Henrietta Ruth Bloome was not one to think about far off things. It was silly enough just worrying over yesterday and tomorrow — but the end of the world…no, honey…she never really had time for all that. It was like thinking about dried up spots of water on Mars or tadpoles on the North Pole. What was the point in that? None. That’s what. Those kinda people that thought like that were forever searching; making things harder than they should. They would look out their backdoor with a telescope and try to see all the way around the world just to find out who was knocking at their front door. It was a desperate kind of a thing — looking like that. Looking for what? Something — anything — everything. Just burning up to ask questions God never intended to answer. No, sir. Right here and now was enough for Ruthy. She had all the answers she needed. What her arms could reach, what her heart could feel was staring right back at her. The whole world was right there at the tip of her finger. “Ms. Bloome, please keep your hands down.” Ms. Bloome. Almost nobody, ever in her whole life, called her that before. And now all these doctors and science people — the same ones chasing their tails, asking all the strange questions — wouldn’t quit calling her that no matter how many times she told them. Ruthy had been around her fair share of strange birds before coming here, but these birds…they could have filled up a zoo. And it would have been one thing if she could just walk by the cages and point and giggle, but it was another thing to be the one stuck in the cage. And these Dodo birds were the ones walking around doing the pointing. They talked to her like she was simple. She could see they were thinking, Do you think she understands what I’m saying? “Ms. Bloome, we just don’t want you to pull your I.V. out,” the voice crackled in her helmet again, distorted like in a tin can. It was slow and cautious, without inflection, like someone reading off of a prescription bottle. Take two pills…three times a day…with meals. She knew it wasn’t a robot talking, but it sounded like it just the same. And there was a touch of an accent. Like a robot from Russia, or the north, or something. “Please remain calm and don’t worry, Ms. Bloome, everything will be just fine.” Take one pill…with a glass of water…for constipation…and don’t worry…everything will be just fine. For people that kept saying not to worry, these folk sure fretted over every detail. They was about the jumpiest bunch of people she ever met. Truth was, it was funny the first few days, with all the lab coats and clip boards flitting around, and test after test and all the fussing about, and Oh no, please don’t touch that! and don’t press those buttons; on an on they went. But after a couple of weeks it became part of a routine, interspersed with long hours of isolation; and then, it was just plain boring. But not anymore, not today. Today, it was downright aggravating — no, more than that — it was lies. Ruthy knew this. She knew it now, but really she had known it all along. She didn’t think they lied because they were bad people, but, still, it was lies. Little lies at first — a little sugarcoating for the lab rat— but the closer to the end of their experiment they got, the more nervous they got; the bigger the lies seemed. They talked the way bankers or lawyers talked. ‘Don’t worry, Ms. Bloome, just sign right here, everything’ll be alright.’ Don’t worry, indeed. Henrietta Ruth Bloome was getting right tired of how these people talked to her. She had a mind to maybe say something back these cold voices, to finally put her foot down and tell them what they could do with all their rules and all their buttons and all their Ms. Bloomin’ and their--all of a sudden, Ruth had a vision of herself sitting on a high and mighty horse, nose in the air, lording over a sea of scientists in lab coats, and she began to chuckle. A little at first, then louder and louder, until her lungs made that terrible rattling noise again. She had some bit of trouble getting it to stop. The fluid on her lungs — malignant effusion, they called it — was especially bad today. She was gonna drown soon if it didn’t stop. Which, Ruthy supposed, was the whole doggone point. “Ms. Bloome, are you okay?” the tin can voice came back. “Your oxygen saturation just dipped below 90%. Please make sure the nasal cannula is correctly positioned.” “Oh, I’m just fine. Don’ t you worry ‘bout me.” Ruthy sat in her special little dark ball, strapped in her special seat, and shook her bald head inside her special helmet — a big silver one with wires stuck all over it; afraid she would burst open with laughter — or tears. She wasn’t sure. What you getting on about now, Ms. Bloome? It was way too late for all this fussing. You made this bed all by yourself, Ms. Bloome. Now, you'll just have to lie down in it: Lie down with the strangers and scientists. Lie down with the cold, robot voices. Lie down with the drugs and the I.V.’s and the silly suit and the silly helmet. Lie down with the not worrying and keeping your hands down, and everything else. Oh, she had signed on that dotted line — plain and clear — she had taken that part of the deal with full knowledge. She knew what she was getting into. She knew she would never speak to Billy or Jeffrey again. Ruth was as good as dead and gone to those boys. That was a decision she already made her peace with. As usual, Ruth did what had to be done. But this — this other thing. This purposeful drawing out of death was killing her spirit just as surely as the cancer was killing her body. It was something Ruth was unprepared for. She was not afraid of death. No, indeed. The opposite actually. She just wished it would hurry up and come on. The slowness of it made her feel so…thin. Ever since she said goodbye to her boys for the last time, Ruth was being pulled in two directions, but instead of snapping like a stick she was stretching, slowly, like taffy; stretching so thin there was just a wisp of her left in the middle. Oh, why can’t I just go ahead and die already? There was almost nothing left of her; they had pulled it all; by her hands and her feet they pulled, backing away, tempering their pace; body and soul farther and farther apart until there was nothing left but Ms. Bloome who needed not to worry; so thin she just about floated. And when they called to her, Ms. Bloome, it’s time to wake up…today might be the day; it may as well have been from a million miles away, so alone it made her feel.She knew she shouldn’t let it get her down; that she was being petty; she would break soon anyway, maybe it would come today. But still, if she had to live — if she had to exist on this earth a minute more — she longed for someone to speak to her in a way that meant something. Ruth wished someone — anyone —would call to her like they knew her, like a friend would. No one had done that in all these weeks. It wasn’t that these people ever spoke a harsh word to her, in fact, she never had seen such good manners. But, in between all the please’s and thank you’s and don’t worry’s they never spoke in real kindness either. It was strange how disappointing this small lack of humanity was for Ruthy — Ruthy, who had been shown so much unkindness in her life. How satisfying to her soul to hear something familiar. Something warm. Something as simple as, Henry, you need a little cup o’ water? Yes. That would be nice. Henry. That’s what her daddy used to call her before he died. Henry, he’d say, as he scooped her off the ground. He could lift her so fast and so high she felt she could just float in his arms all day. It was the safest place in the world. Henry, yo’ life gonna be harder than most, but, remember, you the strongest right where most people the weakest. Then he’d set her down, fix her braces, and be right beside her when she fell again. But no one was here now. No one to call her Henry. No one to call her Miss Ruthy, like the kids in the projects. No sweetie pie or sugar. No momma, or sweet baby darling. No Billy. No strong arms to hold. “Beginning beam start-up sequence in…three…two…one.” A tiny blue light began blinking slowly. “Start-up sequence initiated.” “Beam one at 3.8%.” This was a different voice. A female’s. Ruthy heard clapping and cheering in the background just before the voice clicked off. This only faintly registered with Ruth. These scientists could spend hours doing this. They would talk back and forth. Usually, there were lots of different tin can voices. At the beginning, Ruth tried to listen and understand. Beam this…beam that…beam me up scotty. But soon it was clear, she had no idea what they were saying. They might as well have been singing Bah, Bah Black Sheep in Chinese for all she could understand. She eventually learned to tune it out and let her thoughts continue along their own path; unimpeded by the chatter. In her dark little ball — the only light, a tiny blue dot: on and off, on and off, on and off; it made barely enough light to see the photo taped to the blank screen in front of her face — Ruth let her memories swirl round and round, some good, others bad. After her daddy died, she and her mom moved in with her Auntie. It was her that Ruthy was named after, but everybody called her Big Mamma. Big Mamma Bloome. A powerful presence in Ruthy’s life. “Sugar, some people get to stay kids a long time. Some, a short time. Some stay kids they whole life. But you, sugar, you got to grow up fast. You got to grow up now. It’s just the way things is sometimes.” Ruth thought Big Mamma was about the biggest person she’d ever seen. She seemed to fill a whole room sitting down. Which she probably did in her little farmhouse. Ruth would stand with her back to Big Mamma while she braided Ruth’s hair. Ruth’s head would bob and jerk, and Ruth thought she must look like a tiny baby doll in Big Mamma’s hands. “And, sugar, I know you gonna be the one that can do it too. You was born older than most. Your body came out crooked, but your mind came out straight and sharp and old for its time. God knew what he was doing, don’t you worry ‘bout that. Your mamma’s gonna need you now.” Those were sad times and Ruth missed her dad like there was a big empty whole in her life, and something broke in her mom and that never got fixed. But there were good things about it too.
Ruth knew what it was to say hard things, the hardest of things. She held little Billy in her arms at night and whispered things like, “You got to be strong, sweetheart….Things will be hard for a while, sugar, but you can do it. You’ll have, Jeffrey, and auntie.” He would cry, and she would hold him tight in her lap and rock him like when he was just a little baby. She would whisper things about a momma’s love, her lips touching his ear. And he would be calm. The first day she knew what was coming, she went to Billy’s school, to check him out and bring him home. “You believe in God, Billy?” He nodded his head, his big brown eyes staying locked on hers. “Well, He gonna be watching over you, and taking care of you. And, me, Billy. I’ll be a watching you from up in heaven. You get worried or scared and you think about that. You know what I like to do Billy? I like to think about Jesus and his hands. I imagine I’m holding his nail-scarred hands. You can do that too Billy. You can hold those hands and feel the scars, just as plain as day, if you want to. You have to really believe. You know who he got those scars for? He got those scars for you, Billy. Because He love you and because He know how special you are." When her mom remarried, her step-dad moved everyone out of their farmhouse and into the big city. Momma said he had a good job and he owned his own house. And that musta’ meant he was good enough to marry. Only he wasn’t a good man. He was a bad man. No that wasn’t right neither. He wasn’t good or bad. He was just nothing. Empty. His face was as black and blank as the night and the whites of his eyes were yellow instead, and wet; just like an egg yolk. His breath and his sweat was foul smelling, like a sickness was trying to get out of him. The first time he came at Ruthy, she thought he was going to crush her and smother her to death. When it was over, Ruth should have felt a lot of things: pain, shame, fear, confusion, anger — and maybe she did a little bit. But what she felt mostly, was relief. Relief that she could breathe. Relief that when she opened her eyes she could still see the ceiling fan spinning slowly, just as it always had. Relief she could hear the noises on the street outside. Relief just to be alive. It was the mark of what Ruthy was in her purest form — a survivor. Life had dealt with her harshly since the day she came screamin’ out her momma’s belly and plopped down on this earth, crippled and bent. From that moment on, Ruth learned quickly what it took to make it to the next day, and the next. Each day a battle against nature itself, fiercer than the one before. And not just make it either, but somehow make it with a lightness still in her. Its what made her able to get up off her bed and clean herself off, change her clothes and her sheets, put ’em in the wash and go back to bed; and its what made her say nothing to her mother about it, even after her belly started to swell. Her mother was furious, she screamed and yelled and shook her fists at the world. Her momma just knew it was one of the boys at school that raped her — a cripple girl. But Ruthy never said. Because she knew what it would do. She knew ever since her dad died that her mom was a broken thing; fragile when it came to men and love. Another hard hit and things would end in blood. Which they eventually did anyway. But it wasn’t for lack of Ruthy trying. She never spoke a word about it. She couldn’t bring herself to hate the man. Not after Jeffrey. The only good thing that man ever did in his whole life was that living, breathing, perfect miracle of a child. Ruth knew immediately what to do with it . The baby completed her. She didn’t know what her life was even like before the baby. Had she ever even lived without one? He came to her room more times after that. Always when her mom was on the night shift. The stink. The smell of illness. Curly, black chest hairs smashed against her face. The feeling of being crushed to death and then the relief that she was alive. She would make it another day.
Tell us what you see. Tell us what you see at the end of the world. “Henry?” A voice called.