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The Host (Chapter 10: Turned)

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The electric bell rang, announcing another visitor to the convenience store. I started guiltily and ducked my head behind the shelf of goods we were examining.

Stop acting like a criminal, Melanie advised.

I'm not acting, I replied tersely.

The palms of my hands felt cold under a thin sheen of sweat, though the small room was quite hot. The wide windows let in too much sun for the loud and laboring air-conditioning unit to keep up.

Which one? I demanded.

The bigger one, she told me.

I grabbed the larger pack of the two available, a canvas sling that looked well able to hold more than I could carry. Then I walked around the corner to where the bottled water was shelved.

We can carry three gallons, she decided. That gives us three days to find them.

I took a deep breath, trying to tell myself that I wasn't going along with this. I was simply trying to get more coordinates from her, that was all. When I had the whole story, I would find someone-a different Seeker, maybe, one less repulsive than the one assigned to me-and pass the information along. I was just being thorough, I promised myself.

My awkward attempt to lie to myself was so pathetic that Melanie didn't pay any attention to it, felt no worry at all. It must be too late for me, as the Seeker had warned. Maybe I should have taken the shuttle.

Too late? I wish! Melanie grumbled. I can't make you do anything you don't want to do. I can't even raise my hand! Her thought was a moan of frustration.

I looked down at my hand, resting against my thigh rather than reaching for the water as she wanted to do so badly. I could feel her impatience, her almost desperate desire to be on the move. On the run again, just as if my existence were no more than a short interruption, a wasted season now behind her.

She gave the mental equivalent of a snort at that, and then she was back to business. C'mon, she urged me. Let's get going! It will be dark soon.

With a sigh, I pulled the largest shrink-wrapped flat of water bottles from the shelf. It nearly hit the floor before I caught it against a lower shelf edge. My arms felt as though they'd popped halfway out of their sockets.

"You're kidding me!" I exclaimed aloud.

Shut up!

"Excuse me?" a short, stooped man, the other customer, asked from the end of the aisle.

"Uh-nothing," I mumbled, not meeting his gaze. "This is heavier than I expected."

"Would you like some help?" he offered.

"No, no," I answered hastily. "I'll just take a smaller one."

He turned back to the selection of potato chips.

No, you will not, Melanie assured me. I've carried heavier loads than this. You've let us get all soft, Wanderer, she added in irritation.

Sorry, I responded absently, bemused by the fact that she had used my name for the first time.

Lift with your legs.

I struggled with the flat of water, wondering how far I could possibly be expected to carry it. I managed to get it to the front register, at least. With great relief, I edged its weight onto the counter. I put the bag on top of the water, and then added a box of granola bars, a roll of doughnuts, and a bag of chips from the closest display.

Water is way more important than food in the desert, and we can only carry so much –

I'm hungry, I interrupted. And these are light.

It's your back, I guess, she said grudgingly, and then she ordered, Get a map.

I placed the one she wanted, a topographical map of the county, on the counter with the rest. It was no more than a prop in her charade.

The cashier, a white-haired man with a ready smile, scanned the bar codes.

"Doing some hiking?" he asked pleasantly.

"The mountain is very beautiful."

"The trailhead is just up that -" he said, starting to gesture.

"I'll find it," I promised quickly, pulling the heavy, badly balanced load back off the counter.

"Head down before it gets dark, sweetie. You don't want to get lost."

"I will."

Melanie was thinking sulfurous thoughts about the kind old man.

He was being nice. He's sincerely concerned about my welfare, I reminded her.

You're all very creepy, she told me acidly. Didn't anyone ever tell you not to talk to strangers?

I felt a deep tug of guilt as I answered. There are no strangers among my kind.

I can't get used to not paying for things, she said, changing the subject. What's the point of scanning them?

Inventory, of course. Is he supposed to remember everything we took when he needs to order more? Besides, what's the point of money when everyone is perfectly honest? I paused, feeling the guilt again so strongly that it was an actual pain. Everyone but me, of course.

Melanie shied away from my feelings, worried by the depth of them, worried that I might change my mind. Instead she focused on her raging desire to be away from here, to be moving toward her objective. Her anxiety leaked through to me, and I walked faster.

I carried the stack to the car and set it on the ground beside the passenger door.

"Let me help you with that."

I jerked up to see the other man from the store, a plastic bag in his hand, standing beside me.

"Ah… thank you," I finally managed, my pulse thudding behind my ears.

We waited, Melanie tensed as if to run, while he lifted our acquisitions into the car.

There's nothing to fear. He's being kind, too.

She continued to watch him distrustfully.

"Thank you," I said again as he shut the door.

"My pleasure."

He walked off to his own vehicle without a backward glance at us. I climbed into my seat and grabbed the bag of potato chips.

Look at the map, she said. Wait till he's out of sight.

No one is watching us, I promised her. But, with a sigh, I unfolded the map and ate with one hand. It was probably a good idea to have some sense of where we were headed.

Where are we headed? I asked her. We've found the starting point, so what now?

Look around, she commanded. If we can't see it here, we'll try the south side of the peak.

See what?

She placed the memorized image before me: a ragged zigzagging line, four tight switchbacks, the fifth point strangely blunt, like it was broken. Now I saw it as I should, a jagged range of four pointed mountain peaks with the broken-looking fifth…

I scanned the skyline, east to west across the northern horizon. It was so easy it felt false, as though I'd made the image up only after seeing the mountain silhouette that created the northeast line of the horizon.

That's it, Melanie almost sang in her excitement. Let's go! She wanted me to be out of the car, on my feet, moving.

I shook my head, bending over the map again. The mountain ridge was so far in the distance I couldn't guess at the miles between us and it. There was no way I was walking out of this parking lot and into the empty desert unless I had no other option.

Let's be rational, I suggested, tracing my finger along a thin ribbon on the map, an unnamed road that connected to the freeway a few miles east and then continued in the general direction of the range.

Sure, she agreed complacently. The faster the better.

We found the unpaved road easily. It was just a pale scar of flat dirt through the sparse shrubbery, barely wide enough for one vehicle. I had a feeling that the road would be overgrown with lack of use in a different region-some place with more vital vegetation, unlike the desert plants that needed decades to recover from such a violation. There was a rusted chain stretched across the entrance, screwed into a wooden post on one end, looped loosely around another post at the other. I moved quickly, pulling the chain free and piling it at the base of the first post, hurrying back to my running car, hoping no one would pass and stop to offer me help. The highway stayed clear as I drove onto the dirt and then rushed back to refasten the chain.

We both relaxed when the pavement disappeared behind us. I was glad that there was apparently no one left I would have to lie to, whether with words or silence. Alone, I felt less of a renegade.

Melanie was perfectly at home here in the middle of nothing. She knew the names of all the spiny plants around us. She hummed their names to herself, greeting them like old friends.

Creosote, ocotillo, cholla, prickly pear, mesquite…

Away from the highway, the trappings of civilization, the desert seemed to take on a new life for Melanie. Though she appreciated the speed of the jolting car-our vehicle didn't have the ground clearance necessary for this off-road trip, as the shocks reminded me with every pit in the dirt-she itched to be on her feet, loping through the safety of the baking desert.

We would probably have to walk, and all too soon for my taste, but when that time came, I doubted it would satisfy her. I could feel the real desire beneath the surface. Freedom. To move her body to the familiar rhythm of her long stride with only her will for guidance. For a moment, I allowed myself to see the prison that was life without a body. To be carried inside but unable to influence the shape around you. To be trapped. To have no choices.

I shuddered and refocused on the rough road, trying to stave off the mingled pity and horror. No other host had made me feel such guilt for what I was. Of course, none of the others had stuck around to complain about the situation.

The sun was close to the tips of the western hills when we had our first disagreement. The long shadows created strange patterns across the road, making it hard to avoid the rocks and craters.

There it is! Melanie crowed as we caught sight of another formation farther east: a smooth wave of rock, interrupted by a sudden spur that swung a thin, long finger out against the sky.

She was all for turning immediately into the brush, no matter what that did to the car.

Maybe we're supposed to go all the way to the first landmark, I pointed out. The little dirt road continued to wind in more or less the right direction, and I was terrified to leave it. How else would I find my way back to civilization? Wasn't I going back?

I imagined the Seeker right at this moment, as the sun touched the dark, zigzagging line of the western horizon. What would she think when I didn't arrive in Tucson? A spasm of glee made me laugh out loud. Melanie also enjoyed the picture of the Seeker's furious irritation. How long would it take her to go back to San Diego to see if this had all been a ploy to get rid of her? And then what steps would she take when I wasn't there? When I wasn't anywhere?

I just couldn't picture very clearly where I would be at that point.

Look, a dry wash. It's wide enough for the car-let's follow it, Melanie insisted.

I'm not sure we're supposed to go that way yet.

It will be dark soon and we'll have to stop. You're wasting time! She was silently shouting in her frustration.

Or saving time, if I'm right. Besides, it's my time, isn't it?

She didn't answer in words. She seemed to stretch inside my mind, reaching back toward the convenient wash.

I'm the one doing this, so I'm doing it my way.

Melanie fumed wordlessly in response.

Why don't you show me the rest of the lines? I suggested. We could see if anything is visible before night falls.

No, she snapped. I'll do that part my way.

You're being childish.

Again she refused to answer. I continued toward the four sharp peaks, and she sulked.

When the sun disappeared behind the hills, night washed across the landscape abruptly; one minute the desert was sunset orange, and then it was black. I slowed, my hand fumbling around the dashboard, searching for the switch for the headlights.

Have you lost your mind? Melanie hissed. Do you have any idea how visible headlights would be out here? Someone is sure to see us.

So what do we do now?

Hope the seat reclines.

I let the engine idle as I tried to think of options besides sleeping in the car, surrounded by the black emptiness of the desert night. Melanie waited patiently, knowing I would find none.

This is crazy, you know, I told her, throwing the car into park and twisting the keys out of the ignition. The whole thing. There can't really be anyone out here. We won't find anything. And we're going to get hopelessly lost trying. I had an abstract sense of the physical danger in what we were planning-wandering out into the heat with no backup plan, no way to return. I knew Melanie understood the danger far more clearly, but she held the specifics back.

She didn't respond to my accusations. None of these problems bothered her. I could see that she'd rather wander alone in the desert for the rest of her life than go back to the life I'd had before. Even without the threat of the Seeker, this was preferable to her.

I leaned the seat back as far as it would go. It wasn't close to far enough for comfort. I doubted that I would be able to sleep, but there were so many things I wasn't allowing myself to think about that my mind was vacant and uninteresting. Melanie was silent, too.

I closed my eyes, finding little difference between my lids and the moonless night, and drifted into unconsciousness with unexpected ease.

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