“Nee-chan! Nee-chan! Did you know? There is an island where there are more cats than people!! Look! Look!”
Koharu rolled her eyes and set aside her phone. Her little brother had just turned seven, and the brat had gotten a tablet for his birthday, which had so far made his desire to know everything and tell it to her even more insufferable. She tried not to resent him for the deep unfairness of the situation: she hadn’t gotten her first phone until she was twelve and she basically had to nag her parents to death before they budged. What did her little brother Hiroki have to do? Turn seven.
It wasn’t even as if she would use it to call friends, she grumped to herself. It was a familiar argument. Her parents were simple people, and they liked to do things the old fashioned way. They couldn’t understand the worlds that opened up once she learned to code within the phone’s operating systems. She could build things!
Hiroki climbed up beside her on the bed and began rapidly flipping through the photos. “Look!” he said, and began reading from the article,“Tashirojima is populated by fewer than 100 people and countless felines who roam free. Feeding and caring for the cats is thought to bring good luck to the island’s residents.” He stopped on one cat in particular, a white and orange cat with a grumpy expression. “This one is like my cat!”
“You don’t have a cat,” Koharu reminded him.
“You know what I mean,” Hiroki said.
She did know what he meant. For generations, each child in their family was given a slip of paper with a cat drawn on it to hang above their beds for good luck. The paper was old and tattered, some more than others, but the cats always looked vibrant and alive, even when the ink faded. Hiroki’s cat was indeed a mottled cat, with spots that might once have been orange. Her own was a cat all of one color, possibly pure black (that had faded to dark grey) with shining eyes. Koharu secretly called her Shadow.
Hiroki was still rambling about cats and islands. “Look at this one,” her brother said, pointing to the biggest cat Koharu had ever seen.
“Oh wow!” she said. He was pure white, with a big belly and a perpetually satisfied look on his face. “You said feeding the cats was lucky -- that one must be extra super lucky.”
“Mom told me our family is from that area. Is that true, Nee-chan?”
“If Mom said it, it must be true,” she said, giving his head a quick rub. “Now scram, I’m working on my game.” Actually, come to think of it, the game had a bunch of cats in it, too. The day was beginning to have a theme.
“Ooh, can I see?” Hiroki asked. Koharu sighed, and pulled it up.
“See, you have a space that you can build, and items you can set out,” she said, demonstrating. “And then, if you set out the right items and some good food, you get these little cats to come and visit you.” On the dev side she sped up the clock until a cat appeared. Soon enough she had a whole yard full of cats.
“Oh wow!” Hiroki said. “That’s so cool!” Koharu rolled her eyes again. How could he be so sincere all the time? She decided not to worry: school would beat that enthusiasm out of him soon enough. Hiroki immediately set to naming each of the cats individually.
Their mother called them to dinner. The evening passed uneventfully, with no more mentions of phones (other than an admonition to put hers away during dinner) or cats. Their father sent them both to bed early (which wasn’t fair! Koharu was six years older than Hiroki), telling them that the weather was expected to change during the night. They might need extra time in the morning to get to school by the first bell.
Koharu worked some more on the game, but gave up when her eyes started to cross. The wind had begun to thrash at the windows: perhaps father was right. She put her phone on her bedside table and went to bed.
Koharu sat bolt upright in bed. Hiroki stood by her side wrapped in a blanket. Silent tears streamed down his face as he struggled to take in a breath. A storm raged outside. Sheets of rain poured down, interrupted only by flashes of lighting and immediate rolling thunder.
“Hey,” Koharu said, hugging her brother. “What’s wrong?”
Hiroki was crying too hard to speak -- his first few attempts were little more than muffled sobs. Finally he calmed down enough to get the words out. “I heard,” he said, his voice still catching in his throat, “some noises…” He trailed off, about to start crying again.
“Oh kiddo,” Koharu said. “That’s just the storm. Listen!” As if on cue, a peal of thunder rolled.
“N-n-no!” Hiroki cried, nearly sobbing. “These were bad noises. Like a big animal who wanted to eat me!” He started crying again.
“Well, that sounds like a very scary dream,” Koharu said, smiling at him. Hiroki saw and looked betrayed. “It wasn’t a dream!” he cried.
“Okay,” Koharu said, “okay. Shhhhhhh, you’re okay. Listen. Listen.” Hiroki stopped crying and looked at her solemnly. “You still have your cat, right? Your cat will protect you.” Her parents had told her the same thing every time she woke them up after a bad dream.
“No!” Hiroki cried, sounding more terrified than ever. “My cat is gone!”
Koharu was a little scared in spite of her bravado. “What do you mean your cat is gone? Did it fall behind your mattress?”
“No,” Hiroki said. “I looked there. Pumpkin wasn’t anywhere.”
So she wasn’t the only one who’d named her cat. Interesting. “Well,” she said, “I guess you can stay here with me. My cat will just have to protect us both.”
“Where is your cat, Nee-chan?” Hiroki asked.
Koharu’s blood ran cold, just for a second. She looked to the place on her wall where Shadow had hung since she could remember. Shadow was missing, but why? Did her parents move them? They wouldn’t do that without telling her, would they? It’s not like the cats could have wandered off on their own… could they? She beat that thought down -- it was too late at night to be thinking like that.
She felt frantic, but she couldn’t show her brother, not when he was already so freaked out. She forced herself to take a deep breath and remember that it was just a storm, and the adhesive was probably pretty old. Shadow had probably just fluttered down somewhere, and she’d find her cat in the morning.
“Well,” she said, hoping she sounded more confident than she felt, “it looks like Shadow’s gone to play with Pumpkin. We’ll find them in the morning. I guess I’ll just have to protect you and you’ll just have to protect me.”
Hiroki smiled a little smile, and climbed into bed with them. She pulled the covers up over their heads because she figured it would make him feel better. She tried not to think about how much better she felt. She hugged her little brother tight.
She must have drifted off because the next thing Koharu felt was someone nudging at her feet. She looked down to see Hiroki still asleep and perfectly still. Her breath caught in her throat as she heard a low growl. Heavy breaths panted, close enough she could feel the heat of them. She could smell the creature’s breath: like death and blood mixed together.
Koharu breathed slowly, willing herself to stay silent, willing Hiroki to stay asleep. She bit her fist to keep from whimpering. She heard the growl again, except this time it was met with a chime from her phone, which was strange. Nobody from school had her number, and she didn’t get many texts. She almost reached over to her bedside table to check, out of habit, until she realized that would leave almost her whole arm exposed. She silently scolded herself, and stayed still.
She must have drifted off again, because the next thing she heard was her mother calling for them both to get ready for school. Koharu threw the blanket off of both of them and rubbed the sleep out of her eyes. Hiroki sighed and turned back over, trying to get as much sleep as possible. She couldn’t blame him: they’d both had some pretty strange dreams, and she was more tired than normal. She grabbed her phone to check the time, and two scraps of paper fluttered into her lap. Somehow both Shadow and Pumpkin had gotten beneath her phone during the night. Which was impossible. She hadn’t touched it.
Stranger still, Koharu saw that her app was pulled up. She had definitely left it on the clock. As she blinked at the bright screen, she saw two figures -- a cat and a... something else -- neither of which she had programmed herself. She couldn’t understand it. The app was not open-source, she didn’t store any of her files in the cloud, her wifi was even off for the night. Nobody should have been able to program these creatures… unless she had done it in her sleep. But that was preposterous, sleep programming isn’t a thing, and she’d certainly never even sketched these two, let alone built two new characters in eight hours.
Hiroki finally blinked awake. “What’s wrong?” he asked. She clearly had a worse poker face than she thought.
She wordlessly handed the phone over to him. “Oh, cool!” he said. “This fat one is like the one we saw from the island. You said it would be extra lucky!” He looked over at the other figure. “But what is that thing? It’s not a cat.”
“I… don’t know,” Koharu said. “It looks like some sort of a goblin rat thing, doesn’t it?” Her little brother didn’t know how programming worked. He couldn’t know that she had never and would never put that creature in her game.
“It looks like the tubby guy ate it!” Hiroku said.
She looked again. The cat certainly had red smudges on its jowls. How…?
Hiroku was already up and halfway out the door with Pumpkin. “We better get going, Nee-chan!” he said, the terrors of the night forgotten.
Koharu nodded and wrenched herself away from the phone. She thought about deleting the app entirely, purging her phone of all evidence. But she was already working with it, planning on programming in her new cat, the tubby one. After all, he was her cat now, too.