Don’t panic,” said Gretel.
He was mildly insulted she thought he would. He’d faced robots and zombies. An unusually large ant wasn’t that terrifying.
“I thought you said they were the size of buses and jumbo jets,” he said.
“This is just a scout. They come out in the mornings.” She checked her watch. “Yep. Six after six. Just like always.”
The blue-black ant’s antennae twitched. It scuttled away silently.
“Strange that the broken TVs are fixed, but our radios weren’t put back on the shelves,” he observed.
“No stranger than anything else, champ. We have to get these radios back and set up. Once that scout reports back . . . . ”
She didn’t finish the sentence, but he got the idea. He wondered whether he preferred getting chainsawed by robots or eaten alive by ants. Probably robots, he decided.
Gretel pushed the cart out into the street. The same clouds covered the sky, and the morning light, such as it was, bathed the city in a dim yellow glow. More little giant ants walked the sidewalks and scaled the buildings. They weren’t huge, but there were a lot of them. If they decided to attack en masse, there wasn’t anything Felix or Gretel could do to escape.
She took a moment to turn on a battery-operated boom box, tuning it to the correct frequency. It buzzed with static, and all the mini-monster bugs scattered without direction.
“One is usually enough to scare off the little ones,” explained Gretel as she turned the volume down just low enough to still be heard as white noise.
“That’s really cool,” he said. “Still wish we knew how you figured it out.”
“It’s weird,” she agreed.
He couldn’t remember either. He thought back to his first day with the robots, but he couldn’t remember that either. All the days blended together. He’d accepted that, but there had to be a first day. That should’ve stuck with him at the very least.
He couldn’t recall it. Trying made his head hurt. Not metaphorically either.
Felix tried pushing past the pain. He wanted to remember the first day of the robot uprising and the last day of his normal life.
He drew a blank, only ending up with a sudden, throbbing ache running through his skull and down his spine. It disappeared the moment he stopped trying.
“What was your life like before?” he asked.
“Nothing special,” she replied.
“That’s not an answer,” he said.
“Does it really matter anymore?”
He grabbed her arm.
“Watch it now.” Gretel put her hand on her gun.
“Do you remember anything? What was your father’s name? Where did you grow up? What did you do for a living?”
A pained expression came over her face. “It doesn’t matter.”
He dared putting his hands on her shoulders. Gently, so as not to get punched or shot. “One memory. Just one before the ants came.”
He could tell she was having as much trouble as he’d had. Maybe more.
“You can’t remember anything?” he asked.
The moment was more devastating than any robot legion or horde of zombies. They had no past. He couldn’t even remember his last name. It’d been like this for years, but he’d never realized it until right this moment.
There was only now. There was only the city.
“What’s wrong with us?” she asked.
He wanted to give her an answer. He didn’t have one, but he could’ve made one up. He would’ve known it for the lie it was, but at least she’d feel better. But she wouldn’t have believed the lie either.
“It’s not us,” he said. “It’s this place. It’s done something to us.”
Gretel shook her head. “How do we even know what we are?”
It was the use of the word what that frightened Felix the most. He felt more like an object than a person right now. People had pasts. People had memories. People had things to define them: favorite colors, favorite foods, hometowns, cherished dead pets, first kisses.
Objects merely existed.
He couldn’t even get angry. It was too overwhelming to get mad at. It was like raging at the universe, only to watch that rage get swallowed up by overwhelming cosmic indifference.
TVs didn’t get mad. Cars didn’t get mad. Furniture didn’t get mad. Why the hell should he?
“We need to get out of here,” he said.
“Where?” she asked.
“Anywhere. It doesn’t matter where. Just as long as it’s out of this city.”
“What do you expect to find?”
“I don’t know, but we’ve been here too long. We have to try.”
He didn’t specify what they were trying to do.
“What’s the point?” she asked.
“Trying is the point,” he replied. “It’s what separates us from everything else in this city. Cars don’t try. Lampposts accept their fate. We’re not furniture.”
He hoped it sounded inspiring, but even to him, it sounded like the derailed train-of-thought of a slight lunatic. Although was there such a thing as slight lunacy?
“We’re not furniture,” Gretel repeated. She didn’t sound so sure.
“I’m leaving. Today. I’ll walk until I get out of here. You’re welcome to join me. Or you can stay here. Either way, I’m going.”
He found himself ambivalent about her decision. He didn’t want to leave her behind, but, outside of being the only two people alive, they didn’t have anything in common. Not that it was either of their faults.
Felix had a closer attachment to the cat, and he hadn’t even named the damned thing yet. To be fair, it was easier with the cat. Everything was spelled out, and if the cat didn’t have any memories, it didn’t seem bothered by their absence.
People were just so much more complicated.
“I think it’s a waste of time.” Gretel shrugged. “But what else do I have to do?”
They decided to wait out the ants. The larger versions were only deterred by three or four boom boxes playing at the right frequency, and that was a lot for two people to haul.
By mid-afternoon, bugs as large as cars and buses strolled through the streets. They could’ve smashed their way into the apartment, but the static white noise of the radios kept them at bay. As a precaution, Felix and Gretel bunkered down in the apartment and watched movies.
They didn’t have sex again. They were both too distracted by their own thoughts about what they might find outside of the city. Felix kept trying to remember anything from before this. All he ended up with was frustration and a headache.
Until he found something.
Gretel had already gone to bed, and he was staring at the TV, not really watching it. He had it tuned to the green haze in hopes of seeing something more about the door, but after a while, it became an emerald portal into mysteries unknown. He didn’t know how long he stared at it, but in a moment of clarity, he remembered.
He jumped off the couch and ran into the bedroom. Gretel, her arms folded across her chest, sat on the bed. Her gun was within easy reach of the end table, but he tried not to read too much into that or ponder how long she’d been sitting there, staring at him, from the darkened bedroom, through the closed door.
“I had a Volkswagen,” he said. “It was green, and it smelled like stale pizza.”
She didn’t respond.
He sat on the edge of the bed, and he could feel the worn cracked leather seats of the old car.
“I could never find reverse on the first try,” he said. “And the radio didn’t work.”
Gretel’s face remained blank.
“We can remember,” he said. “We just have to try.”
“Congratulations. You’ve remembered a crappy car.”
“It wasn’t just a crappy car. It was my crappy car. The first car I bought with my own money.”
She stared, not at him, but at the wall across from her. “What color was it?”
“Green. Or blue. It was one of those.”
“How many miles did it have on it?”
“I don’t remember.”
“How much did you pay for it?”
Felix’s head started to hurt again. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t remember shit then.”
“Why are you doing this?” His voice was louder than he expected.
Gretel looked him in the eye. He could see then that they weren’t exactly the same. She’d stopped caring. He hadn’t. Not yet. He’d only thought he had, but some part of him was still trying to find something to hold onto. And she was trying to take that away from him.
“I had a car.” He wanted to shout it. He wanted to convince her through sheer force of will.
“Maybe you only think you had a car,” she said. “You could tell me everything about it. It still wouldn’t be anything. Even if it was a real memory, what difference would it make? It’s all pointless now. It doesn’t matter. None of it matters.”
“I’m tired, Champ.”
She laid down, rolled over to put her back to him.
She wouldn’t believe him. And she was right. It didn’t mean anything. It was only the daydream of a man who had spent too long alone, but now wished he could go back to that solitary existence, even as the mere thought of such a life terrified him.
He reached out to put a hand on her leg under the blanket but hesitated. The distance between them was just too far. They’d been alone too long. Or they were broken, had been broken before any of this started. They had no way of knowing.
Felix took back his hand and stood.
“Good night, Gretel.”
She mumbled something.
He went to sleep on the couch. He felt more alone than he ever had as the last man.
The cat jumped on his chest. He petted it as it kneaded his shirt while purring. It was just a cat. It only wanted food and water and a safe place to hide out from zombies and robots and giant ants. But at least it needed him. At least it seemed happy he was around.
The cat meowed at him as it forced its head under his fingers so that he’d scratch the right spot.
“You and me, buddy.”