Chloe was in a state of tension that she could hardly bear. She had met Hattie before, in passing, though she wasn't sure she remembered what she looked like: before, Hattie had always been in uniform.
She wasn't really that much older than I am when she and Dad first met.
With a slow, rolling jolt, Chloe thought: No, she could have been younger than I am now. Dad had mentioned they'd been together since her first flight, ten years ago: Hattie could have been 19, if she was fresh out of flight attendant training.
Hattie had refused to come to dinner, to Chloe's great relief: but they were supposed to meet before the flight. Chloe didn't want to be there, but she didn't want to let Dad out of her sight. She'd felt like that since they got home. If she could deadhead on this flight, she'd go along.
The worst part about this Hattie was that it made remembering Mom hurt worse. If she'd known about Hattie, Mom would have... gone cold. Chloe shivered. Mom was sweet, of course - but when she got angry, she was frightening. She didn't shout, she never raised her voice. When she was upset her voice went high and tight, and sometimes when she was very angry her voice would break in a dry, tight sob. When Mom was like that even Raymie hid: and Mom was never angry with Raymie. She wasn't angry like that when Dad was around, either. Not even when she found out about the time Dad kissed some girl at a party. She never spoke to Dad about it, but the first night Dad was away she stayed up late, drinking cup after cup of black coffee, talking to Chloe in that high tight voice about how a good wife had to forgive and forgive, pray to God that her husband would be saved. Raymie had gone to bed, and Chloe sat still, cold with tiredness and boredom and an inexplicable sense of unfairness. She loved Mom. She loved Dad. If it was helping Mom to talk about it Chloe ought to be a good daughter and listen. But she didn't want to, and the more Mom talked, the less Chloe wanted to listen.
She'd asked eventually "Mom, are you going to divorce Dad?" and got lectured for half an hour more, until Mom said - in the middle of a tight-voiced instruction on the evils of divorce just because "some little floozy" had "made a pass" - that it was late, far too late, and Chloe ought to go to bed.
Mom was dead. So was Raymie. And Dad was devastated. He cried. Late at night, when he thought no one could hear him, he cried. In a strange kind of way, that was comforting: Dad had loved Mom. Even if he had been carrying on this strange kind of courtship of this flight attendant. Dad had looked like he wanted to hit Chloe when she'd asked if he meant to marry Hattie, and he'd never hit her since she got too old to spank: he used to hit Raymie sometimes, but not often.
When Hattie arrived - late - it was even more of a shock because Chloe did recognise her. She had been a brisk, uniformed presence by Dad's side, cool and impersonal, on several occasions. She seemed a little brisker, if anything - she apologised briefly for being late, and went to the desk to check in. She certainly wasn't what Mom would have called a floozy - she didn't even wear make-up.
Chloe barely noticed the other man, until he spoke. Dad had put on what Chloe thought of as his "captain's manner" - genial and bragging, more than polite. It had embarrassed her when she was small, it was so unlike Dad's behaviour at home, but now she was used to it.
Hattie wanted to talk to Dad. Well, that was fair enough, Chloe thought, trying to be just. She didn't want to let Dad out of her sight, but -
- it couldn't happen again, could it? -
If Mom was right, if this was the Rapture, it wouldn't happen again. Other kinds of things might happen, things Mom had gone on and on about, but not the disappearances.
Watching Hattie, Chloe had a thought that didn't fit. It was uncomfortable.
She fell in love with Dad. And she stayed in love with him, for ten years. And now he's going to tell her he's not in love with her - right when she has to be hoping he'll propose.
She had been very relieved when Dad had said he wasn't planning to marry Hattie - that he hadn't ever been unfaithful to Mom with her - because it was awful enough without that. But the unfitting, uncomfortable thought: it felt bad to know what Dad was going to say to her, even though, Chloe told herself firmly, it would have felt worse to have a stepmother in Mom's place.
"Look," said Hattie, just as Chloe looked at her, "the captain and I need a few minutes, so why don't you two get acquainted and we'll all get back together later. Do you have time, Buck?"
Buck? Chloe looked at the man next to Hattie for the first time: Dad had introduced him earlier, but nothing had sunk in. He was in his early thirties, a pleasant, bland-looking man.
"Sure," he said. His voice was bland, mid-American. "Is that all right with you two?"
Dad hesitated. Chloe tried to signal him. She didn't want to be there when he let Hattie down. She was afraid of letting him out of her sight, but she knew it was ridiculous. There was nothing to be afraid of. And she did not want to be there when he told Hattie - either that he was letting her down or when he started in on the Rapture stuff.
"It's okay," Dad said. He sounded nervous for the first time. He pointed at the door to the crew lounge. "We'll be in here."
"I'll stash my bag, and we'll just take a walk in the terminal," the man said. Then he glanced at her, and there was something odd about his look. "If you want to, Chloe." He hesitated over her name, almost as if he was wondering how to pronounce it.
Chloe smiled and nodded.
The terminal wasn't crowded. One of the first stores they passed had been a Bear Factory: the last time Chloe had been there, only a week after the Event, the store had been closed down, shutters over the windows. Now it was open again, and Chloe glanced inside, surprised: it was one of the more crowded stores. All adults, in their late twenties to their forties - silently looking and handling the toys and their outfits.
It hit Chloe only after they passed: the bears had been redesigned. They weren't adult bears for children any more: they were baby bears for adults. The customers weren't buying toys: they were buying replacement babies.
She went on walking and talking, asking "Buck" - his real name was Cameron, he said, but he'd been called Buck for so many years - about his job, his career prospects. He wrote for Global Weekly, and he'd just had a promotion, which he didn't seem to be too happy about. Dad always got a glow on him when he was promoted: even months afterwards he'd be more mellow. She told him about Mom and Raymie: he told her about his brother's children. He'd always collected souvenirs for them, little bits and pieces he could pop into a pocket and mail to them, from wherever he was in the world. He still did, out of habit, and had to throw them out.
Dad would be talking to Hattie now. Had he told her yet he wouldn't marry her? Or had he plunged right in to the Rapture story?
"Ever been married?" she asked Buck. It had crossed her mind earlier that surely a wife would have called him by his given name, not the nickname.
"No," Buck said abruptly. Then he mellowed with a smile. "Never been serious enough about anyone to be engaged to her."
Well, at least he wasn't gay. Chloe had met some gays when she was at college. Mom wouldn't have liked it, but Chloe just hadn't told her.
"How about you?" Buck asked. He was smiling, but his voice was oddly serious. "How many times have you been married?"
Chloe laughed politely. "Only had one steady." Bill had been very nice and sweet, never pressed her to more than a kiss, always been respectful. They'd been study partners, and shared a blanket at football games. He played basketball, and she'd gone to every game. She'd thought she could introduce him to Mom, but when he came out to her the week before his finals, she somehow hadn't even been surprised. But he'd asked her not to tell anyone - and Chloe never had. "When I was a freshman in college, he was a senior. I thought it was love, but when he graduated, I never heard from him again."
"What was he, blind?" Buck was smiling.
Chloe couldn't quite believe what he'd said. It wasn't quite as bad as some of the things other students had said before, but she'd never thought he would say anything like that.
"I mean, some guys don't know what they have," Buck added. He sounded like he was covering, embarrassed by what he'd admitted.
He was attracted. Chloe looked away. They were standing in front of the Combo Cookie shop: the smells of chocolate and sugar and spice made her mouth water involuntarily. This man, this older man was attracted to her. Really attracted.
She could feel it, in her body, a deep stirring warmth. She looked back at him, realising that he wasn't at all bad looking. She wondered what it would be like if he kissed her. She thought he would, if she were even a little forward. Mom would hate it, she thought, but Mom was dead: and Dad wouldn't really be able to say anything. She smiled at him.
"Feel like a cookie?"
Buck smiled. He had a lovely smile. "Why? Do I look like one?"
It was such a silly joke. Chloe laughed. "How did I know that was coming? Buy me a cookie and I'll let that groaner die a natural death."
"Of old age, you mean." He was grinning now.
"Now that was funny." It wasn't, particularly, but it was funny to see Buck grinning at his own joke. Buck would buy her a cookie. She thought, actually, he would give her anything. But a cookie would do for a start.
Buck bought her a chocolate cookie with a raspberry filling, and himself a coffee and vanilla cookie. He asked her how she liked her coffee. and when it was delivered, picked up both the mugs. "Would you like to eat in here or outside? Do you mind carrying the cookies?"
"Here," Chloe said, picking up the plates. She was charmed by all this. It wasn't so different from a boy on formal manners on first date, but she'd never before got anything like this feeling that Buck would do anything for her. She could tell him to carry the coffees all the way through the terminal, and he would. "Let's eat in here."
The booth was quiet: like most of the airport terminal, it wasn't crowded.
They drank coffee and ate cookies. Buck was just looking at her now, not saying much: he looked as if she could recite poetry and he'd listen with that same expression on his face, slightly dazed happiness.
"You're going to find my dad's theory of the disappearances very interesting," Chloe said. She had got to the blob of chocolate frosting that capped the cookie, and it needed a mouthful of coffee as a chaser.
"Am I?" Buck said. He still sounded dazed. He leaned forward suddenly. "May I?" and extended his hand. It seemed as if he were about to caress her face: she raised her chin.
She must have got chocolate on her face: he had wiped it off with his thumb before she realised.
He sat staring at her, not smiling, the trace of chocolate frosting on the tip of his thumb. Abruptly, he put his thumb into his mouth, and she saw his tongue slip out to lick it. His cheeks hollowed as he swallowed.
She wasn't thinking about kissing now. She should be but she wasn't. Buck wanted her. He wanted to have sex with her. And she could. It was a shock to her stomach, but she knew: she could. Dad was flying out today: all she had to do was say she didn't want to deadhead with him, she could stay behind, ask Buck to drive her home - in a few hours, we could be in bed together.
"Gross!" she said, retreating to high school. "How embarrassing!" Don't guess how embarrassing it is, don't guess, don't guess. "What if I have the creeping crud or something?"
Chloe didn't know if she was blushing, but she saw Buck go red. He blushed harder than she'd ever seen anyone male blush but Raymie.
"Then now we've both got it," Buck said. He smiled.
He's shy. Chloe felt curiously reassured. He's embarrassed.
"I should tell you about Dad's theory," Chloe said, guiltily.
"Don't tell me." Buck sounded abruptly professional. "I want to get it fresh from him, on tape. That's just how I like to work. We probably won't be using you for the story, either - we do want to get some - " he almost stuttered "some collegians, but probably not from the same family - "
"You just kind of categorized me there," Chloe said. She was amused. The switch between the blushing man and the crisp, abrupt professional was weird, but when Buck stumbled and said "collegian" instead of - as she was sure he'd meant to say "someone your age" - that was funny.
"As a college kid."
"Oooh, I did, didn't I? My fault. I know better. Collegians aren't kids." There was that word again. "I don't see you as a kid," Buck said. "Although you are a lot younger than I am."
"Collegians?" Chloe couldn't resist. "I haven't heard that term in a while."
"I am showing my age, aren't I?"
No, Chloe thought: this wasn't about age. She ate the final nibble of her cookie. Buck had... oh, there were no words. All the words were inadequate. He wanted her, with some almost-scary-strong wanting. And she could make him blush and she could make him laugh, and he was looking at her like he'd do anything for her. She didn't know if she loved him yet, but she knew she wanted to find out - and she had the very strong feeling that he'd let her.
"How old are you, Buck?" It was the first time she'd used his name. It didn't sound quite as silly as she'd thought.
"Thirty and a half, going on 31."
He was ten years older than her. She'd thought older. But ten years? Dad really can't say anything. Chloe raised her voice, pretending to be talking to someone hard of hearing. "I say, how old are you?"
Buck put his head back and laughed out loud. "I'd buy you another cookie, little girl, but I don't want to spoil your appetite." He put a twist on the words. Chloe knew what he meant, but somehow it was less scary now. If you want to, Chloe.
"I like the way you say my name."
Buck looked surprised. "I didn't know there was any other way to say it.
"Oh, there is." People who had only seen it written down kept mispronouncing it. It had been Mom's choice, of course.
"Chloe," he repeated. He leaned his face on his hand and looked at her.
"Yeah," she said. She met his eyes. "Like that. Two syllables, long O, long E."
"I like your name." Still with his face leaning on his hand, he put on a husky voice, meant to sound like an old man. "It's a young person's name. How old are you, kid?"
He wasn't very good, but it was kind of sweet. "Twenty and a half, going on 21." She saw him register that.
"Oh, my goodness," he said, still in that husky voice, "I'm consortin' with a minor!" He lifted his face from his hand. He was still, Chloe saw, blushing a little. "You play a lot older."
What would happen now? Was he still serious about her? Had he really thought she was older? Chloe didn't think so: she had never been able to pass for over 21, not even with the best fake ID. "I'll take that as a compliment."
"Oh, do," Buck said. He was gazing at her. "Few people your age are as well-read and articulate as you are."
It didn't really matter what he said. What she said. He was definitely in love.
"That was definitely a compliment," Chloe said. She leaned back against the booth and looked at him, and as she'd thought, he smiled: she could bask in it. He was hers.
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