Fiction Fantastic 2023 Winning Story: “The Bad Luck Cat” by Elizabeth Johnston

The story below is a winner from our Fiction Fantastic Young Writers Contest, open to all youth in Lane County. For more information on this contest, including how to enter, visit here. Support this program with a donation.

You can purchase this story in the 2023 Winners Anthology, Enter the Imaginarium here.

“The Bad Luck Cat” by Elizabeth Johnston, South Eugene High School

Honorable Mention, High School Level, 2023

The Bad Luck Cat

Elizabeth Johnston

South Eugene High School

A small village stood surrounded by grassy green hills and mountains. Within, the village contained neatly kept dirt roads, cobblestone houses, mothers and fathers sending their children off to school, people walking to work, all knowing each other quite well, and getting along fine.

Down an overgrown dirt road and into a grass field was a cobblestone cottage that was unlike the rest of the houses. The stones crumbled and peculiar herbs grew in the garden. Pottery bowls and ceramic plates cracked and broke unusually often. Unheard of spices filled the cabinets. Tufts of black fur covered bright-colored blankets that were strewn across a beat-up sofa.

Inside this house lived two unusual individuals. One was a foreigner from a far off land, and the other was a cat with no land to call home.

The cat’s name was Amos. He lived in the cottage with an old lady named Greer. They lived comfortably together, but they were unwanted in town.

Amos was bad luck and the village people wanted nothing to do with him or the old lady he lived with. If he was bad luck, then she must be, too.

You see, Amos was a black cat. A bad omen of sorts. If he was standing in your windowsill or slinking through your backyard, then you should be prepared for a week of bad luck. If your horse got sick and died, then it could be traced back to the time Amos was spotted in the horse’s stable.

Amos felt terrible for spreading his bad luck. He spent most of his days wandering the hills surrounding the cottage, but on occasion he would dare a trip to the village. It never went well. He would be kicked or furiously shooed away with a broom. Greer stayed at the house doing whatever it is old ladies do, but she had to go into the village for necessities every so often. The village people were more civil to her, but they still kept a wary distance.

Greer did not believe Amos was bad luck.

“They just see what they want to see,” she would say. “They need someone to blame for the bad things in life.”

But Amos was not entirely convinced.

One overcast day, when Amos had wandered further than normal, he came across a herd of sheep. If bad luck fell upon the villagers sheep, they would be furious, so he began to turn away. But before he could, the shepherd called out, “Cat! Come here, you!” Amos turned around to see the shepherd walking toward him. Amos tried darting through sheep to get away. Prior experiences with village folk had never been pleasant, so Amos avoided encounters as much as possible.

“It’s OK, cat. I won’t hurt you. I want to be your friend. Mama talks about you sometimes. I heard you cause all sorts of bad things to happen. I don’t think it was you, though. I think bad things just sometimes happen.” Amos stopped in the field, the sheep giving him a wide berth. The boy knelt down in front of him. “Can I pet you?”

Amos had never been treated this way before by a village person. He had never been treated like a thing with feelings before then. He decided if the boy liked him, then he liked the boy. He rubbed his head against the boy’s hand and purred.

“Your fur is real soft. My friend Will says your fur is scratchy and rough, but I think he only said that because his papa told him so. His papa also thinks his horse died because of you.”

Amos meowed at that and the boy nodded. “I know, it makes no sense. Mama said I don’t believe you’re bad luck only because I’ve never had any bad luck myself, but I think she’s wrong. I’m Thomas by the way. You’ll come back tomorrow won’t you? Herding is boring, I do the same thing in a different field every day. Mama says when I’m old enough I can help her and Papa with the real work, but I don’t know when that will be.”

Thomas talked to Amos for the rest of the afternoon, lying on his back with Amos curled up at his side.

When Amos got back to the cottage at nightfall, he jumped through the open window where Greer was baking spiced biscuits.

Once the biscuits were in the oven, she joined Amos on the sofa and he crawled into her lap. He yawned and stretched before curling up in a ball. She stroked his ears as she worked on a garland to go over the front door.

After a long while, Greer finished the decoration for the door. “Amos, my sweet cat, I’ve got to get up now.” She slowly got up, a mix of her age and the sofa making her less agile than she once was. She went out in the bright autumn moonlight to hang the garland and check on her garden. Amos took that time to clean himself and take a nap by the fire.

When he woke up again Greer was asleep in her attic room. It was still dark outside but dawn would be approaching soon.

He wanted to see Thomas again but didn’t know which field he would be in, so he figured he would have a lot of walking to do if he wanted to find him. When he was done eating he jumped out the window, determined to find the shepherd boy again.

He never noticed the cup of water set out for him, laying shattered in a sharp wet mess on the floor.

Amos found Thomas and the sheep midmorning. He had walked to the same field as the day before, got lost twice, and had found Thomas two fields over.

Thomas ran to meet him when he saw the black cat appearing over the rocky hill.

“You’re back! I wasn’t sure if you would be, given I can’t be easy to find.” Amos meowed in agreement and Thomas picked him up, much to his surprise.

Thomas carried him over to a boulder and set him down. They sat there most of the day; Thomas chattering away while keeping an eye on the sheep, Amos glad for the company and pets.

The days carried on like this, Amos leaving early to find Thomas’s pasture and staying till the boy had to take the sheep back home to his family.

One night, Amos lay by the fire for warmth, a strong breeze coming in through the cracked door. Greer was walking up the narrow rickety stairs to her attic room, humming words from a far off land that Amos didn’t know. He thought of how Greer cared for him despite the repercussions from the village people.

She wouldn’t be an outcast if he didn’t live there. Being a cat, he didn’t know how he could repay the favor. He thought of Thomas, who made Amos feel much less alone.

Surely Greer was as lonely as Amos had once been? Yes they had each other, but wouldn’t Greer want someone to talk to, someone who could talk back? And Thomas could talk someone’s ear off.

Amos wanted to give Greer the same joy he had when he was around Thomas. He left the cottage when it was still deep into the night, stars and owls swooping across the sky. He was too excited to wait, too excited to do anything but set the plan in motion. By then Amos knew all of the pastures that Thomas led the sheep to, and could guess which one it would be. Amos watched the sun rise over the green mountains in the distance, and impatiently waited for Thomas to arrive. He finally appeared just as it was no longer sunrise, but turning to dawn.

Thomas was wearing two coats and a funny hat with flaps on the side, his breath floating in the air in white puffs.

“What are you doing here so early?” Thomas asked as he walked towards him. Amos meowed and began to walk away, then stopped and turned back. When Thomas reached him he walked away once more before stopping for Thomas to reach him. “You want me to follow you? That’s it? I can’t right now, cat, or my papa will skin me alive. If I lose the sheep, I’ll never get to do real work. After nightfall I can sneak out and meet you here. Wherever you take me I will follow.”

Amos meowed in agreement. He wouldn’t want to get Thomas in trouble.

Amos felt like a clock was slowly ticking down the minutes all day; the anticipation was gnawing at him. The sheep had grown accustomed to Amos, and when it was dusk and time for the sheep to head home, they treated Amos as a part of the herd. “He can’t come with us, you silly sheep. But I will be back. Stay here, cat, so I can find you.” He gave Amos a friendly farewell pat and left.

When he finally returned, the stars were out and Amos was walking in circles to keep away the cold. Thomas carried a lantern so Amos could see him coming from far away.

Amos led him to the cottage, lit candles making the house visible from a distance. “You’ve led me to your home? I’ve heard about the old lady who lives here. Good thing I don’t believe any of the hogwash the villagers say. You’re the best cat I’ve ever met.”

Amos led him to the front door, “Should I knock?” Thomas whispered. Amos meowed and Thomas took it as a yes.

He took off his funny hat and combed his messy hair back before knocking. It took a minute for the door to open, the sound of the stairs creaking and Greer muttering “Who could it be at this hour?”

The door swung open, letting the aroma of spices spill out. Greer smiled very wide at the sight of Thomas. “Why hello, little boy. What can I do for you at this hour?”

“Your cat brought me here, ma’am. I have to say I’m not entirely sure why.”

Greer smiled and ushered them both inside, “Oh, Amos, you brought me company! You sweet, sweet cat. Dear boy, do sit down. Would you like a cup of tea?”

Thomas sat on the sofa and put his hands by the fire, “If you don’t mind, ma’am.”

“Please, call me Greer. I was just about to make elderberry buns. Would you like to help me?”

“Oh, yes. Mama never lets me have sweets except on holidays, which don’t happen often enough.”

Greer laughed, a tinkling sound, and handed Thomas a couple of berries to try them. “Well, here we have sweets whenever it pleases us. Isn’t that right Amos?” Amos meowed and hopped up onto the counter and then carefully made his way through the heap of ingredients (he barely escaped setting his tail on fire and knocked over the flour) before sitting on the windowsill.

“These berries are good. Different from the berries in my yard at home. But I like different.” Thomas began to help Greer make the dough for the buns.

When they were done and the buns were baking in the oven they sat over by the fire.

Thomas stared at the walls covered with pendants and ivy, colorful tapestries and books written long ago. He finally said, “Your house is much cooler than mine.”

Greer smiled warmly and stroked Amos’s ears, who was pleased that Greer was enjoying Thomas’s company like he had hoped.

“How did you meet Amos?” Greer asked.

“Oh, well one day he just appeared in the pasture where I was with the sheep and I knew he was the ‘bad luck cat’ but I didn’t really care much. Then he kept coming back, and today he led me here. You really have a great cat.”

“Yes, I am quite fortunate, aren’t I?” Greer smiled at Amos on her lap. He nudged his head against her in return.

Thomas left late with elderberry buns in hand, promising to return soon.

Life went on with Amos meeting Thomas and the sheep during the day, and Thomas sneaking off to the cottage at night.

One morning, Amos walked to meet Thomas at a pasture covered in frost. The night before, Thomas had stayed late into the night, singing jolly loud songs with Greer. Greer was teaching him to make his own clothes, and he had part of a shirt already done. It looked backwards and lopsided when he put it on, but he said it didn’t matter because he’d made it.

Amos made his way through the sheep to see Thomas lying on his back staring at the sky. Amos meowed as way of greeting and curled up next to Thomas. The days were getting colder and the sheep’s coats were growing ever thicker for the winter. Thomas would sometimes curl up next to a sheep for warmth while they sat in the pasture.

Thomas felt especially cold that day. Amos got up to look at him. Thomas’ eyes were staring glassy back at him. His mouth hung open and he did not move. Amos stared at Thomas, not sure what he was seeing.

When Amos realized Thomas was dead he let out a piercing howl that sent all the sheep running.

Amos paced back and forth, unsure of what to do. It was his fault. He was bad luck and he had made this happen to Thomas. Thomas would never get real work, would never finish his shirt, would never smile or laugh or talk again because of Amos.

The thought sent Amos running back to Greer, leaving Thomas lying in the pasture, staring at the sky.

Amos jumped through the window and shattered several glasses in his attempt to get to Greer quickly. He bolted up the stairs and scratched at her door, meowing feverishly until she opened it. “What is this ruckus, Amos?” Amos paced back and forth until she picked him up and set him on her bed. She stroked his dark fur until he calmed down.

“Whatever has happened Amos, it will be all right.” But it wouldn’t be all right. Amos had thought his bad luck couldn’t touch Thomas, but he had unknowingly sent it hurtling at him.

“Amos you are a kind, loving cat and you wouldn’t wish harm on anyone. Whatever is worrying you rid yourself of it. It was not your doing.”

Amos wondered if she would feel the same way when she found out Thomas was never coming back.

Amos lay by the fire all afternoon, unable to go back into the pasture for he knew what he would find.

Greer went to the village to stock up on food and when she came back that evening she dropped what she was carrying and hurried over to Amos.

“Oh, my sweet cat, I am so very sorry. It was Thomas. I heard the news in town. He was such a dear boy. Gone so young. At least we were able to spend some time with him while we had the chance.”

Greer set Amos on her lap and stroked him by the fire all evening, dinner long forgotten.

Greer told Amos that the cold probably killed him, that it was not his fault. Amos started to believe her words were true, more hoping that they were true than anything else.

“Thomas didn’t believe you were bad luck, so why should you? Thomas would not want you to shut yourself away in this cottage, Amos. You are a cat who loves people, and there will be more people for you to love. All you have to do is find the right ones.”

Amos drifted to sleep with these words stuck in his mind.

The next morning he carried what Greer said with him as he braved his way to town. He would find someone like Thomas, someone kind and friendly, someone he could love. Someone who would keep him and Greer company. Someone he would let no bad luck fall upon.

But Amos did not know, as cats often do not, that there was something more sinister going on. Thomas did not die by accident and Amos’s bad luck was not mere coincidence. Greer had sat at the small table in the cottage and planned how to best kill Thomas, to take his life and make it her own. She had killed Mr. Hughes’ horse and made Mrs. Gibson’s hands shake so hard she could no longer sew clothes. Her magic seeped from her to Amos, causing bad things to happen wherever the cat went. He was the perfect cover for her. Everyone in town knew Amos was bad luck, but no one knew the truth was because of the little old lady. No one, not even Amos, would know the truth of the witch in the cottage.