"Kate? Kate Walton?"
"Who is this?" Even through the intercom, Paul couldn't miss the fear in her voice.
"My name's Paul Webb, from St And-"
"I'm sorry," she said. "I can't talk now." The intercom went dead.
Should he leave her alone with her pain? He imagined her cowering inside the flat, thinking he was another of the "religious nutcases" come to deliver even more devastating news. Could he at least ease that fear, or would his best efforts only shake her further?
He stabbed the buzzer again. "Your friend Patrick asked me to speak to you."
After a long silence, she said, "You're not one of them, are you? You wouldn't say Patrick's name like that."
"I don't know who you mean by 'them'," said Paul, although he had his suspicions. "But Patrick seems like a decent person, and he's definitely worried about you."
"I suppose you can come in," she said. The worst of the panic was gone from her voice, but the deadness that remained did little to reassure Paul as she buzzed him in.
The flat stank. It wasn't hard to spot the cause: the bathroom and the child's bedroom both held little piles of disposable nappies, bundled up and left to lie. Kate followed his gaze and said, "I know. But they're all that's left of her. I can't just throw them away."
"No, of course not. If it helps you to hold onto them for now..."
"Nothing helps," she said, in the flat tone of someone stating an unpleasant but indisputable truth. "I just can't bring myself to throw away anything she touched."
"Patrick's worried about you," he said. "He told me you had some visitors and they ... made things worse for you."
"They told me the truth," she said, still in the same flat tone. "They told me where Demi went."
Paul had seen people who thought they knew what had happened to the vanished children - everything from aliens to mad scientists to wormholes - but all of them had drawn some kind of hope from their theories and worked with feverish energy to reverse what they thought had taken place. For Kate, it seemed to have had the opposite effect. "Where did she go?"
"It was the Rapture," she said. "Jesus came for the faithful and the innocents."
"You can't know that's what happened," he said. "The Rapture is a crazy fringe theory, based on-"
"So was relativity a crazy fringe theory, until they got proof." She sparked into a kind of life for a moment, went over to the table and picked up a leaflet. "Read this. They've been predicting this for years, and it's happened just the way they said."
Paul took the leaflet from her trembling hand and opened it. One side held a photocopy of what looked like a much older article, explaining that the End Times would begin with Jesus transporting the faithful and the innocents bodily to Heaven. The other side held a set of hurriedly-typed notes pointing out that the Event fitted the prediction perfectly.
"You understand now?" she said.
"It could be a hoax." A very thorough and incredibly sick hoax, but Paul had seen the worst of humanity often enough not to rule it out.
"They showed me the article that was taken from," she said. "They showed me a book that was published in 1978 or something. They showed me a clip of someone saying this was going to happen, and there were children playing in the background. It's the truth."
"Well, maybe." They had completely convinced her: that much was certain. "But if it is true, shouldn't it be a comfort to you that Demi's safe with Jesus?"
"How much did Patrick tell you about me and Demi?"
Paul shrugged. "Only that you were on your own with her and taking her disappearance hard."
"When she was about a year old, we had some really bad times. This place was a mess - worse than it is now. She was crying all night, and I got stressed out with losing sleep."
"Yes?" It was a common enough story, but he didn't understand why it mattered now.
"Well, I don't really remember what I said, but it was something about how it might be better for us both if I stuck a pillow over her face. I didn't mean it, but social services heard about it and they thought I did. They did an investigation, and I thought they would end up taking her away."
"Are you saying you blame yourself?"
She shook her head. "If they had taken her, do you think it would have been a comfort that she was safe with them?"
"When you put it like that, I don't suppose it would."
"Well, what's the difference? Jesus decided I didn't measure up to His standards, so He took her away without even doing an investigation first. And I don't get a right of appeal."
The Jesus Paul had directed so many prayers to would never have caused her this much pain. But since the Event, it seemed more and more as though that Jesus was just so much wishful thinking.
"They said they'd be back," she said. "They wanted me to say a prayer. 'Dear God, I'm really sorry for making You do this to me. I'll make sure it doesn't happen again.'"
That summed it up: the Rapture cult's idea of God was just an abusive partner made bigger and scarier. Kate's fear made perfect sense now. "But you don't want to say the prayer?"
"I don't know," she said. "Sometimes I think it's my only chance of ever seeing Demi again, and I have to take it. But then I think I'm not good enough at pretending, and He'll know I'm not sincere. Then maybe He'll do something even worse."
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4 weeks ago