Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day(3)

By: Seanan McGuire

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.

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