Smith was missing.
Not that this was anything unusual, of course. Hell, half the time the little man wasn’t there even when he was there. But the thing about Smith was that he always found a way to get word to Kurdy if he was going to be gone from the Mountain for more than a day or two. It might be through Gina or Erin, or a passing Teller. Sometimes Kurdy didn’t know how the message arrived; it would simply appear- a scrap of folded paper slid under the door to his room during the night, or mysteriously tucked into a pocket of his coat. The message was always non-specific as to Smith’s whereabouts and so cryptic about the reason for his absence that Kurdy figured he was better off not knowing. But it invariably ended with the words: ‘Don’t worry about me’.
Of course Kurdy worried anyway. How could you not worry about someone who walked open-eyed into danger, time and time again? But this time was different. This time Smith hadn’t gotten word to Kurdy. He’d been gone nearly five days now, and no message had arrived. Smith might believe that God would take care of him. Kurdy wasn’t nearly so trusting, and worry had begun to morph slowly into outright fear. He didn’t like to imagine what could have happened to Smith to prevent him from sending a message. There were a million possibilities at least, each seeming worse than the last.
Patience not being one of Kurdy’s virtues, he didn’t waste a lot of time imagining the worst. Instead, he went straight to the top for assistance, even if it meant interrupting the top in the middle of a meeting.
“You’re worrying needlessly,” Markus said with a touch of impatience as he lounged back in his seat in the now-empty command room, swiveling the black leather chair back and forth. “How many times has Smith gone off on his own in the months since he arrived at the Mountain? Remember those computer logs you had me check? He’s in and out of here so often I’m surprised he hasn’t crashed our computer system.”
“Yeah, and the last time he checked out of here was at 2:00 a.m. on Tuesday, Markus.”
“So?” One of Markus’s expressive eyebrows was raised. “Maybe God,” and his fore and middle fingers made brackets in the air, “had more to say to him than usual.”
Markus always said that word with exaggerated emphasis, Kurdy thought, as if he was afraid that people might actually think he believed Smith’s claim that God spoke to him.
“Look, Smith’s my partner. He wouldn’t stay away this long without getting word to me. I know him, Markus. He takes this partner shit seriously.”
“And what is it you expect of me, Kurdy? We’re short-handed as it is; I’m not pulling people off their assignments to search for some guy who’s been AWOL for a few days.”
“Did you hear me say that?” Kurdy retorted, nettled, for in fact he’d been about to ask for exactly that. After all the shit that he and Smith had been through for the Alliance, he figured that Markus owed them- big time. Clearly Markus didn’t see it that way. “But at least you can get in touch with the soldiers on patrol duty, ask them if they’ve seen any sign of Smith. I’d appreciate having some clue where to start looking for him.”
Markus steepled his fingers at his chin and considered Kurdy thoughtfully over them. “You’re that convinced that something is wrong.” It was a statement, not a question.
“I am,” Kurdy replied without hesitation. “I told you: I know Smith.”
Markus nodded decisively. “All right. That much I can do. I’ll take care of it asap, Kurdy. Get whatever supplies you need from Erin and check back here before you leave.”
“Thanks, Markus. I appreciate it.”
Markus smiled with faint amusement. “You know what’s going to happen, don’t you? Smith is going to return to the Mountain safe and sound while you’re off chasing wild gooses over hill and dale.”
Kurdy didn’t return the smile. “Believe me, I’ll be relieved as hell if this turns out to be a wild goose chase.”
But it was an increasingly frustrated and worried Kurdy who drove away from the Mountain a few hours later without a single clue to guide him. None of the patrols had anything helpful to report. The guard on duty at the gate did recall Smith leaving that night, but she hadn’t asked him where he was going, nor had Smith volunteered any information.
Erin had been sympathetic to Kurdy’s concern when he tracked her down and requested food for a few days and extra medical supplies, but she, too, clearly thought he was overreacting. As he loaded everything into the Jeep, Kurdy thought somewhat sourly that had it been Markus who was missing, she wouldn’t have acted nearly so blasé.
North, south, east or west? Kurdy brought the Jeep to a halt just outside the exit gates and sat pondering his choices. His first impulse had been to drive straight to Millhaven, and he would have if Jeremiah was there, but his old partner and Gina were away. Something to do with parts for the town’s water supply system, Kurdy’d been told when he radioed in and asked to speak to him. It was a disappointment. He would’ve welcomed Jeremiah’s help and his company.
The image of a little girl with solemn brown eyes and fine blonde hair braided at her temple swam into his mind. Rose. The kid at the school Smith had taken him and Jeremiah to visit. There was something between Smith and that kid, Kurdy just knew it. He recalled the way she’d waved and smiled at Smith as she climbed the staircase to the classrooms with the other kids.
Even more, he recalled the way Smith had looked at her, his eyes all soft and shining with an emotion that might have been love. Kurdy hadn’t asked Smith what their exact relationship was, figuring Smith would tell him in his own time and way as he'd promised, but it occurred to him now that Smith might have stopped to visit Sister Hannah and Rose on the road to wherever he’d been headed. It was a place to start, anyway.
As he put the truck in gear, Kurdy was struck by how strange it was to be making decisions without any input from Jeremiah or Smith. He’d grown used to being part of a team. Who the hell would have believed it, after all those years he’d spent trusting no one, relying on no one, doing whatever it took to survive?
You work together or you die alone. Words that Kurdy had repeated over and over to each new group of recruits he’d trained. Smith, he thought, if you’re in trouble, I’ll find you one way or the other. I ain’t about to let you die alone.
“No, I’m afraid we haven’t seen Mister Smith for several weeks now,” Sister Hannah said. Her faded eyes appeared less than serene beneath the dark gray scarf that swathed her head and neck, but she faced him with hands lightly clasped at her waist and an impassive look on her lined face. “We’ve been expecting him any time now. He rarely goes more than a few weeks without visiting us.”
Well, it had been a long shot. Kurdy sighed.
“You think something’s happened to him,” Hannah stated, sounding remarkably like Markus.
There was no point denying it. “Yeah. He hasn’t been in touch for nearly five days, Sister. I know that might not seem like a long time, but…” Kurdy shrugged and raised his hands.
“He’s your friend. Of course you’re worried, Mr. Kurdy,” Hannah said at once. Unlike Markus, she understood.
Kurdy chuckled a little at the unaccustomed formality. “Just plain Kurdy’s good enough,” he said. Then he sighed again. “Well, thanks for your time, Sister Hannah.”
She shook her head, the soft folds of her scarf overshadowing but not quite hiding her now-troubled expression. “I don’t deserve your thanks. I only wish there was something I could do. We are all of us here very fond of Mister Smith.”
So am I, Kurdy thought, and wondered what the hell he was supposed to do now. Drive aimlessly around the countryside hoping to stumble over Smith? Damn.
But then, as if in answer to his question, Kurdy suddenly remembered the first time he’d met Rose, in a seedy bar miles from this sheltered sanctuary in every possible way, and in his mind heard her soft childish voice saying: Decontamination procedures don’t work. We have to burn the bodies. With a flash of insight, he understood the real reason why he’d come here. “As a matter of fact, there is one thing you could do for me,” he said.
“What is that?”
“Let me talk to Rose.”
The little girl was out back with the rest of her schoolmates in a large brick walled garden. The children were enjoying a recess from trigonometry or quantum physics or whatever the hell frighteningly advanced topic they were currently studying. Carefree laughter rang out bright as the sunlight as the children chased each other around the lawn in an impromptu game of ‘tag-you’re-it’.
Kurdy watched them with some envy, recalling his own abbreviated childhood. But he thought maybe there was some chance for this fucked up world after all if these kids could grow up without experiencing the loneliness, the longing and the fear that he and the rest of those who survived the Big Death had.
No wonder Smith so zealously guarded the secret of this place’s existence from the Daniels of the world. Here indeed was their hope for the future, as Sister Hannah had once said.
The young teacher Kurdy remembered from his first visit to the school was seated on a stone bench, keeping an indulgent eye on her exuberant charges. Hannah went to her and spoke in a low voice. The woman glanced over at Kurdy in some surprise, but got up and the two women went to fetch Rose. The child was oblivious to the new arrivals, too intent on avoiding the outstretched hand of the boy who was trying to catch her and make her ‘it’.
Kurdy hung back, afraid that his large and intimidating presence might scare the children. He watched as Rose obediently stopped her running and went to Sister Hannah, and wished that it wasn’t necessary for him to cast a shadow over her peaceful life like some dread-locked grim reaper.
But Rose at least evinced no fear of Kurdy, giving him a dimpled smile as she approached at Sister Hannah’s side.
“Hello, Rose,” Kurdy said. He towered over the small child, and it occurred to him that perhaps it would be smarter to crouch down so that he was on her level. So he sank to one knee on the soft grass, and did his best to look as benign as that silly purple dinosaur that had been so popular on public television before the Big Death.
“You’re looking for my daddy, aren’t you,” the girl said matter-of-factly and without preamble.
Kurdy’s jaw dropped, and he knew he probably looked even sillier than Barney at his silliest. My daddy? Smith was Rose’s father? It made sense, but at the same time… Jesus, Smith was a father? Now there was something it was difficult to wrap his brain around. Rose was staring at him expectantly, and there was something in her expression that reminded him strongly of Smith. “Yeah,” Kurdy said quietly, “I am looking for him.”
“I can show you where he is,” she said with the fearless confidence of the young.
Kurdy’s eyebrows shot up. “You can?” The most he’d hoped for was a cryptic message ala Smith, not this straightforward, unhesitating response. But hell, she was only a kid. How did he know he could really trust her?
“Uh huh.” Rose leaned forward and said in a conspiratorial whisper, “The Voice told me.”
Oh shit. Like father, like daughter. He was talking to a miniature version of Smith.
“We’d better hurry. Daddy’s waiting for us.” Rose held out her small hand with its impossibly tiny fingers and a stunned Kurdy engulfed it in his own sizeable mitt and rose to his feet.
And that is how, a short time later, Kurdy found himself on the road again with the most unlikely partner he could ever have envisioned: Smith’s six-year-old daughter.
“Turn there.” Rose, perched on a pile of folded army blankets on top of a wooden crate so that she could see over the dashboard, pointed at a dirt road coming up on their left. The entrance was partially concealed by brambles and vines, and Kurdy might well have driven right past without noticing it.
As Kurdy slowed the Jeep and prepared to turn, he hoped that the kid really knew what she was doing. If not, they were in deep shit. This area was not on any map he possessed.
They’d been on the road for several hours, with one short break so Rose could trot off behind some nearby bushes with a precious handful of tissues to take care of business. Kurdy’d stood guard nearby, suffering agonies of equal parts embarrassment and worry, both for Rose’s safety and for her off-white tights and scuffed black patent leather shoes. He had a feeling he probably ought to be supervising her more closely, and hoped Sister Hannah and Smith would forgive him for chickening out. Rose eventually reappeared safe and sound, however, although her tights had been pulled up somewhat crookedly under the maroon corduroy jumper she wore.
Trying to act as if this was something he did every day, Kurdy’d adjusted the child’s skewed tights and then cleaned her hands with a rag he’d wet with water from his canteen. But he wondered how the hell parents did it. He wondered even more why the hell Sister Hannah had entrusted Rose to his care.
She had declined Kurdy’s almost desperate pleas to accompany them with a shake of her head. “I’m too old to go rattling around the countryside in a Jeep, Kurdy,” she’d said, and added, “Mister Smith trusts you. He wouldn’t have brought you here otherwise. Therefore I trust you, too. Rose will be safe with you.”
While it was flattering to be considered worthy of Hannah’s trust, what Kurdy knew about the care and feeding of little girls could be contained on the head of a pin- with room left over. Lots of it.
“You’re sure you won’t change your mind?” he’d asked in a panicky voice one last time as the three of them walked out to the Jeep, Rose with a pink nylon ‘My Little Pony’ backpack slung over one shoulder in an uncanny imitation of her father. Sister Hannah had only laughed, gently, and patted him on the arm. “You’ll do just fine,” she soothed. “Common sense is all that’s required, Kurdy.”
At least his greatest fear, that Rose would immediately begin pelting him with questions about the laws of thermodynamics or black holes or Fermat’s last theorem, had been unfounded. Instead, she’d chattered brightly about the clay pony she’d made in art class for her father, and the finger painting she’d done the previous day, and she’d confessed in a whisper that one of the boys at recess had pulled her hair hard enough to make her cry.
(The little punk, Kurdy’d thought, I’d like to get his name, rank and serial number and put him on latrine duty.)
Though Kurdy admittedly didn’t know much about them, Rose seemed like pretty much any other six-year old girl, as she swung her skinny legs from the wooden crate and bit into an apple she’d taken from her backpack. Until, that is, she fixed those pansy-brown eyes squarely on him and said, “The Voice says we should hurry.”
Kurdy floored the Jeep all the while he felt a chill creep down the back of his neck. It was a lot like dealing with Smith, he decided: you could go along for hours, sometimes days even, believing you were dealing with some average guy, and then wham! you’d get socked between the eyes by one of God’s ‘messages’ and realize that there was nothing remotely average about him.
Right from the first, Rose had been unhesitating about the route they should take. She’d directed him this way and that until they’d reached an old highway, the macadam cracked and riddled with weeds but still passable, and they’d driven some fifty miles along it before finally exiting.
They started driving up into the mountains, gradually ascending through towering pine trees on what clearly had once been a logging road. It wasn’t an area he’d been in before, despite his extensive travels recruiting for the Alliance, but there were no populated towns in the vicinity as far as he knew. He wondered what business God could possibly have had for Smith in such a remote location.
They eventually reached a point where they could drive no further. The road petered out at an abandoned logging camp, with half a dozen clapboard cabins that were gone to wrack and ruin: doors hung askew on their hinges, glass panes were shattered and the roofs of two of the shacks had fallen in. Straggly weed-choked bushes gasped for breath around their foundations, and there were birds nesting on the windowsills. It was a desolate scene, yet one common in the wake of the Big Death.
“This it?” Kurdy asked, putting the Jeep in park and looking curiously at Rose, who was sitting up straight and staring around her, one finger at her mouth. He hoped like hell it was, that they didn’t have to go further up into the mountains. Those patent leather shoes the kid wore sure as shit hadn’t been designed with hiking in mind.
Rose nodded, her hair a shimmer of wheat gold in the light that filtered through the overhanging trees and the filthy windshield, and Kurdy breathed a silent sigh of relief.
“All right. I’m gonna go take a quick look around. You stay in the Jeep while I do,” he cautioned.
“Okay,” she replied obediently, folding her hands in her lap, then added, “But there’s no one here except my daddy.”
“Even so, there might be wild animals. I don’t want to take any chances, Rose. You stay put, understand?” Kurdy spoke emphatically, hoping that, unlike her father, Rose would actually heed a direct order.
Rose nodded again, and Kurdy shut off the engine and got out of the Jeep, slamming the door behind him. Then, with every sense on high alert and knife at the ready, he made a slow, cautious circuit of the camp, eyes darting back to check on the truck and Rose every few seconds. But the only evidence of life was a lone woodchuck that stood up on its haunches and stared at him for a moment before lumbering away under the drunkenly sagging front porch of one of the shacks.
When he was reasonably certain that the coast was clear and no one was lying in wait to ambush them, Kurdy stuck the knife back in his boot, returned to the Jeep and opened the door for Rose. The little girl held out her arms; Kurdy picked her up, swung her around and set her gently on the ground. It was like picking up a hollow-boned bird, he thought, and it was impossible not to feel a sort of primal protective urge similar to what Smith must feel for Rose… or what his own parents must once have felt for him.
As soon as her feet hit the dirt, Rose grabbed Kurdy’s hand and tugged. She began leading him quickly toward one of the cabins. “Daddy’s in there,” she said, pointing, and Kurdy studied the building as they approached.
The dilapidated shack was one of those with a caved-in roof, but otherwise, it looked to be in better shape than the others. The broken windows were covered with heavy plastic and the door was actually on its hinges and closed. It looked as if someone had taken a broom to the front porch, for it was clear of the debris that littered the other cabins. It occurred to Kurdy that this might be another of those secret places Smith kept for memory’s sake, like the one Kurdy had seen. Perhaps the walls inside were covered with photos he’d taken with his pinhole camera as part of his chronicle of the years after the Death.
But Kurdy’s heart sank at the sight of the jagged ends of wooden roof beams standing out like broken teeth. They were still sharp, neither worn nor discolored by time and the elements, and that must mean that the collapse had happened only recently. Shit. This definitely didn’t look good. If Smith was inside when those beams came down…
Kurdy’s first impulse was to dash forward, bound up the front steps, fling open the door and shout Smith’s name- no doubt causing the remains of the roof, if not the entire building, to collapse on him in the process. So instead he halted and looked down at Rose. “You’re sure your dad is in there?” he asked quietly, hoping against hope that Rose might be mistaken.
“Uh huh,” Rose replied without hesitation. “The Voice said so, and it’s never wrong.”
Double shit. “All right then. We’re going to take a look inside, Rose, but very slowly and very carefully. I want you to promise to stay right beside me no matter what.”
“Even if the Voice tells me not to?” Rose inquired.
“Well, maybe not if the Voice tells you,” Kurdy relented. The Voice, after all, had been batting a thousand so far.
The five steps that led up to the front porch of the cabin were still sound enough to bear Kurdy’s considerable weight. He tested each one carefully before stepping on it, though, and only then allowed Rose to follow him. At all costs, he meant to protect the kid from harm. He sure as hell didn’t want to have to face either Smith or Sister Hannah if anything happened to her. Or the Voice, for that matter.
The porch itself creaked a bit as they crossed to the front door, but didn’t seem in imminent danger of collapse. Kurdy tried the tarnished brass doorknob, and it turned readily beneath his fingers. As he eased the door open, the squeal of its rusty hinges sounded loud enough to wake the dead. Kurdy grimaced, wishing he’d come up with a less morbid metaphor.
Holding Rose in place with a hand on her thin shoulder, Kurdy poked his head through the doorway. “Smith? You here?” he called out softly.
“Yeah, I’m here,” a blessedly familiar voice, Smith’s voice, answered, and Kurdy sagged against the doorframe momentarily with relief. “What took you so long to find me?” Smith demanded irritably. “You have any idea how hard it is to take a piss when you’re lying flat on your back pinned under a wooden beam?”
Typical Smith. Kurdy straightened and grinned. “You better watch what you’re saying, Smith. I got somebody here with me shouldn’t be hearing that kind of talk.”
“What do you…” Smith began, just as Rose said, “Hi Daddy.”
“Rose?” Smith sounded absolutely flabbergasted.
Kurdy couldn’t help it; he laughed.
In point of fact, though, it was no laughing matter. Light flooding through the gaping hole in the roof starkly illuminated the scene: the photos taped to the walls; the threadbare carpet and rickety furniture; and the tangle of plaster, wood and wires that surrounded Smith where he lay on the floor of what looked to have once been a living room. Kurdy could just make out Smith’s face and hair, white with plaster dust, and his horrified expression as he looked at his daughter.
“Daddy,” Rose asked curiously, “what are you doing?”
“I’m, um, just taking a little rest, honey. I’ll get up in a minute,” Smith prevaricated. His green eyes met Kurdy’s across the space that separated them and said, clearer than any words, Get her out of here, Kurdy, don’t let her see me like this.
Kurdy nodded in unspoken assent. If Rose had been his daughter, he’d have felt the same way. He was beginning to get a handle on this parenting shit: 99% worry, 1% freaking out. Poor Smith.
Kurdy took Rose back to the Jeep, and then drove the vehicle right up to the cabin so Smith wouldn’t have to walk any distance to it. Although Smith seemed not to be seriously injured, he doubted the little man would own up it even if he was, not if he thought he could conceal the fact. As Kurdy’d told Markus, he knew Smith.
Figuring a small bribe might not go amiss he rummaged in the cooler in the back of the Jeep and pulled out a plastic container of butterscotch pudding.
“This is for you,” he said, handing the container and a metal spoon to Rose a bit regretfully, for he loved butterscotch pudding, and Erin had only given him the one container. “I’m gonna go get your dad. You wait here.”
Those pansy-brown eyes widened with delight at the unexpected treat. “Thank you, Mr. Kurdy,” Rose said, and to Kurdy’s shock, the child leaned forward and hugged as much of Kurdy as she could- which wasn’t all that much. At that moment, he’d have happily given her every single container of butterscotch pudding to be found in the Mountain’s canteen. Okay, so maybe that 1% wasn’t only reserved for freaking out, he decided.
Leaving Rose to her pudding with a final admonition not to set foot outside the Jeep, Kurdy went to rescue Smith.
“Thanks, Kurdy,” Smith said when Kurdy had carefully negotiated the obstacle course and was crouched by his side. “I didn’t want her to see me like this.”
“Yeah, I’ve got to admit I’ve seen you look better, Smith.” It was hard to tell how much was plaster dust and how much pain, but Smith’s drawn face was chalk-white except for a livid bruise on his forehead. “When did this happen?” he asked more seriously.
“Almost three days ago.”
“Holy shit. Well, let’s get you the hell out of here.”
“Sorry for not getting you word, Kurdy,” Smith apologized as Kurdy stood up. “I’ve got a note for you in my pocket.”
“You should apologize, my man. Imagine letting a little thing like this roof collapsing stop you.”
Smith chuckled and winced. “I think I’ve bruised a rib.”
“You’re damned lucky. If it wasn’t for that backpack you carry everywhere, you’d have one hell of a lot more than a bruised rib.” Smith’s ubiquitous, faded gray-green canvas backpack was wedged between his chest and the beam that was pinning him down, and had obviously cushioned the blow.
“You could have been killed, Smith.” Kurdy began clearing away the debris as fast as he safely could.
“God would never let that happen to me, Kurdy. I’m too useful to him,” Smith said with more than a hint of bitterness.
“Well, he sure don’t mind letting you flirt with it plenty.” Kurdy shook his head in disgust as he carefully lifted a chunk of plaster and set it aside. “At least he told Rose where to find you. I’m sorry I had to bring her with me, Smith, but I didn’t have any other choice.”
“That’s okay, Kurdy. I know she’s safe with you.”
“That’s what Sister Hannah said.” Kurdy gathered up a rat’s nest of electrical wires and threw them aside.
“Hannah’s a wise woman.”
“Yeah, well, I think you’re both crazy,” Kurdy replied gruffly, dragging a shingle-covered plywood board out of the way.
Smith just smiled.
“I was gonna ask you why you never told me and Jeremiah about Rose being your daughter,” Kurdy said reflectively as he knelt beside Smith again and prepared to lift the now-unencumbered beam off his chest, “but I guess I understand, now that I’ve been around her a while. She’s a special kid, Smith.”
“She’s the most precious thing in the world to me, Kurdy,” Smith whispered.
With a grunt of effort, Kurdy heaved the beam up and away. It landed on the moth-eaten carpet with a dull thud and a puff of dust. “Yeah, I can see why she would be. Come on,” Kurdy said gently, sliding his arm beneath Smith’s shoulders. “Rose is waiting for you.”
Rose fell asleep against her father’s side, safely sheltered within the circle of his arm, before they’d reached the bottom of the mountain.
“How you feeling, Smith?” Kurdy asked quietly.
“Better,” Smith said, bending to place a soft kiss on Rose’s hair, and Kurdy didn’t think he was referring to the hasty washing-up, the long drink of water or the three sandwiches he'd wolfed down.
“Still, we’ll get you all checked out when we get back to the Mountain,” Kurdy said in a brook-no-argument tone.
“Okay,” Smith agreed with surprising docility. But it sounded to Kurdy like his thoughts were elsewhere, and when he began hesitantly, “Kurdy?” Kurdy knew that he was right. There was something on Smith’s mind.
“I was going to tell you about Rose, when the time was right. I’m sorry you had to find out the way you did. It must have been a shock.” Smith’s green eyes were apologetic as he looked over Rose’s head at his partner.
“It was at first. But like I said, Smith, I can understand why you’d keep it a secret. Still, I gotta admit I’m glad you trust me enough to have told me the truth eventually.”
They drove on in silence for a while, and then Smith said softly, as if offering Kurdy reparation or perhaps a gift, “I knew you were going to find me. That’s what made the waiting bearable.”
“Oh yeah? Did God tell you that?”
Smith smiled faintly. “No, not this time. It wasn’t God who told me, Kurdy. It was my heart.”