Today brings us Mr. Kitty’s second chapter, marking the halfway point of the novel. I hope you’ve all enjoyed it so far and continue to join us in the future as we reach the conclusion of The Asymptote’s Tail. And remember, if you don’t want to wait the ten weeks that’ll still take, you can order a full copy of the novel (in paperback or eBook format) on Amazon through this link.
Enjoy, and happy Saturday.
< X. Russ [Table of Contents] XII. Ellie >
XI. Mr. Kitty
He was dreaming about a fat, juicy pigeon. The kind that was stupid enough not to fly away as long as he moved in short bursts, stopping for a moment in between. Humans the pigeons understood. It was easy to tell when a human came barreling down the sidewalk toward you, all eyes on their destination, no thought to spare for the stupid birds flapping about. But Mr. Kitty would slink a little closer and stop, slink a little closer and stop, each time going a different distance or speed, or stopping in between for a different amount of time. It was that erraticism, that randomness, which kept the pigeons unsure of how long they had to scrape for food before it was time to fly away or be torn to bits and eaten alive. He was shaking his tail, gathering his haunches, about to pounce on a particularly plump pigeon when the sound of Tillie rushing into the spare room and slamming the door behind her woke him from his nap with a jump.
Tillie didn’t even notice him. She threw her purse on the chair and plopped down onto the bed. Mr. Kitty walked over to knead her lap, but as he put his first paw on her, she flung him off, locked the bedroom door, then sat back on the bed with her head in her hands, sobbing.
“What’s wrong?” Mr. Kitty meowed.
“Un. Seen. Hand,” Tillie said. “Unseen Hand, Unseen Hand, Unseen Haaaaand,” she moaned. “I can’t believe I did that. What did I just do? Why would I just do what that woman told me to do? I don’t even know her. Unseen Hand, Unseen Hand, Unseen Haaand.”
“Tell me,” Mr. Kitty meowed, jumping onto her lap. “Maybe I can help.”
“Oh. Mr. Kitty, I’m sorry,” she said, petting his head and starting to cry again. “I didn’t mean to take it out on you. It’s just not fair.”
Mr. Kitty purred.
“I mean, what am I supposed to do about it?” Tillie complained. “Who am I? You saw what they did to Russ when he almost outed them, and he’s a huge star. Imagine what they’d do to me if they ever found out what I did. What did I do? Unseen Hand, what did I do?”
Mr. Kitty tried to roll over on his back in her lap and show her his belly to make her feel better, but the phone rang, and she jumped up to grab it out of her purse, pushing him down onto the floor. She stared wide-eyed at the screen, then sighed in relief and answered it.
“Shelley,” she said. “Unseen Hand. You’re never gonna believe this. I have to—You have to come see me right now.”
“No, Shelley. No.”
“Because I can’t leave my house right now. That’s why.”
“No, look. No. I’m not—No. It’s not a prank.”
“I can’t tell you over the phone or I would have told you already.”
“Yes! The Hand. Just come over already.”
“Good. I’ll see you soon.”
Tillie hung up the phone, sat back down, and scooped Mr. Kitty up. “Ugh. I’m sorry again Kitty. I suck. I’m just—I’m a little on edge right now, you know. I—Well…I did something kind of stupid and reckless, and I might be in danger because of it. But what am I talking about? You wouldn’t let anyone hurt me. Would you, Mister Kitty?”
Mr. Kitty purred in response.
“No,” she said in her baby voice. “I know you wouldn’t. You sweet wittle fing you.” The doorbell rang. Tillie stood up, pushing Mr. Kitty onto the floor for the third time, and crept over to the bedroom door. She turned the deadbolt as quietly as she could and cracked the door to peek through with one eye.
“Tiiilllliie! Doorbell!” her dad called from the living room.
She didn’t answer. Mr. Kitty tried to push his way through her legs, but she scooted him back with her foot, so he sat on the floor behind her and licked himself.
“Tillie, honey!” her dad called. “Can you get that? I’m in the middle of a game!”
The doorbell rang again.
“I’m in the bathroom, dad!” Tillie called back. “It’ll be a minute! Can’t you?”
With one more ring and a groan, her dad called, “Alright!” then walked slowly backwards out of the living room, trying not to miss any bit of the game. When he had gotten far enough into the hall that he couldn’t see the TV anymore, he turned to the door straight away and opened it.
Mr. Kitty could tell that Tillie was holding her breath, even from his view sitting under her feet. She only let go of it when her dad stepped aside to let Shelley in. Then she opened the bedroom door and went right out to them. “Thanks, dad,” she said. “Sorry. Had to wash my hands, you know.”
“Of course, darling,” her dad said, getting back to his game in the living room. “You and your friend feel free to order anything from the printer,” he said with a wave, not looking at them.
“Oooh, I think I’ll have—” Shelley started, but Tillie grabbed her arm and dragged her back into the room where Mr. Kitty was waiting. She tossed Shelley on the bed, then closed and locked the door behind them.
“Dang, girl!” Shelley said, sitting up. “You do not want to get physical with me. Don’t make me remind you how you know.”
“Okay,” Tillie said. “Okay okay. I’m sorry, Shelley. I’m sorry.”
“That’s right you are,” Shelley said, shaking her head. “Here you are sittin pretty with your in-house printer, and your dad offers me one thing and…what? You drag me into the spare room, lock the door, and fling me on the bed. Girl, are you crazy? I mean, do you know what a 3D printer does? Do you know what he was offering me? Of course you do. What am I talking about? You have one you can use any time.”
“Yeah, Shelley,” Tillie said. “I do know how a printer works. That’s the entire reason I asked you to come here in the first place. Do you know how a printer works?”
“Uh, yeah.” Shelley scoffed. “Of course I do. You tell it what you want and it gives it to you. Everyone knows that.”
“But where does it come from, Shelley?” Tillie said with a sigh. “I’m not asking if you know how to operate a printer. A baby could operate a printer. I’m asking if you know how they work.”
Mr. Kitty jumped up onto Shelley’s lap. He rubbed his head on her arm and meowed to say that it was okay for her to admit that she didn’t know.
“I don’t—” She pet Mr. Kitty on the head. “You’re not making any sense, Tillie.”
“It’s simple,” Tillie said. “Where do the things that the printer gives you come from?”
“They come from the printer,” Shelley said with a shrug. “Where else?”
“The printer just makes them out of thin air?”
“No,” Shelley said. “I—It rearranges the atoms or something. I don’t know. That’s elementary school science, Tillie. How am I supposed to remember?”
“Right,” Tillie said. “Okay. So that’s what the school system teaches us, right. That the printers rearrange atoms. But if that were the case, then why would we need assembly line workers?”
“But we don’t have assembly line workers,” Shelley said with a smile. She thought she had gotten Tillie with that one. “We have robots.”
“Then why do we have the robots?” Tillie said, standing up and getting close to Shelley, towering over her. Shelley was leaning so far back on the bed to get away from her that Mr. Kitty was sitting on her stomach instead of her lap.
Shelley guided him off so she could scootch around Tillie and stand up herself. “I don’t know, Tillie,” she said. “But if you only invited me over here to yell at me and demean me, then I might as well leave.”
She made for the door, but Tillie stopped her. “No,” she said. “Don’t go. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—I’m just really stressed right now.” She sat down on the bed with a bounce, and Mr. Kitty jumped onto her lap to purr.
“I can see that, girl,” Shelley said, sitting beside them and patting Tillie’s back. “Tell Sister Shelley what’s bothering you. She’ll make it all better.”
“I—I don’t know if you can,” Tillie said. Moisture welled up behind her eyes, and Mr. Kitty purred louder.
“Oh, I know I can, honey,” Shelley said, snapping her fingers. “Just tellin me’ll make you feel better. I guarantee it.”
Tillie chuckled and smiled. “Like the commercial.”
“Who say, I say, I say, let em have it…with nooo problem. I guar—un—tee!” they sang in unison then laughed together.
“Shelley,” Tillie said when they were over their laughter. “I did something stupid.”
“Well, who hasn’t, girl?” Shelley said. “Spit it out.”
“No, Shelley,” Tillie said, looking at her lap. “I mean, this—this was really stupid. And dangerous.”
Shelley smiled. “What’d you do, girl? Got a little wasted at the bar? Did you cut in line at the elevator?” She lowered her voice as if someone was listening. “Did you have unprotected sex?”
Tillie scoffed and pushed her away. “No. Ugh. No! Nothing that bad. Except. Maybe it was worse.” She kind of half-grinned and half-frowned. “I don’t know, Shelley. I shouldn’t have brought it up. You’re never going to believe me if I tell you anyway.”
Shelley shook her head. “No, girl. Uh uh. C’mon now. We’re sisters for life. Every secret safe and every word spoken true. You know the deal, sweetheart. We pinky promised, and swapped spit, and pricked our fingers to mix blood. There’s no breaking those vows. So tell me what you have to say and I’ll trust it entirely, and keep it secret until my grave.”
“You can’t tell anyone,” Tillie said. “I mean no one.”
“Cross my heart,” Shelley said, crossing her heart. “You know I won’t. Have I told anyone about—”
“Alright,” Tillie said, stopping her from bringing up any of a number of embarrassing stories. “Alright alright. I believe you. But I may be putting you in danger by telling you.”
“Shoot, girl. Ain’t no one gonna know but your cat here, and he won’t put me in any danger. Will he? Will you?” She squeezed his cheek.
“No,” Mr. Kitty meowed.
“Yeah. I guess you’re right,” Tillie said. She took a deep breath to gather herself. “Well I—It all started when I saw that episode of Logo’s Show. Did you see it?”
“Girl, you know I watch every episode,” Shelley said. “Which one you talkin about?”
“I’m talking about the most recent episode, the show that was cut short.”
“Awww shoot. Yeah, girl. What was that? They played some rerun from last Christmas instead. As if I wanted to see Christmas reruns. That’s what the Christmas Rerun Marathon is for.”
“Right,” Tillie said. “But didn’t you wonder why they cut it short?”
“Well, he couldn’t finish the show, girl.” Shelley scoffed. “Obviously.”
“But why couldn’t he?” Tillie said, losing control again. “This is just like the 3D printer discussion!”
“I don’t know, girl!” Shelley said, standing again. “Why?”
Tillie took a few deep breaths and patted Mr. Kitty on the head. “I’m sorry. But if you had seen what I saw…Shelley. You know the assembly lines.”
“The robot assembly lines?”
“No, Shelley. Yes. But no. I’m saying—I’m saying printers don’t rearrange matter and the assembly lines aren’t worked by robots.”
“Pfft.” Shelley scoffed. “Sure, girl,” she said, nudging Tillie and laughing. “Then where does everything come from?”
“From people, Shelley. Human beings work on the assembly lines. They make everything we order from the printers.”
Shelley laughed. She shook her head. “I don’t know, girl. That sounds ridiculous. How could humans make things instantly when we order them?”
Tillie frowned. “They don’t make it when we order it. They make huge supplies of everything so it’s ready before we order it. Anyway, I thought you said you’d believe me.”
“Ooooh, girl.” Shelley shook her head. “I did say that, but I wasn’t expecting this. I mean, you’re telling me that everything I’ve ever been taught is wrong. How am I supposed to believe that?”
“You said you would. And I’m telling the truth. I met with one of the workers, Shelley. I’ve talked to them. They’re real.”
“What are you talking about?” Shelley said, waving her arms and shaking her head. She seemed to be getting as frustrated with the conversation as Tillie was. “How?”
“I don’t know. I saw this photo on my dad’s computer, then I started looking into it, and before I knew it, I was taking the elevator to the library, and I ended up at some woman’s house instead.”
“A woman’s house?” Shelley said, raising an eyebrow.
“I don’t know, Shelley,” Tillie said with a sigh. “She told me how to meet with one of them, and I followed her directions, and I saw him. He told me that they work every day for twelve hours, and they get just enough money to make it to the next week, and they have no choice but to work from the time they’re old enough to hold a broom or they’ll starve. He said they made everything we get out of our printers, and they teleport it to us when we order it. Shelley, they do all that so we can have what we have.”
Shelley shook her head and made for the door. Mr. Kitty jumped out of Tillie’s lap and onto the ground, searching for an escape. “No,” Shelley said. “I don’t believe it. Why are you telling me all this? If you didn’t want me to use your printer you should have just said so. But this? This is ridiculous.”
“No, Shelley,” Tillie said. “Why would I care about that? I need help. We have to stop this.”
“Stop it? Ha! Stop what? You’re delirious. I’m out of here. Get back to me when you’re feeling better.”
“No, Shelley. Stop!”
Shelley left the room and Mr. Kitty followed her. Tillie hurried out to stop her before she got through the front door. “Shelley!” she called. “Shelley, wait!”
Shelley stopped, sighed, and turned around. Mr. Kitty didn’t stop, though. He was tired of listening to them. He’d figure out what Tillie meant to do about it later. For now he had to get out of the house. He had been caged up like a human for too long and he needed to stretch his legs a bit.
The house had a big yard, and it was only a short walk from there to the public elevator system. Mr. Kitty took his time slinking through the garden along the yard’s metal fence, rubbing his face on every hard stick he passed, smelling every other plant, even taking a bite or two out of a few pieces of grass—important for his digestion. He was so lost in the smells and colors that the sound of Shelley’s feet coming down the walkway toward him made him jump. She went one way down the sidewalk, toward the elevator entrance, and he went the other, toward his favorite tree to climb.
He stopped at the base of the tree to sharpen his claws on its roots. He loved the sound it made when his claws sank into the wood, and the feeling as they caught in the meat of the root which could only give way under the brute force of his animal strength. He gathered his haunches and zipped up to the first fat branch overlooking the neighborhood. None of the houses looked like they belonged next to each other with their extreme shifts in architecture and landscaping, but one thing they all had in common was that they were all huge and all set on a lot of land. Mr. Kitty pitied them down there, trapped in their houses, stuck in their web of sidewalks. They had access to more knowledge than most humans Mr. Kitty knew, but somehow they understood the least about the world.
A sound of talking from above caught his attention. He recognized the voices. Those two kids were closer to freedom than anyone in the houses below him—except for maybe Tillie, who was making strides. He really liked those kids, too. They didn’t give up. They deserved a little reward for their perseverance, and he was in the position to give just that to them. He climbed up to the branch he was looking for and jumped into the air, gliding out where it looked like there was nothing to land on. He ended up landing on Pidgeon’s lap.
“The cat!” the other kid said, standing on the branch.
“Mr. Kitty!” Pidgeon said. “Where’d you come from?”
“Where’d it come from?” the other kid said.
“Settle down,” Pidgeon said. “He’s not going anywhere. Look at him.”
Mr. Kitty kneaded Pidgeon’s lap and purred. The other kid sat down, holding out a hand for Mr. Kitty to sniff, it smelled a bit like rat, a not altogether undelicious smell.
“I’m Ansel,” the kid said. “Where’d you come from?”
“Through the hole,” Mr. Kitty meowed.
“He’s trying to tell you,” Pidgeon said.
“Yeah, right,” Ansel said.
“Here, I’ll show you,” Mr. Kitty said. He jumped off Pidgeon’s lap and hopped from limb to limb down the tree.
“Follow him!” they yelled together.
Mr. Kitty heard the sound of leaves rustling and branches breaking as they chased down after him. He hoped they hadn’t broken his landing pad in their descent—he would hate to find that out the next time he decided to come through that way. He stopped for a second on the soft grass to give them a chance to catch up, licking his feet to taste the difference in the soil, and when the sound of them chasing after him was close enough, he bound down the green strip towards a hole that could send them where they wanted to go—if they were willing to follow him.
The hole was a few blocks away, and Mr. Kitty was much too fast for the little two-legged humans, so he had to treat them like pigeons in reverse. He would run out ahead, then stop to lick himself while they caught up, then run out ahead again, and repeat for the four blocks distance to the alley he was looking for. At the end was the tricky part. He could get into the restaurant easily enough—jumping through the broken window—but they wouldn’t follow him that way. He could wait for someone to open the door so they would be more likely to follow, but the timing on that was a long shot. Then there was the alley side of the hole, and from the looks of it, there was just enough trash for him to get the boost he needed.
He let the kids get a little bit closer, so close they were shouting at each other, then he heard another human voice he didn’t recognize. It was too late to turn and find out who it was, though, because he was already bounding toward the dumpster. He jumped up onto a soggy box that almost gave way under his weight, onto the dumpster lid, then up two more boxes to claw his way into the building itself, giving him the last bit of momentum he needed to make the extra few feet into the hole to fall far and fast onto the carpet on the other side.
He licked the pain out of his feet and listened for the sound of the human children following him. He heard some sounds, but nothing quite like they were climbing up after him. More like they were going the other way. He shook his head in pity. At least they had a new goal to work toward.
Mr. Kitty sniffed the air. It took him a second to remember where this side of the hole let out, usually he used the side that was inside the restaurant. The feeling of the carpet suggested he was where Haley lived, but the smell gave it away. There was a vaguely chemical scent—something synthetic—and the air smelled extra oily. He walked down the hall and pushed his head through a door.
Behind it was an office with a long desk. A huge window that looked out onto a vast wilderness with trees, hills, and animals everywhere made up the far wall of the room. There was no one sitting behind the desk, but Rosalind and Huey were sitting on two puffy chairs in the corner, staring out the window in silence. Mr. Kitty meowed to announce his presence and both looked around with a smile.
“Mr. Kitty,” Huey said. “So nice of you to join us.”
Rosalind stood to get something out of the desk and sat back down. “You want some treats, Mr. Kitty?” she said, pouring a few crunchy, delicious-smelling bits onto a side table. Mr. Kitty jumped up to eat them while Rosalind and Huey took turns patting him.
“Thanks,” Mr. Kitty meowed when he was done eating.
“Of course,” Rosalind said, patting his back a few more times. “Mr. Kitty, would you like a new collar? We need to get a message through, and you’re the only one who can deliver it.”
“Are you gonna give me some of that wet food?” Mr. Kitty meowed.
“Of course we are, Mr. Kitty,” Rosalind said with a smile. “We would have given it to you even if you said no.”
“That’s why I keep coming back,” he meowed.
Rosalind took off his yellow collar and snapped a red one around his neck.
“You know,” Huey said with a smile. “Red is your color, Mr. Kitty. It stands out beautifully against your dark fur. What do you think, Roz?”
“Beautiful,” she said, scooping Mr. Kitty up and kissing him on the head while he tried to squirm away from her. When she set him back on the table, he licked his paws and rubbed the kiss away.
“Awww, Mr. Kitty,” Rosalind said. “Don’t rub it away. You know it means I love you.”
“You know I hate it,” Mr. Kitty meowed.
“Yeah, but you love it, too,” Rosalind said. “One of life’s little contradictions.”
Mr. Kitty continued licking himself. He got started, he might as well get the rest of his coat while he was at it.
“Contradictions,” Huey said, shaking his head. “I’m tired of contradictions. But you will be visiting Outland 4 today, won’t you Mr. Kitty?”
“Outland what?” Mr. Kitty meowed.
“The Scientist, Mr. Kitty,” Rosalind said, patting his head and smiling. “You know. She wears the long white coat. She’d like to see your new collar.”
“Sarcasm,” Mr. Kitty meowed. “But I need the elevator.”
“Of course,” Rosalind said. “Just let me get your wet food first.“
She shuffled through the drawer again, and Mr. Kitty jumped off the table onto the desk to hurry her up. She pulled the tin open and set it down, and he licked all the juices off the top as quickly as he could then meowed that he was ready to go.
“I’ll let him out,” Rosalind said, walking toward the hall he had come in through.
“Thank you, Mr. Kitty,” Huey said, waving.
Mr. Kitty stretched his legs and followed Rosalind out to the elevator at the other end of the carpeted hall. She opened the doors and Mr. Kitty climbed in.
“Alright, Mr. Kitty,” Rosalind said. “She’ll be expecting you. And thanks again.”
The doors closed, and the floor fell out from underneath him. When the elevator stopped falling, the doors opened and Mr. Kitty climbed out into a hall with hard, cold vinyl floors instead of soft carpet. He hated walking on the stuff. No wonder humans wore shoes all the time with the ridiculous concrete and vinyl they put everywhere they were supposed to walk.
He turned through the hall into an office and jumped up onto the desk. No one was sitting there, but he knew she would be back soon. He licked his feet to get the cold, unnatural feeling of the vinyl floor away. There were more computer screens here than there were on Tillie’s dad’s desk, and the numbers seemed somehow more interesting, plus, the Scientist liked to watch TV while she worked, and Mr. Kitty enjoyed a little television himself every now and again. He wanted to see what was going on in the computer world, so he walked across the keyboard to get it going when the Scientist came in, holding a plate with a sandwich on it.
“Mr. Kitty!” she said, setting the plate on the desk next to him. He sniffed it and started eating the meat out of the sandwich. “Finally, Mr. Kitty,” the Scientist said. “Red! Eat all you want. I’ll make you more if you’re here when I’m done.”
“I’m full anyway,” Mr. Kitty meowed.
“Oh. You have no idea, Mr. Kitty,” the Scientist said with a smile. “Sic bo shines down on you. I’ve been waiting for you to come in with that beautiful red collar for you don’t know how long.”
“Thanks,” he meowed. “See ya.”
“Alright, Mr. Kitty,” she said. “I’m gonna get to work.”
Mr. Kitty walked out of the door, and instead of into the hall, he came out into his yard. He looked back, and as the door closed behind him, it disappeared. He walked through the spot in the air where the door had been to make sure it was gone. Satisfied, he turned and bound through the grass to sit at the front door of the house.
“Anyone home?” he meowed as loud as he could. He knew her dad wouldn’t hear him, or care, but he thought Tillie might pick his voice up and prevent him from having to take the long way in. “Helloooo! I’m out here!” he tried one more time, then sat down to lick his feet.
Maybe she wasn’t there. Or maybe she was actually in the bathroom this time. Either way, it didn’t seem like she was coming, so he got up and went around to the back of the house. He climbed up a big oak tree in the backyard to jump up onto the roof. This roof was just a little lower than the previous house’s, so it took him two jumps to get high enough to fly through the hole, out onto the metal grating on the other side. He landed with a clang and looked around with puffed up fur to make sure there was no one there to see him. There wasn’t.
The floor here was even worse than the vinyl. If he wasn’t careful to keep his claws in while he walked, they would catch on the holes in the metal grating and break off when he lifted his foot. Even when he was careful he couldn’t prevent it from happening sometimes. And the stairs he had to climb down were made of the same metal grating. On top of that it, was impossible to stay silent while walking on it. He had to constantly look this way and that to be sure no one heard him.
Finally, at the bottom of six flights, came the worst part of this entrance into his own house. It was a long, skinny strip of metal grating that curved around a wall into a tunnel of darkness with no escape but to go straight back the way he had come, that is if he could react fast enough when he finally saw who was coming. Luckily they couldn’t walk quietly on the metal grating either, so he usually heard them long before he saw them.
He stopped at the bottom of the stairs and sniffed the air. It smelled stale, and oily, and there wasn’t much oxygen. He had to breathe deeply, even from walking down such few flights. He turned this ear then that toward the black tunnel and there was no sound. He slunk his way into the darkness, wishing there was another escape.
He paid extra attention to keeping his claws in, stopping every few steps to be sure no one was coming. He had counted the steps so many times, he knew how close he was by reflex. Thirteen bursts of three steps, eleven bursts of two, and seven bursts of one. Not in that order, but do that number and he’d be there. He was fifteen steps away when he smelled it. It was oil, but it wasn’t oil. He knew that smell, but from where?
He took a few steps closer and heard sobbing. Why would someone be sobbing down here?
A few more steps and he saw the form on the ground, right in front of his exit. It didn’t see him yet, though. Or hear him. Or smell him. He could run up, use it as a jumping platform, and be gone before it had time to realize what had even happened.
He was gathering his haunches to do it when he caught the smell again, and this time he recognized it. It wasn’t oil, it was cooking oil. And there was shampoo and soap mixed in there. That wasn’t someone. It was—
“Tillie!” he meowed.
She jumped up and stopped crying all at once. The sound of it echoed through the empty tunnel. “Mr. Kitty. I—Is that you?” she said, taking the hood off her head.
Mr. Kitty walked up to her and brushed his cheeks on her legs.
“Mr. Kitty!” She perked up. “What are you doing here?”
“What are you doing here?” Mr. Kitty meowed.
“Oh no,” Tillie said, slouching down. “I don’t know how to get out of here, either.” She started to sob again.
“I know the way out,” Mr. Kitty meowed. “It’s right here.”
“I know, Mr. Kitty,” Tillie said, shaking her head. “I’m sorry. I’m so stupid. I never should have gotten involved in this. I don’t know how I got you wrapped up in it with me.”
“Wrapped up in it?” Mr. Kitty struggled to get away and ended up clawing her chest.
“Ow, Mr. Kitty!” she yelled. “Settle dow—Where—”
Mr. Kitty jumped through the hole into Tillie’s dad’s office where he was sitting at the computer, watching numbers change on the screen, paying no attention to the cat who had just appeared in the room behind him. Mr. Kitty turned to see if she would come on her own, but he only heard the faint echo of her calling his name and sobbing. She was confused just like a human.
“Come on!” he meowed.
Tillie’s dad turned and said, “Mr. Kitty. Shut up. How’d you get in here?”
“Tillie!” Mr. Kitty meowed. “Go through the wall. Like platform 9¾.”
“Cat! Shut. Up,” her dad said. “Have you seen Tillie?”
Before he finished his sentence, she appeared in the room right next to Mr. Kitty. She gasped, scooped him up, and kissed him on the head, crying. “You did it, Kitty!” she said. “You’re so smart.”
“I worked for it,” he meowed.
“Oh, I love you, too, Kitty,” she said, squeezing him tighter and driving the air out of his lungs.
“Tillie!” Her dad had finally gathered himself for long enough to respond. “Wh—Where? How did you…”
“Dad.” She dropped Mr. Kitty and went to him. “I’m sorry. I—I didn’t. You have to understand.”
“Understand?” her dad said, looking around the room. “You just—You appeared from nowhere. The door’s locked. I look away. Then I look back. That’s not—It’s not—It’s just not.”
“Dad,” Tillie said. “I can explain. I—”
“Explain! Explain? Well go ahead then, dear. Go ahead. Try to explain that.”
“Well, I—Well…” Tillie said. “You know those pictures I saw.”
“The pictures I told you not to tell anyone about.” Her dad crossed his arms.
“Right,” Tillie said, smiling a big, fake smile, and looking this way and that with her eyes. “Riiight. Those pictures. Well—and I didn’t show them to anyone, okay. And I didn’t even tell anyone about them, you know. But—I mean, I couldn’t forget them, you know. It’s not like I could delete them from my memory, Dad. I can’t unsee them, okay. And I just—well, I don’t know, I had to know the truth, you know. I had to do something. So I did.”
“No, Tillie,” her dad said. “It’s not okay. That—that doesn’t explain anything. So what? So how did you get here?”
“Dad.” She rubbed her hands on her cheeks, trying not to cry. “Come on. You can’t tell me—You can’t tell me that you don’t know. You have to know. You’re a Manager.”
“What, dear?” her dad said, throwing his hands in the air in frustration. “I have to know what?”
“I mean, where I was,” Tillie said. “How the world works. What’s really going on beyond the numbers. We talked about this, dad. I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt here.”
“Yeah,” her dad said, nodding. “Well. Okay. Yeah. I know how the world works, honey. But you’re talking in riddles. If you’d just ask me a direct question instead of being so emotional, then I’m sure I could give you a direct answer.”
Tillie didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. Mr. Kitty could see it on her face. She scoffed, and chuckled, and sobbed, and giggled, and blew a big glob of snot out of her nose. “Dad,” she said. “You’re asking me to disregard everything I think and feel. I have emotions, you know. And they’re real. And just because you go by the numbers alone doesn’t mean there isn’t more to the world than that. Can’t you see you’re asking me to stop being myself?”
“Tillie, dear,” her dad said, standing from his desk and turning to try to comfort her. “Tillie I’m sorry. I just want to help you. I was confused. You appeared out of nowhere. It must…it must have been some fault in the Walker-Haley fields. Am I right?”
“So you do know, then,” Tillie said, pushing him away and wiping her face with her sleeve.
“Of course I know, dear,” her dad said. “Of course I do. I manage the robot workers. How could I not know that printers don’t actually rearrange matter?”
Tillie faced the contradiction of wanting to laugh and cry all at the same time again. She was never one to hide her emotions. “Dad. You don’t know. You don’t understand at all. You’ve only penetrated the first layer and you think that’s all there is to it, but there’s so much more.”
“What are you talking about, dear?” Her dad frowned, shaking his head.
“They’re not robots, dad. That was a picture of human kids I saw on your computer.”
“Tillie,” her dad said in a pleading tone. “They said on the TV that it was a hoax. They played it on the emergency broadcast system. Every channel.”
“You’re the one who told me that I shouldn’t believe what I see on TV.”
“Yeah, well, then you shouldn’t believe what Russ told you, either. He’s a celebrity. He’ll do anything for fame.”
“But one side has to be right,” she said. “Either they’re humans, or they’re robots. It can’t be both, right?”
“No—Well, no…That is true. But there aren’t humans on the assembly lines, dear. I assure you. I would know if there were.”
“And the TV has said that they are humans, and it’s said they aren’t, so can we at least agree that it doesn’t matter what the TV says.”
“Yes,” her dad said, nodding. “And that’s the first sensible thing you’ve said. It’s what I’ve been trying to say all along, dear. But, still, there are not humans on the assembly lines.”
“Dad. I talked to one. He said that every single one of them has a job on a line, or running, or cleaning. He told me that he had never seen a robot in his entire life.”
“No, dear.” Her dad shook his head. “Well, that’s a—he lied to you!”
“Who did, dad? My eyes? My ears? I talked to him myself. While we sit here with our printer, eating everything they make and throwing away what we don’t want, they survive on scraps. You have to know how much of the world’s resources are dedicated to them, dad. You are a Manager, aren’t you?”
“Yes, well,” her dad said, shaking his head. “O—of course—of course I know. I know what portion of our finite resources we put toward the robots of Outland 5, dear. But that’s all they are. Robots.”
“So you don’t believe me then?” Tillie said, shaking her head.
“No, dear,” her dad said, shaking his head and avoiding eye contact with her. “Of course not. How could I?”
“Ugh, fine!” Tillie stormed out of the room, and Mr. Kitty chased after her.
“Tillie!” her dad called, but he didn’t get up from his chair to chase them.
Tillie went into the spare bedroom and started packing her things.
“What are you doing?” Mr. Kitty meowed, standing on her backpack.
She scooped him up and set him on the bed. “Sorry Kitty,” she said. “I can’t stay here with him anymore. You can come with me if you want.”
“Where are we going?”
# # #
< X. Russ [Table of Contents] XII. Ellie >
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