Sandy came at last to the planet and the city called Heimisch. She had bounced around for years and years, careening among the stars like a pinball with a good hand at the flippers. She didn't plan at first to stay, but as always she hoped that she might have come to an unhomelike enough place that she might comfortably remain.
Heimisch was large and planned and beautiful and prosperous. The people who built it meant it to be reminiscent of cities they had never seen, for which they harbored poignant feelings because of the programs their great-grandparents preserved in their long travels through the stars. They had in mind specific parks and buildings, boulevards and alleys, statues and fountains, places described in hallowed tones by their parents and their grandparents, places many of which had ceased to exist before they were born. The effect was nostalgic only to those who were raised in It. To a newcomer who had come fresh from those ancient places, the city was as wondrously alien as if it had been built by friendly pseudopods or extruded from the guts of a jolly galactic wasp. Though it was cheerful, welcoming, and without traps or guile.
And that was why Sandy thought she might stay there. She was new to the place, and it was new to her, and it reminded her not at all of the place where she had grown up. The air was crisp with a peculiar and pleasant scent. The streets were garlanded with strange plantlife from the potting table of an engineer with the enthusiasrn of a four-year-old: Lily-of-the-Nile as tall as redwoods, tower-of-jewels mounded high in unheard-of shades, swards of phosphorescent lilyturf. Even after months of daily life, the place still looked new and amusing, and she felt not at all at home.
The planet had not been completely barren before Heimisch was built on it and before the vast fields and deep mines and fisheries and manufactories had been built all around it. On the far side in a vast soilless preserve lived some moist, quaint sessile things, some of which grew as large as a person's fist, and some disturbing motile things, soft and slow and the size of your thumb, and sheets of goo and strings of balls undulating in the brackish water. Heimisch was already built and raising its second generation when the dust bunnies, which at first seemed to be a kind of meteorological phenomenon, revealed themselves to be a kind of life, and perhaps a kind of sentient life, though what they sensed and what sense they made of it was obscure to the Heimisch folks. These coalescences of particles -- perhaps joined together on the same syndicalist principle as cells use to make up jeiIyfish -- did seem to enjoy themselves, anyway.
Breaking the long tradition of flew contact conquest and genocide, or conversely,enslavement of the immigrants, the Heimisch folks and the dust bunnies got along fine. The dust bunnies were delighted to find that they could coalesce into the new patterns the Heimisch folks offered them to copy, and the Heirnisch folks enjoyed the peculiar reflections and inrerpretations the dust bunnies offered them. One of the things making the place strange and delightful to the new eye was that the dust bunnies were fond of looking like people, but they usually didn't do a very careful job of it, and they looked more like animated toys, or characters in a children'sprogram.
Even with all this strangeness, Sandy had a bad spell of feeling like she knew the place. Early on, about a week after her arrival, the place took on a cloying, demanding quality, as if Heimisch were composed of overeager inlaws, trying too hard to put a new bride at ease by offering tidbits from her home. In this case, the tidbits were an intersection here, a hillside there, a doorway or a window frame perhaps. But the sky was a strange color, and the gravity was different, and ultimately that reassured her.
To keep Heimisch from feeling too familiar she ate only food she never tasted in Pittsburgh and wore novel fashions and tried to learn the local slang. And she went to the little nightclubs with her new acquaintances, where the dust bunnies performed eccentric songs and dances and the audience joined in. She really wanted to stay here. For years she had been leaving. Every time she got comfortable with a place, it would start to seem like home -- her old home in Pittsburgh -- and she would be compelled to leave. She hoped at last she had found a place which could never feel like home.
The building she lived in looked like it was supposed to resemble a brownstone building from New York, but the material it was made of looked more like cararnel taffy held together with buttercream icing. It smelled rather like that too. Instead of ancient, discolored windows, she had walls with shifting views of the cilty, silent unless she called up the realtime sound. There was nothing surprising about it technically. It was just that the particular views were so odd. Not the ones you'd see on a holographic postcard: but the exterior of a laundry, the foyer of an obscure municipal office, a bank of benches in a waiting room. All surprisingly pleasant views, considering how mundane they were.
Sandy's place was a shared apartment, but it had some strange aspects she had never run into anywhere else. The oddest thing was that it seemed to have a kind of a timeshare aspect to it. When she came home at the wrong time she couldn't even find her door. The building would seem to have a different set of doors altogether. The lease listed seven roommates besides herself, but she never saw more than three at a time, and there were only four sleeping areas in the apartment. Her own area she knew was shared by another person she never met. She knew all the others: and she seemed to have gotten used to the rhythm of their use of the apartment, for she never felt surprised by who showed up when she was home.
Her favorite of her roommates was Dinkie. Not all the roommates were natives, but Dinkie was. Dinkie engaged in great circumlocutions to avoid admitting any knowledge of anyone's sex or gender to the point that Sandy didn't even know Dinkie's. This was a fad in Dinkie's generation, which as far as Sandy could tell, was about ten years younger than her own. Not that Dinkie ever condescended to her. Dinkie treated Sandy as if she were an old friend and confidant, recently returned from a strange and far place, out of touch but not hopeless. Dinkie liked to fill Sandy in on the local customs and recent history. And Dinkie liked to take Sandy places.
"Walk sideways with me, Sandy," was Dinkie's invitation, and Sandy would go out into the city with Dinkie. Almost every week there was something new out there. Sandy was of the impression that some of the places she went with Dinkie were on the same kind of timeshare arrangement as the apartment, because she couldn't always find them when she went looking for them. So she was glad when Dinkie said, "Binsome and Feelers are wailing at the Flower Pond."
Sandy had just one more little bit of work she had to do before she could come walk sideways to the Flower Pond. And then she changed her clothes. Something she never would have worn twenty years ago in Pittsburgh: the cut was mature, even snobby, and the cloth hadn't even been invented then. It cost a week's wages. But she would only wear it for a few hours at a time, once or twice a week, and it would keep a long time. The shoes, too, nothing like the juvenile space boots she had affected in those old sad days.
It was not true, as Sandy's family had said before she left them forever, that she thought time stopped in Pittsburgh on the day that Paco died. Nor was it true that she kept on mourning him for years and years, reminded by everything of Paco's face and Paco's voice and the fact that Paco was not here. She hardly ever held her pillow and breathed his name into it, not after the first year or so. When she was alone at night, which was as often as she wanted, her pillow heard nothing from her but "I am so glad to be here." Wherever "here" was, and right until the day she decided to go somewhere else, anywhere else, until she came to Heimisch, which was nothing like Pittsburgh and contained nobody at all like Paco.
She lived entirely in the present, never in the past. She didn't rernernber his pointy chin, his wavy hair, his long eyelashes and liquid eyes. She couldn't remember he would have been thirty-five years old last April if he had lived. She didn't have a picture of him enshrined in her diary. She did have his poems. Of course he had written poems. They were meant to be sung, to the accompaniment of flamenco guitar and clapping, and they referred to the moon and to the color green a suspicious lot of the time -- but he was young, and who knew what he would have done later. The poems were in a high school literary magazine, next to her own (which were all about the stars like tears and tears like drops of rain, and the call of distant destinations) . She kept the thing unlooked-at in her diary, along with all her irnportant papers and the photographs of herself as a baby, and of her mother and her father and her brother and her graduating class but Paco wasn't in that one though it had been taken before he died -- Paco had barely come to school at all those last days. As if he had known there wasn't much life left for him, and he was driven to see as much as he could before he was gone.
There was nobody in Heimisch to ask her about Paco, but if anybody had, she would hesitate as if searching in her memory for his name, and say it haltingly as though it were not familiar to her any more, and frown as she thought back over the years to ascertain how long it had been since -- was it really twenty years? She didn't feel that old. Except, sometimes, around Dinkie.
The Flower Pond was airy and pretty at night, lit brightly but softly, wafted with scents truer than the real scents of flowers. Here the most exotic flowers were the ones Sandy had known in her childhood, the ones that bloomed under the pale skies of Earth. The native flowers here were all young species, products of human ingenuity, but they suited this place just as well as if they had evolved here by chance and happenstance.
The music of Heimisch was boisterous and innocent, and though the musicians were not warm blooded, they got the crowd heated up and singing along. Binsome and Feelers was a large group of dust bunnies, each one a little universe of infinitesimal points of existence. They dressed themselves up in an array of instruments and gave themselves pleasing cartoon features. You could tell they enjoyed it very much because they flooded the room with happiness. The prettiest Binsorne was Binsome Three, who looked kind of like a boy and kind of like a middle-aged man: he sang the highest and most outside part, and he was not at all like Paco though he also was dark and skinny and had an elfin chin. Sandy already had his picture downloaded and pasted in her binder and it danced and sang a little tune when you touched a certain spot. His song was about walking the lush parkways of this city at night with a girl. Maybe she would leave the planet forever in the morning, but the song was happy and Binsome Three smiled when he sang it. Not at all like Paco, who sang his poems with the tragic expression of one who is going to come any second.
Tonight the Flower Pond was arranged for dancing too, and Dinkie said that was a treat because sometimes they came down from the stage and danced among the people on the floor, and Sandy hoped that Binsorne Three would dance near her. "Really, I like Binsome and Feelers buckets and barrels," Dinkie said. "But there's
something a little bit too cutesy about them. Can't take them serious like people. The roadies, they're pretty interesting. You could imagine getting close to one of them."
"No, it's better this way," Sandy said. "The dust bunnies are cute but they look like something in a first grade reader. Just fun. With people musicians the girls fall in love and they can' t all get them. Anyway musicians are bad lovers. They die and stuff."
Feelers were on the stage singing and Binsome were dancing among the people on the floor. Binsome Three kept dancing near to Sandy and Sandy kept on smiling at him. He sang a new song made up on the spot. It was about stopped clocks and finding someone again after a long journey. And cold winds.
Sandy frowned and looked away. This was not a happy song. Binsorne Three danced around to the other side of her, apparently seeking her. "You didn't like that song," he said, pitching his voice so only she could hear him. Feelers were singing another song, something with a double beat, and Binsome on the floor except for Three were backing them up. "Sang it for you. Thought you would like it."
Sandy stared at him. "Don't like morbid songs. Like goodtime rolling songs. But listen,there's plenty in the audience who like it."
"This one is for Sandy because she's an extra-special dandy," Binsome Three said, winking, before he danced away with the rest of Binsome and joined up with Feelers on the stage.
Sandy went to sit down at her table, thinking it was a banal thing Binsome Three said, nothing really strange about it, anybody might say it, it wasn't trademarked by a boy dead for longer than he'd been alive. He probably heard her and Dinkie talking a while back, that's how he knew her name. Or maybe Dinkie put him up to it, thinking it would be a friendly joke. But Dinkie wouldn't have told him to say Paco's special endearment to her. She wouldn't have known to.
She didn't dance again for a while, and when she did, she hesitated and did not get close to the stage. Anyway, it was Feelers who came out this set, and none of them came very close to her. Then Sandy sat out another two numbers oddly disappointed. It was the next to the lastdance when Sandy went out again, and she danced bravely, not going too close to the stage and ignoring Dinkie who was looking at her funny. Feelers sang out "Break!" in a cascading chorus as Binsome shimmied out into the crowd, three no four of them to the left and five no six of them to the right. They could do things with their dreamed-up bodies that no proper person could do and they seemed to take extra delight in proving it. Safely half the room away from Binsome Three she watched him with delight and oriented to him as she danced. The rhythm picked up and she closed her eyes.
Sandy could hear without opening her eyes that Binsome Three was dancing behind her and singing right to her. Like a teenager she was thrilled, but she was also worried. She had never heard of the dust bunnies paying so much attention to an individual before. And the words he was singing were nasty to her ears, about going home through time and space. It might have been a sweet, happy, yearning song for someone else. Someone who wanted to go home. Feelers formed a ring with Binsome, alternating with the people, and then a spiral, and other formations, while everybody sang and danced and now they were singing the last song.
Somehow Sandy was next to Binsome Three and his hand was only a little cooler than hers and his fingers were narrow and his voice was clear and untroubled by the effort of dancing. As the music stopped the lights flashed a warning signal that the Flower Pond was going to close immediately. The musicians disappeared as fast as if they had been created by fairy godmothers, happy cartoons replaced by the uniforms that were their instruments, folded nicely in boxes, and the dust bunnies took their natural form, difficult to ascertain, irregular, ill-defined clouds of points of displaced light, which somehow held consultation with the roadies.
"I been looking for you everywhere," but it was not Dinkie who spoke but a detached patch of bright cloud somewhere in her peripheral vision. "But now I find you, you're not glad to see me."
"You never heard of me before tonight. I never heard of you before three weeks ago at the Pretty Table. I liked your singing and I downloaded your picture. Now you're singing me bad poems and acting like you know me."
The twinkling motes coalesced into Binsome Three pouting. "And you don't know me? It's so cold if you don't know me."
"What's that supposed to mean? Aren't you keeping the other dustbunnies waiting?"
There was not a trace of the dust bunny's earlier joy on the dark face. "Twenty years and no gentlewoman and scholar gives me bittersweet tea in the afternoon. No rides on a borrowed hog to the woods and we make love in moonlight. I know you miss me and you never even say the name of " she saw the lips puckering up and didn't wait to hear him say even the first letter of the name, she stumbled away. She found Dinkie at the doorway.
"Dustbunnies ever play tricks on people?" Sandy grabbed Dinkie's warm plump hand and pulled towards sideways.
"I saw you dancing with the one you like," Dinkie said. "What did it do? Something nice, I bet."
"No, not nice. I don't want to talk about it. It was mean. How do they know things like that? Things I have not talked about in fifteen years."
"Oh, time is different for the dust bunnies. They kind of see it all at once and they might be answering a question you asked somebody when you were little tiny for all you know. But they're not mean. They're happy friendly little bugs."
"Binsome Three isn't a bug. He's either a cartoon or a cloud. And he was not being happy friendly either. He was making fun of the worst thing that ever happened to me."
It's hard to talk much sideways so they waited briefly till Red Stop Forty and when they got off again Sandy was almost calmed down. They stopped for juices and nibbles downstairs before going up to their room. "I think you must have made an impression on somebody tonight, Sandy," said Dinkie. "I think somebody's here to apologize."
"No," Sandy said, seeing in her mind already the sweet sad face of the boy-man Binsome Three, dark and pretty and familiar, but not really at all like Paco. He would try to saythe name again, she knew. And what if he did?
He came to stand at their small high table and placed his shiny hands next to the tall buxom juice glasses made of edible candy. As Sandy looked at them, she began to see how detailed they were, how familiar. How not like a cartoon they were, and how like Paco's hands.
How impossible they were to mistake for any other hands.
Tears stinging her eyes she looked up and Paco's face formed but did not settle like the hands. He couldn't decide whether to be fifteen or thirty-five. It was almost funny, and almost scary, but mostly just sad.
"You miss me so much," he said, "I can be with you now. See? I can be everything you want. I didn't realize before who I was, but when I saw you dancing I understood everything. Please."
The tears on his cheek were bigger than any tears Sandy had ever seen before, but as they moved down the drops shrank to a more normal size and no longer looked so strange. The eyes stopped looking quite so preternaturally large too, and the color went from purple to brown.
"You can't be Paco," she said. 'Paco died a long time ago, and I saw his body in the casket and there was nothing anybody could do for him. He was dead and that was it. Why are you doing this to me?"
"I don't know how this happened," he said shrugging in that Paco way, "But it happened and I can be with you if you'll let me. I'm sorry about being lost all this time but I'm here now."
"I don't believe in ghosts."
Dinkie caught Sandy's eye. "I would listen to the dust bunny for just a minute. They are not usually interested in playing lost lovers with the people. They just like to sing and dance and stuff. Happy friendly things. This one's love struck and mournful."
"I don't know," Sandy said. "I don't know if this is a good thing for me. I want to sleep on it. Where will you be tomorrow morning?"
"I think I have to be asleep for a while in the morning," he said. "I think I can come back in the afternoon. But tomorrow night I have to play with Binsome and Feelers again, at The Lovely Cosine. I have to go at show time but you could go with me."
"Okay," Sandy said. "I'll meet you tomorrow afternoon at the juice down the block from the Lovely Cosine. I'll tell you what I think then."
"What do you think?" Sandy asked as they left the juice.
Dinkie shrugged. "I don't know what to think. Nobody knows what the dust bunnies are. Maybe they are what this one thinks, only this is the first one to find somebody to remind it of the life it lived before. It could be. Maybe."
"You don't sound convinced."
"Heimisch has been here a long time now. Likely some dust bunny would express the lost ghost ideology before this."
"It's just weird how he knows stuff about Paco."
"Dust bunnies see what you see when they talk to you. But they see everything you see, past present future, all in one. They can be pretty hard to talk to for that reason. Another reason I prefer the roadies."
"They see what I see?"
Sandy began to understand what she would do the next day.
"So. You should have a plan for seeing the dust bunny. What do you think?" Dinkie asked.
"I think I want you to come to the juice fifteen minutes after I do," said Sandy. They were near to there, in front of a fountain where a crew of dust bunnies were imitating miniature dolphins, leaping in and out of the green foaming water. "I think I will have everything sorted out by then."
This was a really nice juice. It looked sort of like a cell in an oversized honeycomb, pale yellow with lime green light washing through the almost-narrative moving abstracts on the translucent walls. It smelled tart and clean and fruity, and there was a springy turf on the floor. Sandy was disarmed when she walked in, her mouth watering, her eyes on the candy glasses being extruded behind the bar and then filled foaming to the top. She resisted looking around until after she had one in her hand. There he was, leaning against the wall by the door, and if she didn't know better she'd have thought he looked exactly like Paco, down to the bad posture and the funny hooked position of his wrist, Sandy went to join him and he smiled, wide and bright, like only the smile of a tortured man can be.
"You came. I was so sure you wouldn't come. I was sure I had frightened you."
"I keep my promises," Sandy said, and did not say "unlike some people," but she might as well have, because he grimaced.
"Well? Did you think about it? Can we be together?"
"You know what you are, right? You're a dustbunny. You aren't made of molecules and tissues like me, you're made of particles. No level of organization in between. What makes you think it will be fine fine when you get together with me?"
"Because I think of you all the same time, and I remember how it is. Was. I love you. I want you to know me."
"You don't make any sense. But it's asking too much for a dust bunny to make sense, anyhow. But look at here. If you are what you think you are, and not what I think you are, you will remember your third grade teacher."
"Why? People forget those things. It was a long time ago. Death took it away."
"Your fourth grade teacher."
"The place where you went with your brother Joseph that time you never told me anything."
"I could tell you anything and what would it prove?"
"I know some of the places it wasn't. So tell me what you were thinking about when you died."
"You I think. Death took it away."
"Why were you there?"
"Where you died."
"I don't know. I don't know where it was."
"Coincidence. Neither do I. They wouldn't tell me. Told me I was better off not knowing. So I always thought everyplace I went in town could be the spot. If I saw a rusty spot on the sidewalk I thought it was Paco's blood. If I saw a black streak on the street I thought it was Paco's tire rubber. Look, you, dust bunny, you know what I think?" She drained her juice, broke off a piece of the iridescent periwinkle candy glass and began to nibble it.
"I know what you see is Paco in front of you begging for your mercy love."
"You don't know what I think. Good enough. Dinkie said you can see what I see in the future past and present all mixed up. Is that true?"
The dust bunny opened his mouth but did not speak. Sandy laughed at his expression as he realized that his answer could give her reason to dismiss his claim to being a ghost.
The dust bunny shrugged. "What do you think, Sandy-I-love?"
"I think you re a confused dust bunny. You only know what I saw and what I heard about Paco. I think you want to be Paco because you think it's more real than being a dust bunny. But if you go back and talk to your dust bunny friends you probably will find out they think it's more real to be a dust bunny. You trying to make yourself just like Paco, and that's silly, because you're not at all like Paco. Paco's dead and gone and finished and you're alive and here and doing your thing. And one more thing that's not like Paco."
He couldn't help himself. "What's that?"
"Paco knew much more than I did about everything, and whatever he didn't know about,he would lie about. He never was at a loss for what to say."
Dinkie came in and approached the table with a face full of questions. Sandy shook the dust bunny's hand. "I'll come and hear you sing some time soon, but not tonight," she said, and left the juice with Dinkie.
She walked homewards with Dinkie, stopping by the marvelous park where the flowering shrubs made private dells carpeted with something vaguely like dichondra but not nearly so wet to snuggle on.
She made some more discoveries there: among which, that Dinkie, also, was not at all like Paco.