instead.
He was so tall. Taller than she'd imagined – she'd clasped her arms around his neck, but had to reach up on tiptoes to press her cheek against his. She opened her mouth to speak but instead a ragged, loud sob burst forth. She felt like the little girl crying in a field of flowers, eating the sticky rice that Haku had given her to bring back her strength. Only now she was sobbing because he was here – his very presence filled a void that she'd never realized was so large and deep within her. She clutched him closer and sobbed, her shoulders shaking so hard she was amazed that he didn't lose his balance from the force of it.
Haku didn't move for a moment, and then Chihiro felt him carefully place his hands on her hips, almost as if he was afraid she'd become more hysterical at any physical response from him.
"It's okay – it'll be alright." He repeated his words from so long ago in that field, and though the tones of his voice had grown slightly deeper with age, she could still here the voice of the young boy that had selflessly taken her to see her parents that day. After a moment, and a few deep breaths, her tears quieted enough that she could ease away from him. He let her go willingly, as if he was uncomfortable with the contact. He tried to step back, put some space between them, but the back of his legs bumped against her desk, trapping him.
Chihiro noticed that he was wearing a sleek suit jacket, slacks, and tie, similar to a traditional Japanese high school uniform. In the back of her mind she wondered why he wasn't dressed in his clothing from the spirit realm. When she'd last seen him he'd been dressed in a white hakama with a blue shirt underneath, that had been tied with a violet sash. Now, seeing him in modern clothes, he looked so much older – and more handsome.
Haku shifted his weight infinitesimally. Chihiro quickly grabbed his hand, before he could move out of the corner he'd backed himself into, and clenched it stubbornly in hers as she looked up to study his face.
His hair was still the same inky black, and it hung around his olive-skinned face down to his broad shoulders. He still had thick bangs across his forehead, but it was still easy for her to see his large evergreen eyes and dark eyebrows.
"Haku" she said.
It didn't matter that this scenario made no sense. His name seemed to belong on her tongue, and her heart felt filled to bursting with happiness. She grinned hugely as she stared up at him, unabashed.
He didn't return the smile, but she saw a flicker of something deep in his eyes. Solemnly he placed the hand she wasn't holding over her lips to stop any more words. He opened his own mouth to speak when the front door slammed open, shaking the walls of the apartment and surprising them both.
"Chihiro!" She heard her mother's voice from the foyer.
"Chihiro, sweetheart, are you here?"
Her rapid footfalls ran in a circle around the apartment, accompanied by the opening and closing to closet and bathroom doors, before they began heading towards Chihiro's bedroom. Now Haku's eyes were the ones growing incredibly wide, and he turned to Chihiro as if asking what to do.
Chihiro looked around in panic, feeling the pressure. Her snug room felt suddenly claustrophobic, and she still hadn't let go of Haku's hand. She pointed at the sliding mirror doors on the far side of the small room.
"Er…there! Get in my closet!"
When he only stared, as if the very idea was less than palatable, she gave his hand a yank towards the closet's sliding door.
Though his eyes narrowed skeptically, he obeyed by slipping quickly and silently into the closet like a wraith. As she took hold of the sliding door, Haku seemed to remember that they were still holding hands. He quickly untangled Chihiro's small, stubby fingers from his long, graceful ones. His eyes met hers for the tiniest second before he pushed her hands aside and slid the closet door smoothly shut. Chihiro spun just as her mother burst into the room in a flurry of shining hair and well-manicured nails.
"Chihiro, where have you been – I got a call on the way back from work saying that your father's car was found crushed in the school parking garage! The officer said that there was no one in the car, so I came here to look for you. Chihiro, what are you doing here? What happened?"
Chihiro looked at her feet as her mind reeled with possible explanations. She went with the simplest one. She looked up and plastered the biggest expression of shock on her face.
"What? The car got crushed? I had no idea!" She tried her best to look innocent, but her insides had suddenly turned to jelly. Now that Haku was no longer in view, she remembered that her head was pounding. And her side hurt. And she probably had a concussion. Great.
"Yes, sweetie, the officer said it was crushed. Where did you park in the garage? You know how burglars sometimes try and steal the top level cars. And how did you get home?"
"Why, what time is it?" Chihiro asked suddenly. It could be nine at night for all she knew – she was definitely going to grill Haku after this…
"It's 4 o'clock. Yasume gets out of school in an hour." Her mom chided.
Chihiro smiled abashedly.
"I, er, I got out of class early, because I don't work at the café anymore, remember? And I guess, I don't know – I just wasn't thinking. I, uh, actually took the streetcar home because I totally forgot that I had driven the car to school." She forced a chuckle, and it sounded like she was choking on something.
"Pretty funny, huh?"
Her mom's eyebrows rose. "Funny?"
Chihiro looked back at the floor.
"Yeah, uh, I mean, not funny at all. Not at all."
"But," she began, scrambling for a subject change. "Y-you said the police found it? Do they think it was a hit-and-run?"
Her mom sighed heavily, then came forward and gave her a hug.
"Yes, honey, they think it was – and I am so glad that you weren't there when it happened!" She pulled away to look at Chihiro closely. Then she leaned in and sniffed Chihiro's blouse.
"Chihiro, you smell like…" she sniffed again, then raised her head. "Did you drive to the coast today?"
"Mom, no!" Chihiro quickly responded. "I…I tripped in the fountain when I was leaving the parking garage this morning."
"Oh" her mom replied, looking a little confused.
"So, did the cops say anything else?" Chihiro redirected.
"Oh, yes. The car, they said, was found in the garage, with one side completely crushed in, and the other hanging over the fourth floor railing – with the driver's door open! If you had been inside…" She trailed off, and her eyes zeroed in on Chihiro, who had to struggle to keep her face composed. So that really did happen – the accident, the car, everything. The air was suddenly a little harder to breathe. The pulse in her head accelerated. The edges of the room began to twist and squiggle over one another like worms.
"What happened to your face?"
Chihiro blinked and pulled her focus back to the present.
"Your face!" Her mother accented her words by poking just above Chihiro's right temple. Chihiro hissed at the pain as stars danced in front of her eyes.
"Here, look." Her mother turned her around to face the sliding mirrors of her closet. Chihiro felt her face turn red. Don't think about who's hiding in your closet, don't think about who's hiding in your closet…
"You see it?"
Up high on the right side of her forehead, just below the hairline, a round, purple bruise was blossoming. Along with a nasty-looking lump. Chihiro stared for a second.
"I-I, I guess…um" she stammered. "I, uh, I walked into a door frame. Yeah, I walked into a door frame."
That sounded pretty believable. She met her mom's eyes unflinchingly. "At school."
Her mother sighed and shook her head, but she was smiling with relief.
"Well, at least that's not as bad as what could have happened if you'd been in the car."
"Hehe, yeah." Chihiro's giggle had a bit of a hysterical edge to it, but her mom didn't seem to notice.
"Well" her mom exhaled as she straightened her blouse and stepped away, towards the door. "I guess I have to go call your father – he's not going to be happy about this. Some people…" She walked out the door murmuring something about carjackers under her breath. Chihiro really didn't want to hear anything about carjackers, or vandals, or creepy white sedans for a very long time. She shut the door quickly and then fell against it, letting out her breath in a whoosh. She landed ungracefully on her tailbone and grunted. She closed her eyes for a moment and brought her hands up to massage her fragile temples.
"Chihiro, we have to talk."
Chihiro's eyes snapped open. Haku was kneeling close beside her, and his face was only a breath away.
"GAH!" Startled, she pushed away from him and rammed into the wall.
"Owwww…" she whined and cradled the back of her head and began rubbing the sore spot.
All she heard from Haku was silence, so after rubbing the back of her head a couple times, she peeked up at him. His face was serious, eyes unreadable.
"Now." He bit off the word.
Chihiro couldn't understand his tone or his expression. A sharp sting of pain poked her chest as she looked into his stony eyes, followed almost immediately by a spark of anger.
"Wait a second! I have some questions for you, you know! Right now!" As she spoke she pushed herself to her feet. Haku's right hand twitched in her direction but he quickly pulled it back and stood where he was. Then he paced away from her to the other side of the room.
"Hey!" She yelled, much too loudly. Chihiro had never been one to anger quickly, but she'd been nearly killed, inexplicably transported to her house, and seen a ghost – all in the past two hours . And he was trying her last nerve.
"How did you –" she started towards him.
Suddenly her legs turned to water and a loud roaring filled her ears. Losing her train of thought, she laid a clammy hand on the blurry wall for support. The only time she'd ever fainted in her life was when she was five and had accidentally inhaled half of a stick of strawberry pocky. She couldn't remember the incident very clearly, but physically this felt like it could be leading up to a faint.
"First," he cut her off as he turned to face her. However, he stopped whatever he was about to say when he saw her face. Chihiro wasn't sure what he saw there, but after one look he said the first sincere thing she'd heard from him since waking up to him in her room.
"You need to sit down."
"Yep, I...do." Chihiro murmured. Her knees buckled on the last word. She heard no sound of approach, but suddenly Haku was there, kneeling beside her.
"Put your arm around my neck." He commanded. Chihiro obeyed silently. It was either comply or stay on the floor and talk up to him.
"That's it." He tentatively wrapped his right arm around her waist and lifted her off the floor. She leaned on him heavily and began shuffling towards the bed, but after a couple slow steps, Haku swept his other arm beneath her knees and lifted her clear off the floor.
"Sorry!" Chihiro blurted, feeling as if her slowness was somehow to blame for him feeling like he had to carry her to the bed.
He took three steps and dropped her hurriedly on to the mattress. He then took about five steps back, and sat at the desk chair. He seemed suddenly very interested in examining the window set in the far wall. It looked out on the single apartment complex next door to theirs, and the green hills beyond that, too unstable to build structures on, yet lovely to look at. Chihiro's eyes followed him, and she slowly sat up on the bed.
"Haku, will you look at me?" Steely eyes looked up. Chihiro gulped, momentarily intimidated. He's my friend. She had to remember that. Even if she didn't quite know what was going on with him, that much was true. She continued.
"How did you get here? How did I get here? What happened today at my car? Do you know?" She hardly noticed her voice rising in pitch with each question. Tears started forming on her lids.
"What are you doing here? Why haven't you visited? How are you –" She cleared her throat, then swallowed. "How are you alive?" Her voice cracked a little on the last word. She kept her eyes fastened on him, though the tears made him slightly blurry. She blinked to clear her eyes.
Haku said nothing, but his expression changed.
"Chihiro, calm down."
"Don't tell me to calm down! Haku, your…your river. The Kohaku River, outside Niseko. It's…it's all dried up." Her eyes begged answers.
Haku sighed lightly, but when he looked back up at her, a corner of his mouth turned up in an indulgent smile. It was pretty adorable-looking.
"I know. It dried up years ago. But, even though it was my home, it's not so bad that it dried up, really. Now I can go anywhere I want."
Chihiro stared questioningly when he didn't continue. Haku cleared his throat.
"I, um…now that I don't have a river to belong to, I can go where all rivers eventually go – the ocean. Wherever the ocean is, I can be, too. It's a trick I've been working on to navigate between the human world and the spirit realm."
The room went dead-silent, before Chihiro spoke.
"Really. And how long have you been using this…power to get around? A week? A month? I know that there's a lot of ocean around here, but –"
"Almost five years." He answered promptly.
Again the room was absolutely still. Then Chihiro ripped off the bedcovers, took five determined steps, and slapped him across the face.
"Hey! You can't do that –" Haku started. He stood up quickly so he towered over her, holding his red cheek.
"Yes I can!" Chihiro replied angrily. "What the hell, Haku? I found your river – I found it all dried up eight years ago! I thought that when river spirits lost their river that they died! And here you've been floating around on the ocean for all these year and you never once came to visit me!
She stepped away from his daunting form. His eyes bored into hers, and he stood completely still in his anger. He was dark and intimidating, but she swallowed her fear to continue.
"I was worried about you! Whatever happened to us being friends? You were my best friend Haku, and now…I don't even know who you are, now!" She stood there panting at the end of her outburst. Haku stared at her and she kept staring right back. After a moment he looked down. Chihiro had the grim satisfaction of holding out the longest. It was short-lived though. Seeing his reaction, she was immediately filled with guilt. His profile was illuminated by the soft afternoon light that had broken through the cloud cover outside. He looked…sad. And tired.
He exhaled in a huff, and bowed his head. His black hair came forward and hid his face, and she could barely make out his low voice.
"This is too dangerous. I should have stayed away."
"Chihiro, what's all that racket in there?" Chihiro's head whipped to her door at the sound of her mother's voice. Haku didn't even flinch.
"Nothing, mom, just talking to myself!"
"Huh?" a pause "I just got off the phone with your father – you need to go pick up Yasume right now. It's almost five! You can take my car."
"I…" Chihiro started in a loud voice, then looked to where Haku stood, head dipped in shame. She turned back to the door, torn. When she turned back to him, he had straightened and was looking at her.
"You should go."
"But, Haku – I mean, I'm sorry that I – "
"It's ok." Thin smile. "I'll just be here when you come back. Then we can talk about everything."
She hesitated, unsure. Something didn't feel right about his sudden change in tone. He grabbed her elbows lightly and turned her towards the door. He gave her a gentle push.
"Don't worry, Chihiro. Go."
"Er…okay." She finally decided to herself. Somebody had to pick up the little angel.
"Coming mom! I'm going right now!" She grabbed her coat off its hook by the door.
"Ok, I have the keys!" Her mom called from the hallway. Before opening the door, Chihiro turned. Haku was still standing in the exact same place. Chihiro thought she saw his hand twitch a little towards the window, but when she blinked it didn't look like it had moved at all. Yes, I probably have a concussion.
"Haku, just stay here! Don't leave, ok?" She whispered as she rushed out, closing the door behind her. All the way to the elementary school and back, it bugged her that she hadn't heard his answer.
Chihiro came home that night with her little sister. She helped her with her homework in the living room while her father was on the phone with the mechanic. Before she could slip away to her room, her mother asked her to set the table, and the family sat down for dinner together. Afterwards, when she tried to escape again, her parents roped her and Yasume into doing the dishes before bed. It was nearly eight at night when Chihiro finally slunk away from the rest of her family to the sanctuary of her room. She tiptoed into the room and closed the door completely before turning around. When she did, there was nothing to meet her eyes. Her bed was empty, though the sheets had been folded over and the pillows arranged neatly. Her desk chair, also, was vacant.
Chihiro stood for a moment, dazed, before stumbling to the closet and throwing the doors open. It felt like something in her mind just wasn't clicking – Haku couldn't just not be here… They'd spoken in this very room just a few hours before!
"Haku?" she whispered. "Haku, are you in the closet?"
She searched the whole closet twice before crawling out on her hands and knees. She looked about the room one last time. A thin shaft of September moonlight illuminated a folded piece of paper on her desk. Chihiro realized she must have been so busy looking for Haku that she'd missed it when she first came in. She snatched the paper up and unfolded it.
I know that I came into your life today without explanation or empathy, and I must now leave the same way. Earlier today, I thought that you might be in trouble because of me. Now I realize that it was just a freak accident that brought me to you, nothing suspicious. I'm sorry that I made you angry. I'm sorry that I haven't visited. Know that I've always wanted to, but it is too dangerous for both of us. I hope that you live a happy life in the human world. I won't be visiting again.
The letter was written in clear handwriting, though Chihiro's shaking hands made some lines blur on the page, and she had to read some sentences twice. A chilly night breeze wafted through the open window and blew loose strands of chestnut hair across her eyes.
Chihiro sat for an immeasurable moment holding the paper in her hands. Then she very carefully folded the note, and placed it in her pocket for safekeeping. She dragged herself off the floor where she'd been kneeling, and curled up in a ball on her bed, clutching her pillow close. One thought in her mind seemed to smother all others. It choked them down until they died on the vine and Chihiro was left with only sadness for comfort.
Haku is gone.
Every nerve ending screamed.
In the long hours before her weary body finally succumbed to sleep, she had to fight down the vomit that threatened to rise with each ragged breath she took.