“Why is it that you guys care so much?” Haley asked with a curious look. Cal raised an eyebrow at her, before he turned to look at the rest of the park. They were sitting on one of the many benches, just talking and playing around, as in Cal’s opinion, a young girl like Haley should constantly be doing.
Haley was an Influxxer, someone that had come in to the system after it went online, and had both an Alenkas body -the body of a black cat- and her human one out in the outside world. In Cal’s opinion, she should be constantly out there, learning, becoming a better person, and not stuck in Alenkas with the rest of them. It didn’t help that the girl was as curious as an actual cat in an adult game.
Although game might not be the best word for Alenkas. System? An adult system? That’s probably the best way to word it, Cal thought. They weren’t a game, as they didn’t have any actual goal, so in terms of actual definition, they might be a toy, but he really didn’t want to use that word considering that life itself was only a toy by that definition, and now the Alenkans actually did live here…
It was a harrowing experience when he tried to think about it. So like always, the orange tabby didn’t try thinking about it. “Why wouldn’t we care?” he asked Haley, in response to her first question.
“Because no one cares. No one cares about a single person, girl or not. So why do you?” she asked. Cal had the idea that there was something that she actually did want to say, something underlying everything, but unfortunately he didn’t know what. The least he could do is assuage her vocalized concerns.
“Because you’re you. And someone should care. Why do you think no one cares?” Cal asked hesitantly.
“Because Dad’s off drunk with some whore and Mom’s probably downstairs making meth. They don’t give a crap about me, they never have, and they always say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree-“
“Bullshit!” Cal blurted out. He quickly took in her shocked look of amusement and horror, “Sorry, don’t repeat that. It’s not a nice word. You know that’s the wrong, Haley. If you’re an apple, you can fall as far from the tree as you want, because you’re your own person. That’s why we treat you like an actual person; because you are.”
“I just…” Haley started, before she looked blankly across the park. The male cat had the urge to grab her and pull her closer, let her rest her head on his shoulder. No child deserved what Haley was going through, some existential crisis that they can barely voice, let alone understand.
He instead grabbed her hands, pulling them over to him. “Listen to me, Haley. We always make our choices. Some aren’t going to be good ones. But that’s why we spend our lives the way we do, so while we regret those choices we can make better ones, making up for the mistakes we have made,” Cal said, staring directly into her eyes. She nodded slowly. “It’s the same for everybody, and will be the same for you. That your parents may be…assholes…doesn’t mean that you automatically will be, too. You have that choice.”
“What if I make the wrong one?”
“Then you’ll live, and you’ll learn for the next time. Besides, in the game of life, there is no such thing as the wrong choice. All choices will lead somewhere. Whether that’s a good somewhere or a bad one, the only that can decide that is you. A small choice now, seemingly innocuous, can send you careening down a path you didn’t know you had. All doors open, and all doors close. You’ll figure it out. You’re smart, and we know that now. We knew that before too,” Cal said, grinning from ear to ear.
Haley glared and gave a mock-punch towards Cal’s arm. He grabbed it like it was painful, and started to howl with mock-pain, eventually rolling off the bench. He continued his overacting, intent on getting a laugh or at least a smile from the small girl, and gave a small fist bump as he heard the nervous chuckle from the black kitty. He would have to do with what he got.
The two delved back into silence as Cal climbed back onto the bench. They sat for a while, lost in both of their own worlds. The orange tabby didn’t quite know what to say that might help Haley get out of her funk, and even he could tell that she was quite definitely in ‘a funk’. Suddenly the thought occurred to him. “Shouldn’t you be in school?” he asked.
Haley froze. “Uh…I got the day off? Holiday?” she answered nervously. Cal gave her a simple look. “I know, I shouldn’t skip, but it’s just so boring! I already know all of that stuff, I don’t see why I need to be there.”
“What?” she asked, confused.
“You’re there for more than just learning, you know. Socialization, you’re there to get to know other kids, to make friends, enjoy your childhood. Why do you think all of us are telling you to go, despite the fact that we know you’re smart enough to not even need to?” Cal asked.
“I just thought that was what all adults had to say. ‘Stay in school kids, or you’ll end up a drop out with no income and like this loser,'” she mocked. Cal frowned a bit, although he had to admit that was another good reason to stay in school.
“You know that I dropped out of high school, right?” Cal said, looking off into the distance. Haley looked up quickly. He nodded slowly, “It wasn’t a fun time. Depression, anxiety…everything combined with the mockery of the other kids, the non-attitude of the adults…I felt alone. Combine that with me being gay, and coming out to my closest friends, only to show that I couldn’t trust them…I wanted it to end. I couldn’t take the thought of ending my life, so I ran, instead. I dropped out of high school, and just never looked back.
“For a while I didn’t know what to do with myself now that I had so much free time. I got a dead-end job working for some fast food place, I don’t even remember its name now, I think it went out of business. I worked there for a couple of years, in a new town. I decided to go to a night school to finish my high school education, because I saw what I’d become. Just another guy working for the rest of his life, with nothing to his name. I didn’t like that.
“I finally finished high school, didn’t bother telling my folks. Went to NuVO, and showed them I knew programming. I didn’t, but I learned quick enough, quick enough to hide it. That’s when I found out that programming was my calling. After that…well, here we are,” Cal said. Haley hung on to his every word. “That was my choice, the one I regret the most. It wasn’t coming out, it was choosing to leave. I wasted so much time…”
“I’m surprised the truancy guys didn’t come after you.”
“I’m not. They generally don’t care once you hit junior year. Also because I disappeared on a week-long holiday, I think easter break. They just assumed I had gotten stuck somewhere, and then by the time they started caring I was already halfway across the country.”
“Some people can hide well if they don’t want to be found, huh.”
“Better than you think. We know every inch of Alenkas. We’ll find them. Don’t you worry about it.”
“What if it had been me, though?” Haley asked. Her voice was torn, as if she shouldn’t be saying anything, yet the words just couldn’t stop coming out of her mouth. “What if I was one of the ones stuck here? What if-“
“Don’t…Don’t ask yourself what if questions. They’ll be fine,” Cal reassured with a small and simple smile. Haley nodded, trying to sigh it out of her, but Cal could see that the worry was still in her mind. He almost hesitated to think what kind of life Haley had led that would force her to be concerned, almost knowledgeable, about rape and gangs.
“If…if you say so,” she answered. “When you went away, did you leave any trace?” she asked.
“Not really. My parents had gone away on a three-day vacation, leaving me at home by myself. I took my car and simply up and left. We didn’t have much in the way of online stuff back then.”
“But they could have found you? If they did have online stuff?”
“Probably. You can find anybody if you know the right…you’ve thought of something, haven’t you?” Cal said accusingly. Haley smirked at him. “Alright, lay it on me.”
“We search online. Like you said, you can find anybody if you know the right ways to search.”
“We’ve thought of that already, Haley. Simon can’t connect to the internet in Alenkas. That options is unfortunately closed to us.”
“But not to me. Or Emily, or William. We’ll search for you! All you have to do is tell us the right way to search!” Haley offered.
“That’s…not a bad idea. Unfortunately, Haley, I have one major issue with that,” Cal responded. The kitten glared at him, offering him to try and poke any holes into her amazing and awesome plan she had just come up with. “You’re not searching anything. For one, it requires certain equipment to stay safe. If you’re not safe, it can lead to a lot of stuff worse than you think. You could even be killed if their particularly afraid. Although William…he may take that chance.”
“If you offer it, Emily would too. In a heartbeat.”
“What makes you think that?”
“She feels guilty for letting Abigail get taken. And she’s into computers too, at least now. Although if you’re not letting me do it, at least keep me updated, ok?” Haley asked.
“I’ll see what the other two say. That’s not a choice I’m going to say or not say on my own. Just…be careful, ok?”
“Why is it that you all care so much?” Haley echoed. Cal shot her a confused look, before his face softened.
“Because you’re worth caring about. Because everyone is. We have to look out for each other, because if we aren’t, who would? Changing the world is difficult…but possible. It’s just another step of the way,” Cal answered. Haley nodded, and sighed as she closed her eyes. Her body fell onto Cal’s, and he laughed softly as she started to take a quiet nap several minutes later.