Since Kurt didn’t relate well to living things, his sister Val got him an Aquabot for his birthday. It arrived from Amazon in an oversized box that held an ordinary glass fishbowl, a green plastic shark and an extra card of button batteries. “Activates when submerged in water,” the directions said, so Kurt filled the bowl, dropped the fish in and carried it to the coffee table. Seconds later, he was enjoying a wine cooler and chips while the robotic shark dove up and down, swam laps and explored his world with apparent eagerness. After another cooler, Kurt called Val and waited for the beep. “Good present, I like it,” he said. In fact, he liked the Aquabot so much, he went online to search the company’s other products. Turned out, they made several, and over the next weeks, he ordered their electro-magnetic ant, spider, larva and scarab, all functional without the water and each capable of different tricks. His favorite, the larva, wriggled along his kitchen floor, swerving on its micro-robotic wheels when it detected obstacles with its infrared sensor. Next best was the hyper-charged scarab, which scuttled furiously in one direction, then took off in another, bouncing off walls and flipping over when it landed on its back. They were plastic, sure, the larva deep, dark blue, the scarab a lurid red, but they were lively and entertaining, till their batteries ran down.
Kurt, a retired widower who’d driven a bus for thirty years, bought a few for every room, appreciating the activity and the company but of course keeping this to himself. Who had to know? He lived alone, his sister Val in another state. He wasn’t friendly with his neighbors. Only once in a while did he take his pets outside, if, say, he felt like grilling on his hibachi.
One day, stepping onto the patio, he left the slider open and two scarabs shot out, disappearing under rose bushes, where he could hear them stalling and spinning. “Just sec,” he said. “Hold your horses—” loading wienies on his grill. Before he was through, one of the bugs seemed to free itself and scampered toward him with animated glee. “Why you little—” It wasn’t the bug, though. It was a cat, who’d somehow managed to leap his fence and find the toy. Black and white, it studied him briefly like a maître d’ in a tux. Then, with a weird grumble in its throat, it gathered itself and sprang at the scarab. The scarab dodged it. The cat crept flat along the ground and pounced—the scarab scuttled sideways. After a few minutes, when his meat was crisp, Kurt sat down to watch them fight it out.
This cat was not like other cats. It didn’t meow for food. It didn’t rub against him for attention. It just wanted his bugs.
All afternoon they stayed outside, Kurt changing the batteries when the toys ran down. At night, he collected them and invited the cat in. The cat accepted, but coolly, stretching first, as if to emphasize that no promises were being made. Kurt opened an extra can of tuna. When the cat paced beside the door, he let it out, leaving the door open for it to let itself back in. Before bed, he set two larvae squirming across the kitchen, and the cat played till it got tired. Right there, curled on a pile of dishtowels, it conked out.
In the morning, Val called. “You okay? I’m worried about you, Kurtie. Why not move here to Minnesota?”
Kurt tucked the phone under his chin and poured Cheerios for the cat and himself. The cat ignored the food and whacked a scarab into the pantry, pursuing it till Kurt heard them crashing around amid Coke cans and tumbling boxes. The cat skidded back into the room. “Oh, I don’t know,” he said.
Spotting the Cheerios, the cat trotted over and sniffed, then sat down to wash itself.
“You’re not lonely?” Val asked.
It was hard to fool this guy. For instance, with the Aquabot. Kurt had carried it to a counter and switched it on, expecting the cat to go wild.
The cat studied him. That’s a fish? Don’t make me laugh.
Did it wink then? He thought it did.
“Not really,” he said.