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The Host (Chapter 23: Confessed)

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The shadow was huge and misshapen. It loomed over me, top-heavy, swinging closer to my face.

I think I meant to scream, but the sound got trapped in my throat, and all that came out was a breathless squeak.

"Shh, it's just me," Jamie whispered. Something bulky and roundish rolled from his shoulders and plopped softly to the floor. When it was gone I could see his true, lithe shadow against the moonlight.

I caught a few gasps of air, my hand clutching at my throat.

"Sorry," he whispered, sitting down on the edge of the mattress. "I guess that was pretty stupid. I was trying not to wake Doc-I didn't even think how I would scare you. You okay?" He patted my ankle, which was the part of me closest to him.

"Sure," I huffed, still breathless.

"Sorry," he muttered again.

"What are you doing here, Jamie? Shouldn't you be asleep?"

"That's why I'm here. Uncle Jeb was snoring like you wouldn't believe. I couldn't stand it anymore."

His answer didn't make sense to me. "Don't you usually sleep with Jeb?"

Jamie yawned and bent to untie the bulky bedroll he'd dropped to the floor. "No, I usually sleep with Jared. He doesn't snore. But you know that."

I did.

"Why don't you sleep in Jared's room, then? Are you afraid to sleep alone?" I wouldn't have blamed him for that. It seemed like I was constantly terrified here.

"Afraid," he grumbled, offended. "No. This is Jared's room. And mine."

"What?" I gasped. "Jeb put me in Jared's room?"

I couldn't believe it. Jared would kill me. No, he would kill Jeb first, and then he would kill me.

"It's my room, too. And I told Jeb you could have it."

"Jared will be furious," I whispered.

"I can do what I want with my room," Jamie muttered rebelliously, but then he bit his lip. "We won't tell him. He doesn't have to know."

I nodded. "Good idea."

"You don't mind if I sleep in here, do you? Uncle Jeb's really loud."

"No, I don't mind. But Jamie, I don't think you should."

He frowned, trying to be tough instead of hurt. "Why not?"

"Because it's not safe. Sometimes people come looking for me at night."

His eyes went wide. "They do?"

"Jared always had the gun-they went away."

"Who?"

"I don't know-Kyle sometimes. But there are surely others who are still here."

He nodded. "All the more reason why I should stay. Doc might need help."

"Jamie -"

"I'm not a kid, Wanda. I can take care of myself."

Obviously, arguing was only going to make him more stubborn. "At least take the bed," I said, surrendering. "I'll sleep on the floor. It's your room."

"That's not right. You're the guest."

I snorted quietly. "Ha. No, the bed is yours."

"No way." He lay down on the mat, folding his arms tightly across his chest.

Again, I saw that arguing was the wrong approach to take with Jamie. Well, this one I could rectify as soon as he was asleep. Jamie slept so deeply it was almost a coma. Melanie could carry him anywhere once he was out.

"You can use my pillow," he told me, patting the one next to the side where he lay. "You don't need to scrunch up at the bottom there."

I sighed but crawled to the top of the bed.

"That's right," he said approvingly. "Now, could you throw me Jared's?"

I hesitated, about to reach for the pillow under my head; he jumped up, leaned over me, and snatched the other pillow. I sighed again.

We lay in silence for a while, listening to the low whistle of the doctor's breathing.

"Doc has a nice snore, doesn't he?" Jamie whispered.

"It won't keep you up," I agreed.

"You tired?"

"Yeah."

"Oh."

I waited for him to say something more, but he was quiet.

"Was there something you wanted?" I asked.

He didn't answer right away, but I could feel him struggling, so I waited.

"If I asked you something, would you tell me the truth?"

It was my turn to hesitate. "I don't know everything," I hedged.

"You would know this. When we were walking… me and Jeb… he was telling me some things. Things he thought, but I don't know if he's right."

Melanie was suddenly very there in my head.

Jamie's whisper was hard to hear, quieter than my breathing. "Uncle Jeb thinks that Melanie might still be alive. Inside there with you, I mean."

My Jamie. Melanie sighed.

I said nothing to either of them.

"I didn't know that could happen. Does that happen?" His voice broke, and I could hear that he was fighting tears. He was not a boy to cry, and here I'd grieved him this deeply twice in one day. A pain pierced through the general region of my chest.

"Does it, Wanda?"

Tell him. Please tell him that I love him.

"Why won't you answer me?" Jamie was really crying now but trying to muffle the sound.

I crawled off the bed, squeezing into the hard space between the mattress and the mat, and threw my arm over his shaking chest. I leaned my head against his hair and felt his tears, warm on my neck.

"Is Melanie still alive, Wanda? Please?"

He was probably a tool. The old man could have sent him just for this; Jeb was smart enough to see how easily Jamie broke through my defenses. It was possible that Jeb was seeking confirmation for his theory, and he wasn't against using the boy to get it. What would Jeb do when he was certain of the dangerous truth? How would he use the information? I didn't think he meant me harm, but could I trust my own judgment? Humans were deceitful, treacherous creatures. I couldn't anticipate their darker agendas when such things were unthinkable to my species.

Jamie's body shook beside me.

He's suffering, Melanie cried. She battered ineffectually at my control.

But I couldn't blame this on Melanie if it turned out to be a huge mistake. I knew who was speaking now.

"She promised she would come back, didn't she?" I murmured. "Would Melanie break a promise to you?"

Jamie slid his arms around my waist and clung to me for a long time. After a few minutes, he whispered, "Love you, Mel."

"She loves you, too. She's so happy that you're here and safe."

He was silent long enough for the tears on my skin to dry, leaving a fine, salty dust behind.

"Is everybody like that?" Jamie whispered long after I thought he'd fallen asleep. "Does everybody stay?"

"No," I told him sadly. "No. Melanie is special."

"She's strong and brave."

"Very."

"Do you think…" He paused to sniff. "Do you think that maybe Dad is still there, too?"

I swallowed, trying to move the lump farther down my throat. It didn't work. "No, Jamie. No, I don't think so. Not like Melanie is."

"Why?"

"Because he brought the Seekers looking for you. Well, the soul inside him did. Your father wouldn't have let that happen if he were still there. Your sister never let me see where the cabin was-she didn't even let me know that you existed for the longest time. She didn't bring me here until she was sure that I wouldn't hurt you."

It was too much information. Only as I finished speaking did I realize that the doctor wasn't snoring anymore. I could hear no noise from his breathing. Stupid. I cursed myself internally.

"Wow," Jamie said.

I whispered into his ear, so close that there was no way the doctor could possibly overhear. "Yes, she's very strong."

Jamie strained to hear me, frowning, and then glanced at the opening to the dark hall. He must have realized the same thing I had, because he turned his face to my ear and whispered back softer than before. "Why would you do that? Not hurt us? Isn't that what you want?"

"No. I don't want to hurt you."

"Why?"

"Your sister and I have… spent a lot of time together. She shared you with me. And… I started to… to love you, too."

"And Jared, too?"

I gritted my teeth for a second, chagrined that he had made the connection so easily. "Of course I don't want anything to hurt Jared, either."

"He hates you," Jamie told me, plainly grieved by the fact.

"Yes. Everyone does." I sighed. "I can't blame them."

"Jeb doesn't. And I don't."

"You might, after you think about it more."

"But you weren't even here when they took over. You didn't pick my dad or my mom or Melanie. You were in outer space then, right?"

"Yes, but I am what I am, Jamie. I did what souls do. I've had many hosts before Melanie, and nothing's stopped me from… taking lives. Again and again. It's how I live."

"Does Melanie hate you?"

I thought for a minute. "Not as much as she used to."

No. I don't hate you at all. Not anymore.

"She says she doesn't hate me at all anymore," I murmured almost silently.

"How… how is she?"

"She's happy to be here. She's so happy to see you. She doesn't even care that they're going to kill us."

Jamie stiffened under my arm. "They can't! Not if Mel's still alive!"

You've upset him, Melanie complained. You didn't have to say that.

It won't be any easier for him if he's unprepared.

"They won't believe that, Jamie," I whispered. "They'll think I'm lying to trick you. They'll just want to kill me more if you tell them that. Only Seekers lie."

The word made him shudder.

"But you're not lying. I know it," he said after a moment.

I shrugged.

"I won't let them kill her."

His voice, though quiet as a breath, was fierce with determination. I was paralyzed at the thought of him becoming more involved with this situation, with me. I thought of the barbarians he lived with. Would his age protect him from them if he tried to protect me? I doubted it. My thoughts scrambled, searching for some way to dissuade him without triggering his stubbornness.

Jamie spoke before I could say anything; he was suddenly calm, as if the answer was plain in front of him. "Jared will think of something. He always does."

"Jared won't believe you, either. He'll be the angriest of them all."

"Even if he doesn't believe it, he'll protect her. Just in case."

"We'll see," I muttered. I'd find the perfect words later-the argument that would not sound like an argument.

Jamie was quiet, thinking. Eventually, his breathing got slower, and his mouth fell open. I waited until I was sure he was deeply under, and then I crawled over him and very carefully shifted him from the floor to the bed. He was heavier than before, but I managed. He didn't wake.

I put Jared's pillow back where it belonged, and then stretched out on the mat.

Well, I thought, I just hurled myself out of the frying pan. But I was too tired to care what this would mean tomorrow. Within seconds, I was unconscious.

When I woke, the crevices in the ceiling were bright with echoed sunlight, and someone was whistling.

The whistling stopped.

"Finally," Jeb muttered when my eyes fluttered.

I rolled onto my side so that I could look at him; as I moved, Jamie's hand slid from my arm. Sometime in the night he must have reached out to me-well, not to me, to his sister.

Jeb was leaning against the natural rock door frame, his arms folded across his chest. "Morning," he said. "Get enough sleep?"

I stretched, decided that I felt acceptably rested, and then nodded.

"Oh, don't give me the silent treatment again," he complained, scowling.

"Sorry," I murmured. "I slept well, thank you."

Jamie stirred at the sound of my voice.

"Wanda?" he asked.

I was ridiculously touched that it was my silly nickname that he spoke on the edge of sleep.

"Yes?"

Jamie blinked and pulled his tangled hair out of his eyes. "Oh, hey, Uncle Jeb."

"My room not good enough for you, kid?"

"You snore real loud," Jamie said, and then yawned.

"Haven't I taught you anything?" Jeb asked him. "Since when do you let a guest and a lady sleep on the floor?"

Jamie sat up suddenly, staring around, disoriented. He frowned.

"Don't upset him," I told Jeb. "He insisted on taking the mat. I moved him when he was asleep."

Jamie snorted. "Mel always used to do that, too."

I widened my eyes slightly at him, trying to convey a warning.

Jeb chuckled. I looked up at him, and he had that same pouncing-cat expression he'd had yesterday. The solved-puzzle expression. He walked over and kicked the edge of the mattress.

"You've already missed your morning class. Sharon's bound to be testy about that, so get a move on."

"Sharon is always testy," Jamie complained, but he got to his feet quickly.

"On your way, boy."

Jamie looked at me again, then he turned and disappeared into the hall.

"Now," Jeb said as soon as we were alone. "I think all this baby-sitting nonsense has gone on long enough. I'm a busy man. Everyone is busy here-too busy to sit around playin' guard. So today you're going to have to come along with me while I get my chores done."

I felt my mouth pop open.

He stared at me, no smile.

"Don't look so terrified," he grumbled. "You'll be fine." He patted his gun. "My house is no place for babies."

I couldn't argue with that. I took three quick, deep breaths, trying to steady my nerves. Blood pulsed so loudly in my ears that his voice seemed quiet in comparison when he spoke again.

"C'mon, Wanda. Day's wasting."

He turned and stomped out of the room.

I was frozen for a moment, and then I lurched out after him. He wasn't bluffing-he was already invisible around the first corner. I raced after him, horrified by the thought that I might run into someone else in this obviously inhabited wing. I caught up to him before he reached the big intersection of the tunnels. He didn't even look at me as I slowed beside him to match his pace.

"'Bout time that northeast field was planted. We'll have to work the soil first. Hope you don't mind getting your hands dirty. After we're done, I'll see that you get a chance to clean yourself up. You need it." He sniffed pointedly, then laughed.

I felt the back of my neck get hot, but I ignored the last part. "I don't mind getting my hands dirty," I murmured. As I recalled, the empty northeastern field was out of the way. Perhaps we would be able to work alone.

Once we got to the big plaza cave, we started passing humans. They all stared, infuriated, as usual. I was beginning to recognize most of them: the middle-aged woman with the long salt-and-pepper braid I had seen with the irrigation team yesterday. The short man with the round belly, thinning sandy hair, and ruddy cheeks had been with her. The athletic-looking woman with the caramel brown skin had been the one bent to tie her shoe the first time I'd come out here during the day. Another dark-skinned woman with thick lips and sleepy eyes had been in the kitchen, near the two black-haired children-perhaps she was their mother? Now we passed Maggie; she glowered at Jeb and turned her face away from me. We passed a pale, sick-looking man with white hair whom I was sure I'd never seen before. Then we passed Ian.

"Hey, Jeb," he said cheerfully. "Whatcha up to?"

"Turning the soil in the east field," Jeb grunted.

"Want some help?"

"Ought to make yourself useful," Jeb muttered.

Ian took this as an assent and fell into step behind me. It gave me goose bumps, feeling his eyes on my back.

We passed a young man who couldn't have been many years older than Jamie-his dark hair stood up from his olive-toned forehead like steel wool.

"Hey, Wes," Ian greeted him.

Wes watched in silence as we passed. Ian laughed at his expression.

We passed Doc.

"Hey, Doc," Ian said.

"Ian." Doc nodded. In his hands was a big wad of dough. His shirt was covered with dark, coarse flour. "Morning, Jeb. Morning, Wanda."

"Morning," Jeb answered.

I nodded uneasily.

"See you 'round," Doc said, hurrying off with his burden.

"Wanda, huh?" Ian asked.

"My idea," Jeb told him. "Suits her, I think."

"Interesting" was all Ian said.

We finally made it to the northeastern field, where my hopes were dashed.

There were more people here than there had been in the passageways-five women and nine men. They all stopped what they were doing and scowled, naturally.

"Pay 'em no mind," Jeb murmured to me.

Jeb proceeded to follow his own advice; he went to a jumbled pile of tools against the closest wall, shoved his gun through the strap at his waist, and grabbed a pick and two shovels.

I felt exposed, having him so far away. Ian was just a step behind me-I could hear him breathing. The others in the room continued to glower, their tools still in their hands. I didn't miss the fact that the picks and hoes that were breaking the earth could easily be used to break a body. It seemed to me, in reading a few of their expressions, that I wasn't the only one with that idea.

Jeb came back and handed me a shovel. I gripped the smooth, worn wooden handle, feeling its weight. After seeing the bloodlust in the humans' eyes, it was hard not to think of it as a weapon. I didn't like the idea. I doubted I could raise it as one, even to block a blow.

Jeb gave Ian the pick. The sharp, blackened metal looked deadly in his hands. It took all my willpower not to skip out of range.

"Let's take the back corner."

At least Jeb took me to the least crowded spot in the long, sunny cave. He had Ian pulverize the hard-baked dirt ahead of us, while I flipped the clods over and he followed behind, crushing the chunks into usable soil with the edge of his shovel.

Watching the sweat run down Ian's fair skin-he'd removed his shirt after a few seconds in the dry scorch of the mirror light-and hearing Jeb's grunted breaths behind me, I could see that I had the easiest job. I wished I had something more difficult to do, something that would keep me from being distracted by the movements of the other humans. Their every motion had me cringing and flinching.

I couldn't do Ian's job-I didn't have the thick arm and back muscles needed to really chew into the hard soil. But I decided to do what I could of Jeb's, prechopping the clods into smaller bits before I moved on. It helped a little bit-kept my eyes busy and tired me out so that I had to concentrate on making myself work.

Ian brought us water now and then. There was a woman-short and fair, I'd seen her in the kitchen yesterday-who seemed to have the job of bringing water to the others, but she ignored us. Ian brought enough for three every time. I found his about-face in regard to me unsettling. Was he really no longer intent on my death? Or just looking for an opportunity? The water always tasted funny here-sulfurous and stale-but now that taste seemed suspicious. I tried to ignore the paranoia as much as possible.

I was working hard enough to keep my eyes busy and my mind numb; I didn't notice when we hit the end of the last row. I stopped only when Ian did. He stretched, pulling the pick overhead with two hands and popping his joints. I shied away from the raised pick, but he didn't see. I realized that everyone else had stopped, too. I looked at the fresh-turned dirt, even across the entire floor, and realized that the field was complete.

"Good work," Jeb announced in a loud voice to the group. "We'll seed and water tomorrow."

The room was filled with soft chatter and clanks as the tools were piled against the wall once more. Some of the talk was casual; some was still tense because of me. Ian held his hand out for my shovel, and I handed it to him, feeling my already low mood sink right to the floor. I had no doubt that I would be included in Jeb's "we." Tomorrow would be just as hard as today.

I looked at Jeb mournfully, and he was smiling in my direction. There was a smugness to his grin that made me believe he knew what I was thinking-not only did he guess my discomfort, but he was enjoying it.

He winked at me, my crazy friend. I realized again that this was the best to be expected from human friendship.

"See you tomorrow, Wanda," Ian called from across the room, and laughed to himself.

Everyone stared.

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