The dumbwaiter creaked and groaned, scraping angrily against the wall as Caitlyn was lowered into well, there was no way of knowing where. She cowered inside it in near blackness, her legs pulled to her chest, her head nearly bumping the top of the large moldy-smelling wooden box as the wall slid in front of her, inch by grueling inch: Just because she was shaped like a human didnt mean she weighed like a human, and it was obvious that neither Sang nor the dumbwaiter had lowered five hundred pounds before.
A crack of dim light appeared at the bottom of the dumbwaiter and slid upward to form a pale greenish rectangle leading into a workroom with old dirty laundry piled in overflowing plastic baskets along its walls, and a dirty whitish washtub at one end. The dumbwaiter crunched to a halt, and she scrambled out, relieved to have all her limbs on solid ground. With a scraping squeal, the dumbwaiter suddenly lurched to life again and disappeared upward, leaving her with no choice but to go forward.
The light was coming through an open portal, a doorway that had once had a door on it but that was now just a bare hole with dangling rusted hinges. She stood up and walked down to the end of the workroom.
A tired voice wheezed from around the corner. Kim-na, did you bring the new one?
Caitlyn took a deep breath. I... Im not Kim-na, she said, continuing slowly forward.
Humm, said the voice. No, youre not. Come closer so I can look at you.
She turned the corner, gasped, and froze.
There was a dirty cement room beyond, its walls painted a pale grey and covered in splotches of soot and dirt and mildew. An ugly old refrigerator hummed along one wall, and large wooden crates with ORANGES crudely painted on the sides were stacked beside it. There was a tub on the floor in the middle of the room, an old aluminum tub with raised sides, and in front of the tub, there was a low wooden table with a small shiny green lamp and a nearly-completed thousand-piece puzzle depicting tall, narrow mountains beside a winding river. And inside the tub, there rested a creature a man, perhaps, but she felt more comfortable calling it an it than she felt calling it a him.
It looked like it had once been human, but it was of no species she recognized now. It had a humanoid upper torso, but it seemed to have been mixed together with random pieces of a green lizard, as the right side of its face was vaguely reptilian while the left was vaguely human, and scales appeared in strange places all over his its body. There were two arms on its right side, both green and scaled, and jointed all wrong, and ending in a three-fingered hand, if the strange stubs hovering over the puzzle pieces could be called fingers. There was another human-like arm on its left side, but it too had strange joints and disappeared down into the tub. Below the middle of its chest, the poor creature seemed to simply have been melted, a puddle of skin and scales that filled out the tub and gently swirled and wobbled like a film of oil on water. A green, scaled tail looped up out of the muck of its body and dangled over the side of the tub, just barely touching the floor, and gently wagging back and forth.
It wore a pair of thin wire-frame reading glasses under a head of short-cut wavy brown hair, and when it turned from the puzzle and looked up at her, she nearly burst into tears.
It was a he, and the eyes showed more pain than she had imagined existed.
Who are you then? he asked in a pale, breathy voice.
I Im I mean my name is Caitlyn, she said.
Indeed, he said, and turned back to the puzzle.
I I was sent here, she said.
Of course you were, he replied, not looking up. The two green scaled hands hovered over a set of solid-blue puzzle pieces.
Are you Ji-Cheng? she asked.
No, he said.
Oh, she said, and looked down at her feet.
Do you believe all you hear? he asked, and she looked up at him, only to find his sad eyes meeting hers, and she glanced away.
Good, he said, and turned back down to the puzzle. So, he continued, what has brought you to my humble abode?
I Im really not sure, she said. I mean
Good, he said. Knowing what you do not know is as important as knowing. Could you please place this piece for me? I find it difficult to reach the far edge at times.
She nodded, and took the piece from his well, she hardly dared call it a hand, as it squished when she touched it. She tested the piece in a couple of places, and then inserted it in the puzzle.
Thank you, my dear, he said.
What I mean, if you dont mind my asking what happened to you? she said. Ive never seen anyone Changed
Like me, yes, I know, he said. Im a rather unique monstrosity, dont you think?
I wouldnt say
You should, he said. Admit what you see, and believe your eyes. They are wiser than they may sometimes seem. If I appear to be a monstrosity, which I do, you ought then call me a monstrosity, dont you think? At least until it has been proven otherwise.
But you dont talk like a monster, she said.
Nor did the men who built the atom bomb, he said, not looking up.
She waited for him to say something more, but he did not speak, so she asked again. So, uh, what happened to you again?
Hubris, he answered.
I dont understand, she said.
He lifted his glasses off his face with one green scaled hand and set them on the table. He slowly turned in the tub to look up at her.
Girl, why do you bother an ailing old wreck of a man? What business do you have entering my prison? Who are you, and who sent you? Speak.
Caitlyn gulped. I there are people chasing me. I dont know who or what they are. Then this voice spoke out of nowhere and told me to find Yu Ji-Chengs safe house, and to tell him Im having an interesting life, so I ran here as fast as I could. I dont know whats going on. Can you tell me whats going on?
Do I look like I should know? he said. I have not left this room for four years. I have no part in your games. Now you have not answered me: Who are you and what do you want?
My names Caitlyn, she said, her eyes starting to brim with tears. Caitlyn Camberley. Im a nobody. I dont know why theyre after me, or who they are, or whats going on, and Im here talking to a lizard puddle who only speaks in riddles and I just want to go home...
She felt a hand on her chin, lifting it up, and it was his lower right hand, somehow stretched on long fibers to reach from the tub to her. He looked her in the eye, and his eyes were sparkling.
Well, wonder upon wonders, he said. Caitlyn Camberley, you say?
And youre having an interesting life, I take it?
She nodded again, and he retracted his arm.
Im sorry to hear it. Please: My apologies. I do not interact with others much anymore, and my manners are not what they once were. There is a chair over there: Please, would you sit awhile?
She nodded a third time, and sat down, the puzzle between them.
Whats going on? she asked.
I often wonder that myself, he said. But no matter: Please, you are my guest. I would offer you food, but you would probably dislike my protein drinks, and I can ingest little else anymore. But make yourself comfortable.
She squirmed a little in the chair, trying to adjust herself for comfort, but she was too unsettled to be relax.
He stared at her intently again, and she noticed then that one of his eyes was green and the other was red. And the red one seemed to be boring into her, reaching into her soul, eating her most precious private thoughts
You neednt hide your form here, he said. Yes, I know youre Changed; I can see the Change in your aura. Relax yourself.
He smiled, and the result was terrifying.
I Im a centaur, she said. Theres not much room down here for something that big.
He chuckled. Yes, well, well make do, he said. I take up very little space myself, as you can see.
She took a deep breath, stretched, and let her body release. The feeling, as always, was so gratifying, like surfacing after a dive, or sighing deeply after having climbed into bed; and at the same time she hated it, hated the comfort and ease of being that freakish monster. It was what she truly was, she knew, but the illusion was so much more comfortable even while it was so much more painful.
In a moment, she was standing on four legs in the small cement room, panting softly. She turned back toward Ji-Cheng and the puzzle, and sat her hindquarters down.
He looked at her again, but it was a gentle look, almost like that of a proud parent. Youve grown into a fine woman, he said, and she eyed him quizzically.
Please, forgive this old mans rudeness, he said, bowing slightly. For I have not told you that this is not the first time we have met. You see, I knew your father, Miss Caitlyn, and the last time I saw you, you were a pretty little ten-year-old girl with pigtails and freckles.