When her sister Patty died, Jenna blamed herself. When Jenna died, she blamed herself for that, too. Unfortunately Jenna died too soon. Living or dead, every soul is promised a certain amount of time, and when Jenna passed she found a heavy debt of time in her record. Unwilling to simply steal that time from the living, Jenna earns every day she leeches with volunteer work at a suicide prevention hotline.
But something has come for the ghosts of New York, something beyond reason, beyond death, beyond hope; something that can bind ghosts to mirrors and make them do its bidding. Only Jenna stands in its way.
Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day is a new standalone urban fantasy novella from Seanan McGuire, available January 10th from Tor.com Publishing.
The voice is timid; the ones who call between midnight and three a.m. usually are. Years of socialization telling them not to bother people that late conspire to keep voices low and tones unsteady, like they’re waiting for me to start yelling. I can’t blame them, but it hurts my heart every time I hear it. No one should have to walk through life so afraid.
“Hi,” I say, smiling warmly, letting the expression echo into my voice. Some of the people who work this shift keep mirrors taped to their monitors so they can see themselves smiling. I don’t do that—I don’t like mirrors—but I appreciate that they’re willing to make the effort. There was a time when they wouldn’t have been. “My name’s Jenna.” I don’t ask my callers for theirs. If they want me to have them, they’ll offer.
“I’m… I’m Vicky.”
“Hi, Vicky. What’s going on?”
There’s a pause, brief as an indrawn breath, before she says, “I don’t want to be here anymore. I’m so tired. But I don’t want to go, either. I don’t want to hurt people by going. How can I stay when I don’t want to?”
This is a familiar question, maybe as familiar as the dance of ring and response. Not every call starts this way, but enough of them do that I don’t hesitate before I say, “You can stay, even if you don’t want to, by not going anywhere.”
There’s a shocked pause. Then she laughs, sounding almost relieved. “You say that like it’s easy.”
“No, I don’t. I say it like it’s the hardest thing in the world, because it is.” Patty fought so hard, and she couldn’t stay. Sometimes, even the strongest people get tired. “Do you want to tell me why you’re so tired, Vicky? I’d like to listen, if you feel like talking.”
They don’t always. Some of them just call so they can say the forbidden words out loud: “I want to die.” They mask the statement in metaphor and circuitous language, but at the end of the day, anyone who calls a Suicide Prevention Helpline is saying the same thing. “I want to die, and I don’t know how to say that to anyone, and I don’t know how to talk to the people who care about me without scaring them, and so I’m reaching out to strangers, because strangers are safer. Strangers don’t judge, or if they do, strangers don’t matter. Strangers aren’t real.”
I’m never going to be a person to Vicky. I’m just a voice on the other end of the phone, a temporary moment of connection in a world that has somehow knocked her off-balance, and that’s what she needs right now. We talk about her hobbies. We talk about the shows she’s afraid of missing, about the niece whose ninth birthday party she wants to attend this summer, about her cat, who is old and crotchety and would be lost without her.
We talk about the knives in her kitchen. She agrees to lock them in the closet for the night. Too readily: she’s not a knife girl, not Vicky. I listen to the despair and weariness in her voice and I can see how she ends, strychnine in a mug of hot, sweet tea, the bitter bite of poison hidden under honey, and hope. Hope that dead will be better than alive is, because alive isn’t getting her anywhere. She’s a poison girl, ready to sip from the first flower that promises her oblivion.
I soften my voice, make it as gentle as I can, and ask, “Do you have someone who can keep an eye on your cleaning supplies for you?”
There’s a moment of shocked silence, and I’m afraid I’ve gone too far. I’ve done that a couple of times. They can’t understand how I arrow in on the methods they’ve been considering—and I’ve had to learn not to say anything when the method I pick out of their voices is too esoteric. Drowning’s not common anymore. Falling’s a bit more so, but it’s not one of the big three: firearms, poison, or hanging. Call someone’s intent as something that’s not one of those and I might as well be signing their death warrants myself, because they’ll hang up and never call back, and the people who need us…
Well, the people who need us need us. They can’t afford to be scared away because I’m a little overzealous about my job sometimes.
To my relief, Vicky laughs again and says, “I guess I should have been expecting that. Statistically, women are more likely to go for poisons than men are. We don’t like to leave a mess. We spend our whole lives learning how to be… how to be as neat and tidy and unobtrusive as possible, and then we go out the same way. Sometimes I think I want to make a huge mess on my way out the door. And then I think about the people who’d have to clean it up, and I’m right back to the poison. Does that make me pathetic?”
“No. It makes you human. It means you care. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with caring.”
“I guess you wouldn’t, would you?” Her voice is softer now. Contemplative. She’s thinking about the conversation we’ve just had—and the real conversation is over now; I can hear that in her voice, just as surely as I’d heard the lure of the poisoned cup. It’s all winding down and goodbyes from here. Maybe I’ll hear from her again; maybe she’ll become one of my regulars, calling to update me on her progress, making sure I know she’s still alive. Then again, maybe not. More than half my callers are one night only, no encores, no repeat performances.
I’ve met a few of them later, months or even years after they called me. I’ve never met any of them among the living.
“No, I wouldn’t,” I say. People who don’t care don’t choose to take the midnight shift at the Suicide Helpline. People who don’t care stay home safe in their beds, or wander the nightclubs looking for something to connect them to the world, to keep them just that little bit more anchored.
“Well…” She takes a shaky breath, and what I hear in that sound is more reassuring than words could possibly have been. She’s decided to live. Maybe not forever—maybe not even for long—but for tonight, she’s decided to live. I’ve done some good in this world. I’ve paid off a fraction of my debt I owe to Patty, for not hearing the things she never said to me. “Thank you, Jenna. For listening. I… I really appreciate you being willing to do that.”
“Any time, Vicky.”
There’s a click as the line disconnects. She doesn’t say goodbye. I glance to the display on my computer screen: we were on that call for forty-seven minutes. Forty-seven minutes to talk a living, breathing, human woman out of killing herself. At least for tonight, Vicky will remain in the world, and that’s partially because of me. I did that.
Gingerly, I remove my headset and type in the key combination that tells the system I’m done for the night. There are only a few people on the graveyard shift. Two are on calls of their own. The third is working one of the chat rooms we maintain for people who can’t talk on the phone about what they’re feeling, even to a stranger. His fingers dance across the keys, and I pause to admire the speed and grace with which he responds to four different conversations. I never ask to work the chats. How would I measure the time? It’s too abstract. People type at different speeds; they pause and backtrack and lie so much more easily than they can when they’re actually speaking to me. I’d start crediting myself with more than I deserved, and it would all be downhill from there.
Forty-seven minutes. That’s what I’ve earned tonight. Vicky wasn’t my only call, but she’s the one that counts, the one where I spoke long enough, said enough of the right things, that I can legitimately say I made a difference. I hold that number as I get my coat from the closet, shrug it on, and make my way out the door, down the narrow stair to the old precode fire door that always sticks and groans when we force it open. Some of my coworkers joke about how we work in a haunted house because of that door. I always laugh with them. It’s not like they’re somehow on to me; Melissa McCarthy and the rest of the Ghostbusters won’t be barging in with their proton packs and witty one-liners any time soon.
Which is almost a pity. The nights can get long, and we could use the entertainment.
The air outside is warm and humid, smelling of boiled hot dogs, cooling pavement, and the close-packed bodies of a million people, each with their own hidden secrets and stories to tell. There are people who don’t like the smell of New York in the summer, but I find it soothing. I could stand in front of the door with my nose turned to the wind for a hundred years, and I still wouldn’t breathe in everything the city has to offer. That’s good. There should be some things too complex to experience, in or outside of a lifetime.
It takes me a moment to orient myself, to determine where I am in relation to Mill Hollow. The pull of it is always there, a fishhook in my heart, but sometimes it gets tangled up in the tall buildings and unfamiliar skyline, becoming twisted and strange. I follow it patiently back to the creek and the old oak by the ravine, until I know my exact position in the world again. I can read a street sign as well as anybody, but I’m always lost if I don’t know where the Hollow is. That’s where I’m from. That’s where I died. That’s what anchors me to this world. Without it, I might as well be a sheet on the wind, blowing senseless, no more mindful than a bit of old laundry.
Everything settles into its proper place. The world makes sense again, and I start walking.
The office of the hotline where I volunteer is tucked into the back of a privately owned building in the East Village, one of those old-money havens where buying an apartment begins in the millions and climbs rapidly upward from there. The last time the top floor was sold, I think it went for five million dollars, and that was eight years ago. Most of the building is owned by a gray-haired, steel-spined old woman whose eldest son took his own life after he came home from Vietnam. She’s the one who gives us our office space, free of charge, because she doesn’t want what happened to her Johnny to happen to anyone else.
“He just got lost, and he couldn’t see that he was already home” was what she’d said the first time we met, in the late seventies, when her hair was still shot through with black, and her eyes were still sharp without the aid of corrective lenses. She looked at me like she knew me, and when I reached for her hand to shake it, she moved politely away from me. It’s been forty years. She’s in her late eighties now, and she’s never allowed me to touch her.
I don’t think she knows why, exactly. Some people just get a feeling when they’re around me, like they shouldn’t chance it. I don’t push. Most of them heard something from their gran, who heard it from her gran before them, and I don’t believe it’s right to go crossing someone else’s gran. Especially when she’s right. Especially when I am a danger, or could be, if I wanted to.
The streets of New York are never empty. I pass a few college boys, out past when they should be studying or sleeping, a pair of tourists with no idea what they’ve wandered into, and pause when I see a familiar shape settled on the front steps of a brownstone. She’s folded down into herself, shoulders hunched and head bowed, but Sophie has a way about her that can’t be overlooked, not once you’ve come to see it clear.
“Sophie, what are you doing out here?” Now that I’m not on the phones, my accent is strong as moonshine and thick as summer honey. I sound like home. Sometimes I talk just to hear words the way they’re supposed to sound, with their harsh edges sanded off and their tempo slowed to something that’s not in such a damn hurry all the time. I crouch down, trying to catch her eye. “I thought you’d found a place.”
“I didn’t like it there.”
“Oh.” I dig a hand into my pocket, pulling out the money I was going to use for pie. I’ve got enough quarters to get myself a cup of coffee, and it’s not like I need the calories. I put the money on the stoop next to Sophie’s hip. She’s younger than she looks, aged by the dirt that cakes her skin and the worries that line her face. I wish I could do more for her, and for all the others like her, but some rescues aren’t mine to make. I don’t touch her. I never touch her, and that hurts too, because she notices. I know that somewhere deep down, she must assume that my distance is born of the same revulsion that she gets from everyone else, the fear-born scorn that doesn’t want to admit that every living human in the city is just one bad break and a few missed showers away from Sophie’s stoop.
For the most part, touching the living isn’t a problem for me. But when the need is bad enough… I can’t risk it. Sophie’s young and old at the same time, ridden hard by a world that’s never been willing to take the time to be kind. She doesn’t need another forty-seven minutes in this place. She needs a miracle, and the brush of my fingers would not be enough to grant it.
“Get yourself something to eat if you can, okay?” I straighten, leaving the money behind. Everyone homeless is fighting an uphill battle—for respect, for safety, for survival—but not everyone homeless is lost like Sophie. She’s fallen through the cracks, and she doesn’t have the tools to find her way back into the light. It’s so hard for the lost. Even on the rare occasions when they have enough money for a healthy meal or a warm coat, they encounter people who won’t serve them, who say a little dirt and a lot of despair are enough to sever someone from the human race.
I don’t know if there’s a heaven or a hell or anything beyond an earthbound afterlife full of covered looking-glasses, but if there is, I reckon some people will be getting a bit of a surprise when the time comes for their own moving on.
“Okay,” mumbles Sophie, and I’ve done all I can do for tonight. I can’t take her home, and I know from past experience that if I try to take her to the diner, she’ll balk, refusing to go through the door. She has a little money, and she has her comforting shell of invisibility, which wraps around her like a cloak and protects her from the ones who might come through this night to do her harm. She’s been out here a long while. It’s arrogant of me to think she hasn’t made her own choices along the way.
This, too, is a part of life in the city, and while each generation is happy to blame the next for the growing issues of the homeless and the disenfranchised, the fact is it’s been going on since Cain was young, his brother’s blood still dark and drying on his hands. People aren’t so good at being good to one another. We try hard enough, but something essential was left out in the making of us, some hard little patch of stone in the fertile soil that’s supposed to be our hearts. We get hung up on the bad, and we focus on it until it grows, and the whole crop is lost.
I pull my coat tighter around myself, wondering when the wind turned cold, wondering if it’ll warm again before the sun comes up and the world changes yet again into something new. I walk toward the diner as quickly as I dare, mindful of the drunk tourists and college kids who sometimes stumble out of the bars, vomited into the street like so much spoiled fruit. Most of them turn and stagger back in again, determined to get as hammered as they can before last call comes and spoils all their fun. The ones that stay outside, though… those ones are dangerous.
The people living in this neighborhood know me. They know everyone who volunteers at the hotline. They know the work we do, and how important it is, and that we don’t get paid to do it. None of them would lay a finger on me, much less knock me down and try to take my wallet out of my jacket. The frat boys and the drunks, on the other hand, have no qualms about going for a pretty young thing who doesn’t have the sense not to walk alone.
I’m not what they want. They aren’t what I want. I have the sense to know it; they don’t. Better for all of us if I keep out of the way and keep them from learning things the hard way. Some lessons can’t be unlearned. Some lessons aren’t fair to any of the parties involved, and punishing them would leave me stranded here for longer. Better to keep walking. Better to keep moving on.
The diner appears ahead of me, a skeleton of neon and bright paint glowing through the darkness like a promise, or a psalm. I pick up the pace still more, thinking of vinyl and chrome and the sweet, ever-present scent of pie crust hanging in the air, lard and sugar and flour and the memory of Ma’s hands working the dough, broad and strong and weathered as the Hollow itself, with knuckles like the roots of the old elm trees. We never had the money for eating out when I was young, and even if we did, there hadn’t been anyplace for us to go. Mill Hollow didn’t even get a Waffle House until the end of the 1990s, much less someplace fancy like a Cracker Barrel. The diner shouldn’t speak “home” to me the way that it does.
But time is on its side. Dandy’s was the only thing open the night I rolled into New York City, still young and confused and convinced there’d been a mistake somewhere down the line, that one day I was going to open a door and find my sister on the other side, shaking her head and looking disapprovingly down her nose at my choices. Well, Patty wasn’t waiting when I got off the bus, but Dandy’s was, neon glowing through the dark. It was the first thing I saw in my new world, the lighthouse that called me home, and I’ll always love it for that, no matter how much time stretches between the woman I am now and the girl that I was then.
The pie doesn’t hurt.
The bell above the door chimes as I walk in. It’s been making the same sound for the last forty years, fading a bit with the passage of time but always sounding clearly. The diner is only about a third of the way full. Half the people I can see are regulars, people who’ve been eating here for years and have learned not to comment on the things a newer patron might find strange. Like the way David caters dinners of mixed seeds and scraps for the pigeons out back, or Brenda’s tendency to sit in the corner with her guitar, fingering chords and smiling, or the way I never seem to age. I am getting older, of course. Just slow, and steady, and not like a living girl would.
I haven’t been aging like a living girl for a long, long time. Not since the night I ran out into the rain. Not since the night I died.
Brenda’s in the corner with her guitar again, a cup of coffee in front of her and her guitar’s neck nestled in her hand. I offer her a nod as I walk by, and she offers one back, and the compact is reaffirmed; this place is still safe. Brenda’s a witch, one of the best I’ve ever known, all bottled magic and unforgiving judgment. She calls her power from the corn, she says, and that’s why she lives in New York, where everything is concrete and glass and the only green comes from the parks and the decorative verge outside the houses. Less temptation to seize the world and do what must be done, if she’s living this far from the corn.
We get along all right. I don’t bother her and she doesn’t bother me. She doesn’t demand I take her time, and I don’t run. We get by.
My seat at the counter is empty. I slide onto it, feel the vinyl conform to the curve of my buttocks, the press of my thighs. I relax a little further. Everything is normal. Everything is the way it ought to be, and I have forty-seven minutes to my credit. I lean my elbows on the counter, breathing myself into the room, and watch the ebb and flow of the people moving around me, trying to take the measure of the crowd.
There are two servers on duty tonight, Carmen and a new girl whose name I can’t recall. Carmen’s in her late twenties and has been working the night shift here since she graduated high school. She takes morning classes at a local college and is working her way steadily toward a sociology degree. She’s happy, that’s the thing. Carmen loves her job, loves her regulars, and loves the way it leaves her afternoons free to do whatever she wants to do—even if privately, I think she should spend a few more of those afternoons sleeping. She’s young enough to be able to run for days on black coffee and adrenaline, and old enough to make her choices knowing what the consequences will be.
The second server is younger, the sort of stretched-thin, wide-eyed teenager that Carmen used to be. She has a baby at home, and a GED with the ink still wet tucked into her purse. She’s produced it twice just to show people, for the sheer joy of being able to say, “See? See, I have a place in the world; you’ve tried to deny me the right to anything like it, but I got it.” She’ll do well here, once she finishes adjusting to the combined strain of the graveyard shift and a growing infant.
For now, though, she’s dead on her feet, and she moves like every step is a chore. That decides things for me even before she drifts to a halt in front of me, opens her notebook, and asks, in a distinctly non-local drawl, “What can I get you tonight?”
Carmen would address me by name, ask how things went at the hotline, maybe have shown up with a cup of coffee already poured and piping hot in her hand. This girl could be another Carmen, given time. Or maybe she’ll be something completely new, leave us for a better job and a world of prospects outside these neon-covered walls. Only one way to find out.
“Coffee,” I say, with a sunny smile. “Cream and sugar, please.”
She glances up from her notepad, dull surprise in her expression. Oh, she’s exhausted, this one; she’s near to the point of breaking, because there’s never enough time. “No pie?”
“No pie,” I confirm, with a shake of my head.
“Be right back,” she says, and she’s gone, bustling down the counter to fetch the coffeepot from the warmer.
This is the hard part. I lean farther forward, and when she fills my cup, I reach for it a little too fast, so the liquid slops over the side and onto the counter, burning my fingers. I hiss, drawing back, and she jumps in with her dishtowel and a hastily mumbled apology, trying to clean up the spill before she can get in trouble for scalding a customer, much less scalding a regular.
“I’m sorry, that was my fault,” I say, reaching out as if to help. My fingertips brush the side of her hand, and just like that, I don’t have forty-seven minutes owed to me anymore; I’ve taken them from her.
She stops cleaning for a bare moment, the clouds in her eyes clearing, replaced by a bright, enthusiastic vigor. There’s no drug in this world like the feeling of a ghost touching living skin. Dead people provide a clean, natural, intensely addictive high, one that doesn’t come with any downsides. We take time from the living. We leave them younger, and there ain’t much humanity won’t do for eternal youth.
There’s a reason most of us don’t advertise what we are—apart from the fact that the human race isn’t quite ready for the revelation that life and living aren’t one and the same. Once we’re dead, there will always be those who view haunts as something other than human, and be happy to use us for what we are, instead of respecting us for what we were.
The new waitress blinks, the dazed expression leaving her face, replaced by a dreamy contentment. “I’m sorry about the coffee,” she says. “How about I cut you a slice of pie to make up for it? My treat.”
I’ve been coming here long enough to know the owners won’t take the cost of that pie out of her paycheck, not when she’s doing it for someone who’s in as often as I am, whose habits are as predictable as mine. So I smile, and say, “That would be swell. Peach, if you’ve got it.”
“She’ll take it à la mode,” says Brenda, leaning over me and plucking my coffee from the counter before I can object. “I’m paying. We’ll add the price of the pie you were willing to give her to your tip.”
The new girl is smart enough not to argue with Brenda, who can be a force of nature when she gets going. “Shall I bring it to your booth?” she asks.
“And the cream and sugar our little hummingbird requested, please,” says Brenda. Then she’s walking away, my coffee in her hand, and there’s nothing I can do but follow.
Well. That’s not quite true. There are a lot of things I could do, because the dead still have free will; I didn’t give up being cussed stubborn when I died, thank the Lord. Not sure I could have handled being a teenage girl in the middle of a thunderstorm with no body and a whole new personality. There’s only so much shock a person can handle in one day, and I think that would have been a march too far. So I could stay where I am, or I could turn around and leave the diner, or I could go all transparent and start wailing about how much I want to find my beautiful golden arm. I have choices.
I choose to follow Brenda to her booth, where my coffee is waiting and the guitar is already back in her arms, her fingers etching phantom chords along the neck. “I didn’t ask for your ice cream, and I don’t take any debt with it,” I say, warily.
“I didn’t offer any debt,” she says. “There: the forms are observed. Now will you relax?”
I like Brenda, as much as a ghost can like a witch, as much as it’s safe to drop my guard in the presence of someone like her. Forty years of sharing the same diner will do that. I sink back into the booth, feeling it mold to me same as the seat did, and shrug. “I’m here, I’m relaxed, I’m just waiting for my pie,” I say. “What’d you buy it for?”
“Why didn’t you have the money?” Her accent is pure Indiana, as Midwestern as the corn she says supplies her power. When she speaks, I can see a sky as endless as my Ma’s knitting, and roads that cut from nowhere to everywhere, running for a horizon they know they’ll never reach.
I shrug again, awkwardly this time. “Sophie was outside.”
“Again?” Brenda tsks. “She doesn’t like the shelters. Says they make it harder to hear the city sleeping. She’s right, of course, but that doesn’t change the fact that she’s going to wind up dead if she doesn’t get things under control.”
“Didn’t answer the question.”
“A question is a perfectly viable answer, if you look at it right,” says Brenda. “I bought your pie because I saw what you did for Marisol. How much time?”
“Forty-seven minutes.” There’s no point lying to her. She could touch the new girl—Marisol—and know exactly how much time I’d taken. Making her go to the effort would only annoy her.
Only witches can control how much time a ghost takes. They can also force the issue. Marisol could touch me all day and not get a thing, not if I didn’t want to give it. Brenda could dump a year on me in a second, if she wanted to. That’s part of why they frighten me so much.
Brenda’s expression softens. “How long did you work for that?”
“There are easier ways—”
“No.” I shake my head, refuting the possibility before she can lay it out in front of me. “Not for me, there aren’t. I pay it back. What I take, I pay back.” I’m not supposed to be here. I’m a dead girl playing at being alive, and everything I claim—whether it’s a volunteer position at the crisis line or a seat on the bus—takes something from the living. I’m the damn fool who let her sister die alone in an unfamiliar city, who ran out into a storm and got herself killed. If I want to see my dying day, I’m going to earn every minute that gets me there.
“There’s people who’d say the taking alone pays it back, you know,” says Brenda. “You’re the Fountain of Youth. Take as much as you want, they’ll still come panting to you with more.”
I look at her. Brenda looks back. She can be hard to read sometimes: woman has a poker face like a mountain. As always, I break first.
“You don’t mean that,” I say.
“You’re right, I don’t.” She smiles. “That’s why you get pie.”
Then Marisol comes over with my plate, vanilla ice cream melting in rivulets down the pie crust, and sets it in front of me as ceremoniously as a knight setting the crown jewels before his queen. I reach for my fork, and Brenda smiles, and it’s been a good night. A good, good night.
If I can have a million more just like it, maybe I’ll have done enough. Maybe Patty will be repaid and I can finally rest.
Excerpted from Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day © Seanan McGuire, 2017
This excerpt originally appeared on the B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy blog.