illustration by S. Bell

Sensing the Dust

Eliza Chan

Everyone sees the world differently, and too often that difference is enough to bewilder or discomfort others. But that diversity of perspective is part of what gives us our strength as a species. Eliza Chan’s “Sensing the Dust” uses a bleak post-apocalyptic future to explore what strengths we might be missing when we too quickly dismiss those we don’t understand.

Wai-Long always came on the fuel runs because of his special interest. “It is illegal for a red Kowloon taxi to pick up customers from the New Territories unless their destination ends in Kowloon or Hong Kong Island,” he said.

Andrew did not answer. He didn’t have to answer because the younger boy had not been talking to him, or even to Henry, carrying the four empty gas cans.

Wai-Long managed to keep his head down in concentration as they walked for several metres, hands up near his cheeks, fingers twiddling. Then he looked up, his brown eyes bright and announced in a voice that carried: “There are sixteen stations on the Tseun Wan line: Tsuen Wan, Tai Wo Hau, Kwai Fong—“

“Wai-Long, finished!” Andrew said.

“But why Andrew? I haven’t finished yet. There’s still Lai Chi Kok, Cheung Sha Wan,” he said.

“Because it’s dangerous, remember? We need to get the fuel, and go straight back home. Tell me about the trains later.”

“Later Andrew? You promise? Later you will listen to all of the stations?”

“On every line. I promise. Now we need to be quiet.”

Wai-Long looked satisfied and kept pace with the other two, walking all the time on his tiptoes.

Andrew put his hand up to sign stop to the others. He listened out for other scavengers but all seemed quiet at the boundary of the Walled City. It was daytime, yet the sky undulated in unnatural silver, moulding fingers of shadow all around them. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen a clear sky. Across the empty road, the four-car collision had now rusted into the backdrop, a reassuring marker that nothing had changed since it had all changed. A fine layer of dust coated the surfaces. Unlit signs jutted from buildings like flags at half-mast, but even their brash logos were dreamlike beneath the powder. Andrew pointed to the left and signed again. Go. Quiet.

His brother Henry, wasn’t a problem. The 16 year old never made much of a sound other than grunts and wails. Hadn’t spoken his whole life. The issue was Wai-Long. He kept talking, his encyclopaedic knowledge of the public transport system now drilled into Andrew’s head.

They headed west over the Kai Tak river where the abandoned cars on the motorway wore a widow’s veil of dust. There. The one building that had lit up every night with full power for the last ten months. It was double fenced with an electronic entry system that had remained switched on every time they had passed it. Until three days ago. The back-up generator had finally run out.

“Central, central—I can’t read it,” Wai-Long said. He ran his finger over the calligraphy on the gold sign.

“Central government crisis facility,” Andrew said, trying the gate. It swung open. It looked like a Christmas card, a packed car park covered in a layer of the stuff.

“Henry, door,” Andrew said, pointing to the entrance of the building. Unlike the glass behemoths of the financial district, it was an unimpressive grey three storey structure with squat windows. Andrew made the sign for break then pointed again. Henry looked at him briefly, their eyes fleetingly locking before they both looked away.

“Henry,” Andrew repeated.

With one hand, Henry shoved him out of the way. Then he turned and pushed hard at the door, his eyes never leaving the battered surface of the metal plate. The door splintered and creaked open.

“Sei la!”

“You said a bad word, Andrew. We aren’t supposed to say bad words,” Wai-Long chimed in.

Tangles. They had been trapped between the double doors of the building’s entrance. Shimmering tendrils of light pooled out, humming low and swirling in dizzy captivating patterns. Andrew took a step towards the glow, staring mesmerised for a moment before Henry’s wailing began. He could feel the hum tickling at his ears and making him rock as the other two were already. The tangles got closer and Andrew couldn’t feel his fingers anymore. He tried to remember what had happened to his parents. He slapped on his chest and head, slapped where he could feel the prickling and stamped to feel the solid ground. The tangles dissipated, twisting upwards to join the tumultuous mass throbbing there, leaving only an impression, a dusting in the air, behind.

Andrew fell to his knees in exhaustion, wanting desperately to lie down as Henry had already done. But they were exposed out here. His fingertips were inflamed like they had been scorched. The tips on his right hand were completely gone. No scars, no blood. Andrew moved his fingers, the presence of what had once been lingering at the corner of his perception. A fine layer of chalky dust, was all that was left. He wiped it on his trousers.

Henry was stuffing square after square of chewy sweets into his mouth until it was crammed full. The paper wrappers were unfolded carcasses on the ground. Saliva dribbled down his cheek as he continued to lie prone on the tarmac. Andrew tried to squeeze Henry’s shoulders the way their mum did but as always, Henry pushed him away.

Wai-Long was running in loops between the cars on his tiptoes, hands over his ears, wailing like an ambulance siren. Andrew knew his two companions had reached their limits.


“Yes, Andrew?”

“Get the petrol, okay? And watch Henry. I need to go looking for supplies.”

“Okay Andrew. Please can you find some dolly noodles, beef flavoured?”

Andrew nodded. “Ok. Be careful and be quiet.”

He turned as Wai-Long started examining the cars in a stage whisper. “Audi A8 TDI, no good! BMW 320i, this one’s a petrol engine. Henry! Fill them up.”

Andrew pushed open the second set of doors into the sterile building. His trainers squeaked along the empty office rooms and hallways. It was funny really, because Andrew had hated people. He had barely tolerated his mum who had given up her career to home-school them. He had turned over tables and stamped on the feet of an endless supply of tutors and therapists. But now the empty chairs and desks littered with papers made him sense their absence. They had called it SARS, then Ebola, then H1N1, then the scientists in their white coats and goggles had quietly boarded flights out of Hong Kong.

The internal stairs were stainless steel and glass so that with each step he could see the floor below getting further and further away. Before the tangles, Andrew would’ve refused to go up at all. But now, thinking of Henry and Wai-Long, Andrew hauled himself up one step at a time. Only the handrail was solid as the floor seemed to sway and blur beneath him. He concentrated on his shoe laces, staring the knotted ends into focus. Clinging there, he heard a door shut.

Andrew groaned, loud and long just to hear his own voice and remind himself he had control.

“Hello?” A woman’s voice. Andrew covered his head. Footsteps padded towards him, making the stairs shake. He saw a pair of leather brogues.

“Don’t!” he said, hand stretched out in front of him.

The person stopped. “I, I heard you. I haven’t heard anyone in . . . months. Please.”

He made himself look up. His gaze flitted, roved so he could see her without meeting her eye: a chin, short hair, gold earrings. An impression of an older auntie.

“Wait,” he said, and continued his slow arduous journey up.

She waited. She walked on ahead of him, stopping every few steps and then continuing, not making any demands of him, not trying to touch him or make him think. She wrung her hands together and waited until he reached the top. Then she waited for him to look up again.

“Thank you,” Andrew said eventually.

“I’m Ka-Yin,” she said.

He chewed on his wrist, a habit when he was nervous. Ka-Yin was tapping her fingers against her thigh and then stopped herself and reached out. “I . . .I can’t tell you how relieved I am to see someone. It’s been months.”

He rubbed his wrist and started walking as she talked, not caring if Ka-Yin followed or not. Ran through the list of what they needed. Painkillers, dolly noodles for Wai-Long and bubble wrap for Henry. Opening drawers, he shook the contents around briefly and moved quickly on, his mind only focused on the items he needed. Painkillers, dolly noodles and bubble wrap.

“Let me help you,” Ka-Yin said.

Andrew ignored her, seeing the plastic tub of painkillers in the second drawer half-concealed under a jumble of files and loose paperclips. He popped a pill in his mouth and swallowed it dry. When he looked up again, she had gone. It was possible he had imagined her.

Andrew sighed thankfully and headed into the floor’s kitchen. Dolly noodles and bubble wrap. The cupboard was stocked with dolly noodles in red, pink and blue plastic wrappers but none of the brown ones that Wai-Long wanted. Half a tin of egg rolls and a few mini jelly cups were the only other edible things left. He threw them all in his backpack anyway.

“Here.” Ka-Yin put a wad of scrunched up bubble wrap into his hand. Andrew jumped a little at the touch.

“I could hear you talking under your breath, you know,” she said smiling.

Andrew forced himself to look up. “Thank you.”

“Do you think you could talk to me now?”

“My friends are waiting. No time,” Andrew said.

“Ok, I get it. I’ll walk with you. We can talk at the same time.”

Andrew couldn’t stop her but he made a sweep of the next floor as fast as he could.

“Do you have a group?” she said.


“How many?”


“Are you the leader? How old are you anyway?”


“Do you have somewhere to stay? Is it safe?”

“Too many questions! Stop!” Andrew said.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m just, so excited. I’ve been speaking to myself, never getting any answers for so long. The rest of my group, well they’re gone. I don’t really understand. I don’t understand any of it. So many people are gone.” Her lip trembled and she lowered her head and Andrew could see the scattering of white hairs at her crown. He remembered his mum dyeing her hair and whistling Chinese opera songs in the bathroom with her white plastic gloves that reminded him of the dentist. He remembered her trying to calm him one time, still wearing those gloves whilst streaks of black stained her face and the tiles of the bathroom walls.

“Can you cook noodles?”

Ka-Yin looked up and met him straight in the eyes. The glare from her glasses made it a bit easier.

“Cook noodles?”

“Can you cook noodles?” he repeated.


“You can come.”

Henry lunged for her when they emerged from the building. Ka-Yin turned very pale and stood plank stiff as Henry’s hand came down to squeeze her arm. Andrew pushed it back and firmly walked Henry a distance away.

“Andrew, Andrew what happened? Who is this?” Wai-Long asked.

“This is Ka-Yin. She is coming with us,” Andrew said.

“Has she lost her family too? Have you?” Wai-Long said, coming to stand very close to the woman. She brushed away unshed tears and smoothed down the front of her shirt.

With a bright smile, she said, “Yes, I have, but you know, that’s the way life is.”

Then Henry stopped. Andrew wondered if he was remembering the same moment when the tangles had taken their dad. Andrew and Henry had shaken him, kept shaking him but he was so tired and he had just wanted a moment. When their mum came home the living room was covered in tangle dust and their father had gone. That’s the way life is, she had said, brightly as she dragged out the suitcases. That’s the way life is, she had repeated as she drove them to the Walled City.


With Henry placated, they started the walk home.

“And then how did you get from the station to work?” Wai-Long said, his voice high in excitement.

“I took the light bus, or sometimes if I was tired, a taxi,” she answered, carrying the jerry can sloppily with two hands. She looked tired, shifting the weight of it from side to side, but refused Andrew’s offer of assistance.

“The light bus! Did you hear that, Andrew? Ka-Yin took the light bus!” Wai-Long said as he flapped his hands. He jumped high into the air like one of those antelopes Andrew had seen on TV. “Andrew and Henry don’t take public transport because of Henry’s behaviour and the police not understanding.”

Ka-Yin looked over to Andrew with that face he had seen before. The same face policemen and doctors and even the aunties would make when his mum had told them what Henry had done this time. That’s the way life is, she would say.

“No-one takes public transport anymore,” Andrew said abruptly, and took the jerry can from Ka-Yin before she could protest.


Kowloon Walled City was an odd sight in the heart of Hong Kong. The walls were slotted together like mismatched toy blocks precariously balanced on top of each other. A behemoth of buildings cobbled together by people who had chosen to use every square inch of space, to build up when building out was not an option. Andrew’s parents had avoided it when they had been alive, a place of criminal and dark deeds. But when the whole country had turned dark, it became a safe harbour.

“You live here?” Ka-Yin said.

“Henry and Andrew are having a sleepover at my house which is on the eleventh floor. You can’t see it from here because the window looks into Mr Yu’s bicycle repair shop on one side and the Chans’ house on the other. The walls are painted green which is not my favourite colour. My favourite colour is blue,” Wai-Long said.

In the looting during the early days, many of the shop signs had come tumbling down and there was broken glass and fragments of calligraphy everywhere under the dust. In the midday heat Andrew could hear metal creaking, whispering out their location to the tangle clouds.

“But why do you live here? It’s unsafe, the government were meant to tear it down decades ago!” Ka-Yin said as she gingerly stepped through the debris.

“We’ve always lived here,” said Wai-Long and his litany of words stopped, “Andrew, is it not safe? I don’t know the answer.”

Andrew didn’t reply but propelled Ka-Yin towards the side entrance, a gate wedged at a slant between two buildings. She had to turn sideways and shuffle to fit down the makeshift corridor in the dark and waterlogged space. Ka-Yin made the mistake of looking up. Masses of improvised electricity lines ran like thick netting overhead, cushioning fallen street signs, lost laundry and from the smell, rotting animals. She froze still.

“Move,” Andrew said from behind her.

“Why do you live here?” she repeated in a whisper.

“It’s safe.” Andrew said.


“We have the room.”

“A room?”

“Too many questions. Move!”

They went through a rabbit warren of buildings, climbing in and out of windows and up rusted stairwells onto the rooftops. Grey-blue powder caked every available surface, a burst vacuum cleaner scattering its leavings from above. Even looking over his shoulder, Andrew saw the footprints they had left behind were starting to fill in. Sometimes out of the corner of his eye, Andrew could see it fall, like specks dancing in direct sunlight.

At the apartment, the rumble of the petrol generator was reassuring. Nothing had changed in the few hours they were away. The front room was dark apart from one table lamp. Andrew had lined up all their supplies in neat rows on the shelves by colour and size. He added the food from the office scavenge. The tin of egg rolls were by a different company to the other they had. It was slightly smaller with rounded corners, didn’t sit on top of the other tin well. He tried turning it 90 degrees but it still looked wrong. He put it next to their old tin but the heights were off too. Andrew felt himself getting agitated when Ka-Yin interrupted him.

“That, that’s it?” she said.

With great reluctance, Andrew left off sorting out the supplies and pushed open the door into the second room.

The room was filled with moving lights reflected from a glitter ball. The walls were covered in distorted mirrors convexing and concaving along its length. A curtain of fibre optic lights, now red, now yellow, now blue, hung from the corner like a shower curtain. And a bubble tube simmered in the other corner. There were blankets and dirty mattresses lining the floor. Henry was lying belly down on a yoga ball, rocking his whole body back and forth and squeezing a piece of bubble wrap in his fist.

Wai-Long was also inside, sorting through a box of parts. He dragged Ka-Yin over to sit on a bean bag beside him as he pulled out a headlight bulb, spark plugs, greasy bolts and rusted springs. Reverentially he put them in her hand, one after another.

“This is the cambelt from a Toyota Corolla. Henry found this for me five weeks ago near Kowloon Hospital. I like it because it’s from a Japanese car. Do you have a car, Ka-Yin?” he said, bouncing in his seat as he waited for an answer.

“I didn’t. My husband had a Nissan 240Z.”

“Eh? That is a very fast car! Your husband must have wanted to go places quickly,” Wai-Long said.

“He wanted to get away quickly, that’s for sure,” Ka-Yin said softly, “sorry, I just, need some air . . .”

“But there’s plenty of air.”

She put her hands against her temples and closed her eyes. “It’s . . . dust. I’m probably just allergic to the dust.”

“There’s no dust here Ka-Yin. We’ve made sure of that,” Wai-Long said.

Andrew watched from the door, hoping she would understand. But his mum, he had been certain his mum understood. Mum had brought him and Henry here, to a safe place, she had said. She had brought them together and taught them what to do, but she had still gone in the end. She couldn’t sense the dust.

Ka-Yin flicked dirt from her shirt, stood up and made a bee-line for Andrew.

“Was all the petrol for this? For your, your toys?” she said. There were tears rolling down her face but her words sounded angry and she just kept staring at him. “What’s the plan? What happens when you run out of food? When one of you gets sick? Is that it? Are you really that last survivors?”

Andrew moaned low and gnawed at his wrist. “Stop.”

Ka-Yin, bit her lip for a moment but then the tirade continued, spilling from her. “Have you even tried contacting others? And would you just look me in the eye for once?”

They were all looking at her now. The children were watching an adult have a tantrum. Andrew didn’t answer, his teeth biting at his wrist until the old scabs opened up and he tasted iron in his mouth. Henry, who had been absorbed in his bubble wrap until now, stood up and grabbed Ka-Yin’s arm. He pinched her, tight until she screamed aloud and awoke Andrew from his trance.

Two days after she arrived the tangles fell. Henry had wailed in warning and they had run into the safe room, dragging Ka-Yin with them. Andrew couldn’t speak, his senses overwhelmed by the humming lights of the tangles on his skin and he had to brush them, flick them off, rocking against a wall until he felt clean. He ran his hands across the mirrored walls, feeling the curves on his stubbed fingertips. When he was certain, he opened his eyes.

Ka-Yin stood inside the fibre-optic curtain, looking terrified. Henry was pacing around it, slapping himself hard on the chest where the skin was a tough callus. He shook the lights on every full turn and the remaining tangles caught up in Ka-Yin’s hair sizzled weakly and fled.

Every day after, Henry continued to loiter by Ka-Yin’s side, pushing her and grabbing her arm when the first tangle twisters fell. The tendrils would seep in through the air conditioning units and under cracks in the doors. No matter how much tape and cloth they used to plug the holes, it always found a way in.

“They’ll disappear you!” Wai-Long said when she demanded an answer. She tried to ask him for more details but Wai-Long didn’t know the answer. He didn’t know, he didn’t know! So he got upset and started to scream until Andrew brought out his model train set.

Andrew knew Ka-Yin wouldn’t stay long. She wanted too many answers when they had stopped asking the questions. When it was quiet, Andrew drew her in his notebook so he would have a memory.

His mum had once made him a big scrapbook with photos of his favourite things: the huge western supermarket that let him line up the cans with their labels all facing outwards, the park near their house, the swimming pool that would let him and Henry make big splashes. There were photos of all the aunties and uncles, at Chinese New Year, and taking paper lanterns to Victoria Harbour on Mid-Autumn Festival. That was Andrew’s favourite because you couldn’t see the people, not really. There was no staring and the lantern lights were warm and comforting.

But he had thrown the scrapbook out one of the open windows. It had tumbled off electricity wires and clothes lines and landed with a soggy thud in the dark. Andrew had thrown it because the places he loved didn’t exist anymore. Nor did the people. The book didn’t calm him as it used to, it just made him more upset.

“I am thinking of leaving,” she said after two weeks. Tangles had fallen in the morning when they were asleep. Henry had slapped and pinched them from her face so they wouldn’t eat at her skin. Ka-Yin had wept and pushed his hands away but Henry was very strong. Andrew had signed finished, but his brother had not heeded it. Help, Henry signed back, I help. Ka-Yin had lost a chunk from her earlobe, the earring eaten away with it. She kept feeling the gap, fingers rubbing together where flesh should have been. And the look, the sympathetic nod she pointed in Henry’s directions had rotted into fear. Andrew watched as she would slink away from her brother, tremble when he came too close.

“I’m not . . . I’m not like you! I, that’s not to say I’m not thankful. I am, of course, for you taking me in. But, I’m just not sure I can live like this.”

Andrew was lining up his pencils on the desk so they were all perpendicular to the desk.

“I, I’ve never been good around kids, that’s it. And teens . . .! In fact, that’s why I didn’t have any of my own, I guess.

“He used to say that, you know, my husband. That I didn’t have the maternal instinct. That I couldn’t be someone’s mother if I tried.”

One of the pencils was shorter than the others by more than a centimetre. It was ruining the pattern entirely. Andrew sighed and looked up at her. He turned his sketchbook back to the first page.

Sitting on the sofa back then, watching the news with its rolling headlines and panicked reporters in facemasks, Andrew had sketched what he saw out of the window. He had shown it to his parents and they were surprised. Pleased even. His dad said he had never shown imagination before.

“Here.” Andrew had drawn the Hong Kong skyline. The cloudy sky shimmering with tangles that funnelled down like twisters over the tall unmoving skyscrapers.

“It’s beautiful. Is it, a fantasy?”

“It’s the tangles.”

Ka-Yin shook her head, “You all keep saying that. Tangles? I don’t understand. People died. God knows how many people. And their bodies disappeared, yes, but tornadoes in the sky? Tangles? I would have noticed something like that.”

Andrew was struck by how similar the conversation was to the one before. The one with his mum.

“You can’t see it,” he said carefully, pointing outside, “you are only using your eyes.” It was raining dust in lazy flakes of blue and grey. Ka-Yin looked and he knew she saw nothing.

“I . . .I’m going to leave. Do you have any suggestions, have you seen other groups?”


“Look, Andrew, you are a good guy. But, I . . .I can’t look after you. I don’t know how,” Ka-Yin said.

“Henry looks after you. Henry looks after us all,” Andrew stated in a matter of fact manner.

Ka-Yin looked at him quizzically and touched him on the shoulder, a light itchy touch. “I know he’s your brother Andrew, but he, he hurts people. I get it, that he doesn’t understand, but he’s dangerous!”

The memory now, of shaking his mum. Shaking her and shouting as Henry wailed in the other room. But she was already too far gone. The tangles had closed over her face in a cocoon. Henry trying to smash the door down. He was dangerous, people had whispered. I just need ten minutes to myself, she had explained to Andrew, just ten. And the dust had fallen.

He turned the page on his sketchpad to look at his next drawing. It was a sketch of his mum. She had been plumper in real life, and her hair more unkempt, but Andrew liked to remember her this way. Shelling red melon seeds whilst listening to their dad read interesting articles aloud from the newspaper. Andrew would line up the red husks into even rows. On a Friday night they would eat tongyuan and Henry would crunch on the ginger root from everyone’s bowl.

“Will you stay here?” Ka-Yin asked, “forever?”

“It is safe,” Andrew said, “it’s the safest place I know.”

Ka-Yin looked over her shoulder where the sensory room door was ajar, the light reflected from the mirror ball sending a narrow wedge of spots up the wall. “Part of me would like to go back to my house and crawl under the duvet as well. I get it. Close your eyes and forget this is all happening.”

Andrew shook his head. She didn’t get it. His eyes were hurting because she kept looking at him but she didn’t understand. None of them had understood.

Andrew flipped to the next page and showed her. “Maggie Yu. She lived in the next apartment. She lived with us for two weeks. The tangles came.

“The old auntie. She spoke only Mandarin. She taught us tai chi.

“Kelvin, Yen-Ming, Michael—they all turned to dust.” Andrew kept turning the pages. He had drawn many faces in them. Ka-Yin reached out, her hand shaking as she took the sketchpad from him and turned to the most recent page. He had started the sketch of her face, a scowl across her brows as she stood at the kitchen staring at the blank countertop.

“What are you doing?” Wai-Long said, coming over.

“I’m going,” Ka-Yin said quietly as she closed the book and handed it back to Andrew.

“You can’t go!” Wai-Long said.

“I can’t?” she said, looking up. Her face had paled considerably.

“You can go,” Andrew replied, “chut yup ping on.”

Ka-Yin relaxed. “Thank you. I’ll . . .I’ll come back and visit.”

“Henry!” Wai-Long complained as he went to find Andrew’s brother, “Henry make her stay.”

Ka-Yin put her hands up reflexively and then stopped. She smiled with her teeth towards Andrew and then began to back up towards the door. “It’s been, really nice. I wish you all good health, long lives, happiness . . .”

Wai-Long re-appeared with Henry at the doorway to the safe room. They started after her but Andrew signed for them to stop. It’s finished.

Henry signed back, his hands hitting together for emphasis as he made the sign over and over again. Andrew shook his head. It was the wrong sign for her. She was not family.

“We can’t make her stay,” Andrew said softly.

Wai-Long hopped from foot to foot. “But Andrew—”

“We can’t,” Andrew repeated.

Henry moaned, a deep long lament. Ka-Yin had turned the door handle open behind her and kept inching backwards.

She walked quickly down the corridor, almost running and never looking back.

“But Andrew, she’ll turn to dust,” Wai-Long said.

Andrew crossed to look out the window. He wiped the dust from the sill, its chalky texture unpleasant on his hands. Distant tangle twisters burrowed down towards the buildings like jagged tears in the sky.


The three boys waited by the opened door.

• • •