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‘The City We Became,’ by N.K. Jemisin: An Excerpt

The attitude’s starting to grate. Manny says, “If I rent a bike, will you tell me what’s in that direction?”

Bike Guy’s suddenly all smiles. “Sure—”

“No, sir,” says Bike Woman, serious now as she comes over. “Sir, I’m sorry, but we cannot rent a bike to someone who appears to be intoxicated or ill. Company policy. Do you need me to call 911?”

People in New York sure like to call 911. “No, I can walk. I need to get to—” FDR Drive. “—FDR Drive.”

The woman’s expression turns skeptical. “You wanna walk to FDR Drive? What the hell kind of tourist are you? Sir.”

“He ain’t no tourist,” says he of the southern left nut, as he chin-points at Manny. “Look at him.”

Manny’s never been to New York before, at least as far as he knows. “I just need to get there. Fast.”

“Take a cab, then,” says the woman. “Taxi stand’s right there. Need me to grab one for you?”

Manny shivers a little, feeling the rise of something new within himself. Not sickness this time—or rather, not just sickness, since that terrible stabbish ache hasn’t faded. What comes instead is a shift in perception. Beneath his hand, which rests on the kiosk, he hears a soft rattle of decades’ worth of flyers. (The kiosk has nothing on it. There’s a sign: DO NOT POST BILLS. He hears what used to be there.) Traffic’s flying past on Seventh, hurrying to get through the light before a million pedestrians start trying to get to Macy’s or K-Town karaoke and barbecue. All these things belong; they are rightness. But his eyes stutter over a TGI Fridays and he twitches a little, lip curling in involuntary distaste. Something about its facade feels foreign, intrusive, jarring. A tiny, cluttered shoe-repair shop next to it does not elicit the same feeling, nor does a vape shop next door. Just the chain stores that Manny sees—a Foot Locker, a Sbarro, all the sorts of stores one normally finds at a low-end suburban mall. Except these mall stores are here, in the heart of Manhattan, and their presence is… not truly harmful, but irritating. Like paper cuts, or little quick slaps to the face.

The subway sign, though, feels right and real. The billboards, too, no matter what’s on them. The cabs, and flow of cars and people—all these things soothe the irritants, somehow. He draws in a deep breath that reeks of hot garbage and acrid steam belching from a manhole cover nearby, and it’s foul but it’s right. More than right. Suddenly he’s better. The sick feeling recedes a little, and his side dulls from stabbing pain into cold prickles that only hurt when he moves.

[ Return to review of “The City We Became.” ]

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