The City Unsleeping, by Anya Leigh Josephs

SPRING 2024, SHORT STORY, 1000 WORDS

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Whole city came back wrong, an old man says as he buys a lottery ticket at the liquor store window. If I win big, I’m getting out of here.

The resurrection of New York had been the greatest feat of necromantic magic known in the modern age. As usual, no one had wanted the necromancers there at all.

They’d started with witches, back in that winter three years, a million lifetimes ago. Between stockpiling food and hoarding toilet paper, people started buying up good-luck spells. A blue candle, for protection. Spell jars from the back of bodegas, promising to catch and hold evil. The mayor had counsel with three of the city’s wisest crones, who instructed him which runes he could lay at the city’s ports to make sure the disease didn’t take hold.

Within a week, as it did, the witches admitted this was beyond their scope. The wizards at Columbia and NYU and Hunter raided their libraries as classrooms began to close and lectures moved to Zoom. No one, except the wizards themselves, had much hope that some historical magic would turn back the plague. They tried a summoning that had been worked against the Black Death in Hamburg in 544 and a potion of chocolate and gold that had stemmed the tide of smallpox in sixteenth-century Mexico. Perhaps those spells had worked in past centuries. They did not work this time.

Healers came then, from around the world. They laid their wise and steady hands on the straining chests of the dying. They performed careful and subtle magics. Clean white light could be seen in bursts through the windows at Mount Sinai and Harlem Hospital. At 6:30 every night, people would stand on their fire escapes and bang pots and chant, wishing strength, strength, strength upon the healers who had come to save them.

They saved many. They erased pneumonias and rebuilt damaged brain tissue and stemmed infections that had reached the heart. One patient at a time, while numbers continued to climb, while the healers themselves began, slowly, to burn through their reserves of magic, and then to fall ill themselves.

The city started to empty out, after that. Healers went, broken, home to their own families. Those New Yorkers who could afford to fled, to second homes on Long Island or their parents’ houses back in Kansas. The hospitals filled to bursting, and then the morgues. Those who weren’t sick yet hid in their apartments, closed up tight as corpses in their coffins, and those who were sick died alone and their bodies were stacked up in refrigerated trucks because there was nowhere to bury them.

That’s when they called for the necromancers, as a last resort. Necromancers are used to being a last resort, and they don’t take it personally. They came when they were called, just as the healers had, though no one cheered for them.

They wore masks and gloves, for necromancers tend to have delicate constitutions and a strong sense of self-preservation. They stayed in the emptied hotels at the city’s expense, they were flown in on private jets at a cost of millions. But they came.

Not to lay the disease to rest. But to bring the city back to life.

They gathered in Times Square at midnight on New Year’s Eve. They gathered where the crowds were not, where the confetti would not fall and the ball would not drop. They stood hand in hand, and chanted darkly, and summoned dark powers in the darkness.

The schools opened up, and then the theatres. Tourists returned. New restaurants opened. One day, in March, with a tender feeling of joy in the air, it suddenly felt possible to walk down the street just for the pleasure of it, to breathe in the still-cool spring air.

The necromancers did not wait for thanks or censure. They slipped away, back to their labs and cellars and their own apartments. Maybe they saw the signs.

It’s the literal signs people notice first. Protect your neighbor. Stay six feet apart. Or simply Masks required. These signs remain on sidewalks and the doors of businesses, growing tattered with the months and then the years, as people begin to ignore them.

An old woman on a subway car, her eyes sparkling with terror above her mask as the young man next to her coughs, not even bothering to cover his mouth. The returning wealthy getting into bidding wars over Tribeca lofts, while those who’d scrubbed the hospital floors in those darkest days are forced from their homes into the shelters, then the subway system, then the streets.

There are sudden, brutal acts of violence, and there always were, but they’re different now, somehow. Now they carry with them the flavor of a sacrifice. A blood-price paid.

It’s not easy to find necromancers. Normally, they come when they’re called or they don’t. This time, they don’t. A series of ads are run, on Times Square billboards and in the TV screens in the back of taxicabs. Are you one of the New Year’s Necromancers? Call the hotline now—

The city’s cockroaches get bigger. The size of dinner plates. The subways begin to freeze in place, sometimes an hour at a time, sometimes more, stealing cumulative days of life away from the hapless commuters stuck inside.

City employees post on magical subreddits. Does anyone here know a necromancer?

Eventually, the necromancers get sick of it. They prefer to rest in peace. They appoint one of their number to call the city’s hotline. At first, the call-center worker on the other side doesn’t believe what’s happening. Then, the quiet, breathy voice.

“We bring back the dead. We don’t heal the living. That’s up to you.”

The phone goes dead. The city goes on living. A half-life of inequity, of poverty and excess, of untreated disease and addiction and decaying transit and festering garbage. But it lives, and perhaps it could heal, in some feat beyond any magic imaginable.

Anya Leigh Josephs is an author of speculative fiction living and working in New York City. Their previous publications include Fantasy Magazine, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, tor.com, Andromeda Spaceways Magazine, and many others. Anya is also the author of Queen of All, a queer fantasy novel for young adult readers.

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