L.B.: Cruel to be kind, Left Behind, pp. 367-377
Hattie had met Irene twice in the past ten years: she had seemed like the coldest, least affectionate person Hattie had ever met, outside her own family. Rayford never complained about her, or spoke about her in terms that were anything but respectful. Hattie had always liked that in him. He was reliable and kind and generous: it had been quite startling when he'd refused her a donation to the women's health clinic where Pattie worked. Of course he was pro-life, but she'd thought he would have seen the point that the health clinic was, right now, not doing abortions on anyone.
There were any number of times in the past ten years when Rayford had taken her out for a drink, or a meal - just the two of them, not anyone else on the crew: and she'd known he was attracted. But he'd never made a pass: he'd never even said anything suggestive. Three years ago when they both had four unexpected days off in Australia, he'd invited her to spend the time with him, but when they got to the resort, it turned out he had booked two rooms, on different floors of the hotel, exactly as the airline would have done : and though they spent the days together, and his looks were admiring and his conversation intimate, he had still never touched her, never said anything.
Walking into the crew lounge behind Rayford, Hattie was remembering that four-day vacation with peculiar vividness. Each night when he would stop the elevator on her floor, after a day spent exclusively in his company, she had watched his hand going to the controls with excrutiating embarrassment: she had known he wasn't going to leave the elevator with her, that once again she would go to her own room, alone, and stand under the shower with the water dashing into her face and try not to cry. A man should be faithful to his wife. Rayford was behaving very properly. It was wrong of her to be disappointed. But he did care for her - more than he cared for that frozen bitch Irene. She knew he did. They had worked together for so long, and he had been so constant in his attentions to her.
Irene was dead. She hadn't expected Rayford to turn around and propose marriage, but she had thought that there was now hope for them - that in six months or a year, whatever would be proper, Rayford wouldn't do anything that wasn't proper -
From the first time they talked on the phone after Rayford had got home, she had known that wasn't going to happen. In the same way as she had known the first evening they spent together in that Australian resort, that the evening wasn't going to end in him taking her to bed. Rayford was self-controlled, but readable: his tone of voice to her had changed. No longer inviting her into an intimacy that was somehow always just below the sexual, something that had begun some time ago to make her feel that she was being unfaithful to him when she went out with other men: he had sounded cold, distant, dismissive. He had sounded like Irene, both times Hattie had met her. The next few flights she had scheduled were supposed to be on Rayford's plane: she could ask to have them changed, of course, but - she had been flying with him for so long. It had been good for her career. She had never asked to be moved from a flight because she couldn't get along with another member of the crew. Let alone the Captain. And she couldn't say he had said or done anything to her that wasn't proper: everyone would know it wasn't true. It was better, probably, to have this conversation, to get things clear, however painful it was. At least it would be over.
The crew lounge was noisy with conversation. Everyone was still that bit nervous about flying, since the Event. You could hear it in their voices. Rayford led them to a corner where they were unlikely to be overheard, and when she sat down in one overstuffed armchair, he took the chair opposite, and leaned forward, his face cold and serious.
"Hattie, I'm not here to argue with you or even to have a conversation. There are things I must tell you, and I want you just to listen."
He's going to ditch me here. Hattie stared back at Rayford's implacable face. There was no trace of affection there. Was this all in my imagination? Was I just making it up when I thought he cared for me? Does he know I care for him? Hattie mustered a smile. "I don't get to say anything? Because there may be things I'll want you to know, too."
Rayford's expression didn't change. "Of course I'll let you tell me anything you want, but this first part, my part, I don't want to be a dialogue. I have to get some things off my chest, and I want you to get the whole picture before you respond, OK?"
Hattie looked around. No one she knew was within rescue distance. Either she walked out or she took this from Rayford. She shrugged. "I don't see how I have a choice."
"You had a choice, Hattie. You didn't have to come."
Oh, that was just annoying. "I didn't really want to come. I told you that and you left that guilt-trip message, begging me to meet you here."
Rayford looked angry. "You see what I didn't want to get into?" he said, sounding exasperated. "How can I apologize when all you want to do is argue about why you're here?"
Hattie stared at him. She was genuinely startled, and she couldn't keep the sarcastic note out of her voice. "You want to apologize, Rayford? I would never stand in the way of that."
"Yes, I do." Rayford's expression wasn't purely implacable any more, but there was no trace of remorse in it. "Now will you let me?"
Hattie went on staring at him. No. Rayford wasn't apologetic. Not one bit. He was... smug. Self-satisfied. He was sure he was doing the right thing. After a long moment, Hattie nodded.
Rayford nodded an offhand acknowledgement. "Because I want to get through this, to set the record straight, to take all the blame I should, and then I want to tell you what I hinted at on the phone the other night."
It took a moment before Hattie remembered. It had seemed so silly - like some kind of sci-fi thriller. "About how you've discovered what the vanishings are all about."
Rayford lifted his hand, as if this were a meeting and he was the chairman. "Don't get ahead of me."
Instinctively, "Sorry" slipped out of Hattie's mouth. She put her hand over her lips, angry and humiliated. But she didn't want to hear Rayford's theory, whatever it was. "Why don't you just let me hear it when you answer Buck's questions tonight?"
Now Rayford was looking at her with angry contempt. He had actually rolled his eyes, as if she'd said something impossibly stupid.
"I was just wondering," Hattie said defensively. She hated this. "Just a suggestion," she wanted him to stop looking at her like that. "So you don't have to repeat yourself."
Rayford was still looking at her with that peculiar contempt, though he didn't sound angry. He said, in a voice that he probably intended to sound patient and tolerant, as if he were talking to someone very stupid, "I don't mind telling it over and over." Then he grinned, as if at a private joke he didn't plan to share. "And if my guess is right, you won't mind hearing it again and again." He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. His hands went out in an odd gesture, as if miming taking hold of her as he spoke. "Hattie, I owe you a huge apology, and I want your forgiveness."
But he didn't sound as if he thought he needed it. The smugness in his voice was clear. He had been talking for a few minutes before Hattie could make sense of the words. "...we were friends."
The hell we were. Even though Hattie would have referred to Rayford as "her friend" if she'd had to identify their relationship, she knew, abruptly, that this was wrong. Rayford had never been her friend.
"We enjoyed each other's company." Rayford was still reminiscing. "I loved being with you and spending time with you. I found you beautiful and exciting, and I think you know I was interested in a relationship with you."
No shit. Hattie was seldom profane even in her mind. She actually wanted to slap him. It hadn't escaped her that all of this was in the past tense.
"If I had found you willing, I'd have eventually done something wrong. Yes," Rayford said, emphatically, as if reacting to the expression on her face, "it would have been wrong. I was married, not happily and not successfully, but that was my fault. Still, I had made a vow, a commitment, and no matter how justified my interest in you, it would have been wrong."
How justified your interest? Hattie swallowed. Rayford's voice was condemnatory. Not self-condemnatory. He was looking at her as if she were a dessert and he was on a diet.
He was looking at her as if he were her father. Hattie swallowed again. Oh God. How did it take me so long?
Rayford was like her father. He always had been. She hadn't noticed - she hadn't wanted to notice - and Rayford had never hit her, had never spoken a word of condemnation when she made herself look attractive, had always seemed to approve and like her -
Mom had divorced him when Hattie was fourteen. Hattie and her sisters had had to keep going back to Father for alternate weekend visits. It had taken years after the divorce to accept in her heart that when Father hit her for looking attractive, this wasn't because she was bad. She was attractive, and this wasn't her fault - it was all right to make the most of her looks, it was all right to enjoy the attention she got. So long as it wasn't like Father's.
How had she managed not to notice that Rayford Steele's attention was just like her father's, except that up until now, Rayford hadn't blamed her for being attractive to him?
"It isn't just that we're so far apart in age," Rayford was saying. He still sounded smug. "But the fact is that the only real interest I had in you was physical."
I know. Hattie clenched her hands together in her lap. She was not going to cry. I know now.
"You have a right to hate me for that, and I'm not proud of it." Nothing, apparently, could take the self-satisfaction out of his voice. "I did not love you. You have to agree, that would have been no kind of a life for you."
No. It wasn't. Hattie widened her eyes and bit her tongue. She could feel it: she was going to cry. It was the last thing she wanted to do in front of Rayford. All those times - those long dinners, those shared conversations over coffee, those four days in Australia - she had thought Rayford was fond of her, pleased with her, enjoyed her company, respected her. None of that had been true. She had made it all up. All Rayford had felt, all along, was physical attraction - and she thought he'd probably enjoyed holding her at a distance, enjoying the fact that she would have had sex with him but that he was faithful to his wife. And now his wife was dead, so he couldn't play that game any more.
All that had interested him was the game.
"I'll let you break your silence temporarily," Rayford was saying.
Ironically, Hattie wasn't sure she could speak. She was certain that she couldn't without beginning to cry.
Rayford was smiling. He looked as if her misery was giving him one final shot of satisfaction. "I need to know that you at least forgive me." Then he stopped. Hattie waited, feeling choked. Let Rayford go on, let him finish whatever he had to say, and then she could get out of here.
But he waited, face now implacable. "I'll let you break your silence" had been an order to speak, and Hattie knew she couldn't resist him. Habit was too strong. Even if it meant she couldn't stop herself from crying any longer.
"Sometimes I wonder if honesty is always the best policy," she said. There was a tight lump in her throat. It hurt to speak. It hurt just to sit here. She had known Rayford was going to break it off with her. She should have known better than to agree to meet him. She might have known he would do something like this to her. "I might have been able to accept this if you had just said your wife's disappearance made you feel guilty about what we had going. ... That would have been a kinder way to put it." The only real interest I had in you was physical. She sat still, conscious of a pain inside her so deep and so old it was like an ancient dagger in her heart. How could Rayford not see how he was hurting her? Or didn't he care?
"Kinder but dishonest." Rayford smiled. "Hattie, I'm through being dishonest. Everything in me would rather be kind and gentle and keep you from resenting me."
No. Hattie stared at him in fascination. No, you're enjoying this.
"But I just can't be phony anymore." Rayford sighed. "I was not genuine for years," he told her, as if this was news.
Hattie nearly choked. "And now you are?"
"To the point where it's unattractive to you," Rayford said.
No shit! Hattie nearly said it out loud. If this - this sadist was the genuine Rayford, he was worse than her father. She couldn't speak: she nodded.
"Why would I want to do that?" Rayford mused out loud. "I want to be able to convince you, when I talk about even more important things, that I have no ulterior motives." He gave her a look, a kind of expressionless survey, of her body from her feet upwards, lingering on her breasts, a familiar appraisal: except always before, Rayford had smiled at her as he'd looked her over like that. Always before, he'd said something pleasant, something friendly, even - when it happened on the job - some professional comment. None of that had been genuine. All the friendship, all the affection, all the respect - all of it had been "phony". The only real interest I had in you was physical.
"Hattie," Rayford said. He paused a moment, making sure she was looking at him, and said formally, with almost a theatrical flourish to the words "I'm so sorry. Forgive me."
She nodded, unable to speak. He looked so pleased with himself, she could hardly bear it.
"Now, after all that," Rayford said. He sounded as if he thought this was now over. All ten years of acting as if he cared, done with. He was going to tell Hattie his stupid theory about why the Event happened, and then she could go. But what came out of his mouth was "I somehow have to convince you that I do care for you as a friend and as a person."
It isn't over. Hattie held up both her hands, try ing to get him to stop, fighting not to sob out loud and losing the battle. He wasn't going to stop. Rayford wasn't going to break it off with her. She had to get away. Rayford wouldn't let her go. It was every Friday night arriving at her father's, the barrage of condemnation beginning from when he first set eyes on her: How dare you look so attractive. No matter how modestly she dressed on alternate Fridays, no matter how she scrubbed her face before she left school, no matter what she did or how she behaved, her father would be angry with her. But whenever she asked to stay home, he would be on the phone, or writing letters, angry directives to Mom about keeping his daughter from him, blistering tirades at her for trying to avoid her father. She was sobbing out loud, knowing people were looking at her, colleagues were thinking - God knows what they were thinking. Rayford kept trying to get her to stop, kept telling her that he wanted to tell her what he'd found out about the Event. Sometimes he told her that he wasn't happy she was crying. Her father had always got twice as mad when she cried. It isn't over. It'll never be over.
She got up in the middle of a sentence from Rayford, blurting out "Give me a minute," and headed for the Ladies. It felt like a long walk. The skin around her eyes hurt. She hoped no one in the room knew her well enough to follow her in. She sat down in one of the cubicles, closed and locked the door, bent her head and sobbed out loud, taking in large gulps of air.
It seemed to take a long time. She got up after she seemed to have cried herself out, and went out into the main part of the bathroom. It was empty. Her make-up was a mess. She splashed her eyes with cold water, opened the pack of wipes for emergencies, and set about painstakingly removing every trace of cosmetics from her face, all but scrubbing it. She stared at her bare face in the mirror, realizing what she was doing: preparing to go back to Rayford as she had prepared to go to her father's house on alternate Fridays.
Why? She looked at her face in the mirror, puffy-eyed and wrecked. She wanted to get away: to escape. To go home. Call in sick. To spend tonight curled up with comfort food and a glass of wine and a familiar movie. She could call her friends - though it would be humiliating to have to tell them: that married man's wife died and he ditched me.
She bent over, clutching at the edge of the sink, and heard herself make a noise. It was almost like vomiting. "Please," she said out loud. "Just let me go."
She thought about doing it. She'd picked up her purse when she fled. Her jacket was still hanging over the chair. She could just let it go: walk out, go home. She didn't have enough cash in her purse to pay another cab, but she knew all the airport shuttle services, and airline staff could always bum a ride. Go home.
He'll only make me come back.
If she faced him now - got him to say whatever he wanted to say, get this done with - wouldn't it be over? Couldn't they finish here and now?
Hattie faced herself in the mirror, took her compact and her lipstick out of the purse, and began, with concentration, to redo her face. Her hand was trembling at first - but she kept going, and finally achieved something close to her usual appearance. She was not going to cry again. Let Rayford say what he wanted to say. Then they would be done.
Rayford was looking at a book, she saw, when she came back into the main room. He was leafing through it, stopping to read parts of it, turning pages again. He didn't look up until she was quite close to him. It was an old fashioned looking book, bound in leather. He was smiling as he read, with apparent pleasure, but when he glanced up and saw her he put the book away.
Hattie sat down where she had sat before. Rayford leaned forward, again, and said with the same kind of flourish - the same smugness - "I'm very sincere, Hattie. I need to know you forgive me."
It was almost funny. Almost, Hattie smiled. "You seem really hung up on that, Rayford. Would that let you off the hook, ease your conscience?"
"I guess maybe it would," Rayford said. He sounded impatient. "Maybe it would tell me you believe I'm sincere."
Hattie looked at him. Captain Steele, handsome, serious, ageing well. She didn't think he was sincere. If his past friendliness had been a pose, this was too. But she didn't want to get into a fight with him. She wanted it to be over. It wasn't even difficult to get the words out. "I believe it. And I don't hold grudges, so I guess that's forgiveness." She couldn't quite bring herself to say the words outright.
"I'll take what I can get," Rayford said.
No shit! Hattie's inner voice said, almost hysterically.
Rayford's hands came together, an odd, steepled class. "Now I want to be very honest with you."
"Uh-oh, there's more?" Hattie managed to say it lightly. It was that or scream. She could not take another bout of honesty from Rayford about how he'd really felt about her for the past ten years. "Or is this where you educate me about what happened last week?" Once Rayford was on to that, they were on the home stretch.
"Yes." Rayford nodded.
Thank God. Just let him get this said, and we're done. "Does this require some reaction?" Hattie asked. "Do I have to buy into your idea or something?"
Rayford looked at her with that kind of gentle contempt again, and lifted his hand, unclasping it. "Now, Hattie, you were going to be quiet - "
"No, really," Hattie said. "Do you want me to say anything? Do anything? Or do I just have to listen to you?" And then I can go and we're done?
Rayford's smile almost looked sincere. He was looking at her with a kind of pleasant contempt. "Just listen to me. If it's something you can't handle right now, I'll understand. But I think you'll see the urgency of it."
Hattie settled herself back into the chair, and propped her chin on her hand. She stared at Rayford. She wouldn't say a word: he could talk as long as he liked: and when he said he was done - he couldn't talk forever! - they'd be done.
"When I got home that night, and found my wife and my son gone, I knew what had happened. I knew even before - I guessed, anyway. Irene knew. She warned me. Thank God she got through to Raymie, even if Chloe didn't listen to her. This was the Rapture, Hattie. All the warnings my wife gave me, and I didn't listen. That's why I was left behind. That's why all of us were left behind." He paused and looked at her, as if expecting her to respond.
Hattie said nothing. She didn't move. This wasn't the first time she'd heard this theory to explain the Event: she'd heard people arguing it back and forth. She wondered if Rayford knew the Pope had gone in the Event, and if he had an explanation for that: most of the people she knew who believed in the Rapture were evangelicals who thought Catholics were going to hell.
"I called my wife's church." Rayford went on again. He told her at some length about how he had been going to this church for years, with Irene, but he hadn't been sincere, he hadn't paid attention. The preacher, like most of the other people who had attended the church, had vanished in the Event, but a junior pastor hadn't vanished, and he and Rayford had evidently been seeing a lot of each other. There was a videotape the old preacher had made, to explain what had happened to those who had been left behind. "I can let you have a copy of it," Rayford added. "You have to see it."
Hattie sat still. She looked at Rayford. He wanted her to be quiet while he talked: fine. Her silence made him angry: it amused her, in a distant, almost satisfying kind of way.
"Bruce and I have been studying together. He's told me about what will happen to us, to the whole world, very soon." Rayford went on, at length, outlining fantasy after fantasy - he really was crazy, Hattie thought suddenly, with odd detachment. He had even linked in some trivial event from tonight's CNN, two guys who were standing by the Wailing Wall in East Jerusalem holding a religious filibuster, claiming these were "the preachers in Israel", prophesied in Revelations. It was some absolutely trivial wrap-up anecdote, someone had happened to be there with a camera and there were a few yards of footage to use up: there had been some kind of almost slapstick event, funny if it weren't tragic, where two men who had tried to remove the nutters had dropped dead. Rayford seemed to think this was some kind of fulfillment of a prophecy about men with fire coming out of their mouths. He went on about it at some length, saying it was the most amazing thing he'd ever seen.
Not the most amazing thing I'd ever seen, Hattie thought, staring at him, still not moving a muscle. The most amazing thing I've ever seen is when I was staring right at these people, that night just a week ago, and they disappeared. I heard the air rush in where they'd been. I saw their clothing fall without them inside it.
Was this the Rapture? Hattie had time to think about it while Rayford was talking. She watched his mouth move, half-listened to him go on and on. He wasn't saying anything really new, unless you counted the amount of obscure Biblical trivia he'd unearthed. What it came down to, she decided, as she had decided before, was that if this was something God had done - the dazed, shocked parents, the women who had been pregnant weeping for their lost children, the accidents they had seen, the bloody corpses they had had to walk over on their way back to the terminal: if this was something God had done, Hattie was against God. But there was no more reason to believe this was God than there was to believe it was space aliens. Hadn't that wonderful man at the UN come up with an explanation that made just a natural phenomenon? No one really knew, that was the truth. But if someone had done this, they were evil.
Eventually, Rayford ran to a halt. It was clear that if Hattie had given him any encouragement, he would have gone on for longer, but in the face of her stillness and silence, he was running out of energy. He said finally, "Hattie, I want you to think about it, consider it, watch the tape, talk to Bruce if you want to. I can't make you believe. All I can do is make you aware of what I have come to accept as the truth."
He was done. Finally. Hattie sat back and sighed. Maybe he was crazy, he probably was - and this leant a new color to his absolute rejection of her, too - but she really thought he was sincere about this. He was really trying to save her. "Well, that's sweet, Rayford. It really is. I appreciate your telling me all that."
She really did. Losing Irene had made him crazy - this Bruce guy had probably taken advantage of his vulnerability. She couldn't even be sure any more that he really meant it when he said all his pretending to like her, all these years, had been phony: maybe he was just reacting to his wife having died. She wasn't going to forget soon how he'd enjoyed making her cry over it. At least, she thought, contemplating her new, cold determination, she hoped she wasn't going to forget it.
But they really were done. And at last, she could go. She stared a moment at Rayford, thinking of her father. Although she'd known she could stop going to see him after her 18th birthday, she'd kept going, for months; she'd only stopped when she'd realized she didn't have to go to college, keep taking his money, keep depending on him. She could just... leave. She'd become a flight attendant. She'd met Rayford. For ten years, she'd let Rayford... not love her.
She was done.
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