The Cat slinks around the corner with the grace of water’s wavering reflection in the smoke-filtered light. “What are you doing?” It says.
I don’t look at It from my perch in the seat in front of the window. I know what the room looks like with the glowbulb off to save energy: Dull and watery, muddy, full of not-quite-shadows and not-exactly-light. Full of (ab)used furniture and doorless off-white cupboards half full of crappy dehydrated meals in foil packs. Ratty floors, ceiling stained with smog from our cracked airlock. Outside is a mess.
“Liar.” It knows my schoolpad is powered off and hidden, the clunky thing tucked away in its ChargeBox like a person trying to escape guilt. Its scratched and smudged face hardly glows, even with a full charge, and some of the pixels have died, leaving permanent black stripes on my screen. I hate the thing. It’s a reminder of all the things I don’t have: money (to buy a new one that’s a “pad” only in name, just VR goggles and a screen only you can see), grades (to get a scholarship and escape this hellhole – even though everyone knows how biased those things are, anything’s better than here), friends (every time it lights up with a notification, it’s either Mom – who’s hardly ever home – or updates that I’ve stopped trying to install, since I’m afraid it’s gonna crash). Still, the shaky connection is the only connection to the world that I have.
“I’m just looking.”
“You’re supposed to be in bed,” It says.
“So are you,” I say. “Actually, you’re not supposed to be here at all. Non-livestock animals were outlawed almost a decade ago. You know we could get evicted for breaking that rule.”
It huffs, climbing – clawing, really, up my blanket and settling just beneath my chin. I press my cheek to the glass and watch my breath color the smoggy window white. “I couldn’t sleep.” I say.
Outside, the buildings are stained with smoke that hangs, heavy, over the city. It seems to cling to everything, even after a microcleaning in our outdated washroom. Lights wink in and out under an eternally glowing sky. Everything is a dirty brown color, even the vats of algae they keep on top of roofs for oxygen. Even with two inches of scratched acrylic between me and it, the stink of the haze clings to everything.
“What was it like?” I say. It feels sacred, almost, like a forgotten religion of a forgotten time. The Cat twists, its golden eyes so similar yet so different to the blurred colors outside. “You know, before all this,” I clarify. It huffs.
“It was nice,” The Cat says. He settles down again. “Food was better. People were happier – my people, at least. There was more food. The air was so much cleaner. You could see the stars.”
I stroke Its head. “Tell me about them.”
“What’s there to tell? They were tiny lights in the sky- Which, by the way, was much darker. And blue, not brown. It didn’t glow all the time. People went up there. I don’t know what they were called.”
“You met them?”
“Of course I did,” It says with so much finality I fall silent. “Oh. So there wasn’t as much pollution?”
“No,” It says. “No sun bouncing off the dust particles and whatnot. Easier to sleep. You could go outside without a mask and a hazmat suit.”
“I could still do that,” I say.
“You’d die, sooner rather than later,” It snorts. “Don’t be stupid. Long after you’re dead and gone, from breathing borrowed air and living on borrowed time, I’ll still be here.”
“Sucks to suck,” I say. I watch a column of black smoke dissolve. “Sucks to have to grow up like this.”
“Yes.” The Cat says. “A long time ago, most people didn’t die at thirty from lung cancer. They didn’t work sixty hours a week, or eat tasteless bread made from mushrooms and kelp. Children like you didn’t have to repair oxygen tubes or bribe air inspectors to keep on living. I had salmon, once a week. What a shame that they decided to ruin all that.” It sounds disgusted.
“Yeah,” I say. “Salmon?” I’ve only ever heard of the near-mystical substance, fresh and orange. “What did it taste like? Was it a fruit?”
“Salmon,” The Cat says. “Fresh. Salty, but only a little. They called it sashimi.”
“Food so fresh you could eat it raw?” I laugh. “No such thing.”
“It was a thing,” It says, pressing its head into my neck. “Vegetables too. I didn’t like it – Salsa, or salad, or something with an S.”
“Oh, I remember now, salmon’s not a fruit. You’re a carni-” I stop. “What’s that word again? You eat meat. Or, you did. Meat substitutes, now, that’s more like it.” I grin. “Want some freeze-dried tofu scraps from dinner? Tuna flavor.
“That’s what you had?” I can hear It’s nose wrinkling. “No, thank you. I’d rather choke.”
“Come on, it’s not that bad.” I gather It up in the blanket and shuffle to the hydrator. “At least it’s not mushroom. If you use less water it’s not as mushy.”
“I would give you some salmon if I could,” It says. I freeze, unaccustomed to the sentimental note in Its voice. “But I don’t have any. And if you tasted it, you can’t go back to this slop. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” I say. “It wasn’t your fault.”
“No, I meant about the comment earlier. About you dying.”
“Well, it’s gonna happen,” I say. “No point avoiding it.”
“I wish it wasn’t the case,” It says. “Maybe, in another lifetime, this never happened and you could have all the salmon you want. And tuna,” It adds seriously after a moment. “Vegetables, not just seaweed. Fruit. Pork and beef.”
“Tell me about them.” I say, sitting back down.
And It does, talking to me until the sky breaks and drenching rain pounds down, spiking the temperature with humidity. Rain slicks the tunnels between buildings, some of them three stories tall. I saw one collapse, once, buckling like empty meal pouches, and remember a lady with red hair scream and scream and scream until she splattered to death, seven hundred feet below. I watch lightning hit the poles set up to capture electricity, the fragile wiring holding the city together making things flicker. We don’t even get our electricity from the companies, because it’s too expensive, just from the pedal bike in the closet.
“Why’d they choose to do this?” I say. I watch the rain smear the city, like a pencil mark someone wants to erase. “Why did they want to make it like this, instead of. . . Before?”
“Humans are so silly,” The Cat says. “Money. Fame. I don’t know,” he says. “I just know that it could have been stopped, if not for a few people who were too greedy for anything.”
“Didn’t anyone try to stop them? Stop it?”
“I think so,” It says. “Nobody listened to them until it was too late. What they did wasn’t enough.”
I lie on by back and imagine a world where everything’s clean. The sky is blue, not brown, and the sun burns bright yellow instead of a washed-out grayish. I can see miles in the distance, and the Adults don’t look at me with pity. Air inspectors don’t exist, because the air is free and clean for everyone. Nobody needs an excuse to be alive. Plants grow everywhere, meals are cheap and fresh and not packed in silver. Water doesn’t taste like gasoline or soot. You don’t have to be sixteen to put on an O2-Suit and go outside. The pressure of tears, helplessness, and the sheer want (of what I could have had, what the world could have been, what the future might have looked like) build up in my chest until I start crying, saltwater trickling into my hair.
“Oh. Oh, dear,” Says The Cat. It’s raspy tongue licks the wetness on my face. “Shh. . .”
It curls around my head. I feel the gentle pressure of It’s breathing, the softness of It’s fur, the quiet breaths. “I would tell you to go to sleep, and when you wake up, that was only a dream,” It says. “But we both know I would be lying.”
I reach a hand up and pat Its head.
“Just this once, I don’t mind.”
We both know it’s not going to be just once – it already hasn’t. But sometimes, it’s nice to pretend. Like it’s all going to be alright. Like nothing will be or has been lost. Like nothing ever will change.
Just like the politicians before.