“Whatever you do, don't look back,” Haku said. “Not until you reach the other side of the tunnel.”
“Will I ever see you again?” I asked.
“Don't worry,” he smiled. “I'll find a way to see you.”
I felt tears well in my eyes, then his hand slid across my cheek. I knew he was telling the truth. His grip tightened on my hands, his face coming closer to mine.
“Of course I do,” he said gently. I don’t know how long we stood there, gazing in each other’s eyes. His were as green as the Kohaku River. I barely noticed when his lips touched mine. He pulled away a second later, once again serious.
“Go now, and remember; don't look back until you reach the other side of the tunnel. Understand?”
I nodded, wrapping my arms around him.
“I'll miss you, Haku,” I whispered.
“I'll miss you, too.”
His hands slipped to my back. I took a deep breath, smelling the river and remembering that frightening day. It had been so long ago that we first met and now I was leaving him for the second time. I hoped with all my heart that I’d get to see him a third. He pulled away slightly, though I was still in his arms.
“I'll always be with you, Chihiro,” he said softly. His lips fell back on mine and I found I didn't really want to leave.
“I don't want to go,” I murmured.
“You have to,” his voice almost cracked. “But I promise we'll see each other again, when the moment is right.”
He let me go and I felt the wind push me away. I looked at him a moment longer, then turned and went quickly down the steps. I ran because I knew I’d look back if I went too slowly. I soon found myself at the tunnel, where my parents were waiting.
“Chihiro,” my mother cried. “Where have you been?”
“Sorry, mom,” I called back, and dashed down the hill. There was no sign on either of my parents that they’d been turned into pigs. I knew somehow they didn't remember a thing.
“Where have you been?” my mother repeated.
“Just looking around,” I lied, shrugging.
“Well, come on, we're going to be late.”
She and my father vanished into the tunnel, but I stayed behind. I wanted to look back, to see Haku's smiling face one last time. Then I remembered what he’d told me. I shook my head, feeling fresh tears in my eyes. I hoped I would remember this, my time in the spirit world and what it had taught me. I wiped my eyes and raced to catch up with my parents, leaving the beauty of his land behind, returning to the human world.
I slowed to a walk, gripping my mother's arm. I didn’t pay attention to what she said. The taste of river salt was on my lips and I still felt Haku's arms around me. Something about it felt like a dream, but it couldn't have been. Could it? I blinked myself back to reality. I slid my hand in my pocket, feeling my fingers close around something hard. I drew it out, amazed by what I saw.
It was a stone, silvery blue-green, though it seemed to change as I looked at it from all sides. It was round, perfectly smooth, the size of my palm. A river stone. I clutched it tightly, holding it close to my heart. I turned it over, and saw that there was something engraved on the bottom. “The Kohaku River”. I smiled, looking up as we reached the other side of the tunnel.
The plants were overgrown. Our car was covered in leaves and dust, as if it had been there for a long time. It had seemed like only a few days; had it really been months? I decided not to think about it as I climbed in, clutching the silver stone and thinking about Haku. I looked back, seeing nothing. The car started and soon we were driving away, my parents chatting on about our new house like nothing had happened. I thought about what else he had told me.
We'll see each other again, when the moment is right. What had he meant? My eyes began to feel heavy, and I looked up at the sky. It was full of soft clouds and I could’ve sworn that I saw his face, smiling beautifully. I smiled back, letting my eyes fall shut. I slept, dreaming of rivers and crystal-white dragons.