TWA #16 – Short Story “Dust Bunnies” by Tony Southcotte

Dust Bunnies

 

The only thing that woman had ever thrown away was his .45. Gabe stood in place as he thought about his gun while staring at his mineral collection. He’d been there for the better part of two hours. His shed was ornate, a rock hound’s paradise. Gabe had meticulously outlined each of his tools with tape. Rock samples like pyrite, citrine, and some amethyst geodes along with dozens of other rock samples sat perfectly organized on shelves along the back wall. Every rock had been organized by its region of origin, and the ones he gathered himself took the primary positions. Colorado was good for that.

He glanced at his silenced cell phone. 42 unread texts and 25 unanswered calls glowed on the display. Every single one of them was from Dottie, who was entered into his phone as ‘That Woman.’ He shut down his phone and stepped out of the shed, carefully averting his eyes from the house where her rotund silhouette waited for him.

Gabe chanced a glance her way. Her new pack of 80’s Olympic collectable bears blocked some of the naked rolls, and he felt a small wave of gratitude towards them for the first time.

Gabe knew there would be hell to pay when he went back in, but the 50 feet between the house and his shed might as well have been a continent as far as she was concerned. He knew that a vast gulf of anxiety kept Dottie from opening the door, much less stepping out onto the lawn. Anywhere outside of that house was out of her reach.

The old man had long given up feeling guilty about ignoring his wife. The inside of the house remained his hell and she was the devil, so far as Gabe was concerned. Catholic guilt remained the only glue that kept them together. The towers of nonsensical crap she ordered from shopping networks and internet sites went beyond comprehension. The house had an otherworldly smell, due to that woman’s Ellis Island view toward cats. Last time he tried to count the fleabags, he gave up around the number 21. He had lost all control of his life and his home, so the shed was his only refuge.

Looking off into the open land behind him, the night yawned out over the mesa and foothills. The full moon twinkled over the hills and ranches in the distance. He thought about going for a walk, but thought the better of it. Suppose that woman had a heart attack while he was gone?

In the sky above, a bright streak tore through the night. Even with his eyes perfectly open, the trail was burned in. A few moments later, a terrible thunder rattled the shed. With a bright impact, the meteor landed in a valley a few miles away.

Gabe’s mouth hung open for a moment, and he was struck dumb by the sight. The thought of the meteor he had always hounded for and never found snapped him from his stupor. Gabe grabbed the keys from the carabiner on his belt, and ran to his truck.

A small rectangular screen illuminated Dottie’s heavily veined and discolored foot. The camera on her phone clicked, and she brought it to her face, the pale light reflecting off her immense and naked body.

Her lips trembled as she examined the bunion.

“They’re gonna take my foot!” Dottie wailed to an audience of cats. “It’s the beetus. They said it could happen.”

She sent a text of the image to hear oafish husband and then to the doctor. For good measure, she decided to post it to Facebook.

No one replied. She felt abandoned, alone in her own home despite the cloister of cats that meandered throughout the house. She dialed 911 but hung up, remembering what happened the last time. The paramedics strapped her to the gurney and took her away from her babies. Ultimately the trip ended with a negative heart attack diagnosis, a broken collar bone from the struggle, and a prescription of Clonazepam.

The cats wouldn’t eat from Gabe, she thought. It wasn’t proper. He didn’t feed them right, the stupid old man. And now he’d left her again.

She started breathing heavy. Her chest ached under the exertion, the stress of it all. She couldn’t leave her babies, couldn’t leave her house. Last time she left he cleared out all of her things in his bedroom. A month’s worth of shopping and bidding. He just gave it away. He had no sense. Gabe had to be taken care of, and she couldn’t just let him be alone in the house.

When the thought of all those lost baubles hit her, Dottie grabbed a paper bag from under an old tabby. She thought he might have been named Knickers, but couldn’t remember. She took deep, heaving breaths into the bag and grabbed the laptop and went to Google and typed ‘foot amputation from diabetes’ into the search bar.

Terrible images fed her fear until she saw a cute anklet on one of the ulcered feet. She clicked back to the search bar and went to eBay, where the cycle of compulsive buying continued.

The rust colored Ford pickup sped over dirt hills and trampled sage as Gabe crossed the wild earth. A small fire burned in the distance. He used it as a beacon as he dodged small rock outcroppings in the dark.

The radio program featured George Noory talking to some California reefer-head about recent sightings and how it just so happened to coincide with that night’s meteors.

A cloud of dust enveloped the truck as it slid to a halt. Gabe jumped out, not bothering to turn off the truck. He grabbed a flashlight, some thick leather gloves and inspected the site. Smoke irritated his eyes and the heady smell of sage was potent.

At the rim of the crater, Gabe fell to his knees. In the center of the large ring was a glowing meteor, perhaps six inches across and nearly a perfect sphere except for the molten pits on its surface. His heart raced. He had expected to find some fragments, and maybe something the size of a marble if he was lucky. This was entirely beyond anything he had ever hoped to find.

“Jeees- err I mean geeze,” he said, crossing himself for his near blaspheme.

He ran down the edge of the pit, his legs feeling 30 years younger than they were. With a greedy, gloved hand, he picked up the ball, and hefted the meteor up. He thought it must have been solid iron and the weight reminded him of a bowling ball. Heat crept into his gloves but Gabe ignored it. Carrying it back toward his truck, he put it in a metal bucket and carefully strapped it into the passenger seat.

Gabe slapped the steering wheel, happier than he could remember being in a long time, and whipped the truck around, heading back home.

—–

Gabe’s self-satisfied grin spread from ear to ear. Once he returned home, he immediately ran the bucket to his shed and set the meteor on the counter. He suddenly heard loud thunks on the glass door of the house.

“Oh darnit. Dottie,” Gabe said. And he skulked to the house. When he opened the door, three cats bolted from the gap. Following close behind them was a coffee mug that grazed his ear.

“Dottie! I found a meteor! It’s beautiful,” he said.

Tears ran down his wife’s face. Gabe felt a bit of shame in the pit of his stomach.

At the sight of her husband, Dottie chucked another coffee mug at him.

Gabe had dodged worse things. He waded through the discarded boxes and old sacks of garbage to fall to his wife’s side, embracing her in a giant hug.

He really didn’t want to deal with the usual fight tonight. He had to resort to extreme measures or else he’d be fighting for the rest of the night.

“I’m sorry baby, I’m sure it’s just a corn,” he said, squeezing her tightly. “I’ll rub it later with some of that nice herbal stuff you like.”

Dottie still sobbed, but he could see the anxiety lifting from her. He then did something he hadn’t done for many months, maybe even a year, and kissed her. Dottie seemed perplexed, but didn’t resist. She let him kiss and touch. Feelings she had almost forgotten rose up in her. The anxiety relented, as did the anger. She was safe and he was there.

For the first time in ages, he ascended the mountain that was his wife, and performed his marital duties.

Satisfied, Dottie snoozed in her Texas-sized recliner, content with the world. That might change when she woke up, but Gabe had bought himself some peace and quiet. His ruse had turned out to be something he needed as well and he was satisfied to know that some of the old parts still worked.

He dressed, dodging a battle between feral cats she never bothered to name, and walked through the pillars of boxes and trash to the back door. When he got to the shed, he rolled the meteor around in his hand.

“My precious,” he said, doing his best Gollum voice.

How was the meteor still warm? Gabe grabbed a bottle of water from the mini-fridge under the workbench. He poured the tiniest drop onto the meteor and it bubbled.

The droplet slid into one of the pores and a small puff of dust shot out. The blue mist reminded him of the used chalk from billiard halls. Gabe poured more water on it, but not too much, worrying it might crack from thermal shock.

Blue powder shot out from the pores in the metallic sphere, blasting Gabe in the face with the fine dust. With a sneeze, the water bottle dropped from Gabe’s hand and landed on the workbench, spilling around the meteor. When the dust in the air came in contact with the water, it bloomed outward in all directions, bathing the shed in the dust, caking to anything it touched.

Gabe let out several curses, not bothering to censor himself this time. He lumbered toward the house, hacking and spitting. As the spit came out, it turned into little blue streams of the dust that multiplied with each passing second.

Bursting through the door, Gabe tripped on some garbage and fell into the refuse. Crawling, he made his way toward the phone in the kitchen. The pain in his lungs and head ravaged his body, and he vomited blue clouds. Blackness came into the edges of his vision, and slowly closed it out. The last thing he saw was a curious cat, walking up to inspect him.

In the living room, Dottie snored heavily, not waking up even for a moment.

—–

Dottie stood over the body of her dead husband, not understanding what she saw. She kicked at the body, hoping it was some terrible prank. Maybe Gabe had dabbled into the whiskey he had taken to hiding around the house.

She was shocked. Too shocked to cry…to wail…to do anything really.

Gabe lay limp on the floor, covered in a thick layer of blue powder. The mask made his face nearly invisible. The dust had tracked out, making its way into garbage bags, making clumps appear anywhere it touched liquid.

“Oh you stupid bastard,” she finally said. “How am I going to live?”

The grief was suppressed under a thought: they lived on his pension. His pension was over. If she curtailed her habits, Dottie had maybe enough to live on for a month or two. Images of sheriffs and bankers and foreclosures…she imagined supermarkets filled with so many people who thought she was worthless, that she was too fat to live or be part of anything. She knew she was too ugly for love or respect or kindness. That the grotesque people would judge her as a pariah, casting her out of a world she didn’t belong to or understand.

Dottie walked past Gabe to the kitchen counter where a box filled with prescription drug bottles sat. She dropped two Clonazepam and a Valium into her mouth and dry swallowed.

The horrid thoughts became more rapid in her mind. What would happen to her babies? She knew they’d kill her babies and they’d kill her. They wouldn’t let her have her things. She thought about stacks of snow globes that filled massive curio cabinets. In front of that were unopened boxes of fake plants, mountains of sports cards, entire valleys of Beanie Babies. It was all too much. They would take it all and give it to people who had hurt her. Who had made her husband hate her. They didn’t earn her things. They didn’t deserve them, especially not the snotty kids who would take her toys and rip the tags off.

Then she remembered his moment of tenderness last night. She broke down, tears dropping into the mess of garbage on the kitchen floor. The blue substance absorbed them, growing in little spikes.

She had to take care of this. She needed something. They would keep depositing the checks if he were alive. She had to hide Gabe’s body.

She thought of the back yard. A hole, deep and dark. She looked through the dust covered windows to the outside, and despite the drugs, felt her heart accelerate and her world spin. The vertigo toppled her into another pile of trash, exposing a large cat nursing several small kittens. The cat hissed at her and she threw an old chicken wing at it.

When she wiped her tears, little clots of dust appeared to be growing on her hands. She wiped it on the nearest cat, which mewed and ran from her.

Dottie made her way to the garage and saw an axe hanging on the wall. She grabbed it, the feeling of the tool unfamiliar in her hands. She thought of the old stove in the living room, which was buried under mason jars filled with ashes; the ashes of her dead cats.

Looking back over her husband, she reminded herself of how many of her babies she had taken care of. How neatly they had fit into the oven, and how Gabe had stoked the flames for her. In those days, her grief over every lost cat was unbearable, so he had taken care of most of the work. She had to do it this time.

Lining herself up over Gabe, she took a deep breath, and slammed the axe down at the knee. She missed wildly and it hit mid shin, making a deep gouge. Deep red oozed out of the leg, and the dust started to congeal with it.

Dottie burst into tears again. A single swing had made her so tired, and she heaved with giant breaths. She needed more valium. Needed to not be here, needed this to just go away. The panic hit her and she started thinking of all the symptoms of a heart attack. The numb arm, the tightness in her chest. The symptoms started to manifest. She popped more valium.

The smell of blood was in the air, and a group of cats wandered into the kitchen. They all watched, eyes hungry. One of the braver strays, a black cat with one eye, wandered toward the exposed wound and started licking it. Other cats started to creep forward.

Dottie remembered one of her TV programs. She never liked the animal channel. It was too violent, but Gabe had. He liked watching the lions take down their prey. She remembered that they had sandpaper like tongues in order to tear every fleshy morsel from an animal.

Her impotence toward the situation started to fade as the drugs kicked in. Digging in the drawers for a large tin labeled ‘catnip.’ She took the lid off the can, sprinkling it over the body, then dumping the remainder.

The strange mews and growls of all the strays came together as the cats descended into the kitchen. Dozens of them went toward the body, some licking it, others trying to tear into the open spaces of the mouth and eyes.

Dottie popped another Valium and went back to her recliner.

—–

When Dottie awoke, the pungent smell of ichor and death was too strong to bear. She saw sick cats wandering around the house, some looked full and were cleaning blood from their chops, others lay still in corners and on pillars of boxes.

She dug around for a good long while, looking for where she stored her candles. It had been a phase like so many others, an obsession that lasted until the next fad struck her. She took them out, lighting them as she went. She placed them on any flat surface she could find, some more stable than others.

In her drugged haze, she wandered past the bathroom, lighting another candle. Without a thought, she climbed into the shower, thinking she felt dusty and disgusting. A nice shower would set her mind right. A light blue coat of dust covered her skin in strange swatches.

She turned the knob and tested the water with her hand. The dust exploded outward, blasting all over the bathroom. Dottie cried out, falling backwards. She hit the counter, knocking a candle over into a trashcan packed with wadded up tissues. The fire grew.

The blue dust in the shower had turned from a fine sandiness to a lurching pillar of caked powder. It looked as though it were reaching up for the showerhead, which fed it without stopping.

Dottie grabbed the trash can and lumbered away. Pieces of ignited tissue flew from the can, landing on the recliner, on piles of trash, and more. When she reached the kitchen, the meaty sight of her husband caused her to drop the can. The smoke alarms blared as several small fires bloomed from the garbage.

Stunned, Dottie’s muscles stiffened and she turned from the kitchen. Crossing the living room, she put a hand on the sliding glass door. She started to slide it open.

Thoughts blasted in her mind, breaching through the muddied surface of anti-psychotic drugs and tranquilizers. They’ll blame you. They’ll say you killed him for the insurance money. They’ll take your babies and put them to sleep. A chorus of mad thoughts overpowered the smell of smoke, the need to run.

She slid the door shut.

With a heavy sigh, she grabbed a sickly cat and carried it to her recliner. The chair groaned like an old ship and fitted to her curves.

She cooed at the cat as the fire began to grow.

—–

For hours, lumps of blue dust ebbed from the never ending torrent of water in the shower. The fire rose, smoky at first, but blooming into an inferno as the day wore on.

Cat’s sprinted and mewed, finding their way through screens and out into the world. Some left little trails of dust as they wandered.

Little dust bunnies rode on the wind, scattering outward. When the immolation grew so large the neighbors in the distance could see it, the fire department was called and sirens wailed. These sirens would surely bring torrents of water to the burning house and to the growing volume of dust in the air.

 


 

Be sure to vote for your favorite story here!

Tony hails from the Rocky Mountains somewhere around the state of Colorado. Possibly raised by grizzly bears, this gritty denizen of the arena now spends most of his time grappling with Java updates and dysfunctional RAM. With not much fiction under his belt, it might seem tempting to bet against Mister Southcotte, but an impressive knowledge of everything from PVC pipe to psychedelic drugs makes Tony a storehouse of fiction waiting to hit the paper. Plus, you know, there’s the possibility of him ripping you apart like a grizzly bear.

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7 Comments

  1. I liked this one quite a bit. There were moments when the writing didn’t flow as it could have, but the characters were strong. The way you preserved their basic humanity in spite of their gaping flaws was masterful.
    The one thing I really wanted more from was the ending. I think it would have had a greater impact if you’d actually SHOWN the fire trucks coming, the water spraying, the blue dust spiraling greedily outward.
    (Oh, and by the way, an alien parasite that feeds on water coming to a planet that’s covered in it? That’s a terrifying concept right there. Love it, love it, love it.)

  2. The first thing that popped into my head after reading this was “American Gothic” by Grant Wood. Both characters were understandable, human, pushed by circumstance into being grotesques of a sort. They have a Dickensian quality to them that made their flaws a little worse but left them recognisably people.

    I wasn’t sure about the flow of the story, but it was hard to pay attention to it when there was so much good character going on. It feels like the opening to a book about something much, much worse because by the time I got to the dust bunnies of the title I was thinking “oh, we’re so screwed if this breaks out” and it’s our fallible humanity that undoes us.

    So, a little bumpy but can we have the rest of the book that this opens, please?

  3. I was a little worried at first with this one. I’m not really a fan of the ugly backwoods lifestyle sort of genre that this seemed to be heading towards. Lots of people enjoy reading about fat people in trailer parks, but that’s never really appealed to me.
    But the story continued and I became less nervous and, quite simple, utterly invested. The characters were real and human, not caricatures or costumes. I had genuine empathy for the husband and then the wife, I’m still not sure how that was managed and to be honest I thought when we moved to the wife we’d get a sort of unacceptable monster. But instead we got a human being struggling to deal with the monsters of her past, of her own mind, of her perception.

    As others have mentioned, there were a few paragraphs where the flow was a little stuttered, but it wasn’t totally jarring by any means.

    My biggest complaint here was the meteor and it’s introduction. There was a brief aside about, I think, the radio was discussing a meteor shower taking place that day. This maybe should have been given a bit more attention as I would have liked to have known that this was a setting where a meteor would not be a complete surprise earlier on because…well…the meteor was a bit of a “Huh?” moment for me. I’ve mentioned in other stories how it’s usually a good idea to tell your biggest lies first. This would be an example of that. Just having the radio on in the background of the opening scene discussing the meteor shower, instead of later on after the meteor had fallen, would have prepped me enough to not be thrown out of the story by such a freak occurrence, not to mention the turn into the paranormal/sci-fi/otherworldly that this story suddenly took with the blue dust.

    Other than that, the blue dust was terrifying and I disagree with those who said it needed more or to be handled differently. I *wanted* more. But that doesn’t mean that the story would be better served by giving it to me.

    Just a wonderfully strong entry all around.

  4. Jon Jones (@dvwhat)

    As I write this, I still don’t yet know in which direction I shall cast my vote. It seems that trying to decide which story pulls me in more deeply each week becomes increasingly more difficult.

    Both stories were wonderful to read. Both offered unexpected wonders upon which to ponder. Both offered emotional complexities to explore and through which I was able to connect to the characters. And both were presented in very different styles that served their respective stories in different fashions, making judging between them all the more challenging.

    As far as this particular story, previous commenters have offered excellent insights that largely reflect my opinions as well. But what I think I loved most about this story is the way it teases stereotypical genre tropes, but then pulls the rug out from under you to instead give you so much more.

    The umbrella of this story seems to deal with the invasion of an alien life form. It may take a little while for the reader to get to that point, and one might expect that once that cat’s out of the bag (yes, I just wrote that) it would seem obvious that the meteor and the alien life form would become the focal point. But no….it’s clearly there, it’s clearly happening, and it’s clearly going to get nasty and dangerous very quickly. But after entertaining the concept of a murderous alien life form as a sentient blue powder that reaches towards, and is amplified by water, the obviousness of this terrifying imminent threat is allowed to percolate almost in the background while the reader is focused instead on what is going on in the minds of our two main characters, very wounded, desperate and broken people who already live as though their lives and the world around them is destroyed and empty. In a sense, the invading powder is no greater a threat to their well-being than they are already are to themselves. Going past what lies on the surface in the lives of these two characters, and delving into the fears, doubts and resentments of their hearts made for some pretty powerful narrative. Although I agree with earlier comments that this story could go for a little bit of tightening and polish, it is most certainly a compelling story, and a wonderful read. Excellent work here.

  5. As some of the other readers have commented, I really like the characters here. They are very human, very understandable — though I wish we had a bit more insight into what led to Dottie becoming a hoarder.

    I like how Tony delineates Gabe’s space from his wife’s space. I wonder if that difference could be highlighted even more by showing empty placed in his collection; that might underline his excitement over the meteor even more.

    The shift to Dottie’s POV is handled really well too, though I wonder if she moves to her final solution for the disposal of the body a little too easily. That may just be me, however.

    I get echoes in my head as I read this of H P Lovecraft’s “The Color Out of Space” or Stephen King’s segment in Creepshow — but Tony’s story is superior to both of these in his characterization. As others have noted, it easily could be expanded into a longer tale.

    Very nicely done.

  6. Fantastically written piece. I think everybody above me has already delved into the details of the story far better than I could, but I’ll at least serve as a fitting echo to their thoughts, if nothing else.

    This story is just packed with detail, nearly every line – particularly the horrifying ones – reads beautifully. I thought it such a small, strangely beautiful touch that he came inside and made love to his wife one more time before he examined the meteor too thoroughly; I almost wish you hadn’t referred to it as his “ruse” and buying himself some “peace and quiet.” Likely I’m wrong, and it works better with the characters, but there’s some poor, sentimental sap in me that thinks it would humanize the characters a little bit more, allow us some measure of sympathy.

    Maybe other commenters are correct in saying that some of the paragraph flow is off, but I absolutely love the pacing of the entire story. Apart from the meteor itself, everything happens because of something else that happens. It’s almost like watching perfect little plot dominoes all starting to fall, until there’s simply no stopping the calamity and horror of the final piece. Brilliant idea, using water as the means by which said dust spreads. Of course that woman would have candles. Of course she would, in her panic, knock them over. And, of course, the fire department would come to stop a house fire, with hoses and, wouldn’t you know it, water.

    I, too, would be interested in reading any novel to which this served as the opening scene, but all in all, I find it the perfect, ominous cliffhanger to leave the story on.

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