Previously published in The Golden Key
We’d been in the kitchen a long time and the food was all gone. Burckhardt found me in the corner where I’d appropriated a chair and was defending it with my life. His lips were raw steak below blueberry eyes. “You always do this,” he told me. “Pretend you’re outside it all.” His lanky yellow hair looked so luscious, brimming with oil. I’d been trying to recall the taste of salt or sweet by concentrating on various parts of my tongue, touching them to my teeth or the roof of my mouth, but the exact sensations evaded me. It’d been too long, the qualia lost to me.
“I want you to see something,” Burckhardt said. He took my hand and we worked our way through the press of bodies in the kitchen. The slippage was reminiscent of oysters going down a gullet. He felt it too, I knew. His hand was shaking. I couldn’t remember when I’d last seen Burckhardt at this party that had petered out so long ago, but he’d grown thin as fishbones, worse than the rest of us. His skin was glassine tissue.
We were shoved up against the counter, in a still backwash of partygoers. Maddox was there. At first I couldn’t tell what he was doing. He stood facing an upper cabinet, the door half-open, his jaw tilted toward the dark opening as though he thought there might be food inside. Then I realized he was gnawing on the wooden corner of the door. White gouges in the pumpkin pine showed where his teeth had been at work, streaks of pink in the white from his bleeding gums. This was what Burckhardt wanted me to see and I watched for a while, my stomach awakening at the sight of a mouth moving in consumptive imitation. Maddox’s lips groped the wood like a horse with a carrot.
“You shouldn’t have left him alone.” Burckhardt was our police, or thought he was.
“He’s not my responsibility just because I fucked him.” I took Maddox’s arm, spoke his name, and he spun away from his meal, shied like a horse, the same rolling eyes. Out of his trance. Maddox had been beautiful once, not like anyone else here, a little miracle of a face, but now his cheeks were gray receding clouds and he stank. At the side of his mouth hung a patch of fibers, the pine cabinets only fake hardboard after all, more fibrous dust on his teeth, and it looked so organic I leaned in to him, stuck my tongue in his mouth, then his was in mine. Eating what we could. The hardboard tasted of bitter flour, bitter just another lover I’d forgotten, hunger wheezing inside, ringing bells in my blood. The moist meat of him playing against my teeth made me want to bite down. Burckhardt pulled us apart before I could.
“You see what’s going to happen?” he hissed. “Not much longer now, for any of us.”
Us, the wood, the faucets. I knew what he meant. We’d consume it all, or try to.
Beside me Maddox saw the gouged tip of the cupboard door and coiled over the counter, holding his stomach like he’d been punched. “Stop me,” he moaned. “Please stop me.”
Not everyone’s like Maddox, I turned to say, we’re not all of us broken, like toast dropped and ground into the floor, but Burckhardt had moved off to where the row of cabinets ended and was pressing his ear to the kitchen wall. I joined him, put my face up close to his. “Who made you head honcho?” I asked. He shook his head and closed his eyes. “Crap, Burckhardt, just because the two of us can see the end doesn’t make us leaders.” The quiet he was waiting for arrived, one of those maddening silences that came unbidden and in which every one of us in the kitchen could always hear our stomachs roiling, and in that brief death of sound I heard the answer.
Somewhere on the other side of the wall, far away in the next apartment, a party was going on. A bass beat, loud voices erupting in laughter, jaws working fuzzily, snapping closed again and again on what could only be hors d’oeuvres.
Party food, dips and stews left to simmer on stovetops, breads and nuts and cocktail onions. Raw vegetables maybe, cucumbers. Maybe pretzels.
In the end we chose to tunnel down. The fridge, quickly shoved aside when enough hands helped, revealed a grate over a hole in the floor. A vent once, or a crawlspace. Clogged now, but the substrate was fudge-soft. We had spoons and ice-cream dippers and garlic presses. Burckhardt worked the hardest. Down three feet, then leveling off. Digging beside him in the half-light, I thought he didn’t look that ugly. Whenever I came up to be spelled by other partygoers, I’d catch Maddox watching from the corner. He looked stunned. I wanted to slap him.
Hunger dug. I was on my hands and knees, in front at last. The beat of music was close now, the glossolalia of indistinct conversation just ahead and above. There was only one apartment next to ours. A couple of yards more and we could start digging up. If my arms didn’t fall off. I passed the ice-bucket full of dirt to the guy behind me, his name long forgotten, though his unfortunate pairing of a shaved head with a too-round face made me believe we’d nicknamed him Frog. There was a frog croak coming from him, puffs of sound, accelerating like a locomotive gaining steam, and when I leaned close to hear I realized they were chained words of food euphoria.
“Guava wieners shakes sourdough brie sushi mutton yams–”
He crooked a fingertip of soil from the bucket and ate it.
Burckhardt inched around him to touch my shoulder. Behind them both I could see the bucket line had broken down, all its members collapsed with their faces pressed to the floor or the tunnel walls, chewing. I imagined these gaunt mole people coming up into the party ahead, dirt-mouthed, casting a shadow forever on the souls of the well-fed. We’d never make it now anyway.
“We can do it alone, Tania,” Burckhardt told me.
“We’re exactly halfway there.”
He smiled and his lips cracked and bled. “No return.”
I imagined Burckhardt’s brainpan as a crusted thing, an actual roasting pan blackened from meat left sizzling too long. As if he read my thoughts and knew I was made of the same fused crackling, he motioned with his spoon. We went back to work.
That’s how we got where we are now.
Flaking, scraping, denting. We piled the dirt behind us until we were a hole of two people rolling forward in coffee darkness. A glint, a clink, my spoon slid off something hard.
“This is metal,” I said, someone said.
“It’s another spoon,” two of us said.
The woman and I cleared the hole we’d made and stared at one another. She was older than me, thinner, emaciation’s face, marasmic stars in her brown eyes. Her black hair had fallen out in bunches. I didn’t know this was beauty. We were too shocked at first. Past her I could see another woman and a bearded man with a flashlight, packed dirt behind them that meant they’d had to abandon their bucket line as well.
“You’re 3B,” the woman in front said. Her voice was a dying caress. Her cheeks were so hollow the skin had become perforated. Bones made her real; she was a pared-down angel, an angel because she was pared down. “Where the party is.” She pointed up and behind me with her spoon.
“The party’s there.” I pointed up and behind her with my spoon. Firecrackers were going off in my head, small bursts, like the shooting pains in my stomach. “You’re 3A.”
We cleared the rest of the dirt and the five of us hunkered. I told her the sound was coming from behind them and she told me it was coming from behind Burckhardt. They’d been at it longer than we had and they’d waited longer to start. She started to laugh, a fulminant hysteria that made her kick the walls like a baby, then she quieted. We knew then that the sound was coming from above us, through the tunnel roof of hard concrete on which the firewall sat, where no apartment could be. I could hear individual lip-smacks, the cackle of potato chips, an exudation of pastries. We sat, and after a while I touched the woman’s hand, drank in her disappointed, accepting look, the absolute wisdom, and she touched me back.
This is how we got where we are. I love the woman, whose name is Celia, and I love Burckhardt. I love us all. I think sometimes I should have stayed back with the others to die of coprophagia, but then I never would have seen Celia’s face. Sometimes I think of Maddox. We sit, the five of us, growing weaker like this, listening, a little sad but really more confused, because we can’t imagine who’s doing the partying up there or what it is they’re eating.
Rhonda Eikamp is originally from Texas and lives in Germany. Stories of hers have appeared in Lackington’s, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and Unlikely Story, among others. When not writing fiction, she translates for a German law firm.