THE BLACK DEATH OF HAPPY HAVEN
by A. Elizabeth Herting
The residents of the Happy Haven Retirement Community had no idea where the cat came from, just that he had been living there for as long as anyone could remember. His origins were a complete mystery. He was a friendly little fellow, jet black with four snow-white paws. He had a distinctive patch of white on his chest and nose making him look like he was wearing a tuxedo.
Old Mr. Dithers in 24C was the first to welcome him in, leaving bits of a half-eaten ham sandwich and a bowl of water outside of his door before heading off to breakfast in the cafeteria. For whatever reason, Dithers thought that the cat reminded him of his favorite bartender from his drinking days and decided to name him Frank. The name stuck, much to the endless amusement of the residents, that a cat named Frank lived among them.
The staff at Happy Haven attempted to shoo him out many times, but Frank always found his way back in, usually through a conveniently propped-open window. Of course, no one would ever admit to leaving one open. After a while, the nurses and office staff began sneaking treats and toys in their coats and bags, ensconcing the cat even further into the Happy Haven community. Frank became their unofficial mascot, prowling the halls in search of food and attention as the staff happily looked the other way. He loved the treats and homemade baked goods the residents shared with him, for he had a wide and voracious appetite.
Frank gave his affection freely among the residents, especially those who fed him. There were times though when Frank would latch onto one particular resident at a time, scratching at their door and meowing to get in. Once inside, Frank would stay by their side, insisting on sleeping on the bed right next to them. He would hiss if the nurse pushed him aside on her nightly rounds. The residents began to notice sometimes, the only way Frank would leave was when the person died.
Afterwards Frank would be on his merry way, back to his normal happy-go-lucky self until the next time. The residents would pop their heads out into the hall and see him there at a neighbor’s door, howling to get in. It became the talk of the community, the more morbidly curious residents actually making bets as to whom Frank would attach himself to next. Everyone joined in, keeping a watchful eye, waiting for when Frank the friendly feline would morph into the “Black Death of Happy Haven.”
Millie French was in a baking frenzy. She made the very best banana nut bread in the Haven, despite what old Marge and Rolly Gower said. Her secret? She used a whole stick of butter and special black walnuts instead of the regular kind. She and Marge had quite the rivalry going on, Marge constantly reminding Millie she was one of the lucky few in the building to still have a living husband.
Millie had been a widow for over twenty years, Ed passing away from a sudden heart attack back in ‘96. She’d made her peace with it long ago, but the condescending way Marge would talk about her husband just set her teeth on edge (well at least her dentures, anyway.) Not that Rolly was any kind of prize. Millie was convinced he cheated at Yahtzee when he thought no one was looking. He would sometimes fall asleep during their weekly pinochle games, snoring loudly until his own wheezing would rouse him from his slumber, sometimes almost tumbling from his chair. Every single week.
Men were as rare as hen’s teeth in the Haven. Millie and the other single gals were constantly bombarding them with dinners and baked goods in order to win their favor. The men in her building were taken care of very well, their bellies full every night as the ladies fussed and clucked around them like brightly-colored hens. Millie had her eye on a fella named George living one floor below hers, always sending him freshly-baked goods down on the elevator to let him know she was interested. That is, until the cat managed to eat half of the bread before George could even get to it, or the time before when some foul thief absconded with an entire loaf of banana bread and two dozen chocolate chip cookies. Millie couldn’t be sure, but she was convinced it was Agnes in 44B. Agnes also had eyes for George and would never pass up an opportunity to spoil things for Millie.
Today Millie thought she would bring George the bread in person to make sure it arrived safely. She pinched her cheeks and added a dab of Chanel No. 5 behind each ear. She checked her reflection in the bathroom mirror, the overwhelming pink of the decor reflecting back at her from every corner of the room. Millie was very proud of her pink bathroom, had worked hard to find just the right pink matching towels, fuzzy toilet seat cover and matching accessories. It was the talk of the floor, everyone wanted to come in and see it, she thought happily as she fluffed up her curls and headed out for her impromptu date.
There was no way Agnes could possibly compete with this batch of banana bread. Millie had outdone herself. Maybe after she and George shared a slice or two, they could watch a little TV together. It was almost 4:30–the time for “Wheel of Fortune” to come on. The Wheel was must see viewing amongst all the citizens of Happy Haven–Pat Sajak was quite the celebrity around here.
Millie gathered up the bread and opened the door, excited and giddy as a schoolgirl. She turned to lock her door when a flash of black shot by her, just outside of her line of vision. Millie jumped, scrambling to get back into her apartment as Frank meowed and wrapped himself around her leg. Millie froze, waiting to see what the cat would do next. He merely flopped over and began to frantically wash his back left leg, lifting it high up into the air as only cats can do. She let out a long breath as Frank meowed, padding down the hallway, stopping for a quick bite of food two doors down. Her heart hammered in her chest so fast, Millie actually had to go back inside and sit down for a moment.
It’s only Frank. He’s not the Black Death, he’s just a cat. Stop being so superstitious.
Millie retouched her face with an old compact she kept in her purse and took a deep breath, leaving a moment later.
There was no sign of Frank in the hallway as she cautiously approached the elevator doors while holding the banana bread in front of her like a talisman. She rode down one floor, letting the elevator music soothe her nerves. When the doors opened she turned to the right, mentally preparing for what she would say to George. Before she made it to his door, Millie suddenly stopped dead in her tracks. Frank was stretched out to his full length, frantically scratching and howling at the third door on the right. Hearing it sent shivers down her spine, the sound the cat was making was not of this world.
He continued his terrifying serenade, doors opening up and down the hallway to see who the Black Death had singled out this time. Millie swallowed hard, her fear a lump in her throat. Tears began to cloud her vision as Frank continued to yowl and scratch away relentlessly at the Gowers’ apartment door.
Millie felt horrible about Rolly and for every unkind thought about Marge as they sat in the cafeteria together after his funeral. Marge sat, deathly pale, as each resident of the Haven came to offer their sympathies. The kitchen staff would always decorate the cafeteria with pictures and tributes to the deceased. They laid out a spread of cold cuts, popcorn and cookies, served with overly-sweet lemonade in little plastic cups. It was a tradition at Happy Haven as their number continually dwindled, just an unavoidable fact of their everyday existence.
“It was a beautiful service,” Millie said quietly to her friend, “I am so sorry, Marge. If there’s anything I can do, please let me know.”
“He would have loved it.” Marge sniffled then blew hard into a large wad of used tissue. “It was so sudden, once he saw that cat, he was as good as dead!” She whispered fiercely into Millie’s ear, looking around wildly in case Frank should suddenly appear.
Rolly had let him in, Marge told Millie in an angry hiss as the residents continued to pass by, giving her their condolences.
“That damn cat rubbed up against him and jumped onto his lap, there was nothing I could do!”
Marge had walked in the door and dropped her grocery bags, shocked to see Frank wrapped around her husband’s neck. When Marge was able to pick him up and chase him back out into the hallway, the cat moaned and cried all night at the door until the neighbors began to bang on the walls in protest.
“It’s ok, Margie. He likes me, see?” he told me, “There’s no harm in it, just for tonight.”
Marge watched as the cat curled up on her husband’s chest, circling twice before settling in for the night.
“He would not budge, no matter what I did!” Marge exclaimed in exasperation. “I tried to stay up to keep watch, but you know me—I’m just no good after ten o’clock.”
The next morning, she found Rolly sitting up in bed petting the cat, relieved beyond all measure that the “Black Death” was nothing more than a myth. When Marge finished her shower and stepped out of the bathroom, she found him.
Rolly was laid out on the floor, dead of a massive coronary. Marge wasn’t fooled, she told Millie, not in the slightest bit. The Black Death stayed watch by his body, following the gurney out into the hallway as they wheeled him away before prancing down the hall in search of nourishment, a normal cat once again.
Martha Jane, affectionately known around the Haven as the “One-Eyed Knitter” for her prowess with the needles (even with only one functioning eye) came through the line, shaking Marge’s hand and wrapping a long, baby-blue scarf around her shoulders. She was followed, much to Millie’s annoyance, by George and Agnes offering joint condolences. Millie sighed heavily as they left the cafeteria together. She’d never made it to George’s room, the cat shattering everyone’s plans with his incessant caterwauling. I might have to start from scratch, maybe this time with a homemade cheesecake, that ought to do the trick…
“Millie!” Marge hissed at her through clenched teeth, “We need to talk!” Millie snapped her head up, she had been daydreaming again, thoughts of George and baked goods running through her head. “We need to make plans, you have to help me!”
“Help you with what Marge? Something to do with Rolly?”
“Yes in a way. Something to help all of us in the Haven,” Marge said, hysteria coloring her voice before lowering it to a deadly whisper. “You and I, we’re going to get rid of that blasted cat once and for all.”
Millie felt goosebumps break out all over at Marge’s last words. A moment later the Black Death rounded the corner, locking eyes with them for just a moment before scampering off. They both sat in silent shock as a parting Frank let out a “meow” as if to acknowledge that the gauntlet had indeed, been thrown down between them.
Millie thought that her friend was really losing it. Marge obsessed about the cat morning, noon and night, plotting and scheming about how to get rid of him. Millie was loathe to tell her grieving friend most folks liked having Frank around. Some of the older residents appreciated having the heads up, many of them finalizing their end-of-life plans based on the cat’s appearance at their door. He was a comfort to the sick, his soft fur and purring calming them. Whether or not he would single them out for his special attention didn’t matter, they loved him anyway. He was feared by some but even so, Frank was simply part of the fabric of life at Happy Haven. Marge was convinced otherwise, her hatred all encompassing. Millie had never seen her friend so determined.
The first time Marge tried to catch Frank, she managed to lure him into a corner with a can of wet cat food. Once the hungry feline went for the bait, she sprung at him with a pillowcase, scooping him up in a great bear hug and flinging him out of the front door. He landed in the bushes, hissing and clawing through the cloth. Marge was convinced that she had finally saved the Haven from the Black Death. It was a short-lived victory.
The very next day they saw him making his usual rounds, stopping in front of Agnes’ apartment for a quick bite. A week later, Marge convinced the UPS driver to take Frank out of the Haven and drop him at the local animal shelter, saying their building no longer allowed pets. Millie never knew how Frank managed to get away, but he was back three days later looking very satisfied with himself. He paused at Marge’s door, letting out a loud meow on his way down the hall. It was on that day her friend became truly unhinged.
The rat poison was Marge’s idea. Millie was against it from the beginning.
“Can’t you see Millie? We will never be safe until that cursed animal is out of our lives! He is killing us in our beds!”
Millie was alarmed at how Marge looked, her eyes bulging and glazed over.
“Just make your banana bread and I’ll do the rest–he goes crazy for banana bread! We’ll leave it out in the hallway just for a little while, just a few bites and it will all be over. You told me you would help me, I need you now.”
Millie eventually relented, Marge wearing her down. She reluctantly allowed her friend to sprinkle the white powder onto her famous recipe before placing it out into the corridor.
Marge called out to him, “Here, kitty, kitty!” as she headed down the hall to the elevator and the refuge of her own apartment.
Within minutes Millie changed her mind–she simply could not do it. She threw open the door and dashed into the hall, terrified she would find him eating the deadly bread. Millie felt faint, frantically looking in every direction. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing. The banana bread was completely gone.
The neighbors around apartment 44B were beginning to get concerned. Agnes did not come down for Bingo on Tuesday even though she was supposed to call the numbers that week. Millie knew that Agnes would never miss the chance to be the caller, of that she was absolutely certain.
When Agnes didn’t answer, they called in Haven management, the day shift superintendent using his master key to open the door. The One-Eyed Knitter told Millie they found her there on the floor, a trail of vomit and white powder streaking her face with a partially eaten loaf of banana bread on the floor next to her. Curled up on her back was the cat, both of them were lifeless as corpses but miraculously, still alive.
They never heard what happened to Marge after she was sent away, presumably to the nearest mental health center. They found her in her apartment raving about black cats and demons, a box of rat poison clutched in her hands like a weapon before the sedatives finally kicked in. Millie hoped that her friend had found peace and was finally receiving the help she so desperately needed.
Millie came clean about everything, her remorse was overwhelming. She visited Agnes every day in the sick ward, the two of them playing endless hands of gin rummy as Agnes recovered. Thankfully, she hadn’t ingested much of the tainted treat. The cat had jumped out and startled her, causing her to drop the bread on the floor. Frank refused to leave as the sickness ravaged poor Agnes. They think the cat had eaten some as well, but not enough to kill him. The veterinarian’s office had given him a clean bill of health.
Agnes and Millie decided, in the end, their friendship was worth more than any man. Besides, George had recently been seen in the game room eating homemade apple pie with Betty from 33D down the hall–the traitor!
The Black Death of Happy Haven was still seen around the hallways from time to time, but his roaming days were definitely over. Millie had permanently taken him in, feeding him three square meals a day, although she restricted his sweets (including her banana bread) to rare occasions. She made him his very own soft cushioned bed in the corner of her bedroom, but he only slept there during the day. Every night he would curl up in a ball and lay on her chest, the sound of his purring slowly lulling her to sleep. Once Millie had gotten through the first few nights, the curse of the Black Death stopped bothering her. She figured she was safe enough and besides, if it’s your time to go, what better way than with a warm, loving friend snuggled up right next to you?
There are certainly worse ways to leave this earth, Millie thought as she carefully leaned over to avoid disturbing Frankie. She kissed him once on the head before turning off the light, settling in for a long and peaceful night in the Haven.
About the Author:
A.E.Herting is an aspiring freelance writer and busy mother of three living in colorful Colorado. She has had short stories featured in Bewildering Stories, Cafe Aphra, Clumsy Quips, Dark Fire Fiction, Edify Fiction, Everyday Fiction, Fictive Dream, 50-Word Stories, Friday Fiction, Halcyon Days, Literally Stories, New Realm, No Extra Words, Peacock Journal, Pilcrow&Dagger, Quail Bell Magazine, Scarlet Leaf Review, Scrutiny Journal, Spank the Carp, Speculative 66, Storyteller, The Flash Fiction Press and Under the Bed. She has also published non-fiction work in Denver Pieces Magazine, bioStories, and completed a novel called “Wet Birds Don’t Fly at Night” that she is hoping to find a home for. For more of her work/contact her at sites.google.com/site/aehertingwriter