THE RIP by VIRGIE TOWNSEND

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Bethany’s little sister asks for an omelet. From beneath her pile of down and crocheted blankets, Gloria requests eggs with cheese, chorizo, and potatoes. She lifts her bloated hands, holds them seven inches apart, and says, “Make it this big.” She looks up at Bethany with a pleading, cartoonish grin that doubles the number of wrinkles in her cheeks and around the corners of her eyes. Never mind my failing, purpled kidneys, she seems to say. Nevermind the metallic taste in my mouth or my protein and sodium intake. Carpe diem.

Bethany leans against the nightstand lined with photos of Gloria’s smiling grandchildren. Her hip aches. She runs a hand through her curly gray hair, and tries to be patient.

“Well, I don’t know if the doctor would like that very much. Can I get you something else? How about an avocado sandwich? You like those.”

Gloria scrunches up her face like her six-year-old grandson when he’s confronted with asparagus.

“All right, then. Why don’t you call Dr. Russell and ask her? If she says it’s okay, you can have an omelet.”

“But I haven’t had an appetite in weeks,” Gloria says. “I probably won’t have it again for another few weeks. I want something that sounds good for once. Please, Bethy.”

That’s the hook, they both know. A well-placed “please, Bethy” takes them back. It reminds Bethany of little Gloria’s “please, Bethys” for toys, games, or reassurances. It reminds Gloria of standing on tiptoes against their family’s chipped, honey-colored table, reaching for crayons just out of her grasp, and Bethany flicking them closer so Gloria could grab them and still take pride in doing it herself. It sends Bethany down the hall to the kitchen, alternately telling herself that everyone deserves a little treat occasionally and scolding herself for making excuses. As she opens the refrigerator, she shouts, “If the doctor finds out about this, I’m blaming you.”

Bethany taps two eggs against the acrylic countertop and holds the shells over a large, clear bowl as the gleaming whites drips out. Potatoes boil in salt water on the stove and chorizo sizzles in a black-bottomed pan. She throws the eggshells in the trash and beats their contents with her right hand, with her good wrist. A small television sits on a shelf across from the stove, and a 24-hour news station reporter interviews her third physicist that week. Bethany goes to the cupboard over the stove and stands on her tiptoes, trying to reach the grater.

On TV, the headlines running beneath reporter’s face say “Probe: Universe Expanding Too Fast, Ripping Apart” and “Earth to Explode 30 Minutes Before Universe Ends.” Bethany grates two handfuls worth of orange cheese over the liquid eggs. The TV reporter’s forehead crinkles as she asks the physicist about probe findings and mathematical formulas.

It has been five weeks since scientists announced that the universe is ending. On the first day, neighbors wept to each other in their driveways and over hedges. Bars and churches filled in unusually equal proportions. Politicians suggested that the universe’s cosmology was their opponents’ fault and this wouldn’t have occurred under their watch. Movie stars’ therapists published their bullet-point strategies for making peace with humanity’s imminent demise. Diabetic Gloria argued that she should be allowed to eat whatever she wanted because they were all going to die anyhow and Bethany replied, “you said that before this whole business, but nice try.” Alone in her room, Bethany lowered herself on to the floor and prayed for a miracle.

Five weeks later, Bethany’s stopped paying attention to the news. She briefly glances up at the screen as she drains the potatoes and, standing an arm’s length from the stove to avoid their oily spit, shakes them from the strainer into the pan with the chorizo. Then she shuffles to the end of the kitchen island, rummages in a drawer to find the remote control amidst the loose cough drops and pizza delivery menus, and turns the TV off.

When Bethany and Gloria were little girls, they prayed that the Blessed Virgin would deliver the world from burning up. Ice became sea and leaves changed their colors in July. Their parents installed solar panels on their house that shone like the metal on an alien’s spaceship. They slept in beds wrapped in mosquito nets with crucifixes pinned to the walls over their heads.

In those days, they made Mexican confetti eggs—cascarones—and stuffed them with bright, sugary powders and silvery star and moon confetti. They pretended they were magical fairy princess nuns and wore their sequined Halloween costumes as religious robes. They were certain that piety could save everyone. As a sign of their devotion, they tried to paint the saints’ holy, joyless faces on the cascarones with pastel Easter egg dyes, slammed the shells over each other’s heads with all their might, and held their breaths, waiting for more temperate weather.

When scientists threw dust and chemicals into the atmosphere to shield the earth from the sun, the sisters decided it still counted as their long-awaited miracle. How could they say it wasn’t?

Beyond the Milky Way, the universe’s rapid expansion is pulling galaxies apart, reducing their planets and stars to the tiniest bits of atoms. The physicists on TV all agree that the universe is ending and thirty minutes before it’s destroyed, earth will explode. The watery world will break apart—its oceans and sands draining into space, its remnants drifting away, torn and sparkling like the sequined tulle in Bethany and Gloria’s childhood costumes.

Bethany prods the edge of Gloria’s omelet with a spatula and turns it in the pan. She isn’t surprised. Life is full of little tears. Marriages end, pregnancies end. The body grows frail, the skin delicate and prone to cuts.

Perhaps the universe is the same, she thinks. Perhaps the universe is a little old woman, too, with unsteady hands and a body full of dimming lights.

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About the Author: Virgie Townsend’s writing has been featured in Tin House’s Flash FridaysSmokeLong Quarterly: The Best of the First 10 Years, and Bartleby Snopes, among other publications. She grew up Upstate New York, the daughter of an independent fundamental Baptist and sex researcher. Find her online at virgietownsend.com or @virgietownsend.

Story Song: “Yes, Sir! That’s My Baby!” by Lee Morse

Photo Credit: Elisabeth Clem