Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day(8)By: Seanan McGuire
I look at her. Brenda looks back. She can be hard to read sometimes: woman has a poker face like a mountain. As always, I break first.
“You don’t mean that,” I say.
“You’re right, I don’t.” She smiles. “That’s why you get pie.”
Then Marisol comes over with my plate, vanilla ice cream melting in rivulets down the pie crust, and sets it in front of me as ceremoniously as a knight setting the crown jewels before his queen. I reach for my fork, and Brenda smiles, and it’s been a good night. A good, good night.
If I can have a million more just like it, maybe I’ll have done enough. Maybe Patty will be repaid and I can finally rest.
3: Time Like a Ribbon
This is how it goes, with the dead:
When you die, the clock stops. Whatever age you are, that’s the age you’re set to stay, from now until forever. Not so bad, if you’re one of the lucky few who die in the prime of life, happy and healthy and hale and misfortunate enough to tangle with a train or get bitten by a rattlesnake. For the rest of us, who die as children or senior citizens, when our bodies aren’t equipped to do everything we ask of them, death is a new form of punishment.
What’s worse, ghosts are almost always people who died too soon, shuffling off the mortal coil before their time has come—although who decides what their time should have been is something I don’t know and may never learn. We know there are rules. We know we’re bound to follow them, not because there are consequences for breaking them, but because they can’t be broken. The world refuses to allow it. So we die too early and then we’re trapped in the world, not among the living but not fully apart from them, either, until such time as we can reach the age we should have been when our hearts stopped beating.
And this, then, is the true secret of time:
Time is like water. It flows all around us, and the living can’t help getting older, just like someone who walks in the rain without an umbrella can’t help getting wet. But the dead, we stay dry unless we take steps to change it. Time falls right through us, and we’re stuck. So how can we get older? How can we catch up to the people we should have been when we went and died?
Simple: we take the time we’re missing from the living. A second, a minute, an hour at a time, wiping it off their skins and soaking it into ourselves. We can learn to control it, maybe even reverse it, but we don’t have to learn how to do it. We know, right from the start. We always know.
It’s a pretty good deal, for the living. They feel revitalized when they get even a glimmer of their youth back, the clock running backward just that little amount, making everything seem right again. That’s why I’m willing to do it at all. I took those forty-seven minutes from Marisol, knocking her almost an hour away from her own good death, but she’ll never miss them. She’ll enjoy the rush of having them gone, and if her allotted hour has moved just that much further into the future, she isn’t going to complain. The living never do.
That’s the problem. The dead used to walk a lot more openly among the living, making their amends and taking their allotted time from the open hands of the people who had loved them in life, the ones who would never hang a muslin sheet across the mirror’s face to keep the dead at bay, or sprinkle gravedust on the mirror’s frame to lure the dead inside. It used to be safe. But people are people, whether they’re breathing or not, and no one knows who first figured out that ghosts could be used. Could be turned into a veritable fountain of youth, wicking the years away, keeping death ever further in the future. Maybe it was a wood witch, lurking in her hollow and viewing the grave as a fate she could put aside. Maybe it was a ghost, looking to make a little money for their family before they moved on. Whoever it was, they opened a can of worms that had probably been inevitable but could probably have stood to stay closed a little longer.
These days, it’s not safe to be openly dead. Not because most people believe in ghosts—they don’t—and not because there are a bunch of scientists with proton packs and highly paid scriptwriters stalking the corners—there aren’t. Because witches are rare, but they’re real, and they know that every ghost is a walking, talking pathway to the sort of American dream that’s become the only one over the course of the last thirty years. Eternal youth, and all you have to do is exploit somebody’s dead relatives. Witches can, and witches do, and so we hide from them as best we can, and we pray to be left alone to live our deaths until they’re done.
Another thing no one knows for sure: who first prisoned a ghost in glass and learned that once we’re caught between the silver and the surface, we can’t control how much time we take from the living. The living get to control that. Worse, we can’t move on, not even when we’ve aged past the point where we should have gone on to whatever comes next. Trap one of us and you’ve got yourself an answer to the question “What will I do when I get old?” You’ll dump all the years you don’t want on your captive dead, and they’ll never be able to fight back, and they’ll never be able to get away. Most witches won’t go that far. They want to stay young, sure, but death comes for us all in time, and they know better than to expect the dead to be forgiving to those who’ve abused us.