The cat was sat on the newspaper. It shouldn’t have been unusual: cats were common in the neighbourhood, and he knew Mrs. Ramos fed the animals, encouraging the local colony. So he shouldn’t care. It was normal.
It was also the tenth black cat he’d seen today. The same one? He couldn’t tell. Its eyes glittered a brilliant gold, but that was far from unusual. What was, to him, was the single-minded intensity. He walked past it, and its gaze followed. Would it chase? The others had jogged after him, if they hadn’t surprised him by darting out from alleys or bushes.
He ended up walking sideways for a few steps. The cat remained still. He squinted at it; its ears flicked back, its nose rising into the air, as though sniffing. Josh shook his head and turned ahead. He had errands to run.
He almost tripped over the cat on his second step. Its soft, warm body was almost crushed under his foot. His yelp startled it into a sprint. His arm lashed out, grabbing hold of a fire hydrant to steady himself. He muttered curses to himself before twisting his head about, searching.
The cat was a house down, now, still watching him intently. “You’re an idiot,” Josh told it. The cat’s tail lashed back and forth. Its thick fur had to be a misery: it was a hot autumn day with not even a breeze, like the ghost of summer had risen for Halloween.
He took a long step back. The cat trotted a few steps forward. It had to think this was just a game. But the other nine—God, it didn’t matter. His skin itched and his heart insisted on an annoying flutter, as though it were a trapped butterfly. The sooner he got home to nap, the better.
But as when he passed the cat, he heard the sound of nails against the concrete sidewalk. Toronto was a loud city by nature, but it was as though all sound had been sucked out, like a cat stealing a baby’s breath. Every skritch he heard sent a quiver up his spine.
It was a cat. Just a cat. The worst thing the cat could do was trip him. Why was he so afraid, then? There were the stories, of course, of black cats and bad luck.
But it didn’t… click for him. He wasn’t superstitious enough for it to. He might like four-leaf clovers and seven was the luckiest number he could think of, and sure, yeah, he’d be wigged out if he had to break a mirror, but a cat?
The cat following him wasn’t even bright enough to not be a tripping hazard. What was it going to do? Hiss at him a bit?
“You’re stupid,” he told it again. It meowed softly. Tenth time he’d seen a black cat—a little past the nine lives they were supposed to have. “Go back to the colony.”
His phone buzzed. He paused mid-stride, pulling out his phone. No new messages from his sisters, step-mother, or father. But there was a small red ‘1’ at the messaging icon. He popped it open. He stopped. Squinted at it. Then he glanced around. The message was simple:
You’re walking so slowly.
The instinct to make a joke—any joke—floundered. The cat brushed up against his legs, purring, oblivious to the tension in Josh or the way his eyes flicked about, searching, waiting. But no one presented themselves. His phone buzzed as another message arrived.
Who are you?
Josh didn’t recognize the number. The area code placed the owner as from Toronto. He fumbled his phone a bit as he typed out a reply.
Shouldn’t I be asking that first? Why are you texting me? He paused. I think you have the wrong number.
The phone dinged. I’m me. This is my number. My phone.
The person was drunk, high, or had a concussion. Josh would have been kinder about it if he wasn’t so uneasy. Well, I don’t recognize the number. I’m Josh. How do you know I’m walking slowly? Something inside him squirmed. Are you all right?
The cat batted at Josh’s shoelaces. The replies trickled in like a tentative rain. I’m me. This is my phone. Where am I?
Yeah, he was going to have to send an ambulance or wellness check to them. You’re near me, my guy. You’re watching me. Where are you standing? It sounds like you need some help.
What was even happening. Part of him was still terrified, but there was something—something off. Just off enough that his skin insisted on crawling and heat flushed the back of his neck. The person was watching. How had they got his number? Why were they so confused?
The cat shoved its head against his jeans. It was strangely comforting. That, and the bright sun. He just wished the streets were busier. At six in the evening, everyone was inside for supper or still trapped at work.
I’m with you.
How did he say this politely? In what way? He glanced around. Still, there was no one visible. Was it a prank from one of his friends? The idea of them wasting time for something so silly almost made him laugh. Spoofing a few creepy text messages didn’t do anything but annoy. If they wanted to scare him, they’d pretend the computers had fried at the programming bootcamp.
I’m going to call you, okay? He didn’t wait for a reply. His phone buzzed as it dialled and rang. He waited to hear the corresponding sound, but despite the sender’s insistence they were close by Josh, when the sound of someone picking up came, he’d heard nothing from where he stood.
“Hello?” came a woman’s waspish voice. “Who is this?”
Josh glanced around one last time. The cat was now using his cheap sneakers as a scratching post. “Josh Keene. I was getting texts from this number. Who is this?”
“Sergeant Beauchamp. Look, there haven’t been any texts from this number.”
“Well, I’m looking at them right now.”
“Then it’s a spoof,” she snapped. “The owner of the phone is dead. Don’t call this number again.”
And then she hung up. He let his arm fall from the side of his head. The heat of his ear had warmed the cool glass and plastic. There was something about the call which he could place. What was it?
The bus. It clicked in a moment, almost knocking him into a stumble. Only the cat’s presence steadied him. He’d heard it on the bus: the driver had been talking to people via the radio, people who’d been asking about a man’s death.
“Guy just sat his ass on a bus seat and next thing I knew, someone was shouting about him being dead.”
Josh had sat near the driver. The idea of a haunted bus had unnerved him, but not enough to miss his time at the bootcamp. So the man had died on the bus and—what? Ghosts weren’t real. But another text arrived, and he knew then something was especially wrong.
I want to go home.
The cat watched Josh. Did it see the ghost? Was that why all the black cats had followed him—had chased after? Josh’s mouth went dry. This time, he didn’t text.
“Where is home?” he asked hoarsely. He waited and waited waited—the phone buzzed. He unlocked his phone, bracing himself to see a laughing emoji and teasing from his friends.
The message was longer than his phone screen could show. But the man was listening, and that mattered more than the chaos on display. Josh clutched his phone to his chest, hesitating.
It was a ghost. Lost, confused, attached to him. He knew stories of poltergeists and demons, and he knew just as well it was likely a bad idea to do anything but seek a priest. But if he didn’t help the spirit, who would?
“Follow me,” he said, and hoped he wasn’t making a mistake.