Henry Clark liked reading the announcements to the congregation every Sunday morning. It almost made him feel like a reporter, keeping folks informed of all the goings on in Rusty Creek. Not that much of anything ever happened in Rusty Creek, but when it did, he made sure everyone knew about it.
Henry was also the coordinator of the visitation committee, and as such it was his duty to round up volunteers to go and spend time with the town’s many shut-ins. In Rusty Creek, folks looked after their elders, and Henry took pride in that. ‘Sides, he was closer to being old than he wasn’t, and he wanted to be treated right when got there himself.
When he arrived five minutes late to the church Monday afternoon, he was disappointed to find only three cars in the parking lot. They belonged to Levi Miller, Randy and Maddie Brooks and Gail Hartley. Four people. Five, if Randy and Maddie had brought Desiree.
He doubted it, though, and it turned out he was right.
“Desi took it really hard,” Maddie explained, and Henry nodded, smiling But keeping his true thoughts about their daughter to himself.
“Oh, that’s to be expected, I guess. Fifty more people died overnight up in the city.”
Randy shook his head. “Hasn’t even hit me that hard. Felt like I had a bad cold for a couple three days and then…”
“Well,” said Henry, “Guess we better get a move on. Might as well all go together if it’s just the four of us. Brother Levi, how ’bout we take your van?”
Levi, a short, kinda dorky single guy who Henry’d never been able to figure out pulled his hand out of his pocket and saluted, adding yet another set of oily fingerprints to his flipped-up sunglasses clip-on. “Let’s roll,” he said,
They had a pleasant enough visit with Sister Kathy Weiman. She was struggling, bless her heart, but before they left Henry squeezed her hand and assured her that God was in control.
After two more visits that went pretty much the same way, they headed out to ol’ Meredith Baker’s place.
No one had heard from Sister Baker in nearly a week, and Henry prayed that they weren’t about to stumble upon some kind of horrific scenario involving her many cats, her dead body and the eating of it by said cats.
When they arrived at the crumbing old two-story Brick house that Sister Baker had lived in since before Henry was born and knocked on the door, there was no response.
Henry waited about thirty seconds and knocked again. He’d been there many times as a child, because his dad had been good friends with Mr. Baker, rest his soul.
After a third round of knocks, Henry saw a rustling of curtains in an upstairs window and smiled. “She’s here,” he told the others, who all breathed sighs of relief.
“Mrs. Baker,” he called through cupped hands, “It’s me, Henry Thompson! Jake’s boy! We’re here to visit with you a little bit and make sure you’ve received the blessing!”
The window cracked open. “Go away! I don’t have it and I don’t want it!”
“Aw, don’t be like that, hon,” said Maggie. “We’re here to help you.”
“Don’t need that kind of help! Nope, y’all people are crazy! Get off my porch! I still got all of Franklin’s hunting rifles, y’know!”
Henry nodded at Levi and together they rammed the front door with their shoulders. Once, twice–on the third try, success.
The group made their way through the living room, the ancient furniture that’d been there since Henry was a boy now covered with cat hair and claw marks.
There were at least seven cats that Henry could see, all on high alert and watching them curiously. The tail of a big fat grey one writhed and twitched as he studied these strangers who’d just invaded his domain.
Gail reached out to stroke its head and jumped back as the cat hissed, bared it’s teeth and swatted her hand.
“Shit!” she cried out, immediately following the expletive up with an apology for the foul language. “Just comes out sometimes,” she said.
“We understand,” said Randy. “Did the same thing yesterday when I hit my thumb with a hammer.”
Henry led the way up the stairs and approached Meredith’s bedroom with caution. He knew she wasn’t bluffing about them guns.
“Now or never,” he whispered to Randy and Levi.
Randy checked the door, and it was locked. “I’ll handle this one,” he said, and kicked the door off its hinges with his steel-toed work boots.
Mrs Baker was crouched on the floor behind her bed in a raggedy old nightgown, her frail, shaking hands clutching a rifle. There were cats all over the room.
Henry charged her and snatched the gun away; placed it on the bed as gently as he would have an infant.
They could all tell the old woman was terrified–her eyes gave her away.
“Oh, Mrs Baker,” said Henry, “Don’t you worry about them doors. I’ll be back first thing tomorrow to fix ’em right up.”
“Get away from me! Y’all are tryin’ to kill me!”
“The blessing’s not going to kill you, sweetheart,” said Maddie. “It’ll be rough for a couple days, but you’re gonna be alright.”
Meredith sobbed as Randy and Levi seized her by the arms and restrained her. Maddie took a handkerchief out of the breast pocket of Randy’s denim button-down shirt and coughed into it.
She placed the handkerchief over the old woman’s mouth and held it there as Henry touched and coughed on everything else in the room.
“This virus is a gift, Mrs. Baker,” Henry explained. “It’s gonna turn this town around. We all gotta get it though, if we want all those news reporters to come down here. Feds might even lock down the town, comes to it. Just think, our little backwoods Oklahoma town’s gonna be famous.”
“They’re gonna make movies here like they do in Guthrie,” said Gail. “Maybe they’ll even put a Home Depot in.”
“Yeah,” said Maddie. “It’s gonna be so good for the town.”
A scrawny calico leapt from the dresser and onto Henry’s back, digging its claws into his flesh.
He cried out and shook it off; tried to kick it as it ran away. “Stupid cat!”
He walked over to where Mrs Baker was still struggling in vain to escape the grip of the two men restraining her. He enveloped the tiny woman in a big, beefy embrace.
“There there,” he said in his calmest, most reassuring voice, stroking her coarse gray hair with the backs of his fingertips.
“This’ll all blow over soon.”