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Boston Review Last Day

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On the day the Earth is supposed to end, Karen is entrusted to open the YMCA. An excerpt from New York Times bestseller Ruta’s new novel.

Last Day was an oddity on the calendar. Slightly more than one day, but not quite two, it began at some point on May 27 and ended on May 28.

Christian fundamentalists eager for Armageddon were always relatively calm on Last Day. Their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ would never pick some heathen festival for His rapture. No way in hell.

And yet these faithful lovers of Christ’s promised end times were mistakenly lumped in with another faction known as Doomsdayers. A loose confederacy of pagan fundamentalists, Doomsdayers subscribed wholesale to all apocalyptic prophecies, regardless of contradiction: the almanacs of Nostradamus, the Book of Revelations, the Mayan calendar, the underwhelming turn of the millennium, the coming of Bahá’u’lláh, the prophecy in the Book of Daniel, the Frashokereti, and many more humble, homely tales spun out of that comforting nightmare that everything comes to an end.

Karen Donovan met the criteria for a militant Doomsdayer: her passions were scattered all over the occult; she held fast to wild misinterpretations of life’s most basic systems; she was all too willing to believe any message whose messenger burned with intensity.

Like alcoholics passing for normal amid the debauchery of St. Patrick’s Day, during Last Day these apocalyptic lovers found a yearly pass to come out of their gloomy, conspiratorial hovels and party. They would take to the streets, littering city parks with their encampments, scaring away tourists with their sloppy bivouacs and homemade signs. Their children were pulled out of school, all normalcy and basic hygiene jettisoned, so that they could band together in a public display and wait for the inevitable nothing.

What they did after, when the world did not end, was almost sweet in its resilience. It never actually mattered to these people that the prophecy failed to fulfill. Their love for the end was everlasting. And so as the month of May ended, the Doomsdayers would slowly dismantle their camps, pour sand on the fire pits, fold up the tarps, pack up their vans (they were a van-driving folk), and return to whatever temporary place—in the worldly sense—they called home. They went back to normal, to their normal, in which fear and righteousness attended the mundane business of living. Standing over a sink of dirty dishes, a battered mother of three could look with tenderness toward the coming end. All those unmade beds, the children with ringworm, the bills in arrears, would eventually be obliterated. The abuse and betrayals, the longings and resentments, all the little and big failures, would be irrelevant. They simply had to wait for the next sign, the next opportunity, to give it all up again.

It was a miracle that none of these sects had yet to absorb the likes of Karen Donovan. She certainly met the criteria for a militant Doomsdayer: her passions were scattered all over the occult; she held fast to wild misinterpretations of life’s most basic systems; she was all too willing to believe any message whose messenger burned with intensity, stoking her own easily inflamed heart; and finally, as she’d been excluded from every social group in her life so far, including the most basic unit of family, she was so hungry just to belong.

But you had to be willing to rough it to be a member of a doomsday cult, carry your share of canned goods, weaponry, and bedding, and Karen hated walking almost as much as she hated carrying. She would rather wait forty-five minutes for the bus than walk the five blocks from her house to the local library. And though her mental landscape was scorched with traumas, both real and grotesquely imagined, the end of the world didn’t register high on her litany of fears.

Karen belonged to a different caste of crazy. Heavily medicated and monitored by a slew of social workers her whole, well-documented life, she had a talent for causing trouble for herself even within narrow parameters, restricted to her job at the YMCA, the Boston public library system, the counseling center where her long-suffering psychiatrist, Nora, saw her pro bono, and a group home where she was currently on very thin ice. At twenty, Karen was too old to qualify for many of the social services that had sustained her as a child, and the current administration’s refusal to fund what few programs were out there for people at strange intersections of lunacy and competency limited Karen’s options to only four group homes in the state, three of which she’d already been booted from.

Her most recent infraction had occurred at the Copley branch of the Boston Public Library, where she’d frightened little children with her totally earnest though still elementary attempts at augury. Sitting in on the library’s story hour, the only adult without a child, she noticed a little boy’s aura glowing wan and misshapen around his head and shoulders. After the story was over, she informed the child that although she wasn’t totally sure, there was a good chance he had been raped, or if not, would be soon.

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