Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day(7)

By: Seanan McGuire

The new waitress blinks, the dazed expression leaving her face, replaced by a dreamy contentment. “I’m sorry about the coffee,” she says. “How about I cut you a slice of pie to make up for it? My treat.”

I’ve been coming here long enough to know the owners won’t take the cost of that pie out of her paycheck, not when she’s doing it for someone who’s in as often as I am, whose habits are as predictable as mine. So I smile, and say, “That would be swell. Peach, if you’ve got it.”

“She’ll take it à la mode,” says Brenda, leaning over me and plucking my coffee from the counter before I can object. “I’m paying. We’ll add the price of the pie you were willing to give her to your tip.”

The new girl is smart enough not to argue with Brenda, who can be a force of nature when she gets going. “Shall I bring it to your booth?” she asks.

“And the cream and sugar our little hummingbird requested, please,” says Brenda. Then she’s walking away, my coffee in her hand, and there’s nothing I can do but follow.

Well. That’s not quite true. There are a lot of things I could do, because the dead still have free will; I didn’t give up being cussed stubborn when I died, thank the Lord. Not sure I could have handled being a teenage girl in the middle of a thunderstorm with no body and a whole new personality. There’s only so much shock a person can handle in one day, and I think that would have been a march too far. So I could stay where I am, or I could turn around and leave the diner, or I could go all transparent and start wailing about how much I want to find my beautiful golden arm. I have choices.

I choose to follow Brenda to her booth, where my coffee is waiting and the guitar is already back in her arms, her fingers etching phantom chords along the neck. “I didn’t ask for your ice cream, and I don’t take any debt with it,” I say, warily.

“I didn’t offer any debt,” she says. “There: the forms are observed. Now will you relax?”

I like Brenda, as much as a ghost can like a witch, as much as it’s safe to drop my guard in the presence of someone like her. Forty years of sharing the same diner will do that. I sink back into the booth, feeling it mold to me same as the seat did, and shrug. “I’m here, I’m relaxed, I’m just waiting for my pie,” I say. “What’d you buy it for?”

“Why didn’t you have the money?” Her accent is pure Indiana, as Midwestern as the corn she says supplies her power. When she speaks, I can see a sky as endless as my Ma’s knitting, and roads that cut from nowhere to everywhere, running for a horizon they know they’ll never reach.

I shrug again, awkwardly this time. “Sophie was outside.”

“Again?” Brenda tsks. “She doesn’t like the shelters. Says they make it harder to hear the city sleeping. She’s right, of course, but that doesn’t change the fact that she’s going to wind up dead if she doesn’t get things under control.”

“Didn’t answer the question.”

“A question is a perfectly viable answer, if you look at it right,” says Brenda. “I bought your pie because I saw what you did for Marisol. How much time?”

“Forty-seven minutes.” There’s no point lying to her. She could touch the new girl—Marisol—and know exactly how much time I’d taken. Making her go to the effort would only annoy her.

Only witches can control how much time a ghost takes. They can also force the issue. Marisol could touch me all day and not get a thing, not if I didn’t want to give it. Brenda could dump a year on me in a second, if she wanted to. That’s part of why they frighten me so much.

Brenda’s expression softens. “How long did you work for that?”

“All night.”

“There are easier ways—”

“No.” I shake my head, refuting the possibility before she can lay it out in front of me. “Not for me, there aren’t. I pay it back. What I take, I pay back.” I’m not supposed to be here. I’m a dead girl playing at being alive, and everything I claim—whether it’s a volunteer position at the crisis line or a seat on the bus—takes something from the living. I’m the damn fool who let her sister die alone in an unfamiliar city, who ran out into a storm and got herself killed. If I want to see my dying day, I’m going to earn every minute that gets me there.

“There’s people who’d say the taking alone pays it back, you know,” says Brenda. “You’re the Fountain of Youth. Take as much as you want, they’ll still come panting to you with more.”

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