It started with the payphones—public phones installed in booths along the street that could be activated with a coin or several coins—ringing as I passed them, but it wasn’t until the third or fourth one that I started thinking they were ringing for me.
Of course, they weren’t.
Then the lights flickering and the automatic doors opening and closing without instigation. There were the branches of trees swaying without wind. The burns without flame or heat. And we all forgot things we shouldn’t have.
(And then, there was the last thing you said to me and which you said just as I was hanging up the phone for the last time and so I only heard a fragment of it: “you said.” You said that I had said something and this something, from the context of our last conversation and the tone of your voice, was not a good thing. Except, I don’t think I ever said what you think I said, what you said I said.)
A week later the streets were full of robots, automatons, creatures of hulking steel—the very ones we’d been warned about for years. We had listened to the reports, read them aloud to our friends late at night while drinking on the porch in a gentle rain, or in the cool winter, in the breeze of summer when we really believed we could smell the salt of the ocean. But how could we have known?
A beam like concentrated sunlight and it cuts through a car and makes a hole in
the ground beneath it.
A fire hydrant explodes, but no water comes out of it.
A woman screaming for someone and I really hope it’s not a child. I don’t turn
The sound of metal walking towards us, always towards us.
A month ago, all the birds migrated. Seven days before, the lizards disappeared. The squirrels left slowly. The grass in my yard died despite the fact that I’d been watering it regularly. And then: the machines destroyed everything, quickly, all at once.
I have survived.
I don’t know where you are.
I don’t know where anything is anymore. The destruction has recast the landscape. We are in a parallel universe, an alternate reality, a dimension like our own but with steel beings that have toppled buildings, turned paved roads to rubble, ripped even trees from the ground. If they could, I think they would drain the ocean, rid the earth of oxygen, let the planet disintegrate and drift out into space.
And: you are gone or at least you and I are not together, not near one another.
(A group of deer running in a line, one trailing the next passed me and I barely noticed until the last one was running away. I thought, “Is it limping?” But it wasn’t. It’s just that I have gotten so used to everything being wounded, damaged, hurt.)
Smoke in the distance. A large crack in the ground. The furniture pushed against the wall. And the darkness of one shadow crossing over another.
I thought I couldn’t find any air, but it turned out I’d been holding my breath.
A light in the sky and we didn’t know what to do. The man beside me put his umbrella down because it had stopped raining and he said, “What do you think that is?” I didn’t know. No one knew. I said, “An airship.”
(I shouldn’t have hung up so quickly. I should have lingered for a second longer, except I didn’t think you would say anything. “You said,” that’s what you said. But what did I say? What could I have said that would have mattered anyway?)
Run, you said.
Hide, you said.
Live, you said.
Find me, you said.
I’m still alive.
I didn’t say anything, you said.
You said to say something.
You said to do something.
One of us had to anyway.
I destroyed one. Not by myself, of course. A group of us, strangers. We didn’t even know each other’s names. But a woman said she had done it before by running a broken steel pipe through a light in its abdomen, or in the section that appears to be an abdomen. I didn’t believe her, because I couldn’t imagine that someone could get that close to one without being incinerated. She said, “I killed it while it slept.”
I didn’t like when she said killed.
I didn’t like when she said slept.
But it’s what she said and so it’s how I have to remember it.
She said she killed it.
She said while it slept.
She said that.
And so we tried it, not while it slept, but while it was looking away, distracted by a woman with two small children. I wanted to run to the family, to usher them to safety, but the man beside me grabbed my arm and said, “Don’t.” So I didn’t.
(For weeks, I had missed calls from numbers I didn’t know and I assumed it was you. It probably wasn’t. Would you call me from an unknown number? Would you hang up without leaving a message? What would you have said anyway? What could I have said?)
Eventually, the power went out. Eventually the food ran out. The water dried up. Eventually, the sun set and did not rise again, and we learned to see by moonlight only.
I think it was the robots who turned out the sun, who stopped the earth from rotating.
(There is a part of the earth that has sun all the time. I think about those people sometimes, that maybe they can never sleep, because there is too much light.)
Maybe the robots like the dark.
Maybe the side with the sun is happy.
Maybe they are all alive and they have no idea what is going on over here.
The day we met, you told me things about yourself that either turned out not to be true or I forgot them altogether. But it wasn’t what you said that mattered, it was that you said it at all.
You grabbed my hand when the lights went out
I twitched when I felt your fingers in my palm
I felt your breath move past my face.
I didn’t say anything
when you left
when I dropped the phone
when I fell
when you fell
when we both fell silent while we watched the sky.
Of course, we didn’t know what we were looking for.
We didn’t know what we were looking at.
How could we?
There was light and then there was darkness. There was what we knew and what we didn’t know. There was everything and then there was nothing.
And it was during the time of nothing that the robots came.
Jarod Rosello is a Cuban-American writer, cartoonist, and teacher from Miami, Florida. He is the author of the graphic novel The Well-Dressed Bear Will (Never) be Found (Publishing Genius Press, 2015) and his ongoing webcomic, Those Bears, can be read online at Hobart. He teaches comics and fiction in the creative writing program at University of South Florida, and runs Bien Vestido Press, a small press for Latinx comics and image-based literature.