Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day(9)By: Seanan McGuire
Witches like Brenda hold on to their preferred age by bartering with ghosts to carry their years away. I’ve known Brenda since I stumbled into New York, and she’s been comfortably settled in her late fifties for all that time, not getting any younger, but not getting any older, either. She’s only asked me to take her time away once, shortly after we met, when she told me she knew what I was.
“Dead is dead, but moved on is better,” she said, face serious and serene under the neon light. “Could do without six months or so, if you want it. Could be convinced to make it worth your while.”
“No, you couldn’t,” I replied, and I told her everything. Everything. It just came pouring out in a great cathartic rush. Patty, and how she died. Me, and how I died, and woke at the back of the church during my own funeral, with Ma weeping on my bier and Pop standing there, his face empty, like a mirror with no one looking in it. How my parents covered every piece of glass in the house where I grew up, from the windows on down, so I couldn’t find any purchase there, couldn’t make it through the doors.
How I went looking for my sister and couldn’t find her in any of the places where her spirit should have been. There wasn’t even an echo. Patty was gone, just gone, moved on to whatever came next. She died when she was supposed to die, and I . . . I didn’t, overeager little sister always following too close, always leaping before I looked. Patty went where and when and how she was supposed to go, the same way she always had. And I was the accident, just like always. Just like always.
Brenda patted my hand, the first and only time she ever touched me, and nothing passed between us but understanding, no stolen seconds, no repurposed age. I didn’t want to give, and she didn’t want to take. “You’ve got things to work through, little girl, and I’m not going to get in the way,” she said. And then she said the words that changed the world: “If you’re not willing to take what you need, have you thought about doing something that would let you earn it?”
I found my first support group not a month later. I started helping people. I started earning the time I take, justifying it with my actions before I pull it into myself. I’m aging slowly, so slowly, but I like to think that when I finally catch up to my time—whatever age that is—and move on to wherever Patty is waiting for me, she’ll be proud. She’ll see I did the best I could.
She’ll see how much I love her.
It’s two o’clock by the time I leave the diner. The frat boys and tourists are gone, and the homeless have gone to their secret places to sleep, leaving the city for the restless and the dead. I walk with my hands in my pockets and the streetlights casting halogen halos through the fog, and I can’t help thinking this is probably what Heaven will be like, warm air and cloudy skies and the feeling of absolute contentment that comes only from coffee and pie and knowing your place in the world.
At least, I hope this is what Heaven will be like. One thing no one told me when I was first trying to adapt to existence as an earthbound spirit is that the longer I spend here, the less I want to go. I’m still working to earn my time, still fighting to get to my sister, but as the years have passed me by relatively unchanged, finding the finish line has become less and less urgent. I never want to stop helping people. The thing I used to do to make myself feel better about being a thief of time has become the thing I do because I want to. I want to make the world a better place. I want to keep people here—but among the living, not because they died too soon. I want to know that somewhere out there, somebody is living and breathing and enjoying their life because I convinced them to hold on long enough to find joy again.
I’ve been dead for forty years, and with every day that passes me by, I’m a little more certain I don’t want to move on. This is the place I’m supposed to be. And yet I keep earning the time I need to move me closer to my dying day, because being a part of the world means letting the world be a part of me, too. I’ve known ghosts who stopped taking time, who decided they’d rather be haunts than people. There’s nothing pretty about what happens to a spirit who decides that’s the way to go. Nothing pretty at all.
New York is an expensive town, and getting more expensive with every year that passes, but the dead get by. My landlady died in 1934, nearly fifty years before her husband. Way she always tells it, she knew he couldn’t take care of himself without her, and so she came back before her family was done sitting shiva, moved right back into her kitchen, and got on with her life. She took time from her husband for years, keeping him with her, up until the day when he was hit by a crosstown bus. It was a freak accident, the sort of thing no ghost could have predicted or prevented. He had already been long past his intended dying day, and he’d had nothing to linger for—he and she had both expected that when he moved on, so would she.