When her sister Patty died, Jenna blamed herself. When Jenna died, she blamed herself for that, too. Unfortunately Jenna died too soon. Living or dead, every soul is promised a certain amount of time, and when Jenna passed she found a heavy debt of time in her record. Unwilling to simply steal that time from the living, Jenna earns every day she leeches with volunteer work at a suicide prevention hotline.
But something has come for the ghosts of New York, something beyond reason, beyond death, beyond hope; something that can bind ghosts to mirrors and make them do its bidding. Only Jenna stands in its way.
|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.60(d)|
About the Author
She was the winner of the 2010 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and in 2013 she became the first person ever to appear five times on the same Hugo ballot.
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Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day
By Seanan McGuire, Lee Harris
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2017 Seanan McGuire
All rights reserved.
Mill Hollow, 1972
The wind howls, the rain comes down in sheets, and Patty is still dead.
The earth settles, the grave grows green with the first shoots of hungry scrub grass and dandelion root, and Patty is still dead.
The funeral bells are silent, the last of the we're-so-sorry cakes have been reduced to stale crumbs that attract marching regiments of ants, and Patty is still dead. Patty is going to be dead forever, because that's what dead means: dead is the change you can't take back, dead is the mistake that can't be unmade. The rain batters the tin slope of the roof until the sound of it drowns out everything else in the world — everything except for the simple, inalienable fact that Patty is dead, Patty is gone, Patty is never coming home. Patty died far away, in the big city where Jenna begged her not to go, the victim of the sadness that grew in her own body, in her own bones, until she picked up a knife as sharp as the end of the world. The big-city police packed up Patty's body and shipped it back to Mill Hollow in a pine box six foot long and three foot across. Too big to hold the frail little thing Patty left behind her when she went. Too small by half to hold a girl with a smile like the morning sun and arms strong enough to hold up the world.
Thunder rumbles in the distance, low and harsh, like God clearing his throat. The walls are closing in. Jenna looks around at the curtained windows, at the muslin sheets covering the mirrors — the big one in the hall, the two smaller ones that flank the fireplace — to keep the dead from looking out. She wants to tear the fabric down, to gamble everything for the chance at seeing Patty looking at her one more time. First person to meet a ghost's eyes is the first to die, she thinks, and it doesn't matter, it doesn't matter, because Patty isn't here.
She rips the fabric down off the mirrors that flank the fireplace, leaves them staring blind at her, and the only face she sees is her own, skinny little Jenna, Jenna-left-behind. The absence of her sister is too much for this house to hold. I have to run, she thinks, and even as she thinks it, she's already running, already in motion, heading for the door without pausing to grab her coat or pull on her shoes. Ma's asleep in the kitchen, tears dried to salt-crusts on her cheeks, and Pop is God-knows-where, out in the shed or up in the attic, spending his own tears in private. He's always been a strong man, doesn't waste his time asking anyone for anything. He doesn't know how to mourn a daughter. This isn't going to be the thing that starts him looking for help.
Jenna runs alone and no one sees her go. The door slams shut behind her, closing on an empty room. The wind it makes knocks the muslin sheet covering the big hallway mirror askew. It falls by inches, fluttering slowly to the floor, leaving the glass unbarred, and everything is silent, and everything is still.
She runs across the field behind the house, heading for the forest where she and Patty used to play, her legs churning up distance and turning it into motion. The feet turn into yards behind her, and she doesn't really have a destination, and she doesn't really want one. Patty is still dead; Patty will be dead no matter how far Jenna runs, no matter how hard Jenna tries to catch up to the past. So Jenna just keeps running. She runs past the forest's edge, her bare feet squelching in the muddy soil. She runs into the dark beneath the trees. She runs, and runs, and runs until the ground crumbles beneath her heels and sends her plunging down into the ravine. She should have seen it coming; maybe she did, somewhere deep down inside. Maybe she didn't care, because she was getting what she wanted: she ran out of the world of the living entirely.
It will be two days before Jenna's body washes up on the riverbank half a mile downstream, bleached pale as bone by the currents. One of her hands will never be found. Somewhere deep in the river, fish will play hide-and-seek among her finger bones, chasing each other through the space between her thumb and index finger. Her parents will send for another long pine box, too big for her body, too small for her soul. Old lady McGeary who lives down the hollow will bring her parents a spice cake and tell them how sorry she is, and they'll be too busy grieving to see that her eyes are dry.
They'll bury her next to her sister, and everyone in the Hollow will whisper about how sad it was for the Paces to lose two daughters in the space of a season. But at least Jenna died at home, they'll say; at least Jenna died on familiar soil. Both girls will sleep better for knowing that they're resting comfortable in Mill Hollow, where the world outside will never touch them. One day, when Dan and Molly Pace follow their daughters into the dark, the whole family will be able to rest easy, together, safe at home.
Dan Pace never says anything to the people who say those things to him. Neither does his wife. They're both too busy dying by inches, sinking deeper and deeper into themselves, until the light can no longer reach them. Jenna ran.
Maybe Jenna was the lucky one.
Maybe Jenna is still running.CHAPTER 2
The voice is timid; the ones who call between midnight and three a.m. usually are. Years of socialization telling them not to bother people that late conspire to keep voices low and tones unsteady, like they're waiting for me to start yelling. I can't blame them, but it hurts my heart every time I hear it. No one should have to walk through life so afraid.
"Hi," I say, smiling warmly, letting the expression echo into my voice. Some of the people who work this shift keep mirrors taped to their monitors so they can see themselves smiling. I don't do that — I don't like mirrors — but I appreciate that they're willing to make the effort. There was a time when they wouldn't have been. "My name's Jenna." I don't ask my callers for theirs. If they want me to have them, they'll offer.
"I'm ... I'm Vicky."
"Hi, Vicky. What's going on?"
There's a pause, brief as an indrawn breath, before she says, "I don't want to be here anymore. I'm so tired. But I don't want to go, either. I don't want to hurt people by going. How can I stay when I don't want to?"
This is a familiar question, maybe as familiar as the dance of ring and response. Not every call starts this way, but enough of them do that I don't hesitate before I say, "You can stay, even if you don't want to, by not going anywhere."
There's a shocked pause. Then she laughs, sounding almost relieved. "You say that like it's easy."
"No, I don't. I say it like it's the hardest thing in the world, because it is." Patty fought so hard, and she couldn't stay. Sometimes, even the strongest people get tired. "Do you want to tell me why you're so tired, Vicky? I'd like to listen, if you feel like talking."
They don't always. Some of them just call so they can say the forbidden words out loud: "I want to die." They mask the statement in metaphor and circuitous language, but at the end of the day, anyone who calls a Suicide Prevention Helpline is saying the same thing. "I want to die, and I don't know how to say that to anyone, and I don't know how to talk to the people who care about me without scaring them, and so I'm reaching out to strangers, because strangers are safer. Strangers don't judge, or if they do, strangers don't matter. Strangers aren't real."
I'm never going to be a person to Vicky. I'm just a voice on the other end of the phone, a temporary moment of connection in a world that has somehow knocked her off-balance, and that's what she needs right now. We talk about her hobbies. We talk about the shows she's afraid of missing, about the niece whose ninth birthday party she wants to attend this summer, about her cat, who is old and crotchety and would be lost without her.
We talk about the knives in her kitchen. She agrees to lock them in the closet for the night. Too readily: she's not a knife girl, not Vicky. I listen to the despair and weariness in her voice and I can see how she ends, strychnine in a mug of hot, sweet tea, the bitter bite of poison hidden under honey, and hope. Hope that dead will be better than alive is, because alive isn't getting her anywhere. She's a poison girl, ready to sip from the first flower that promises her oblivion.
I soften my voice, make it as gentle as I can, and ask, "Do you have someone who can keep an eye on your cleaning supplies for you?"
There's a moment of shocked silence, and I'm afraid I've gone too far. I've done that a couple of times. They can't understand how I arrow in on the methods they've been considering — and I've had to learn not to say anything when the method I pick out of their voices is too esoteric. Drowning's not common anymore. Falling's a bit more so, but it's not one of the big three: firearms, poison, or hanging. Call someone's intent as something that's not one of those and I might as well be signing their death warrants myself, because they'll hang up and never call back, and the people who need us ...
Well, the people who need us need us. They can't afford to be scared away because I'm a little overzealous about my job sometimes.
To my relief, Vicky laughs again and says, "I guess I should have been expecting that. Statistically, women are more likely to go for poisons than men are. We don't like to leave a mess. We spend our whole lives learning how to be ... how to be as neat and tidy and unobtrusive as possible, and then we go out the same way. Sometimes I think I want to make a huge mess on my way out the door. And then I think about the people who'd have to clean it up, and I'm right back to the poison. Does that make me pathetic?"
"No. It makes you human. It means you care. I don't think there's anything wrong with caring."
"I guess you wouldn't, would you?" Her voice is softer now. Contemplative. She's thinking about the conversation we've just had — and the real conversation is over now; I can hear that in her voice, just as surely as I'd heard the lure of the poisoned cup. It's all winding down and goodbyes from here. Maybe I'll hear from her again; maybe she'll become one of my regulars, calling to update me on her progress, making sure I know she's still alive. Then again, maybe not. More than half my callers are one night only, no encores, no repeat performances.
I've met a few of them later, months or even years after they called me. I've never met any of them among the living.
"No, I wouldn't," I say. People who don't care don't choose to take the midnight shift at the Suicide Helpline. People who don't care stay home safe in their beds, or wander the nightclubs looking for something to connect them to the world, to keep them just that little bit more anchored.
"Well ..." She takes a shaky breath, and what I hear in that sound is more reassuring than words could possibly have been. She's decided to live. Maybe not forever — maybe not even for long — but for tonight, she's decided to live. I've done some good in this world. I've paid off a fraction of my debt I owe to Patty, for not hearing the things she never said to me. "Thank you, Jenna. For listening. I ... I really appreciate you being willing to do that."
"Any time, Vicky."
There's a click as the line disconnects. She doesn't say goodbye. I glance to the display on my computer screen: we were on that call for forty-seven minutes. Forty-seven minutes to talk a living, breathing, human woman out of killing herself. At least for tonight, Vicky will remain in the world, and that's partially because of me. I did that.
Gingerly, I remove my headset and type in the key combination that tells the system I'm done for the night. There are only a few people on the graveyard shift. Two are on calls of their own. The third is working one of the chat rooms we maintain for people who can't talk on the phone about what they're feeling, even to a stranger. His fingers dance across the keys, and I pause to admire the speed and grace with which he responds to four different conversations. I never ask to work the chats. How would I measure the time? It's too abstract. People type at different speeds; they pause and backtrack and lie so much more easily than they can when they're actually speaking to me. I'd start crediting myself with more than I deserved, and it would all be downhill from there.
Forty-seven minutes. That's what I've earned tonight. Vicky wasn't my only call, but she's the one that counts, the one where I spoke long enough, said enough of the right things, that I can legitimately say I made a difference. I hold that number as I get my coat from the closet, shrug it on, and make my way out the door, down the narrow stair to the old precode fire door that always sticks and groans when we force it open. Some of my coworkers joke about how we work in a haunted house because of that door. I always laugh with them. It's not like they're somehow on to me; Melissa McCarthy and the rest of the Ghostbusters won't be barging in with their proton packs and witty one-liners any time soon.
Which is almost a pity. The nights can get long, and we could use the entertainment.
The air outside is warm and humid, smelling of boiled hot dogs, cooling pavement, and the close-packed bodies of a million people, each with their own hidden secrets and stories to tell. There are people who don't like the smell of New York in the summer, but I find it soothing. I could stand in front of the door with my nose turned to the wind for a hundred years, and I still wouldn't breathe in everything the city has to offer. That's good. There should be some things too complex to experience, in or outside of a lifetime.
It takes me a moment to orient myself, to determine where I am in relation to Mill Hollow. The pull of it is always there, a fishhook in my heart, but sometimes it gets tangled up in the tall buildings and unfamiliar skyline, becoming twisted and strange. I follow it patiently back to the creek and the old oak by the ravine, until I know my exact position in the world again. I can read a street sign as well as anybody, but I'm always lost if I don't know where the Hollow is. That's where I'm from. That's where I died. That's what anchors me to this world. Without it, I might as well be a sheet on the wind, blowing senseless, no more mindful than a bit of old laundry.
Everything settles into its proper place. The world makes sense again, and I start walking.
The office of the hotline where I volunteer is tucked into the back of a privately owned building in the East Village, one of those old-money havens where buying an apartment begins in the millions and climbs rapidly upward from there. The last time the top floor was sold, I think it went for five million dollars, and that was eight years ago. Most of the building is owned by a gray-haired, steel-spined old woman whose eldest son took his own life after he came home from Vietnam. She's the one who gives us our office space, free of charge, because she doesn't want what happened to her Johnny to happen to anyone else.
"He just got lost, and he couldn't see that he was already home" was what she'd said the first time we met, in the late seventies, when her hair was still shot through with black, and her eyes were still sharp without the aid of corrective lenses. She looked at me like she knew me, and when I reached for her hand to shake it, she moved politely away from me. It's been forty years. She's in her late eighties now, and she's never allowed me to touch her.
I don't think she knows why, exactly. Some people just get a feeling when they're around me, like they shouldn't chance it. I don't push. Most of them heard something from their gran, who heard it from her gran before them, and I don't believe it's right to go crossing someone else's gran. Especially when she's right. Especially when I am a danger, or could be, if I wanted to.
The streets of New York are never empty. I pass a few college boys, out past when they should be studying or sleeping, a pair of tourists with no idea what they've wandered into, and pause when I see a familiar shape settled on the front steps of a brownstone. She's folded down into herself, shoulders hunched and head bowed, but Sophie has a way about her that can't be overlooked, not once you've come to see it clear.
"Sophie, what are you doing out here?" Now that I'm not on the phones, my accent is strong as moonshine and thick as summer honey. I sound like home. Sometimes I talk just to hear words the way they're supposed to sound, with their harsh edges sanded off and their tempo slowed to something that's not in such a damn hurry all the time. I crouch down, trying to catch her eye. "I thought you'd found a place."
"I didn't like it there."
"Oh." I dig a hand into my pocket, pulling out the money I was going to use for pie. I've got enough quarters to get myself a cup of coffee, and it's not like I need the calories. I put the money on the stoop next to Sophie's hip. She's younger than she looks, aged by the dirt that cakes her skin and the worries that line her face. I wish I could do more for her, and for all the others like her, but some rescues aren't mine to make. I don't touch her. I never touch her, and that hurts too, because she notices. I know that somewhere deep down, she must assume that my distance is born of the same revulsion that she gets from everyone else, the fear-born scorn that doesn't want to admit that every living human in the city is just one bad break and a few missed showers away from Sophie's stoop.
Excerpted from Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day by Seanan McGuire, Lee Harris. Copyright © 2017 Seanan McGuire. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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Table of Contents
1: Mill Hollow, 1972,
2: Manhattan, 2015,
3: Time Like a Ribbon,
4: Bar No Ghost,
5: Don't Change Your Number,
6: Fit the Living or Fit the Dead,
7: Streetwise, Shadowfoolish,
8: Sleepover in Manhattan,
9: Home Again,
10: Do What I Tell You To,
11: Popcorn Dreams on a Silver Screen,
12: By the Birchwood Bed,
13: Mama, Mama, Make My Bed,
14: Make It Up Both Long and Narrow,
About the Author,
Also by Seanan McGuire,