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The Host (Chapter 22: Cracked)

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Jeb put his hands behind his head and looked up at the dark ceiling, his face thoughtful. His chatty mood had not passed.

"I've wondered a lot what it's like-getting caught, you know. Saw it happen more than once, come close a few times myself. What would it be like, I wondered. Would it hurt, having something put in your head? I've seen it done, you know."

My eyes widened in surprise, but he wasn't looking at me.

"Seems like you all use some kind of anesthetic, but that's just a guess. Nobody was screaming in agony or anything, though, so it couldn't be too torturous."

I wrinkled my nose. Torture. No, that was the humans' specialty.

"Those stories you were telling the kid were real interesting."

I stiffened and he laughed lightly. "Yeah, I was listening. Eavesdropping, I'll admit it. I'm not sorry-it was great stuff, and you won't talk to me the way you do with Jamie. I really got a kick out of those bats and the plants and spiders. Gives a man lots to think about. Always liked to read crazy, out-there stuff, science fiction and whatnot. Ate that stuff up. And the kid's like me-he's read all the books I've got, two, three times apiece. Must be a treat for him to get some new stories. Sure is for me. You're a good storyteller."

I kept my eyes down, but I felt myself softening, losing my guard a bit. Like anyone inside these emotional bodies, I was a sucker for flattery.

"Everyone here thinks you hunted us out to turn us over to the Seekers."

The word sent a shock jolting through me. My jaw stiffened and my teeth cut my tongue. I tasted blood.

"What other reason could there be?" he went on, oblivious to my reaction or ignoring it. "But they're just trapped in fixed notions, I think. I'm the only one with questions… I mean, what kind of a plan was that, to wander off into the desert without any way to get back?" He chuckled. "Wandering-guess that's your specialty, eh, Wanda?"

He leaned toward me and nudged me with one elbow. Wide with uncertainty, my eyes flickered to the floor, to his face, and back to the floor. He laughed again.

"That trek was just a few steps shy of a successful suicide, in my opinion. Definitely not a Seeker's MO, if you know what I mean. I've tried to reason it out. Use logic, right? So, if you didn't have backup, which I've seen no sign of, and you had no way to get back, then you must've had a different goal. You haven't been real talkative since you got here, 'cept with the kid just now, but I've listened to what you have said. Kind of seems to me like the reason you almost died out there was 'cause you were hell-bent on finding that kid and Jared."

I closed my eyes.

"Only why would you care?" Jeb asked, expecting no answer, just musing. "So, this is how I see it: either you're a really good actress-like a super-Seeker, some new breed, sneakier than the first-with some kind of a plan I can't figure out, or you're not acting. The first seems like a pretty complicated explanation for your behavior, then and now, and I don't buy it.

"But if you're not acting…"

He paused for a moment.

"Spent a lot of time watching your kind. I was always waiting for them to change, you know, when they didn't have to act like us anymore, because there was no one to act for. I kept on watching and waiting, but they just kept on actin' like humans. Staying with their bodies' families, going out for picnics in good weather, plantin' flowers and paintin' pictures and all the rest of it. I've been wondering if you all aren't turning sort of human. If we don't have some real influence, in the end."

He waited, giving me a chance to respond. I didn't.

"Saw something a few years ago that stuck with me. Old man and woman, well, the bodies of an old man and an old woman. Been together so long that the skin on their fingers grew in ridges around their wedding rings. They were holding hands, and he kissed her on her cheek, and she blushed under all those wrinkles. Occurred to me that you have all the same feelings we have, because you're really us, not just hands in a puppet."

"Yes," I whispered. "We have all the same feelings. Human feelings. Hope, and pain, and love."

"So, if you aren't acting… well, then I'd swear to it that you loved them both. You do. Wanda, not just Mel's body."

I put my head down on my arms. The gesture was tantamount to an admission, but I didn't care. I couldn't hold it up anymore.

"So that's you. But I wonder about my niece, too. What it was like for her, what it would be like for me. When they put somebody inside your head, are you just… gone? Erased? Like being dead? Or is it like being asleep? Are you aware of the outside control? Is it aware of you? Are you trapped there, screaming inside?"

I sat very still, trying to keep my face smooth.

"Plainly, your memories and behaviors, all that is left behind. But your consciousness… Seems like some people wouldn't go down without a fight. Hell, I know I would try to stay-never been one to take no for an answer, anyone will tell you that. I'm a fighter. All of us who are left are fighters. And, you know, I woulda pegged Mel for a fighter, too."

He didn't move his eyes from the ceiling, but I looked at the floor-stared at it, memorizing the patterns in the purple gray dust.

"Yeah, I've wondered about that a lot."

I could feel his eyes on me now, though my head was still down. I didn't move, except to breathe slowly in and out. It took a great deal of effort to keep that slow rhythm smooth. I had to swallow; the blood was still flowing in my mouth.

Why did we ever think he was crazy? Mel wondered. He sees everything. He's a genius.

He's both.

Well, maybe this means we don't have to keep quiet anymore. He knows. She was hopeful. She'd been very quiet lately, absent almost half the time. It wasn't as easy for her to concentrate when she was relatively happy. She'd won her big fight. She'd gotten us here. Her secrets were no longer in jeopardy; Jared and Jamie could never be betrayed by her memories.

With the fight taken out of her, it was harder for her to find the will to speak, even to me. I could see how the idea of discovery-of having the other humans recognize her existence-invigorated her.

Jeb knows, yes. Does that really change anything?

She thought about the way the other humans looked at Jeb. Right. She sighed. But I think Jamie… well, he doesn't know or guess, but I think he feels the truth.

You might be right. I guess we'll see if that does him or us any good, in the end.

Jeb could only manage to keep quiet for a few seconds, and then he was off again, interrupting us. "Pretty interesting stuff. Not as much bang! bang! as the movies I used to like. But still pretty interesting. I'd like to hear more about those spider thingies. I'm real curious… real curious, for sure."

I took a deep breath and raised my head. "What do you want to know?"

He smiled at me warmly, his eyes crinkling into half moons. "Three brains, right?"

I nodded.

"How many eyes?"

"Twelve-one at each juncture of the leg and the body. We didn't have lids, just a lot of fibers-like steel wool eyelashes-to protect them."

He nodded, his eyes bright. "Were they furry, like tarantulas?"

"No. Sort of… armored-scaled, like a reptile or a fish."

I slouched against the wall, settling myself in for a long conversation.

Jeb didn't disappoint on that count. I lost track of how many questions he asked me. He wanted details-the Spiders' looks, their behaviors, and how they'd handled Earth. He didn't flinch away from the invasion details; on the contrary, he almost seemed to enjoy that part more than the rest. His questions came fast on the heels of my answers, and his grins were frequent. When he was satisfied about the Spiders, hours later, he wanted to know more about the Flowers.

"You didn't half explain that one," he reminded me.

So I told him about that most beautiful and placid of planets. Almost every time I stopped to breathe, he interrupted me with a new question. He liked to guess the answers before I could speak and didn't seem to mind getting them wrong in the least.

"So did ya eat flies, like a Venus flytrap? I'll bet you did-or maybe something bigger, like a bird-like a pterodactyl!"

"No, we used sunlight for food, like most plants here."

"Well, that's not as much fun as my idea."

Sometimes I found myself laughing with him.

We were just moving on to the Dragons when Jamie showed up with dinner for three.

"Hi, Wanderer," he said, a little embarrassed.

"Hi, Jamie," I answered, a little shy, not sure if he would regret the closeness we'd shared. I was, after all, the bad guy.

But he sat down right next to me, between me and Jeb, crossing his legs and setting the food tray in the middle of our little conclave. I was starving, and parched from all the talking. I took a bowl of soup and downed it in a few gulps.

"Shoulda known you were just being polite in the mess hall today. Gotta speak up when you're hungry, Wanda. I'm no mind reader."

I didn't agree with that last part, but I was too busy chewing a mouthful of bread to answer.

"Wanda?" Jamie asked.

I nodded, letting him know that I didn't mind.

"Kinda suits her, doncha think?" Jeb was so proud of himself, I was surprised he didn't pat himself on the back, just for effect.

"Kinda, I guess," Jamie said. "Were you guys talking about dragons?"

"Yeah," Jeb told him enthusiastically, "but not the lizardy kind. They're all made up of jelly. They can fly, though… sort of. The air's thicker, sort of jelly, too. So it's almost like swimming. And they can breathe acid-that's about as good as fire, wouldn't you say?"

I let Jeb fill Jamie in on the details while I ate more than my share of food and drained a water bottle. When my mouth was free, Jeb started in with the questions again.

"Now, this acid…"

Jamie didn't ask questions the way Jeb did, and I was more careful about what I said with him there. However, this time Jeb never asked anything that might lead to a touchy subject, whether by coincidence or design, so my caution wasn't necessary.

The light slowly faded until the hallway was black. Then it was silver, a tiny, dim reflection from the moon that was just enough, as my eyes adjusted, to see the man and the boy beside me.

Jamie edged closer to me as the night wore on. I didn't realize that I was combing my fingers through his hair as I talked until I noticed Jeb staring at my hand.

I folded my arms across my body.

Finally, Jeb yawned a huge yawn that had me and Jamie doing the same.

"You tell a good story, Wanda," Jeb said when we were all done stretching.

"It's what I did… before. I was a teacher, at the university in San Diego. I taught history."

"A teacher!" Jeb repeated, excited. "Well, ain't that amazin'? There's something we could use around here. Mag's girl Sharon does the teaching for the three kids, but there's a lot she can't help with. She's most comfortable with math and the like. History, now -"

"I only taught our history," I interrupted. Waiting for him to take a breath wasn't going to work, it seemed. "I wouldn't be much help as a teacher here. I don't have any training."

"Your history is better than nothing. Things we human folks ought to know, seeing as we live in a more populated universe than we were aware of."

"But I wasn't a real teacher," I told him, desperate. Did he honestly think anyone wanted to hear my voice, let alone listen to my stories? "I was sort of an honorary professor, almost a guest lecturer. They only wanted me because… well, because of the story that goes along with my name."

"That's the next one I was going to ask for," Jeb said complacently. "We can talk about your teaching experience later. Now-why did they call you Wanderer? I've heard a bunch of odd ones, Dry Water, Fingers in the Sky, Falling Upward-all mixed in, of course, with the Pams and the Jims. I tell you, it's the kind of thing that can drive a man crazy with curiosity."

I waited till I was sure he was done to begin. "Well, the way it usually works is that a soul will try out a planet or two-two's the average-and then they'll settle in their favorite place. They just move to new hosts in the same species on the same planet when their body gets close to death. It's very disorienting moving from one kind of body to the next. Most souls really hate that. Some never move from the planet they are born on. Occasionally, someone has a hard time finding a good fit. They may try three planets. I met a soul once who'd been to five before he'd settled with the Bats. I liked it there-I suppose that's the closest I've ever come to choosing a planet. If it hadn't been for the blindness…"

"How many planets have you lived on?" Jamie asked in a hushed voice. Somehow, while I'd been talking, his hand had found its way into mine.

"This is my ninth," I told him, squeezing his fingers gently.

"Wow, nine!" he breathed.

"That's why they wanted me to teach. Anybody can tell them our statistics, but I have personal experience from most of the planets we've… taken." I hesitated at that word, but it didn't seem to bother Jamie. "There are only three I've never been to-well, now four. They just opened a new world."

I expected Jeb to jump in with questions about the new world, or the ones I'd skipped, but he just played absently with the ends of his beard.

"Why did you never stay anywhere?" Jamie asked.

"I never found a place I liked enough to stay."

"What about Earth? Do you think you'll stay here?"

I wanted to smile at his child's confidence-as if I were going to get the chance to ever move on to another host. As if I were going to get the chance to live out even another month in the one I had.

"Earth is… very interesting," I murmured. "It's harder than any place I've been before."

"Harder than the place with the frozen air and the claw beasts?" he asked.

"In its own way, yes." How could I explain that the Mists Planet only came at you from the outside-it was much more difficult to be attacked from within.

Attacked, Melanie scoffed.

I yawned. I wasn't actually thinking of you, I told her. I was thinking of these unstable emotions, always betraying me. But you did attack me. Pushing your memories on me that way.

I learned my lesson, she assured me dryly. I could feel how intensely aware she was of the hand in mine. There was an emotion slowly building in her that I didn't recognize. Something on the edge of anger, with a hint of desire and a portion of despair.

Jealousy, she enlightened me.

Jeb yawned again. "I'm being downright rude, I guess. You must be bushed-walking all over today and then me keepin' you up half the night talking. Ought to be a better host. C'mon, Jamie, let's go and let Wanda get some sleep."

I was exhausted. It felt as if it had been a very long day, and, from Jeb's words, perhaps that wasn't in my imagination.

"Okay, Uncle Jeb." Jamie jumped lightly to his feet and then offered his hand to the old man.

"Thanks, kid." Jeb groaned as he got up. "And thanks to you, too," he added in my direction. "Most interesting conversation I've had in… well, probably forever. Rest your voice up, Wanda, because my curiosity is a powerful thing. Ah, there he is! 'Bout time."

Only then did I hear the sound of approaching footsteps. Automatically, I shrank against the wall and scooted farther back into the cave-room, and then felt more exposed because the moonlight was brighter inside.

I was surprised that this was the first person to turn in for the night; the corridor appeared to house many.

"Sorry, Jeb. I got to talking with Sharon, and then I sort of dozed off."

It was impossible not to recognize this easy, gentle voice. My stomach rolled, unstable, and I wished it were empty.

"We didn't even notice, Doc," Jeb said. "We were having the time of our lives here. Someday you'll have to get her to tell you some of her stories-great stuff. Not tonight, though. She's got to be pretty worn out, I'd bet. We'll see you in the morning."

The doctor was spreading a mat out in front of the cave entrance, just as Jared had.

"Keep an eye on this," Jeb said, laying the gun beside the mat.

"Are you okay, Wanda?" Jamie asked. "You're shaking."

I hadn't realized it, but my whole body was quivering. I didn't answer him-my throat felt swollen shut.

"Now, now," Jeb said in a soothing voice. "I asked Doc if he minded taking a shift. You don't need to worry about anything. Doc's an honorable man."

The doctor smiled a sleepy smile. "I'm not going to hurt you… Wanda, is it? I promise. I'll just keep watch while you sleep."

I bit my lip, and the quivering didn't stop.

Jeb seemed to think everything was settled, though. "Night, Wanda. Night, Doc," he said as he started back down the hall.

Jamie hesitated, looking at me with a worried expression. "Doc's okay," he promised in a whisper.

"C'mon, boy, it's late!"

Jamie hurried off after Jeb.

I watched the doctor when they were gone, waiting for some change. Doc's relaxed expression didn't waver, though, and he didn't touch the gun. He stretched his long frame out on the mat, his calves and feet hanging off the end. Lying down, he looked much smaller, he was so rail thin.

"Good night," he murmured drowsily.

Of course I didn't answer. I watched him in the dull moonlight, timing the rise and fall of his chest by the sound of the pulse thudding in my ears. His breathing slowed and got deeper, and then he began to quietly snore.

It could have been an act, but even if it was, there wasn't much I could do about it. Silently, I crept deeper into the room, till I felt the edge of the mattress against my back. I'd promised myself that I would not disturb this place, but it probably wouldn't hurt anything if I just curled up on the foot of the bed. The floor was rough and so hard.

The sound of the doctor's soft snoring was comforting; even if it was put on to calm me, at least I knew exactly where he was in the darkness.

Live or die, I figured I might as well go ahead and sleep. I was dog tired, as Melanie would say. I let my eyes close. The mattress was softer than anything I'd touched since coming here. I relaxed, sinking in…

There was a low shuffling sound-it was inside the room with me. My eyes popped open, and I could see a shadow between the moonlit ceiling and me. Outside, the doctor's snores continued uninterrupted.

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