Mom said grandma was the original white-glove girl; mom inherited it. We had a rule about dust in our house all the years I grew up: you see it, you clean it. She hated dust. She spent hours every day cleaning every surface. Some nights I woke to see her running a cloth across every surface in my room. Coming out of the bathroom at three in the morning, I'd see her drifting through the house, a grim look on her face as the soft slither of her cloth moved over objects and surfaces.
Dad never said much about it, at least in front of me. When his brothers and sister-in-laws whispered about OCD, he nearly threw them out of the house.
He'd watch my mom while she dusted, a sad look in his eyes and a grim line to his lips. He helped her sometimes after work if she got especially anxious about the dust, and soon the feverish worry in her eyes and in her hands would be replaced by laughter and her fingers would find his and we'd all go out to eat or to the movies. He dusted the house when she was sick, answering, reassuring her over and over again that he'd dusted everything. Sometimes she broke down crying, scrubbing, wiping everything; throwing out knicknacks, family photos, tables, sideboards - anything that might collect dust. My dad couldn't calm her down when she got like that. She wouldn't let anyone help her either, convinced we wouldn't do it right.
When I was eleven she threw out the entire contents of my room except my clothes while I was at school. She cried with me, apologizing over and over again. That night she talked to my dad about me staying with my relatives for a while, and a few weeks later I was moving into the luxuriously furnished basement under the much more chaotic house of my Uncle Rob and Aunt Liz. A "while" turned into until I graduated college, after which I moved in with Rachel, the girlfriend I'd met while delivering pizzas during college.
When I was forty my dad died of respiratory failure. He'd had an intermittent cough for years, one that had only gotten worse with age, but more recently he'd begun hacking up black phlegm. One day his lungs just stopped working. In the autopsy, the doctors found his lungs filled with the same black fluid - he had drowned in it. They said the black stuff was consistent with dust, which I not only found odd because of my mom's obsession with dust but because my father was an office worker - the town clerk - he didn't get anywhere near highly dusty environments such as construction, renovation, or insulation; the town hall itself was neither old enough or new enough to have construction dust. Needless to say I kept this information from my mom; all she would have done was blame herself.
A few months after my dad passed, my mom had a stroke which left her unable to use her right side. She refused to move and the old family home was too small for us with the kids, so we paid for home health aides to take care of her. I had explained my mom's anxiety about dust and that dusting to my mom's specifications would be part of the job. Everything was fine for a while; then my mom called. I was on my shift, so it was Rachel who had to deal with my mother's hysterical assertions that "there was dust everywhere, the Grey was pouring through, coming for all of us." I talked with my mom later that day and she seemed fine, calm and collected, agreeing that she hadn't been acting rationally. However, a few weeks later one of her aides called and said my mother was hysterical again, that nothing would calm her down, and that she didn't think she could take care of my mom like this. I knew my mom's specifications were not a standard I could really expect anyone to live up to. I reluctantly considered medication; I didn't want to make her do it, but when, one night, one of her lungs collapsed and the doctor said the other was weak enough that it wouldn't withstand the anxiety and panic attacks at the rate she was having them. So I convinced her to take sedatives and to authorize the aides to give her stronger sedatives if they thought she needed it. She wouldn't see many people after that; every time I called, it seemed that she was too sleepy to have visitors or was always asleep. We did talk on the phone a lot, though after a while she seemed to get confused; she'd ask me things like why I couldn't open the door, or that I couldn't stop (she repeated that over and over again) not even for a moment, that I'd settle or it would settle (I wasn't really clear which). Sarah, my youngest, got pneumonia and we spent several tense days in the hospital and a few more weeks anxiously hovering over her. I'm ashamed to admit that worries for my daughter drove any worries for my mom out of my mind and the one time I talked with her, it was all about Sarah; I didn't ask more than cursorily how she was.
On a business trip only an hour away I decided to stop in and surprise my mother. Two of the aides were there, their cars lightly frosted with snow. It irritated me; there was only supposed to be one aide at a time and I knew it wasn't time for their shift change. I knew I'd been inattentive, but I didn't think that a few weeks would be enough for even the greediest to start taking advantage of my mother.
I opened the door to complete and utter silence. Soft, dead silence. Sound suffocated and rotting. A thick shroud of dust coated everything. Grey, velvety dust. Not the kind that floats in the air; not the flecks of rock and bits of skin and hair that light can turn into swirling galaxies. No spider would set a trap for a mite in it, no mite would scavenge for food in it. This was dead dust.
I opened my mouth to call, but something thick and gray stuck to my throat with each breath, choking me. I pulled up my scarf over my face and left footprints in the dust as I ventured in. I found one of the aides in the kitchen, Alison, curled into a ball, blood and black mucus still dribbling from her mouth. Her sightless eyes were slowly turning gray as dust gathered on her eyeballs. The other aide was in my mom's bathroom, her hand clutching her cell phone. Her mouth moved but nothing came out but dust; the rest of her was as rigid as if she had been turned to stone; her throat was gone, not bloody, just dusty, slowly flexing as she tried to speak. Her eye sockets were empty but for dust.
My mom sat rigidly upright in her bed. Her eyes were gone. Her lips were caked together with black phlegm that oozed down her chin. Her throat split open, grey dust slowly pouring from her neck. Her arm, skeletal and gray and covered in dust rose straight and stiff. She pointed and I saw.
I burned the house with my mother and the aides in it. I don't understand why I haven't been arrested. I was questioned. I confessed. I killed two people in cold blood. And yet, here I am, the fire ruled as an accident. I don't understand.
I started dusting last night. Rachel thinks it's a reaction to my mother's death, but it's not. I can still see the Gray slowly pouring in. It settles and it comes.