They don’t tell you when Giant Robots attack that it starts when the air tastes like iron. I was jogging down the Eastside Trail, sweat dripping down my forehead and stinging my eyes. I had decided to start working out again after my break-up with Neel. “I don’t know, it’s like I woke up and realized my brain deleted my feelings for you,” he told me over sushi. “I’m sorry, Gina.”
“What did you just say?” I asked, partially chewed tuna falling from my open mouth. On reflection, I decided I should’ve known better, since he worked as an engineer for Delta and that for our first anniversary, he got me a gift card for Bed, Bath and Beyond.
Three weeks after the break-up, after pints of Grasshopper ice cream and Katharine Hepburn films, I got tired of the gas bloating my stomach, how long I was draped on the couch after work. I decided it was time to tone up and started jogging, even though my knees cried out after every run, because I liked that I was going somewhere yet nowhere.
At this point, my knees were complaining less, and I was pleased with the way my calves corded when I flexed them. And then, I noticed that my mouth tasted like it was bleeding.
And then, the screaming.
And then, the sound of people running.
And then, I looked up and like I was looking at a movie screen, a Giant Robot was methodically pushing aside buildings like they were playing cards.
“Fuck,” I said, as one particularly shiny building collapsed. “That’s my office building.”
They don’t tell you when Giant Robots attack the country that nope, the president and the government and the scientists really don’t have a plan. Sure, they might have a zombie contingency plan that they release for shits and giggles on Halloween, but they start clucking like chickens when Giant Robots fall from the sky and start smashing up the joint.
“I want to assure my fellow Americans that I am working on a plan to combat these intruders,” said the President in a special address to the nation from his Oval Office. I and some of my surviving neighbors were huddled around the TV in the basement beneath the ruins of our apartment building.
“If you hadn’t cut federal funding for research, maybe you’d have a plan already!” yelled Will at the TV, throwing an apple core at the grimacing visage of the President. Will, the dork who used to live a couple of doors down from me, was the one who’d rigged up the generator and satellite dish. He had been working on a master’s at Georgia Tech before a Giant Robot stomped the campus and the rest of Midtown to pieces.
“Hey now, he’s doing the best he can,” said Fred from fourth floor. I had never done more than nod at him in the laundry room or the elevator before the Giant Robots came, and that’s largely because his truck was covered with bumper stickers like Love My Truck More Than You Love Your Wife!
I rolled my eyes, glad he couldn’t see me. I was nursing a beer. Luckily, we had discovered the building manager’s secret stash of Keystone in a supply closet, after we had discovered his shoe with his foot still in it in the ruins above. It was shit-beer but at least we could spend the Apocalypse—Robot-Calypse?—wasted up to our gills.
And then, the screen of our TV fuzzed, and we could hear panicked “They’re here!” and the screen cut to black.
“Looks like they got D.C., too,” said Will.
“Damn,” I said, wishing I could feel more sadness at the demise of our President and the last sign of any functioning government, but hell, I hated the guy.
Will suddenly leaned over and offered me another beer. “You’re going to need it.” When I took the can, my fingers brushed over his, and I was surprised at how warm they were, how nice another human’s touch was, though I had a sudden memory of Neel handing me a glass of water at a party, some dumb party, and I had to look away.
When the Giant Robots attacked, it took us weeks to piece together any useful information about them. Where did they come from? What did they want? What were they?
When we could get the TV or radio working, we found out these bits of information which Will and a snot-nosed kid from Woodward Academy named Joey compiled into charts:
– The Giant Robots are not mobile suits piloted by smaller aliens. They are themselves metallic, people-smashing aliens.
– They do not speak the way we do. Attempts to communicate with them, beyond the ones that ended in all the linguists smashed into a bloody mess on concrete, yielded little to no new information or demands of any kind.
– They do not eat the way we’ve seen anything else eat. They content themselves with walking over everything and hardly seem to feel the buildings-cars-trees-animals-people beneath their feet.
I was not among those compiling this information. I found myself the mayor of our little basement community, by default. The building manager, of course, was offed quickly. Emmy Martin couldn’t stop crying. No one liked Fred. The Changs were too absorbed in their children. Gail was six months pregnant and yet was taking care of her dumb-ass husband Jim. So, I was stuck with the responsibility, because I’m reasonably polite and single and good at hiding fear behind my cheeriest smile.
Today, I was solving a dispute between Emmy and Mindy, the Chang matriarch who mostly wore scrubs even before the Giant Robots arrived, about the amount of space allotted to them in the basement.
“You’re taking too much room!”
“No, you are!”
“I have two kids”
“So? Just because I’m alone doesn’t mean I have to live in a shoebox.”
“Shoebox? Do you know how many stilettos you’re keeping down here? Who even needs to keep all of these shoes—“
“Do you know how much I paid for these? The Jimmy Choos? I’m not just going to get rid of them!”
“Who cares? We’re stuck in a godforsaken basement!”
“We’ll get out someday!”
Which was the rub. It’s a feathery thing, hope. We had to cradle it, keep it warm, or we’d all die of despair. In especially morbid moods, Joey, who had a miraculously endless supply of Tootsie rolls, and I and whoever else would speculate on who would be most likely to off themselves or the rest of us. I always said Fred, because hell, he just seemed like the kind with the antlers he had mounted on his balcony before the Robots, but Gail, for instance, while thoughtfully rubbing her swollen belly, said Emmy—“She looks ready to snap any day now.” At the time, she closed her eyes. “Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.”
Today, though, was not one of the days where I could tolerate this kind of talk and had inserted myself between Mindy and Emmy. I was so busy trying to keep them from clawing at each other that I almost didn’t hear it. A frantic banging.
“Who’s that?” said Fred, grabbing a wickedly sharp-looking katana. We didn’t even know where he got it from, except maybe he bought it after a few too many instances of watching The Walking Dead while hammered.
“It’s not a Giant Robot. Can’t be—we’d all be dead,” said Emmy, managing to sound sarcastic for once. It was strange, since she had been a Disney Princess incarnate before, but we were all changing because of the Giant Robots.
“Let me in! Gina, Gina, are you in there? Gina, are you alive?”
I ran over to the door and yanked it open. There was Neel, dusty, with a scraggly beard and a cut on his forehead instead of his usual meticulousness, which had been him clean-shaven, always wearing an ironed button-up shirt tucked into neatly creased slacks with a belt.
Actually, like this, chest heaving, collar open from missing buttons, and not a belt in sight, he looked weirdly attractive.
“Fuck you,” I said in reply. I let him in.
They don’t tell you when Giant Robots attack, that of all the people who aren’t ground into bone dust and meat sorbet, it had to be your ex.
“Gina, I wasn’t sure you’d be alive!” said Neel gasping. He had a cup of instant noodles in his hands. If it was burning him, he didn’t show. We managed to find an unopened moist towelette for him to wipe his face with.
He still looked weirdly attractive.
“Well, I am. How did you survive?”
Neel was unusually voluble. As in, he poured out whole sentences that were brimming with fear and horror: Deciding to leave the office early enough for once to just avoid the foot of the Giant Robot that smashed the rest of his coworkers to smithereens. Getting hit with some debris. Stumbling through the post-apocalyptic landscape. Joining this band or another, always barely surviving the foot or push of another robot (or the same robot? People had tried to tag them with paint to differentiate them, but they gave up after one too many people got crushed) or narrowly escaping the Lord of the Flies-esque meltdowns of many would-be tyrants.
If it had been any other person, I would have said he was lying. But this was Neel, Neel who never understood half my jokes, who needed me to slow down and explain the punchline. That kind of guy.
“I was looking for you, Gina,” he said quietly. “End of the world, and I was thinking of you.”
“Did you get that from a movie or what?” I said sharply, too quickly. My face was flushing, and I hoped the constant streaks of grime on my face hid the redness.
“Oh goddamnit, do you have this have this moment now?” yelled Fred from his corner.
“Shut up, Fred!” I shouted back.
When your ex admits that he thought of you again, of course it had to be when the Giant Robots came.
When the Giant Robots came, we learned that it’s best to move in pairs. Too many people, and they “see” you, smash you. One person is too dangerous. Having one other person keeps you small and hard to spot, yet you’ll have another pair of eyes, ears, and nose.
It was sheer happenstance that made me and Neel the pair for the day’s raid on the nearest convenience store. Sheer happenstance.
“You’re okay with this, right, Gina?” he asked me.
I made an expression that approximated a smile. “Of course,” I said.
Atlanta now resembled disassembled Legos, Lincoln Logs. I wasn’t sure where it came from, but as we made our way to the store, I saw the Peach, now with extra dimples, that dropped last New Year, when we were toasting its arrival, Neel and I, with peach vodka cocktails. He was a lightweight, Neel. Got giggly and kissy, more than he usually was. He chucked me under my chin. Called me his “peachiest peach.” We were on a hotel roof, and the fireworks and city lights were bright around us.
Now, he was moving carefully, scanning the sky. The Giant Robots were surprisingly capable of sneaking up on you. Hearing any buildings crashing or the boom of their stepping feet would be too late.
We came to the store. Of course, as time went on, we’d have to go to stores further and further away, as they were stripped bare. I was wondering if we should move at some point.
“Say, have you guys ever thought of just leaving?” said Neel, as if he’d read my mind.
“Like, leave. The basement isn’t really a good spot, is it? It’s too far from everything.”
Even though I had thought the same thing, I bristled. “Easy for you to say,” I said, tensing. I remembered when I had first rushed home, blindly, some animal instinct. I had run into my building, which in hindsight was stupid, but as I heard the too-close sound of Robot footsteps, the door to the basement storage areas opened, and Fred, Fred of all people who even then was wearing head-to-toe camo, had beckoned me inside. And after that, after we emerged from the rubble, where else could we go that was the least bit like our home?
Neel just relaxed. “Nah, you’re right.”
I stared. He would have never done that once upon a time. Neel who once got into a pedantic argument with me about the veracity of the Oxford comma (I didn’t care, he did, I pointed out I was the one with the English degree, he said that meant I should care more, etc.).
“You’re different,” I said.
“Yeah.” He shrugged. “Giant Robots fell from the sky.”
“Did I change at all?” I said impulsively.
He didn’t look at me for a long while. He stared at the sky for a bit, as if he was listening for the Giant Robots. Sometimes, it was better to try to taste the air, for the metallic taste to fill your mouth, choke you.
“Not really,” he said quietly.
“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”
Neel looked at me suddenly. He smiled, and for a second it was dazzling. I remembered when we first met, when I was drunk off my heels at a party somewhere in Inman Park. I began to vomit in the corner, and there he was, lifting my hair up, apologizing every time he bumped into me. He was sweet, and I impulsively kissed him, and he never complained about the vomit-taste of my mouth. Sure, he complained about everything else later, in a monotone, the kind that said I’m only stating the obvious.
You said you looked for me.
“It’s not really anything,” he answered. “Let’s go to the storage area.”
The store was largely picked over, but in the back, we found a dusty pack of bottled water, some canned beans, some canned peaches. I thought of the time he called me the peachiest peach, and it felt like millions of years ago.
When Giant Robots attack, no one tells you how much you start missing dumb little things. Like having hot, sanitary water to shower with. Having a shower. Having a place to shower in. Being able to buy water bottles at all without fear of getting crushed beneath the giant spiked foot of a Giant Robot.
It was my birthday. Normally, I’d be having drinks with my friends like Mel (I had lost contact with her after the initial attack—her last text was did you see the ad for that new lipstick the ambrosial gold) and calling my parents ( who were somewhere in Texas—the random text message still popped up so I knew that some cell towers were still up and my parents were alive, which surprised me little since my tiny mother had the tenacity of a feral terrier).
But living in a makeshift basement shelter in which we took shifts to raid stores and homes for supplies, and in which our supplies dwindled and our personal odors swelled day by day, meant that birthdays weren’t a high priority. At least Mom wouldn’t be asking me what technical writing was, I thought, and if it could lead to engineering or medicine in the future. Small mercies.
I saved myself a Hershey’s kiss for such an occasion. I found it on the supply run with Neel, miraculously alone on the shelf, and I furtively snatched it before Neel saw, raised his eyebrow in that way. Sure, it was probably dry and flaky by now, but chocolate was chocolate, and it was my birthday.
It was late at night, and I was huddled in my little area, cordoned off by a giant box that might have once held a fridge and a sheet hanging on a clothesline. I blew on the wrapper, the little tag waving like a flame. “Happy 26th birthday to you, Regina Marie,” I sang-whispered, surprised at how much it hurt, when the words left my throat.
“Happy birthday. . .”
“. . .to you.”
I looked up, surprised. All around me, people were singing, picking up the lyrics.
“Happy birthday, dear Gina. . .”
“Happy birthday. . .”
“. . .To you.”
“Make a wish,” said a voice on the other side of the box. I nearly said his name, but instead, I whispered, “Thank you,” and popped the chocolate in my mouth. It was stale, chalky, in my mouth, but it was so sweet, I nearly choked.
Sex, like all human impulses, is not impossible after Giant Robots come, but if you’re not the exhibitionist type, you’re out of luck, like many of us basement dwellers. Periodically, in the basement, you would hear rhythmic noises and gasps, and initially, some snickering or encouragement or disapproval, although after awhile, everyone stopped reacting to the sounds. I supposed other people in other communities might venture elsewhere if they had a similar situation, but because of the danger, no one in our basement did.
Fact: I had made out with Will a couple of times because of boredom, but after awhile, even before Neel arrived, he had moved on to Emmy Martin, and occasionally, you’d see more than two feet poking out from under her privacy curtain. I hadn’t minded too much beyond average feelings of rejection, since she was prettier with better clothes than me, although I comforted myself with the thought that her nice clothes from Buckhead boutiques were getting dirtier and dirtier, because of course, we couldn’t use the washing machines anymore, the water cut off and the generator too weak to waste electricity on fripperies.
When Neel and I had been together before, the best weekend mornings were when we’d be in bed, and he’d absentmindedly rub circles around the birthmark on my left hip. No real shape to it—people often say cute things about birthmarks like it’s a strawberry or a heart. Something to bite, something sweet. Mine looked like nothing sweet or munchable, just a dark brown amoeba the size of a nickel.
“That way, I’ll always know it’s you,” said Neel once. He was looking into my eyes when he said this, and his cheeks were flushed, as if he was embarrassed to have revealed this much, and I thought it was so adorably unlike him, that I pulled him closer.
I wondered sometimes, how I could recognize Neel wherever and whenever we were. If this Neel really was the Neel I had dated. Didn’t I remember how he broke up with me? How he had told me what had happened to his feelings, like he was more of a robot than the ones that made craters all over the planet? What if he really wasn’t Neel? What if the Giant Robots had learned to make smaller versions of themselves they could disguise as human, as people we loved—had loved?
Did I change at all?
I realized that was a lousy explanation when I thought of it. The Giant Robots didn’t seem interested in that kind of subterfuge, since they simply stomped on everything and everyone unlucky enough to be under their feet.
I decided to strike up another conversation with Neel instead.
“Hey,” I said, one day. In my pocket was a pack of cards. It was missing the Queen of Diamonds and the Ace of Spades, but I figured we could find some paper, perhaps, draw new ones. We’d know, but we could pretend.
He was reading a magazine—it looked like Vogue. Once he told me he thought fashion magazines were pointless, even though I left piles of Glamour and Cosmopolitan all over my apartment, which he must have noticed at some point, right? I accused him of passive-aggressively attacking me, and he said he wasn’t, and I said some nasty stuff, and he probably looked at me like I was being irrational—I wasn’t irrational—and all I remember was how I left the room and spent the rest of the evening angrily looking at my phone in the bathroom. But now, reading material was scarce, and we all had learned not to be picky about our entertainment, even “I-read-Carl-Sagan-for-fun” Neel.
“I’m reading,” he said.
“Jesus, I’m just saying hi.” My cheeks turned pink.
“You know I hate it when you interrupt me when I’m reading.”
“It’s not like I don’t know, but I’m just saying hi.” I was glad the card deck was safely tucked in my pocket. I patted it, as if to make sure it was there.
We looked over from our argument—people were gathering in Gail and Jim’s little corner of the basement. People were shouting, “Clean sheets!” and “Hot water!”
“I think she’s giving birth,” said Neel.
“It’s too early,” I said. Gail was only eight months along—even though I had zero medical training, I ran straight over. Her face was red, her dark hair falling all over her face, and she was shouting obscenities at Jim, who at least had the grace to look ashamed of himself.
“Is anyone a doctor or nurse or something?” said Neel quietly behind me.
“Yeah, Mindy Chang was an emergency room nurse.”
“That’s good, right?”
“Yeah, but—” I bit my lip.
“We don’t have supplies for a premature birth, do we?” I hesitated, was shocked when he took my hand, and it was warm. “No,” I said.
He looked grim, then all of a sudden he touched my cheek. “That’s not good.”
Death is so close when Giant Robots walk on our planet, when they walk so close to your hiding spot, that the ground rumbles like it’s alive, and you can hear in the stillness the sounds of children crying, Mindy Chang hushing them, Go to sleep, shhh. The way you hold your breath waiting for the crush of the basement finally collapsing upon you, the desperate hope it’ll be quick or that you’ll miraculously be asleep when it happens.
But you forgot how easy it was to die other ways, how simple injuries or illnesses become more dangerous once all hospitals and clinics and pharmacies are smashed to pieces or out of reach: An infection. A fall. Childbirth.
“Fuck all of you,” screamed Gail. She had been in labor for hours at this point. Emmy was soothing her, not crying for once. Will was sitting next to her, patting her other hand absentmindedly. Jim even was sticking by Gail’s side, humming nonsense. Of course, there was nowhere for him to go, but still, it was sweet to see him with her.
Mindy suddenly materialized at our side. “I need a favor from you two.”
I knew what she was going to ask for. Dreaded it. “Yeah?”
“Can you go to the nearest hospital? Grady Memorial, I believe. She’s not as close as she should be. We need some medications we don’t have, to speed it along, to help her and the baby once it’s born.”
We, Neel and I, were the most fit physically of the basement residents, which was not saying much, but everyone else was middle-aged or elderly or too young or pregnant or useful for the purposes of birth or crying or shrimpy. And it’s always two outside.
“Yeah,” said Neel before I can answer. “Gina and I can do it. What do you need?”
And we found ourselves rifling through some mostly empty pharmacy in the hospital. Of course, pickings were slim, but we did what we could.
“Here,” said Neel. “The antibiotics she asked for. Did you find the oxytocin?”
“Not yet—ah.” I triumphantly showed him the labeled pack.
“Good. Let’s get out—” and there, the telltale boom.
“No.” The word expelled itself from my throat. We automatically ran outside, down the hall towards a room with the nearest window.
And there, walking slowly but surely towards us was one of Them.
All of the Robots were slightly different. We didn’t think so at first, hence the attempts at tagging. Mostly because we didn’t stick around to investigate further. They’re slow, but when they can cover meters and meters with one step, it didn’t really matter, did it? They’re always gold, and their metal skins gleamed. Sometimes, if I did catch a look, I could see curving designs all over their square bodies. That’s how we told them apart, the intricacies of their designs.
The way their white eyes shone in their cylindrical heads, the only feature we could see on their faces. They could be beautiful, were beautiful. But it didn’t really matter, did it?
“It’s too close,” said Neel. “I don’t think we can make it.”
Heat rushed into my chest, my head. I could breathe fire. “That’s exactly what I want to hear right now.”
“Stop being irrational.”
“Stop being irrational,” I mimicked. I was already starting to run. He followed me.
“Stop being childish,” said Neel, keeping pace easily. We picked up speed.
“Says the man who told me he deleted his feelings for me from his brain instead of any of the socially acceptable excuses. Is it really hard to say, ‘It’s not you, it’s me?’”
“It wasn’t true, though,” said Neel, so quietly that I could scarcely hear him as we ran through doors, down stairs. The booming was getting louder. “If you had to tell me the truth, why couldn’t you just say you didn’t love me anymore?” Our voices echoed on the landing. Truth-love-you-anymore-you-didn’t
So quietly, I couldn’t hear him this time over the pounding in my chest, he murmured something back to me. Perhaps he said it wasn’t true, either, that he still loved me. That this apocalypse was enough to make him realize it. After all, he looked for me those weeks before he found me, didn’t he? Wasn’t that the point of this? There had to be a point to all of this.
“Gina—” he said, and I thought he was going to repeat what he had just said, but we could see the light outside of the door ahead’s window, we could hear the way the booms of the Robot’s feet were so loud, so close, it was like the Robot was inside my head.
I didn’t even have to ask. I grabbed his hand with mine and pulled him with me, shoving the doors hard, feeling them knock bruises onto my limbs, but we were outside, into the blinding light, the booming behind us letting us know to run, to live, to help some other people live, so I could ask him again later, so I could finally get the answer I craved, and know, for sure, who he is, what we are.
Anna Cabe's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bitch Media, Terraform, Slice, Entropy, StoryQuarterly, The Toast, SmokeLong Quarterly, Joyland, and Fairy Tale Review, among others. She received her MFA in fiction from Indiana University and was a 2018-2019 Fulbright Fellow in the Philippines. She currently serves as an assistant fiction editor for Split Lip Magazine. You can find Anna at annacabe.com.