Aphelion Issue 229, Volume 22
June 2018
 
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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.

"...Hello?"

“Adrian. It’s Mina from PitchVoid.”

“Hi, Mina.”

“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 hung up.

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 work.


*****



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 side window.


*****



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 hers.

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 breath.

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.

She screamed.

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.

“But…”

“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.



THE END


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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