Paul had never seen the church so full. A sea of faces looked up at him, faces he saw every day in the shop or the post office, but never in church until now. Waiting for him to give some words of comfort from a God he wasn't sure he still believed in.
He concentrated on the unfamiliar faces: it was easier than thinking about the familiar ones that were missing. The Hooper boys weren't giggling over their hangman game, and little Mary Ellis wasn't wriggling beside her mother. A handful of older villagers were gone too; Paul didn't know whether they were vanished like the children or more explicably dead in the chaos. He didn't think he wanted to know.
He opened his prayer book and read every prayer that seemed even slightly appropriate. O Lord, comfort us in our hour of great need. Let it not be as bad as it seems. Bring our children safely back to us. As he prayed, he couldn't shake the thought that a god who would allow something like this to happen was either impotent or sadistic.
When he got to the end of the book, he started again from the beginning. Halfway through the first prayer, a commotion at the back of the church caught his attention. He trailed off in mid-sentence as the latecomer shoved his way roughly through the crowd.
"There's room for everyone in God's house," said Paul. "Please, find a space as best you can, but don't-"
"I haven't come to pray," said the latecomer. He was close enough now that Paul could see him, although he didn't recognise him. Someone from one of the farms, most likely, not often in the village. In his right hand, he gripped a shotgun.
"What have you come for?" Paul asked.
"This is God's house, is it?" said the latecomer. "Well, I'd like to speak to God." He stood right beside Paul now, close enough for Paul to notice that there was no smell of alcohol about him. This terrible mood owed nothing to the bottle - which made it all the more terrible.
"Prayer is the only way I know of speaking to God," Paul said. "Everyone here is in the same situation, and perhaps if you pray with us you'll start to feel-"
"I don't want to pray. I want to speak to God, and I want the bastard to answer me."
Several people in the congregation gasped. Paul wondered irrelevantly whether it was simply because of the profanity, or because someone had put into words what they had thought but dared not say. "It doesn't work that way," he said. "If you pray, and make yourself very calm, you might hear the voice of God within you."
"Not good enough," said the latecomer. He raised the shotgun and put it against Paul's head. "You tell God that I want some answers."
"He knows." Visions of what a shotgun would do at that range tormented Paul. He probably wouldn't suffer, but the congregation would. "He sees everything, and He understands what you're feeling now. If you put the gun down and pray with us-"
"Let me tell you something, Reverend. Yesterday, I was painting the nursery. Getting ready for the baby coming. I've not done so well for myself, but he wasn't to know that, was he? It was going to be a fresh start for me."
Paul swallowed. "What about your wife?" he asked. "Shouldn't you be comforting her?"
"There's no comforting her now. When the baby disappeared, she started to haemorrhage. I called an ambulance, but it was such a mess they couldn't get there in time. At least I got to hold her as she died, though. More than I can say for the baby."
"You don't know the baby's dead," said Paul, painfully aware of how inadequate that was.
"So what I want your God to tell me," the latecomer went on, as if Paul hadn't said anything, "is what possible justification He could have for doing that to me? And none of that crap about God's plan not making sense to us. If He's going to hurt us like this, He can damn well explain himself."
It was a good question, and Paul had no answer. Either you had faith in a divine plan that would make sense in the end, or you didn't. Paul suspected he no longer had that faith, but he had to pretend, for his congregation's sake.
"Well, God?" The shotgun tapped again Paul's temple. "Answers, or I blow your man's head off."
"Listen," said Paul desperately. "Suppose you're right. Suppose God is just a ... suppose He doesn't have any justification for this, and you shoot me. What have you achieved?"
"Shown Him I won't put up with His bullshit any more." Was the pressure of the shotgun less firm now, or was that just wishful thinking?
"But I didn't take your baby. I didn't let your wife die. If you shoot me to send a message to God, how do you justify that?"
The shotgun definitely wavered this time, but his voice was still defiant. "He started it."
"So you're going to sink to His level?"
"What the hell are you talking about?"
In one moment of terrified clarity, it all made sense. Paul groped for the words that could express it. "If God is as bad as you say, then you're all you've got. Don't you think you owe it to yourself to be better than that?"
The shotgun thumped on the carpeted floor. The latecomer slid to the floor and curled up by the base of the lectern, sobbing like a child.
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