The next day, the robots were back, and they appeared to have frightened off the zombies. The day after that, the zombies returned. And so it went, alternating between robots and the walking dead, separated by the days, refusing to mingle.
He’d mastered his robot survival technique a while ago, so those days were easy. It didn’t take long to figure out how to deal with zombies. They were stupid and slow, and maybe if he ran into a few dozen at once, he’d be in trouble. The most he ever saw was a group of seven, and they were pretty far gone, even for decayed dead people. He spent several days learning what he could about the hungry dead because he liked learning rules and it was something to do.
The zombies’ normal senses failed quickly as they rotted, replaced by a new system of vibration and heat detection. It was reliable, but even that went south after a while. Then they could only trudge around or stand there, gaping and wheezing.
You could tell how old they were by the quality of their wheeze. The fresher zombies groaned. Those were the ones Felix had to watch out for. Not that they ever got close to him. He wasn’t an idiot.
In the second stage, the groan became more of a gurgle. They couldn’t see or smell anything, but their heat / vibration sense was accurate enough to get them where they were going.
Once the gurgle became a dry wheeze, it signaled the end of their cycle. Zombies could die. They’d crawl around a bit or twitch on the ground, but eventually, they’d stop moving.
He tried to document the rate of decay, if only to give himself a project, but the world reset every day. A crawler might be lurking outside his apartment building one day, but come the next zombie day, it would be gone.
Just for fun, he’d spent a day luring zombies into parked cars. The next zombie day, not only were the zombies gone, but the cars weren’t even the same. He’d never noticed that before.
It was at this point that Felix decided something strange was going on here.
Well, stranger than he first realized.
The world had a reset button. It wasn’t perfect. Little details like cars might not always be the same. But the buildings stayed put, and the zombies and robot messes cleaned up every day.
After a few weeks, his real foe reappeared.
It all got very repetitive once again. The cat didn’t seem to notice as long as Felix kept it fed, but its company left a lot to be desired. A dog would’ve been cooler, could go with him on his trips through the city. Felix would name the dog Shep or Blueberry. And then, at some point, Shep or Blueberry would save Felix from a robot or zombie attack. The loyal dog would give his dying breath for his master, and it’d all be very tragic and beautiful in a tragically beautiful way.
But the cat (that Felix hadn’t gotten around to naming yet) was far less likely to do any of that. Even if it did, it wouldn’t be the same. It was just a fucking cat. Nobody told stories about a boy and his fucking cat.
He sat on his sofa, contemplating the cat, his only friend in the whole damn world.
It rubbed against his legs and purred. Felix felt guilty for thinking bad about the cat, but then he decided that was the genius of the cat. It wasn’t doing anything useful. It was just acting nice, rubbing against Felix’s legs, making him feel bad without actually helping him.
As mad as he wanted to be about that, he couldn’t resist the cat’s manipulations. He reached down, petted it, smiled despite himself. The cat pressed its head into his hand and meowed.
“You’re still an asshole.”
The air popped.
Felix, who at this point was highly attuned to anything unusual, got up from the sofa and listened. He didn’t know why he stood, but it always seemed like he listened harder when on his feet.
Two more pops.
Car backfires. Gunshots. Fireworks. Something else.
He grabbed his baseball bat and his gun. He wasn’t very good with the revolver, but he’d decided he should carry one on zombie days. He’d gotten over his reluctance to shoot the undead. He’d stopped seeing them as people weeks ago.
It’d be safer to not investigate the pops, but it wasn’t as if he could stop himself. He couldn’t turn away from something new.
“Keep an eye on the place, would you?”
He used the same joke every time. The cat never seemed to appreciate it.
Felix ventured out. The street was empty of zombies, but as soon as he stepped into the late afternoon, he heard the pop again.
It wasn’t hard to track it down, even with the echoing canyon that was the empty city. He knew the layout of the blocks thoroughly, could’ve walked it all with a blindfold on. Ten minutes later, he found the source.
A human woman.
A human, living breathing woman.
His first thought was that he wished she was prettier. Stupid, but that was what it was.
His second thought was that if he didn’t do something soon she’d be killed by the twenty or thirty zombies closing in on her from all sides.
This was where a dog would’ve been handy. He resisted the urge to rush in, gun blazing. He was more likely to trip and end up shooting himself than come to the rescue. Most of the zombies weren’t too close, and the few within range, she took down with expert marksmanship.
Blam. Headshot. Blam. Headshot. Blam. Headshot. Blam. Throatshot. Grimace. Reload like a pro. Blam. Headshot.
She probably didn’t need rescuing. Shame. He would’ve liked the chance to make a good impression.
He waited until there weren’t any zombies close to her (for her safety), while she was reloading (for his), to finally call out to her.
He winced. Damn, that sounded stupid.
The woman pivoted in his direction, and he was glad he’d waited because he had no doubt she would’ve blown a hole in his face.
“I’m not a zombie!” he shouted.
She returned to reloading. “No shit!”
The way she said it made him feel like an idiot.
He pointed to the postal carrier zombie shuffling up behind her. “Hey, uh, hey!”
She turned, fired her pistol, dropping the carrier with one clean shot.
“Good job!” Felix offered two thumbs up.
Again, she gave him a look that implied she found him more annoying than the walking dead around her.
Several of the zombies moved toward him. He drew his gun and took a moment to carefully aim. His first shot sheared off the top of the closest zombie’s skull but didn’t put it down. His second tore off the left side of its jaw.
He was never any good with the gun. He should’ve known better than to try. He put it away and grabbed his bat. It was easier to bash in the zombie’s skull this way, and he didn’t screw it up. With three solid strikes, he crushed the corpse’s head.
He was disappointed to find the woman, occupied with shooting zombies, hadn’t noticed his kill.
“I got this one!” he shouted.
“Yeah, congratulations!” She blasted another two zombies in two quick shots.
The remaining undead weren’t much of a threat to either Felix or the woman. He bashed in the heads of two more while she picked off the rest. Then he walked over to her, his baseball bat covered in corpse goop, and tried to act casual.
“Hey, nice shooting.”
She reloaded her pistol, holstered it.
“Automatic, huh?” he said. “I went with a revolver. More stopping power. Magnum force.”
He sounded ridiculous, but he took some comfort in the fact that he was probably the last man on earth, so he had that going for him.
“First of all, that’s an IOF .32 revolver,” she said. “You’re thinking of a .357. Secondly, I’m carrying a .50 caliber desert eagle pistol, which has more stopping power than that pea shooter. Thirdly, it doesn’t matter how much stopping power you have if you can’t hit shit.”
“Wow. You know a lot about guns.”
“I know enough.”
There was an awkward silence between them.
“My name’s Felix,” he finally said.
She started walking, and he walked with her.
“We might be the last two people on Earth,” he said. Given her icy demeanor, he thought it good to remind her.
“Where did the ants go?” she asked.
“Giant ants,” she said. “Size of horses, jet planes. Hard to miss.”
“I haven’t seen any giant ants,” he replied. “Just robots and zombies.”
She stopped suddenly, and he walked a few steps past her.
“Robots?” she said.
“I think they’re from outer space. I don’t know for sure. I don’t know why they’re doing this to us though. I’m Felix, by the way.”
“Heard you the first time.” The woman took a drink from a canteen. “So where are these robots?”
“They don’t show up on zombie days.”
“And the ants?” she asked.
“Haven’t seen any ants.” He didn’t know why he sounded apologetic for saying that. “So where did you come from?”
“Uptown. Overstreet Hotel.”
“How long have you been there?”
“Four-hundred-seven days,” she said. “Where did you come from?”
“I live just a few blocks away from here. Not far.”
“When did you get here?”
“Get here? I’ve been here for a while now.”
She gave him a narrow eyed stare. Like she didn’t believe him. It pissed him off.
“I’ve been there like . . . I don’t know,” he said. “I lost count a while ago. But it was a while ago. Maybe four or five years. Maybe three. I don’t know.”
She shrugged. “Whatever.”
“I can show you my place if you don’t believe me,” he said.
She said it begrudgingly, like she was placating a child.
“You can trust me.” He blurted it out, realizing it was an untrustworthy thing to say.
She shrugged again. “Whatever.”
“I’m not dangerous.” He couldn’t figure out why he was saying such stupid things, but in his defense, he hadn’t talked to anyone other than a cat in ages.
She turned from him. It wasn’t because she trusted him. She saw him as harmless. She walked a wide path around a mound of meat in a tuxedo that was a re-killed zombies, but she was perfectly fine with exposing her back to him.
He found that insulting. He couldn’t say why.
She stopped, looked over her shoulder at Felix. “Are you going to lead the way, champ?”
He started walking. She followed, scanning the area with a steady, sweeping gaze. She was like as soldier on high alert.
“It’s okay,” he said. “The zombies are pretty easy to stay ahead of. Just avoid blind corners and tight spots.”
“So do you have a name?” he asked.
“Gretel,” she said.
“Hmm. Funny name.”
She didn’t reply.
“Not there’s anything wrong with that,” he said. “I mean, it’s sort of classic.”
Still no reply.
“You don’t look like a Gretel though.” He tried to stop digging himself deeper, but her silence was overpowering. “I mean, I don’t know what a Gretel looks like. I guess I picture pig-tails and lederhosen. Although I don’t know if German women wear lederhosen.”
His throat, in a well-meaning effort to shut him up, went dry. He croaked onward.
“Also, y’know, I don’t usually think of people like you with a name like Gretel.”
He shut up. It was too late then, and he was grateful for her silence because—
“People like me,” she said with flat displeasure.
It was his turn to be quiet.
“What kind of person am I?” she asked.
“People,” he said. “Just people.”
“Just people? Or just black people?”
Great. Last two people on Earth, and he was coming across as a racist asshole.
“It’s just this way. Right over here.”
He ran ahead, putting some space between them. He started thinking about his place. Was it tidy enough? Did he have any porn lying out? He was careful with his porn. It was something he took very seriously, and even after the robot apocalypse, it was a habit he hadn’t broken.
He hadn’t made a great impression. He didn’t want to worsen it.
They made it back to the apartment without any further zombie incidents. The few undead they ran across were far off and easily avoided. He rushed into the apartment ahead of her and started straightening up in a flurry. A few old soda cans and beer bottles. Some paper plates he hadn’t pitched in the garbage yet.
Gretel glanced around the apartment. He studied her face for any sign of approval or revulsion. He saw nothing.
“Where are your radios?” she asked.
“I don’t listen to a lot of music.”
“How do you keep the ants out?”
“I used to put the food away,” he said, “but it wasn’t really necessary because I don’t think there are any ants left.”
She glanced at him.
“You mean the giant ants.” He shrugged. “I haven’t seen any of those around.” Again, he didn’t know why he sounded so apologetic about it.
She grunted. “I believe you. The ants would’ve eaten you if you’d been living here.”
The cat raised its head and appraised Gretel. She did the same.
“Where did you find that?” she asked.
“Just out and about,” replied Felix. “Funny. Seems like years since I saw another living creature. Then the cat comes along. And now you.”
Gretel paced the room before sitting on the couch beside the cat. She picked up an old People magazine and thumbed through it. “Nice setup. Tin foil is a bit odd.”
“Keeps the robots at bay.”
She nodded to herself. To his relief, it didn’t seem like a humor the crazy guy nod.
“Can I get you something?” he asked. “Something to drink maybe?”
“Take a Coke if you’ve got one, champ.”
He grabbed a couple of sodas out of the fridge. He sat on the other end of the sofa with the cat between them. They drank the sodas in silence.
“We’re not going to have sex yet,” she said as calmly as if discussing the weather.
The thought had occurred to him, but in a vague, at some point in the future, way. He assumed something would happen at one point by virtue of their situation, but he wasn’t certain he was ready for something like that. Thinking about it gave him a nervous erection. He hid it by turning away and rearranging his DVD collection.
“We can’t stay here,” she said. “This place isn’t secure.”
“It’s kept me safe.”
“Safe against robots and zombie. The ants will chew right through these walls in a minute unless we get some radios.”
“There haven’t been any ants.”
“Maybe not right now, but I didn’t survive this long by getting sloppy. When the reset comes, the ants will come. They always do.” Gretel tossed the magazine on the coffee table.
“Wait. Shouldn’t we stick together?”
“I do better on my own. See you around, champ.”
She walked out the front door. He sat on the couch, unsure whether he should follow her. She might be right. He might be better off on his own, too. Saving the cat had nearly killed him, and it had wanted to be saved. Gretel viewed him as more of an inconvenience.
Felix jumped to his feet and ran after her. She was already halfway down the street.
He shouted after her. “If the robots come back, you’ll need tinfoil! Put it on your head! It masks your brainwaves. Or something!”
Gretel waved without looking back.
“Good luck!” he yelled.
She didn’t acknowledge that. He watched her walk away until she disappeared around the corner. He waited a while after that, listening for gunshots. He wanted an excuse to chase after her. Being the only two people on Earth should’ve been enough of a reason. It wasn’t.
He was also fairly certain she’d shoot him if she caught him following her, and he couldn’t judge her for that. He’d almost strangled the cat that first night.
Felix would give her space. He’d trust she was smart enough to listen to him about the foil. He scavenged some radios from electronics stores, just in case.
After that, he spent the rest of the day in his place, watching the door, checking the windows. Hoping that every zombie he saw would be Gretel coming back after changing her mind. Terrified of that possibility, too.
She didn’t return.
He fell asleep on the couch, wondering what strange monsters would be waiting for him tomorrow.