MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
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 weren’t something I’d ever felt like I needed in any other town—but while I was there, another outcast girl got a pair of plaid leggings that had green stripes as part of the plaid, and those were just completely unacceptable. For reasons.
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.”
Copyright © 2019 by Naomi Kritzer