Pip loaded two aspirin-sized batteries into a hatch at the back of the blue plastic egg and held down a button to activate her new digital pet. The egg hung from a keychain. It was fitted with a screen the size of a postage stamp, onto which, in a flurry of high-pitched bleeps, a kitten-shaped assemblage of pixels was born. The kitten flicked its tail and paced across the screen in blocky, automated movements. Pip loved the little creature. Named it Courtney. Cradled it gently in the nest of her palm.
It was sweet, Pip’s parents admitted to each other, to see their seven-year-old daughter display such clear maternal instincts. For a long time, they had hesitated to get her a digital pet. They didn’t want her becoming one of those terrible gadgety kids who won’t go outside, who drool in the glow of a screen all day. But according to some of the other parents in the neighborhood, playing with digital pets had stirred a spark of empathy in their children. “They see that their actions have consequences,” insisted one of the fathers. “They learn responsibility.”
So Pip’s parents said to each other: okay.
Pip ran her fingers over the row of rubbery buttons lined up under the screen. The buttons were tiny and candy-colored and she almost wanted to pop them out and put them in her mouth. She could press a button to feed Courtney and another to scoop her poop. She could medicate her or play catch. She could dispense rewards and discipline. “Your cat does not like to be punished,” warned the instruction manual, “but some discipline is necessary to raise a well-mannered pet.”
Pip switched the screen to “stats” mode and a number between one and 100 appeared—Courtney’s happiness score. The number lingered at 35 until Pip pressed the “feed” button and an image of a fish appeared on the screen. Courtney’s jaws opened, whiskers spread wide. She devoured the fish in two bites. The happiness score surged to 70, and after a game of catch, 95. Courtney chased a ball across the screen, the pixels of her body separating and colliding as she moved.
Every hour, Courtney shat a pile of pixels. Jagged stink lines rose from the turds and Courtney beeped her dismay. Pip pressed a button to clean up the mess. The beeping subsided. Courtney’s face rearranged itself into a smile.
Four hours equals one year in the lifespan of a digital pet, so by the middle of the third day, Courtney had breached adolescence. She emitted constant beeps of various pitch and frequency indicating hunger, boredom, or sickness. Pip’s parents began to regret their gift. “Please turn that thing off,” Pip’s dad growled.
“She’s not a thing! Her name is Courtney!” Pip hollered. Her dad didn’t get it. If she turned the egg off, Courtney would die.
Pip pretended not to know how to mute the sound. She told her dad there was no way to do it, but the truth was, she just didn’t like to. It seemed cruel, like tying a gag on a baby. She wanted to know right away whenever Courtney needed something.
Pip’s mom heated up chicken nuggets for lunch. “And you won’t be getting any,” she warned Pip, “unless you leave that thing in your room.”
Pip didn’t want to abandon Courtney, but she was hungry, so she left the egg on her dresser while she ate five nuggets and a carrot stick. After lunch, she rushed back upstairs to her room, where the egg was beeping rapid-fire, vibrating against the surface of the dresser. Pip pressed the “feed” button, but Courtney wouldn't eat. The beeps crescendoed. She tried the rest of the buttons, but the noise just climbed another decibel. Pip’s teeth hurt and her throat went gluey. She located the discipline button. Deployed it.
A rough graphic of a hand swung down from the top of the screen and whacked the cat. A sad mechanical yowl issued from deep inside the egg. The sound made Pip’s gut tighten, like maybe she was going to cry, too, or maybe like she was going to laugh.
At night Pip slept with the egg right next to her pillow. Courtney slept too, white Z’s bobbing through the darkened screen. Before she got Courtney, Pip floundered in the loneliness of bedtime. The thump of her own heart kept her awake, and the amplified squish of her throat when she swallowed or yawned. To soothe herself, she traced constellations between the nubs in the cottage-cheese ceiling. She counted the seconds between cricket chirps outside her window.
But now Pip had her digital pet and her mind played a comforting rhythm of Is Courtney hungry? Is Courtney bored? Is Courtney sleeping? When she looked at the gadget lying placidly on her cotton sheet, a surge of tenderness unfolded beneath her ribs. Courtney woke up a few times during the night, beeping for food or wanting to play, but Pip didn’t mind. She just switched on her lamp and pressed some buttons and went right back to sleep.
Pip’s school had a rule against digital pets, but Pip snuck Courtney into her backpack anyway. She slipped the plastic egg into her lift-top desk, right next to a pile of graying erasers and a macramé pencil bag. School was the only place Pip was willing to turn Courtney’s sound off. It was better, Pip knew, than the alternative of leaving her at home all day, where she’d starve and probably die. Pip cranked up the lid of her desk a few inches every time her teacher, Mr. Kinnick, turned his back. She slipped her hand through the shadows to give Courtney some food or to discipline her if it seemed like she was getting crazy.
For the most part, Courtney stayed calm. She’d matured into an adult cat by now and she only needed to eat every couple of hours. She slept more and did not seem as eager to play catch. This calmed some of Pip’s parents’ anxiety about the toy, but Pip was getting a little bored. Courtney just sat there most of the time, flicking her tail, not wanting to do much of anything.
When she got home from school, Pip hooked the keychain onto the shoulder strap of her overalls and wandered out back to the swing set. She drove her toes into the mud under the swing and wobbled back and forth with the plastic egg dangling against her chest. She unhooked the egg and prodded at it, but Courtney refused to interact. So Pip pressed the discipline button—the only way, she’d learned, to guarantee a response. Courtney yowled and Pip’s fingertips prickled. She pressed the button three more times and checked Courtney’s happiness score, which had sunk to 25. Pip fed her three fish and played two games of catch and the score jumped to 70. Then she disciplined her again. Score: 60. And again. Score: 43. Again. Score: 25. Pip’s mom was tapping at the window, trying to get Pip to come in for dinner. Pip pretended not to notice. Score: 10. Courtney needed her.
Mr. Kinnick caught Pip playing with Courtney at school. “You know the rules,” he said, presenting a beefy hand for Pip to drop the toy into. “There’s nothing in there!” Pip insisted, pressing her elbows down on the lid of her desk.
Mr. Kinnick kept his hand open. Wiggled his fingers. The overhead lights twinkled in the creases of his palm.
Pip flattened her whole upper body against the desk. She cried and begged and was finally sent to the principal’s office, where she was handed a yellow slip that she had to bring home to her parents. Mr. Kinnick confiscated Courtney. He said Pip couldn’t have the digital pet back until the end of the week, and if he ever saw it in the classroom again, he’d take it away forever.
When Pip got home, she handed the yellow slip to her parents. They frowned and looked at each other and told her to go to her room. Pip sat on the cream carpeting and stared up at the ceiling, but she couldn’t find any of the horses, umbrellas, or UFO’s that usually revealed themselves in its texture. She heard the occasional drone of her parents’ voices in the kitchen, but couldn’t make out what they were saying.
Courtney would die this time. Pip knew it. Her happiness score would drop and drop and nobody would be there to save her.
Mr. Kinnick gave the egg back at the end of the week. Pip was afraid to look, but when she glanced at the screen, thank god, Courtney was still alive. Courtney paced around in frantic lurches and the screen was dotted with multiple piles of poo, but she’d survived, and Pip would take care of her.
At home, Pip turned the sound back on. She pressed all the buttons to clean up the poo and give poor Courtney something to eat. As Courtney’s happiness score climbed from 11 to 63, Pip wondered what it would be like to have a happiness score of her own, some way of measuring what she, herself, was feeling. She knew she should be happy—Courtney was back! Alive!—but the jittery tilt of her insides came with no number, no name.
After fifteen minutes of play, Courtney’s happiness score jumped to 75, then 100. That was it. The limits of Courtney’s need. Pip punched the discipline button with the tip of her thumb and shivered at the shrill mechanical keening. Then she held down the power button and turned off the egg.
All the way off, like, blank screen, no more Courtney.
In the middle of the night, Pip woke in the dark, imagining she heard beeping. But she was alone; nothing needed her. Nothing in the whole wide world.
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