Is this your city?
No, no. We understand. It is not a city yet. It is merely embryonic. Conceptual. An idea to which your bones are laced, the sinews that tether the tendons of your dreams. It is only a city in waiting, a city mid-birth, a city breathless, inexorable.
But you desire a city, do you not? As much as you desire her to stay. That is why you contracted us. We will make it real. We cannot do anything less.
The door oils shut, noiseless save for a click like teeth welding shut. Arguments are for the cold of the London evening. Not mornings, threaded with smog and commuters, faces already ragged with stillborn ambitions, the foghorn moan of cars in transit. You don’t argue in the morning, not when you could have tangled under the duvets, your fingers twisted together. At least, I don’t think.
Rain silvers the maze of side streets and foot paths as I race down to the subway. Down long steps into the Jubilee. Down into the belly of a train as it writhes through the dark, where I stop between a girl with acid-jade hair and a man that stinks of long roads, pores steaming with memories of the Arizona desert.
My phone display ignites. I look down. Three separate messages, ominous in their brevity, their absence of sender:
Who am I?
We represent the Company.
Unlike the Dime Store, who will slice costs like wrists, we will not shortchange you. Unlike the Corporation, we believe in a personal touch. We are the Company and we care. Cities are our meat, our breath, our marrow. We will do everything to make your city the best it can be.
It. Not she, not him, not them. It. The Company representative is mannequin-smooth, sterile as detention centers. Its face declares “human” but only barely, only because porcelain can’t palpate meat or blink pale eyes, won’t wet a lurid red mouth with a flick of a tongue too vibrantly pink to be real.
The smile lengthens.
I furl my hands into fists.
The Company always knows. Half-remembered warnings like worms in the back of my mind, eating holes into my bravado. I hold my breath and try to staunch the thump of memories. What disconcerts most is how under the inhuman facade, there is nothing but a visceral warmth, a kindliness that has no right residing in so cold a face.
I shiver. Behind me, the subway exhales and voices swill together into a crowd of noises, indistinguishable from one another, like a breath rattling in an old man’s chest. At least four trains have come and gone, disgorging their contents onto the lip of the platform, but not a soul has passed through here.
“How much will it cost me?”
It doesn’t hesitate. There is no malice at all when it whispers: “Everything.”
Everything you are, everything you have been, everything you could be, every possibility and every truth. All of you, every bit of is and is-not constrained within the reality of you, forever and ever. It will cost you everything.
But it will be worth it.
Give us everything and in return, we will build for you a metropolis to rival London, to shame New York, to close the thousand coruscating eyes of Tokyo in defeat. We will make it jagged with skyscrapers if you like, a hundred Shards to perforate the sky, or charmingly rustic like the Portland of her childhood nostalgia, sunset-laced and sweet with foreign spices.
Ask, and we will give it post-colonial architecture and clear streams, festoon it with food carts and festivals, with historic pubs and green parks crawling with sublime, slender bodies.
Demand, and we will populate your city with your beloved dead or make it splendid with People of Potential. Make it into an immigrant paradise untethered to borrowed hate. Give you a crystalline cage to put your little sweet bird. Oh, yes. We know everything about you, A-ni-sa.
Everything for your everything.
Blood, rank as terror, wells on the cusp of a lip. I run my tongue over the taste, let iron drown the memory of its voice stroking my name.
The Company representative cups its smile like a frightened child.
I breathe, slow and long and deep.
“How’d you know? My city. How’d you know I wanted—wanted to make it for someone else?” The words come staccato-short. “I didn’t tell you anything. You weren’t supposed to know.”
“A good business knows everything about its customers,” replies the Company representative, eyes and mouth round and hollow.
It grins, fat with a rapture hallowed in cathedrals no human could ever walk. “We can do anything you desire. You only need to pay.”
A snap of its wrist. A parchment longer than I am tall unwraps from seemingly nothing, slithering across the concrete floor. I barely keep from jumping, look down instead. Words squirm over the paper, rearranging into a labyrinth of clauses.
“You may read this at home,” says the Company representative, gracious, inhuman. “We have all the time you need.”
I scan the assembly of letters and sub-headers, the myriad lists enumerating exceptions, numbering nuances, delineating the exact dimensions of what is being offered and not.
Everything. The Company representative’s voice croons inside my head. Everything for your everything.
“And Sara wouldn’t have to pay anything?”
“Not a memory, not a wisp of breath, not a nodule of lymph.”
A chill bloats in my lungs, evoking the panic of a half-recalled drowning. I swallow, but it does nothing to cleanse my throat. In the recesses of my mind, images of Sara come alive. Laughing, crying, begging, shouting. A thousand possible variants, a prism of memories.
I push them down, down beneath a stratum of arguments and philosophical disagreements and pleading and please, please, please stay, Sara, I can’t do this without you, you have to—
I’m done, Anisa.
I swear I’ll do better this time. I’m the worst. Stay. I promise.
I’m done. I need to go home.
Ancient conquerors placed nations at the feet of their beloved. Surely, if I did the same, if I bent the world into some place better, Sara would love me again.
“Was she very beautiful?”
I exhale and blink. “Sorry?”
“Was she very beautiful? Your Sara?” My skin burns at the way it coils about her name, like a lover’s mouth clenching around a finger. “She must have been to drive you to this, to give your everything for her everything. Although, we wonder—what did you do? To her?
“Shut up. Shut up. Shut up.”
I regret my words instantly. The delight that blooms on its countenance nauseates, a slit cut through the caul of its borrowed humanity. I swallow again, taste bile and blood, and turn my eyes to the contract. Everything for your everything, echoes the Company representative’s voice. Everything because you’re my everything, I think, rolling the image of Sara’s smile in my mind until it is only embers, only dust, only dark, endless and roiling like the viscera of the sea.
“Normally, we would request that you sign with blood. But this time, a kiss.”
I falter. “What the fuck?”
It does not answer, does not smile, does not express any motion or noise that could be construed as acknowledgment. The Company representative only stands there, head cocked, eyes blank as cold glass.
“A kiss.” It repeats, a hissing noise that loses itself in the scream of a passing train. “It was all just a kiss, wasn’t it? You and Sofia? All a fumbling of drunk fingers and shy smiles? All just kisses?”
I shiver. “Let’s just get this over with.”
There is no warning, only an almost imperceptible displacement of air, like a sigh broken midway, before I discover the rasp of the Company representative’s tongue between my lips, granite-dry. Not pleasant, but strange, a taste like salt, metal, and pale, sticky notes of caramel.
It will hurt.
But only for a second, a sliver of time too small to measure, too inconsequential to name. There will be pain, volcanic. But it will be nothing compared to the hallelujah of new beginnings.
Do you feel it? The concrete scaling the stratosphere of your skull, the alleyways mapped to the cartography of your veins, the spires. Ah. How charmingly anachronistic, A-ni-sa. We underestimated you. We did not know about the mythologies you carried in the tomb of your ribs, the flat of your imagination. We suspected, but we did not know that your soil was so rich, so lush.
Close your eyes.
Asphalt is always hot in the beginning, but its scalding caress will not last. Savour it, if you can. The way it burns through your textured humanity, the way it fits across your thoughts, dark as nightfall. Oh, you are so fortunate. We cannot begin to describe our envy. In hours, you will be a goddess.
Deep breaths, little wonder. Soon, you will no longer need them. Instead, your lungs will consume hope, will expel the weak. You will be the death of the worlds and the beginning of lives.
You are so, so lucky.
Generations will build themselves into the architecture of your intestines. And when they die, when they are replaced with better iterations, their bodies will decompose into your ambrosia. You will be eternal. Beautiful.
Are those canals? Oh, us. How avant-garde.
We are so glad that you contracted our services, instead of those of lesser caliber. The Dime Store wouldn’t even begin to understand the complexities of your graffiti, or the haze of spices floating from your weekend markets. No, they couldn’t appreciate. Never, never, never. Not even the Monolith could fully appreciate the beauty of the dawn as it runnels across your rooftops, butter and slithering rose, droplets of carnelian, shot through with white.
Oh, do not cry, precious thing. It will not hurt for long.
It hurts, it hurts, it hurts, it hurts—
It hurts so much.
At some indeterminable point or another, the Company representative’s droning reassurances transmute from noise to truth. I wake, gasping. The air is ice, so pure and so clarified that it ignites new paroxysms of agony, sharper than the torture of transformation, but no less profound.
Panic trills through the cobbled stones of my city, seismic, enough to dislocate a conclave of pigeons, but not to injure buildings still wet with afterbirth.
With a laugh that resounds like a gale, rattling the wooden slats in the historic district, I realize there is no pronoun to encapsulate the shape of my new being. I am reborn, reformed.
Rooted to the earth, no more able to walk than I am able to speak. How—how am I going to bring Sara to my borders?
Anger flashes hot and espresso-dark, a bitterness that colors my walls to grey.
The Company lied. This was not what I wanted. How am I supposed to give this city to Sara, if I can’t even find her? Furious, I scratch at the dirt outside my limits, but it is no more effective than firing spitballs at a truck. Nothing.
You lied, I shout against the silence of my throat.
We gave you what I want.
A city of your design.
It is everywhere, nowhere. Its voice is a noose of syllables, a texture in the air, echoing between the carefully partitioned shop lots, the heritage spots that will one day teem with tourists.
How the hell am I going to win her back if I can’t even contact her? I demand petulantly.
A pang of caramel, sickly.
“You only had to ask.” The Company representative emerges from the massive double doors of my only cathedral, white teeth bright in its opened mouth.
Disgust ripples at the memory of its lips, the lukewarm slab of its tongue probing my throat.
We demand that you do.
“You are already regarding yourself as a collective. We are so proud.” It sighs gauzily. “But yes. Oh, yes. We will find her. We will find Sara. We make no promises if she will be amenable, Anisa. But we will bring her here.”
And then in the time it takes for an electric impulse to dance between neurons, it is gone.
Soon after that, I am gone too.
She jolts at this caressing of her name, remade into a sensation, rather than a pairing of vowels. I shake oblivion from myself, turn surveillance cameras onto her, black and gleaming like beetles.
Sara stands ramrod straight, footing sure, unshakeable. Her hair has been strangled into a decorous black plait; only a few curls escape their confinement, softening the switchblade panels of her face. Her eyes are afraid.
My longing to hold her, comfort her, sings through rusty hinges, through doors left ajar, a sound like a heart close to breaking.
This time, she recognizes me.
In another district, a park blooms out of season, abattoir colors against neon-green.
“Oh my god.” Her face sags with realization. “Oh, my god. Oh. My. God. What have you done to yourself. Fucking hell, Anisa. I don’t—why?”
I wanted to show you—
“Show me what? Show me that you can make dumbass mistakes? You’re—I don’t even know where to start.”
I did this for you.
“I—” The words tangle into a snarling cat-noise, even as she knots fingers in her hair. Sara slumps to the floor. “This wasn’t the way. I know you love me. But that doesn’t mean everything else didn’t happen. I’m tired. I’m tired and I need to go home. Just for a little while.”
Let me be that for you.
“We tried that. You stopped being home a long time ago.”
Only because you wouldn’t let me. Look, this is better than London, isn’t it? You can dictate the rules here, decide the paradigms. You could eat in any of the stores and no one, no one’d ever look at us twice. This place can be everything you need. I built this city for you, Sara.
“For me?” Her voice loses volume. I watch through a thousand eyes and a million windows, eager to decipher pleasure in her expression. “This is for me?”
Yes. I built it all for you. Everything we’ve ever loved, everything you’ve ever exclaimed over. I remember all of it. I know you don’t believe me, but I listen to you. I do. And this city, this city is proof—
“Anisa.” Her voice aches like an old scar.
I just want us to be happy.
Fog rolls through my streets, coiling about her legs.
“Anisa. You have to stop.”
“Do you—do you expect me to live here? Alone?”
No. With me. As long as we’re together—
“Anisa, I love you.”
“I love you, I do. But I don’t think this is going to work. We’re—I can’t do this for you. I mean, this city—this city is what I’m talking about.”
“This is everything you’ve wanted. Not me.”
I am everywhere, and nowhere, dispersed into a conglomeration of parts, neighbourhoods and boroughs, chased by the grief that writes itself as jagged, thick-lined paintings on the bare bricks of my poorest districts.
Hold it together, Anisa.
If I just hold on, if I just keep fighting, it would be okay. That is why we’re here. That’s why I’ve done this. And if she would just listen, she’d understand that we were meant to be together, that we were always meant to be together, that it is as much her destiny to love me as it is mine to love her, and we cannot, will not, should not be apart and—
“This is—this is everything you taught me to appreciate, and it’s beautiful. But it’s what you want. And that’s always been the case. It’s always been what you want, and I can’t—I just can’t. I have to go.”
The word is a sledgehammer, knocking down my world, drowning out the subtle warmth of her. Dimly, I register Sara’s shape, small, breakable, wholly mine for this moment and perhaps only this moment alone, eyes fixed on a sky gone grey.
“That really was our problem, you know? Not the damned city. Not the immigration stuff. Not even that stupid fucking girl. It’s just that you never listened.”
Sara barks a strange, exhausted laugh. “I’ve heard that so many, many times before.”
“I have to go,” She says, so softly, so gauzily, like the words weren’t breaking me apart. “And we both have think about what we’ve done and the mistakes we’ve made and we move on. We go on with our lives.”
Refusal is exhaust fumes and the rage of commuters, scorched rubber, the distant whine of the ambulance.
I yank the streets from their stones, anguish salting them with hail. I build new intersections, new turns, new alleys, new places to go. Innumerable diversions, countless eateries. Sara will never want for anything in my borders.
I ignore her shriek of terror, the sounds that spill from her mouth, even as I lift myself into skyscrapers. Higher, higher. All she needs is time. Time to understand, to love me, to accept that we are meant together, meant to always be together.
I built this city for her. The least she can do is stay.
(Editors’ Note: “I Built This City For You” is read by Erika Ensign and Cassandra Khaw is interviewed by Julia Rios in the Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 17B.)
© 2017 by Cassandra Khaw