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The Host (Chapter 19: Abandoned)

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Who is the Seeker in black? Why is it still searching?" Jared's shout was deafening, echoing at me from all sides.

I hid behind my hands, waiting for the first blow.

"Ah-Jared?" Ian murmured. "Maybe you should let me…"

"Stay out of it!"

Ian's voice got closer, and the rocks grated as he tried to follow Jared into the small space that was already too full. "Can't you see it's too scared to talk? Leave it alone for a sec -"

I heard something scrape the floor as Jared moved, and then a thud. Ian cursed. I peered through my fingers to see that Ian was no longer visible and Jared had his back to me.

Ian spit and groaned. "That's twice," he growled, and I understood that the punch meant for me had been diverted by Ian's interference.

"I'm ready to go for three," Jared muttered, but he turned back around to face me, bringing light with him; he'd grabbed the lamp with the hand that had struck Ian. The cave seemed almost brilliant after so much darkness.

Jared spoke to me again, scrutinizing my face in the new illuminations, making each word a sentence. "Who. Is. The. Seeker."

I dropped my hands and stared into his pitiless eyes. It bothered me that someone else had suffered for my silence-even someone who had once tried to kill me. This was not how torture was supposed to work.

Jared's expression wavered as he read the change in mine. "I don't have to hurt you," he said quietly, not as sure of himself. "But I do have to know the answer to my question."

This wasn't even the right question-not a secret I was in any way bound to protect.

"Tell me," he insisted, his eyes tight with frustration and deep unhappiness.

Was I truly a coward? I would rather have believed that I was-that my fear of pain was stronger than anything else. The real reason I opened my mouth and spoke was so much more pathetic.

I wanted to please him, this human who hated me so fiercely.

"The Seeker," I began, my voice rough and hoarse; I hadn't spoken in a long time.

He interrupted, impatient. "We already know it's a Seeker."

"No, not just any Seeker," I whispered. "My Seeker."

"What do you mean, your Seeker?"

"Assigned to me, following me. She's the reason -" I caught myself just before I spoke the word that would have meant our death. Just before I could say we. The ultimate truth that he would see as the ultimate lie-playing on his deepest wishes, his deepest pain. He would never see that it was possible for his wish to be true. He would only see a dangerous liar looking out through the eyes he'd loved.

"The reason?" he prompted.

"The reason I ran away," I breathed. "The reason I came here."

Not entirely true, but not entirely a lie, either.

Jared stared at me, his mouth half-open, as he tried to process this. From the corner of my eye, I could see that Ian was peering through the hole again, his vivid blue eyes wide with surprise. There was blood, dark on his pale lips.

"You ran away from a Seeker? But you're one of them!" Jared struggled to compose himself, to get back to his interrogation. "Why would it follow you? What did it want?"

I swallowed; the sound seemed unnaturally loud. "She wanted you. You and Jamie."

His expression hardened. "And you were trying to lead it here?"

I shook my head. "I didn't… I…" How could I explain it? He'd never accept the truth.

"What?"

"I… didn't want to tell her. I don't like her."

He blinked, confused again. "Don't you all have to like everyone?"

"We're supposed to," I admitted, coloring with shame.

"Who did you tell about this place?" Ian asked over Jared's shoulder. Jared scowled but kept his eyes on my face.

"I couldn't tell-I didn't know… I just saw the lines. The lines on the album. I drew them for the Seeker… but we didn't know what they were. She still thinks they're a road map." I couldn't seem to stop talking. I tried to make the words come slower, to protect myself from a slip.

"What do you mean you didn't know what they were? You're here." Jared's hand flexed toward me but dropped before it closed the small distance.

"I… I was having trouble with my… with the… with her memory. I didn't understand… I couldn't access everything. There were walls. That's why the Seeker was assigned to me, waiting for me to unlock the rest." Too much, too much. I bit my tongue.

Ian and Jared exchanged a look. They'd never heard anything like this before. They didn't trust me, but they wanted so desperately to believe it was possible. They wanted it too much. That made them fear.

Jared's voice whipped out with a sudden harshness. "Were you able to access my cabin?"

"Not for a long time."

"And then you told the Seeker."

"No."

"No? Why not?"

"Because… by the time I could remember it… I didn't want to tell her."

Ian's eyes were frozen wide.

Jared's voice changed, became low, almost tender. So much more dangerous than the shouting. "Why didn't you want to tell her?"

My jaw locked hard. It was not the secret, but still, it was a secret he would have to beat out of me. In this moment, my determination to hold my tongue had less to do with self-preservation than it did with a stupid, grudging kind of pride. I would not tell this man who despised me that I loved him.

He watched the defiance flash in my eyes, and he seemed to understand what it would take to get this answer. He decided to skip it-or maybe to come back to it later, save it for last, in case I wouldn't be able to answer any more questions when he was done with me.

"Why weren't you able to access everything? Is that… normal?"

This question was very dangerous, too. For the first time so far, I told an outright lie.

"She fell a long way. The body was damaged."

Lying did not come easily to me; this lie fell flat. Jared and Ian both reacted to the false note. Jared's head cocked to the side; one of Ian's ink black eyebrows rose.

"Why isn't this Seeker giving up like the rest?" Ian asked.

I was abruptly exhausted. I knew they could keep this up all night, would keep this up all night if I continued to answer, and eventually I would make a mistake. I slumped against the wall and closed my eyes.

"I don't know," I whispered. "She's not like other souls. She's… annoying."

Ian laughed once-a startled sound.

"And you-are you like other… souls?" Jared asked.

I opened my eyes and stared at him wearily for a long moment. What a stupid question, I thought. Then I shut my eyes tight, buried my face against my knees, and wrapped my arms around my head.

Either Jared understood that I was done speaking or his body was complaining too loudly to be ignored. He grunted a few times as he squeezed himself out of the opening of my cave, taking the lamp with him, and then groaned quietly as he stretched.

"That was unexpected," Ian whispered.

"Lies, of course," Jared whispered back. I could just barely make out their words. They probably didn't realize how the sound echoed back to me in here. "Only… I can't quite figure out what it wants us to believe-where it's trying to lead us."

"I don't think it's lying. Well, except the one time. Did you notice?"

"Part of the act."

"Jared, when have you ever met a parasite who could lie about anything? Except a Seeker, of course."

"Which it must be."

"Are you serious?"

"It's the best explanation."

"She-it is the furthest thing from a Seeker I've ever seen. If a Seeker had any idea how to find us, it would have brought an army."

"And they wouldn't have found anything. But she-it got in, didn't it?"

"It's almost been killed half a dozen -"

"Yet it's still breathing, isn't it?"

They were quiet for a long time. So long that I started to think about moving out of the cramped ball I was curled in, but I didn't want to make any noise by lying down. I wished Ian would leave so I could sleep. The adrenaline left me so worn out when it drained from my system.

"I think I'm going to go talk to Jeb," Ian eventually whispered.

"Oh, that's a great idea." Jared's voice was thick with sarcasm.

"Do you remember that first night? When it jumped between you and Kyle? That was bizarre."

"It was just trying to find a way to stay alive, to escape…"

"By giving Kyle the go-ahead to kill her-it? Good plan."

"It worked."

"Jeb's gun worked. Did she know he was on his way?"

"You're overthinking this, Ian. That's what it wants."

"I don't think you're right. I don't know why… but I don't think she wants us to think about her at all." I heard Ian get to his feet. "You know what's really twisted?" he muttered, his voice no longer a whisper.

"What's that?"

"I felt guilty-guilty as hell-watching her flinch away from us. Seeing the black marks on her neck."

"You can't let it get to you like that." Jared was suddenly disturbed. "It's not human. Don't forget that."

"Just because she isn't human, do you think that means she doesn't feel pain?" Ian asked as his voice faded into the distance. "That she doesn't feel just like a girl who's been beaten-beaten by us?"

"Get a hold of yourself," Jared hissed after him.

"See you around, Jared."

Jared didn't relax for a long time after Ian left; he paced for a while, back and forth in front of the cave, and then sat on the mat, blocking my light, and muttered incomprehensibly to himself. I gave up waiting for him to fall asleep, and stretched out as well as I could on the bowl-like floor. He jumped when my movement made noise, and then started muttering to himself again.

"Guilty," he grumbled in scathing tones. "Letting it get to him. Just like Jeb, like Jamie. Can't let this go on. Stupid to let it live."

Goose bumps rose on my arms, but I tried to ignore them. If I panicked every time he thought about killing me, I'd never have a moment's peace. I turned onto my stomach to bend my spine in the other direction, and he jerked again and then lapsed into silence. I was sure he was still brooding when I finally drifted to sleep.

When I woke up, Jared was sitting on the mat where I could see him, elbows on knees, his head leaning against one fist.

I didn't feel as if I'd slept more than an hour or two, but I was too sore to try to go back to sleep right away. Instead, I fretted about Ian's visit, worrying that Jared would work even harder to keep me secluded after Ian's strange reaction. Why couldn't Ian have kept his mouth shut about feeling guilty? If he knew he was capable of guilt, why did he go around strangling people in the first place? Melanie was irritated with Ian, too, and nervous about the outcome of his qualms.

Our worries were interrupted after just a few minutes.

"'S just me," I heard Jeb call. "Don't get worked up."

Jared cocked the gun.

"Go ahead and shoot me, kid. Go ahead." The sound of Jeb's voice got closer with every word.

Jared sighed and put the gun down. "Please leave."

"Need to talk to you," Jeb said, huffing as he sat down across from Jared. "Hey, there," he said in my direction, nodding.

"You know how much I hate that," Jared muttered.

"Yep."

"Ian already told me about the Seekers -"

"I know. I was just talkin' with him about it."

"Great. Then what do you want?"

"Not so much what I want. It's what everybody needs. We're running low on just about everything. We need a real comprehensive supply run."

"Oh," Jared muttered; this topic was not what he'd been tensed for. After a short pause he said, "Send Kyle."

"Okay," Jeb said easily, bracing himself against the wall to rise again.

Jared sighed. It seemed his suggestion had been a bluff. He folded as soon as Jeb took him up on it. "No. Not Kyle. He's too…"

Jeb chuckled. "Almost got us in some real hot water the last time he was out alone, didn't he? Not one to think things through. Ian, then?"

"He thinks things through too much."

"Brandt?"

"He's no good for the long trips. Starts getting panicked a few weeks in. Makes mistakes."

"Okay, you tell me who, then."

The seconds passed and I heard Jared suck in a breath now and then, each time as if he was about to give Jeb an answer, but then he just exhaled and said nothing.

"Ian and Kyle together?" Jeb asked. "Maybe they could balance each other out."

Jared groaned. "Like the last time? Okay, okay, I know it has to be me."

"You're the best," Jeb agreed. "You changed our lives when you showed up here."

Melanie and I nodded to ourselves; this didn't surprise either of us.

Jared is magic. Jamie and I were perfectly safe while Jared's instincts guided us; we never came close to getting caught. If it had been Jared in Chicago, I'm sure he would have made it out fine.

Jared jerked his shoulder toward me. "What about…?"

"I'll keep an eye on her when I can. And I'll expect you to take Kyle with you. That oughta help."

"That won't be enough-Kyle gone and you keeping an eye on her when you can. She… it won't last long."

Jeb shrugged. "I'll do my best. That's all I can do."

Jared started to shake his head slowly back and forth.

"How long can you stay down here?" Jeb asked him.

"I don't know," Jared whispered.

There was a long silence. After a few minutes, Jeb began whistling tunelessly.

Finally, Jared let out a huge breath that I hadn't realized he'd been holding.

"I'll leave tonight." The words were slow, full of resignation but also relief. His voice changed slightly, got a little less defensive. It was as though he was making the transition back to who he'd been here before I showed up. Letting one responsibility slide from his shoulders and putting another, more welcome one in its place.

He was giving up on keeping me alive, letting nature-or rather mob justice-take its course. When he returned, and I was dead, he wouldn't hold anyone responsible. He would not mourn. All this I could hear in those three words.

I knew the human exaggeration for sorrow-a broken heart. Melanie remembered speaking the phrase herself. But I'd always thought of it as a hyperbole, a traditional description for something that had no real physiological link, like a green thumb. So I wasn't expecting the pain in my chest. The nausea, yes, the swelling in my throat, yes, and, yes, the tears burning in my eyes. But what was the ripping sensation just under my rib cage? It made no logical sense.

And it wasn't just ripping, but twisting and pulling in different directions. Because Melanie's heart broke, too, and it was a separate sensation, as if we'd grown another organ to compensate for our twin awarenesses. A double heart for a double mind. Twice the pain.

He's leaving, she sobbed. We'll never see him again. She didn't question the fact that we were going to die.

I wanted to weep with her, but someone had to keep her head. I bit my hand to hold the moan back.

"That's probably best," Jeb said.

"I'll need to get some things organized…" Already Jared's mind was far, far away from this claustrophobic corridor.

"I'll take over here, then. Have a safe trip."

"Thanks. Guess I'll see you when I see you, Jeb."

"Guess so."

Jared handed the gun back to Jeb, stood up, and brushed absently at the dust on his clothes. Then he was off, hurrying down the hall with his familiar quick step, his mind on other things. Not one glance in my direction, not one more thought for my fate.

I listened to the fading sound of his footsteps until they were gone. Then, forgetting Jeb's existence, I pressed my face into my hands and sobbed.

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