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don't believe in dust
“It’s this dust,” he says to his Grandmother, “it comes and goes. When it’s here, I hide. I stay down, count my fingers and count my toes over and over until it’s safe again.”
His Grandmother has Alzheimer’s, and cannot remember much beyond his mother and brother’s name and little of him.
“There’s no dust like that,” she snaps; he notices her hands shake, fingers bent and crooked.
“What? Say that again?” he asks.
“What’s wrong with you, Asa?”
“I can’t hear well.”
“Why not?” she demands as he looks at her portrait, hanging on the wall behind her scarlet- laced chair (the last piece of furniture she owns.) Strangely, the colors on her painted face shimmer. “What happened to your ears?” She persists impatiently.
“How is that?” he strains to listen.
“Your ears, what happened? Why can’t you hear well?”
“The dust, Grandma. It comes and goes. Sand, dirt, and bits and pieces are hard to avoid; they hit me and get inside my head,” he explains.
“Nonsense. Where’s your mother?”
“I don’t know. I remember her hair, black, like a raven. Have you ever heard: ‘why is a raven like a writing desk?’ No, never mind, it was blond. Dirty blond," he trails off, snubbed by her poisonous stare.
“That’s gibberish. You don’t know where she is?”
“I can’t- what?” He almost stamps his foot in irritation.
“Never mind. And your brother? Where’s he?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen him since he was a newborn. He should be in diapers now. I was actually hoping they might have come here, to visit you, and you could tell me where they are now?”
“No. They haven't been here. I don’t remember.”
He sighs, “Thanks anyway, Grandma,” and starts to leave; the nurse grimaces, “she hasn’t been taking her medicine.”
“Shoo,” his Grandmother orders, “I don’t want to see your troublesome self back here again. You should be in school. Get out.”
Schools have been abandoned since the dust storms began. The nursing home she’s staying in is over-flowing with aging, sick people, and the walls are crumbling against the elements.
He leaves his Grandmother with her debilitating brain.
He sleeps below overpasses when the dust comes. It swallows him up. In the nearest parks he sits, older kids kiss in the dark until they hear the moan of dust and scramble. They go back to their families, living desperately in deteriorating houses. He goes back to no one.
Beneath the bridge, he keeps tally of how many days he's been separated from his brother and mother. It’s been two years, five months, and thirteen days.
When he's not thinking about his family, he lies down on a patch of green grass left in a dead valley, enveloped in weeds and dotted with deserted cars. He strings together beads. Often, Isla visits. She’s his age with freckles peppered under her blue, translucent eyes. She lives in the wreckage of a neighborhood with other children and their families, whom he gives his makeshift jewelry to in exchange for a little food and water.
“Asa,” she asks.
“Why do you make these necklaces? No one wears them.”
His face falls. “Why? I give these to people. Why don’t they wear them?”
“They say your misfortune will rub off on them,”
“My misfortune? Have they seen themselves? We’re all in for it.”
“In for what?”
He has no answer, so he takes the rest of his strings and snaps them. He stamps on all of the beads until they crack, shatter, and turn to powder. They sail off into the wind.
“I hate that you did that,” she says.
“What?” He angrily wipes tears from his cheeks.
She kisses him and walks away.
Months later, he sees them on the streets. The palm trees sway in the dirty wind and the telephone poles groan under pressure from the drooping sky.
He spots the small, waddling legs, struggling to keep up with the longer, stronger legs towing them. The Huggies sag with a full load, the skin is light, starved for sun like everyone else.
The woman is wearing a white dress, eyes protected by sunglasses. She’s running, pulling the toddler behind her. He must be two. Her hair, it’s dirty blond.
The unmistakable moan of dust echoes. He sees it in the distance, screaming towards him. It takes only seconds for it to reach them and the roads are covered with a thick blanket of brown.
“Mother!” he shrieks at the woman, through the earthly air. He yells for the toddler, his brother, and realizes this is how he lost them the first time. They’re running fast, already disappearing in the grimy air as dust consumes him, objects slam him in the head, silence his hearing forever.
“Mother!” he screams again, but cannot hear himself, so isn’t sure he even says it.
He thinks of his Grandmother’s portrait. He crawls to the nursing home nearby, where vines have grown in, dried out, and weeds shot up through cracks in the floors, where it’s sluggishly transformed into a suburban jungle. The patients are gone, the nurses have fled.
His Grandmother is dead in her chair. Her body is stiff, eyes milky, unfocused. He takes down her portrait, remembering the glow he had seen on it; when he flicks his wrists, the painting shines, striking neon radiance onto the wall.
He hobbles back into the dust storm, stands in the middle of the street and screams for his Mother. He flashes the painting back and forth repeatedly, seeing light bouncing in brown air. He uses the light to capture their attention, to draw them back to him so they don’t again leave him behind.
He sinks to his knees, flecked wind battering his body, the dust sighing, and flickers the painting.
As he begins to fade, a woman heads towards him, a small body straggling after her. He grins into the pavement as the dust eats him up.