How much does the internet know about you? Naomi Kritzer’s Catfishing on Catnet is thought-provoking near future YA thriller that explores issues of online privacy, artificial intelligence, and the power and perils of social networks. The novel is available November 19th from Tor Teen, but you can read an excerpt now below!
Because her mom is always on the move, Steph hasn’t lived anyplace longer than six months. Her only constant is an online community called CatNet—a social media site where users upload cat pictures—a place she knows she is welcome. What Steph doesn’t know is that the admin of the site, CheshireCat, is a sentient A.I.
When a threat from Steph’s past catches up to her and ChesireCat’s existence is discovered by outsiders, it’s up to Steph and her friends, both online and IRL, to save her.
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 of, I still know where you are; I’m just too polite to point it out to you. If your phone is of 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 of 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 of 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 of 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 of 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.”
“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 of 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 upload it, then open my Clowder.
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 Bat-Girl 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.
“What are you worried about in eleventh grade, Firestar?” That’s not Hermione, but CheshireCat. “Tell us and maybe we can help.”
“There isn’t anything you people can help with except math, like last year.”
“Math is overrated,” Boom Storm says. “Possibly mythological.”
“How about you, LBB?” CheshireCat asks. “Are you worried about starting at a new school?”
“I’m used to it,” I lie. “It’s no big deal anymore.”
In the morning, Mom yells at me to get up, that I’m going to be late for school, even though I don’t see how I can be late for something I’m not actually enrolled in yet. I get dressed, then dig out my file folder of transcripts. I have four. I have been enrolled at six—no, seven—different high schools, but I wasn’t at three of them for long enough to get a transcript.
New Coburg High School is in a low building surrounded by parking lots and cornfields. Mom parks our van in the far end of the parking lot rather than hunting for visitor parking. It’s a hot, sunny day, and the breeze throws dust and the smell of asphalt in our faces.
Mom doesn’t like talking to people, but there was this one time she tried just dropping me of by myself at the high school and it didn’t go very well, so now she always comes in with me. We open the front doors of the school and are met with a rush of air-conditioning and the faint smell of the wax they probably used to shine up the floors over the summer. There’s a trophy case in the front hallway that’s half-covered by a big banner saying welcome back wranglers. It takes me a minute to find the sign saying office, with an arrow, but I spot it before my mother does.
“This will be fine,” Mom says, and I’m not sure if she’s talking to me or herself.
The time she dropped me of without her was my second high school in ninth grade, the one in Kansas. There were basically two problems that intersected. The first was that Mom wasn’t with me, which got their attention in a way that was not helpful because it was weird. The second: we’d rented a house next to a vacant lot. What the landlady didn’t tell us was that the vacant lot had had a house that was used as a meth lab. Everyone in the town knew about the meth house, and the fact that I was right next door to it—and didn’t have a parent with me—made the school secretary so concerned she literally called the police.
That was one of the high schools I don’t have a transcript from. After showing up to try to reassure everyone she wasn’t up to anything dodgy, Mom loaded the van back up, and I finished ninth grade in Missouri.
Anyway, looking around the office in New Coburg, no one here looks like they’d care enough to call the cops on us, so that’s good. There’s a secretary and a touch screen for signing people in and out and a robot with a tray of sharpened pencils. Thief River Falls got that same “Utility Robots for Rural Schools” grant, but the robot broke and there wasn’t money to fix it, so all it ever did was sharpen pencils; it didn’t cart them around to classrooms.
The guidance counselor is a woman whose hair is dyed blond but growing out gray at the roots. When the secretary tells her there’s a new student here to enroll, she lets out a heavy sigh and says, “You’d better come into my office.”
In her office, I find out that she doesn’t want to let me take calculus because I wasn’t here for the placement exam and how does she know whether the pre-calculus class in Thief River Falls was any good, and also I’m only in eleventh grade and calculus is for twelfth graders. There’s also no Spanish class here—the high school only has German—and they do American literature in eleventh grade, which means I’ll be reading almost the same books I read last year at my last two high schools, both of which had American lit in tenth grade. I read The Scarlet Letter twice last year.
She flips through my stack of transcripts with obvious irritation. “Why is your name misspelled in half of these?” she asks. I shrug. So does my mother.
By the start of third hour, I’m registered for calculus despite the guidance counselor’s reluctance, the usual stuff like English and history, an animal science class, and something called Global Arts and Crafts, which sounds like the sort of class where most of my classmates will be showing up high. I was hoping that maybe they’d have a photography class, but no.
Animal science is mostly a class about dairy farming, but it’s only one semester, so I’ll have half of a credit of a science under my belt when my mother moves me again, assuming we stay here through the semester, which may be a big assumption.
The office secretary makes me a student ID card and sets me up with a lunch account, which my mother funds with $11.42 in mixed change that she empties out of her purse.
“Good luck,” she says, smooths down my hair (which is apparently sticking up funny, or at least Mom thinks so), and leaves.
The secretary gives me a printout of my schedule. “Would you like a student to show you around?” she asks.
“Your rooms have numbers on them, right?” I say. “I’m sure I’ll figure it out.”
The secretary gives me a wide smile. She’s wearing a very red shade of lipstick. “The kids here are very nice,” she says.
Almost every school I’ve gone to, someone’s told me that the kids there are very nice. Admittedly, the one time they didn’t, the kids were really awful. It doesn’t mean much when the office secretary says people are nice, though.
Anyway, it doesn’t matter. No one ever writes to me after I move away, and there’s no reason to assume that Mom won’t move me to Michigan the week after next. The only friends I ever get to keep are the people on CatNet.
The first class I get to is a tele-learning math class, in which we watch a teacher on a screen explain calculus to us. The teacher can see all our classes and call on us, but they’re based somewhere else and apparently teaching four remote classrooms. This is how they taught Spanish in one of my previous school districts. Because of some law about supervision, there’s also a classroom monitor sitting in the classroom with us who has nothing better to do than yell at anyone who takes out their phone. She’s ignoring other goofing-of sorts of behavior, though, including the girl next to me who’s drawing instead of taking notes.
The girl starts out graphing the function the teacher is talking about, but then she extends the lines and starts turning the functions into a castle. It’s a pretty elaborate castle, but as I watch her draw, I realize that she’s actually still taking notes. All the notes are incorporated into the castle somehow.
She looks up and notices that I’m staring at her drawing. I immediately feel self-conscious and worried she’ll be mad, but she looks thoroughly pleased with herself and adds a princess standing at the top of the wall with a bird on her shoulder.
The artist girl has long brown hair that spills down against her desk, half hiding her face as she works, and some elaborate nail art, black varnish with pictures of the planets on them. I wonder if she does her own nail art or if she has a friend who does it for her. I have trouble even just painting the nails on my right hand, my left hand is so clumsy.
Art Girl is in my English class, as well, where we all get paperback copies of The Scarlet Letter. The good thing about reading The Scarlet Letter is that I saved all the essays I wrote for my other two English classes and probably I can just recycle them and no one will notice. The bad thing: I didn’t like The Scarlet Letter the first time, I really loathed it the second time, and I’m not expecting the third time to be the charm.
The teacher, Ms. Campbell, is grouchy and boring. As she starts lecturing about Puritanism, the girl draws an enormous cursive-style capital L and starts decorating it. I wonder if this stands for her name, but as we are gathering up our books for the next class, I hear someone call her “Rachel,” so no, that’s not it.
At lunchtime, the school secretary turns up at the door of my classroom to summon me back to the office; my mother failed to fill out some stack of forms, which she insists on explaining to me so that I can have her sign them tonight. By the time she’s done explaining, I don’t have time to get anything to eat.
Next is health class. I had a health class back when I was in ninth grade, but for some reason, that state lists health classes as gym classes, and that’s how it’s on my transcript, so they’re making me take health class again, which is at least as bad as a third go with The Scarlet Letter. I’m surprised to find Rachel in that class, too. It doesn’t look like it’s a ninth-grade class here, though. They’re most of the way through a unit on the importance of exercise. The sex ed unit is next, and I hear a bunch of jokes about it being taught by the robo teacher, which I realize toward the end of class is not actually a joke. They have a robot that does the sex ed unit.
My final class of the day is Global Arts and Crafts. By now, I’m not surprised to find Rachel.
The teacher hands out paper and charcoal sticks and tells us to draw whatever we want. I want to draw a picture of a fruit bat hanging from a tree, its wings folded around it, and its pointy little puppy face. I don’t have a photo to work from, and my picture looks approximately like a banana with a cat head on the end. I grimace and look to see what Rachel is drawing now.
She’s drawing me. Her picture has me scowling at my paper. “Hey,” I say.
She looks up. The smile is gone, and her eyes are open a little extra wide. “What?”
I don’t know what to say. I feel weirdly self-conscious about this picture. One of my mother’s really strict rules is no photography of me, ever. I have a digital camera because I fought and begged and promised to never, ever, ever take a selfie. I’m supposed to leave or cover my face or turn away if a camera comes out, because an online picture of me could lead my scary-ass father straight to us.
This is a drawing, but it really does look an awful lot like me. “That’s a really good picture,” I say finally.
Her smile returns slowly, blossoming into a grin. “Thanks,” she says. “You want it?”
“Aren’t we going to have to turn them in?”
“Oh, maybe. I’ll just draw something else to turn in.”
I put the sheet of paper in the folder with my transcripts. She starts on a new drawing. I put down my charcoal to watch her work.
“What are you drawing?” she asks, not looking up.
“I was trying to draw a bat, but it didn’t come out right.”
I watch the lines on her paper come together and turn into the teacher—rough strokes forming face, posture, attitude.
“That’s amazing,” I say.
“You’re new, aren’t you?” she says. “Yeah. My name is Steph.”
“I’m Rachel. You should finish up something to turn in; he won’t grade you down as long as you’ve drawn something.”
“I need a picture to work from,” I say.
She slides her phone across the table. I glanced over at the teacher, since I’ve seen some kids at this school get yelled at for having the phone out, but he doesn’t look like he cares. I pull up a picture of a fruit bat. My second attempt is still deeply unsatisfying, but at least it looks basically like a bat. I love my camera; I love the way photography captures every detail. Rachel’s picture, and the details she puts in—the teacher’s slumping shoulders, the way he puts his hand in one pocket—make me think about what drawings do better.
As I’m packing up to go home, I slide out the picture Rachel drew of me. I’m staring down at my paper; my forehead is furrowed, my shoulders hunched in. In just a handful of spare charcoal lines, Rachel made me look tense and worried. It’s unnerving seeing myself through Rachel’s eyes—it’s unnerving how much about me she saw. Looking at the picture makes my palms sweat.
I want her to draw me again. Maybe sometime when I’m less stressed out.
I slide the drawing carefully back into a notebook so it’s protected.
Mom isn’t working when I get home; she’s wrapped up in a quilt in the living room, watching out the window.
“Hi, Mom,” I say.
She looks up, not smiling. “How was your day?”
“The school here really sucks.” What I really want is for her to pull up stakes again, move again, before I’ve found anything I like. Because surely the next town will have a better school, or at least one that has Spanish 3 and calculus with an actual teacher. Mom doesn’t say anything, though; she just looks back out the window. I turn on the stove and put on a pan of water. “I’m going to make myself hot chocolate, okay? Do you want some?”
She shakes her head.
I hate it when she gets like this. For one thing, it’s frustrating because it’s so obvious that something’s wrong, but she won’t tell me what. Maybe it’s just the same thing that’s always wrong (i.e., my father). But she won’t ever tell me. A few times I’ve gotten so frustrated I’ve yelled at her, but she doesn’t yell back, just withdraws further, and that feels even worse than the frustration.
At least it looks like she went shopping after dropping me at school, because there’s food in the fridge. When she still hasn’t moved by 5:30 p.m., I pull out eggs and the big bag of grated cheddar cheese and a green bell pepper and make us both omelets. I like omelets better with sautéed onions, but I hate cutting up onions, so I leave those out.
She rouses herself a little when I put food on the table and comes over to eat it.
“How’s work?” I ask, since that’s generally a pretty safe topic.
“No word from Sochie yet,” she says and falls silent again.
Since she’s in a bad mood, anyway, I figure there’s no reason not to ask. “I’ve been thinking about what you said to the waitress, about red flags. Did my father really want to become a global dictator?”
She looks up, chewing. Swallows. “Yes,” she says.
“For real? Was he serious?”
“He wanted control. Starting with us but ending with everything. I thought it was a joke at first. He’d say things like, ‘You know I couldn’t possibly be worse at running things than the people doing it now,’ or he’d say, ‘I’m going to save the world, you know, but it has to be mine first,’ and he’d laugh, so I assumed he was joking, but he wasn’t.”
“How did you realize that wasn’t a joke?”
There’s a long pause as my mother chews, and then drinks some water, and then takes another bite of omelet, and I think maybe she’s going to answer me, but eventually I realize that she’s not going to answer. When we’re done, I wash the dishes while she stares at the wall some more.
When I was younger, Mom went through all sorts of stories about why we moved so much. First, she pretended moving was fun. For a while, she insisted that a fresh start was a good idea if you’d gotten in trouble, and we moved every time I got in trouble. When you’re little, you don’t always know just how abnormal something is.
At some point in middle school, I realized that something was really wrong. And the summer before high school, Mom sat me down to tell me about my father. We were living in Arkansas at the time, in an apartment where the air conditioner had broken, which was pretty horrible. The windows were open, and I was damp with sweat. I remember that my legs were sticking to my chair as Mom laid the laminated clipping down in front of me and told me about my father.
Afterward, I remember thinking that now, finally, my life would make sense. I thought Mom would answer my questions and I would know what was going on. But Mom still doesn’t answer my questions, and my life still doesn’t make sense, and I still don’t know what’s going on.
It feels like there’s a wall between us made of all the things she won’t talk about.
I go to my room and look at some pictures I took: a squirrel, a bird that’s blurry because it took of flying while I was still trying to focus, the dog that belonged to our next-door neighbor in Thief River Falls. I liked that dog. The neighbor had me give him some treats when we first moved in so he’d know I was a friend, and after that, the dog always acted like we were best buddies. Most of my pictures of the dog are blurry because he never held still, but this one’s pretty sharp except for his tail. I decide not to upload the picture. Looking at the dog makes me sad.
I wonder if Rachel would like CatNet. Would the admins let her count animal drawings as animal pictures? She draws really well. I open up the site and look to see which of the assistant administrators is online. Alice, the teenage girl admin, has a little green light by her name. “Hey, Alice, do you have a minute?” I type.
“Yes, I do, LBB,” she says. “What can I help you with?”
“I was wondering if I could have an invite for a friend.”
“Is this someone you know in person or online? What’s her name?”
“Her name is Rachel, and she’s in my art class at school. She draws really cool pictures. That was my other question—could she upload her drawings instead of photos of animals? Would that be okay?”
“It would depend on how good the drawings were,” Alice says. “How well do you know her?”
“Not all that well.” Not well at all, actually. “I’d like to get to know her better.”
“I tell you what—find out her last name and her email address, and I’ll see about sending her an invite.”
I feel a flush of uncertainty. I like Rachel. I want her to be on CatNet so I can stay friends with her after I move. But what if Rachel takes one look at CatNet and decides I’m a loser? It doesn’t matter, I tell myself. We’re leaving either way. Sooner or later.
“Okay,” I type.
“How’s the new town?” Alice asks.
“I guess I’d sum it up with, ‘They’re going to have a robot teach us sex ed because they don’t trust the human teachers not to go of-script.’ Rachel seems cool, though.”
“Good luck,” Alice says. “Talk to you again soon.”
Excerpted from Catfishing on Catnet, copyright © 2019 by Naomi Kritzer.