Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day(5)

By: Seanan McGuire

“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.

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