Gretel shook Felix awake.
“Get up, champ. We don’t have much time.”
He rolled over. “What’s wrong?”
“The ants,” she said. “We have to get ready for the goddamn ants.”
“There aren’t any ants today.” He buried his head in his pillow.
“Not today, but what about tomorrow?” She yanked his pillow out from under his head, whipped away his blanket.
“Tomorrow is a zombie day,” he said.
Felix sat up reluctantly. He waited for his head to clear though even in his fog he could see her logic. If there was a progression to all this, it fit together.
“Do you think so?” he asked.
She threw his pants at him. “Hell if I know, but if I’m wrong and we prepare for it, we’ve only wasted our time. If I’m right and we don’t, we’re ant chow when the reset hits.”
Perhaps it was a sign of his worn mind, but he considered rolling over, going back to sleep, and taking his chances.
“We need radios,” she said. “At least seven or eight more.”
“Who even uses radios anymore?” he asked as he put one leg of his pants on. The wrong leg. Grumbling, he struggled to correct the problem. He’d never been good at waking up. “What if we can’t find any? Will iPods work?”
“What the hell is an iPod?” she asked.
It was clear from the look on her face that she wasn’t.
“Revolutionary technology,” he said. “Completely changed the way people buy and listen to music. Kind of a big thing. Very popular.”
“Never heard of it. Kind of a stupid name, isn’t it?”
“I didn’t name it.”
She tossed his shoes at him. They landed on his lap.
“Will you stop throwing clothes at me?”
“Fine. Die. I don’t give a shit.” She stormed out of the bedroom. Moments later, he heard the apartment door open and slam shut.
He felt like a dick for some reason.
“Damnit.” He tugged on his pants, put on his shoes, grabbed a windbreaker and his tinfoil hat as he ran after her.
He didn’t usually go out at night. It was never quite dark under the ever present gray clouds, but the murky twilight played tricks on his eyes. He often thought he could see people lurking in the shadows. During the day, the city was empty, but at night, it was filled with ghosts.
He would’ve gladly taken some spirits, friendly or sinister, roaming the streets. But they were only his imagination, wishful thinking, and anything that reminded him of how crazy he might be was something he avoided.
Stepping out into the night, he couldn’t spot Gretel, and in a frightful moment, he imagined she’d never existed at all. The whole incident, their meeting, his daring rescue, the adequate sex, all just figments of his snapped mind.
He noticed a flash of silver as Gretel’s foil hat reflected a streetlight. At least she’d been smart enough to put it on. He dashed after her.
She kept walking. “Be quiet, you idiot. There still might be robots out here.”
He pointed to his jaw. “No, we’re fine. My fillings aren’t detecting anything. You’re going to need my help.”
“I don’t need anyone’s help,” she said. “Especially not yours.”
It struck him as an odd thing to say considering that his was the only help she was likely to get.
“I suppose you’d have preferred if I’d left you to be killed by robots today?”
He immediately regretted it. Not because it wasn’t true, but because there was no point in picking a fight with the only other human being on Earth.
“I’ve been doing just fine on my own,” she said.
“Seriously? There are only two of us left here in a world that seems determined to kill us, and you would rather do this by yourself? Lady, that’s fucked up.”
She stopped, and he thought she might punch him.
“No offense,” he whispered as he stepped back.
She looked like she might say something. Instead, she kept walking.
He followed, staying a few steps behind.
“Hey, I’m sorry. That was out of line.”
“No, it wasn’t.” Gretel stopped again. “I was out of line. You came for me when you could’ve just as easily left me alone. You didn’t have to do that.”
“Yes, I did,” he said. “What choice did I have? Stay alone? Who would choose that?”
She laughed. “I wouldn’t have come for you.”
“Sure, you would’ve.”
“No. I wouldn’t have.”
He had no doubt she meant it either. It didn’t make much sense to him. He’d thought about strangling the cat once or twice, and his interaction with Gretel hadn’t been going all that great. But why anyone would choose to be alone in the empty city . . . he couldn’t imagine anyone wanting that.
“I don’t think you’re fucked up,” he said.
“Yes, you do. And you’re right.” She smiled at him with all the warmth of a light bulb used to power an E-Z Bake Oven. But at least it was an honest attempt. “Now let’s get those goddamn radios. We don’t have much time.”
“We’ve got hours until dawn.” It was something of an assumption. It’d been years since he’d seen the sky, and the apocalypse had taken away most of the clocks. The ones that were left behind never worked properly.
“Dawn isn’t our time limit. The reset happens before that.”
He’d never thought to try staying up to watch the reset for the exact timing. Probably because he didn’t have a way of keeping time. He had yet to find a working clock in the whole city. None of the watches in the stores ran. All the digital clocks blinked noon. It rendered time itself an unfathomable collection of minutes and hours and days all jumbled together in one giant churning sea.
They kept walking. He didn’t know where she was going, but she acted as if she knew, so he didn’t worry about it.
She said, “It happens at exactly sixteen past one, every morning. I’ve tried staying awake for it, but I can’t. No matter how many cups of coffee I drink, how many amphetamines I pop, it’s lights out at one-sixteen. Every time.” She snapped her fingers. “Wake up at six after six, the world is reset. More or less.”
“How did you figure this out without a watch?” he asked.
“I’ve got a watch, champ.” She pulled a watch from her hip pocket and dangled it on a chain for him to see.
“Where did you find that?”
She shrugged. “Don’t remember.”
They made it to the electronics store. The automated doors slid open for them, and every TV was on. A green haze filled the screens. Maybe picking up on some signal the robots were broadcasting. Maybe something else. Felix didn’t know. He’d accepted that he probably never would.
Gretel went to the stereo section and started loading boxes onto a cart. While she did that, he went over to find an iPod to show her. He came back empty handed.
“They don’t have any iPods,” he said. “What kind of electronics store doesn’t have any iPods?”
“I’m telling you, champ. That’s not a thing.”
“But I remember them. I had one.”
“Maybe you just dreamed them.”
“I don’t have dreams,” he said.
“Me neither,” she said.
“No!” He grabbed a portable radio display model and smashed it to the ground. “And who the hell uses boom boxes anymore?”
He kicked the broken radio across the aisle.
“This doesn’t make any sense.”
He stepped on the broken pieces of plastic, listening to the crunch under his feet.
“It doesn’t make any fucking sense.”
Gretel kept loading radios. “Yeah, it’s all screwed up.”
There wasn’t an ounce of sympathy in her voice, and he hated her. He hated her for bringing him here, for making him think about questions he couldn’t answer. He imagined himself bashing in her skull with whatever he could find.
He just wanted it all to go back to the way it was. No Gretel. No cat. Just him and the robots. The very notion had been his greatest fear less than an hour ago, and now he would’ve given anything to have it back.
He didn’t know what the hell he wanted. The apocalypse did strange things to a person’s mind. He pondered how unhinged he’d become. He didn’t think he was dangerous. They were only passing thoughts.
He met Gretel’s eyes, and he saw the same thoughts running through her head. Or he only imagined them. He couldn’t be sure of anything. He couldn’t even be sure of fucking iPods.
She put her hand on his shoulder. He raised his fist, but she punched him in the gut, knocking the fight out of him.
“Why did you do that?” he gasped.
“Looked like you needed it.” She offered her hand, and he took it. “Feel better now?”
“Not really.” He wiped some of the drool from his mouth. “Maybe.”
“Sorry about that,” he said. “I think I’m losing my mind.”
“You’d have to be crazy not to.” She slapped his arm. “It’s going to get to you now and then. You’re only human. Me, I think I went crazy two-hundred-and-five days ago.”
“You don’t seem crazy,” he said.
“Just fucked up?” She grinned.
“I’ve got issues. You’ve got issues. Everybody’s got issues. Or had them. No point in pretending like we don’t.”
He didn’t know about that. He’d often thought that the robot apocalypse hadn’t driven him crazy. It’d just made it all the easier to act out his crazy. People were crazy. All of them. It was the presence of other people, of society, that compelled them to hide it. Behavior was best defined by what the people around you did. You couldn’t have normal all by yourself.
“We need to get these radios back,” she said.
The green on the TV screens blinked away. They all went black. At first, they looked like they were off, but dancing particles of dust and flashes of light meant they were showing something being filmed almost completely in the dark. The camera operator ran, though from what and to where was impossible to tell.
Gretel went to the closest flat screen TV and ran her fingers along its edges. “Where’s the volume control on this?”
“I don’t think they have them on the TV anymore. You need the remote.”
She searched fruitlessly, but he didn’t join her. He didn’t dare look away for fear of missing something. Every flash of light, every blurry something, he made sure to commit to memory.
In the distance, a pinpoint of light appeared. It grew larger, closer and closer until he could see it as an open door. He couldn’t see through the bright white light to whatever was on the other side.
“Gretel, you should see this.”
“In a minute. I need to hear—”
“You should really see this.”
The camera operator pointed it at her face. The light on the camera was too bright and the angle was too low. There wasn’t much you could see other than the glow reflecting off her skin. She had a lot of freckles. Or so it seemed.
“Ever seen her before?” asked Gretel.
The woman grinned. She said something. Two syllables. Maybe three.
“What did she say?” Felix put his head against the TV, but he only heard its hum. “Could you read her lips?”
Looking more serene than any human being had ever looked in their life, the woman dropped her camera. It clattered to the ground. Something must’ve been knocked loose. The image grew grainy, but before it stopped transmitting, the woman walked through the door, disappearing into the light.
The green fog snapped back onto the televisions.
“Shit.” Felix shook the television, knowing it couldn’t do anything, but still needing to do something. “What was that? What was that?”
“I don’t know.”
“Was she escaping?” he asked. “Did she escape?”
He was repeating himself. It made him sound like a crazy person, but he couldn’t stop.
“Escape from what?” asked Gretel.
“From this.” He waved at the rows of taunting green screens. “From this . . . this!”
“We should get going,” said Gretel.
“Get going? Get going? But who was that? She might have found a way out. We need to figure this out.”
“We don’t have time,” said Gretel. “If we don’t get these radios set up, we’ll be dead in the morning.”
He almost argued, but she was right. Getting killed wouldn’t do them any good.
“Yeah, we’ll figure it out tomorrow,” he said.
He couldn’t know what she was thinking, but if she was anything like him, she had to be turning the woman and the door over in her mind. He’d grown accustomed to unanswered questions, but this was one question he had to answer. He had to find the woman. He had to find that door.
The stores automatic doors slid open. Distracted by his own thoughts, he almost didn’t notice. Three lumberjack robots stomped their way inside. He called them lumberjacks because they were tall and wide and had chainsaws mounted on their long arms and buzz saws built into their chests and shoulders like a ludicrous killer robot designed by a six year old.
Gretel rolled her eyes as if merely running into some old friends she didn’t have much in common with anymore and just wanting to avoid them.
“What should we do?” she whispered.
“Just don’t make any noise and wait for them go away. They tend not to stick around.”
Twenty minutes later, the lumberjacks were still there, still waiting. They didn’t make a move from the door. They didn’t move at all. In another time, another place, it would’ve been easy to picture them as bizarre modern art sculptures. Out of place in this electronics store, but otherwise, nothing to fear.
Gretel checked her pocket watch. “Reset is in another hour,” she said quietly.
Felix didn’t reply. He was still staring at the green TV screen, hoping to see something. The woman. The door. Anything.
Gretel slapped him across the back of the head.
“Hey! That hurt,” he said.
One of the lumberjacks turned in their direction. The saws on its shoulders whirred for a few seconds.
Gretel leaned in close to Felix. “How do we get past those things.”
“I don’t know. They’ve never done this before,” he whispered back.
“I thought you were supposed to be the expert on these goddamn things.”
“I can’t be an expert on stuff they’ve never done before, can I? Maybe there’s a back door out of this place.”
They moved slow and steady to not draw the lumberjacks’ attention, but the moment Gretel pushed the cart of radios, the robots all rotated toward the sound of its squeaky wheels.
“Maybe we should leave the radios,” said Felix. “We can get new ones.”
She shook her head. “There’s no time for that.”
The robots took a few steps forward. The lead lumberjack used its saw to destroy a cardboard stand full of DVDs, chopping them into several pieces and stepping over the crackling remains.
Gretel turned the cart a few degrees. Its wheels squeaked, and the lumberjacks advanced with more speed, slicing their way through any shelving unit and appliance foolish enough to get in their way.
“Stop moving,” whispered Felix.
She let go of the cart, held her hands up.
The lumberjacks went still again, but their saws kept whirring. Felix and Gretel stared at the robots. The robots stared back, though they didn’t have heads. But it felt like they were watching.
Finally, Gretel had enough. She grabbed a display laptop and threw it across the store. It smashed into a wall-mounted television that came crashing down. The lumberjacks didn’t move. They didn’t even twitch, save for the steady whir of their saws.
“What the hell?” said Gretel, louder than she should have but not nearly as loud as the crash.
The robots moved closer. One step.
She gave him that look again, like he should explain it. He could only shrug.
They waited, unwilling to abandon their radios but unable to get them out. Gretel held up her watch for him to see.
Five after one. One minute until reset, if she was right.
Felix watched the seconds tick by with her. He didn’t remember falling asleep or waking up. It was just like blinking. Neither Gretel nor he had moved. They were still on their feet. It wasn’t like they’d fallen asleep, just like a sudden jump in time.
The store was fixed. The lumberjacks were gone. In their place, an ant the size of a Chihuahua was watching him with shiny black eyes.