Once it became clear that this wasn't the beginning of another wave of disappearances, the fate of the two men in Jerusalem was no longer news. If they'd left family that cared what had happened to them, the rest of the world didn't get to hear about it. Everyone was too busy trying to cope with their own everyday problems.
Chris Green, like half the parish, had lost his job, and had no idea how to keep up the mortgage payments. "The sensible thing would be to move somewhere smaller," he told Paul, "but I just can't do it. The kids' playroom is just how they left it, and their swings and things are in the garden. Besides," he finished defiantly, "if they come back, we need to be where they can find us."
Sally Lansbury was nursing her dying mother, who wasn't lucid enough to take in the news of the Event. "It's hardest on my sister," she said. "Whenever she comes round, Mum wants to know why she hasn't brought Ned with her, and every time, she has to explain that he's gone."
Janice Sutton's body still lay in a drawer somewhere, while medical examiners worked through the deaths the Event had indirectly caused. Gary fretted, impatient for the funeral that was all he could now offer his wife or his unborn child.
Paul, feeling like he was held together by nothing but his nerves, listened and answered as best he could. He was sleeping badly, and waking every morning with dread in the pit of his stomach. During the day, surrounded by other people's suffering, he managed to ignore his own worries; in the last hour before sleep, they came back with double the force.
He couldn't keep running away from it. Sooner or later, it would have to be faced, and putting it off wouldn't make it any easier. He told himself his parishoners needed him, but what use would he be to them if he didn't find a few minutes to take care of himself?
The church was empty, for the moment. Paul walked up to the altar and knelt at the rail, as if he was going to receive communion. It was time to say the prayer he'd been putting off for days.
"God, I don't know what to think," he said, not softly enough to keep his voice from echoing. "I believed in You, but it seems like You're not really there at all. Or not really who I thought You were. Have I been praying all my life to someone who doesn't even exist?"
He took a deep and shuddering breath. "I want to believe in a good and merciful God, but a good and merciful God wouldn't have done something like this. It's shattered everyone's lives, taken so much away from them, and why? Just to prove how powerful you are? That's no way for a God to behave."
For a moment, he half expected the Rapture cult's God to strike him down for blasphemy, but nothing happened. "I can't do this by myself," he said. "If You really don't exist, what am I supposed to do? Everyone in the parish is hurting, and there's nothing I can do for them. If You don't care what happens to us, what comfort can I give them?"
It was as if Someone was standing beside him, lifting the worst of the burden from his shoulders. Someone reassured him gently that he was doing all he could, and that what seemed like nothing to him could mean the world to his parishoners.
"Yes," he said, forcing the word past an obstruction in his throat. "But I don't know how long I can go on doing that. Not if there's no-one out there."
Someone said, "I'm as real now as I ever was."
"Do you mean you're still real, or you never were?"
Someone just repeated, "I'm as real now as I ever was." Then, as quickly as it had arrived, it was gone.
Paul blinked away tears and looked up at the huge image of Christ on the cross that hung behind the altar. It was the essence of what he had believed in: someone who loved humanity so much that He would suffer on the cross in order to redeem them. Someone who would suffer, and be almost overwhelmed with pain, and still keep going out of love.
Whatever else he had lost, he could still believe in that love. A love that he saw reflected every day, in the parishoners' struggles to hold everything together, and even in the ache of their loss. A love that he tried to live up to himself, when people came to him in pain. That love was still there, within him, as real now as it ever had been.
"I believe," he whispered. And the tears flowed freely.
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