We’re all in our seats by the mouth of the Red Chamber, where my hosts here in China have been waiting for thirty thousand years.

We snack, they talk.

It’s been a week.

I go for a high score in the game of delaying beginning to wonder how I’m ever gonna get out of here. Aside from some kid named “Owen,” I have the highest score on record.

Just when this all seemed poised to go on forever, a mist or gas flows through the Red Chamber, frosting the glass until we can see through but darkly, as if through a, sorry I had to, an autumn sonata of winter light.

Anyhoo, things are getting rough in there.

It’s too thick and hazy to tell exactly who’s who, or what’s what, but I can tell you that there’s one humanoid figure and one less so, and they’re going at it hard.

There’s slamming against the glass, which clears away the condensation for a moment, affording a temporary window.

It’s paw and pod, finger and fang, tail and tentacle, limbs of numerous sorts intertwining and going for the kill.

The human looks like a guy about my age, in a sweaty T-shirt and jeans, and the thing that’s killing him, or that he’s killing, looks like a cross between something archetypal and something out of Laird Barron.

The audience sits quietly, politely, watching, and watching me watch, as if waiting to read something on my face that they’re not yet reading there.

After some parts that are so gruesome I have to look away, the guy stands there panting, the thing dead beside him.

It’s unclear what role the gas played in this surprising victory, but I feel a low tremor of empathetic elation. At the same time, though, I can’t help feeling that it wasn’t a real, or at least not a very important, battle, like the beast had no other properties and served no purpose in the world other than to introduce the new character of this guy, and show what he could do.

They look over and see this empathy spread across me, whisper to one another.

It’s quiet for a while, the guy in there pacing, looking out, though I can’t tell if he can see us.

Then everyone in the audience turns toward me with that “What’re you waiting for?” look.

I give back that “I don’t know, I guess the same thing you’re all waiting for” shrug.

They shake their heads. The Translation Centipede whirs to life, producing the words, “When, at last, travelers recover themselves on the other side of the glass, they must go and rejoin themselves there and be off. That is how our civilization has prospered and — can it really be that the past of thrive is throve?”

They seem distracted, disturbed by this last notion. I think, “Here’s my chance!” though I don’t think for what.

“Why aren’t you going? Look!” the Centipede says, pointing at the guy inside the glass.

“That’s you!” it continues, pointing again. “That’s you in there! In our Chamber!”

I look.

“Why are you clogging our Chamber?” it whispers in my ear. I can feel the gray of its tongue. The guy in there scratches his ear, like he can feel it too. “What business do you have here? We are waiting, humbly, through the generations, for an infinitesimal taste of the Sublime. Not for you sweaty and covered in beast blood.”

The guy in there holds his shirt away from himself and checks it out, like he didn’t know how stained it was.

I can sense that they want me to go, but I don’t yet know where — or, better put, how. So I hesitate, and see the guy in there hesitating too.

“Don’t make us do something we’ve never done before,” it says, and it’s clear they know just what this something would be.

“You want me to be him?” I ask.

The question doesn’t compute. “Whom are you dividing? There is only one.”

I have, before in my life, consented to say “That’s mine,” regarding something that was not, to avoid what seemed the greater evil, but never yet “That’s me.”

But then the day comes when you see no alternative. “Okay,” I say, getting up. “Thanks for all the hospitality.”

*****

Now I’m him, in there, which is to say, I’m me, in here, on my way out.

Beyond the Red Chamber is a network of tunnels, fanning out and away.

The tunnels are edged in thick glass, aquarium-thick and -size, with dioramas of drowned civilizations behind them, showing not only how and when those civilizations drowned, but what’s befallen them in the time since, i.e. what they look like today. They are so large and lifelike it’s hard to tell if they’re the real items or detailed facsimiles, miniaturized, if at all, not by much.

As the days start to fall into this new stack, I miss my old self, whoever I used to think I was, surely gone now for good. To stave it off, I imagine company. What companion would I choose from a wide-open phone book?

Anyone would be better than no one, but Julius Knipl would be better than anyone. Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer, I’ve got a job for you.

Later still, I imagine appearing before a first-grade class many years hence, telling them what I’ve done. I take the floor, with my anecdotes and briefcase full of examples, after an introduction from their teacher which went something like, “Here, children, is a man who was changed utterly by his time overseas.”

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