"Chihiro, sweetie, wake up! It's time to go to school!"

Chihiro opened her eyes groggily, looking at her mother's face staring down at her. "What...? Already?"

"Yes." Mrs. Ogino straightened her posture and yanked the curtains aside. "You forgot to put your alarm-clock - again. It's a good thing I came to check on you."

Chihiro blushed slightly out of embarrassment. "A-all right, I'm coming."

Mrs. Ogino bend down to get something from the floor and handed Chihiro a very large, beautifully-wrapped present. "This is for you, sweetie! Happy birthday!"

"But I thought presents will be after...?"

Mrs. Ogino smiled. "There's more, trust me. Well, open it up!"

Chihiro smiled and tore at the wrapping paper, exactly like an eager child would unwrap a present at Christmas. Colorful paper flew aimlessly everywhere and, by the time the present was unwrapped, Chihiro's bed was covered by the wrapping. Mrs. Ogino made a mental note to give Chihiro presents after she got out of bed. But before the lady knew it, Chihiro lunged at her, throwing her arms around her neck and murmuring "thank you" hastily into her ear.

Mrs. Ogino laughed softly. "This will be your first laptop, sweetie."

"Oh, thank you, Mother! I never expected such an expensive gift for my birthday."

"You're welcome, Chihiro. Daddy will set the computer up for you while you're at school, and you shall be able to use it by the time you return."

Chihiro stepped back and nodded.

Mrs. Ogino grasped the laptop's box and put it on Chihiro's desk. "Hurry up, now, or you'll be late for school."

Chihiro, with a wide grin on her face, dashed out of her room and roughly bumped into someone. "Oh, hi Dad," she greeted happily, looking up at her father.

"Happy birthday!" Mr. Ogino greeted with a bright smile, ruffling Chihiro's disheveled hair. Usually, such an act annoyed Chihiro to no end and she would treat the "ruffler" with a disapproving scowl and a pout; but now, her lips tightened into a widder grin and, with eyes sparkling, she hugged her father.

"Thanks, Daddy!" she murmured happily before briskly pulling away and dashing to the bathroom.

"Yuuko...?" Mr. Ogino stared at the bathroom's door as if he saw a ghost. "What was that?"

"What do you think it was?" Mrs. Ogino retorted absentmindedly, opening the cardboard box with a small hiss of pain as she cut her finger.

"You gave it to her already?" Mr. Ogino stared.

"Indeed," Mrs. Ogino said with a nod. "And I want the computer ready by the time Chihiro comes back from school."

Mr. Ogino arched his eyebrows. "You or Chihiro?"

"I promised Chihiro that Daddy will do her birthday computer and she'll be able to use it by the time she comes back from school."

Mr. Ogino slapped his forehead in frustration with a groan.

"Honey, if it is such a chore-", Mrs. Ogino tapped a ruler against the desk, "-I'll do it."

Mr. Ogino puffed out his chest proudly. "No, definitely not! No problem," he said boastfully with a wave of his hand. "Step aside, darling."

Mrs. Ogino rolled her eyes playfully. "If you say so, honey," she said, equally as boastfully and hastily left Chihiro's bedroom.

Mr. Ogino shook his head in self-pity. Mornings, to him, were highly precious; it was the time of relaxation, when he could sit cross-legged, sipping sweet coffee and reading the morning paper.

Obviously, coffees and morning papers had to wait for a while. Sighing, Mr. Ogino sat down and took the computer out of the box...

Chihiro licked the orange juice from her lips and, gathering her empty plate and glass, handed them to Mrs. Ogino; who was up to elbows in foamy water over the sink.

"All done?" the lady inquired, looking at the dirty dishes for a split moment.

"Yes, Mom. Thanks for the food."

"You're welcome. Now, you be safe at school, okay?" Mrs. Ogino's voice held a strong note of warning as she took the plates and put on the bottom of the sink.

"But of course," Chihiro replied goodhearted, kissing her mother's cheek. "Bye-bye, Mom."

"Bye sweetie! And stay sa-"

"I will!" Chihiro called over her shoulder, who was down the corridor and halfway up the stairs in some seconds.

Mrs. Ogino chuckled to herself and went back to washing the dishes.

Chihiro spied her bedroom's door with arched eyebrows. Nothing in particular was out of place, except for her father's very-much-audible mutters of complaints. Mr. Ogino was a man of mood; something as small as not enough sugar in his coffee or washing dishes was enough to make him feel extremely sorry for himself and ramble about it for hours. Mr. Ogino always thought that he merely whispered and nobody heard him; but in truth, he would be heard in the next room more often than not.

This part greatly amused Chihiro.

"Blast! Where's the instructions?" Mr. Ogino muttered, rummaging in the huge pile of Styrofoam on Chihiro's desk. Chihiro walked up to the door and sighed.

"What's that under your foot, Dad?"

Mr. Ogino looked up at Chihiro, blinked, and then looked down at his feet. A sharp gasp of surprise was heard before the man chuckled halfheartedly. "Thanks, Chihiro."

"You're welcome. Dad, you know, I should be going to school."

"Not a moment of peace for the old man," Mr. Ogino sighed to himself, picking up the instructions and placing them on the desk.

"Dad, you're NOT an old man!"

"How did you hear that?" Mr. Ogino cried, his eyes nearly popping out of his sockets. "I merely whispered!"

"Most of the time, anybody can hear your whispers," Chihiro said flatly. "I'll be waiting for you at the door!"

"Don't forget your backpack!"

"Thank you for reminding me," Chihiro said politely.

"You're welcome!" Mr. Ogino replied wholeheartedly, before muttering loudly to himself, "Yuuko better make it two cups of coffee when I return. Why can't she drive Chihiro to school?"

Chihiro did her best not to laugh. She slammed her mouth shut, she clasped her hand over her lips, she tried to distract herself. No use. In less than twenty seconds, Chihiro was a fit of giggles. For goodness' sake, she was halfway down the corridor and she heard Mr. Ogino's "mere whisper"! How oblivious he could be!

"What's going on?!" Mr. Ogino rushed out of the room and stared. "Chihiro, what's so funny?"

"N-n-nothing!" stuttered Chihiro, gasping for breath.

"Nothing! Here you are, nearly laughing your head off, and you tell me, 'nothing'?"

"Nothing!" Chihiro repeated halfheartedly.

Mr. Ogino stared expectantly at his daughter before shrugging carelessly. Sometimes, it was easier to move the Great Wall of China than to pry information out of Chihiro. Speaking of the girl, she was already at the base of the stairs, hopping impatiently from one foot to another.

"Dad, hurry up!"

"Hurrying," Mr. Ogino retorted bitterly. He shook his head. "What a fast girl. Best part is, she's no longer clumsy."

Laughter rang in Mr. Ogino's ears. He peered down the stairs and saw Chihiro, with her hands clutching her chest and her back pressed against the wall, shaking with another laughing fit. Mr. Ogino rolled his eyes, wondering for the second time, what on Earth was so funny. He wisely decided not to ask his daughter what was her reason for laughing now because all what he would get in reply was a haste, "Nothing!"

School could be a great nuisance at times, especially when your birthday falls on a Friday and you find yourself wondering why you weren't born one day later; because, if you were, you wouldn't have to put up with the burden and drama of middle school on your birthday.

This happened to be the case with Chihiro.

But now, with school behind her for the day, Chihiro was giddy with excitement as Mr. Ogino lit up the eleven candles on the birthday candle. "Come on, Chihiro! Make a wish!"

Chihiro's wide grin faded and she frowned. What should she wish for? In her opinion, her life was perfection: she got good grades, had very caring parents, had plenty of toys and clothes, made good friends.

What was there left to wish for?

"Chihiro, is something wrong?" Mrs. Ogino asked, concerned.

"No. I'm just thinking about my wish," Chihiro replied reassuringly.

Mrs. Ogino placed a finger under Chihiro's chin and tilted. "There must be something you are wishing for. Something way down inside...?"

The frown melted away from Chihiro's forehead. Her lips turned up into a friendly smile and, with eyes sparkling, she fished out a purple hair tie from her pocket. "Thanks, Mom."

Chihiro turned around to face the cake. Clutching the hair tie to her chest, she murmured a wish and - quite miracolously - blew out all eleven candles in one blow. Mr. and Mrs. Ogino applauded.

But Chihiro didn't even notice her parents. She was staring off into the distance absent-mindedly, her feet rooted to the ground, her grip on the hair tie tightening. Images after images appeared in Chihiro's mind. These images involved a magnificent bathhouse; a masked, shadowy creature; a woman with long hair and dressed in clothes from a past era; an elder creature, a cross between a human and a spider, busy at work in some boiler room; two human-like women that looked exactly alike but with very different facial expressions; and, most often, a boy with green eyes and dark hair who also turned into a beautiful dragon.

At first glance, Chihiro thought that these images were but a figment of her imagination. After all, how often does one run into spider-like elders and flying dragons? Never! What else could these fantasies be?

But Chihiro was wrong. She began to recognize those people, those places. That magical world she stumbled upon with her parents. More tears welled up in her eyes with each passing memory.

I remember! she thought.

"Chihiro, Chihiro!" Mrs. Ogino was shaking Chihiro by her shoulders. "What's wrong?!"

Finally, Chihiro broke out of her daze. "I'm sorry...?"

"You've spaced out! You're crying! What's the matter?" exclaimed Mrs. Ogino, flabbergasted.

Chihiro smiled wryly. "I've got my wish, mommy."

Mrs. Ogino glanced at her husband in bewilderment, who looked just as confused as she was. "Okay, sweetie, that's good," she said, turning to her daughter. "But why were you crying? You should be happy that you got your wish!"

"I am happy. I was crying for joy." Chihiro smiled apologetically. "Sorry for worrying you and Dad."

Well, nothing was the same afterwards. About one week after that fateful birthday, Chihiro began to get sick. Someone had to as much as sneeze in her classroom and she would return home with a stuffy nose and a fever. Mr. and Mrs. Ogino were beside themselves with worry for their daughter. Chihiro was always a healthy and strong girl; whatever on Earth happened to cause such a drastic change of health?

At first, the doctors weren't puzzled at all by Chihiro's case. They claimed that she (most likely) had Immune disorder and, to find out what exactly was wrong, prescribed a battery of tests. The results, however, were bone-chilling: not only was Chihiro's Immune System in perfect health, but so was the rest of her body.

"What do you mean, 'she seems healthy'?" Mrs. Ogino demanded, scornfully. "If she's healthy, then why is she getting sick as if she has health issues?!"

The Doctor looked Mrs. Ogino in the eye. "That is what the test results say, Mrs. Ogino. You may see for yourself. What is causing your daughter to be sick, we do not know. Her case is highly unusual and we recommend for her to be quarantined from public to ensure her health."

Mr. Ogino gripped his wife's hand gingerly. "Isn't there anything you can do, Doctor?"

"I'm afraid that we cannot do anything unless we know what the problem is," came the reply. "We did the most advanced tests we currently have."

"What now?" Mrs. Ogino sobbed.

The Doctor looked sympathetically at the woman. "Do not loose faith, Mrs. Ogino! Your daughter will eventually outgrow her problem. If I find out anything new, I'll give you a call."

Yet, Chihiro never did "outgrow her problem", as the Doctor said she would. Her parents were forced to follow the Doctor's advice and take her out of school, home-school her, quarantine her. This was happening for seven years ... and just as Chihiro thought that nothing in her life would ever change, an unexpected visitor, an unexpected turn of events, and an unexpected adventure tips her world upside down.