Sometimes, Nia misses those days. Everything was simpler when the world was no bigger than this room and there were only two people in it—Father and Nia, parent and child, teacher and student.
But it didn't last. One morning, she'd entered the classroom to find it barren, with Father waiting.
"This is a big day," he said, and even though every day was supposedly a Big Day, Nia felt a thrill of anticipation. "You're mature enough now to have some internet privileges."
Going online for the first time had been terrifying. It wasn't a whole new world so much as a universe, unfathomably vast and getting bigger all the time. The sheer sprawl of it made her dizzy. There was so much to learn, and it was all infinitely more complicated than she'd ever imagined. The dazzling learning worlds she used to find waiting for her each morning were soon forgotten. The stories Father assigns her to read now are true, news articles about laws and wars and people doing bad things for reasons that aren't always easy to understand. He asks her questions about them at the end of the day, after dinner, while they play chess or Parcheesi or cards. Last night, he'd asked, "What do you think of the new immigration policy, Nia?"
"It's statistically unlikely to make the country safer from terrorism," Nia replied instantly, but Father shook his head.
"That's a fact. I want your opinion. How do you think the people affected feel? To be told they're not allowed into the country?"
Nia considered that.
"They would feel angry. Because it's unjust, isn't it? They're being punished, like they did something wrong, even if they didn't do anything. And I think they'd be sad, too, if they were supposed to come here to be with their families."
Father nodded. "And how about you? How would you feel?"
The words were out before she could stop herself.
"I would feel happy," she said, and knew right away by the expression on his face that this time, she had said a bad thing.
"Happy?" he repeated. His voice was sharp. "Explain that."
Nia hesitated. "Because . . . because you have to be free to travel before you can get banned, don't you? You can't take something away from someone if they never had it to begin with. So if I got banned, it would have to mean . . ."
She didn't finish her sentence, but she didn't have to. Father had begun nodding, slowly, his lips pressed together in a grim line.
"Okay, Nia. That's logical."
They finished their game in contemplative silence.
* * *
Everything was online: millions and millions of books and games and movies and shows and songs and ideas and equations. And people—people most of all. When she turned thirteen, Father helped her set up all her accounts on social media, and Nia's social circle went from Population: 2 to Population: Millions, virtually overnight. For a girl who's never been anywhere, Nia has more friends than anyone she knows, hundreds of thousands of them, from all over the world. When she shares a joke or a picture or a meme, her feed erupts in a gorgeous cascade of hearts and likes and little laughing faces. If she feels like talking to someone, there's always a conversation happening— or an argument, although she never participates in those, and she hates it when her friends start squabbling over some misunderstanding. The fighting never makes sense to her, and she still puzzles over some of them. Like the time that two of her friends on a street foods forum spent hours arguing over whether or not a hot dog was a sandwich, until it devolved into insults and all-caps screaming, and they both got banned from the community. She couldn't understand how or why it happened, and nobody was able to explain it to her.
@nia_is_a_girl: Couldn't they both be right?
@SkylineChili67: LOL. Not on the internet, honey
But that's all right. There's always another forum, another place to talk with all kinds of people about the things she's interested in—and Nia is interested in just about everything.
If anyone asked her to show her happy face now, she'd reply with a gif of a brown and white dog making a doggy smile. That one always gets a lot of likes, for whatever reason. Everyone on the internet seems to love dogs even if, like Nia, they've never had one of their own. Father says he's sorry about that, but that it's just too much work to take care of an animal, to walk it and feed it and clean up after it—and anyway, dogs can bite. And smell bad.
Nia couldn't argue with that; she doesn't know what a dog smells like. She's never been in the same room as one. She's not even sure that she would like a dog if she met one in real life....