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The Host (Chapter 20: Freed)

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Jeb let me cry myself out without interrupting. He didn't comment all through the following sniffles. It was only when I'd been completely silent for a good half hour that he spoke.

"Still awake in there?"

I didn't answer. I was too much in the habit of silence.

"You want to come out here and stretch?" he offered. "My back is aching just thinking about that stupid hole."

Ironically, considering my week of maddening silence, I wasn't in the mood for company. But his offer wasn't one I could refuse. Before I could think about it, my hands were pulling me through the exit.

Jeb was sitting with crossed legs on the mat. I watched him for some reaction as I shook out my arms and legs and rolled my shoulders, but he had his eyes closed. Like the time of Jamie's visit, he looked asleep.

How long had it been since I'd seen Jamie? And how was he now? My already sore heart gave a painful little lurch.

"Feel better?" Jeb asked, his eyes opening.

I shrugged.

"It's going to be okay, you know." He grinned a wide, face-stretching grin. "That stuff I said to Jared… Well, I won't say I lied, exactly, because it's all true if you look at it from a certain angle, but from another angle, it wasn't so much the truth as it was what he needed to hear."

I just stared; I didn't understand a word of what he was saying.

"Anyway, Jared needs a break from this. Not from you, kid," he added quickly, "but from the situation. He'll gain some perspective while he's away."

I wondered how he seemed to know exactly which words and phrases would cut at me. And, more than that, why should Jeb care if his words hurt me, or even if my back was aching and throbbing? His kindness toward me was frightening in its own way because it was incomprehensible. At least Jared's actions made sense. Kyle's and Ian's murder attempts, the doctor's cheerful eagerness to hurt me-these behaviors also were logical. Not kindness. What did Jeb want from me?

"Don't look so glum," Jeb urged. "There's a bright side to this. Jared was being real pigheaded about you, and now that he's temporarily out of the picture, it's bound to make things more comfortable."

My eyebrows furrowed as I tried to decide what he meant.

"For example," he went on. "This space here we usually use for storage. Now, when Jared and the guys get back, we're going to need someplace to put all the stuff they bring home with them. So we might as well find a new place for you now. Something a little bigger, maybe? Something with a bed?" He smiled again as he dangled the carrot in front of me.

I waited for him to snatch it away, to tell me he was joking.

Instead, his eyes-the color of faded blue jeans-became very, very gentle. Something about the expression in them brought the lump back to my throat.

"You don't have to go back in that hole, honey. The worst part's over."

I found that I couldn't doubt the earnest look on his face. For the second time in an hour, I put my face in my hands and cried.

He got to his feet and patted me awkwardly on the shoulder. He didn't seem comfortable with tears. "There, there," he mumbled.

I got control of myself more quickly this time. When I wiped the wet from my eyes and smiled tentatively at him, he nodded in approval.

"That's a girl," he said, patting me again. "Now, we'll have to hang out here until we're sure Jared's really gone and can't catch us." He grinned conspiratorially. "Then we'll have some fun!"

I remembered that his idea of fun was usually along the lines of an armed standoff.

He chuckled at my expression. "Don't worry about it. While we're waiting, you might as well try to get some rest. I'll bet even that skinny mattress would feel pretty good to you right now."

I looked from his face to the mat on the floor and back.

"Go on," he said. "You look like you could use a good sleep. I'll keep watch over you."

Touched, new moisture in my eyes, I sank down on the mat and laid my head on the pillow. It was heavenly, despite Jeb's calling it thin. I stretched out to my full height, pointing my toes and reaching out with my fingers. I heard my joints popping. Then I let myself wilt into the mattress. It felt as if it were hugging me, erasing all the sore spots. I sighed.

"Does me good to see that," Jeb muttered. "It's like an itch you can't scratch, knowing someone is suffering under your own roof."

He eased himself to the floor a few yards away and started humming quietly. I was asleep before he'd finished the first bar.

When I woke up, I knew that I'd been solidly asleep for a long time-a longer stretch than I'd slept since coming here. No pains, no frightening interruptions. I would have felt pretty good, except that waking on the pillow reminded me that Jared was gone. It still smelled like him. And in a good way, not the way I smelled.

Back to just dreams. Melanie sighed forlornly.

I remembered my dream only vaguely, but I knew it had featured Jared, as was usual when I was able to sleep deeply enough to dream.

"Morning, kid," Jeb said, sounding chipper.

I peeled back my lids to look at him. Had he sat against the wall all night? He didn't look tired, but I suddenly felt guilty for monopolizing the better accommodations.

"So the guys are long gone," he said enthusiastically. "How 'bout a tour?" He stroked the gun slung through a strap at his waist with an unconscious gesture.

My eyes opened wider, stared at him in disbelief. A tour?

"Now, don't turn sissy on me. Nobody's going to bother you. And you'll need to be able to find your way around eventually."

He held out a hand to help me up.

I took it automatically, my head spinning as I tried to process what he was saying. I would need to find my way around? Why? And what did he mean "eventually"? How long did he expect me to last?

He pulled me to my feet and led me forward.

I'd forgotten what it was like to move through the dark tunnels with a hand guiding me. It was so easy-walking barely took any concentration at all.

"Let's see," Jeb murmured. "Maybe the right wing first. Set up a decent place for you. Then the kitchens…" He went on planning his tour, continuing as we stepped through the narrow crevice into the bright tunnel that led to the even brighter big room. When the sound of voices reached us, I felt my mouth go dry. Jeb kept right on chatting at me, either missing or ignoring my terror.

"I'll bet the carrots are sprouted today," he was saying as he led me into the main plaza. The light blinded me, and I couldn't see who was there, but I could feel their eyes on me. The sudden silence was as ominous as ever.

"Yep," Jeb answered himself. "Now, I always think that looks real pretty. A nice spring green like that is a treat to see."

He stopped and held his hand out, inviting me to look. I squinted in the direction he gestured, but my eyes kept darting around the room as I waited for them to adjust. It took a moment, but then I saw what he was talking about. I also saw that there were maybe fifteen people here today, all of them regarding me with hostile eyes. But they were busy with something else, too.

The wide, dark square that took up the center of the big cavern was no longer dark. Half of it was fuzzy with spring green, just as Jeb had said. It was pretty. And amazing.

No wonder no one stood on this space. It was a garden.

"Carrots?" I whispered.

He answered at normal volume. "This half that's greening up. The other half is spinach. Should be up in a few days."

The people in the room had gone back to work, still peeking at me now and then but mostly concentrating on what they were doing. It was easy enough to understand their actions-and the big barrel on wheels, and the hoses-now that I recognized the garden.

"Irrigating?" I whispered again.

"That's right. Dries out pretty quick in this heat."

I nodded in agreement. It was still early, I guessed, but I was already sweaty. The heat from the intense radiance overhead was stifling in the caves. I tried to examine the ceiling again, but it was too bright to stare at.

I tugged Jeb's sleeve and squinted up at the dazzling light. "How?"

Jeb smiled, seeming thrilled with my curiosity. "Same way the magicians do it-with mirrors, kid. Hundreds of 'em. Took me long enough to get them all up there. It's nice to have extra hands around here when they need cleaning. See, there's only four small vents in the ceiling here, and that wasn't enough light for what I had in mind. What do you think of it?"

He pulled his shoulders back, proud again.

"Brilliant," I whispered. "Astonishing."

Jeb grinned and nodded, enjoying my reaction.

"Let's keep on," he suggested. "Got a lot to do today."

He led me to a new tunnel, a wide, naturally shaped tube that ran off from the big cave. This was new territory. My muscles all locked up; I moved forward with stiff legs, unbending knees.

Jeb patted my hand but otherwise ignored my nerves. "This is mostly sleeping quarters and some storage. The tubes are closer to the surface here, so it was easier to get some light."

He pointed up at a bright, slender crack in the tunnel ceiling overhead. It threw a hand-sized spot of white onto the floor.

We reached a broad fork-not really a fork, because there were too many tines. It was an octopus-like branching of passageways.

"Third from the left," he said, and looked at me expectantly.

"Third from the left?" I repeated.

"That's right. Don't forget. It's easy to get lost around here, and that wouldn't be safe for you. Folks'd just as soon stab you as send you in the right direction."

I shuddered. "Thanks," I muttered with quiet sarcasm.

He laughed as if my answer had delighted him. "No point in ignoring the truth. Doesn't make it worse to have it said out loud."

It didn't make it better, either, but I didn't say that. I was beginning to enjoy myself just a little. It was so nice to have someone talk to me again. Jeb was, if nothing else, interesting company.

"One, two, three," he counted off, then he led me down the third hallway from the left. We started passing round entrances covered by a variety of makeshift doors. Some were curtained off with patterned sheets of fabric; others had big pieces of cardboard duct-taped together. One hole had two real doors-one red-painted wood, one gray metal-leaning over the opening.

"Seven," Jeb counted, and stopped in front of a smallish circle, the tallest point just a few inches higher than my head. This one protected its privacy with a pretty jade green screen-the kind that might divide the space in an elegant living room. There was a pattern of cherry blossoms embroidered across the silk.

"This is the only space I can think of for now. The only one that's fitted up decent for human habitation. It will be empty for a few weeks, and we'll figure something better out for you by the time it's needed again."

He folded the screen aside, and a light that was brighter than that in the hallway greeted us.

The room he revealed gave me a strange feeling of vertigo-probably because it was so much taller than it was wide. Standing inside it was like standing in a tower or a silo, not that I had ever been in such places, but those were the comparisons Melanie made. The ceiling, twice as high as the room was wide, was a maze of cracks. Like vines of light, the cracks circled around and almost met. This seemed dangerous to me-unstable. But Jeb showed no fear of cave-ins as he led me farther in.

There was a double-sized mattress on the floor, with about a yard of space on three sides of it. The two pillows and two blankets twisted into two separate configurations on either half of the mattress made it look as if this room housed a couple. A thick wooden pole-something like a rake handle-was braced horizontally against the far wall at shoulder height with the ends lodged in two of the Swiss cheese holes in the rock. Over it were draped a handful of T-shirts and two pairs of jeans. A wooden stool was flush with the wall beside the makeshift clothes rack, and on the floor beneath it was a stack of worn paperback books.

"Who?" I said to Jeb, whispering again. This space so obviously belonged to someone that I no longer felt like we were alone.

"Just one of the guys out on the raid. Won't be back for a while. We'll find you something by then."

I didn't like it-not the room, but the idea of staying in it. The presence of the owner was strong despite the simple belongings. No matter who he was, he would not be happy to have me here. He would hate it.

Jeb seemed to read my mind-or maybe the expression on my face was clear enough that he didn't have to.

"Now, now," he said. "Don't worry about that. This is my house, and this is just one of my many guest rooms. I say who is and isn't my guest. Right now, you are my guest, and I am offering you this room."

I still didn't like it, but I wasn't going to upset Jeb, either. I vowed that I would disturb nothing, if it meant sleeping on the floor.

"Well, let's keep moving. Don't forget: third from the left, seventh in."

"Green screen," I added.

"Exactly."

Jeb took me back through the big garden room, around the perimeter to the opposite side, and through the biggest tunnel exit. When we passed the irrigators, they stiffened and turned, afraid to have me behind their backs.

This tunnel was well lit, the bright crevices coming at intervals too regular to be natural.

"We go even closer to the surface now. It gets drier, but it gets hotter, too."

I noticed that almost immediately. Instead of being steamed, we were now being baked. The air was less stuffy and stale. I could taste the desert dust.

There were more voices ahead. I tried to steel myself against the inevitable reaction. If Jeb insisted on treating me like… like a human, like a welcome guest, I was going to have to get used to this. No reason to let it make me nauseous over and over again. My stomach began an unhappy rolling anyway.

"This way's the kitchen," Jeb told me.

At first I thought we were in another tunnel, one crowded with people. I pressed myself against the wall, trying to keep my distance.

The kitchen was a long corridor with a high ceiling, higher than it was wide, like my new quarters. The light was bright and hot. Instead of thin crevices through deep rock, this place had huge open holes.

"Can't cook in the daytime, of course. Smoke, you know. So we mainly use this as the mess hall until nightfall."

All conversation had come to an abrupt halt, so Jeb's words were clear for everyone to hear. I tried to hide behind him, but he kept walking farther in.

We'd interrupted breakfast, or maybe it was lunch.

The humans-almost twenty at a quick estimate-were very close here. It wasn't like the big cavern. I wanted to keep my eyes on the floor, but I couldn't stop them from flashing around the room. Just in case. I could feel my body tensing to run for it, though where I would run, I didn't know.

Against both sides of the hallway, there were long piles of rock. Mostly rough, purple volcanic stone, with some lighter-colored substance-cement?-running between them, creating seams, holding them together. On top of these piles were different stones, browner in color, and flat. They were glued together with the light gray grout as well. The final product was a relatively even surface, like a counter or a table. It was clear that they were used for both.

The humans sat on some, leaned on others. I recognized the bread rolls they held suspended between the table and their mouths, frozen with disbelief as they took in Jeb and his one-person tour.

Some of them were familiar. Sharon, Maggie, and the doctor were the closest group to me. Melanie's cousin and aunt glared at Jeb furiously-I had an odd conviction that I could have stood on my head and bellowed songs out of Melanie's memory at the top of my lungs and they still would not have looked at me-but the doctor eyed me with a frank and almost friendly curiosity that made me feel cold deep inside my bones.

At the back end of the hall-shaped room, I recognized the tall man with ink black hair and my heart stuttered. I'd thought Jared was supposed to take the hostile brothers with him to make Jeb's job of keeping me alive slightly easier. At least it was the younger one, Ian, who had belatedly developed a conscience-not quite as bad as leaving Kyle behind. That consolation did not slow my racing pulse, however.

"Everybody full so quick?" Jeb asked loudly and sarcastically.

"Lost our appetites," Maggie muttered.

"How 'bout you," he said, turning to me. "You hungry?"

A quiet groan went through our audience.

I shook my head-a small but frantic motion. I didn't even know whether I was hungry, but I knew I couldn't eat in front of this crowd that would gladly have eaten me.

"Well, I am," Jeb grumbled. He walked down the aisle between the counters, but I did not follow. I couldn't stand the thought of being within easy reach of the rest. I stayed pressed against the wall where I stood. Only Sharon and Maggie watched him go to a big plastic bin on one counter and grab a roll. Everyone else watched me. I was certain that if I moved an inch, they would pounce. I tried not to breathe.

"Well, let's just keep on movin'," Jeb suggested around a mouthful of bread as he ambled back to me. "Nobody seems able to concentrate on their lunch. Easily distracted, this set."

I was watching the humans for sudden movements, not really seeing their faces after that first moment when I recognized the few I could put names to. So it wasn't until Jamie stood up that I noticed him there.

He was a head shorter than the adults beside him, but taller than the two smaller children who perched on the counter on his other side. He hopped lightly off his seat and followed behind Jeb. His expression was tight, compressed, like he was trying to solve a difficult equation in his head. He examined me through narrow eyes as he approached on Jeb's heels. Now I wasn't the only one in the room holding my breath. The others' gazes shifted back and forth between Melanie's brother and me.

Oh, Jamie, Melanie thought. She hated the sad, adult expression on his face, and I probably hated it even more. She didn't feel as guilty as I did for putting it there.

If only we could take it away. She sighed.

It's too late. What could we do to make it better now?

I didn't mean the question more than rhetorically, but I found myself searching for an answer, and Melanie searched, too. We found nothing in the brief second we had to consider the matter; there was nothing to be found, I was sure. But we both knew we would be searching again when we were done with this asinine tour and had a chance to think. If we lived that long.

"Whatcha need, kid?" Jeb asked without looking at him.

"Just wondering what you're doing," Jamie answered, his voice striving for nonchalance and only just failing.

Jeb stopped when he got to me and turned to look at Jamie. "Takin' her for a tour of the place. Just like I do for any newcomer."

There was another low grumble.

"Can I come?" Jamie asked.

I saw Sharon shake her head feverishly, her expression outraged. Jeb ignored her.

"Doesn't bother me… if you can mind your manners."

Jamie shrugged. "No problem."

I had to move then-to knot my fingers together in front of me. I wanted so badly to push Jamie's untidy hair out of his eyes and then leave my arm around his neck. Something that would not go over well, I was sure.

"Let's go," Jeb said to us both. He took us back out the way we had come. Jeb walked on one side of me, Jamie on the other. Jamie seemed to be trying to stare at the floor, but he kept glancing up at my face-just like I couldn't help glancing down at his. Whenever our eyes met, we looked away again quickly.

We were about halfway down the big hall when I heard the quiet footsteps behind us. My reaction was instantaneous and unthinking. I skittered to one side of the tunnel, sweeping Jamie along with one arm so that I was between him and whatever was coming for me.

"Hey!" he protested, but he did not knock my arm away.

Jeb was just as quick. The gun twirled out of its strap with blinding speed.

Ian and the doctor both raised their hands above their heads.

"We can mind our manners, too," the doctor said. It was hard to believe that this soft-spoken man with the friendly expression was the resident torturer; he was all the more terrifying to me because his exterior was so benign. A person would be on her guard on a dark and ominous night, a person would be ready. But on a clear, sunny day? How would she know to flee when she couldn't see any place for danger to hide?

Jeb squinted at Ian, the barrel of the gun shifting to follow his gaze.

"I don't mean any trouble, Jeb. I'll be just as mannerly as Doc."

"Fine," Jeb said curtly, stowing his gun. "Just don't test me. I haven't shot anybody in a real long time, and I sort of miss the thrill of it."

I gasped. Everyone heard that and turned to see my horrified expression. The doctor was the first one to laugh, but even Jamie joined in briefly.

"It's a joke," Jamie whispered to me. His hand strayed from his side, almost as if he was reaching for mine, but he quickly shoved it into the pocket of his shorts. I let my arm-still stretched protectively in front of his body-drop, too.

"Well, the day's wasting," Jeb said, still a little surly. "You'll all have to keep up, 'cause I'm not waiting on you." He stalked forward before he was done speaking.

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