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By Alex Archer
Gold EagleCopyright © 2007 Alex Archer
All right reserved.
"That poor child," Mrs. Murakami said. "We should stop and pick her up!"
The ceiling of gray-and-blue clouds hanging low over the rented minivan was suddenly veined with lightning. The vehicle's interior flashed blue-white.
It might have been the judgment of the kami. Alien spirits of an alien place, Mr. Murakami thought.
Obsessed enthusiast that he was for the history and culture of the southwestern United States--so different from his grim industrial suburb outside Tokyo--Murakami should have been in heaven. Instead he was peeved. Not to mention lost. "What child?" he demanded, as the echoes of a shattering thunderclap died away.
"That child. Hurry! It's about to rain," his wife replied.
This is the desert, he thought. It isn't supposed to rain. Although from his studies he knew that it did. Rarely. But violently. And there was no denying a violent downpour was in the offing. He could smell the rain and the ozone, overlying the sage and dust of the deceptively flat-looking khaki terrain of the Acoma Indian Reservation where he and his family had wandered, small and utterly lost. A few drops splatted against the windshield like fat, transparent bugs.
He looked the way his wife's sturdy arm pointed. "A child!" he exclaimed. "What can she be doing here?"
She stood in the clumpy weeds by the side of the rough dirt track. She wore a sort of blue dress with ascarlet cape around her shoulders, pinned off center with a gold clamshell brooch. Small pink feet in sandals poked out beneath the hem of the robe. She had a plump, round face framed by flowing brown locks spilling from either side of a hat with an astonishing plume and the brim pinned up in front.
Though he couldn't drive faster than twenty miles per hour without jostling the van intolerably on the horrendous collection of ruts and rocks that passed for a road, Murakami hit the brakes so hard the vehicle squeaked and jerked sideways as it stopped. The children, Taro and Hanako, looked up from their furious head-to-head battle on their video game.
"A little girl!" Hanako cried.
"Can we pick her up?" her brother asked. "Can we, Daddy?"
"We have to!" Hanako said. "She'll wash away." Murakami growled like a bear. His family wasn't fooled. They knew he was a kind man.
But Murakami was also well and truly stressed. They had reservations at the Old Town Hotel in Albuquerque for five that afternoon. He knew that they could be in trouble if they missed their reservation. The whole are was flooded with visitors. But he was a stranger in a strange land indeed. None of his loving studies had come close to preparing him for the unreal size of this western New Mexico desert. The land was so wide he had felt in danger sometimes of falling right off the planet. They had driven through mountains with pine trees, almost like home, between Gallup and Grants. But somewhere south of U.S. 40 they'd found themselves stuck in the middle of a vast bowl of desert rimmed by wind-scalloped mesas.
He stopped the van. His wife hopped out into a barrage of raindrops. She opened the sliding side door of the van and clucked and cooed to the oddly dressed girl.
"What's a child doing alone out here in the middle of nowhere, anyway?" Murakami asked. No one answered him. His children had unbelted their eat belts and were hopping up and down chirping like happy birds.
With Mrs. Murakami's help the child stepped into the van. Startled, Mr. Murakami realized it was a boy.
"Thank you, honored sir, for stopping to pick me up," the child said.
The Murakami children slid the door shut as their mother returned to her seat hastily. Taro and Hanako barraged the curious-looking boy with questions thick and fast as the rain as they helped him buckle himself in the seat between them. He answered only with great, beaming smiles. Gently but firmly he insisted on keeping his staff tucked in a crook of his gowned arm, at a sort of angle to fit the roof.
Murakami started to drive again. He felt a rising urgency. He perceived America as a violent land but had not expected that might extend to its very environment. The growing fury of the lightning and thunder so unsettled him that he had a hard time preserving his stoic demeanor. And the rain suddenly began to rattle off the van's metal skin like ten thousand drumsticks.
Away off to the left he could see the looming sandstone mesa on which an ancient city rested. Its somewhat brutal blockiness was softened by veils of rain that threatened in short order to mask it from view entirely. His objective in driving in to this lunar wilderness was not the great, gaudy Sky City Casino built on the desert, but the real Sky City on its majestic rock slab, the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in North America. People had dwelt up there, over three hundred feet above the surrounding land, since sometime before the twelfth century.
If only he could figure out how to get to the confounded hill.
Lightning flashed and thunder crashed around them so constantly it felt as if they had strayed into the middle of one of America's vaunted shock and awe bombardments. Through the explosive roars and racket of the rain Murakami could hear his children trying to share their handheld games with their new passenger.
His wife had turned around in her seat to fire solicitous questions at the boy. "Where are you from, child? Who are your parents? Where are your parents?"
Murakami was creeping along. He was genuinely afraid he and his family and their peculiar guest would be swept away at any moment by the horrible, ferocious weather. He tried desperately to remember if they got tornadoes in this part of the U.S. "Honored sir," the boy said from the backseat. Murakami drove across a low rise and began to descend. A hundred yards ahead the road bottomed, passing through a gulch with sheer high walls scooped out of the hard earth. Beyond it rose the flank of yet another ridge. He wished his budget had permitted a rental with GPS.
"Please," the little boy said.
"What is it?" Murakami asked. He felt instantly shamed at his brusqueness.
"You must not go down there, sensei."
"Ahh!" Murakami drew in a startled, gratified breath. The child had named him "master."
"But what other way can I go?" he asked, wondering how this strange young child was familiar with Japanese customs.
"You must turn around," the boy said. "If you do, you will find a dirt road a mile and a half on the right, back the way you have come. It is hard to see but you will see it. When you take that, it will bring you shortly to a paved road that will take you where you need to go."
Murakami scowled. If the confounded road was there, how had they missed it? The child didn't even know their destination.
He shook his head. "I don't want to turn back. Surely if we keep going this way we shall get there."
The truth was he was afraid to go back. But he would never admit that aloud.
"Master, please. Your danger is very great if you proceed down this road."
"I think you should listen to him," his wife said, her dark eyes, normally calm, wide and worried behind her glasses.
"Yes, Daddy," his son said. "Listen to him, please." Frowning furiously, Murakami brought the van to a stop halfway down to the gully. "All right," he said, "but if--"
"Daddy!" his children shouted in chorus. They flew from their seats to plaster themselves against the passenger-side window.
"Look!" his wife exclaimed, pointing.
Down the narrow gully from the right came something that turned Murakami's blood to ice. Though he had never seen one in person, and didn't live close enough to the coast to be in any real risk, like many Japanese he feared in his bones a tsunami.
That was what he saw rushing down on them. A wall of water, frothing dirty white--tsunami in miniature, six or seven yards wide and two yards tall. He saw with instant, horrible clarity what would have happened had he driven on. That moving water-wall would have caught the minivan amidships, tumbled it downstream like a toy, until it battered open a window and the turbulent water smashed in to drown his precious family and himself.
In silence that seemed almost like a bubble insulated from the raucous storm noise, Murakami and his family watched the flash flood sweep past. It made a roiled river of the road in front of them.
"You are safe now," the boy said from behind him.
"But your world also faces terrible danger. Please heed that warning, too."
"Yes, yes," Murakami muttered. He turned. "I thank you--"
The seat was empty.
The child was gone.
Excerpted from The Chosen by Alex Archer Copyright © 2007 by Alex Archer. Excerpted by permission.
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