Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day(10)

By: Seanan McGuire

Only, she still had tenants, and there was his funeral to arrange, and it seemed like she blinked and thirty years had gone by, still anchoring the neighborhood with her family-owned, rent-controlled building. “It’s worth millions now,” she confessed to me a few years back, both of us standing on the roof and watching the stars. Being dead means not sleeping much. “Millions! As if one little old lady needs millions more than she needs to know her people are sleeping good under roofs that don’t leak, with electrical sockets that won’t catch fire in the middle of the night. People think too much about money, and not enough about taking care of each other.”

“They’re alive.”

“They won’t be forever.”

She was right about that. No one lives forever. Maybe that’s why the living are so eager for things like million-dollar buildings and abolishing rent control: because they don’t understand that they have more time than they think they do. They’re swimming in the lake and I’m standing on the shore, and it’s hard to understand the water when you’re in it.

My locks haven’t been changed since the early eighties. There hasn’t been any reason to; it’s not like I have anything worth stealing. I dig out my keys and let myself inside, enjoying the simple normalcy of the process. A key, a tumbler, a doorknob, the metal beneath my fingers; these are things that don’t change, no matter how much time flows past me. Like me, locks remain essentially the same, updating slowly when they update at all. There’s something to be said for that, especially in the here and now, where everything changes so fast. So fast. This city is not the one it was when I arrived, new ghost-girl from Kentucky, stumbling and confused. If I reside here another ten years, it will be another hundred cities before I go. That’s the beauty, and the horror, of New York.

My fingers find the light switch and flick it on, illuminating my living room, the shabby furniture rescued from street corners and carted home from thrift shops and dusty secondhand stores, the bookshelves built of brick and unfinished pine. Everything is primary colors and bright patterns, like a Barbie house made large enough for me. It’s the apartment I dreamt of when I was a living teenager, standing at the beginning of the seventies and believing that this, here, this playhouse paradise, this was where Patty was living; that she slept on tie-dyed sheets and opened her eyes in the morning to crystals hung on fishing wire, throwing prism patterns on poster-covered walls. Nothing else could have been good enough for my beloved elder sister. She told me all about it in her letters home, before those letters darkened into quiet complaints about how loud it was, how she never saw the stars.

Before those letters stopped.

It was years before I realized Patty was lying all along, that she was a living woman, not a dead girl, and living women need to pay their gas bills and buy food with the money they make at their dead-end, minimum-wage jobs. I could barely afford my rent back then, and I was renting from a ghost who wanted to see me settled in a comfortable haunting, not sweeping the streets like the lost spirits who wandered the alleys and parks. Patty couldn’t have bought crystals by the bucket like she said, not without starving; she couldn’t have made a nest of layered sheets like a fancy French pastry, not without freezing to death. She was spinning me a fairy tale of New York in the process of spinning it for herself, and when that fairy tale collapsed, it took her down with it.

The apartment is warm now. It’s been years since I started paying the gas bill and installed the air conditioner, keeping the place toasty in winter and comfortably cool in summer. The reasons are scattered around the room like lumpy throw pillows, matted black and calico and tortoiseshell fur sticking up in all directions. A few stir enough to open an eye and peer in my direction, confirming my identity, but most are motionless. That’s fine. They don’t have much movement left in them, and there’s no good reason for them to waste it on me.

Six cats, at the moment, the youngest of them fifteen years old, left behind when her owner—a friendly old man who lived down the block his whole life, dying just ahead of the sale of his building—left her for the grave. I snatched her up just before his children could consign her to the local shelter, which does its best but is overcrowded and underfunded, and doesn’t have the space to keep cats that aren’t likely to be adopted. Not many people want the feline senior citizens. Kittens, sure, and healthy young adults with years of purring and playing left in them. Old cats? Cats that are set in their ways and just want to be left to sleep through their twilight years, setting their own schedules, making their own rules? Old cats rarely make it to the adoption floor. People want pets that will live for years, not leave tomorrow and break their hearts on the way out the door.

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