Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Waiter is Practicing Politics

L.B.: Two swell guys, Left Behind, pp. 381-384

George looked out across the nearly-empty floor of Giuseppi's, reflecting on the dark days that had come to the restaurant since the Event. Two of the waitresses had gone missing that day, and the chaos in the streets had caused both of the busboys to miss work. Since he lived within walking distance, George had been filling in every day.

The first day had been bad, but things had been getting worse ever since, though in a quieter way. Food deliveries had been erratic; he had heard on the news that about a third of the truck drivers in the country had disappeared, and many of them had been driving their rigs at the time. What food was available was going up in price, fast, and the restaurant had to raise its prices accordingly. You heard stories about shops being looted by mobs. George was perpetually worried that a mob might eventually decide to loot Giuseppi's.

And everybody you met, everybody, had a haunted look on his face. People had lost family, friends, co-workers. Everybody had lost somebody. Not a day went by without somebody, either an employee or a customer, breaking down and crying.

George's neighbor, a sweet old lady named Mrs. Hutchinson, was gone. Her car had been sitting out next to the curb ever since. The day after the Event, he had heard her two cats crying, and he had finally persuaded the super to let him into her apartment. They were living with him now, and every time they heard somebody walk by outside his door they ran up to it and started meowing. Mrs. Hutchinson had had a bag of cat food in one of her cupboards, but George couldn't help wondering whether there would be any more to buy after it ran out.

George's gloomy musings were interrupted by the arrival of four people, two men and two women, their ages ranging from mid-40s to college-age. The two women were both good-looking and fresh-from-the-hair-salon stylish, though their subdued expressions didn't accord with their festive clothes. The two men both wore conservative business suits; the older one was rather stiff, while the younger one, a balding man about George's age, had an expression that ranged from alert to ADD.

It wasn't hard to guess which member of this particular group was the leader. George addressed the older man. "Table for four, sir?"

The man agreed, and George led them to one of the tables near the fireplace. The only other group dining in the restaurant was seated on the other side of the room at a booth with a view of the street. The younger woman was saying to the older one, "Have you ever eaten here before?"

"Your father brought me here a few times," the older one answered. They seated themselves at the table, the older woman beside the older man, the younger woman beside the younger man. George gave them their menus and took their drink orders.

While he mixed the drinks, Phil the bartender gave George the look that said, What's the story with them? George shrugged. "The girl is the Stiff's daughter, but she's sitting next to Baldy. The woman's apparently been dating the Stiff, but they look like they just broke up. Baldy is giving the girl the eye, but she's playing it cool in front of Daddy. A regular soap opera."

Phil finished with the drinks, and George carried them over to the table. The Stiff was talking about shopping for souvenirs in Tokyo and pointedly ignoring the woman sitting beside him. Yeah, breakup, no question, and from the looks of things, incredibly, he had ditched her. And then invited her over for dinner with his daughter and her new boyfriend. Yeah, they were definitely entering soap opera terrain here.

"Have you decided on your orders?" George asked, and the Stiff's story was interrupted as they talked over their options. The menus had come from the printer's that morning, and reflected Giuseppi's unfortunately limited selection. George took their orders and departed for the kitchen.

Two more groups arrived while the Stiff's group ate, and the group in the window booth finished and left. Subdued chamber music played over the restaurant's sound system. It looked like a typical post-Event evening in Giuseppi's.

In due course, George removed the now-empty plates from the Stiff's table and asked if they would like dessert. All of them declined, which was just as well considering the dessert menu was even more limited than the dinner menu. As George went to fill out their check, the Stiff followed him to his desk.

"We'd like to spend another hour or so here, if it's all right," the Stiff said in a low tone of voice.

George sighed to himself. He answered, just as he would have before the Event, "Sir, we do have an extensive reservation list --"

"I wouldn't want this table to be less than profitable for you," said the Stiff stiffly, and he slipped a hundred dollar bill from his pocket and pressed it into George's hand, "so boot us out whenever it becomes necessary."

George hesitated for a moment while he looked at the C-note, wondering whether to hand it back. In the end, thinking about the two cats waiting for him back at his apartment, he decided that he would need to make as much money as possible for as long as the restaurant stayed open, and he pocketed the Benjamin. "I'm sure you will not be disturbed," he told the Stiff, who returned to his table with an air of great satisfaction. Rolling his eyes, George went over to the bar to split the hundred with Phil.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas!

From Right Behind, we would like to wish you a Merry Christmas to those that celebrate it, and hopefully just a very good day to those that don't.

I found this online somewhere, but I can't find an author, so I hope you'll all forgive an anonymous yet politically correct quote:

Best wishes for an environmentally conscious, socially responsible, low stress, non-addictive, gender neutral, winter solstice holiday, practiced within the most joyous traditions of the religious persuasion of your choice, but with respect for the religious persuasion of others who choose to practice their own religion as well as those who choose not to practice a religion at all;

Additionally, a fiscally successful, personally fulfilling, and medically uncomplicated recognition of the generally accepted calendar year 2000, but not without due respect for the calendars of choice of other cultures whose contributions have helped make our society great, without regard to the race, creed, color, religious, or sexual preferences of the wishes.

(Disclaimer: This greeting is subject to clarification or withdrawal. It implies no promise by the wisher to actually implement any of the wishes for her/himself or others and no responsibility for any unintended emotional stress these greetings may bring to those not caught up in the holiday spirit.)

Thursday, December 20, 2007

CNN Transcript - Two Preachers in Jerusalem

(on camera) A succession of shots of showing street preachers surrounded by crowds of people.

CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Scenes like this are taking place all over the world, as people search in vain for a reason for The Event. Here in Jerusalem it is no different, as dozens of preachers have taken up position near the Western Wall.

(on camera) Handheld camera shot of a crowd of people surrounding our two protagonists. Several tear-streaked people are clutching children's toys. Just as the screen cuts to the next scene, there's a disturbance in the crowd. The camera operators cut back to that scene just as two men burst from the crowd waving weapons. Halfway through the sound cuts in, but the translators are too overworked to be standing by for what was supposed to be filler and so we don't know what they say. There's a scuffle as the crowd tries to stop them, then one of the preachers points and they all draw back. There's a flash that overloads the camera, and when the picture returns the men are gone, the preachers have calmly gone back to preaching, and the crowd is looking at the spot where they were.

CORRESPONDENT (on-camera, looking down and listening to someone we can't hear. He looks up):We have no idea what happened just then, or if it's happening anywhere else. Check back as we continue with coverage of The Event.

This segment was repeated multiple times over the course of the day, with additional comments speculating whether this is the start of a new round of disappearances.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Zero kindness

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.

The Monologue

"Did you really think you could get away with this?" Captain Rayford Steele sneered.

Dr. Nicholas Ozark rolled his eyes. "I wouldn't have tried it if I hadn't thought I could get away with it, would I?" He fixed his gaze on Steele. "Just tell me one thing, Captain. What was the point of all this?"

Steele smirked. "Willing to try anything to grab on to a few more precious moments of life, eh, Doctor? Even condescend to listen to a simple airline pilot?" Ozark saw Steele's face twitch, and he knew that behind the pilot's smirking expression there was a boiling cauldron of rage. But the hands, he noticed, remained steady, and the barrels of the machine pistols remained pointed at his head.

"You want to know the point of all this?" Steele continued. "Fine. You can consider this your last request before your execution.

"Before the Rapture came, I was a man just like you. I went to church, but I didn't really believe. I did my job, I raised my kids, I lived my life, just like any other man. Then the Lord took away my wife and son, and I realized that we were living in the Last Days. It's all right there in the Bible, if you know where to look, and my wife knew. We've all got to prepare, Doctor. We've all got to prepare. The Antichrist is coming, coming to bring tribulation to those who've been left behind by the Lord. And it's our duty, Doctor, our duty as Christians, to resist the Antichrist's call. He will come, Doctor. He will come. He could be anyone. He could even be you." Steele suddenly burst out laughing. "But I don't think so. The Antichrist has got his role to play in the Last Days, and in a few minutes you, Doctor, aren't going to be playing any role at all."

"All right," said Ozark cautiously, "I get that. It's the Rapture, and the Tribulations are coming. The Antichrist is going to rise. What will you do then?"

"Fight him, of course!" Steele said, and his blue eyes burned with the zealot's fire. "Resist him! That, Doctor, is what all this, as you put it, is about. Those few remaining Christians will be called upon to resist, and so I've built my organization, my Tribulation Force as I call it. When we've identified the Antichrist, we'll be in position to attack him, and all his works." Steele's voice, which had been ringing out, fell to a conversational level. "We suspect that he'll be taking over the United Nations. That's why I've taken the liberty of seizing control of it."

And slaughtered all the delegates and staff, Ozark remembered. At the time, it had seemed nothing more than a piece of insane butchery, but Ozark realized that within Steele's frame of reference, there was a certain twisted logic to it.

"Captain," said Ozark, "are you certain about that?"

"About what?" Steele seemed momentarily set aback, as though he weren't expecting Ozark to interrupt his monologue.

"About the Antichrist taking over the United Nations."

"The Book of Revelations says that he will rule the world, and that's what the United Nations does."

Ozark had to resist the temptation to correct Steele. Instead, with a sudden burst of inspiration, he said, "But, Captain, you've just taken over the United Nations."

"Well, yes, but just so that . . . "

"The Antichrist will take over the UN, just like you've done. Don't you see, Captain? It's you! You are the Antichrist!"

"Me?" Steele shook his head, as though trying to shake loose Ozark's idea. The two machine pistols wavered. Ozark knew that his chance had come, and that he had to seize it. He had worked his right foot out of his shoe, and now he kicked it into Steele's face. The pilot fell back, firing the machine pistols as he did so. Two streams of bullets stitched their way up the compartment's walls.

Ozark turned, slammed down the automatic release on the hatch, and leaped through it into the starry night beyond. He was blasted by the turbulent air, flung about helplessly. There was a sharp pain in his ears from the sudden drop in pressure, and he worked his jaw until his ears popped. He felt disoriented as he tumbled through the empty sky, Steele's flying command center long gone. He cracked open his eyes, and found that he was floating on his back, the night sky above him. Unzipping the pocket of his parka, he fished out the lab goggles and fitted them over his head. Then he twisted his body until he was looking down at the ground, the wind of his passage screaming past his ears.

If his calculations were correct, The Pinnacle should have been passing over Nebraska when he jumped. He could see a few sparks of light, small towns separated by huge tracts of land. In all likelihood, he'd land in an empty cornfield somewhere, miles away from any other people. It couldn't be helped.

Stolidly, Dr. Nicholas Ozark waited as the unseen ground rose up to greet him.

The Pinnacle

Dr. Nicholas Ozark ducked down behind a partition as one of Steele's goons clumped his way down the aisle. If it had been daytime, Ozark knew, the guard would have had no trouble spottting him; but Steele kept the converted jetliner in near darkness at night. Probably force of habit, Ozark thought, from the days when Steele had been an ordinary airline pilot, and The Pinnacle had been an ordinary 747.

As he slowly stood up and resumed moving up the aisle, Ozark could feel the packing tape tug on the skin of his back. It might not have been the most elegant solution to the problem of smuggling the Israeli scientist's formula to the world, but it was the best he and Hattie had been able to contrive.

Ozark felt rather than heard the clumping footsteps of the guard returning up the aisle, and he slipped behind a steel cabinet. When the guard was gone, Ozark followed him towards the front of the plane. In moments, he reached the partition that had once separated the business class passengers from first class. He ducked beneath a counter, and waited while the guard passed by on his way back to the tail section.

Springing up, Ozark hurried up to the hatch just aft of the pilot's cabin. The parachute, he was relieved to see, was still hidden beneath the drink trolley, yet another relic of The Pinnacle's days as a passenger jetliner. He had just shrugged himself into the harness and was turning to face the hatch, when the lights came up in a sudden luminous explosion.

"Turn around slowly," a familiar voice ordered, as pain stabbed into Ozark's eyes. "And keep your hands where I can see them."

Turning, Ozark could make out through streaming tears the tall figure in his stylized black pilot's uniform. Each hand, he saw, held a machine pistol.

"So, Doctor Ozark," said Rayford Steele, "we meet again."


Q: This is Buck Williams interviewing Doctor Nicholas Ozark at, uh, one fifteen AM on the morning of Thursday the, uh twenty-second. Hello, Doctor Ozark.

A: Hello, Buck.

Q: Doctor Ozark, I'd like to start things off by asking how you first learned about the, uh . . .

A: Synergistic field effect.

Q: Synergistic field effect, usually abbreviated as SFE. You know, I've heard people say that SFE really stands for "scary freaking Event".

A: You can say "fucking", Buck, I've heard the word before. I do work on a college campus, after all. Some of the business majors don't seem to know any other adjectives.

Q: Ah, ah, yes. Anyway, as I was saying, I'd be interested to hear how you first learned about the SFE.

A: It was after the Russian nuclear attack on Israel. With all that megatonnage going off, there should have been a huge spike in radiation levels around the world. There was, but not enough to account for all the radiation that was released.

Q: At the time, as I recall, there were theories that whatever defense the Israelis used might have absorbed some of the radiation.

A: That's right, but it was hard to construct a coherent hypothesis since nobody knew just what the Israelis did. I decided to assume that the Israeli defense, whatever it was, didn't absorb any radiation at all, that some other effect accounted for the missing radiation. What I eventually discovered was that the radiation was interacting with the Earth's magnetic field, and with the various electromagnetic fields produced by electrical equipment, and wound up being absorbed by living tissue.

Q: Can you explain in a nontechnical way how that works?

A: I can try. Basically, gamma rays are high-energy photons. They're affected by electromagnetic fields. Due to the SFE, the gamma rays were being directed towards the nervous systems of living organisms, and being absorbed by them. The result was something like the laser effect. The atoms making up the brain cells and nerve cells had their electrons raised to higher energy levels. Eventually, they reached a saturation point, and all the electrons returned to their original energy levels, giving off the energy they had absorbed all in one massive burst. It was like their nerve cells had all turned into lasers, and the energy caused their bodies to disintegrate.

Q: If all living organisms were affected, why did only people disappear? And why only certain people?

A: Because humans have the most complex nervous systems of any organism. We attracted the most radiation, and that meant that the saturation point hit us first.

Q: By "hit us first", do you mean to say that other species can expect the same thing to happen to them?

A: I think not. Once the saturation point was reached in humans, the synergistic effects that allowed the energy buildup to occur in the first place were dissipated. Unless we get another sudden burst of gamma radiation from another two thousand nuclear warheads going off at once, the synergistic field effect is gone for good.

Q: Okay, now, how does this explain why only certain people were affected. Why was every child under twelve affected, for instance?

A: The fact that their nervous systems were still developing made them particularly vulnerable.

Q: And how about those over twelve? About ten percent of them were also affected. Why that ten percent?

A: The answer to that isn't as clear. There seems to have been a secondary effect that came into play, a particular type of metal ornament interacted with all the other effects, and that led to people over twelve reaching the saturation point at the same time as the children.

Q: And the metal ornament in question was a cross?

A: A common type of pectoral cross, yes, typically associated with certain Protestant Christian sects.

Q: Now, when did you become aware that the saturation point, as you call it, was coming?

A: I first became aware that it was a possibility about two months ago. I didn't know for certain that it was going to happen. The Event itself was as much a surprise to me as it was to everyone else. I was still trying to figure out whether the Event might actually happen when it happened.

Q: What was your reaction when the Event occurred?

A: Horror. Guilt.

Q: Guilt? You felt guilty?

A: I still feel guilty. I know it's not rational. I know, intellectually, that I did everything that it was possible for me to do. But still, I was the only one in the world who even knew something was wrong. I was the only one who could have done something to stop it, and I didn't.

Q: Could you have stopped it? Knowing now what you know?

A: In theory, we could have kept the saturation point from being reached by shutting down enough electromagnetic fields. As a practical matter, that would have meant shutting down most of the world's power plants. Our whole civilization would have ground to a halt, causing even more death and destruction than the Event has.

Q: So there was going to be a massive catastrophe, no matter what.

A: That's right. As soon as the Russians set off their nuclear arsenal, the countdown to the Event began. At the time, as you'll recall, everyone thought that the world had managed to avoid a disaster, but it turned out that the disaster wasn't avoided, only delayed.

Q: But at least we don't have to worry about the Event being repeated.

A: Well, there are still thousands of nuclear weapons around the world, most of them here in the United States. If they were launched, it would start the countdown to another Event like the one we just went through.

Q: But nobody in his right mind would launch another nuclear attack, not after what just happened.

A: Somebody in Russia set off the first attack, and they had every reason to expect that the result would be every bit as catastrophic as the Event has been. The only way to be certain that there won't be a repetition of the Event would be the elimination of all nuclear weapons.

Q: Do you think that's likely to happen?

A: Before the Event, I would have said not. Now that we've had firsthand experience of the effects, and know the cause, I think the leaders of the world's nuclear powers are going to have to give it some serious thought.

Q: Is that what you'll be telling President Fitzhugh when you meet him on Saturday?

A: Among other things, yes.


Dr. Nicholas Ozark collapsed onto the sofa in his penthouse suite. In the (he checked his watch) forty hours since his shower was interrupted, he had flown across the country (with a stop on the outskirts of Chicago), eaten two meals, slept for a total of four hours, and become a household name all over the world. His paper on the synergistic field effect (which Stonegal's people insisted on calling the Ozark Effect) had appeared in the online edition of Nature and was being reprinted in a dozen different scientific journals. He had spoken at a press conference presided over by Nature's editor-in-chief (who had been flown in from London for the occasion), and had been interviewed by more journalists than he could shake a stick at. At last, though, he could kick back and relax, at least until the whole circus started up again tomorrow morning.

The phone rang. Ozark swore at it. After the fourth ring, he reluctantly picked it up and gave a wordless moan into the mouthpiece.

"Doctor Ozark?"

"Ah, the relentlessly efficient Miss Kent. What may I do for you, my dear?"

"I'm sorry to disturb you, Doctor, but we were wondering if you would be able to give another interview. It's Cameron Williams of Global Weekly."

Ozark had noticed that Kent referred to herself as "we" when she was relaying Stonegal's wishes. Interesting bit of psychological projection there. He felt his thoughts beginning to drift and dragged them back to the conversation. "Mister Williams certainly keeps some odd hours."

"He only just arrived in New York. Travel has been disrupted by the Event, as I'm sure you're aware."

"Am I ever. All right, send him up, though I warn you I may be even more incoherent than normal."

"Thank you, Doctor, we really appreciate this. He should be up in about five minutes."

No time for a shower, then, or even a snack. Ozark decided to settle for changing out of his jacket and tie and kicking his shoes off.

It was actually six minutes later (he timed it) that there was a knock on the door to the suite. Ozark padded over in his stocking feet and opened it, and found himself looking at a tall, prematurely balding man a few years his senior. He looked as sleep-deprived as Ozark felt, and the physicist found himself wondering how the interview between the two fuzzy-brained men would eventually turn out.

"Doctor Ozark?" the man said.

"That's right. Mr. Williams? Come on in."

"Thanks," said Williams as Ozark led him into the suite. "You can call me Buck, by the way."


"That's my nickname."

Ozark considered, then rejected, responding with I guessed, then rejected My nickname is Nick, then finally said, "I don't think I've ever heard of a real person with that nickname. Only fictional characters. Buck Rogers, Buck Turgidson, Buck Bokai. Are you sure you're not a fictional character?"


"I'm sorry, lack of sleep. Never mind. How did you get a nickname like Buck, anyway?"

The reporter smiled suddenly. "It's pretty silly, really. I got it in college. Me and my roommate were watching a rerun of "Married With Children" and he decided I sounded like Al Bundy's dog. After that, everyone kept calling me Buck."

Ozark smiled back. "I know what you mean. Back in college, everyone called me Nicky Mountains. Or Nicky Himalayas. Or Nicky Carpathians."

"Well, I don't think I've ever heard of anybody named Ozark before. What nationality is that?"

"As Stephen Colbert likes to say, it's French, bitches. My family were French Huguenots who left for England in the seventeenth century. The family name was originally aux Arc," he spelled it, "which meant 'toward the arch'. It wound up being Anglicized as Ozark. I've never run across anybody else with the name. It may be unique." He stopped speaking when he noticed that Williams' eyes were closed. The reporter didn't react to Ozark's silence, and his breathing was suspiciously regular.

Yeah, Ozark told himself, this is going to be quite an interview.


Dr. Nicholas Ozark wasn't surprised to find his lab assistant Jennie waiting for him in the lab. He was surprised to find that she wasn't alone.

"Chloe, uh, Steele, isn't it?" he identified her.

The young woman brightened and said, "You remembered!" She had taken his Introduction to Physics class two years before.

"I don't see many history majors in my class, Chloe. And you finished with an A, too. It's a pity you didn't decide to pursue a career in science." Ozark turned to look at Jennie, his expression saying, What's she doing here?

"I ran into Chloe on my way here," Jennie explained. "She's trying to get back home to Chicago, but all the airlines have been shut down since the SFE. I was hoping you could do something to help."

"You mean like magically conjure up a private jet?"

"If you could, yes," said Jennie.

It was easy enough for Ozark to understand what was going on in his own mind. He could have tried to publicize the coming catastrophe and hope for the best, but instead he had chosen to keep quiet and let Jonathan Stonegal pull the strings from behind the scenes. He had spent the last hour watching the people of Stanford try to cope with the disaster, and guilt was pounding away at him like a sledgehammer. He had let a man have his bike, and he had done what he could to help a few other people on his way here from his apartment, but the guilt was still there, and he was pretty sure it would be riding his soul for the rest of his life. He would do what feeble things he could to make amends, and right now helping a former student make her way home across two thousand miles of chaos was one of them.

"All right," Ozark finally said, "a private jet it is. Jennie, Mr. Stonegal is arranging for me to be flown to New York. I need you to hold down the fort here. Chloe, I might be able to persuade the pilot to stop in Chicago, but I can't promise it. If you want to risk it, we need to be at the stadium by ten o'clock. Do you want to try?"

Chloe seemed a little disoriented by the speed events were moving in, but within a few seconds her face showed an expression of determination. "Yes. Even if you can't drop me off, at least New York is closer to home than California."

"All right," said Ozark. "We're going to have to reach the stadium on foot, and I don't have to tell you what things are like out there. We have to leave now if we're going to make it. Are you ready?"

If anything, Chloe looked even more determined. "Yes, Dr. Ozark."

A smile tugged at his lips. "As long as we're going to be traveling companions, Chloe, you can call me Nick."


The cliche about being in the shower during a phone call turned out to be even more true about being in the shower during an alarm signalling the greatest catastrophe in human history.

Dr. Nicholas Ozark had constructed an instrument that would measure the growth of the synergistic field effect, and rigged it to set off a smoke alarm when it reached the tipping point. It took him a moment to realize what the sudden piercing electronic scream meant, and then he was frantically washing off soap suds before emerging to grab a towel off the rack and race into his bedroom. The alarm was sitting on top of a bookcase, and he spent a few frantic moments trying to figure out where the off switch was before he remembered that he hadn't included one. He finally silenced it by unplugging the power cord.

He didn't have a television set in his apartment, but he did have a computer with high speed internet, and he was soon streaming a cable news feed. It was maybe twenty minutes before eight in the morning when the first reports started coming in of people vanishing. It was five minutes before eight when his cell phone began to chime.

"Ozark here."

"Doctor Ozark, this is Brianna Kent."

Ozark was impressed. "Wow, you people do work fast."

"Remember, Doctor, we've been preparing for this moment for the last two months. Mr. Stonegal wants you in New York as soon as possible. He's arranged for your paper on the field effect to be presented to the editors of Nature today, along with a press release announcing your findings."

"Have you seen the news? There are aircraft crashing all over the world because their flight crews have disappeared. Couldn't you do anything about that?"

"We did what we could, Doctor, I assure you. Trying to figure out which pilots would be affected wasn't easy, and neither was trying to arrange for them to be paired with safe copilots. We've arranged for a private jet to take you from California to New York. It should be ready to leave in two hours. We'll be sending a chopper to your campus to pick you up. It'll land in midfield in the football stadium."

Ozark's mind was awhirl. It felt as though he had stepped into a clockwork mechanism. He had a feeling his life was about to become part of a machine being operated by Jonathan Stonegal. "Got you," he said. "Midfield in the football stadium in two hours. I'll be there."

"I'll see you when you get to New York. Goodbye, Doctor."

"Goodbye, Miss Kent."

After hanging up, he thought to himself, Well, I may not be as organized as Jonathan Stonegal, but at least I was able to do some planning. He and Jennie had agreed: when the balloon goes up, meet in my lab as soon as possible.

Ozark dressed, grabbed the suitcase he had packed beforehand, and was out the door by half past eight. He halted in front of his apartment house. The street was bumper-to-bumper, and there was a wrecked car a block and a half to his right.

Right. Ozark went back into his apartment and pulled his bike down from the wall, then wrestled it down the staircase and out the front door. I should have gone with a backpack, he thought as he tried to balance the suitcase on the handlebars.

Before he could begin peddling, his downstairs neighbor ran out of the building. "Nick! Have you seen Jeremy? I can't find him."

Jeremy was his neighbor's four-year-old son. Ozark felt like someone had just sucker-punched him. He closed his eyes and said, "I'm sorry, Carrie, I haven't seen him, but I'm sure he's all right."

"If you do, let me know, will you?"

"I will, Carrie."

He passed several other people, mostly women, walking around the street calling for missing children. Some of them had started conferring with each other, and were connecting the dots. He passed the wrecked car, and there was nobody in it. It had apparently drifted into a parked car on its right.

A man ran up to him. "Mister, I gotta get to the bus terminal! It's a matter of life and death!"

Ozark was going to refuse, but reconsidered. The lab was only a mile away, and the suitcase kept threatening to fall off the handlebars, and anyway it had wheels, so why bother with the bike? He stopped and said, "All right, just let me get the suitcase."

"Jesus, thanks, man! Thank you! Let me get your address!"

"Never mind, keep it," said Ozark. "Right now this bike is the least of my worries."

The man mounted the bike and rode off, and Ozark pulled the long handle out on his suitcase and began dragging it after him down the street.

The Voice of Reason

"Doctor Ozark?"

Dr. Nicholas Ozark looked up from his desk to see a black woman about his own age standing in the doorway of his office. She was wearing a dark blue skirt suit and a white blouse. Not a student, then, and not any faculty member that he could remember meeting. He said, "Yes, what can I do for you, Miss . . . "

"Kent," said the woman. "Brianna Kent. I'm a member of Mr. Stonegal's organization."

"Come in," he said, "have a seat. Don't worry, you can move those to the floor." He rose and shook her hand.

She closed the door, explaining, "For security's sake", and he helped her to transfer the heap of books and fanfold printout from the chair facing his desk before returning to his own seat.

"Your employer works fast," said Ozark. "I only got back here yesterday."

Kent smiled. "He can move pretty quickly for such an old man." Her face grew more serious as she continued, "Mr. Stonegal sent me here to brief you on your role in the crisis."

"My role?"

"Of course," she said, as if surprised that he should question having a role. "You're probably the only person in the world who fully understands the nature of the crisis the world is about to endure. There's going to be mass hysteria, as you yourself pointed out to Mr. Stonegal. We're going to need someone to counteract that hysteria, to explain what's really happened. In short, to be the voice of reason."

Ozark didn't remember using the actual phrase "mass hysteria" in his conversation with Stonegal, but it was true enough. "And Mr. Stonegal thinks I'm the man for the job?"

"He does," Kent confirmed. "He says that you give an impression of great self-confidence, and he's right. He also says you look like a young Paul Newman, and he's right about that, too."

Ozark rolled his eyes at that. He had been getting comparisons to the actor since entering his teens, and he still couldn't see it.

"Add to that," Kent continued, "the fact that, as I say, you know better than anyone else what's happening, and you make the ideal spokesman."

Ozark sat and pondered her words. It was a fact that, little as he knew about the synergistic field effect, he knew more than anyone else about it. There was also no denying that a world in the grip of chaos and mass hysteria would need to have someone stand up and be, as Miss Kent put it, the voice of reason. He had given Stonegal the task of preparing the world for the effects of the synergistic field effect, and if Stonegal chose to call on him to help with those preparations, he could hardly refuse.

He looked back up at her and said, "Very well, Miss Kent. What does Mr. Stonegal want me to do?"


"Mr. Stonegal will see you now."

Dr. Nicholas Ozark had been expecting the words, but was still a little startled to hear them spoken. He forced himself out of his seat and followed the woman past the intimidating horseshoe-shaped desk and through the oak-paneled door into the cavernous office beyond. There was a tastefully understated brown-and-tan carpet underneath, a vast wooden desk, various cabinets displaying various treasures, and a floor-to-ceiling picture window revealing a breathtaking view of the Manhattan skyline. Behind the desk sat an elderly man with white hair in an immaculate dark blue suit.

The man rose to greet Ozark as he walked across the office, all too aware of the shabby nature of his own blazer and slacks. But then, he told himself, how often does a physicist need to wear a business suit? He felt a sudden wish that he had worn his lab coat to the interview, as a way of establishing his bona fides as a scientist. He dismissed the wish as silly, and shook the man's hand.

"Doctor Ozark?" said Stonegal. "Have a seat, please." Stonegal gestured to an antique chair to the left of his desk, and Ozark sat uneasily.

"Thank you for agreeing to see me, Mr. Stonegal," Ozark replied.

"I was . . . intrigued by what Professor Woo had to say about your paper," said Stonegal. "He assures me of its validity."

Ozark had to admit that Jennie's suggestion had been a good one. What was the point in being in the same department as a Nobel Prize-winning physicist like Shen-Biao Woo if you didn't take advantage of the fact? He had written up a paper on what he called the Electromagnetic Effect and showed it to Woo. That worthy had seen the implications immediately, and this interview with Jonathan Stonegal was the direct result.

"Let's be clear," Stonegal continued. "You believe that millions of people are going to just vanish into thin air as a result of some . . . "

"Synergistic field effect," Ozark offered. "And it's billions. At least a billion and a half, possibly over two billion."

"And this will happen why?"

"Well, if you've read my paper --"

"I read the parts that were in English," Stonegal said with a wry smile.

Ozark found himself smiling in response. It was really uncanny the way Stonegal was able to put him at his ease. He must, Ozark decided, have had a lot of practice dealing with people who were intimidated by his family name.

"Well, as best as I can translate the mathematics into English," Ozark said, choosing his words, "the various electromagnetic fields that our civilization has created are interacting with the Earth's own magnetic field, and with the sudden flood of radiation that was released last year during the Russian attack on Israel. There's never been as much radiation permeating the Earth's biosphere, not even back in the '50s when the United States and Soviet Russia were testing nuclear weapons. It turns out that the unique conditions that have been created are not allowing the radiation to disperse, as it has in the past. Instead, it's being concentrated in the bodies of living organisms, especially human beings. At some point in the near future, we will cross a threshold, a tipping point --"

"A phase change," Stonegal suggested.

"Exactly, a phase change that will cause the radiation to interact with the various electromagnetic fields surrounding us, and also with the human body's own nervous system. The result will be like turning off a light switch, only instead of a light bulb going out, the switch will cause all the molecular bonds holding the human body together to momentarily cease operating. The effect will last less than a second, but that will be enough to cause all the body's atoms to separate. The bodies will literally disintegrate."

"But why children? Why children under twelve?"

"It has to do with the length of time the body has been exposed to the various electromagnetic fields, and the nervous system's maturation process. I can't explain it any more exactly than that, not if you want me to continue speaking English. As for the pectoral crosses . . . " Ozark sighed. "I don't even know how to translate those particular equations into English. All I can tell you is that anyone, adult or child, who is wearing a plain metal pectoral cross will suffer the same effect."

"What sort of time frame are we talking about here, Doctor?"

"I can give you probability forecasts, but it would be simpler to say that it might happen ten seconds from now, will probably happen within the next six months, and will almost certainly happen within the next year."

"And will there be any more of these . . . events?"

"No. This upcoming event will serve to disrupt the synergistic effects." With what he suspected was a ghastly smile, he added, "Unless someone else decides to detonate several thousand nuclear weapons all at once."

There was a long pause. Ozark had made his explanations. There wasn't anything else for him to say.

"And there's nothing we can do?"

Ozark sighed again. "If we were to shut down every power station, every appliance, cease using electricity for a year, that might be enough to head off the phase change, allow the radiation to dissipate to safe levels. And I know as well as you that that's not possible. It would also help if we could persuade people to stop wearing crosses, but that would be nearly as impossible."

The old man's gaze narrowed, and Ozark found himself pinned beneath those eyes. Eyes as sharp as knives had only been an expression before, but now the physicist knew what that phrase really meant. "So what do you want me to do?"

Ozark took a deep breath. "The world is on the verge of experiencing the most terrible calamity it's ever faced. There'll be chaos, shock on a scale that's never been experienced before. We can't prepare everyone for what's about to happen, because most people wouldn't believe it, and the ones who did would go mad. What we need to do is warn certain key people, important people, so that they can plan ahead and be prepared to act when the time comes. We have to keep our civilization running, keep things together until the shock wears off enough for people to resume their normal lives. Or as normal as they can ever be."

There was another pause before Stonegal said, "You've given me a lot to think about, Doctor Ozark. I'll contact Professor Woo when I've reached a decision."

"Thank you, Mr. Stonegal." Ozark rose and shook the older man's hand again. "And thank you again for seeing me."

Once again, Ozark felt the other man's eyes pierce him. "You're a great man, Doctor Ozark. You may have just helped to save the world."

There was nothing Ozark could say to that. He released Stonegal's hand, and turned away.

The Ozark Effect

Dr. Nicholas Ozark heard his computer give the melodic chime that indicated incoming e-mail. Bringing up his account, he saw with a combination of eagerness and dread the address of the CERN facility in Geneva. Opening the e-mail confirmed his suspicions: his meson experiments had finished running, and the data were included in the attached file.

The wait while his computer downloaded the file was agony.

Finally, the DOWNLOAD COMPLETE window came up, and Ozark brought up the data. It didn't take him long to realize that they fitted in with his worst-case scenario. He swore under his breath.

His lab assistant, Jennie, heard him. "What's wrong, Nick?"

"I just got a data set from Geneva. It confirms my most pessimistic predictions."

"What, you mean about the electromagnetism effect? The one that's supposed to disintegrate people?"

Ozark nodded miserably.

Jennie swore too. "Nick, you've got to tell somebody!"

"Tell them what?" Ozark said with a helpless laugh. "Tell them that over two billion people are due to be disintegrated, and there's nothing anyone can do to stop it?"

"Well, if we can't stop it, can something be done to minimize the impact?"

"Not much." Ozark brooded. "If I'm right -- and the data from CERN back me up -- then every child under the age of twelve is going to be reduced to his component atoms, thanks to a freak synergistic effect caused by a combination of electromagnetic fields and that dose of radiation from the Russian attack on Israel. And probably a certain number of adults, too, depending on the circumstances."

"What sort of circumstances?" Jennie demanded. "If we know, we can at least try to do something about it."

"Well, judging from the data, certain metal objects can cause local intensifications of the field effect."

"What sort of objects?"

"Cruciform objects. Basically, certain types of pectoral crosses when worn next to the body."

"You mean, everybody wearing a cross is going to be killed?"

He shook his head. "Not everybody. Some crosses are worse than others. A plain cruciform shape would be the worst. A Catholic or Anglican crucifix with a corpus christi wouldn't be affected. Neither would a Cross of Lorraine or an Orthodox cross."

"Well, then, warn them!" Jennie insisted. "Tell them about it!"

Ozark laughed again. Even to himself, he was starting to sound hysterical. With a major effort, he forced himself to stop. "Are you serious? Tell half a billion Protestants that they have to stop wearing pectoral crosses or they'll all be disintegrated? You know what would happen as well as I do. They'd say I was delusional, or trying to destroy Christianity, or something. It would be useless."

"Well, you've got to do something," said Jennie.

Ozark sighed. "I'm open to suggestions."

Monday, December 10, 2007

Ray Goes to Church Part II

The instant those words came to mind, he felt strange, a little wicked yet at the same time, he felt as though some cage inside him had been opened. He wonders what Irene would think.

He missed her. In spite of how their marriage had deteriorated to the point where they were barely speaking to each other, he missed her. For all her flaws, he missed her and though he knew it wouldn't do any good, he hoped that wherever she was now, she was happy. He hoped that for all the members of his family: Ray-Ray and Chloe. He rose to his feet, feeling somewhat renewed.

"Preacher, preacher," Loretta mumbled as she tried to comfort Bruce. "Is there anything we can do?"

"Not much," Bruce said. "We need to secure this place from the gangs. So far they haven't done much except break a few windows, but we can't be sure that their attention won't turn to here. If we are to keep everyone safe, we have to secure the building."

"If you don't mind, Bruce, I really need to get going," Ray said. "Chloe and the others might return any minute and I want to be waiting for them."

"Sorry, Ray, I'm afraid I can't let you leave. It's too dangerous to be wandering around in the dark right now. I'm going to have to ask that you stay here for the night."

"Okay." He wasn't too surprised by Bruce's response, though his conscience still bothered him. What if Chloe or Irene and Ray-Ray returned while he was gone? What would they think? "What do you need me to do, Reverend?"

"Try and see if anyone's lucid enough to be put to work. If not, then it'll just be the three of us. In which case we'll need to block off all entrances except the door to fellowship hall and the hall's windows; we'll need them as escape routes should the gangs overrun us."

The three wandered the church, but unfortunately there wasn't much they could do to secure the place. They pushed as much junk as they could against the doors and stuck junk in the doorframe and the locks, hoping to slow down anybody who might try to break down the doors. There wasn't much they could do about the windows except nail sheets of plywood. Thank goodness the church had been in the middle of renovations when the disappearances happened. After they had done all this, they collapsed on the floor of Fellowship Hall, too exhausted to think.

"I guess we better talk who's taking the first watch," Bruce muttered.

"I'll do it," Ray said. "You've been keeping watch all day."

"Do you have a gun?"

"Yeah, a Smith & Wesson," he murmured. He showed it to Bruce. Bruce sighed. "Not much but it'll do for now. Don't fire unless absolutely necessary."

"I won't." There was still the question though, how long, even with all their preparations, could they last. While they hid in the church, out there, the gangs were getting larger and more organized. Most of the people in here were barely lucid. Should a gang attack full force, it wouldn't take them long to overrun the place: the only weapons they had between them was a shotgun and a handgun. Not to mention, even if their luck held out and they weren't attacked, they would still have to leave the church sooner or later: with all these people here, they couldn't survive on canned goods for long.

Ray took his spot at the door and prepared for a long night. But though he knew he should remain as hawk-eyed and vigilant, his thoughts kept turning back to Chloe. How was she doing at Stanford? He knew he shouldn't have let her attend college so far away from home but she had had her heart set on Stanford since she was a girl and he couldn't deny her. He hoped she was managing to survive somehow.

"You okay?" He turned to see Loretta standing next to him.

"Yeah, I'm fine. You need to settle down, try to get some sleep."

"I can't. I don't think I'll ever be able to sleep again. Listen, Bruce found a radio. Maybe it'll have some news."

Bruce turned on the radio and together they crouched around that staticky thing as though it was the potential savior of the world. But the radio had little if any useful news. Most stations were out and the few that had news, didn't tell them anything they didn't already know. They didn't need to be told about roving packs of street gangs; they could see them with their very eyes. There was talk about establishing martial law, but no one could get anything organized: so many people in the government and the military were missing that it was impossible to get anything off the ground.

Bruce turned off the radio. "We'd better save the batteries. We might need it."

Loretta started to cry. "Oh, preacher, do you think my Elliot is suffering. What about my babies and my grandbabies? What do you think is happening to them right now?"

"I wish I could answer your questions—I'd give anything to know what's happened to my wife and baby."

"My wife would say they are with God right now," Ray said.

"That's what Rev. Billings always said." Bruce turned away, as though suddenly pained.

"But why? Why has he taken my Elliot? Elliot was a good man. Sure he killed people on Okinawa, but that was war."

Ray watched silently as Loretta sobbed, his anger growing by the minute. The memory of the vow he had made back in the sanctuary still hung in his mind and burned even brighter now. He didn't want to serve any God that arbitrarily ripped families apart then left people behind to be tortured. If he ever met whoever did this, he would shove his gun in their face and personally blow their head off their shoulders. He vowed to live his life as a rebellion against such a capricious, mean-spirited force and if it meant going to hell, than he could go to hell with his conscience intact.

Loretta lifted her head. Her grey hair had fallen askew and her eyes were swollen and puffy. "Do you think it's true, preacher? That God's called all the good people back to heaven like Rev. Billings said."

"I don't know. I've been studying the Reverend's papers but none of this makes sense. If he loves us, then why does he want us to suffer horribly?"

"Well, I don't." Ray sat up with a start. "You guys can believe Billings's story all you like, but you'll never make a believer out of me. If God is as bloodthirsty as he says, then I refuse to believe." His words echoed on the air.

He had rather expected they would be shocked by what he had said, that they would argue bitterly with him. Instead he saw them nodding silently in agreement.

"I know what you mean, Ray," Loretta said. She took a deep breath. "I've felt the same way for a long time—I've just never had the courage to say so. All these years, warming the pew and I've never believed." She breathed. "I've never told this tale to anyone and I don't know why I'm telling it now, but I guess it's because the past has remained buried for too long.

I was living with my parents in Georgia when it happened: I fell in love with a man named John Watson. The only problem was he was black and I was white and Jim Crow still ruled." Ray winced. He already knew how this story was going to end, but Loretta kept talking.
"We managed to keep our love a secret for awhile but eventually I became pregnant.

Now I knew very well that my parents would kill me and my lover if they found out, so I did my best to keep it secret, but eventually they found out. They yelled and screamed at me for hours until finally I slipped and revealed his name.

I can't tell you clearly what happened next—my parents shipped me off to a home for unwed mothers and we never spoke to each other again—but I do know what happened to John. They hanged him from the highest tree, butchered him like an animal." She paused, tears coming to her eyes. "After that, I could never feel at home as a Christian, after those people killed John and made me give up my baby. I faked it for many years, because it was expected of me as a dutiful wife—people would get a little suspicious if Elliot's wife wasn't in church—and I kept on faking it out of simple, stupid habit. But I guess now I'm free." She smiled a weak, pained smile. Ray sighed. He massaged his temples. He had never thought he'd hear such a tale from sweet Loretta who gave out peppermint candies to his kids on Sunday. He felt a little guilty. His reason for not believing was that he had simply stopped. He hadn't believed ever since the Rev. Billings terrified Ray-Ray with stories of hellfire and damnation, and now with the disappearances, he'd never felt angrier or more spiteful towards any being that would call themselves God.

Bruce tended to the flock as they needed, providing whatever food or drink or comfort they might need, but there wasn't much he could do. These people he surrounded himself with were gone, completely and totally; only their physical bodies remained. Ray watched as he tried to coax some of the flock into taking a drink of water.

Loretta went over to him. "Preacher, is there anything I can do to help?"

"Just rest, Loretta," he said as he silently poured water down someone's throat. It was clear he had a story in him too, one that was struggling to burst its way out and he was struggling to keep in.

"Preacher, is something the matter?"

"Yes," he finally admitted, "there is something wrong. I hear you and Ray talking about how you want nothing to do with God and I know that I, as the associate pastor, should do something to intervene, but I can't help but nod and agree with every word you say." He sighed and rested against the wall, still keeping the shotgun close at hand. "My story is quite simple. I am the visitation pastor for this church and as you know my duties involve tending to the sick. As a result, I see a lot of misery and sickness.

The thing is people who are sick or dying; don't care about your interpretation of the letters to Paul. They want to pray with the pastor, and not just "Thy will be done" prayers, but real prayers.

I threw myself into this job. I ignored all my misgivings about the reverend's teachings and set to work. I prayed my tongue off. But the thing is, no matter what, the odds ran exactly as the doctors predicted. If they predicted a 9 in 10 chance of survival, most of the time the patient died. I mean, is this prayer doing anything?

But I kept at it, plodding along until I met Veronica. Veronica was in the terminal stages of bone cancer; by this point, there was absolutely nothing that could be done. But still I showed up and I prayed my ass off, but as I was in the middle of my prayers, she turned to me and said, 'Fuck God.' After she said that, I couldn't continue. I tried to resume my place in the script but it was lost. After she said this, I watched as she went into seizures and died, real hard.

Afterwards, I could hear nothing but her words in my ears, and I wondered, what that meant for her and God. Would God damn her because of something she said while in the throes of excruciating pain? I looked and looked through every book I could find, but I could find no answer.

Months after, I still had no answer and I wasn't sure if I could believe in anyone who'd damn a person over such a matter. I mean, we talk about Hell and hellfire, but does anyone really think about what it means to burn forever, as in a punishment without an end. Does anyone, however bad or rotten they may be, deserve to suffer forever? I confess, Loretta, I like you continued going to church out of habit and simply because it was my job. What would my family do if I wasn't a preacher? Being able to interpret the psalms isn't exactly a highly demanded skill. So I stayed by Rev. Billings's side because while I hated God, I also couldn't imagine being apart from him and I couldn't let my family starve."

Ray nodded. It was all he could do to keep his mouth shut as he heard all these stories of pain and misery. He knew if he opened it, more stories of his own would start spilling out. He wanted to tell everybody about the wife and son he had lost; the daughter who was stranded on the west coast. He wanted to tell how even though the love had since gone out of their marriage; he never once regretted marrying Irene. But he knew once he started talking, he'd never stop, so he kept his mouth shut.

The night was long and no one got much sleep. Every time they heard the sound of a window breaking or a car going by, they would look up to see what was going on. Also by telling their stories, Loretta and Bruce had started something of a chain amongst the group. Nearly everyone there wanted to theorize on whether God was involved and if it did, what it meant about his nature. Everyone had lost somebody, and everyone wanted to tell about whom they had lost and how much they had meant to them. Ray tried to remained stony-faced, his eyes focused on the door, but as he listened to their tales, made up of simple joys like the way the sunlight hit their hair in the morning, he grew misty-eyed. Was this some sort of great ransom? Would God return them once they were sobbing and groveling at his feet? What had he done with sweet Irene, the woman who never stopped praying for everybody's soul, Ray-Ray, who was the type of boy who wanted everyone to win, and Chloe, smart and funny Chloe?
He would raid heaven itself if it would bring them back.

Morning came, and soon they found themselves in a flurry of activity, as Bruce opened up a few cans of food for breakfast. Bruce waited until everybody was served before he finally opened a can of fruit cocktail for himself. "So I guess you'll be leaving us," he said.

"Yeah." Ray felt a little guilty for abandoning them, but what if Chloe or the others returned while he was gone? They might need him.

"Be careful." Loretta gave him a peck on the cheek.

He stepped outside, breathing in the air. The air smelt acrid, the scent of smoke hung strong on the breeze. He wandered to where he had hid his car, unable to shake the feeling that there was something following him. Maybe it was a ghost; after all, there seemed to be a lot of them lately.

He found his car where he had left it, parked under a tree that was bent nearly to the ground. A corpse hung from the tree, its unclad feet touching the battered hood of his car. The person moved with the tree as it swung gently in the breeze.

The person had been beaten to a pulp; his nude body had been sprayed repeatedly with spray paint and around his neck, hung a cardboard sign, covered with obscenities. Half of his hair had been shaved away, giving him the appearance of a crude mohawk.

Ray felt his stomach churn. He bent over and puked, vomiting up the canned peaches he had eaten for breakfast. He raised a hand to steady his head. Get a grip, Ray, he thought. You have to stay strong, for Irene and the family. He forced himself to walk over to the car, past the corpse. All the glass in his car had been smashed; spray-painted obscenities obscured the original paint. He slid into the driver's seat. Thankfully the car still started; the punks only did cosmetic damage. He revved up the motor and sped down the street, leaving the church and the corpse behind.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Ray Goes to Church

Ray was not surprised when Bruce greeted him at the door with a shotgun at his side, but still the sight of the cold metal shocked him deep inside. The whole world had gone to Hell in only a matter of hours.

He had been lucky enough not to run into too much trouble on his way to the church. A couple of youths threw a brick at his car but that was the extent of the damage.

His neighbourhood had been gutted and raped by pillagers. He was about the only one still left in the neighbourhood, the rest having fled. Only a bunch of unruly youths stayed around, looting and pillaging, delighting in their wanton destruction.

He had gone to the church not because he believed, but because Irene did. Irene had been a faithful parishioner at New Hope Village for years and he knew that if their positions were reversed and he had been taken that's where she'd be: at the church praying for answers. So he went, clinging to the futile hope that maybe he'd find his own answers.

The preacher who greeted him was not the young-faced boy who stood beside Rev. Billings every Sunday; this Bruce was a different creature all together. His face looked hollow, haunted, and gaunt; the circles around his eyes so dark that they looked like bruises. He trembled as he stood in the doorway, one hand still wrapped tight around the barrel of his shotgun.

Ray raised his hands. "It's okay, Bruce. I'm Ray, Irene's husband. You know, Irene Steele." He was babbling and he knew it but part of him was still a little scared that Bruce would blow his head off his shoulders. He wouldn't blame him if he did. The world had gone to hell and everyone had to do what they could to protect themselves.

Silently, Bruce opened the door and let him in. "If you're coming here to use our phones, I've got to warn you: they're disconnected. All our power's out, but I'll try to find a place for you. I'll find a place for everybody," he mumbled.

Ray tiptoed through the rows of bodies that lay on the floor. Nearly every square inch of Fellowship hall was crammed with bodies, huddled masses of human refuse weeping and moaning. Some paced nervously like sad ghosts. Others merely sat on the floor and wailed. None acknowledged Ray as he tiptoed through the hall.

Everywhere he went in the church, it was the same thing: masses of people huddled together, their eyes frightened and gone. Some prayed but most just sobbed or stared off in the distance. There was a dead look in their eyes, a frightening look, of someone who had just had something very important peeled away from them. Ray knew that look; he had seen it himself when he looked in the mirror to shave. "Chloe," he murmured, "Oh god, Chloe." He still hadn't heard from her—phones were out everywhere and she was on the other side of the country. He hoped she was all right.

He had hoped for a few minutes alone in the sanctuary but when he went in there, it was crammed with bodies too. The air stank of sweat and waste, so strong it made him gag. He knelt at the altar, next to an old lady he knew as Loretta. He smiled. He used to have fond memories of seeing her every Sunday back when he used to go to church.

"So what are you here for?" she said in a dull voice. He remembers how she used to sit in front of them in church. She used to give Chloe peppermint candy. He doubts she has any right now.

"Same as you. I want answers." He could barely get the words out of his mouth before he felt like crying. Irene. Ray-Ray. Chloe. God, how he missed them.

"We all do." He looked up to see Bruce standing over him. He gestured to the huddled masses that lay on and between the pews. "They've been arriving non-stop since it happened. I've done my best to be there for them—I've listened to more sob stories in five minutes than most preachers hear in a lifetime—but I don't know anymore. I just can't do it. They're counting on me for answers, and I just don't have them." He choked. The people in the pews turned and murmured in response.

"Preacher..." Loretta mumbled, but she didn't know what to say any more than Ray did.

Bruce waved around a black videocassette. "Rev. Billings prepared this as an 'In Case of Rapture' tape. Guess he in his infinite wisdom didn't count on there being no electricity should the rapture occur." He threw the tape against the podium.

"So do you think this is the rapture?" Ray clutched his head. He knew about the rapture. Lately it had been all Irene could talk about was rapture, rapture, rapture! She would buy every book she could get on the subject, and constantly lectured him, Ray-Ray, and Chloe about it. He had gotten rather sick of hearing about the rapture and sometimes had wished it would come so he could have a little peace and quiet.

"I don't know." Bruce choked. "I don't know anything anymore." He burst out weeping and Ray turned away. He didn't know how to deal with his own emotions, let alone someone else's. Loretta walked up to him and offered him a Kleenex. "Preacher, preacher," she murmured. "If it is the rapture, than what are we? We can't be all bad people. What about the children?"

"I don't know," he said. "I know I should know this stuff—I went to seminary for it and I spent years serving Rev. Billings—but I really don't know. I came here because I have a duty to protect my congregation and I am going to do the best I can to feed and shelter all these people, but I can't give you the answer to anything."

Ray sat at the altar and wondered. Was it really the rapture? Sure seemed like it. All the children were gone and in only minutes, everything had gone to hell. What did that mean for Irene though? Was she in heaven laughing at him at this very minute?

He remembered the last sermon he had attended with Rev. Billings. Billings was new to the congregation, had only been in for a month, when he started preaching on the rapture. He remembered sitting there in the pews as the man's voice thundered to the heavens about the sufferings sinners faced and remembered how for the first time in his life, he felt like rebelling against God. The feeling was further deepened when he noticed Ray-Ray crying. Is it really doing the Lord's work to terrify a child into heaven? After that, he couldn't bring himself to go, couldn't bring himself to face that smug face that calmly proclaimed the damned from the elect. He'd lost count of the number of arguments he and Irene had had about it.

Now as he knelt at the altar, he still felt like rebelling. If this was the Lord's work than God was a cruel, vicious tyrant who needed to be overthrown. Was this some kind of joke of his, ripping away families and innocent children? He did not claim to know who or what God is but he knew who he was and knew he could never bend the knee to such a tyrant. If it meant he would go to Hell, than he'd go to Hell.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Chloe misses Irene, 3

L.B.: Bucky's in love, Left Behind, pp. 364-375

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.

"Categorised you?"

"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.