Hattie Jacques, they’d called her at school. After a fat, olden days actress.
“Can you touch your toes, Hattie?” The skinny, mean girls would say.
“Can you see your toes?” Jenna was the skinniest and meanest of the gang. Her sharp fingers were made for slapping faces.
Hattie wasn’t that fat. Still, her thighs wobbled too much as she ambled towards the campus bus stop through the autumn drizzle.
She’d planned to leave it all behind when she moved to Fulchester College. Granted, it was a twenty-mile commute on two stinky buses, but it was a fresh start. Somewhere they wouldn’t call her Fatty Hattie.
Those cruel voices had followed her. Crept inside her head like brain lice, nested there, and bred. They were as much a part of her now as her yellow-green eyes. If she was awake, they were droning. Hattie called them the Hectors.
“Look at her now, the fat cow. Can’t even run for the bus.”
“She’s gonna miss it.”
“The walk’ll do her good.”
“Yeah, ‘til she stops at the chippy for the tenth time this week.”
Oily diesel fumes choked her as the bus splashed by, pulling in fifty yards ahead. Its doors hissed open, and the little troop of passengers filed into its steamy brightness. Hattie stumbled to a jog and managed six steps before her feet tangled in something, dragging her down in a fleshy pile of limbs on the wet concrete.
A nudge to her arm made her yelp and look down.
Black and sleek, the cat gazed back. It dipped its head again, brushing whiskers against her coat, closing its eyes so it almost disappeared in the gloom. Hattie frowned. She’d seen this same cat earlier, hadn’t she? On her gatepost this morning. That same glossy fur, the silver collar. And hadn’t she barely noticed it again later, outside the sandwich shop? Cats didn’t roam twenty miles. It must have been a different one.
“You haven’t brought me much luck so far, Black Cat,” she said, letting it nuzzle her hand.
Someone sniggered behind her. “Alright, Hattie?”
As he passed, she recognised the wool-clad back, the purple backpack bobbing with his swagger.
Josh. Of course.
He glanced back, smirking. Despite her humiliation, Hattie’s heart galloped. Less than two months into term, and she’d fallen hard into her crush. His blond hair was a perfect contrast to her own, she thought. His easy laugh a counterpoint to her shyness. She saw him sometimes in the sandwich shop, or on the way home after her study sessions at the library.
And now, the first time he’d ever spoken to her, she was in a damp heap on the floor.
“Obviously. She can’t do anything right.”
It was nothing but rotten luck.
“You make your own luck. She’s a bad omen.”
“That’s why she was given away by her own mother.”
“Imagine being abandoned like that.”
No. She had been chosen by Mum and Dad. She was special, they said.
The Hectors scoffed.
Teeth clamped to bottom lip, Hattie disengaged herself from the cat and struggled to her feet. Josh and the last bus were gone, leaving only the grey street and sky. It was four miles to the stop where she changed buses. With only pennies and a return ticket in her purse, she’d have to walk.
As if she’d inspired it, the rain lashed at her head. Hattie sighed. Giving the cat a final despondent pat, she zipped her coat higher, and set off past the obsolete bus stop.
The rhythm of her strides had lulled the Hectors to sleep for once. Her own thoughts allowed to thrive, Hattie enjoyed the sensation of space in her head. She breathed in the smoky air and imagined Teddy, just turned eleven, scribbling at the kitchen table. To his credit, he never held his status as the biological child over her. He was the only person in the entire world who looked up to her. It didn’t seem to matter to him she was fat.
She wondered what he was writing about tonight. Teddy loved to make up stories. Fanciful, naïve stuff, but charming. There were spacemen and dragons, time-travelling archaeologists. Sometimes there was a little boy called Teddy and his big sister, Hattie, who had adventures on holiday islands or mountains. His latest tale was about a witch and her talking cat, an insolent ginger tom called Bruce. It had won the Halloween competition in the local paper. The pages were pinned up on the fridge now with the black cat magnet Mum had bought in France.
Meow. It came from behind her.
Hattie turned. A silver collar floated in the darkness, and above it, two glowing yellow eyes.
“You again?” She chuckled as it slinked between her boots. “Are you following me?”
Black Cat bobbed its head.
“I didn’t think cats liked the wet.”
Black Cat stared back through the raindrops.
Throughout her trek, it followed her. Sometimes ten minutes would go by and Hattie would believe it had left her. Then there it would be, peeping out of a privet, or perched on a car roof. It tracked her along quiet homely streets, across roads lousy with traffic. Hattie’s legs began to ache. Sweat streamed down her temples and back. Still Black Cat shadowed her.
Hattie’s strength was all but spent when she reached her bus stop. She checked her phone. Five minutes until the last bus. Other than a middle-aged woman waiting, bunched in a hooded raincoat, the street was empty. With a sigh, Hattie plopped down on the nearby wall as Black Cat leapt up to meet her.
“You are a friendly thing, aren’t you?”
Black Cat purred. The middle-aged woman gave Hattie a sideways glance and cleared her throat. It didn’t matter. Her little chaperone was here, and the Hectors remained silent. She couldn’t remember a time when they’d given her so much peace. Lifting her face, she swept her soaking fringe aside and let the rain patter on her eyelids. Despite the autumn chill, Hattie’s cheeks were warm as she stretched them in a smile. Black Cat padded across her lap.
The rumble of the bus shattered her daydream. Hattie eased Black Cat away and retrieved the ticket from her pocket. With a final mew, Black Cat jumped down and skittered into a hedge.
As the bus pulled away, Hattie couldn’t suppress a wave through the window, into the darkness. Black Cat had gone.
“Look at that. Crazy as well as fat.”
“Waving at nothing. Everyone thinks she’s a nutter.”
“They’re right. She is.”
The Hectors kept up a steady flow of abuse on the journey, as though making up for lost hassling time.
“She’s been staring at that man for ages. Bet she fancies him.”
“No way can she go the whole bus ride without scratching her bum.”
Hattie resisted as long as she could, then shifted her buttocks to smother the itch. It was a small victory, but she would take it, and the resulting two-minute ceasefire from the Hectors. As she disembarked around the corner from home, it started again.
It took Hattie a moment to understand this voice was not in her head. As the bus wheezed away, she turned. Jenna was striking a hard pose in the spotlight of the streetlamp, her sharp cheekbones glaring.
“Been swotting up again, have you?” Jenna sneered. “In the library.”
Legs shaking, Hattie turned away. She was minutes from home. Perhaps she could ignore Jenna until she got there. Hattie was sure she’d follow.
“My cousin Josh saw you go arse over tit on campus.”
Her cousin? No…
“He said you looked like a right muppet. Miss Piggy.”
Glad Jenna couldn’t see her face, Hattie walked on.
“Oi, I’m talking to you.” Bony fingers grasped her elbow and spun her to face an angular scowl. “Think you’re too good for us now?” Jenna shoved her in the chest, driving her backwards. “Off to college in Fulchester. Snobby bitch.”
“Yeah. Just like your cousin Josh.”
A scrawny hand flashed, stinging Hattie’s cheek. She cried out, a single sob, and closed her throat around the rest.
“Cry baby,” said the Hectors. “Scaredy cat.”
A car engine revved. Headlights picked out Jenna’s twisted mouth, her glinting eyes.
“There’s no need for a snobby bitch like you round here, Fatty.” Her face was so close, Jenna spat rainwater into Hattie’s eye. “We’ll fix that.”
Jenna grabbed the front of Hattie’s coat, pinching her skin. As the car sped towards them, she shoved. Hattie stumbled into the road. Headlights blinded her. She couldn’t scream, or even breath.
It was so quick, Hattie would doubt what she saw a hundred times. Something darted between Jenna’s feet, tangling them. A yowl, a scream, then a blow heaved her out of the way. She landed with a grunt drowned by the wet thud that followed.
The cheek Jenna had slapped cooled against wet tarmac. When Hattie opened her eyes, Jenna’s were staring at her through the car’s full beam. Eyes not glittering with the hatred they had been moments before, but full of nothing. Blood dripped from her mouth and ears.
“Jesus. She’s…” Josh was out of the car, squatting beside his cousin, hands clamped to his mouth.
Hattie peeled herself off the road and sat up. “I didn’t… she tripped.”
Josh’s gaze snapped to hers with a plea. Hattie kept her face blank as she scrambled onto trembling legs. Willing herself not to throw up, Hattie started walking. By the time she reached the corner of her road, neighbours were gathering in the street behind, checking Jenna’s body, making phone calls in low, urgent voices.
Something nudged her calf. With a muffled scream, she turned.
Two yellow eyes above a silver collar.
“Do you know what, Black Cat?” Hattie whispered. “I think the Hectors might be gone.”
Black Cat bobbed its head.
“Fancy a saucer of milk?”
Black Cat purred all the way home.