Carol put on a white glove and ran two fingers along the mantle. They came away clean, just as she expected. Still, she couldn’t help a sigh of relief. This new cleaning lady would do. For now.
It took about half an hour to finish her inspection. The previous cleaning person had grown lazy, no longer moving the curios or sweeping behind the doors. Carol hated dust. Her mother had taught her that. It was so deeply instilled that she checked for dust in any room she passed through, judging whoever might be responsible. Public spaces were unbelievable. They paid people to keep them clean, yet there was always dust. Always.
Her house wouldn’t hold any dust. She couldn’t stand it. Clumps of human skin, dirt, and living creatures that fed off the waste of unclean human bodies. She exfoliated twice each day, scrubbing at her body, plucking at loose hairs to ensure they wouldn’t fall and settle into the nooks and crannies of her home. It took very little for dust to gain a foothold. One had to take control, or risk losing it completely.
Carol checked that the replacement filters for each air purifier were stocked. They were meant to last several months, but she had them changed out once per week to keep them in top functioning shape. She also re-checked her inventory of dust cloths, furniture polish, and all associated cleaning items.
Satisfied with her rounds, Carol headed back to work in her sterile office. She’d long ago had to quit working in regular offices. Dust everywhere. She’d been fired, encouraged to quit, under-scheduled, and experienced many other means of being pushed out, all because she demanded a clean work environment. One would think that would be important to everyone in that space. Did they know what they were breathing in? No. Humans had a way of looking the other way about things. It was no different in the workplace.
The online commute simplified things in many ways. She had her own space, wasn’t exposed to other people’s germs and filth, ate in her own kitchen at lunch time, and saved on gas. As far as Carol was concerned, there were no benefits to working in an office. She’d always been a private person and working in an office meant that people were always in her space and in her business. No thank you.
The cleanliness of her space made her happy. She straightened her back, turned on her computer, and got to work with a smile on her face, the air purifier behind her zipping and zapping away at the isolated dust motes that floated through the air.
The next morning, Madison, the housekeeper, swept through for her daily cleaning. Carol kept a close eye on her, watching to be sure she got all the hidden caches of dust. Tomorrow, she’d have the woman dust out the attic. It hadn’t been dusted in a week. The thought of the piles of dust lurking up there gave Carol a chill of disgust. Her stomach turned, and she held back a gag working its way up her throat.
Madison walked past a potted plant without cleaning it.
“Absolutely not!” Carol called.
Startled, Madison jumped and looked over to Carol, her eyes wide, mouth partially open.
“The plants need to be cleaned each day as well. Otherwise, the dust gathers then settles into the soil. Then I’ll be forced to change it out.”
“Sorry, Ms. Tulliver. I’ll be sure to do it from now on.”
Carol arched an eyebrow. “See that you do.”
With Madison thoroughly chagrined, Carol went to her already cleaned office to get to work. Really, as incompetent as these so-called cleaning people were, she might as well do it herself and save the money. That would mean making contact with the dust though, and she hated that. She’d give Madison one more chance tomorrow.
She tried to settle into work, but she was too frustrated. It was hard not to follow the woman around to make sure she did a good job, but they usually quit if she did that too often. Perhaps she should just tell them in the interviews that it was part of the job. If they didn’t like it, she wouldn’t hire them. Things would be simpler that way. It took too long to train them properly, only to lose them. A complete waste of her time.
Carol huffed and shut down her computer. No work would get done today. Not until Madison left.
Well, if she had to deal with dust at home, she might as well venture out to the store where there’d certainly be plenty of it. If her mother were still alive, she’d go to her house. It had always been, if nothing else, even cleaner than Carol’s home. She could only strive to reach the same level of cleanliness as her mother. Of course, now her mother lie in a coffin, surrounded by dirt. The alternative would have been to be cremated, which turned you into dust. It may have worked in the bible, but neither Carol nor her mother had come from dust, so it would be irrational to return to it. The coffin was as airtight as Carol could find, and Carol had paid the funeral home additional money to ensure they cleaned it out before sealing it. No sense tormenting her mother in the afterlife. Though, Lord knows her mother had tormented her enough in life.
Carol snatched up her purse and keys and left without telling Madison. She didn’t want to look at her right now, let alone speak to her. She got into her car, wiping the dashboard down with a pre-wetted wipe. Sun shone in the windshield, illuminating the clean surfaces of the car. Today would be a good day to get the car detailed as well. Perhaps she’d catch a meal in town. She knew of a mom and pop restaurant that was kept spotless.
The drive didn’t take long. It was only about fifteen minutes to get into town. She dropped her car off at her favorite carwash and asked for Paco, who she knew would treat her car with the utmost respect. She paid him well enough to make sure he kept doing so.
Happily, the restaurant she wanted to visit, Mona’s, was located a mere five-minute walk away. Carol had intentionally put on comfortable shoes, knowing she’d be walking. Light clouds had moved over the sun, making it a pleasant walk. The quaint, white stucco building came into sight before she knew it, a tidy garden decorating either side of the front walkway. The freshly painted blue door beckoned her.
As usual, Mona greeted Carol as she came through the door. “Carol, so good to see you! Your table just freed up a few minutes ago.”
Mona led her to the corner table, a lush fern sitting on a shelf over it. The tidy proprietor set a menu on the table and went to get Carol her water and diet soda.
Carol studied her surroundings. No dust on the table or chairs, the fern was bright and clean, the shelf tidy. Even the baseboards were spotless. Content, Carol sat back to study the menu. She almost always got the same thing, but Mona’s had put her in the mood to try something new, live a little. When the owner bustled back with her drinks, Carol asked, “Do you have any specials today, Mona? I’m in the mood to try something new.”
“Of course! I’ve got a California chicken sandwich with avocado and ranch on a croissant. Our soup is tomato bisque. And I’ve got a lovely pasta with spinach and bell peppers, and a light cream sauce. It comes with soup or salad. Any of those sound good?”
“I’ll get the pasta, with soup. Thank you, Mona.”
Carol felt downright perky. She might even have dessert after her lunch. She rarely imbibed, but today was the day for it. Amazing how a clean space could elevate her entire day. Thank goodness for Mona, a bright light on a dusty day.
About fifteen minutes later, Mona brought out her soup and refilled her drinks. Carol relished the soup, which had a lovely touch of cream in it, then moved on her to entrée as soon as Mona dropped it by. The woman had her timing down. She swooped in to remove the bowl and plop down the steaming bowl of pasta within seconds of Carol having finished up. A lovely, toasted bread sat in the pasta, golden with glistening butter. It melted in her mouth with the first bite, the rich butter lilting across her tongue.
The pasta tasted so good that, despite being full, Carol ordered a brownie a la mode. It also proved to be a pleasure. She paid and started her walk back to the car wash, humming and studying the cute houses and well-tended gardens she passed. The previously five-minute walk took a solid twenty minutes due to her dalliance. Her car sat, brightly polished, in front of the car wash. She paid and picked up her keys, starting for home.
The closer she got to her house, the more her mood dipped. Usually it went the other way. She realized that the hesitation she felt to go home was actually fear. Fear that Madison had left dust mines around the house. It had happened before. The house would look so tidy and clean, no dust in sight, then Carol would reach onto a shelf or brush her hand across a surface, unprepared for the grimy coat of dust that would come away on her skin.
Her breath caught in her chest. She didn’t want to go inside now. This day had been too perfect.
“It will be fine,” she said aloud. “Madison cleaned the house thoroughly. There’s no dust waiting for me.”
She took deep, healing breaths. Nothing but a panic attack. She had them sometimes. It was so easy to get lost in them, to not realize the irrationality of her thoughts while they streamed through her head. Today of all days, she felt she should have been exempt from them. All she wanted was one perfect day.
How long she sat in the car, she wasn’t sure. The snuffing of the sun beyond the neighboring houses drew her out of her thoughts. It had become cooler, and goosebumps dappled her arms. In fact, she’d been out here long enough that hunger once again gnawed at her belly. A light dinner must be in order.
One more big breath, and she marched toward her front door, chin up. Her anxiety would not get the best of her. She did everything in one fluid set of motions, so she’d have no means to procrastinate. Keys came out of the purse as she climbed the stairs, which were then inserted in the lock. A push, and she was in the door. Shoes got tucked into their cabinet, coat in the closet, purse set on the foyer table, keys in the bowl. She padded around the house to check the cleaning job. So far, so good. No hidden traps of dust. Everything in its place. Just the way she liked it.
She relaxed enough to make her dinner, and even ate it on the sofa while watching a romantic comedy, rather than sitting at the table as she usually did. The evening flew by, and the finish of the movie told her it was time to go to bed. After putting her pajamas on, she grabbed her toothbrush and plopped a dollop of toothpaste on the bristles, perfectly proportioned, as always. She ran a drizzle of water over it to soften the bristles then put it into her mouth.
It tasted funny.
It felt weird, too.
The mint tasted dull, and it felt almost gritty, like there were bits of grime in it. When she pulled the brush out of her mouth and examined it, it looked perfectly fine. She rinsed off the brush and put more toothpaste on. This time, she put less than usual, just in case.
Sure enough, when it went back in her mouth, it still tasted and felt wrong. Maybe it was her toothbrush.
Carol kept a supply of toiletries in a cabinet. From this, she took a new toothbrush, still sealed in a bag, as well as a fresh tube of toothpaste, still in the box. She opened the packages, prepared her toothbrush once more, and tentatively stuck the brush in her mouth.
Darn it all. Still off.
Could it be the water? She grabbed a fresh glass and filled it with water from the bathroom faucet, putting it up at eye level to examine the contents. It looked fine. Clear. Nothing floating in it.
She must just be having an off day. Maybe something about dinner had stuck around and made things taste and feel different. She grimaced and finished the job of brushing her teeth, trying to ignore the disgusting taste and sensation. Her tongue curled away from the foam in her mouth, almost of its own volition. She shut her eyes and muscled through, grateful when the time came to spit out the final mouthful and rinse the toothbrush. She threw both toothbrushes and tubes of paste in the garbage, brushed her hair, and climbed into bed, settling down with her e-reader to unwind. Books were so musty. The invention of e-readers and e-books had to be one of the best, right behind dust mops, and the pre-wetted dust wipes. She really loved those.
When she opened the decorative cover of the e-reader, she saw that dust covered the screen.
She jumped out of bed to grab one of those dust wipes, and thoroughly cleaned the e-reader and its cover before nestling the e-reader back into it. It took a moment for her heart to slow and her breaths to return to normal. The moment over, she decided she wasn’t in the mood to read anymore. She put the e-reader into her nightstand drawer and turned out the light.
Today had been a wash. Tomorrow would be better.
A frantic scuffing sound awakened Carol. She opened her eyes and looked around the dark room, straining to see the corners. Greedy shadows hid parts of the room from her.
The scuffing came again.
Carol tried to figure out what direction it was coming from. She closed her eyes to listen more intently.
Only, it came from everywhere.
Every part of the room.
In addition to the scuffing, she heard scratching and crunching. Then whispers. Not whispers like someone talking. Just whiffs of air bouncing around the room. When she put her head under the covers in fear, the sounds grew louder.
With a shriek, she tossed the covers away from her, leapt out of the bed, and fled to her bathroom, shutting the door against the noises.
Only, they were in the bathroom too.
In the bathroom, the sounds echoed off the tiles and hard surfaces. They crashed into her eardrums. She threw her hands over her ears to try to muffle the sounds. When that didn’t work, she grabbed a clean towel and covered her ears with it.
The sounds grew louder.
Whatever was making these sounds, it was everywhere, in everything. She threw the bathroom door open and raced through the house to the front door. Unbolting it, she ran outside, only to freeze. The sounds were out here, too. The ground, the air, everywhere.
She ran back inside, bolted the door, and pressed her back to it. Looking around, frantic, she tried again to find the source of the sounds. Her chest heaved with panted breaths. Her mouth dried out and filled with something grainy and dusty at the same time. It coated the inside of her cheeks, her tongue, the roof of her mouth, her throat.
Carol choked, and dust exploded from her mouth in a living cloud.
She slapped a hand over her mouth. Her fingers smelled musty. When she looked down at them, she saw they were covered in dust. Not only that, the dust moved across her skin, crawling in different directions like nearly microscopic ants. The skin on her hand dried out as the mass of dust moved over it.
Her eyes darted around the foyer. From beneath the walls came mounds of dust, a tiny army approaching. The rustling grew louder.
Carol scrambled to her feet, still choking, her nose drying out now. She grasped at the lock, struggling once more to open the door. Her legs tickled as the dust armies reached them and climbed. She stomped her feet and tried to scream, but only a garbled yelp came out.
The lock turned, and she pulled at the door. The dust had reached her waist. It felt like her legs were mummifying, the intense dryness itchy and unpleasant. The door opened to show that dust had gathered everywhere on the porch. She slammed the door again, looking around desperately.
Where wouldn’t there be dust? Was anywhere safe?
She ran to the bathroom again. This time she threw the towels out, along with everything from the shelves, sink, and medicine cabinet. She shut the door and started to clean the surfaces with industrial strength bleach. A thousand tiny screams filled the air. With glee, she cleaned faster. Harder.
That finished, and with the dust mass up to her neck, she stepped into the shower with her clothes on and turned on the water.
Only, no water came out.
Instead, more dust gushed out of the showerhead. The dust mites within joined the others swarming over her body. Everything had dried out. Her eyes felt full of grit. Her mouth and nose were entirely coated. The mites writhed over her tongue, through her nostrils, and on the surface of her eyes.
Carol gagged and tried to spit out the dust in her mouth, but saliva turned it into a paste she couldn’t expel.
With a sigh of resignation, she held the bleach bottle over her head and poured. The screams came once again, the mass of dust and mites falling back from her body and sloughing into the tub. The bleach burned its way into her sinuses, then her lungs. She gasped against the fire within her. Then her skin began to itch. Squinting her eyes open, she tried to get out of the tub, but tripped on the rim and fell headfirst onto the tiles.
The blow briefly stunned her. She lie in a small, dust-muddied puddle of bleach. It was the itching of her skin that brought her the rest of the way back. The bleach had started to eat at her flesh. Itching became fiery agony, and blisters broke out on her arms. Her eyes stung and watered.
When she was able to lever herself up from the floor, she saw that the dust horde stayed a few feet away from the bleach. There was more in the kitchen—if she could get there.
The room spun as she got to her feet. She nearly slipped in her puddle, but she caught herself and kept going. The dust no longer coated her throat and mouth, but she could feel blisters there instead. The burning in her lungs caused labored breathing. Suffering, wavering, she wrenched the bathroom door open and went into her room.
The air was full of dust particles. Carol waved a hand in front of her face to clear them, but others instantly took their place. She couldn’t see an inch in front of her. Her legs hit something soft, but solid, and she flopped forward onto it. Her bed. All she wanted right now was to lie down and go to sleep, to shut it all out.
Instead, she pulled the comforter off her bed and wrapped it around herself as thoroughly as possible to block out the dust. She stumbled forward, eyes now red and swollen. The bleach seemed to be eating through her eyeballs. Everything had become blurry.
With ragged breaths, she made it to her bedroom door and opened it. The dust cloud was equally thick out here, and she almost gave up. No. If she could get to the bleach, she’d be okay.
What she’d forgotten was how much dust was in the typical quilt or duvet. Inside her cocoon, the dust mites moved on her. The bleach was evaporating from her skin, leaving her susceptible to their attack once more. If only it would evaporate from her lungs.
She felt the cold of the kitchen tiles under her feet and knew she’d made it across the living room. Dropping the comforter, which only served to smother her now, she fell to her knees, ambivalent toward that minor pain, and crawled toward the sink. If she could just reach the bleach.
Her movements slowed, while those of the dust mites quickened. They swarmed over her and inside her throat, attacking her already lacerated lungs. Her hand closed on the cabinet, and she opened it, feeling inside for the telltale curve of the bleach bottle. She could no longer open her eyes against the searing burn, but she knew the feel of that bottle by heart. She pulled it out, twisted the cap off, and once more poured the bleach over herself and down her throat.
She would kill these bastards if it were the last thing she did.
She sunk to the floor, knowing they must be screaming, even though she couldn’t hear it any longer. They must be feeling thousands of times worse than she did. They wouldn’t be able to get past the bleach. Nothing defeated bleach.
Not even people.
A fan of all things fantastical and frightening, SHANNON LAWRENCE writes primarily horror and fantasy. Her stories can be found in over forty anthologies and magazines, and her two solo horror short story collections, Blue Sludge Blues & Other Abominations and Bruised Souls & Other Torments are available from online retailers. When she's not writing, she's hiking through the wilds of Colorado and photographing her magnificent surroundings, where, coincidentally, there's always a place to hide a body or birth a monster. Find her at www.thewarriormuse.com.
Artwork by Novel Noctule team.