Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day(4)

By: Seanan McGuire

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.

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