Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day(2)By: Seanan McGuire
It will be two days before Jenna’s body washes up on the riverbank half a mile downstream, bleached pale as bone by the currents. One of her hands will never be found. Somewhere deep in the river, fish will play hide-and-seek among her finger bones, chasing each other through the space between her thumb and index finger. Her parents will send for another long pine box, too big for her body, too small for her soul. Old lady McGeary who lives down the hollow will bring her parents a spice cake and tell them how sorry she is, and they’ll be too busy grieving to see that her eyes are dry.
They’ll bury her next to her sister, and everyone in the Hollow will whisper about how sad it was for the Paces to lose two daughters in the space of a season. But at least Jenna died at home, they’ll say; at least Jenna died on familiar soil. Both girls will sleep better for knowing that they’re resting comfortable in Mill Hollow, where the world outside will never touch them. One day, when Dan and Molly Pace follow their daughters into the dark, the whole family will be able to rest easy, together, safe at home.
Dan Pace never says anything to the people who say those things to him. Neither does his wife. They’re both too busy dying by inches, sinking deeper and deeper into themselves, until the light can no longer reach them. Jenna ran.
Maybe Jenna was the lucky one.
Maybe Jenna is still running.
2: Manhattan, 2015
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.