From the Dust
by Isabel Heynen
After another ten hours of testing and debugging, Adrian Liang slammed
his laptop shut and brought his open palm down on the tabletop with an
inarticulate yell of helpless fury.
From the dirty floor next to him came a concerned, high-pitched squeal.
“Oh, it's all right, Lulubog,” he muttered, reaching down to
scratch the small pig’s ears and pat her on the head. "We'll get this
thing working eventually, don't you worry." He downed another gulp of
cof-fee, bringing a hand up to his aching forehead and wincing.
This project, his labor of love, had devoured Adrian’s life for the
past several months. The times he had almost given up numbered in the
hundreds. But scrunching his eyes shut and then widening them, with all
the weight of his past thirty-six sleepless hours weighing on his
shoulders, he reopened his laptop and got back to work once more.
The studio apartment was tiny, even by Seattle’s cramped
standards—built either for one loner, or for two people with no desire
for personal space to separate them. He sat in a greasy kitchenette
that took up one side of the room, on one of two small metal chairs
that faced each other across a narrow plastic table. The queen bed took
up the other side of the room, its yellow-ing white sheets unmade and
unwashed. In one corner sat a small desk on which lay a phone and a
laptop that were not his, along with a few stray hairbands. There were
some framed family photos there, too; most of them showing people in
the Philippines that Adrian had never met.
And the place was filled with dust—dust coating the floor and piling in
the corners, and filling the sheets and mattress, and on top of the
fridge and the cupboards and even inside Adri-an’s clothes. He hadn’t
cleaned since August 5th of last year; now it was starting to hit July.
Adrian himself looked no better than his home: his eyes were bloodshot,
his skin was almost as greasy as the kitchen, and if Floribeth could
see him now, she’d yell something about him having “ramen body” and
stuff him with chicken adobo until he could barely walk.
80% of the dust in a house is made up of dead human skin cells,
the article on BuzzFeed had said. He was banking on that. He’d
confirmed the fact with enough other sources that he was confident in
it, confident enough to stake everything that had ever mattered on it.
Of course, things hadn't always been like this, and he could sometimes
bring himself to remember that. After graduating two years ago, he'd
had more friends than he could ever coordi-nate on a given weekend, who
often started or finished a party night in this apartment, which was
much cleaner back then. He'd been a top developer at one of the best
spell software startups in Seattle. And, of course, he'd had Floribeth,
in all her beauty and craziness, and she'd had him.
But when Floribeth went, all the rest of it went too.
After two more hours of work, he finally stood up and lumbered like a
zombie towards his bed. As he collapsed on it facedown, a familiar
voice echoed achingly in his head before eve-rything shut down in a
black, blissful void.
Two hours later, the sound of his phone ringing jolted him back to the
world. Lulubog nudged persistently at his ankle with her snout, trying
to help him wake up. Grudgingly, he answered the phone.
“Adrian. It’s Mina from PitchVoid.”
“Well? Do we have a database spell?”
“Just need a few more hours. You’ll have it first thing in the morning.”
“You said you’d have it done last week.”
“It’ll be done before you show up in the morning, I guarantee.”
Mina gave an exasperated sigh. “If we don’t have a brand-new, perfectly
working spell by then, we’re finding someone else to write it.” She
Adrian dropped the phone and let his head fall back down on the
mattress. Lulubog crawled up and prodded his face with her soft, wet
nose. He gave the pig’s back a few halfheart-ed pats, then turned over
and stared up at the ceiling.
“Guess we’ve still gotta make money somehow, right? Feed that tummy of
yours.” Lulubog squawked in agreement.
He spent the next six hours churning out PitchVoid’s database spell,
starting from scratch. He’d convinced them last week that he had an
entire draft, but that was a straight-up lie meant to buy time while he
worked on more important things. After finally emailing the finished
spell off to Mina around four in the morning, he poured Lulubog a pail
of food and collapsed on his bed to black out once more. A few hours
later, his alarm rang again and he rose to get back to work. His real
Six months ago, at the bottom of his still-fresh misery, Adrian had
begun his personal project with a summoning. It was a simple procedure
in which he drew a pentagram on the floor in white chalk, placed a
caged rat from PetCo in the center, then stood at the edge of the shape
and vocalized thirty or forty lines of appropriate Latin syntax. He'd
learned the routine in his freshman year at the University of
Washington and had used it countless times since.
A few light puffs of air ran through his matted hair as the summoned
creature entered the room unseen. He heard the rustle of its great
feathers close to his face as it sniffed him out, then sharp steps as
its pointed, spindle-like feet traced around the apartment. There was a
rotting smell in the air. Small clouds of dust rose as a few kitchen
drawers opened and closed. The caged rat dropped dead in its cage and
seemed to shrink as the blood drained from its body.
Then Adrian felt the creature approach and stand before him in its
designated space. He gave it his directions, and heard a whoosh of air
as it vanished to do his bidding. Once it was gone, he heated up a bowl
of instant ramen and ate it in the kitchenette. Lulubog sat quietly and
nervously in the corner, her bowl of slops untouched.
A few hours later, the creature returned and breathed out a sequence of
letters and num-bers, which inked themselves onto Adrian’s notepad. The
whole thing was fifty-eight pages long.
“Look, Lulubog! It’s Flory!” he said, waving the notepad in front of
the pig’s face. “It’s Floribeth!” He composed himself and put it down,
remembering the giant feathered thing was still watching. “I know you
don’t understand because you’re a pig, but this stuff is Flory’s DNA.
Like the ID code of her soul. Now that we have this, we’re golden.
We’re home free.”
When Floribeth had left him on that terrible August 5th, she had
abandoned everything. All her clothes had stayed in the drawer, and
even her phone and her laptop still lay on the desk. So that he
wouldn’t be able to get in touch with her, he’d figured. But she had meant
to come back; she would have, she’d planned to. He knew
because she had left Lulubog, whom she adored and pampered despite
Adrian’s objections to having a pig in their living space.
All she’d taken was her car, that little blue Accord that Adrian’s mind
hurt horribly to think about. Whenever he thought about it, all he
could see was the wreck. Front end smashed in, body crumpled in pleats
like an accordion. And a faint glimpse of Flory’s hair in the driver’s
After releasing the summoned creature, Adrian painstakingly copied the
sequence of letters and numbers into MagicTouchup, the spell-processing
app on his computer. Darkly, he marveled at how the seemingly random
characters could somehow mean the woman he had loved for so
long. He could find no clue to identify which line signified the first
snow angel she'd made as a child, after moving out here from
Pangasinan; or which one quantified the tears she’d shed at her
mother’s bedside in the hospital, holding her hand, until the woman had
finally given in to her cancer. And part of the sequence, he thought,
at least part of it had to be shaped by the life she'd shared with him:
the long nights of candy-fueled movie marathons, or of things much
better than a movie; the long nights of stupid, passionate fights over
commitment or dependence or respect that neither of them would finish
without resolving; and that one apocalyptic fight they never got to
resolve. The fight that had started this whole mess, the ridiculous
fight over whether to have a pig in the house or not. That fight was
the dusk before the longest night of all. Adrian wondered what his own
supernatural ID sequence looked like, and how much of it would mirror
Next, he started the hardest part of the project: writing the lines
upon lines of magical syntax on his laptop that would form the spell
itself, compiling and debugging every step of the way. This took six
months, with the final product coming to about five hundred thousand
lines. Apart from the section that incorporated Flory’s ID sequence, he
wrote the entire program in an-cient Coptic, the ideal choice for such
an obscure and specialized rite. While the MagicTouchup app still
wasn’t optimized for Coptic, he figured it would still be able to
predict with about 95% certainty whether each part of the spell would
actually work or not.
During the first month, he was optimistic despite his misery. Through
the second and third months, he clung hard to the hope that he could
still get the spell right, remembering to take care of himself. To
Adrian, this meant numbing himself with whiskey to everything outside
of his project and the necessary freelance work to keep his rent paid
and Lulubog fed. In the fourth month, his whiskey habit went out of
control as the project’s complexity spun out of his grasp, and as
Adrian realized that he would probably never finish the spell and never
see Flory again. He grew scrawny from lack of eating and almost took
Lulubog to the pound, thinking they’d take better care of her than he
could, lifting her into a cardboard box and hearing her sad little
squeals as he carried the box to the door. At the last minute, he
changed his mind, set the box down on the floor, and sank down next to
it. The world crashed down and so did his plan to give up. Find-ing new
strength in its ashes, he stood up. The pig stayed.
During the fifth month, he ditched the whiskey and took on more
freelance work, pulling himself at least halfway out of the mound of
debt he’d accumulated since August. He bathed Lu-lubog weekly and took
her to the vet for a check-up and flu shots. He went to the Asian
market and stocked his freezer and cupboard with some of Floribeth's
favorite things—lychee ice cream, green tea pocky sticks, Hakutsuru
plum wine—and ordered all the books and clothes in her ha-bitually-kept
Amazon shopping cart as presents. Finally, he demolished what remained
of his emergency fund and bought a slender gold ring with a small
diamond in the center. By then, he had crossed off every way he could
think of to prepare for a homecoming except clean the apartment,
because he needed the dust. The dust was crucial.
When the sixth month hit and he realized that success was finally
within his grasp, he went full speed ahead. Until finally, in the
middle of July, came the big day.
After whooping, yelling, dancing around the kitchen while whirling
Lulubog around in the air, and staring happily for minutes and minutes
at his finished, 95% accurate spell, Adrian settled down and carefully
mapped out the floor with a stiff measuring tape, marking off the
proper points with red chalk. He had never used a shape like this one
before; it was only about six feet wide, but the lines within it needed
to form about seventy openings. After lifting Lulubog into a playpen in
the corner and filling her pail with feed, he spent the next five or
six hours on the floor, drawing and correcting obsessively with the red
chalk, erasing mistakes with a wet dish towel, and filling in every
loophole that could possibly damage the priceless final product.
Contained within a circle and touching several points around its
perimeter, the completed shape resembled a hexagon filled with dozens
of interlocking triangles. In the center was a blank opening, inside
which he set a large glass serving-bowl of water.
Is there enough dust on the floor? he thought. It doesn’t
all have to be from her skin, it can be from mine as well. As long as
it’s the right kind of dust.
Adrian had lost track of the last meal he’d eaten or the last blink of
sleep he’d had, but he wasn’t in shape for a break. All that was left
was the final stage, the marathon at the end, and the precious thing
was just too close to being done. Plugging his laptop into a charger
and setting it on a lectern facing the shape, he opened it and pulled
up the file containing his spell. He tried to monitor his dizziness as
he waited for it to load, feeling his heart rate going out of control
and knowing that whatever would happen after this stage, he had no way
to prepare for it. But when the words finally appeared on his screen,
he launched straight into his chant without hesitation.
He started in a monotone, dropping his pitch at the end of every line,
throughout the ini-tial setup sections—old Coptic charms of movement
and elements and support. Those took about an hour, laying the
groundwork for the rest of the spell. Next came the pieces that meant Flori-beth—the
anatomy of her soul and her genome, the randomness that made her all
that he loved, composed like a symphony from the code of her spiritual
DNA. His voice broke out of its mono-tone and into a song, soaring and
rising and falling. Her face burned into his mind as he contin-ued to
sing for hours and hours, singing her into existence, to dust you
returned but from dust you shall come again. He wrapped it up with a
few short connecting charms to finalize the spell. Finally, four hours
after starting, he finished with a closing section to draw her first
As he pronounced the last word, the dust around the room began to move.
Withered cells of their life together, microscopic flakes of her flesh
and his, began to draw themselves gradually toward the the circle in
swirls and waves; from under the couch and from the corners of the room
and from the tops of the shelves and from inside the mattress, in some
places only as a blur in the air and in some places as a thick dark
cloud. Droplets of water flowed upwards from the glass bowl and mingled
with the dust, the mixture of elements settling in the air. A frail and
transpar-ent pillar began to form inside the central triangle of the
shape, its pale grayish color darkening and browning as more and more
dust rushed in. The pillar began to shape itself into curves, limbs,
hair, solidifying as it molded itself into her face. The eyes were open
and the lips were parted, teeth whitening and golden skin slowly paling
and blushing. Her hair lengthened and shone, smooth and straight and
black. The shape of her body took on its familiar roundness and
softness. She was as real as anyone in the world.
“Flory…” Adrian’s voice broke as he looked at her. The recognition hit
him so hard that he was sobbing and shaking long before he realized it.
She stared at him blankly, holding her hands up in front of her face as
the dust flowed into them, becoming her fingertips and finger-nails,
the flesh knitting together and turning from grey-brown to pink.
“Flory,” he said again, reaching out to her, taking a step forward. His
hands begged him to touch her, but some fear in-side held him back:
fear that she would somehow crumble to dust again if he did.
She slowly heaved her first new breath into her lungs, and her eyes
finally met his.
They were no longer the eyes of the Floribeth he’d known, but held a
whole heaven and hell of which he knew nothing—full of stars and voids
and unimaginable joy, and nothingness and everything, full of all that
was divine and bottomless and greater than the sun and the uni-verse.
Then her gaze darted feverishly around the room, and her face tightened
and contorted in dismay.
The sound was high and loud, filling Adrian’s ears with pain. She
squeezed her eyes shut, face scrunched up in agony, mouth open wider
than Adrian had thought any human mouth could open. She dropped to the
ground, doubled over, sank onto her knees.
As Adrian ran towards her, the world seemed to fizzle and shake. He
crouched down, reached out his hand and caressed her face. The flesh
was warm and soft, just as it always had been. Finally, her scream died
down to silence and she sat there on her knees, shuddering, with her
hands over her face, as he hugged and kissed her and murmured in her
ear that it would all be okay and that he loved her and she was safe
and alive and back home.
Finally, finally, she raised her eyes and looked up at him. As he gazed
back, he saw that the heaven that had filled those eyes just seconds
ago had been dragged down to the ground, torn, trampled into the filth
of the world.
“Send me back,” she whispered.
“I can’t be here. I don't belong here anymore. Send me back.”
Reducing a human being to dust was a much easier task than creating
one, and only took ten words. Those words seemed to fill his throat
thickly enough to choke him as he said them. But the agony in her eyes
eased and disappeared as soon as he finished, her new flesh smoothly
disintegrating, the whole process reversing itself. As Adrian sank to
his knees, numbness in his mind and tears in his eyes, he caught a
glimpse of a smile on her face as she returned to dust once more.
© 2018 Isabel Heynen
Bio: Isabel Heynen lives in Portland, Oregon, where she writes
strange stories about the Pacific Northwest. She graduated two years
ago from Princeton University with a degree in public policy that she
has not yet used.
Email: Isabel Heynen
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