Authors: Koji Suzuki
Copyright © 2012 Koji Suzuki
All rights reserved.
Published by Vertical, Inc., New York
Originally published in Japan as
by Kadokawa Shoten, Tokyo, 2008, and reissued in paperback with revisions in 2012.
451 Park Avenue South, 7th Floor
New York, NY 10016
September 25, 2011
Soda Lake Road, California, USA
Just over an hour had passed since Hans Ziemssen had turned off onto Soda Lake Road from Route 166, and he was beginning to feel vaguely unsettled. His rearview mirror reflected an endless expanse of sand, while ahead and towards the right the remains of a dried-up lake shone white with salty residue. It was a typical desert landscape in the Western U.S., but to the German Hans, it was unfamiliar and strange. The sun was beginning to sink over the western horizon, and the bleak, featureless landscape glowed reddish brown. There wasn’t another car in sight.
Is this really the planet Earth?
The strange feeling of unease stemmed from the sensation that he was driving on some heavenly body other than his home planet. Of course, the only photographs Hans had actually ever seen of the surfaces of other astral bodies were of the Moon and Mars. Both were drier than even this desert and much more barren, devoid of even the slightest sign of life. Here, there were still glimmers of coyotes lurking under trees and insects tunneling through the earth. But the further Hans drove, the more those traces of life receded, contributing to his mounting anxiety.
In the seat next to Hans, his wife Claudia sat motionless, her lips pressed firmly together. When the desiccated lake hove into view on the right, she sat up, leaning her face towards the window. “Is that Soda Lake?”
Hans shook his head quickly. “No. It’s further ahead.”
Claudia sighed dramatically and fell silent once more.
Uh-oh. Someone’s in afoul mood
They had arrived at LAX that afternoon, and Hans had hustled his wife into the rental car and driven off into the desert without so much as a rest. Perhaps they should have checked into a hotel in Los Angeles for the night instead. But since they only had ten days, Hans was anxious to get out into the desert and hadn’t wanted to waste a single night in the city. His wife, however, probably felt differently.
Hans gave a low whistle and pointed at the lake, trying to direct Claudia’s attention to the landscape. “Still, it’s a bizarre-looking lake, isn’t it?”
The various lakes here, large and small, all dried up completely in the spring and summer, baring their bellies to the sun. The rock salt in the water left the empty basins white. Hans gazed intently at this first dry lakebed. The much larger Soda Lake awaited them further up the road.
The land around the lake was a dull yellowish brown, covered with grass of more or less the same hue. The mountains had gently rounded peaks and contours. Geographic strata lined their faces in units of tens of thousands of years like the age rings of a tree.
It occurred to Hans that although the mountains varied slightly in shape, they were all the same height. These peaks had once been the baseline level of the land until the areas between them had eroded away leaving only these promontories behind. He wished he knew more about the local geology.
Still, as he gazed at the white basin set in such desolate surroundings, he couldn’t help but feel that it had been deliberately fashioned by some great creator. From this distance, the salt deposits looked like snow, and the strange juxtaposition against the desert scenery had a mysterious effect.
As Hans gripped the steering wheel of the rental car, for a brief instant, he felt almost like a god, contemplating the earth as the work of a divine artist.
“Hans. We haven’t passed a single car.”
Claudia’s remark jolted Hans back to reality. Far from being enchanted by the North American desert landscape, so exotic compared to their hometown of Frankfurt, the disgruntled Claudia was focused instead on the narrow road that stretched out before them and the lack of oncoming traffic.
“There will be,” Hans assured her, even though he wasn’t so sure. It was true that they hadn’t seen a single car coming this way, nor were there any headlights visible in the rearview mirror.
It was past six o’clock in the evening, and the sun hovered just above the skyline. In half an hour’s time it would be sucked below the horizon, and dusk would fall. From a woman’s point of view, the fact that they had yet to secure lodging for the night was probably extremely aggravating.
In fact, Claudia was the one who had originally proposed that they roll with the punches on their North American road trip, checking
into whatever motels they came across without advance reservations. Apparently she had taken a similar trip before they were married and had never come across any difficulty finding lodging each night. She’d come to the conclusion that motel rooms were always easy to come by. But as luck would have it, the neon signs on every motel they passed today read “No Vacancies.”
When they had driven through Maricopa a little ways back, the motel there had been full, so Hans and Claudia had been faced with two choices. One was to head north on Highway 33 towards Taft to look for lodging. The other was to press on towards Soda Lake to find something there.
Claudia had argued that Taft was a larger city, plus it was closer, so their odds of getting a room were better. But Hans had pushed for Soda Lake. It was a landmark he wanted badly to visit on this trip. If he conceded to Claudia’s urging to head for Taft, they would probably wind up driving towards the San Francisco area from there, skipping Soda Lake. For that reason, Hans was determined to try to make Soda Lake tonight, despite their exhaustion.
“How do we know they even have a decent motel there?” Claudia had demanded.
“When we get a chance, I’ll flag down an oncoming car and ask them,” Hans promised. That was roughly twenty minutes ago. It was hard to get a sense of the size of the town just by looking at the map. What if they made it to Soda Lake and there was nowhere to stay? Hans convinced Claudia that their unorthodox method of information gathering would see them through.
But now they had been driving along Soda Lake Road for approximately thirty minutes without seeing a single car in either direction. To make matters worse, sections of the road were unpaved. They couldn’t drive any faster, and it wouldn’t make sense to turn around, either. At this point, they had no choice but to trust their luck and look for a room in Soda Lake. Perhaps everything would work out fine. On the other hand, it was clear that Claudia’s disposition would continue to worsen if they were still driving aimlessly after dark.
The prospect of spending the night outdoors made Hans’ chest tighten. He wanted his wife to have a hot shower, a beer, and a good meal. The year after they had married, on a trip to Italy, a blunder on Hans’ part had caused them to miss dinner one night. The mistake had soured Claudia’s mood, spoiling the entire trip.
As a man who had married a woman far better looking than he, Hans
had to be constantly attentive to his wife’s volatile emotions. Though he made a better-than-average living and provided for her every need, Claudia had a tendency to resent even the tiniest transgression, punishing him by falling into a stony silence. In the four years he had been married to Claudia, Hans had learned the hard way that it generally took an effort tens of times more grave than the original error to atone for each slip-up.
For that reason, Hans was determined that his wife have a hot shower, a cold beer, and a comfortable bed that night. With those three requirements met, Claudia’s irritation was likely to subside. Sleeping outdoors was out of the question. For one thing, it was too dangerous. In the guidebook they had read back in Germany, it was the number one thing travelers were warned to avoid.
“Book motels well in advance for road trips,” the book had also advised, but Hans and Claudia hadn’t listened.
As the minutes ticked by, dusk settled slowly over the land. As the darkness deepened, Hans’ sense of urgency intensified as well.
It was past 6:30 in the evening now, and the sun had almost disappeared behind the western horizon. Once they made it to Route 58, they were sure to find a motel there. But they had to pass Soda Lake first, and the elusive landmark had yet to appear. Hans had been looking forward to seeing Soda Lake, but it was now becoming apparent that he would only get to view it in darkness.
When he finally spotted a recession between the mountains gleaming red in the light of the setting sun, he knew it had to be Soda Lake. At that exact moment, he also spotted a lone car stopped in the opposite lane up ahead. It was the first car they’d encountered since turning onto Soda Lake Road. The interior light of the red four-door Pontiac sedan glowed dimly, but its headlights were off.
Given that they were already at Soda Lake, there wasn’t much point plugging the other driver for information. In the time it took them to pull over and ask questions, they could just press onwards to look for a motel themselves.
But before Hans realized what he was doing, he found himself pulling over. It was a relief to finally see another vehicle, but there was also something about the situation that gave him pause.
There’s something strange about this
Apparently, the impulse to investigate the unusual was stronger in men than in women. As the car pulled to a stop, Claudia let out a soft cry. “What are you doing, Hans?”
“They’re stopped in the road,” Hans explained as he pulled the parking break.
“I can see that,” Claudia retorted.
“I just want to have a quick word,” Hans told her. From the looks of it, the red Pontiac had pulled over to attend to some matter or another.
“Whether there’s a motel up ahead. And if they have any vacancies.”
“In the time it takes you to ask them that we could be there already!” Claudia protested, but Hans couldn’t contain his curiosity.
“I’m just going to take a quick peek. You can wait here.”
Hans got out of the car, leaving Claudia behind in the shotgun seat. He looked right and left, but sure enough, there was no sign of any approaching traffic as he crossed the road and walked north towards the motionless Pontiac, about ten meters away.
With its interior light on, Hans could see into the car even at a distance. There didn’t seem to be anyone in the front or rear seats of the vehicle. Now Hans realized what it was about the car that had seemed odd. There was nobody inside.
The driver probably got out to relieve himself. He’s probably just behind the car
, Hans speculated. But even when he circled the vehicle, there was no sign of the driver.
The car was parked on the shoulder of the sloped road, just beyond where the pavement ended. All four of its tires were on the sand. One of the doors on the driver side was ajar—that explained the interior light. Nothing interrupted the red skyline that defined the earth’s edge. No cacti, even—the only plant life in this arid landscape was grass.
Hans walked a few more steps and then called out loudly towards the horizon. “Excuse me!” But there was no response, other than what sounded like the faraway baying of a coyote.
When the baying stopped and silence returned to the desert, Hans suddenly became aware of the sound of guitar music behind him. Guitar music and a woman singing … The strains of an old Country Western song were leaking out of the car’s open door. The car radio was on. In a husky voice, the vocalist sang plaintively about betraying her boyfriend, who was away at war, and marrying another man.
I hate to say it, but I have to tell you this tonight. It’s too late now. I’ll be wed to another