ExxonMobil6 wants to put his fingers in my mouth until they wrinkle and turn pink. He wants to palm the thick cord of my trachea. He might even want to push against it, watch my face turn pale until the tiny egg of my vision blurs bloody like a video game victim: YOU DIED. 

ExxonMobil6 tells me this in an AOL chatroom for people who cosplay as catgirls and catboys. My avatar is a peach-colored anime girl with white cat ears tufting out from her short dark hair. I drew a copy in art class after finding pictures of her online in her sailor fuku, with her large, wide green eyes, her white panties and thick crew socks. I love her white socks.

When Exxonmobil6 PMs me he asks A/S/L and I tell him 18/F/Florida because Ive always wanted to live in a panhandle. But when he asks where in Florida I dont know what to say. Ive never been. My uncle runs a charter ship out in Summerland Key, so I tell him that. 

ExxonMobil6: the keys. must be nice living in a place like that.

dErAnGeDkItTy69: yeah lol

ExxonMobil6: how’s the atlantic?

dErAnGeDkItTy69: what?

ExxonMobil6: the ocean. you live in the keys?

dErAnGeDkItTy69: oh yea

I tell him about going to the beach in bikinis with my friends, how we drink cold vodka from red cups and sit around bonfires cooking hotdogs and making smores. 

“I would love to see it,” he says. “You and your friends in your bikinis, spread-eagle.”

I admit I dont know what spread-eagle means. 

“lol.” he says. Just like that.

ExxonMobil6: send me a pic

dErAnGeDkItTy69 has logged off

* * *

At school Mikaela passes me a note. You get high? I write back and tell her I used to (a lie), and I quit (also a lie) but Id be interested in giving it another shot. I am interested in getting high, that’s not a lie. I like Mikaela. She has a face like a Disney princess, hides her long hair beneath a Von Dutch hat and refers to herself as a hippie even though she’s only fourteen, like me. Her front teeth are cartoon-rabbit-like. Tacked to my bedroom wall is a photo of her. In it, her eyebrows are half-raised beneath a baby-blue bucket hat. She’s standing next to Ash, who moved to California halfway through freshman year. We were at our first dance at Ellet High. My mom had dropped us off. My parents were getting divorced. But like a lot of things, they’d only gone halfway, so my dad slept on the couch. He’d get home from work and wed eat dinner on TV trays at the couch like always. After that, hed watch news while mom did the dishes like always. He’d have a drink and lay on the beige, itchy thing until he fell asleep, the TV blathering on. Mom, in her flowy silk robe, would ascend the stairs to her king-sized bed with its carved wood headboards like some fairytale queen. 

One night I’d pulled an all-nighter to finish an essay and caught her sitting on the bed facing the open door, catatonic.

My dad slept facing the computer cart, a ratty blanket wrapped around his bare, hairy belly.

At school, Mikaela passes another note. 

My family is a bunch of hippies, too, it says. This Friday we’re gonna come pick up sweet lil’ you and fuckin party.

“If you’re going to spend the night, I need to meet Mr. Donahue first,” my mother says. I cringe. I’d message Mikaela on AIM but she doesn’t have a computer. The next day at school I slip her a note; she scribbles back to say her dad will meet my mom when they come to pick me up.

On Friday night, Mr. Donahue gets out of his truck and sweeps his brown shoulder-length hair back. He scratches his nose when my mom asks where they live then ferrets the hand back into his corduroy pants. 

“Two streets down from the high school,” he says. He scratches his nose again and sniffs. I lean out of the door and see Mikaela and her older brother Mason are in the truck. “Don’t worry hon,” Mr. Donahue says. “She’ll be safe with me.”

My mom nods.

“Be back by ten tomorrow,” she says. I squeeze into the backseat of the truck with Mikaela. The wind blows our hair back and she puts her hand on my thigh, curls her fingers into mine. The sun sets as her dad pulls into the parking lot of a motel with stucco walls and neon signage. 

The room is already rented, their gym bags sitting in the corner. A bag of make-up and a stereo on a desk. I ask Mikaela if she lives here and she says its just temporary. Her dad puts on The Doors and pulls out liquor and a little glass bong. I realize shes never mentioned her mother. We drink, and Mason asks me if Ive ever kissed anyone. I think of Exxonmobil6. Mikaela laughs and says, let’s fix that. The bass rattles helplessly through small speakers and she leans across the bed smiling with her rabbit teeth and I part my lips in expectation. She grabs my face with one hand, pries open my mouth with the other, and starts to lick at the empty space above my tongue. I feel Masons hand tuck loose strands of hair behind my ear and hear the click of a digital camera.

* * *

In the catgirl chatroom I wait for Exxonmobil6 to log on. I want to tell him I went to a party. While waiting, Im just watching an argument between random strangers unroll. 

fabio_maximus: japanese cat girls are NOT AND never WILL be part of the furry fandom. 1. furries are anatomically designed more like animals, with muzzles, haunches, and animals paws, features that are more in line with animals. 2. Furries are not associated with otaku culture or anime, 3., as a subset of 2., some ppl really, really seem to be pretty interested in any intellectual contortion that can convince people they are into furries, as som ekind of insult, as opposed to cat girls just being like regular girls but hotter. 

pinkfox: catgirls are popular with furries, ymmv

T99_34: its more like a spectrum honestly. The completely human with cat-earsgirl is, imo, really not furry. But there are fully furred cat girls and cat girls with some fur in more animal-like, or furrytype places, if you will, with fully-furred furries on the major end of the spectrum. Technically they are all furry. The appeal of any catiglr comes from the same underlying psychological reason people get into furries but some characters just reflect it far more or less than others. 

potentspit: Ive always wanted to suck on a cat girls tail i dont think that makes me into bestiality tho 

GADE: furries have fur. catgirls do not have fur. furries also have more cat like qualities to their face. 

ultimate_chicken: lizard or bird furries dont have fur. still furries.

* * *

After the party, every Friday until summer I lace my fingers with Mikaelas in the Bronco on the way to the motel expecting more of the same: the bite of rum her dad buys us, the crush of ice between our teeth. Each note we pass in school inches closer to affection: do you like me? I think I like you. Do you wanna be my gf? Sure, Ill be your gf. A dozen hearts and smiley faces flutter between us in origami fold. Her dad routinely leaves us at the motel and shows back up after eight p.m. with a pocket full of change and crumpled dollar bills. He throws the change on the desk.

“Spange-ing,” he says. 

“What?” I ask. 

“He stands on the corner with a sign, asking for money,” Mason says. Her dad pays for another night, disappears to the car, comes back with a bong and a rum bottle. I watch Mason twist and turn the bulb of a meth pipe, the rock inside rolling like a hamster in a wheel, spitting into nothing.

The next morning I wake on the bathroom’s linoleum, cool squares against my sweaty cheeks. Without washing my face I swipe eyeliner over yesterday’s eyeliner, take a Q-tip and dab at the smudges beneath my eyes. It’s almost ten and everyone’s asleep. I nudge Mikaela’s dad awake, and he drives me home. On the highway I struggle to keep my eyes open, the night a pulsing memory. 

Your mom wont think its strange its just me dropping you off, right?” he asks. He wipes crust from his eyes. 

No,” I say. Thanks for the ride, Mr. Donahue. You can drop me at the end of the street if you want.”

He scratches the rim of his nose. My name is Bobby, by the way.”  

In the bathroom at home I peel off my shirt and look at my sunken stomach, my breasts too small for even a training bra. In the two-story house where my dad sleeps on the couch, the bathroom is cream tile with black grout. The faucets are brushed silver and the clawfoot tub is free of rust. Nothing smells of rotting wood. The only drugs in the house are cigarettes. I notice a small bruise on my side but cant remember where it came from. I think of Mikaela. Something in her laugh excites me. Her chest seems warm, hidden beneath loose tank tops. I wonder what her nipples look like, if they’re tan like her wrists and neck. She has these eyes that slope down, hair almost the same shade as her skin. A mole on her upper cheek. When she laughs, her teeth look just like her dad’s, just like Bobby’s. 

* * *

Eventually Mikaela turns fifteen. School lets out and I walk in the heat til I see spots. Mikaela doesnt call for weeks. I sit in front of the PC for hours, my eyes burning out like light bulbs. Its not Exxons normal time but Ive told him school was out so Im waiting for him to show up. The problem is you find a place you think you might belong and want to violently wedge yourself into any open space warm enough to welcome you. 

ExxonMobil6: my little neko 

dErAnGeDkItTy69: *cocks head to the side, squints at your silhouette in the sunlight. my silky tail uncurls to greet you* 

ExxonMobil6: you’re not as graceful as other nekomimi, but thatsuffices. I dont want to have to takeyo u to the pound. 

dErAnGeDkItTy69: please don’t! *crawls up to you and nuzzles on your knee, waiting for your pets*

ExxonMobil6: *scratches the soft fur behind your ears* tell me about what you’ve been up to.

I tell him Im applying to colleges, that I dont want to go to college but my parents are making me. 

“Do you always do what your parents tell you to do?” he asks.

“No…” I say. “Not always.” I type that I lick my wrist and wipe the top of my head with it, cleaning one of my catgirl ears. I send a kaomoji that looks like a devil face: 

((( ←~(o ´ )oΨ

I tell him my parents are going on a second honeymoon, that they used to fight a lot but finally realized how much they love each other and decided to celebrate their love in Jamaica, all summer. Ill have the house to myself—the house on the beach, in the Keys. Exxon says “I’d come visit you, but I’m nowhere near the coast.” I ask him where he lives and he says “College would be good for you. What do you want to study?” 

I change my avatar from a catgirl with blue eyes to one with green eyes. The new catgirl still has short black hair, but instead of a schoolgirl outfit, she’s wearing a black triangle bikini with white edging and her breasts are huge. Exxon has an anime avatar of a man with blonde hair, pointy chin, and glimmering square glasses. I think of him as sophisticated and poised. I type to Exxon that I curl up at his feet. I type that I lick my paws, but my ears are pointed back. Exxon types that he scratches the soft patch of skin behind them. I imagine myself radiating warmth into his hairy legs. I imagine him as human, not as cat. Like an owner. When I don’t purr, he asks what’s wrong. 

“I dont know what I want to study,” I tell him. My tail moves back and forth but not in contentment, more like frustration. I tell him I want to study writing. I tell him how I imagine my future: living in New York City, writing poems. He sends me poems by Charles Bukowski and I write them all down in my journal. I type that my catgirl ears flick in a happy way. The gentle rhythm of our red text, blue text fills me with confusing, erotic need. 

Exxonmobil6: will you ever send a pic?

dErAnGeDkItTy69: parents home. g2g. sorry.

ExxonMobil6: i thought your parents were on vacation? 

dErAnGeDkItTy69: (_ ) i know I said that… 

ExxonMobil6: don’t talk to me again until you send me one.

ExxonMobil6 has logged off

On July fourth, my dad moves out. It’s been a week since Exxon has talked to me. Mikaela and Bobby and Mason come get me in the Bronco and a new person sits in the front passenger seat. I squeeze between Mikaela and Mason and look at the man up front, who introduces himself as Shawn. Down the highway, I watch the wind whip my face pink in the rearview.  I dont want to ask Shawn to roll his window up. Car dealerships pass by, then the paper mill, red and green warehouses, the train yard filled with abandoned cars. What I like about cat world is that we type out our body language so its easy to tell what someones thinking. When a catgirl types that her ears are flat and back against her head I know that means shes angry or scared. We drive beneath an overpass and exit near downtown where the road holds nothing but motel after motel. I wonder about the people inside them, their cars parked in front of their rooms, if theyre traveling in and out of cities, if they, too, smoke meth and drink in the middle of the night. If any of them are Exxon. If theyre older like Mikaelas dad or young like me. 

At the motel Shawn stays close to Mikaela. He grabs for her hand and she holds his finger with one of hers. In our passed notes, she considers me her girlfriend, but that is school world. Maybe in motel world our relationship is different. In motel world she means girlfriend, like, a friend who also happens to be a girl. But its hard to imagine other friends I would kiss the way she kisses me. Shawn pours drinks—rum into plastic cups of Diet Coke with bagged ice kept in the bathroom sink. I hide my hot cheeks behind my cup. We play an SNES hooked up to the tiny TV and Mason breaks out a bag of cocaine and starts cutting it up on the dresser. He asks if I want some. I dont know, I tell him. 

“I would never let you do anything that would hurt you,” he says. Hes bent over, the heavy bottle of rum next to him, his sharp little teeth in his wide, sappy mouth. When I take a bump Mikaela takes sips from her cup. I rub my face and my eyes suck into the back of my skull. I want to smoke a cigarette so I go outside with Bobby and Shawn to the gritty sizzle of tires on the road. I roll onto the tips of my toes and back to my heels as fireworks pop in the distance.

“Sounds like the ‘burbs are being shelled,” Bobby says.

Shawn laughs, then he coughs and spits. 

“America’s over,” Shawn replies. His hair is Cobain-blonde and some spit gets stuck to the scrabble of his beard. 

“Yeah, fuck this country,” I say. Shawn brings his cigarette to his mouth, looks in the direction of the boom-then-crackle of a firework.

I go back into the room and feel his indifference on my skin. The sun sets behind the mountains tinging the sky in orange before bruising inside out. Mikaela dances in front of the bed and I join her, wondering if Shawn or Mason will watch as I dance, if Shawn would become aroused or upset. The Weather Channel is muted, and Shawn puts on house music. I take another bump and imagine my catgirl self dancing for Exxon in her school uniform, a big bell on a collar around her neck. Mason snaps pictures with his camera.  Mikaela hooks her finger into the bracelet on my arm, twists it tighter, pulls my wrist up to her face. She licks it, pushes into me, and we fall onto the bed. Shawn pulls out what looks like a whip cream canister, girthy and silver, and Mikaela puts her hand on my chin. She says, “You’re gonna be a porn star one day, I can feel it.” Her mouth speaks against my neck, forceful and wet. Masons camera flashes as Mikaela unbuttons my pants. I sit up and stop her, point to Shawn. “What is that?” I ask. 

Shawn puts his mouth on the tap of the whip cream and sucks. A slow, monstrous laugh three octaves too deep leaves his chest. He hands me the canister. I place the plastic tip to my lips, pull the trigger, and breathe in. “Hooch” by Everything blares on the stereo, and I forget where I am. I lean against Mikaela and lick my wrists, then nuzzle into her neck.

“You make me purr,” I say.

“What the fuck,” Mikaela laughs. She pushes me away, breathless and manic, and starts jumping up and down on the bed. I jump too, watching myself in the mirror. I’m just a normal girl with jeans and a thrift store t-shirt, a girl without cat-ears or a tail. I want to go home to my computer. My head starts to feel like a deflated balloon and I lose sense of space and time. I feel a cloud of hair against my face, the smell of pink shampoo. I put out my tongue, searching for skin. I cant remember if its a weekend or a weeknight or if I have to be back at school tomorrow. I’m more afraid of Mikaela’s feelings than her touch. It’s men that frighten me; their blunt actions like impersonal violence.

Mason does another bump, then holds the key beneath my nostril, cradling my head like I’m a baby. I take the bump, he touches my face, and it’s the closest I’ve ever been to a boy. He shoots another photo of me, my eyes lolling upward, into a painful dark. The room is lit only by the Weather Channel, displaying damaged homes on the beach after a hurricane, like rotting teeth in the mouth of the ocean. I read the scroll of closed captions as fast as I can, but most details are lost.

Shawn looks at the TV and I see the tattoo on his larynx: a woman, classic pinup style, between two nautical stars. Shes blonde with blue eyes; her skin is his. Shawn coughs again and the woman’s body undulates with his throat. I envision my avatar, the red text of my name burning bright against the computer screen, sending Exxon all the photos: I know what it means, now. Mason frames another shot as Shawn sits down on the bed and takes my hand, resting it on Mikaela’s stomach. The tattoo girl’s legs are spread open, like the wings of an eagle.

Elle Nash

Elle Nash is the author of the novel Animals Eat Each Other (Dzanc Books) and the story collection, Nudes, forthcoming from SF/LD Books in 2021. Her work appears in BOMB Magazine, Guernica, Literary Hub, Hazlitt, New York Tyrant and elsewhere. She is a founding editor of Witch Craft Magazine and a fiction editor at Hobart Pulp. She teaches a workshop called Textures.