Hattie winced as she crashed into the boy who'd just been coming round the corner. She felt a cold liquid seeping into her clothes and looked down in dismay at the drink that had been spilt on her. Then she looked up to see the boy looking equally displeased and more than a little pissed.
'Shit, you little bastard! Look where you're going.' He glared at the remains of his drink and threw the empty cup down in disgust.
There was a choked laugh from behind him where his friend looked like he didn't know whether to enjoy the show or stand up for his mate. He quickly straightened his face, however, after seeing the angry look directed at him.
'Yeah,' he chipped in, 'you should try not to get in our way.'
'Oops,' Hattie said again.
She to reign in her own irritation but she was late enough to class as it was without having to arrive with a wet, sticky shirt.
'Are you going to apologise, or what?' The first boy spoke again, apparently intent on being an asshole about the ordeal.
'It was an accident,' she muttered.
'What was that?' The guy practically growled at her and shoved her into the wall angrily.
Hattie winced and wished she could think of something smart to retort with. As it was, she didn't know what to do and jumped in surprise when a new voice rang down the school corridor.
'What the fuck are you doing?'
All three heads turned towards the figure strolling towards them. Hattie recognised him as Ashley Wiles, famed throughout the school as a delinquent with no qualms about knocking aside anyone who got in his way. If the more far-fetched rumours were to believed, he had been arrested multiple times for selling drugs and stealing cars.
Beforehand, Hattie had never cared what was true or not about him. Now however, it seemed he might be her knight in shining armour.
'What's that, you've got something to say?'
The two boys stood square to him, clearly not happy to see him. There were both stocky, well built lads and didn't seem to be short on confidence.
The newcomer shrugged nonchalantly before suddenly lashing out with a blow to the first guy. The second boy ran in with his own fist raised but Ashley seemed to simply dodge the blow before tripping him to the ground.
'Get the fuck out of here,' he stated as they picked themselves up.
Neither of the boys looked like they wanted to continue the fight so they backed off with glowering faces.
'You'll fucking pay for this,' the first boy snapped.
Ashley just raised his eyebrows and waited for them to leave.
'Um,' Hattie finally gathered herself together and looked at her unlikely rescuer.
He only glared at her, however, and turned to walk off without saying a word.
She sighed. She only had half a year left of school before she could leave forever and now something like this had to happen. Hattie was generally a fan of keeping her head down and counting down the days until summer; avoiding idiots who got angry over a spilt drink and unpredictable people like Ashley Wiles was definitely a favoured plan. She just hoped that was the end of it.
She quickly walked towards her class and tried to think of a believable excuse as to why she was so late. No one else seemed to have seen the event which was fine in her opinion; she didn't want to get pulled into anyone's office whether she was about to get punished or not. She breathed deeply, trying not to let the incident get to her.
The next day Hattie arrived at school feeling tired and resentful of the full day ahead of her. A bruise had come up where she'd been pushed against the wall and she was in no mood to face school again.
She paused to drop off her text books and stopped in her tracks as she saw someone leaning against her locker. Surely it was simply coincidence that Ashley Wiles was there? Nervously she edged nearer, wondering if would be better to just come back later. However, when she arrived the guy made no move to get out of her way and simply smirked at her.
'Um, thank you for yesterday,' she squeaked, 'but could I get to my locker?'
Ashley walked towards her until she backed up against the opposite wall. She was just contemplating ducking past him to escape when he placed his hands each side of her and gave her a cold look.
'You think I did that to save you, you little rat?' he sneered, his cigarette smelling breath on her face. 'Don't be stupid.'
She was bewildered as he released her just as abruptly and walked away. What was that all about? She sat through her biology lesson feeling hurt and confused.
It didn't help that the class was paired up for a practical task either. Normally she stuck with Sarah Jones who was equally as quiet as Hattie but seemed nice too. Strangely though, today Sarah made a beeline for someone else, looking vaguely spooked. Hattie stood alone in the room as everyone else paired off and her heart sank when she saw the only other free person was the pervy guy with a bad case of acne. Why did it have to be him?
None of the girls liked him and he gave her the creeps. He was also lazy and refused to do most of his share of the task. By lunch time she was utterly relieved to get away and didn't notice the tall figure approaching from the opposite direction. As she left the classroom someone bumped her as they passed, pushing her sideways. She looked over her shoulder at Ashley's retreating figure.
And suddenly it became a pattern. She'd see him a few times a week, watching her from afar or sending her a smirk as they passed each other. It felt like someone was playing a joke on her and she couldn't figure it out. It wasn't until he got her into trouble with a teacher that ended up with her getting an after school detention that she really began to dislike him.
On Friday afternoon, Hattie tapped her pencil impatiently waiting for the last lesson to finish and for the weekend to arrive. She'd already finished the exercise and let her mind wander to thoughts of home. She planned to stay up late alone being the social loser and playing meaningless computer games and then waste Saturday by sleeping. Hey, if it took her mind off her stressful week then who cared?
As the lesson ended she hurriedly packed her work into her bag and left the classroom. A few students jostled her as they squeezed through the doorway and it wasn't until one of them gave a filthy look that she realised that they were shoving past her a bit harder than normal. That was something else that had changed. She seemed to be getting more dirty looks and 'accidental' shoves in the corridors this last week. Was it coincidence or had she unwittingly done something to upset someone?
It wasn't until she'd left the main building that she remembered she had to endure her accursed detention. With a heavy heart she turned back, it had been some time since her last detention and Hattie did not revel in the prospect of sitting in a room with the 'naughty kids', wasting an hour of her precious weekend. She opened the door and went straight to an empty seat near the back of the classroom. She took out her homework and kept her head down, willing the hour to pass quickly. She was just sketching a graph for her maths work when a ball of paper hit her hand, causing her to ruin the smooth curve. She frowned slightly and decided to ignore it and carry on working as if nothing had happened.
Another paper missile hit her on the side of her face and stung her cheek. Slowly she raised her head and looked in the direction of her attacker. She hadn't realised that Ashley also had detention and had assumed she was rid of him until Monday at least. He looked at her with a cold face and narrowed his eyes at her, then smirked and turned back to the front of the room.
Hattie bit her lip, wondering what he meant. What was his game? He hadn't caused her to serve detention because he was also there, had he?
The rest of the hour passed without incident, except for the teacher shouting at a guy for carving into his desk with half of a pair of scissors. She gave up on the maths homework, which she would hate herself for on Sunday evening, but couldn't care less about right then. Once they'd been given permission, everyone rushed out of the room and Hattie followed suit. She was almost out of the school grounds for the second time that afternoon when she was grabbed by the arm. Ashley yanked her back and pushed her against the wall.
'What do you want?' She asked quietly, flinching at the mean look in his eyes.
'Don't think you're getting away from me so easily. Make a fuss and I'll beat you to a pulp.'
Hattie choked at his threat and tried to decide if he was serious. It was probably worth getting as much distance as possible between them either way. He dug his fingers into her arms as she pulled against his grip and kept her firmly against the wall.
'I said don't make a fuss, Rat.' He held her wrist in a grip of iron and led her out of school.
'Excuse me?' She protested, tugging at him again but he ignored her and continued to pull her along.
Hattie didn't know if she should shout for help or just go along with it. Maybe if she let him play his joke on her then he could have his laugh and not bother her again. She didn't like tattle tales and didn't think anyone's intervening was going to help her much in the long run.
Ashley walked her to his car and opened the passenger door.
'Get in,' he ordered.
Haven't kids always been warned against getting into cars with strangers? She might know who he is, but Ashley was still practically a stranger to her.
'Get in the car, Rat.' He was doing that menacing thing with his voice again.
She flinched again, trying not to let him get to her. 'Would you really hit a girl?'
He deftly whacked her on the back of her head. 'Yes.'
'Ow.' She scowled at him and rubbed her head. Then she thought of something else. 'You're not... you're not going to rape me are you?'
It was Ashley's turn to look shocked.
'No!' He looked like he was appalled by very the thought. Good.
He still hadn't let go of her wrist though.
'Fine.' She ducked into the car and yanked her arm free from his grip.
It was probably a stupid decision abut she got the satisfaction of seeing his momentary surprise. Not for long though, because he quickly schooled his features back into their usual closed off expression. He slammed the door after her and marched around to the driver's side.
The car looked like it was falling apart. Rubbish and junk filled the foot wells, the rear window had a large chip in it, the fabric on one of the seats had been ripped apart, not to mention the several dents and scrapes on the outside of the car.
Her kidnapper drove like a maniac with little regard for the speed limits while Hattie gripped her seat and stared at the road. She saw Ashley glance at her and snort in derision.
'Where... where are we going?' She hated how nervous she sounded. Cool, collected and confident would have been her first choice.
He didn't answer her, but shortly pulled to a screeching halt outside a run-down building.
The place was deserted and looked like it could have one day been a pleasant cottage. Now though, the windows were boarded up, a few tiles were missing from the roof and it was almost hidden by overgrown plants. Ashley led her round the back, not waiting as she tripped through the brambles, and opened the door of the attached garage. He turned the lights on, bringing a yellow brightness into the dingy interior and slammed the door after Hattie.
She jumped at the noise and tried not to get panicky. Maybe it would have been a good idea to run or scream or something when she had the chance. She looked round the room quickly. It didn't appear to be nearly as grotty as she'd imagined. A tattered couch sat against one wall with an upturned box next to it, acting as a table. A couple of crates were stacked in a corner supporting a television which had various cables nestled round it. There were also a couple of high up shelves which appeared to be full of dusty junk. Rubbish littered the floor and various food items and cans of coke and beer were shoved in various places.
'Um, nice place?' She was trying again for a calm, non-scared tone.
He scowled at her and sank down onto the sofa, picking up a nearby laptop and opening the lid.
She stood there for a moment, wondering if he'd forgotten he'd dragged her across town for apparently no reason. He didn't even look up and began typing furiously on the keyboard.
'Um,' she cleared her throat. 'This has been great, yep. Haha. But, I'm going to go home now, if you don't mind.'
He tapped away for another moment before turning to her. 'No. I'll take you home later.'
'What?' she huffed. 'No, I want to go home. Now.'
'I'll take you later. Just do your homework or something.' He turned back to his laptop and frowned at it.
She scowled at him and stalked to the door, reaching up to draw back the bolt. She paused, hand in the air, and thought about the long walk home. This place was right on the edge of town and nowhere near her parents' house. It could take over an hour to walk home and if she did get her homework finished now she'd have more free time over the weekend.
She sighed, frustrated that she was giving in to him but turned around and flopped down on the floor.
'You'd better take me right home when I'm done,' she said irritably.
Ashley didn't even look up, just carried on typing. They remained in silence for awhile and Hattie managed to get most of her work completed. She was having a little trouble with the maths, which she'd left until last.
Ashley forcefully shoved his laptop aside when she sighed for the third time and he pulled out a packet of tobacco from his pocket. She stopped working to watch him roll his cigarette and he glanced at her, looking irritated.
'What's the problem?' he bit out.
'Nothing,' she replied. 'Maths.'
She turned back to the exercise and was wondering whether to give up and try again later when he dropped beside her. He tucked the cigarette behind his ear and reached over to grab her book. Hattie couldn't help watching him curiously and jumped when he spoke.
'Whoa, what are you doing?' He laughed at her.
'Trying to solve the problem,' she answered resentfully.
'Yeah, you've got to make the two equations equal to each other. You can't square root one side and ignore the other one.'
He proceeded to explain the solution in a scarily nice way and actually looked like he was enjoying it. The situation felt incredibly awkward to Hattie but at least she was getting her homework done.
Her stomach rumbled as she packed her books up and Ashley looked at her like he'd just remembered who she was. He turned away abruptly, scratching his head.
'Yeah, I'll take you home,' he muttered.
It had probably been the weirdest afternoon in her life and Hattie didn't know what to think of this guy. She wanted to know more than ever what he was up to because if this was him playing a joke on her, it was a pretty strange way to go about it.
The ride home was quiet. Ashley asked for directions to her house and they relapsed into silence. She wanted to watch him, to study his face for clues, but couldn't really do that without being obvious.
'Um...' She fidgeted with her jacket cuffs and found herself feeling incredibly nervous. 'Can you tell me... What do you want?'
She scowled at him. 'What is it with you? Why do you keep... What was today about?'
He snorted and kept his eyes on the road. 'See you on Monday, Rat.'
'What?' Was that supposed to be a threat? This was impossible. 'Don't call me that.'
He ignored her again and drove in silence until they pulled up outside her parents' house. When she didn't move, he raised his eyebrows at her.
Hattie kept her eyes on her knees and tried to stop fidgeting.
'Why did you make me come with you?' she blurted.
When he still didn't say anything she risked a glance up at him. He had a blank but vaguely expectant look on his face.
'See you on Monday,' he repeated. Then added, 'If you don't get out of the car right now I'm going to hit the horn and I'm going to keep on hitting it until you leave, okay?'
Hattie practically shot out of the car and missed the look of amusement on Ashley's face as she went. She did not want her foster parents finding out about this and giving them a reason to interrogate her. Or to talk to her at all really.
When she entered the house she found her mother washing up in the kitchen.
'Hattie! Where have you been? You missed dinner.' Her mum looked worried and probably for good reason. Hattie always came straight home from school and it was nearly 7pm.
'Just with a friend.' She shrugged off her jacket and shoes and tossed her bag onto a chair.
'Oh really? That's... that's great, Hattie. Here, I've kept your food warm for you.' She took out a plate filled with hot food.
Hattie took the plate and plonked herself down in front of it. As much as she'd love to flee to her room with it, there was a no food upstairs rule so she tried to ignore her mother's hovering as best she could.
'Sweetie...' her mum gently probed, 'was it a friend from––'
'Thanks for dinner!' Hattie interrupted. 'It's really good.'
'Okay.' Her mother sighed at her and hung up the towel she'd been using.
Hattie breathed a sigh of relief as her mother left the room. There was no way that she was explaining to her that she had been waylaid by a weird guy after school and dragged across town to his house. Except, that hadn't really been his house, right? No one actually lived in a place like that and he clearly couldn't have owned it. Was he a squatter? Did he not have a real home to go to?
She didn't feel sorry for him, but she did appreciate the luxury of having a warm house and cooked meals to return to each day. Maybe he just liked to keep up the 'rebel' image and didn't want anyone to know he really had a cosy family somewhere. Or maybe things were rough at home and that ruin of a cottage was his escape from it. An escape, that sounded nice.
After two days of blissful lay-ins and staying at home doing nothing worth doing (one good thing about doing all her homework on Friday), Hattie felt slightly refreshed. She'd pushed all thoughts of Ashley to the back of her mind and didn't let herself worry about him until the walk to school on Monday morning. Her bedroom was her safe haven, no thoughts of school were allowed to taint it.
The nearer she got to the dreaded school gates though, the more perturbed she was about Ashley's words about seeing her on Monday. Was this going to become a frequent thing, him shadowing her at school and dragging her off to do homework? When was he going to get tired of her and end the joke? Did she actually want him to stop it?
As the morning went on, her uneasiness grew. She was sure something was up because she didn't remember receiving this many dirty looks or shoves in the corridors before.
She felt relieved when class ended for lunch and headed for the canteen. Hattie wasn't much of a morning person and Mondays were the worst. As it was, she'd left home in a rush that morning and had forgotten to pack a sandwich. Canteen food wasn't great, but it was better than going hungry. She grabbed a tray and picked up a pasta thing and a bottle of water. She'd just paid for it and was fumbling to shove the change in her pocket when someone pushed past her and tipped her tray over.
'Oops.' A tall girl shrugged at her. 'Clumsy me.'
Hattie flushed as the girl walked off. There were a dozen things she wanted to shout back but she couldn't seem to find the words. Instead, she bit her lip and put the tray back down, grabbed her water and left the canteen as fast as a dignified walk would allow. Her pasta had spilt all over the floor and she knew it would be a better idea to buy another portion but right now all she wanted to do was to get out of there.
It hadn't been the first time that someone was purposefully mean to her but it did hurt. The last thing she wanted was for everyone to see her feeling vulnerable.
She normally spent the lunch hour tucked away in the library with Sarah Jones once they'd eaten. The two of them would quietly work or read, peacefully undisturbed. But today Sarah wasn't there and so Hattie sat alone feeling hungry and sad.
She almost jumped out of her skin when someone dropped down beside her. Judging from Ashley's amused expression, that was exactly the response he'd been going for.
'What do you want?' she asked sullenly.
He merely closed his eyes and leant back in the chair, tipping it back and keeping it balanced by resting his foot against the underside of the table. Hattie would have loved to push him over but she was still slightly afraid of him.
Well, if he was going to ignore her then she would pay no mind to him either. She sipped at her water trying to trick her stomach into thinking it was full. It clearly wasn't working because it shortly let out a loud rumble.
She ignored it and continued to doodle on the back of her notepad. When Ashley's fingers started tapping impatiently on the chair she decided to let him win out on the ignoring front.
'What?' she snapped.
She was getting pretty used to him not giving answers so when he slammed the chair down and fished in his bag for a packet of crisps, handing them to her with a fierce glare, she was stunned.
'Are you... being kind?' His obvious discomfort made her more confident than she had felt all day.
'Shut up.' He glowered at her again and snatched her water bottle.
She watched him with interest. She could tell he was embarrassed, but she wanted to know why. Did he like her? Or was it some kind of secret rule that your reputation would get ruined if you helped somebody out for once? Probably the latter. She could not picture the scowling boy helping an old lady across the street or anything.
She hid a smile and munched the crisps gratefully while sneaking a few glances at him. He was sending evil looks at the water bottle he'd now emptied and started tapping his fingers again. He drummed against his thigh looking increasing worked up. Eventually he stopped tapping and started rolling up a cigarette. Once done, he stood and collected his backpack and turned to her.