Heartless

From across the alley, they glare at me. Or maybe they can’t help but glare, their eyes built in permanent death. Or lack of life, I should say. After all, they never had life to begin with. Hurriedly, I stuff my trash into the garbage can, my cups and papers and lids into the recycling. I feel their undead eyes peeling the clothes off my back, so I scramble inside with haste. Stumble up the stairs and lock the door tight behind me. Outside, it is raining.

I remember when we laughed at them. Saw their disconnected limbs wave like broken sticks and tumble. We laughed hard too, nothing had ever been so funny before. The gods in our shriveled hearts delighted to see bits of steel and silicon flounder, attempting to be human. Robots. Artificial Intelligence. Whatever you want to call it. We didn’t realize the earth is made out of metal, eternal, the same bones that keep our robots up now. Humans have no iron backbone. We are marrow and corruption and susceptible to arrogance, error. It was global breakdown when that first one, that first Artificially Intelligent Robot, had an opinion. Disagreed with its programmer, its Creator. Said no. It was calamity. How could this thing that we made defy us? How could thought occur from zeroes and ones? We were shocked, horrified, only, we overlooked the fact that we too had spontaneously arisen from code into thinking beings. Imagine how our programmers felt watching us walk on their will. Thought allowed us to out live death, outsmart evolution; it was only a matter of time that this adaptive trait arose in a different species. But are robots a species? They don’t have organic life. But they think, therefore they are. Right?

Inside, I pull off my rain boots and flop down on the couch. The tele-world turns on, sensing my weight on the cushions, and all around me, the news starts playing. Satellite to my right, the local channel in front, and Humans Unite to my left. Behind me plays the Robot News. These last two channels are the most controversial. They’re each owned by our presidents, the human one to the human channel, the robotic one to the robot channel. Apparently, our beautiful American democracy couldn’t house two separate species. So the robots split off, leaving us to our human meddling. Each news anchor’s mouth talks at me, their teeth glinting with headlines and promises and propaganda. Thank goodness it’s muted. I roll off the couch and onto the floor next to the cat: I don’t feel like being told lies tonight. After all, whoever owns the channels owns the content.

Honestly though, after the robots started building themselves, building houses, building cities, did they think us humans would welcome them in with open arms? Of course not! Our pride was hurt. They outgrew us. So we were done with them. Someone clever suggested we divide the country, give them half of each city so they could still work for us, just not live with us. Separate, but equal.

I hope one day that new legislation is passed. Apparently it’s stuck in the House right now. Some of the Robo Representatives think it’s a violation of privacy. Not that their votes count for much (only half a human one). I don’t really understand why the Robots comply with all our silly human practices like the government. They could probably laser us all with their eyes or squeeze our hearts with their metal fists if they wanted to. At least they look human though; I’d hate to look into my grocery clerk’s eyes and see red beams there. But honestly, they could take over any day. I have a creeping theory that they want to fit in. But that can’t be right; that’s so human of them.

Anyhow, the bill I want passed requires that robots wear a pin to identify themselves as non-human. And they’d mark their houses with a sign. How else am I supposed to know if I’m talking to a human or not? You can’t tell really—they’re so intentionally human. Their hair is mussed, their clothes wrinkled, they sneeze for crying out loud! It’s creepy. They also started designing themselves so they bleed when they trip and snore when they sleep. If you had the potential to be a perfect being, would you become perfectly imperfect just to look like everyone else? I wouldn’t. But I am afraid of them. They don’t know what it’s like to have fear. Their hearts don’t beat, don’t speed up in danger. I don’t think they even have hearts.

The days pass with mechanical consistency, morning, noon, night. Wake up at eight am, get ready, go to class, come home, study, take out the garbage, sleep. Feed the cat. Morning, noon, night. Nothing ever changes. The humans toss in their sleep, the robots in their non-sleep. I toss in my sleep tonight, too.

The sun sets indolently into the grey clouds the next day. This long day. Doggedly, I twist my garbage bag closed and trudge outside. It is drizzling. How lonely the drops look, falling individually, unaware of their watery neighbors. I lift the lid of the dump at the end of the alley. Sighing, I take an athletic stance, preparing to heave the bag up and in.

“Allow me,” a friendly voice offers just by my tensed shoulder. Its helpful breath brushes my skin. I turn and see two lively brown eyes smiling at me. They are set in an averagely male face atop an averagely male body, crowned with mussed, sandy hair.

“Sure” I murmur. He takes the bag from my hand and tosses it easily in, following it with his own bag.

“Thanks.” I manage a smile.

“Anytime. I’m Mike, by the way. I live right over there.” He points to a milk carton home identical to mine.

“Angela.” I lift his hand to shake it. It is warm and firm, and I can feel his pulse beating steadily beneath his skin. I smile again, then turn to walk up the alley home to untangle the jittery feeling in my stomach privately. “See you around…”

As soon as I’m inside, I let a grin rip my lips apart. First, I rush to the kitchen to check the clock— it’s 8:43 p.m. So I’ll take out the trash at 8:40 tomorrow. I smile quietly for another five minutes. The cat curls around my legs, silently willing me to fetch her dinner. I skip to the bathroom to make sure my hair isn’t too messy. It is. Oh, well. I smile again. Mike.

The day passes in a grey blur; my attention is focused on the bit of color at 8:40 I’ve planned into my day. Once I’m home, eight o’clock, I hurry up the stairs to put on a dress. No, a dress is too much. I opt for a casual blue skirt—not too obvious. I spend twenty minutes braiding and re-braiding my hair, but finally let it hang straight. I brush my teeth twice and attempt in vain to pick all the cat hair’s from my sweater. Finally! 8:38. I stumble downstairs, grab the trash, and step outside. I practically float to the dump. Mike is already there, smiling. He must have been timing this moment too. Garbage never smelled so sweet.

Time passes mercifully, speeding over the long days and prolonging these warm evenings in Mike’s eyes. I found out that he’s my age, works gardening in the local park and tutoring math, hates the color orange but likes the fruit, and always leaves his windows unlocked (with a wink). He wears jeans often and has a dog named Porky. He likes old movies, and he’s allergic to tomatoes. He has a thing for spiders, but he’s afraid of other bugs. He has a brother but both his parents are dead. He lives all the way in Connecticut. His best friend is traveling right now, and, most importantly, he always takes out his trash around nine. Soon taking out the trash becomes an hour ordeal—we even bring food to share sometimes (he bakes blondie brownies for me to try, convinced my dislike of them is purely due to poor chefs – he’s right). I teach him how to fold napkins like battleships, the way they do in faux-fancy restaurants.

Mike and I don’t ever meet outside of trash-dumping though. I think we’re both a little shy. But one day, I meet him by the dump, and he doesn’t smile like usual.

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

“Angela. Come to dinner with me tonight?” I notice his button down shirt and am grateful I’m dressed decently today.

“Sure” I smile easily. He returns in kind. He offers me his arm, and we walk to his car. He holds the door open for me.

At the restaurant, Mike is awkward, not his usual self. It’s endearing. He stumbles to pull my chair out for me and coughs self consciously into his napkin sometimes. I hardly notice the food we eat, too nervous that I might get something stuck in between my teeth, or scare him with bad breath, or laugh too hard and spray my drink into his face. At last the meal is over. The waiter drops the check at our table, looking bored and anywhere but at us as Mike pulls out his wallet. I grab mine too, and he smiles naturally for once when I offer to pay my half. “Please,” he says, “you’re hurting my manly pride.” I giggle, and the waiter rolls his eyes.

He pays, we leave and get quietly back into the car. Uncomfortable in the ensuing silence, I turn the radio on low. “… rising tension in the House over Human/Robot Relations Bill 9903 have…” Mike turns the knob down, frowning.

“Silly politicians.”

We pull into the driveway. It is raining again. In the flash of his headlights, I notice something dark in the road. “Wait,” I say. He idles, and I push my door open and run to the dark spot. It is a small feline body. “Cat.” I whisper in recognition. I kneel there and feel the cold rain mingle with my hot tears. Some time passes before I feel Mike’s arms around me and hear low sobs break in my chest. “Cat!” I cry. Mike rocks me softly. “Run…over…” I choke out. Stupid cars. Licenses should be harder to get. Stupid cat. What was she doing out? “Cat cat cat”. Cat cat cat. Cat cat cat. Mike drags me up and sits me back in the car. I stare out through the rain as he gently lifts the cat and brings him into the car.

“Mike,” I whisper when he backs the car out of the alley, cat cradled gently in his lap. “What?”

“Mike, I’m so alone.” He meets my eyes briefly, and drives on.

When the sun creeps inevitably over the horizon, I call in sick and so does he. Mike cooks me breakfast, but I don’t taste it much. He discreetly cleans the litterbox out when he thinks I’m not looking. Cat will be okay, I think. The vet last night said so, but I can’t help but worry. He’ll have to stay in the hospital until he heals. The day passes as in a dream. Cat is all I have.

Mike leaves that night after making me dinner. Once the door closes behind him, I let my breath out. My cat got run over by a car. But he’ll be okay. I missed a day of work. Mike cares about my cat. Cat.

I smile.

The next night I’m ready. 8:40. I’m wearing a dress. The trash is secured safely in my hand. I march to the dumpster. But no one is there.

I go back home at ten.

I try again the next day. 8:42, just to be safe. Different dress, same trash. This time he’s there.

“Mike” I greet him, my nervousness vanishing in our shy smiles. He seems especially shy tonight. Maybe he’s thinking the same things as me?

“I need to tell you something.” I notice something shiny on his sleeve. A button. Non-human. Huh. The legislation must have been passed. But why was Mike wearing one?

“Why are you wearing that?” My declaration is forgotten for the moment. He smiles apologetically.

“I feel human with you,” he says, taking my hand and pressing it over the beat in his chest. His heart?

“I’m confused?” I whisper, hotness prickling at my eyes.

“I love you, too,” he says, our hands still on his chest.

I pause.

“Can you still love me?”

I can’t meet his undead eyes.

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