The sunlight was a little blinding after the darkness in the tunnel and Chihiro shielded her eyes. The golden light was tinted green, probably due to the riot of plant that had taken over the weird little standing stone and the car. But something wasn’t quite right, the sudden growth of plants least of all. There was dust all over the car, a deep, deep layer of dust. And the standing stone, which had creeped out Chihiro when she first saw it, wasn’t quite the same. The little face on it, which had been very clear and delineated, was now all but obliterated. The stone was smooth where it wasn’t covered in a creeping ivy.
“What is this? Some kind of joke?” Chihiro’s father grumbled as he saw the car.
“We should get going,” Chihiro’s mother said, shaking her head at the car. “It feels like we’ve been in here for hours. Chihiro, honey, get in the car. Daddy will clear off the vines.”
With one last lingering look at the tunnel, wondering if everything she’d experienced was really real or not, Chihiro fought through the vines and climbed into the back seat of the car. Her father grumbled and complained as he pulled vines off the car, her mother helping and laughing at her father. After a few minutes, the car was clear enough to drive away and her father got in. After a few false starts, and the engine did not sound happy to be starting at all, the car started and they backed up down the road they’d come down. It didn’t take as long going back as it had to go forward but that could be because they’d already travelled the path once. They found the street again and Chihiro’s father turned onto it, finding the exit he should have taken to go to their new house.
But everything seemed different, the cars far more alien than the ones Chihiro could remember seeing before their adventure in the spirit world. And there was one even hovering above the road! Her misgivings grew as they drove down the road, the houses appearing either run down or sparkling new. Nothing seemed the same and Chihiro had to wonder exactly how long they’d been gone. She didn’t know how long it took plants to grow but it had to be a while to cover the car as they had. Not too long later, Chihiro’s father pulled up in the driveway of a neat, two-story house. There was a car in the driveway though no moving truck. And the house had a lived-in look, as if it had been well-loved and used.
“Guess the movers finished moving everything in,” Chihiro’s mother said thoughtfully, studying the car in the driveway. “Who’s car is that?”
“Maybe the neighbors dropped by,” Chihiro’s father said expansively, pulling up next to the car. “We’ll find out, won’t we? Hop on out, kiddo. We’re home.”
Chihiro got out slowly, narrowing her eyes at the house. Again, that feel of something wrong intruded and Chihiro was slowly coming to realize that maybe they’d spent more time in the spirit world than any of them had realized. Her father grabbed a few suitcases and headed up to the door, trying to turn the handle and open it. It was locked and he grumbled again. Fumbling for his keys, he grabbed as shiny silver one and fitted it into the lock. It rattled ineffectually, his grumbling getting louder and louder by the second. Pulling the key out again, Chihiro’s father studied his keyring and determined that he was using the right key. He moved to put it back in the lock but the door opened before he could make it, a woman standing there with a suspicious look on her face. She had brown hair, brown eyes, and was rather short. She appeared to be around the same age as Chihiro’s parents and a toddler clung to her leg, staring out the door owlishly.
“Can I help you?” the woman asked, a touch coldly. The rattling of the lock had caught her attention and she was prepared to call the police in a moment if need be.
“What are you doing in our house?” Chihiro’s father snapped, looking past her and into the house. None of their furniture was in there, at least that he could see. But, on the wall to the door’s left was a wall full of pictures. It showed the years of a family, some of them obviously taken outside this house. The first pangs of doubt and fear came over him then but he used the anger to push them aside. “I demand to know what’s going on here.”
“Your house?” the woman repeated, pushing the toddler further into the house as Chihiro’s father’s voice grew louder. She stood straight and squared her shoulders, looking directly into Chihiro’s father’s eyes without a hint of hesitation. “This is not your house. This house has been in my family for the past fifty years. Ever since the family that bought it then disappeared. It was put back on the market and my parents bought it. Now who are you and what are you doing here?”
Chihiro paid only the slightest attention to the conversation as her mother walked up to stand next to her father. Instead, a slight flickering off to the side, in the shade of a large tree, pulled at her. It was white with hints of blue and it was intensely familiar. As her mother calmed her father and they headed inside with the woman to figure out what was going on, Chihiro wandered over to the tree and studied the white and blue flickers. There was a sound in it, too, something like static and a voice. The longer she studied it, the clearer the flickers became until Chihiro was sure she knew what it was, she just couldn’t quite place it. Then, the static faded away and she heard her name, clear as a bell, in Haku’s voice.
“Haku!” Chihiro called, reaching into the white and blue flickers, hoping to reach him somehow. The flickers firmed up and took on Haku’s form, Chihiro’s hands resting against his chest. He smiled at her slowly, a series of images like stop photography, before lifting one hand and making a beckoning gesture.
“Chihiro,” Haku repeated, voice sounding like it was coming from so very far away. “Chihiro, you must come back.”
“How? Tell me how, Haku! What do I do?” Chihiro replied urgently, stepping even closer to the figure. But her hands went right through his chest and Haku faded away, a sad smile on his face. Even the flickers were gone and the birds started chirping again as if nothing had happened. Chihiro felt a tear roll down her cheek as she lost Haku again. Even though he’d told her she would see him again, a part of her believed she never would. After all, the Kohaku River was gone and Haku himself was in the spirit world. His visit, while welcome, had only increased her sadness and the feeling that something was wrong.
“Chihiro!” her mother called, standing in the doorway and looking for her. “Chihiro, come here. You need to come inside. I don’t want you out here by yourself right now.”
She completely missed the worry and confusion on her mother’s face, her mind still absorbed in the momentary appearance of Haku. How could she get back? Why would he want her to come back? Haku had told her in the very beginning that she didn’t belong in the spirit world. All Chihiro had wanted was to get her parents back and to go home. But home wasn’t like it used to be and she no longer felt like she quite belonged. Once inside the house, her mother settled her on a couch with a cup of tea. The toddler that had clung to the woman’s leg was sitting in the corner playing with a couple wooden horses. Chihiro’s father was talking with the woman, whose name it turned out was Susan.
“No, the year is 2051,” Susan said, shaking her head as Chihiro’s parents goggled at her. “It really is. I showed you the calendar, the television, even the newspaper from this morning. You have been missing for fifty years.”
“I don’t understand,” Chihiro’s mother said faintly, setting her teacup back in its saucer on the coffee table with a faint clink. “We were just exploring this abandoned amusement park in the forest. We’d found it when we took a wrong turn. I could have sworn we were only there for a few hours.”
“Abandoned amusement park?” Susan asked sharply, dawning comprehension in her eyes. “Was the entrance through a train station with a little stone sculpture of a man in front?”
“Yes it was,” Chihiro’s father replied, nodding. “How did you know? Have you been there?”
“No, I haven’t been there but everyone around here knows not to go there,” Susan replied, shrugging. “There’s all kinds of legends about that place, about people who’ve gone missing and never come back. Or come back a very long time later. I guess some of legends are true because here you three are.”
Chihiro tuned out the rest of the conversation once she heard they’d missed fifty years. Her mind went back to Haku and the sense of joy and completeness she’d had with him. Flying on his back was the most thrilling thing Chihiro had ever done and suddenly, she wished she hadn’t had to leave. She missed the friends she’d made in the spirit world, the people she’d come to care about and who had cared about her. Life back here seemed boring and dull, even though this what exactly what she’d wanted when she’d been stuck in the spirit realm.
Susan let them stay the night while Chihiro’s parents figured out their next move. While Susan might believe that they were who they said they were, after fifty years the three of them were all considered dead. The first thing they needed to do was confirm that they were indeed who they said they were and come back from the dead officially. Then, were they would live and work would follow. It was probably going to take a while and they were not looking forward to all the work.
About a year later, Chihiro was swinging slowly on a swingset outside of her house, staring up at the sky. One of the clouds looked a lot like the dragon version of Haku and she felt a sudden stabbing longing to see him again. It had indeed taken a long time, and a lot of yelling from Chihiro’s father, but they were alive again officially and had found a place to live. Susan had helped quite a bit, which was incredibly kind of her. Though, as she said laughingly, she wasn’t completely doing it out of the kindness of her heart. She was fascinated by the stories of the tunnel and amusement park and asked all kinds of questions. Susan had listened politely to Chihiro’s version of events then patted her head and told her she had an amazing imagination. Chihiro had walked away in a huff while Susan had spoken to her parents about their experiences.
But now, with her homework done and the whole afternoon stretching before her, Chihiro let her mind wander back to the life she’d left behind. She didn’t think about the spirit world as often as she used to, normal life taking over more and more of her thoughts. But the cloud that looked so much like Haku had brought it all back. Even now, the cloud looked like it was waving sinuously in the sky, little sparkles radiating from it. And now, it looked like it was coming down to meet her. It took on even more definition and a grinning face. By the time the cloud was almost to her, Chihiro realized it wasn’t any normal cloud. This was another vision like the flickers she’d seen before, Haku coming back to her.
“Haku!” Chihiro screamed, raising her arms longingly to the dragon-cloud. It reached down towards her, whiskers streaming in a wind that Chihiro didn’t feel. “Take me back with you!”
But as Chihiro reached up and the cloud reached down, it popped with a sudden flash as the tip of one claw touched her hand. White sparkles rained down on her, much like Haku’s scales, and then disappeared. Chihiro was left with tears streaming down her face and white bits of cloud clinging to her upraised hand. She’d adapted to this new world, this new place that was nothing like the world she remembered. But she didn’t want to anymore. She didn’t want to be here, wanted to go back where she had adventures and life was exciting and different. Chihiro wanted Haku to take her away, keep her safe in a world all their own.
This cycle would repeat over and over again over the next several years. Each time, Chihiro would mentally coat the memory in amber and tuck it away in the back of her mind. It hurt so much, each time Haku appeared, called her name, and then disappeared. Once the tears had dried on her face, Chihiro purposefully forgot again and went back to her boring life. The amber-coated memories started filling up an entire corner of her mind, sparkling incessantly no matter how much Chihiro tried to ignore them. Then it happened.
She was sixteen, her birthday had been the day before. Chihiro still had a few pieces of birthday cake remaining and was sneaking one out of the fridge when a familiar voice spoke her name. There was a change to the voice now, something that had happened slowly over the years and something that Chihiro had come to recognize just as slowly.
“Chihiro,” Haku said, voice tender and soft and kind. “Turn around, Chihiro.”
“No, I’m not looking this time,” Chihiro said, speaking more to herself than Haku. “You’re nothing but a memory, a ghost that will fade as soon as I look. I’m going to take my cake and sit down at the table and eat it. You’ll fade away again and leave me to this life. You haven’t taken me back with you, though every time I see your ghost, you’re trying.”
“Turn around, Chihiro,” Haku said again, laughter in his voice edged with sorrow. “I’m not a ghost.”
“What?” Chihiro whispered, eyes going wide as her hands started to tremble. She put the plate with her cake on it on the counter and took a deep breath. This was the first time Haku had ever answered her. Could he really be here? “I’m scared, Haku. I don’t want you to fade.”
“Then turn around,” Haku laughed, the sorrow gone from his voice. “Trust me, Chihiro.”
Squeezing her eyes shut, Chihiro turned around and took another deep breath. She prepared herself for the inevitable disappearance, whatever Haku might say to the contrary. This had happened too many times for her to just believe he wouldn’t go this time. Slowly, Chihiro cracked her eyes open and looked at Haku. He was just the same, though a little taller. It seemed as she’d grown, he had as well so that they were still the same height relative to each other. A little smile tugged at his lips as his eyes sparkled and Chihiro let out an excited yell. She ran forward, wrapping her arms around Haku and hugging him tightly.
“You’re really here,” Chihiro murmured into his chest, tears running down her cheeks. “You didn’t disappear. Why did you so many times before? And why did you keep telling me I needed to come back?”
“I’m sorry about that,” Haku said, arms going around Chihiro and holding her securely. “I didn’t have the energy to stay in this world for very long. I wanted you to come back because I realized after you made it back to this world just how long you’d been gone. This was no longer your home and I thought it might have been better for you to come back. And... I missed you.”
“I missed you, too,” Chihiro said, smiling up at Haku. “Can we go back now? I don’t like my life here. It doesn’t feel like home. And I want to go home.”
“Of course,” Haku replied, pressing a light kiss to Chihiro’s forehead. “Let’s go home.”
Chihiro waited long enough to pack a bag and leave a note for her parents. If they wanted to follow, all they needed to do was go back to the amusement park and go inside again. The portal was still there even though it had never worked again for Chihiro. Then, she took Haku’s hand, tangling their fingers together. With a grin and a wink, Haku pulled them up into the sky. Once they were high enough, he turned into a white and blue dragon and pushed Chihiro up onto his back. With her arms wrapped around his neck and laughter streaming from both of their throats, Haku and Chihiro headed back to the spirit world. Headed home.