Saturday, May 31, 2014

Short Story Hour: Pickles

"How do they know? It's like every time I'm on the site, the posts have been specifically written for me based on my mood and what happened to me that day. Oh look - baby animals from Australia. Yes, I'm going to click on that because I had a bad day and I need some cuteness. A post about everything we learned from John Hughes/Molly Ringwald movies? Of course, I need to read that. It doesn't matter that I sit in front of a computer all day at work and that I have life things to do, I can still waste hours on that site and not even notice. Especially in the winter." Amelia sipped her wine. Her friend Natalie paused before responding, sipped her wine, and sighed.

"Are you implying that FuzzLife is spying on you?" Natalie was used to hearing insane things from Amelia. They had met freshmen year of college in a World Religions class and bonded over their ability to determine which class member was going to launch into some random and useless tirade about religion and the professor's bias. Amelia was right 96% of the time. It was amazing.

"Spying is such a strong word. I'm not likening FuzzLife to some shady government agency; there are too many baby otters and cat videos on the site for that to be true. I'm sure they track clicks and can analyze data on popular posts. My issue is not that. It's when something that I've discussed with someone shows up on the site a day or two later. That seems too coincidental to me. It's not like I have the app on my phone or something. They just seem to know." Amelia's cat, Pickles, jumped in her lap. The cat took her time getting comfortable. The she flumped into Amelia's lap.

"Cute collar. When did you decide Pickles need a pirate look?" Natalie asked.

"I bought it a few months ago. I couldn't resist a pink cat collar with a skull and crossbones motif. You know Pickles is a killer." The women laughed, thinking back to the story of Pickles killing two mice and leaving them at the foot of Amelia's bed. The sweet, tiny cat had viciously attacked the mice. They had been referring to Pickles as "Killer" ever since.

Pickles acknowledged her nickname with a loud meow and repositioned herself in Amelia's lap. She promptly fell asleep as the women moved onto another glass of wine and a new topic. Pickles figured she had at least an hour of nap time before her human would disrupt her by getting up. Her human was normally very accommodating when it came to being a pillow. But sometimes she didn't understand the cat/human contract and made sudden moves that disrupted Pickles and her precious nap. In those instances, Pickles made sure to run around the apartment at 4:30 am and knock things down. She wanted her human to understand that there were consequences when a nap is disrupted.

Cats are jerks.

Later that week...

"14 Cats Who Just Can't Anymore" Click.

"Which Sweet Vally High Character Are You?" Click.

"The Only 47 Waffle Maker Recipes You'll Ever Need" Click.

"35 Places You HAVE To See Before You Die Or Else" Click.

Amelia glanced at the clock on her computer and realized that two hours had passed since she sat down. Normally, she didn't bring work home with her but her intention had been to get ahead on a few projects she was working on so that she could leave work early on Friday. She had plans to go to open mic night with some friends at a local bar and she didn't want to have to rush from work to meet them. Her plans had been completely derailed by one click on a FuzzLife link. One click was all it had taken. She wouldn't have even bothered except that the post was about ways to organize small spaces and Amelia's apartment was exactly that. She figured the post would be helpful (and to some extent it was; she planned to implement two of the ideas over the weekend) but that one click had led to another one (when to throw out beauty supplies) and then to another (something to do with unlikely animal best friends) and finally to a post about her beloved Gilmore Girls. She had just finished re-watching season four (her favorite) and the post was about the hidden gems of the Dragonfly Inn. It was creepy how on point FuzzLife could be.

"Pickles, why did you let me waste so much time on this site? You should have stopped me."

The cat cocked her head to one side and meowed at Amelia. Normally Pickles got fed up with the lack of attention when the square box that makes noise was out. She would jump in Amelia's lap or lay across the warm box so that her human couldn't make the click-clack noise. Or she'd rub her face on it marking it as hers. When Pickles would do these things, Amelia would stop what she was doing and give Pickles the pets she deserved.

But Pickles didn't seem to care anymore. If her human wanted to use that click-clack maker all the time and laugh to herself, Pickles didn't see any reason to stop her.

Amelia had noticed the change in Pickles. At first she thought Pickles was just being a cat - that's what Amelia loved about cats. They had the right mix of neediness and aloofness. It suited her fairly introverted personality. Amelia loved that Pickles didn't always need to be petted and paid attention to; they could "ignore" one another or cuddle up on the couch. It was perfect. But the ultra aloof behavior continued and seemed to worsen. Amelia had taken Pickles in for her annual checkup a few weeks earlier and the vet had told her it was normal. Pickles still ate like a champ and played with her toys and wanted attention so she was fine. Just getting older was what the vet had told her.

She thought about it for a few minutes. Amelia noticed the changes in Pickles right around the time she got the new pirate collar. Pickles was the rare cat (so Amelia thought) that enjoyed wearing a collar. This was one of the reason Amelia tried to find "statement" collars. Pickles wouldn't wear costumes or sweaters (and Amelia would never make her) but she could rock a collar. Amelia thought Pickles strutted a bit more when she got a new one that she liked. The pirate collar had been a good choice. The pink stood out against her orange fur and it was a little cheeky and badass, just as Natalie had pointed out. Amelia thought Pickles like the collar; she was always positioning herself so that you could see it when she napped. Her cat contortions always seemed to leave that collar exposed. She wanted everyone to see it. On more than one occasion, Amelia's friends complimented the collar.

Maybe Pickles was just getting older. Amelia had to consider that and prepare for what that meant. She wasn't going to that today but it was something she kept in the back of her mind. She shook her head and refocused on her computer. She clicked away from FuzzLife, picked a new playlist to listen to (entitled So Tell Me What You Want - A 90s Pop Primer) and finally started her work project.

Pickles settled herself behind the computer against the warm part in the back. From her vantage point she could hear the click-clack but also other noises that sounded like cats howling. The Spice Girls, Stroke 9, The Soup Dragons, and Better Than Ezra played in rotation until Amelia finished her work.

The following Saturday...

Amelia's phone chirped - a new email awaited her. She checked her inbox; it was from a work friend and the message contained a link to a FuzzLife post. The message read:

"Thought you would enjoy this given our conversation on Thursday. Thanks for having us over for dinner!" Maggie

The post was about 90s fashion trends that were making a comeback. During her dinner party on Thursday, Amelia and several of her friends discussed the unfortunate return of high-waisted jeans and stirrup pants. None of them could fathom why hipster kids wanted to wear such horrible things. Amelia broke out some photos from her middle school years that featured an array of stirrup pants in every color. Why would anyone want to relive that?

The post was funny but Amelia also felt something else as she read through it. The list was eerily similar to the list of fashions her friends discussed. The article featured side by side comparisons of the look in the 90s with its 2014 twin. She though one of the 90s pictures looked Maggie and another one was definitely a picture of Amelia from the 8th grade. She knew that horrifying purple and green sweater. She clicked on the photo credit link and sure enough, it linked to her blog site and some photos she had posted when she wrote about attending her high school reunion.

"Okay. That's how FuzzLife does it. They read my blog." Amelia talked to herself. "That has to be it."

But it didn't make sense. Her blog could only be an explanation for a few of the posts she felt were directed right at her. Several of them were related to conversations she had with friends or family when they were visiting the apartment. When had she started to notice the posts and their "personalization"?

Amelia opened her computer and went to her browser history. She hadn't cleared it in a while so she was able to go back almost six months. She started to go through the history, looking at the links for FuzzLife articles. She grabbed some paper and started jotting down the titles that seemed to be the most personal. She noted the dates.

"How much time do I spend on the Internet? I could have learned a language or how to tango with the amount of time I waste online." Amelia was intrigued but also a little disgusted with herself.

Pickles jumped on the desk and startled Amelia. She had been so deep in thought that she hadn't noticed the cat come into the room. Pickles began to rub her head against the computer and purr loudly. Amelia reached out to pet Pickles. Pickles loved to be petted under her chin. Just as Amelia moved to do this, she noticed something on the pirate collar she had never noticed before. To a casual observer it would appear to be a flaw in the pirate design; an extra black circle next to one of the skulls. What had caught Amelia's eye was that the extra circle appeared to be blinking.

Amelia picked up Pickles and removed the collar. The cat immediately settled right across the keyboard as she had done in the past. Until Amelia bought the pirate collar. She placed the collar on the desk next to her notepad. She got up and walked around her apartment for a few minutes. It was both improbable and impossible that the cat collar and the posts would be linked. That's not how the world worked. At least that's that Amelia wanted to believe.

She sat back at her desk. She picked up the collar again and stared at the circle. It was definitely blinking. There was no doubt in her mind that it was blinking. Amelia glanced at the list of posts and dates again. The earliest post was dated one week after she bought the cat collar. That week there had been a post about holiday desserts for the Star Wars fan in your life. She and her brother had discussed making Star Wars cookies two days before she saw the post. The entire conversation flashed before her eyes: she and her brother had been shopping for their parents' presents and stopped at her apartment to drop the gifts off before meeting up with mutual friends for dinner. Amelia purchased Star Wars cookies cutters that same day and they were trying to decide if they could convince their parents to add the cutters to their annual cutout cookie making extravaganza. Amelia figured it would be easy as long as the Star Wars cookies didn't dominate the day. As long as mom got her angels, dad got his trees and blobs, and there were enough Belushi snowmen to go around, they would be fine.

Then two days later she emailed the link to the FuzzLife post to her brother with some comment about not going overboard. Amelia pulled up her calendar and started comparing post dates to her social plans. Almost every time she had friends over, a post would align to something that they had discussed or a song they listed to or a movie they watched. She thought back to her re-watch of Gilmore Girls and the Dragonfly Inn post. That was too specific not to be related.

Pickles meowed and rubbed her face against Amelia's hand. Pickles! Pickles had been trying to tell her all along. The cat's behavior had changed right after getting the new collar. It wasn't that Pickles liked the collar; she knew something was up and was trying to get Amelia to pay attention. She wasn't showing off; she was calling attention to the weird, almost unnoticeable transmitter in her collar.

"You've been trying to tell me. Pickles, you're such a good cat." Amelia held the cat close to her and heard the familiar purr that she loved. Pickles rubbed her face against Amelia's and didn't squirm as Amelia hugged her a little too much.

Amelia looked at the collar on her desk. No one would ever believe her. They'd call her crazy and paranoid. Or worse - a crazy, paranoid, cat lady. She stopped hugging Pickles and picked up the collar. She went to the cabinet where she kept the cat litter and cleaning supplies. She picked up a plastic bag and proceeded to clean out the cat's litter box. She dropped the pirate collar into the bag, tied it up, and took it down the hall to the trash chute. She returned to her apartment.

"Pickles, how would you like to be a collar free cat for awhile?"

Pickles meowed a few times and weaved around Amelia's legs. It was nap time and there was a sun patch waiting for her.

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