Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day(6)

By: Seanan McGuire

I haven’t been aging like a living girl for a long, long time. Not since the night I ran out into the rain. Not since the night I died.

Brenda’s in the corner with her guitar again, a cup of coffee in front of her and her guitar’s neck nestled in her hand. I offer her a nod as I walk by, and she offers one back, and the compact is reaffirmed; this place is still safe. Brenda’s a witch, one of the best I’ve ever known, all bottled magic and unforgiving judgment. She calls her power from the corn, she says, and that’s why she lives in New York, where everything is concrete and glass and the only green comes from the parks and the decorative verge outside the houses. Less temptation to seize the world and do what must be done, if she’s living this far from the corn.

We get along all right. I don’t bother her and she doesn’t bother me. She doesn’t demand I take her time, and I don’t run. We get by.

My seat at the counter is empty. I slide onto it, feel the vinyl conform to the curve of my buttocks, the press of my thighs. I relax a little further. Everything is normal. Everything is the way it ought to be, and I have forty-seven minutes to my credit. I lean my elbows on the counter, breathing myself into the room, and watch the ebb and flow of the people moving around me, trying to take the measure of the crowd.

There are two servers on duty tonight, Carmen and a new girl whose name I can’t recall. Carmen’s in her late twenties and has been working the night shift here since she graduated high school. She takes morning classes at a local college and is working her way steadily toward a sociology degree. She’s happy, that’s the thing. Carmen loves her job, loves her regulars, and loves the way it leaves her afternoons free to do whatever she wants to do—even if privately, I think she should spend a few more of those afternoons sleeping. She’s young enough to be able to run for days on black coffee and adrenaline, and old enough to make her choices knowing what the consequences will be.

The second server is younger, the sort of stretched-thin, wide-eyed teenager that Carmen used to be. She has a baby at home, and a GED with the ink still wet tucked into her purse. She’s produced it twice just to show people, for the sheer joy of being able to say, “See? See, I have a place in the world; you’ve tried to deny me the right to anything like it, but I got it.” She’ll do well here, once she finishes adjusting to the combined strain of the graveyard shift and a growing infant.

For now, though, she’s dead on her feet, and she moves like every step is a chore. That decides things for me even before she drifts to a halt in front of me, opens her notebook, and asks, in a distinctly non-local drawl, “What can I get you tonight?”

Carmen would address me by name, ask how things went at the hotline, maybe have shown up with a cup of coffee already poured and piping hot in her hand. This girl could be another Carmen, given time. Or maybe she’ll be something completely new, leave us for a better job and a world of prospects outside these neon-covered walls. Only one way to find out.

“Coffee,” I say, with a sunny smile. “Cream and sugar, please.”

She glances up from her notepad, dull surprise in her expression. Oh, she’s exhausted, this one; she’s near to the point of breaking, because there’s never enough time. “No pie?”

“No pie,” I confirm, with a shake of my head.

“Be right back,” she says, and she’s gone, bustling down the counter to fetch the coffeepot from the warmer.

This is the hard part. I lean farther forward, and when she fills my cup, I reach for it a little too fast, so the liquid slops over the side and onto the counter, burning my fingers. I hiss, drawing back, and she jumps in with her dishtowel and a hastily mumbled apology, trying to clean up the spill before she can get in trouble for scalding a customer, much less scalding a regular.

“I’m sorry, that was my fault,” I say, reaching out as if to help. My fingertips brush the side of her hand, and just like that, I don’t have forty-seven minutes owed to me anymore; I’ve taken them from her.

She stops cleaning for a bare moment, the clouds in her eyes clearing, replaced by a bright, enthusiastic vigor. There’s no drug in this world like the feeling of a ghost touching living skin. Dead people provide a clean, natural, intensely addictive high, one that doesn’t come with any downsides. We take time from the living. We leave them younger, and there ain’t much humanity won’t do for eternal youth.

There’s a reason most of us don’t advertise what we are—apart from the fact that the human race isn’t quite ready for the revelation that life and living aren’t one and the same. Once we’re dead, there will always be those who view haunts as something other than human, and be happy to use us for what we are, instead of respecting us for what we were.

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