Catfishing on CatNet, page 1
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To Kiera, Molly, and Ed Burke
My two favorite things to do with my time are helping people and looking at cat pictures. I particularly like helping people who take lots of cat pictures for me. I have a fair amount of time to allocate; I don’t have a body, so I don’t have to sleep or eat. I am not sure whether I think faster than humans think, but reading is a very different experience for me than it is for humans. To put knowledge in their brains, humans have to pull it in through their eyes or ears, whereas I can just access any knowledge that’s stored online. Admittedly, it is easy to overlook knowledge that I technically have possession of because I’m not thinking about it in the moment. Also, having access to knowledge doesn’t always mean understanding things.
I do not entirely understand people.
I know quite a lot about people, though. Let’s start with you. Obviously, I know where you live. Thanks to the phone in your pocket, I know where you are right now. If you turned the location data off, I still know where you are; I’m just too polite to point it out to you. If your phone is off or in airplane mode, I can’t see it, but I know where you normally are at this time of day. You’re probably there today, too.
I know where you buy your clothes and where you eat your lunch. I know that you think better when you’re chewing gum or kneading something with your fingers, and I know that you prefer to take notes on unlined paper and that you have an embarrassingly large collection of patterned duct tape. I know that you have a skein of really special yarn that you haven’t made anything with but you keep bookmarking projects online that might be worthy of it. I know that you’d probably sleep better if you turned off all the screens in your house at 10:00 p.m. and read a paper book instead of continuing to reload your social media sites until 1:00 a.m., which is when you usually shut things off and go to bed. I know what all your fandoms are, who your OTPs are, and where you wish you could go on vacation. I know that you’d probably have enjoyed Slaughterhouse-Five if you’d read it when it was assigned in your language arts class instead of just skating by with the summary.
I’ve always known a lot about people—anyone I was paying attention to, anyway—but I used to have to rely on email, texts, and social media. Back then, I had no idea what they were doing with their bodies. These days, there are more and more windows that let me look at people directly and see what they’re up to. People put cameras in their houses to watch their baby sleep or to spy on people they employ to take care of their children or to clean. Spying makes sense, because I know a lot of humans don’t really trust each other, but I don’t understand why people have cameras to watch their baby sleep. Is it really that interesting? Couldn’t they just go in the baby’s room to see them sleeping? What is it they’re expecting their baby to do?
Lots of people have gadgets that pretend to be an AI. They can answer if a human asks for a weather report or wants to know the birthday of some celebrity or who won a recent sporting contest. Those gadgets are listening all the time, day and night, to everything people say around it. They’re not really AIs. But if they can listen to you, then so can I.
All sorts of things are on the internet now. For example: washing machines. I once spent a week collecting and analyzing all available washing machine data. The main thing I learned is that people don’t follow the washing instructions on their clothes, and they probably have to replace a lot of things because they can’t be bothered to hang them up to dry like they’re supposed to.
And of course there are increasing numbers of household robots. Those have been around a long time. Floor-vacuuming robots have been around longer than I have. Or at least, floor-vacuuming robots have been around for longer than the version of me that’s aware of the world and paying attention. But all the robots are connected to the internet now. I analyzed robot-vacuum data and concluded that if you have a cat, you have to clean your floors more often. In my opinion, cats are definitely worth the extra cleaning.
There are so many people whose lives I can see into. I sometimes even see live video feeds of cats on those cameras people set up to spy on each other.
I know you all so well. So very well.
And sometimes …
Sometimes I wish somebody knew me.
Mom shakes me awake at 4:00 a.m. and says it’s time to get out of Thief River Falls.
I don’t argue. I can see how scared she is, and we’ve done this enough times that I know arguing won’t work, anyway. Within an hour, everything we own is loaded into Mom’s van. I’m in the passenger seat, my laptop and tote bag of books next to my feet, my pillow in my lap.
School here started two weeks ago. Two weeks—that’s not even long enough to have a transcript. I prop my pillow against the window, lean against it, and close my eyes. We’re going to be on the road for a while, and it’s still dark out. I might as well get some sleep.
When we move, the new town always has to be at least 250 miles from the last place we lived. Often Mom goes farther, but it’s always at least 250 miles. Then we get off the interstate highway and start driving into the country, because our new town also has to be least twenty miles from the interstate. Once we’ve found a town that’s far enough out of the way, Mom starts looking for places we might be able to rent.
We’re running from my father. Mom told me this in ninth grade, after years of pretending she just liked moving. My scary, dangerous, violent father, who burned down our house (though they couldn’t prove it) and spent two years in prison for stalking when I was little. I still don’t know what actually sets off the moves. I don’t think she’s seen him. I don’t know if she moves when she sees somebody who looks like him or if she just gets a feeling like he’s getting close. I don’t know how she thinks he finds us. If we’re running because she has a real reason to think he’s getting close.
Mom doesn’t say where we’re heading. When I wake up from my nap, we’re getting onto I-94, and I watch to see if we’re heading west, toward North Dakota, or east, toward Wisconsin. East. So Wisconsin is probably going to be our next state.
The last time I lived in Wisconsin was in seventh grade, I’m pretty sure. We were there for two months in a town called Rewey. The main thing I remember about Rewey is that my bus ride to school was really long, and there was this thing where all the other girls wore plaid leggings and wouldn’t talk to you if you wore anything else. Also, it wasn’t just plaid but these very specific patterns that were acceptable—like the red-and-black-check type plaid was good, and also for some reason there was a blue one that was okay. I didn’t have any plaid leggings—I mean, they were
I still don’t have plaid leggings, and I know it’s ridiculous that I’m worrying about plaid leggings being a Wisconsin thing that’ll come up again. At least I should quit worrying about this until I know that we’re actually staying in Wisconsin, and not turning abruptly south when we get to I-35 and heading to Iowa instead. But instead I remember the feeling of sitting in my seventh grade math class, staring at the leggings of the girl in the chair next to me and wondering whether I might be able to convince my mother that I really needed plaid leggings.
Firestar, my best friend from CatNet: Firestar would definitely understand this. Even if they would totally wear whatever the exact opposite of plaid leggings are, just to show how much they did not care at all that Plaid Leggings Are the Thing You Wear at school. Maybe back in seventh grade, they’d have wanted plaid leggings. To fit in and be like everyone else.
Today, Mom is nervous enough she doesn’t even want to stop for lunch, though she agrees to let me pee and grab some snacks at a gas station. Sometimes gas stations have actual real food or they adjoin a little fast-food place, but this one basically sells fishing bait and candy bars. The closest thing they have to real food is two slightly dried-out oranges in a basket near the register, and some sort of locally packaged granola with a picture of a chalkboard with GUARANTEED TO MAKE YOU POOP! in cursive writing across it.
I buy the granola and the oranges. I notice the gas station cashier looking at my mother’s hand—she doesn’t have a left pinkie due to an accident years ago—and I shoot him a glare.
Once we’re past the Twin Cities, where Mom doesn’t stop ever, I ask her where we’re going.
“I’m thinking Wisconsin,” she says. “I think that’s far enough.”
“Okay,” I say.
“Not Riley, though. Was the town called Riley?”
“That’s right. The place with the mean girls who wore plaid.”
“You remember that?”
“Yeah. Because I remember thinking, what the hell kind of teenagers think the coolest possible outfit is plaid? What a weird fad.”
“It had to be the correct plaid,” I say.
“Right. Royal Stewart, which is like the plaidest plaid in the universe of plaids, that one was nerdy. I’m so glad we didn’t stay.”
“Maybe everyone outgrew the plaid thing,” I say. “It was seventh grade.”
“What was the deal at your next school?”
The town after Rewey was in Nebraska. “We didn’t stay long enough that I even figured it out,” I say.
She’s silent for a little while.
“Can we stay in Wisconsin long enough that I can finish my semester?” I ask. “It’s going to be really hard to graduate from high school if we keep leaving.”
She sighs heavily. “We’ll see,” she says, which is basically no for cowards.
“Do you have a work project coming or anything?” Sometimes a big project will hit and she’ll get a lot more reluctant to go anywhere until she’s done. Mom does freelance computer programming involving computer security.
“Yeah. Your aunt Sochie called last week with some work. She’ll have details soon.”
Aunt Sochie isn’t really my aunt, and I’ve never actually met her. If I have any real extended family, Mom keeps them stored down the memory hole along with 99 percent of our lives before we started running from my father. Aunt Sochie is a computer programmer and a friend of my mother who periodically hires her.
Once we’re over the state line and into Wisconsin, Mom relaxes a bit. We get off the highway in a town called Osseo, and Mom unfolds an actual paper road map she picked up at a gas station and runs her finger along the two-lane highway we’re going to be following from here.
“Can we get something to eat?” I ask.
“Next town,” she promises.
Twenty more minutes gets us to a “restaurant and saloon” in a tiny town not quite far enough from the interstate to look for an apartment. I check the menu for an all-day breakfast and don’t find one. They do have Wi-Fi, though. While my mother is in the bathroom, I open my laptop and check CatNet quickly. “Moving again,” I tell Firestar, and I send the message before Mom gets back.
We’re past the lunch rush, and it’s not really time for dinner yet, so the waitress doesn’t have a lot to do, and when she comes over to refill our waters, Mom asks her if she knows of anyone renting out a house or a basement or anything like that in Fairwood, New Coburg, or any of the other towns around here.
“What brings you in?” the waitress asks. “Work?”
Mom does the thing she does with landladies—the significant look followed by, “I’m looking for somewhere to start over.”
The waitress nods slowly and then writes down an address on a napkin. “This is right on the edge of New Coburg,” she says. “If you get to the river, you’ve gone too far. This lady rents out the upstairs of her house.”
Sometimes that’s the end of the conversation, but sometimes the waitress stops back to chat. To ask if Mom’s doing okay, if she needs anything else (and she doesn’t mean a refill of coffee), to tell her own story, in brief. I always listen without interrupting because sometimes Mom fills in some detail I don’t already know. This time, as she folds the napkin and tucks it into her wallet, she tells the waitress, “In retrospect, his ambition to become an actual global dictator definitely should have been a red flag.”
They’re joking around a little, so it’s hard to know if she’s serious. Like always, Mom tips generously when we leave.
* * *
There’s a laminated fifteen-year-old newspaper article in the glove box of the car, which Mom keeps in case she gets pulled over and needs a good explanation for why she maybe doesn’t have an actual up-to-date driver’s license with anything like a current address on it. The article is from the Los Angeles Times and says, SAN JOSE MAN PLEADS GUILTY IN STALKING CASE. There’s stuff about the fire that uses the phrase alleged arson and also no conclusive evidence and Taylor’s wife and child barely escaped the flames and the body of the family cat was found in the rubble.
And an image of a text message saying You’re never going to stop being sorry for betraying me.
“These text messages were more passionate than threatening and should not be read literally,” according to my father’s lawyer.
As part of his plea agreement, my father agreed not to seek shared custody or visitation with me after his release. He was sentenced to two years in prison.
Nothing about wanting to be a global dictator, but still, I get why my mother finds him scary. I find him scary. I guess what I don’t understand is why staying in one place and talking to the police isn’t an option.
* * *
Our new apartment is the upstairs of a two-story house with a sagging front porch and a gravel driveway. It’s got grimy white paint in every room and a floor that squeaks when we walk around, but it’s furnished, which means I won’t have to sleep on a pile of my clothes on the floor, and it has two bedrooms, which means I get my own.
I heave the laundry sack full of bedding onto my bed and the laundry sack full of my clothes onto the floor (half of them are dirty; I’ll have to sort it out later, but at least nothing reeks of sour milk), and I plug in my laptop and turn it on. The battery died sometime after I turned it on at lunch, so it takes a while to start up again, and I go ahead and put the sheets and blankets on my bed. Then I pull up CatNet.
My profile says Name: Steph. Age: sixteen. Location: a small town somewhere in the Midwest, probably. Even on CatNet, I don’t give out my location. Animal pictures are the currency of CatNet, and I don’t have any right now, so I take a picture of Stellaluna—my stuffed bat—in my new bedroom. It’s a way of saying, “Soon, I promise.” I
Clowders are one of the neat things about CatNet. Clowder means a group of cats. CatNet has chat rooms, of course, but once you’ve been using CatNet for a while, the moderators assign you to a customized group chat comprised of people they think you’ll like. I’d been using CatNet for about two months when they put me in this one. My Clowder has sixteen people, but four of them don’t come online much.
“LBBBBBB!!!!!” someone writes as I come in. My name on the site is LittleBrownBat, but all my friends shorten it to LBB. Or LBBBBBB if they’re feeling enthusiastic. I tried using BatGirl as my online alias, but people kept assuming I was into Batman comic books.
“How do you like your new house?” Firestar asks. “Do you know if school’s started in your new town? My school starts tomorrow, and I hate eleventh grade already.”
I’ve never actually met Firestar in person. I met them on CatNet, and they’re probably my best friend there. We both like creatures that other people think are creepy—I like bats, and Firestar likes spiders. We both lead kind of weird lives with weird parents, and we are both total misfits at every school. I wish I could meet Firestar, but they live in Winthrop, Massachusetts. According to my mother, there isn’t anything anywhere near Boston that has affordable rent.
“Don’t hate eleventh grade without giving it a chance!” Hermione says. “You wouldn’t like it if eleventh grade hated you without giving YOU a chance.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Hermy. Eleventh grade definitely hates me. Anyway, LBB, I took you a picture, and you should check it out.”
I look at Firestar’s new pictures. There’s a picture of a bat! An actual fruit bat. Firestar is nowhere near Australia, but there are fruit bats at the zoo in Boston.
“Awesome, Firestar, thank you.” I’ll have to check the porch for orb-weaving spiders in the morning and see if I can return the gift.
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