“Five Reasons for the Sign Above Her Door, One of Them Unspoken”
by Izzy Wasserstein
Lilith has kept her eye on the young man for two days, since he arrived at her hostel. Why was he there? Was he like her, like most of her guests? He showed no outward signs, but that meant nothing: he might have been hiding his nature to make the road a bit safer, or (though it pained her to consider) someone might have altered him, stripped away all external signs. But his eyes told a different story, a desire that was not for community, not for hope. A voyeur’s gaze.
Once she knew what he was, she invited him into her office, where the sign above the door held the old notation from maps, marking the border of the known: here there be monsters.
And when she set him down, she told him nothing but the truth. But there are truths she does not tell him.
The first truth answers his too-eager gaze: I am real. The fox-fur on her limbs, not as soft as it had once been, ragged in places from cuts and burns, but still lovely enough to turn heads. The goat-eyes always watching him. She is what he came to see.
“I am real,” she tells him. “Here, in my office, you may stare.” He does not seem to notice the implied ban.
When she can see he is going to start talking, she tells him another truth. The truth about her adolescence, when her fur curled from her skin and her eyes changed, the pupil reforming, the blue turning to gold. How her parents forced her to shave daily, to wear shades, and when the growth came too fast even for daily shaving, how they tried other methods. “Anti-divergence therapies,” as the doctors called them, did nothing for the changes, but nevertheless made Lilith vomit, and when there was nothing else in her stomach, she would wretch bile.
“They found another doctor,” she tells the young man. “Who would prescribe experimental radiation therapy. The risk, you see, was worth it. For them. They wanted to fix me.”
The young man shifts in his seat uncomfortably. The fact that he can be unsettled is a good sign.
She tells him that, rather than face the radiation, she ran away, wearing long sleeves and gloves even in the worst of the summer. At first she was terrified of being found, being returned, but as she traveled, she realized there was a greater danger: men who sought out Chimeric hitchhikers for their own ends. Some were mere fetishists, too invasive in their questions, their glances, but nothing more. Others would take what they wished, and sometimes they would leave bodies behind, after.
In fear of these horrors, Lilith met others like her, other Chimera, on the run, whispering to one another, sometimes banding together, trying to stay alive.
“Today they say my generation was the first,” she tells him. “But that isn’t right. We are just the first they acknowledged.”
She thinks often of the horrors of the past, before Chimeras came together for aid and protection, when their very existence was hushed up by families, or worse. She does not know if she can make this young man understand, but she has decided to give him a chance, to answer his curiosity with knowledge.
His eyes move restlessly over her body as she speaks.
She speaks of the night she nearly froze to death. She’d been traveling with three others, Colt (ze had a Texas drawl, a slow smile, and a sharp knife ready to answer any danger), Danny (who had lost an arm to a “treatment,” and who was the kindest boy she’d ever met), and a gray-eyed girl who spoke in sign-language and never gave her name. The late-spring blizzard caught them unprepared. They huddled together under an overpass as temperatures plummeted, snow and ice blowing horizontally, their clothing soaking through.
“There was nowhere we could go,” she tells him. “We were safer with the storm than with strangers, you see. All we had was each other.”
He is listening now, his jaw set with tension. She sees the empathy in his eyes. Perhaps he too has known skin-flaying cold, or some other bone-deep pain.
She cannot hope to convey to him the horror of that night, the burning cold that infected her dreams, dreams indistinguishable from reality. All through the night they had only flimsy cardboard shelter and each other. The terror and wonder of having nothing but body-heat to offer, and to give freely from that meager supply.
There are no words, so she shows him her left hand, the stubs that had been her fourth and fifth fingers, welcomes his gaze.
“Sometime that night,” she tells him, “I promised myself that I would survive, and that I’d make a place so people like me could always find shelter if they needed it. The storm nearly took everything from me. But it gave me the dream of this hostel.”
When he leaves her office, she does not know if he will learn to be something more than a voyeur. She doesn’t know if he will ever see her fellow Chimera as fully human. But she knows that he will not harm them.
She smiles, for she is somewhat fond of him, likes him despite herself, likes him because she has a fondness for travelers and hope for the future.
There is another reason for her smile, a truth she shares with no one. Twice, men have come to her hostel who meant danger. They brought knives and ropes and starving eyes, and they thought to find vulnerable targets. People no one would miss, they thought.
Her smile is because this young man is no threat, and so will not join them, lye-packed and buried deep.
Here there be monsters, the sign reads: a welcome for some, for others a warning.
Izzy Wasserstein’s fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Apex, Fireside Magazine, and elsewhere. Izzy teaches writing and literature at a public university in the American Midwest, and is an enthusiastic member of the 2017 class of Clarion West.