them in a Tupperware bowl in the cupboard. He was grateful that their smell and taste would remind him of her until they were gone.
Rayford added a couple to the two he had brought down, put them on a paper plate, and poured himself a glass of milk. He sat at the kitchen table next to the phone but couldn’t force himself to eat. He felt paralyzed. To busy himself, he erased the calls on the answering machine and added a new outgoing message. He said, “This is Rayford Steele. If you must, please leave a very brief message. I am trying to leave this line open for my daughter. Chloe, if it’s you, I’m either sleeping or close by, so give me a chance to pick up. If we don’t connect for some reason, do whatever you have to, to get home. Any airline can charge it to me. I love you.”
And with that he slowly ate his cookies, the smell and taste bringing images to him of Irene in the kitchen, and the milk making him long for his boy. This was going to be hard, so hard.
He was exhausted, and yet he couldn’t bring himself to go upstairs again. He knew he would have to force himself to sleep in his own bedroom that night. For now he would stretch out on the couch in the living room and hope Chloe would get through. He idly pushed the redial button again, and this time he got the quick busy signal that told him something was happening. At the very least, lines were being worked on. That was progress. He knew she was thinking of him while he was thinking of her. But she had no idea what might have happened to her mother or her brother. Would he have to tell her by phone? He feared he would. She would surely ask.
He lumbered to the couch and lay down, a sob in his throat but no more tears to accompany it. If only Chloe would somehow get his message and get started home, he could at least tell her face-to-face.
Rayford lay there grieving, knowing the television would be full of scenes he didn’t want to see, dedicated around the clock to the tragedy and mayhem all over the world. And then it hit him. He sat up, staring out the window in the darkness. He owed it to Chloe not to fail her. He loved her and she was all he had left. He had to find out how they had missed everything Irene had been trying to tell them, why it had been so hard to accept and believe. Above all, he had to study, to learn, to be prepared for whatever happened next.
If the disappearances were of God, if they had been his doing, was this the end of it? The Christians, the real believers, get taken away, and the rest are left to grieve and mourn and realize their error? Maybe so. Maybe that was the price. But then what happens when we die? he thought. If heaven is real, if the Rapture was a fact, what does that say about hell and judgment? Is that our fate? We go through this hell of regret and remorse, and then we literally go to hell, too?
Irene had always talked of a loving God, but even God’s love and mercy had to have limits. Had everyone who denied the truth pushed God to his limit? Was there no more mercy, no second chance? Maybe there wasn’t, and if that was so, that was so.
But if there were options, if there was still a way to find the truth and believe or accept or whatever it was Irene said one was supposed to do, Rayford was going to find it. Would it mean admitting that he didn’t know everything? That he had relied on himself and that now he felt stupid and weak and worthless? He could admit that. After a lifetime of achieving, of excelling, of being better than most and the best in most circles, he had been as humbled as was possible in one stroke.
There was so much he didn’t know, so much he didn’t understand. But if the answers were still there, he would find them. He didn’t know whom to ask or where to start, but this was something he and Chloe could do together. They’d always gotten along all right. She’d gone through the typical teenage independence, but she had never done anything stupid or irreparable as far as