Rachel Hildebrandt translating Katja Bohnet

As the Sun Crashed

translated from the German by Rachel Hildebrandt

Roger is a whore. Not literally speaking. He doesn’t get paid for it, but he comes on to you as if his life depended on it. Which it actually does, in a way. We’ve been stuck here in this crappy bunker for four years. Time shaped in concrete. Hope and dreams have lost their meaning. Here, now, today. We occasionally talk about the past, but that doesn’t last beyond the first round of vodka. We pass the bottle around until it’s empty. We stop. We don’t want to lose anyone. Our reality hangs by a silken thread.

“Get lost, asshole!” This is the only way to get through to Roger. He’ll trail you like a dog, and I wonder how long he’ll be able to keep himself under control. If Roger is a whore, I’m an entire brothel. I tend their needs by hand, by mouth. When push comes to shove, by big toe. I’m the only one who can still take care of the others. Since Pete sewed me shut, I don’t let anyone inside though. I didn’t make more than a whimper. It has to be this way, even if life and my body won’t let me to do the splits anymore. I sometimes regret my fertility. A child rooted in a moist union, first the egg, then the spark. Life inside of me, out of me, conveyed through me. Pain. Different than now. Golden hair, silken skin. I would nurse it myself. But who would want to conceive or nurse something down here? Slim had watched Pete and me, looking for all the world like a small child whose lollipop had been taken away. Roger had vanished. The coward had fucked off to some remote corner of the bunker. All of these encroachments, the responsibilities to the rest of the group. The only girl. You feel the pressure. You have to free yourself even if you’re locked up.

Roger isn’t picky, unlike Slim. Slim is an idiot, but he used to be really hot. Actually, he’s not really an idiot. He can recite all sorts of algorithms involving any combination of random numbers. Slim is actually a damn genius. The sixth ball picked in the genetic lottery game, the golden calf of theoretical mathematics, or simple evidence of nature’s good moods. He was supposedly an exceptional chess player, whenever he played. But now he can’t even play Sorry or butter his own bread. That wouldn’t work anyway, though. We don’t have any bread. We don’t need it either, considering all the vodka, which is the only thing in any quantity still lying around down here. A huge misshipment must have been delivered shortly before it happened. Slim and Pete survive on vodka, the way an infant lives on its mother’s milk. Not me. A drunken stupor is not how I choose to cope with things down here. We subsist on cookies and brown goo that comes in tubes and tastes like cement. Considering all of it, the only thing that makes sense inside this bunker is survival. Vitamins and nutrients don’t seem to count for anything. I miss foods with fiber. I can still remember lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, and other vegetables. That probably won’t last much longer.

Roger has pissed off somewhere. Insulted, sad, suicidal, whatever. We know his moods. Roger is like a cat, always slinking off down the hall. What does he do there? We’ve asked each other that, over and over again. Maybe he goes down there to jerk off in secret. He hasn’t managed to find an exit yet. He wouldn’t still be here if he had, right?

“Pussy!” Slim calls after him. A cruel reflex – just as normal as the death that surrounds us.

“Let him be!” I say.

“Let him get to it!” The grin dangles from his face like a caricature.

I can’t stand to look at the stupid jerk. But if he were gone, I’d probably kill myself. I’ve had a thing for Slim, for years, just like everyone else. We used to fuck sometimes, until he turned into what he is now. Or I turned into what I am now. Hopeless. Disgusting, exposed, dirty, on a one-way street to insanity. Slim is the fallen god nobody needs anymore. He used to be so handsome. All of our hopes rested on Slim. No one believes in him now. Neither he himself nor I. Does this still count as life if the only things we have left to lose don’t matter? I’m hot, I need air. Have for months now. But the air we’re breathing is stale. Pete thinks we’re poisoning ourselves every time we inhale. Slowly, horribly, mercilessly. I take shallow breaths.

“Has anything moved?” I ask Pete, who has been staring at the monitor for hours. He is turning back into a child. It’s as if he were staring at a still from The Wizard of Oz, a classic film that refuses to let him go. Pete knows it by heart. He sometimes mumbles snatches from the dialogue: “There’s no place like home.”

Slim spit on him once, because this phrase drives him crazy. Pete started laughing hysterically. When he’s like that, he scares us. He spent days clicking his heels. He didn’t have any magical red shoes, just tattered, old sneakers. We’re still waiting on the outcome. Nothing, nobody, is helping us escape from here. Pete stopped laughing when he ran out of air, but he never stopped wishing. When he clicks his heels, it almost looks like he’s dancing. Maybe he really is Dorothy, just without the happy ending. Down here, there’s only one film running: What’s going on out there. Nothing. When the soldiers were building the bunker, there were still moving pictures to watch. The fact that the buildings are all still standing is an ironic postscript to a film that nobody is making anymore. Stills. Earlier it was something good, funny. It was a break when we went to the fridge for refills, laughing at the dumb faces on the screen. Ever since there’s been only one scene – ever since the figures disappeared – there’s been something stifling about the still. The fridge stopped running a long time ago. I sometimes doubt if even we still exist.

I occasionally wake up in a cold sweat, day or night. It’s all the same down here. Outside is the only place where the times of day still play themselves out. Light and dark. The planets haven’t exploded. We’re still orbiting the sun. Movement that none of us can actually feel. We want something to happen out there in the dust. I want to see somebody walk by. In the glaring light, through the dry debris. I sometimes imagine that and reach my hand out, against my will, but my fingertips always crumple against the the glass screen. I wake up, although I haven’t been asleep. I run my pointer finger along the contours of the glass, my long nail scratching noisily across the smooth surface. In the background towers the ribcage of the decaying city. Gray shapes transferred onto the facades of houses and other buildings. As a reminder to us, a manifesto. The flash photographed the dead, marking their outlines. The wreckage of a fighter jet, colors unrecognizable, that will never fly or fight again. Far to the left, a slanting power pole, warped by the explosion’s heat. Wires jut out from the top, flowing down like loose strands of hair. The wind moves them occasionally, which is why I sometimes mistake them for snakes slithering down from the sky. It would be enough for me to see one animal. A dog, a rabbit, a mouse. Something creeping across the cracked ground out there. Not even the cockroaches seem to have survived. Who would have ever thought that?

We second-guess things constantly. What are we seeing out there? This shitty question has practically killed us. Slim believes in the reign of the machines. Satellites and other debris are still orbiting the planet. Nobody is stopping them. Pete claims that at some point the modern gods developed new ideas about purgatory. He spent two days praying the Our Father, continuously. At some point, he stared at us in confusion, his mouth searching for the words. He had probably forgotten the lines. I convinced Roger that we were part of some scientific experiment: the people out there could see us, but we couldn’t see them. It was cruel to push all his buttons. It felt good to have some relief, though, even if it was only short-lived. For a little while, he actually stopped talking about sex. It took Slim and me together to keep him from ripping out the monitors and smashing them to pieces. We both had to sit on him, since he kept trying to get back up and grab things. Until all he could do was sob. We were able to convince him that the pictures were the only thing we still had. Roger continues to scan the walls for more cameras. He’s totally paranoid, but there’s nothing up there in the concrete.

It’s quiet here, except for the constant white noise: the grinding, squeaking, scratching. The backup generators have been running for years. The fact is, though, that even without power, we couldn’t die. Other things kill people. Solitary confinement without a crime, perpetrator, or judge. We’re too scared to kill ourselves, afraid of death. However lethal our reality may be, it still seems to be the more appealing option. We’re lonely. We no longer recognize we or you guys. We only know I and you. Separated by worlds, bound together by hate and the necessity to not do what we want more than anything: to kill ourselves, to escape, to say goodbye to this dreary space and those we once called friends. Machines – they have to be the only survivors. We won’t make it much longer. I used to think it would be a relief to finally reach life after death.

Pete’s pupils keep slipping out of focus. It’s hard to say if this is caused by the exhaustion or the vodka. He used to be bipolar, and now he’s always either up or down. All that remains are the extremes. Pete is a ticking time bomb. But I’m still not afraid of him. I love him. I need him more than I need myself, even if it’s been a long time since he could recognize me. “Who are you?” he asks.

I go over and sit on his lap. He has grown thin, his bones made of porcelain. Neither the hard cookies nor the nutritional paste make any difference. We never feel full, but we consume enough to keep ourselves from dying. The army took care of its own. I cup Pete’s bristly chin in my hands, forcing him to look at me. “Hey! It’s me. Your sister.”

“What?” Pete has a hard time pulling himself together. He actually lost it all a long time ago. We keep carrying each other along, because it’s all we’re still able to do.

Years ago, we would sit around the campus, as the sun crashed through the atmosphere onto our skin. We tanned, absorbing the beams. Somebody laughed, we touched each other very lightly, like foreplay. We would kiss, untroubled, as we talked about prime numbers, eternity, and the reason why sometimes points are not points at all. The mown grass would tickle our skin, as the scent of pot encircled us like a caress. At the one end, the joints were as round and large as our pupils. The clothes we wore were snug and short. The shorts, the tops. The clothing licked our bodies. We were young and sexually charged, like batteries that never ran out. The things that didn’t come into our heads, we carried in our hearts. We called each other Sucker and Honey and Sweetie Pie. All of our discussions were naive and loud. Our lightheartedness was a youthful promise, whose fulfillment we expected to come any minute. And then: so much death, so little life. Generation X, Generation Y, Generation Zero.

It was the flash that made the shadows stand out more than ever before. So much so, that the end was seared into, captured in, the concrete. Outlines on the facades of buildings. A final picture, camera obscura. Some simply evaporated, losing their skins.

We weren’t actually supposed to be down here. The reports had been increasing over the years, but at some point, you stop paying attention to the urgency. A couple of countries protested. We were separated by oceans – from each other and from our ideas. We had absolutely no clue who was out there, who hated us so much, although we were deluged by media reports. We armed ourselves and then disarmed ourselves. Slim was sitting on the information, but he didn’t talk much. There were security conferences and emergency drills, and the number of canned goods on the supermarket shelves grew. When the sirens went off, we wearily got to our feet. The shrillness of it upset us, and the mass migrations no longer seemed to make any sense. The bunker was a cool place, and its bleakness appealed to us. Slim was acquainted with all of the instruments. We would have been equally at home on a spaceship.

It was our national holiday. There wouldn’t be any catastrophes if they didn’t happen, if somebody prevented them. It’s just that those who march to their own drums don’t wave little flags. Our political engagement expressed itself in simple opposition. Support, opposition: no one actually cared about our opinions anymore. So we decided to flee the scent of cotton candy, the flurry of national colors, the blaring music. We had rejected all that long ago. It was hot and humid outside, while the bunker was cool and quiet. Almost pleasant. Like a surprising location we kept discovering anew. We didn’t have any other options at that time. We played Spin The Bottle. Truth or Dare. I was still wearing my push-up bra. Roger’s tongue kept running along his upper lip, his gaze fixed on my crossed legs, as if something there mesmerized him. Slim, the brilliant asshole, was sitting in front of the monitors. The Chosen One, the Messiah, the One-in-a-Million. They all wanted him. CIA, FBI, NSA. And other names that we had never heard before. Maybe they were companies or organizations, products of a new world order. We couldn’t understand it. He was just Slim, our friend. A stark raving freak, unbelievably attractive, unbelievably out-of-touch. He knew all the films. “Watch this,” he said, pointing at the screens where people were dying.

“Wicked movie!” Pete laughed louder than usual, as I joined in.

Slim reached for the bottle. Back then, his skin was almost as pale as his hair. “Shut the fuck up!”

Roger farted loudly and shrieked with laughter.

Slim’s mouth finally expressed what his brain still hadn’t grasped, what none of us had grasped: “It’s real.”

The bottle kept spinning, until it stopped with its neck pointing at Pete. He was supposed to go out for the next round of pizzas. Nobody went anywhere. Our final resting place had been dug while we were still alive. Now we are sitting in the chilly darkness, waiting on death. He is a slacker, obviously taking his own sweet time. Torment is his middle name, Bunker his last. We came here secretly to play games, but we had to stay forever. The bottle is still spinning, while life rotates around us. The second after it all happened, we became history’s footnotes. Our families: gone. Our homes: gone. Our context deleted, eradicated without a single trace. What will become of us? What has become of us? We wanted out. We pounded on the door, but we couldn’t get it open back then. The horror has never vanished. We have already started begging to die. Halfheartedly though, because death still frightens us. Maybe we’re already dead and just haven’t noticed. The emergency systems kicked on back then. Today, emergency is our norm. We want to go out, but don’t trust ourselves to take the risk. We could have left the bunker before now, but we didn’t. Aren’t supposed to. The numbers in fate’s lottery have already been drawn. Death is waiting for us out there. We prefer slow suffocation. The silence out there has made us cowardly. We never were all that brave. We feel safe in here – and simultaneously cursed. Our home is a grave. And we are cowards who would rather die slowly than face a quick death. All we have is nothing. What we could have had, though, would have been even less than that.

While carbon monoxide busies itself with poisoning my lungs, I press Pete against me, because it is often the only thing that helps him. “You’re alive,” I repeat once more, then six more times, over and over again. Pete twitches and shakes. He has forgotten how to sob. His misery is as dry as a parched river.

I stand back up. “Still nothing?” I ask Slim. I have to say something. Pete has begun to tremble. The Wicked Witch of the West has him firmly in her clutches. He stinks, we stink.

Slim just shakes his head. Words cost strength. We stare at the monitors. Out there: nothing. Subatomic silence. Occasional winds. Desolation. Dust. Drought. Decomposition. The weather has forgotten how to rain. Drought everywhere, just as dry as my mouth has been as long as I can remember. We’ve gone through what little water we had. We rationed it, even at the beginning. We recently stopped washing. The vodka just makes us thirstier, but I try to imagine that it has been distilled into water. I dream about waterfalls, sweet lakes and ponds. I would swim and drink forever, until I couldn’t possibly keep going. It would be better to go under and drown, than to dry up and wither down here for an eternity. Our today has turned into stone, hard and unchangeable, just like us. The unfiltered sunbeams outside beat down relentlessly, mirroring the mocking laughter of a sad, vanished existence. Nothing is allowed to move. If something did move, it would die. What am I actually still thinking is out there?

When they came to clean things up outside, their clothes were bright and colorful. The advance team wore breathing masks, and the first real faces appeared a few days later. As they danced and laughed out there, I stammered something incomprehensible. Pete’s eyes were huge. He kept calling out for the Wizard of Oz, his saliva spraying all over the place. Slim just stared, and Roger rubbed his prick as if he had experienced an epiphany.

“What are we?” Slim asked, stuttering. “An… an experiment, an accident, a bad joke?”

The ones outside danced – the colors blinded us – we could hear the strains of music and would have cried, if it had been possible. We are sick, our desires are deceiving us.

“Stop it, Pete!” I say. “Stop fucking shaking!”

But Pete can’t. His nerves have all been fried. He crashes to the floor, and the tremors rack his entire body. Slim just sits there in his chair, his arms hanging slack.

“You can lick me, suck wherever you want. Everywhere. But just stop it!” I whisper in Pete’s ear, but he continues to thrash around beneath me. “We have each other. That won’t change,” I lie quietly, without shame. I want him to believe me. Something red dribbles from his mouth.

Slim just stares like an utter moron. Too much vodka. A shitty American who drinks too much vodka. His IQ of over 160 can no longer help us. “We can’t lose anyone else,” he murmurs. He hasn’t stood up for days now. Pisses in a bucket. Maybe he can’t even walk anymore. Handsome Slim.

“Shut the hell up, Slim! Help me!”
    But Slim just laughs. First quietly, then louder and louder. He laughs and laughs, gulping down air like an old man. Something white and foamy bubbles out of the corner of his mouth, as he sits there laughing.

I turn around. Roger is missing, too. “Roger!” My thin scream sounds like glass, as it rasps along the corridor and ricochets off the concrete. Where is that pig?

Pete’s convulsions stop. As I continue to shake him, his body becomes strangely slack. He was the older one. I’m now untethered. Convince me that I’m dreaming. Nothing here is true. Truth is what I make it to be.

Slim laughs, wheezes. Until he abruptly breaks off, suddenly dissolving into coughing and panting. The hysteria has wiped his face completely clean.

For the first time in ages, something moves. The shock ripples out in waves. The pixels quiver on the monitor. Right in front of the bunker. A person. Arms, legs, a face. Everything in motion. So this is how the first man was created. The walls, the power poles, the military machines, everything that had been seared into our retinas suddenly dwindles down to a transfer picture. Did I just feel a breath of air on my skin, the first since who knows when? I must be wrong. This can’t be. Bright cloths, silken fabrics blowing in the wind. Tibetan prayer flags of a lost, western generation. Chills run down my spine. Is something divine touching me?

It’s getting harder to breathe. Maybe I no longer need to. I click my heels, once, twice. I won’t manage a third time. The magical words leave my mouth: “There is no place like home.” My only wish. Think about Pete. Somebody will wake me up any minute. I believe this with every fiber of my ridiculous being. Nothing happens. Trembling, Slim’s thin fingers point at the picture. The scene before us dissolves into its smallest components, as it reaches its half-life. We are alone. We knew it. The monitor flickers, the image shudders as I try to grasp what I’m seeing. A small crash, a loud bang, a white line suddenly stretching horizontally across the wavering picture. I’m still screaming as the screen suddenly goes black. My eyes dart back and forth, but the monitors stay blank.

With degrees in art history and historic preservation, Rachel Hildebrandt worked for years as a historical consultant and academic editor before transitioning to literary translation (German). She has published both fiction and nonfiction works in translation, including Staying Human by Katharina Stegelmann (Skyhorse), Herr Faustini Takes a Trip by Wolfgang Hermann (KBR Media), and Collision by Merle Kroeger (forthcoming, Unnamed Press). Rachel is also the founder of Weyward Sisters Publishing, which focuses on bringing contemporary works of crime and noir fiction by women authors from Germany, Austria and Switzerland to English readers.