Elijah was away in the hills hunting when the men from Thunder Mountain arrived. He had more important things to do than listen to their sales pitch - like finding food for a community strained to its fragile limits by the never-ending struggle to survive. He left the listening and the decision making to the Oak Creek town elders - what might seem a strange designation for men and women not yet in their thirties, except that they all, Elijah included, felt at least a thousand years old, however youthful their faces might appear.
By the time he returned with his catch, a half-dozen rabbits and eight plump pheasants, the meeting was over and the decision made: they would join the newly-formed Alliance and send recruits to the Mountain to be trained as soldiers. Elijah privately had his doubts that an alliance could survive the chaotic world they'd inherited after the Big Death, but he figured it was worth a try. Things couldn't possibly be any more fucked up than they already were.
He brought his bounty to the communal kitchen, one of the few places in town with (more or less) functioning electricity, and found it buzzing like a hive of bees that had been poked with a stick. A bonfire party was being planned in celebration of joining the Alliance and it was all hands on deck. Elijah was set to work plucking and dressing the pheasants, necessary work if nothing he enjoyed. But he simply shrugged and got on with it. He even felt an unexpected sense of anticipation. Parties were few and far between in Oak Creek. There was rarely ever anything to celebrate.
As Elijah sat at a rickety wooden table with his razor sharp hunting knife, the pheasants, and an ever-growing pile of coppery feathers he would use to fletch more arrows, he listened with interest to the chatter around him. It seemed the two men from Thunder Mountain had made quite an impression, or at least one of them had, a guy named Kurdy.
"I tell you what," said Carla, who oversaw the kitchen with a strict but fair hand on the reins, "that Kurdy is a fine figure of a man. I wouldn't mind if he stayed around a while."
But Janice, up to her elbows in the coarsely ground flour they used for bread-baking, shook her head. "He said he'll be heading out in the morning, more's the pity. Wonder if he'd be interested in a threesome, Carla. Make the best use of the time he's here." Everyone laughed, and a few ribald comments rang out.
Then someone asked, "What about the little guy that came with him, Mister Smith? There's a kind of 'puppy dog lost' look about him. It's sweet, if you ask me."
"Mister Smith." Carla snorted. "Who ever heard of anybody with the first name 'Mister'? Besides, rumor is that he hears God's voice in his head - says that the Man is talking to him. That's just crazy, and we got enough crazy in this world. Nope, I'll take me a hunk like Kurdy any day."
Since it seemed highly doubtful that either Kurdy or Mister Smith would be his type, or more accurately that he would be their type, Elijah kept his mouth shut. He was mostly a loner anyway, content to be off in the forest with just his bow and arrows and his own thoughts for company. Oak Creek was his home for the present, and the people here were kind and had made him welcome, but like the rolling stone he would eventually move on, running from the memories that any hint of permanence brought with it.
"Good job, Elijah," Carla approved when he presented her with the now perfectly dressed pheasants to cook. "I mean to impress Kurdy. We don't want Oak Creek taking a back seat to any other town that's joined the Alliance."
Elijah couldn't see it himself, Oak Creek or its food impressing anyone who came from a place like Thunder Mountain where, it was said, people got three squares a day and all the hot showers they wanted. But then what did he know? Still, when he left the kitchen he went along to the bath house to take a lukewarm shower, after which he changed into clean clothes.
The sun went down behind the snow-capped mountains. The bonfire was lit in the town square and the food served buffet style on a rickety assortment of tables placed end to end and covered with a motley collection of tablecloths. Elijah took a faded green plastic dinner plate and cutlery from the first table and joined the queue. Perhaps a dozen places ahead of him in line stood a towering African-American man with long hair braided in cornrows. Without a doubt this was the famous Kurdy. He was indeed a fine figure of a man, Elijah thought, admiring his broad shoulders under a black leather duster. Of his partner Mister Smith, however, there was no sign.
Elijah filled his plate with pheasant pie, rabbit stew, fried potatoes and onions, squash, and two thick slices of bread slathered in butter, thinking ruefully that the town could have eaten for three days off the amount of food laid out for this one meal. But he supposed it wasn't a bad thing to have pride in your home and try to show it to its best advantage, even if it meant tightening belts for a while. At least tonight he'd go to bed with a truly full stomach.
An equally motley collection of lawn chairs had been arranged around the bonfire, along with lengths of log to hold the overflow. Leaving the chairs for others, Elijah took a seat on the end of a log and balanced his plate on his knees. He set a chipped glass mug of frothy beer carefully at his feet, not willing to spill a single drop. Last season's store was dwindling rapidly and this season's crop of hops was not yet ready to harvest, and while liquor aplenty was available to drink, most of it was of the rotgut variety. Elijah had learned the hard way to stick to beer or, when that wasn't available, plain old water.
As he lifted a forkful of pheasant pie to his lips, Elijah observed a stranger sit down in a chair across from him on the other side of the fire: a small man in shabby clothes and work boots. He was holding a knapsack that he set at his feet as carefully as Elijah had set his beer. This had to be Kurdy's partner, the man with the weird first name 'Mister', the man who thought God spoke to him. An unprepossessing enough figure, especially when compared to the tall, broad and outgoing Kurdy, with his deep voice and booming laugh. They made a very odd couple, Elijah thought.
It grew crowded around the fire as more and more people settled in, and the atmosphere turned party-like, with much laughter and raising of toasts to the Alliance. Elijah was distracted by the shabby little figure on the other side of the fire, however, and couldn't stop stealing glances at him. There was something about Mister Smith that he found oddly compelling - oddly, because Elijah had the impression that the man would rather have been anywhere else. He responded when asked a direct question, but in the manner of one forced to do his social duty. What was his story? Elijah wondered, and then cautioned himself, because wondering was a dangerous indulgence in the world after the Big Death. Everyone had his or her story, and the stories were never happy.
Elijah was wiping his plate clean with the last of his bread when the members of the Oak Creek band assembled on the porch of the town hall and began to tune their instruments - mostly ingenious affairs made from scrap metal, PVC pipe, and wooden crates, among other things. Elijah loved music and dancing, and his foot was already unconsciously tapping in anticipation as he watched them.
An uncomfortable prickling sensation told Elijah that he was being watched in his turn. His senses were always alert for watchful eyes, for out in the wilderness survival depended on a heightened state of awareness. A resurgence of wildlife in depopulated areas meant good hunting - the Big Death had done wonders for endangered species - but also meant one could easily become the hunted, for predators abounded. And then there were the human predators, and they were the scariest of the lot.
He quickly turned his head, and discovered that the watcher was Mister Smith. Their eyes met across the fire and time seemed to stutter and stop. Mister Smith's face was framed in flames like some apocalyptic vision, and the color of his eyes was impossible to determine; but they held Elijah spellbound. He couldn't tear his gaze away, nor did he want to. Here was no predator, though, but a being rare and special, unique. The absurd thought passed through Elijah's mind that he wanted Mister Smith to come and lay his head in his lap, as a unicorn would do to a maiden...
Someone bumped against Elijah's leg, and his plate started to slide off his lap. Instinctively he glanced down and rescued it. The queer, disconcerting moment was over. But it had left him breathless and shaken inside, and also determined to meet the strange little man with the mesmerizing eyes. Let the others pursue Kurdy. Elijah knew who he wanted.
The band struck up a lively tune, and within minutes people were getting up and starting to dance. Kurdy walked up to Mister Smith; Carla and Janice were at his heels. "Smith, come and dance," Elijah heard him say to his friend.
"I don't know how," replied Mister Smith. "You go on, Kurdy. I'm fine."
"You heard him, Kurdy. Let's go." Carla gave his coat sleeve a tug.
"You sure?" Kurdy ignored her. It was clear that he wasn't going anywhere until he'd settled the matter with his friend, and Elijah's heart warmed to the man.
"I'm sure. Now don't keep your fan club waiting."
Kurdy's distinctive laugh boomed out. "First I have a scribe, now I have a fan club? You're too much, Smith." But he went off willingly enough with Carla and Janice to the hard-packed dirt in front of the town hall where the dancers were congregating. As Elijah watched them go, he thought with amusement that Janice might get her threesome after all.
"Elijah, how about a dance?" A voice asked. It belonged to Lily, the attractive and no-nonsense young woman who ran the town's one-room schoolhouse. They were on friendly terms, although Elijah suspected she would have liked them to become something more, which simply wasn't in the cards.
But he answered readily, "Sure thing," and went with her. But ever and anon as they danced his gaze strayed to Mister Smith, sitting alone now by the fire. Perhaps he was projecting, but Elijah thought the man looked wistful as he watched the dancing. And that simply wasn't right.
The song ended, and everyone applauded. "That was fun, Lily, thanks," Elijah said. He meant it, but he was also relieved when someone else asked her for a dance, since it meant he was free to introduce himself to Mister Smith and see if he could persuade the man to join the dancing.
He quickly slipped away, and with his heart beating more rapidly than exertion could account for, approached Mister Smith. Up close, the shabby little man appeared even shabbier, the collars and cuffs of his muted plaid shirt and dark gray jacket frayed and faded. His face was careworn, too, its folds and creases brought into sharp relief by the firelight. But Elijah found him strangely beautiful, beautiful and sad, like certain melodies he'd heard that brought an ache to his heart, even if he couldn't really understand why.
"Hi," he said, in as off-hand a manner as he was able to manage. "We didn't get a chance to meet yet. I'm Elijah."
Mister Smith, who had been looking into the fire, tilted his head up, and once more Elijah was held captive by his eyes. It still wasn't possible to make out their true color, but they seemed at once both profoundly old and heartbreakingly young, as if he'd witnessed horrors unimaginable, yet somehow managed to retain the innocence of a child. Then he smiled at Elijah, a purely sweet smile that went straight to Elijah's heart, and held out his hand. "Pleased to meet you, Elijah. I'm Mister Smith."
Mister Smith's hand was surprisingly large and very warm as it wrapped around Elijah's, encompassing it completely. It was rare in the post-Death world to trust anyone at first meeting, yet from their first touch Elijah knew with bone-deep certainty that this man could be trusted. When their hands separated, he felt more than a touch of regret.
"I know who you are," Elijah replied, returning the smile.
"Yeah, I guess everyone's been talking about us," he said, looking uncomfortable, even embarrassed.
"Well, it's a big day for Oak Creek, joining the Alliance." Elijah drew a deep breath. Here went nothing, he thought. "But aren't you going to join the celebration?" He gestured beyond the fire to the dancers, gyrating to Twist and Shout.
"I don't know how to dance, Elijah." Mister Smith repeated what he'd said to Kurdy. Then he added cryptically, "I never learned - at least as far as I know."
"Oh, anyone can do this kind of dancing. It's not formal or anything. Lessons aren't necessary; I never had any."
"No? But you're a very good dancer." Elijah thought the man's cheeks reddened slightly as he went on, "I was watching you."
A secret delight filled Elijah, but he said, "Then you obviously haven't watched a lot of dancers. I'm terrible." He grinned down at him. "So come and dance with me, Mister. We can be terrible together. No one will care."
Elijah was half-convinced that he'd refuse, but then he said, "All right, but only if you call me Smith." He gave a short laugh. "I'm not too fond of the 'Mister'."
"Parents give their kids the craziest names, huh?" The words had hardly left Elijah's lips when he regretted them. Something shifted in Smith's expressive eyes, like a shutter closing. What sad memory had he revived, Elijah wondered. "They're about to start another song," he said, hoping to distract Smith. "Come on."
"Just don't hold anything I do against me, okay?" Smith joked as he got to his feet.
Elijah was very aware of Smith at his side as they went to join the crowd, waiting for the next song. He might not be tall - no more than an inch taller than Elijah - but Smith was solidly built and he walked with the lightness of a a natural athlete. Elijah had a feeling that he would turn out to be a better dancer than he gave himself credit for.
They squeezed through until they found a more or less open space. The band launched into Hound Dog, and Smith asked, "What do I do?"
"Feel the music. Let it move you." Elijah demonstrated.
Smith made a few jerky motions then stopped. "Easy for you to say," he complained.
"Try closing your eyes, Smith. Maybe that'll help. Forget about everyone and everything but the music."
Obediently, the little man closed his eyes, brow furrowed in fierce concentration. He tried moving to the music again, but he was so tense that he more resembled an egg beater than a dancer. Elijah bit back a guilty smile as Smith sighed and opened his eyes again. "It's not working. I can't do this, Elijah. It's hopeless."
"You have to relax," Elijah said. "Stop over-thinking it." He felt an almost irresistible desire to dart in and kiss Smith - simply as a means of distracting him, of course. Instead, he gave into a different impulse and took him by the hands. Elijah began to rock back and forth in time to the music, moving Smith's arms as he did. "Like this," he said. "It's simple. Now come on, try it."
Tentatively Smith let his body follow where his arms led, and after a few beats caught the rhythm, or perhaps the rhythm caught him; Elijah could almost feel the tension melting away as Smith's shoulders and hips relaxed.
"Now you're getting it," Elijah said, grinning. "See? It's not that hard."
"It's not, is it?" Smith smiled happily at him, and Elijah realized that he was younger than he looked. Whatever burden the little man carried he had set down for the time being, and Elijah was glad.
Before long Smith twisting and turning with the best of them. He was, as Elijah had suspected he would be, a natural.
"Shit, Smith, look at you." It was Kurdy, holding two beers in his large hands. "Not bad. Not bad at all," he said with approval, watching his partner. "You got rhythm, my man." His gaze went to Elijah. "You the one who convinced him to shake his groove thing?"
Elijah laughed. "That's me, Elijah."
"Good job, Elijah," Kurdy said approvingly. "Smith here needs to learn how to loosen up and relax. Well, you two enjoy yourselves. I got to get back to my 'fan club'." Grinning, Kurdy carried the drinks away.
As if Kurdy's approval put the stamp on Smith's evening, he seemed to put any vestiges of uncertainty behind him. As the bonfire sent glowing red-gold sparks up into a cloudless night sky thick with stars, and the band went from Chuck Berry to Elvis to the Stones and the Bee Gees, they danced. Elijah couldn't remember the last time he'd had such fun. Maybe not since before his parents died - but that wasn't a thought he wanted to intrude, so he put it from him. Underneath, though, was a growing consciousness that meeting Smith had sparked something inside him, something that might not burn bonfire-bright just yet but could, given the opportunity.
He didn't want this night ever to end, he thought more than once. Did Smith feel the same?
But all nights eventually came to an end, and so did this one. Bit by bit the crowd thinned as people dropped out and sought their beds. Elijah noticed that Kurdy had disappeared, as had Janice and Carla. He wondered where Kurdy and Smith were supposed to bunk and if the former would ever show up there, and if not, what Smith would make of it.
"'Fraid that'll have to be the last song, folks," announced Tim, the lead singer and guitarist, in a voice that was decidedly hoarse. By now a bare handful of people were left to hear him, but as they applauded and shouted thanks, they made up in enthusiasm what they lacked in numbers. The band packed up their instruments and departed. When they were gone, only Elijah and Smith were left, and the slowly dying bonfire.
Elijah said into the silence, "It'll be morning soon. You should get some rest." Already the sky to the east was noticeably lighter.
"I'm not tired." Smith's lips quirked into a rueful smile. "I tend to keep odd hours."
"Same here." Elijah hesitated then asked, "Do you want to sit and talk for a while?"
He could have offered to take Smith back to his rooms, see what developed, but he wasn't Janice or Carla, looking for a quickie with an attractive stranger who would soon be leaving town. He hoped Smith wasn't looking for one, but somehow he didn't think so.
"I'd like that, Elijah. Dancing and talking don't really mix, do they?"
Elijah's heart soared. "No, they don't."
They sat down on a log, side by side, not quite touching. But Elijah could feel the warmth of Smith's sturdy body and he wished he dared to lean against it, to have wrap Smith's arm around him. That was all, nothing more. But it was asking too much too soon.
"Thank you for inviting me to dance," Smith said. "It was fun, and that's not a word I get to use a lot."
"Neither do I," agreed Elijah. "But I should be the one thanking you, Smith. We don't have a lot of opportunities to celebrate here. Like I said, this has been a big day for Oak Creek."
"It was a wise decision, joining the Alliance. A new world is coming, Elijah, and that means a chance to get things right this time."
"You honestly believe that?" Elijah's doubt colored his words. How could anything ever truly be right again in a world so devastated by loss and grief?
"I do." Smith leaned forward a little, elbows on his knees, hands loosely clasped. "I'm not saying it will be easy. Nothing worthwhile is. But I've seen now what can be accomplished if we work together and stand united." He huffed a laugh. "Sorry. Guess Kurdy and I have been on the road too much lately giving folks our sales pitch. You don't need to hear it, too."
"I don't mind," replied Elijah. "It's good to know that there are people who can see hope for a brighter future."
"What about you, Elijah?" Smith asked. "Can you see hope?"
"I'd like to believe a brighter future is possible," Elijah said evasively.
It seemed Smith wasn't going to let him off the hook too easily. "But I learned a long time ago to rely only on myself, not get attached or have too many ties."
Smith nodded. "I understand, and I used to be the same, Elijah. The truth is that I got drawn into all of this against my will. Only, when you have people like Kurdy and Markus - he's the head of the Alliance - on your side, your thinking starts to change." He regarded Elijah thoughtfully. "I take it you're not from around here, then?"
"No. I grew up in Cedar Rapids, but ever since..." Elijah hesitated, unwilling to say the words aloud. Invoking the Big Death was akin to summoning an evil spirit. "I guess you could say I've been a rolling stone. Where are you from, Smith?"
"I don't know." Smith's gaze was fixed on the dying heart of the fire, where the coals burned a sullen red. "I can't remember my past before a few years ago."
"I envy you. Sometimes I wish I couldn't remember." The ghosts of his family followed him always, waking and sleeping, especially Hannah's.
"Don't," Smith said with vehemence and turned his head to look at Elijah. His expression was haunted. "Don't ever wish that, Elijah. You don't understand what it's like, having a blank slate where the story of your life should be written. No matter what happened, however painful, at least you have memories. You know where you came from, who your parents were, who you were."
"I'm sorry." Elijah lightly touched Smith's ragged sleeve. "That was a thoughtless thing to say."
"No, I shouldn't have jumped down your throat. Who am I to judge? I got to the point where I decided I shouldn't have a future much less a past."
A chill coursed through Elijah as he understood what Smith was saying. "What happened?" he asked.
Smith said simply, "God happened. He had other plans for me."
"I'm glad." Elijah meant it. Brief though their acquaintance was, meeting Smith had changed things for him in ways he couldn't see clearly yet. But something Carla had said earlier in the day came back to him. Maybe God having other plans for Smith was a more literal statement than Elijah first assumed. Hesitantly, not sure how Smith would react to him repeating this particular piece of gossip, he said, "People have been saying that God talks to you."
But Smith didn't seem to mind. "Sometimes, yes," he replied. "Not all the time." He laughed ruefully. "It's not like we're homeboys or anything. Basically I'm His sock puppet. He tells me what to say and who to say it to, and I do, whether I want to tell them or they want to hear it."
"That must be pretty weird."
Smith shrugged. "I've gotten used to it. Lots of practice." He added, sounding surprised, "What I'm not used to is anyone reacting the way you are. You're supposed to tell me that I'm either crazy or a liar."
"You seem perfectly sane to me," replied Elijah. "And you definitely don't strike me as a man who would tell lies. Besides, I don't imagine it's easy, being God's sock puppet. He seems pretty ruthless."
A strange look passed over Smith's face, gray in the pale light of dawn. "You have no idea," he said, sounding grim.
Elijah wondered uneasily what God had demanded of Smith that could bring such a note to his voice. "I don't suppose you have an opt-out clause?"
That made Smith smile, chasing away the grimness, as Elijah had hoped it would. "Afraid not." Then he cocked his head to the side and considered Elijah with a mixture of curiosity and wonder that put Elijah strongly in mind of the wild birds he encountered in his wanderings. "You know, that's not what people usually ask me when they find out - the ones who are willing to believe me, or humor me, at least."
"I don't understand. What do they ask?"
"If God has a message for them. That's what people always want to know, Elijah: what does God have to say to me?"
"I can't imagine God would have anything to say to me," protested Elijah. It was absurd, the very idea. Who was he to God?
"But what if He did?"
"Are you saying that He does?"
"As a matter of fact, yes."
Elijah sat for a moment taking this in, and uncertainty, and even fear, crept into his heart. Whatever message God had for him, Elijah doubted it could be anything positive. "I'm not sure I want to hear it, Smith," he said. "You don't have to tell me, do you?"
"Not if you don't want me to," Smith said gently. "There's no pressure on either of us. But... I think you should listen to His message." Unexpectedly, he set his hand on Elijah's knee. "I know it's an uncomfortable proposition, but will you let me tell you? It might do you good to hear it."
Smith's touch was secure, warm and comforting, and that, more than his advice, gave Elijah the courage to say, "All right. You can tell me."
Smith removed his hand and sat back. "God says," he began with a serious expression, "the time is coming when you won't have to run from your memories anymore. He says that you're going to find your home, and soon."
Elijah stared at Smith. His throat worked, and for the first time since Hannah's death, the frozen place inside him yielded to that most foreign of emotions: hope. Strangely, or perhaps not, at that very moment the rising sun reached over the treetops and shone full on Smith's face. For the first time Elijah was able to see the true color of his eyes, green with tiny flecks of gold. Green, the color of spring, of new life. Of hope.
"Elijah? You okay?" Smith asked with a hint of anxiety.
"Yeah, I am. Just... a little startled, I guess." Which was an understatement if ever there were one.
"In a good way, I hope."
"Definitely in a good way. Smith, thank you."
"Elijah," Smith began hesitantly. He stared down at his scuffed work boots and unlike earlier, Elijah could see his cheeks undeniably reddening. "I'm not much good at this sort of thing, probably never was, but you..." He swallowed and shot a glance at Elijah. "I think you're about the most beautiful man I've ever seen, and you're the first person who has ever accepted me as I am, right off the bat." He huffed a laugh. "Hell, Kurdy's my partner and my best friend and I'm still not sure he actually believes that God talks to me. I wish more than anything that I could stay and talk with you more - there's so much I'd like to ask you and learn about you - but Kurdy and I have several more towns to visit on this trip and we have to be back at Thunder Mountain within the week." He glanced at Elijah again and added with shy sincerity, "But what this is all leading up to, what I want to say is... if you ever wanted to come to Thunder Mountain, we could pick up where we left off."
Elijah's heart swelled with joy and he said at once, "I'd like that, Smith. You have no idea how much."
"You mean it?" Smith straightened and turned eagerly toward Elijah, his face alight with pleasure.
"Of course I mean it. You're not the only one looking at the most beautiful man he's ever seen."
Smith leaned toward him, but what might have happened next Elijah never found out, because they were interrupted by Kurdy. The big man came striding up, saying, "There you are, Smith. I've been looking all over for you. It's time to get back on the road, my man." He looked from Smith to Elijah and back again. "Did you two stay up all night?"
"As a matter of fact we did," retorted Smith. "You gonna make something of it? If so, I'll start asking you about where you spent the night."
Kurdy spread out his hands in a peace gesture, but his eyes were twinkling. "I'm not gonna make a thing of it. I ain't your keeper, Smith. You ready? We got a long drive ahead of us."
"Yeah, I'm ready. Just let me get my stuff." Smith retrieved his backpack and slung it over his shoulder. Then he looked at Elijah with patent regret and said quietly, "See you soon?"
Elijah nodded and said, "Take care of yourself, Smith." He watched the two men, so disparate but so clearly a team, walk away to where their Jeep was parked, and already he missed Smith more than he would have imagined possible. But he could bear the loss, because he had it on the highest authority that his lonely days would soon be over.
As he made his way slowly back to his rooms, Elijah decided to retrieve his bow and arrows and go hunting up in the hills. Food would be in short supply now because of the party, and he wanted to be alone to think about Smith and relive the wondrous night just past. And then… in a few days, he'd be ready to move on. Only this time not away from his past, but towards his future. A future with Smith? It was impossible to say for certain yet, but recalling the regretful look in Smith's eyes as he prepared to leave Oak Creek, Elijah thought that, God's words to the contrary, he'd already found his home.