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The Host (Chapter 15: Guarded)

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When I came to, there was no disorientation. I knew exactly where I was, roughly speaking, and I kept my eyes closed and my breathing even. I tried to learn as much as I could about my exact situation without giving away the fact that I was conscious again.

I was hungry. My stomach knotted and clenched and made angry noises. I doubted these noises would betray me-I was sure it had gurgled and complained as I slept.

My head ached fiercely. It was impossible to know how much of this was from fatigue and how much was from the knocks I'd taken.

I was lying on a hard surface. It was rough and… pocked. It was not flat, but oddly curved, as though I was lying in a shallow bowl. It was not comfortable. My back and hips throbbed from being curled into this position. That pain was probably what had woken me; I felt far from rested.

It was dark-I could tell that without opening my eyes. Not pitch-black, but very dark.

The air was even mustier than before-humid and corroded, with a peculiar acrid bite that seemed to cling to the back of my throat. The temperature was cooler than it had been in the desert, but the incongruous moisture made it almost as uncomfortable. I was sweating again, the water Jeb had given me finding its way out through my pores.

I could hear my breathing echo back to me from a few feet away. It could be that I was only close to one wall, but I guessed that I was in a very small space. I listened as hard as I could, and it sounded like my breathing echoed back from the other side as well.

Knowing that I was probably still somewhere in the cavern system Jeb had brought me to, I was fairly sure what I would see when I opened my eyes. I must be in some small hole in the rock, dark purple brown and riddled with holes like cheese.

It was silent except for the sounds my body made. Afraid to open my eyes, I relied on my ears, straining harder and harder against the silence. I couldn't hear anyone else, and this made no sense. They wouldn't have left me without a warden, would they? Uncle Jeb and his omnipresent rifle, or someone less sympathetic. To leave me alone… that wouldn't be in character with their brutality, their natural fear and hatred of what I was.

Unless…

I tried to swallow, but terror closed my throat. They wouldn't leave me alone. Not unless they thought I was dead, or had made sure that I would be. Not unless there were places in these caves that no one came back from.

The picture I'd been forming of my surroundings shifted dizzyingly in my head. I saw myself now at the bottom of a deep shaft or walled into a cramped tomb. My breathing sped up, tasting the air for staleness, for some sign that my oxygen was running low. The muscles around my lungs pulled outward, filling with air for the scream that was on the way. I clenched my teeth to keep it from escaping.

Sharp and close, something grated across the ground beside my head.

I shrieked, and the sound of it was piercing in the small space. My eyes flew open. I jerked away from the sinister noise, throwing myself against a jagged rock wall. My hands swung up to protect my face as my head thunked painfully against the low ceiling.

A dim light illuminated the perfectly round exit to the tiny bubble of a cave I was curled in. Jared's face was half lit as he leaned into the opening, one arm reaching toward me. His lips were tight with anger. A vein in his forehead pulsed as he watched my panicked reaction.

He didn't move; he just stared furiously while my heart restarted and my breathing evened out. I met his glare, remembering how quiet he had always been-like a wraith when he wanted. No wonder I hadn't heard him sitting guard outside my cell.

But I had heard something. As I remembered that, Jared shoved his extended arm closer, and the grating noise repeated. I looked down. At my feet was a broken sheet of plastic serving as a tray. And on it…

I lunged for the open bottle of water. I was barely aware that Jared's mouth twisted with disgust as I jerked the bottle to my lips. I was sure that would bother me later, but all I cared about now was the water. I wondered if ever in my life I would take the liquid for granted again. Given that my life was not likely to be prolonged here, the answer was probably no.

Jared had disappeared, back through the circular entry. I could see a piece of his sleeve and nothing more. The dull light came from somewhere beside him. It was an artificial bluish color.

I'd gulped half the water down when a new scent caught my attention, informing me that water was not the only gift. I looked down at the tray again.

Food. They were feeding me?

It was the bread-a dark, unevenly shaped roll-that I smelled first, but there was also a bowl of some clear liquid with the tang of onions. As I leaned closer, I could see darker chunks on the bottom. Beside this were three stubby white tubes. I guessed they were vegetables, but I didn't recognize the variety.

It took only seconds for me to make these discoveries, but even in that short time, my stomach nearly jumped through my mouth trying to reach the food.

I ripped into the bread. It was very dense, studded with whole-grain kernels that caught in my teeth. The texture was gritty, but the flavor was wonderfully rich. I couldn't remember anything tasting more delicious to me, not even my mushed-up Twinkies. My jaw worked as fast as it could, but I swallowed most of the mouthfuls of tough bread half-chewed. I could hear each mouthful hit my stomach with a gurgle. It didn't feel as good as I thought it would. Too long empty, my stomach reacted to the food with discomfort.

I ignored that and moved on to the liquid-it was soup. This went down easier. Aside from the onions I'd smelled, the taste was mild. The green chunks were soft and spongy. I drank it straight from the bowl and wished the bowl were deeper. I tipped it back to make sure I'd gotten every drop.

The white vegetables were crunchy in texture, woody in taste. Some kind of root. They weren't as satisfying as the soup or as tasty as the bread, but I was grateful for their bulk. I wasn't full-not close-and I probably would have started on the tray next if I thought I'd be able to chew through it.

It didn't occur to me until I was finished that they shouldn't be feeding me. Not unless Jared had lost the confrontation with the doctor. Though why would Jared be my guard if that were the case?

I slid the tray away when it was empty, cringing at the noise it made. I stayed pressed against the back wall of my bubble as Jared reached in to retrieve it. This time he didn't look at me.

"Thank you," I whispered as he disappeared again. He said nothing; there was no change in his face. Even the bit of his sleeve did not show this time, but I was sure he was there.

I can't believe he hit me, Melanie mused, her thought incredulous rather than resentful. She was not over the surprise of it yet. I hadn't been surprised in the first place. Of course he had hit me.

I wondered where you were, I answered. It would be poor manners to get me into this mess and then abandon me.

She ignored my sour tone. I wouldn't have thought he'd be able to do it, no matter what. I don't think I could hit him.

Sure you could. If he'd come at you with reflective eyes, you'd have done the same. You're naturally violent. I remembered her daydreams of strangling the Seeker. That seemed like months ago, though I knew it was only days. It would make sense if it had been longer. It ought to take time to get oneself stuck in such a disastrous mire as the one I was in now.

Melanie tried to consider it impartially. I don't think so. Not Jared… and Jamie, there's no way I could hurt Jamie, even if he was… She trailed off, hating that line of thought.

I considered this and found it true. Even if the child had become something or someone else, neither she nor I could ever raise a hand to him.

That's different. You're like… a mother. Mothers are irrational here. Too many emotions involved.

Motherhood is always emotional-even for you souls.

I didn't answer that.

What do you think is going to happen now?

You're the expert on humans, I reminded her. It's probably not a good thing that they're giving me food. I can think of only one reason they'd want me strong.

The few specifics I remembered of historical human brutalities tangled in my head with the stories in the old newspaper we'd read the other day. Fire-that was a bad one. Melanie had burned all the fingerprints off her right hand once in a stupid accident, grabbing a pan she hadn't realized was hot. I remembered how the pain had shocked her-it was so unexpectedly sharp and demanding.

It was just an accident, though. Quickly treated with ice, salves, medicine. No one had done it on purpose, continued on from the first sickening pain, drawing it out longer and longer…

I'd never lived on a planet where such atrocities could happen, even before the souls came. This place was truly the highest and the lowest of all worlds-the most beautiful senses, the most exquisite emotions… the most malevolent desires, the darkest deeds. Perhaps it was meant to be so. Perhaps without the lows, the highs could not be reached. Were the souls the exception to that rule? Could they have the light without the darkness of this world?

I… felt something when he hit you, Melanie interrupted. The words came slowly, one by one, as if she didn't want to think them.

I felt something, too. It was amazing how natural it was to use sarcasm now, after spending so much time with Melanie. He's got quite a backhand, doesn't he?

That's not what I meant. I mean… She hesitated for a long moment, and then the rest of the words came in a rush. I thought it was all me-the way we feel about him. I thought I was… in control of that.

The thoughts behind her words were clearer than the words themselves.

You thought you were able to bring me here because you wanted it so much. That you were controlling me instead of the other way around. I tried not to be annoyed. You thought you were manipulating me.

Yes. The chagrin in her tone was not because I was upset, but because she did not like being wrong. But…

I waited.

It came in a rush once more. You're in love with him, too, separately from me. It feels different from the way I feel. Other. I didn't see that until he was there with us, until you saw him for the first time. How did that happen? How does a three-inch-long worm fall in love with a human being?

Worm?

Sorry. I guess you sort of have… limbs.

Not really. They're more like antennae. And I'm quite a bit longer than three inches when they're extended.

My point is, he's not your species.

My body is human, I told her. While I'm attached to it, I'm human, too. And the way you see Jared in your memories… Well, it's all your fault.

She considered that for a moment. She didn't like it much.

So if you had gone to Tucson and gotten a new body, you wouldn't love him anymore now?

I really, really hope that's true.

Neither of us was happy with my answer. I leaned my head against the top of my knees. Melanie changed the subject.

At least Jamie is safe. I knew Jared would take care of him. If I had to leave him, I couldn't have left him in better hands… I wish I could see him.

I'm not asking that! I cringed at the thought of the response that request would receive.

At the same time, I yearned to see the boy's face for myself. I wanted to be sure that he was really here, really safe-that they were feeding him and caring for him the way Melanie never could again. The way I, mother to no one, wanted to care for him. Did he have someone to sing to him at night? To tell him stories? Would this new, angry Jared think of little things like that? Did he have someone to curl up against when he was frightened?

Do you think they will tell him that I'm here? Melanie asked.

Would that help or hurt him? I asked back.

Her thought was a whisper. I don't know… I wish I could tell him that I kept my promise.

You certainly did. I shook my head, amazed. No one can say that you didn't come back, just like always.

Thanks for that. Her voice was faint. I couldn't tell if she meant for my words now, or if she meant the bigger picture, bringing her here.

I was suddenly exhausted, and I could feel that she was, too. Now that my stomach had settled a bit and felt almost halfway full, the rest of my pains were not sharp enough to keep me awake. I hesitated before moving, afraid to make any noise, but my body wanted to uncurl and stretch out. I did so as silently as I could, trying to find a piece of the bubble long enough for me. Finally, I had to stick my feet almost out the round opening. I didn't like doing it, worried that Jared would hear the movement close to him and think I was trying to escape, but he didn't react in any way. I pillowed the good side of my face against my arm, tried to ignore the way the curve of the floor cramped my spine, and closed my eyes.

I think I slept, but if I did, it wasn't deeply. The sound of footsteps was still very far away when I came fully awake.

This time I opened my eyes at once. Nothing had changed-I still could see the dull blue light through the round hole; I still could not see if Jared was outside it. Someone was coming this way-it was easy to hear that the footsteps were coming closer. I pulled my legs away from the opening, moving as quietly as I could, and curled up against the back wall again. I would have liked to be able to stand; it would have made me feel less vulnerable, more prepared to face whatever was coming. The low ceiling of the cave bubble would barely have allowed me to kneel.

There was a flash of movement outside my prison. I saw part of Jared's foot as he rose silently to his feet.

"Ah. Here you are," a man said. The words were so loud after all the empty silence that I jumped. I recognized the voice. One of the brothers I'd seen in the desert-the one with the machete, Kyle.

Jared didn't speak.

"We're not going to allow this, Jared." It was a different speaker, a more reasonable voice. Probably the younger brother, Ian. The brothers' voices were very similar-or they would have been, if Kyle weren't always half shouting, his tone always twisted with anger. "We've all lost somebody-hell, we've all lost everybody. But this is ridiculous."

"If you won't let Doc have it, then it's got to die," Kyle added, his voice a growl.

"You can't keep it prisoner here," Ian continued. "Eventually, it will escape and we'll all be exposed."

Jared didn't speak, but he took one side step that put him directly in front of the opening to my cell.

My heart pumped hard and fast as I understood what the brothers were saying. Jared had won. I was not to be tortured. I was not to be killed-not immediately, anyway. Jared was keeping me prisoner.

It seemed a beautiful word under the circumstances.

I told you he would protect us.

"Don't make this difficult, Jared," said a new male voice I didn't recognize. "It has to be done."

Jared said nothing.

"We don't want to hurt you, Jared. We're all brothers here. But we will if you make us." There was no bluff in Kyle's tone. "Move aside."

Jared stood rock still.

My heart started thumping faster than before, jerking against my ribs so hard that the hammering disrupted the rhythm of my lungs, made it difficult to breathe. Melanie was incapacitated with fear, unable to think in coherent words.

They were going to hurt him. Those lunatic humans were going to attack one of their own.

"Jared… please," Ian said.

Jared didn't answer.

A heavy footfall-a lunge-and the sound of something heavy hitting something solid. A gasp, a choking gurgle –

"No!" I cried, and launched myself through the round hole.

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