The Host (Chapter 24: Tolerated)
I'd lost count of how many days I'd spent here-was it more than a week now? more than two?-and all of them sweating into the same clothes I'd worn on my disastrous desert trek. So much salt had dried into my cotton shirt that it was creased into rigid accordion wrinkles. It used to be pale yellow; now it was a splotchy, diseased-looking print in the same dark purple color as the cave floor. My short hair was crunchy and gritty; I could feel it standing out in wild tangles around my head, with a stiff crest on top, like a cockatoo's. I hadn't seen my face recently, but I imagined it in two shades of purple: cave-dirt purple and healing-bruise purple.
So I could understand Jeb's point-yes, I needed a bath. And a change of clothes as well, to make the bath worth the effort. Jeb offered me some of Jamie's clothes to wear while mine dried, but I didn't want to ruin Jamie's few things by stretching them. Thankfully, he didn't try to offer me anything of Jared's. I ended up with an old but clean flannel shirt of Jeb's that had the sleeves ripped off, and a pair of faded, holey cutoff sweatpants that had gone unclaimed for months. These were draped over my arm-and a bumpy mound of vile-smelling, loosely molded chunks that Jeb claimed was homemade cactus soap was in my hand-as I followed Jeb to the room with the two rivers.
Again we were not alone, and again I was miserably disappointed that this was the case. Three men and one woman-the salt-and-pepper braid-were filling buckets with water from the smaller stream. A loud splashing and laughing echoed from the bathing room.
"We'll just wait our turn," Jeb told me.
He leaned against the wall. I stood stiffly beside him, uncomfortably conscious of the four pairs of eyes on me, though I kept my own on the dark hot spring rushing by underneath the porous floor.
After a short wait, three women exited the bathing room, their wet hair dripping down the backs of their shirts-the athletic caramel-skinned woman, a young blonde I didn't remember seeing before, and Melanie's cousin Sharon. Their laughter stopped abruptly as soon as they caught sight of us.
"Afternoon, ladies," Jeb said, touching his forehead as if it were the brim of a hat.
"Jeb," the caramel woman acknowledged dryly.
Sharon and the other girl ignored us.
"Okay, Wanda," he said when they'd passed. "It's all yours."
I gave him a glum look, then made my way carefully into the black room.
I tried to remember how the floor went-I was sure I had a few feet before the edge of the water. I took off my shoes first, so that I could feel for the water with my toes.
It was just so dark. I remembered the inky appearance of the pool-ripe with suggestions of what might lurk beneath its opaque surface-and shuddered. But the longer I waited, the longer I would have to be here, so I put the clean clothes next to my shoes, kept the smelly soap, and shuffled forward carefully until I found the lip of the pool.
The water was cool compared to the steamy air of the outer cavern. It felt nice. That didn't keep me from being terrified, but I could still appreciate the sensation. It had been a long time since anything had been cool. Still fully dressed in my dirty clothes, I waded in waist deep. I could feel the stream's current swirl around my ankles, hugging the rock. I was glad the water was not stagnant-it would be upsetting to sully it, filthy as I was, if that were the case.
I crouched down into the ink until I was immersed to my shoulders. I ran the coarse soap over my clothes, thinking this would be the easiest way to make sure they were clean. Where the soap touched my skin, it burned mildly.
I took off the soapy clothes and scrubbed them under the water. Then I rinsed them again and again until there was no way any of my sweat or tears could have survived, wrung them out, and laid them on the floor beside where I thought my shoes were.
The soap burned more strongly against my bare skin, but the sting was bearable because it meant I could be clean again. When I was done lathering, my skin prickled everywhere and my scalp felt scalded. It seemed as if the places where the bruises had formed were more sensitive than the rest of me-they must still have been there. I was happy to put the acidic soap on the rock floor and rinse my body again and again, the way I had my clothes.
It was with a strange mingling of relief and regret that I sloshed my way out of the pool. The water was very pleasant, as was the feeling of clean, if prickling, skin. But I'd had quite enough of the blindness and the things I could imagine into the darkness. I felt around until I found the dry clothes, then I pulled them quickly on and shoved my water-wrinkled feet into my shoes. I carried my wet clothes in one hand and the soap gingerly between two fingers of the other.
Jeb laughed when I emerged; his eyes were on the soap in my cautious grasp.
"Smarts a bit, don't it? We're trying to fix that." He held out his hand, protected by the tail of his shirt, and I placed the soap in it.
I didn't answer his question because we weren't alone; there was a line waiting silently behind him-five people, all of them from the field turning.
Ian was first in line.
"You look better," he told me, but I couldn't tell from his tone if he was surprised or annoyed that I did.
He raised one arm, extending his long, pale fingers toward my neck. I flinched away, and he dropped his hand quickly.
"Sorry about that," he muttered.
Did he mean for scaring me now or for marking up my neck in the first place? I couldn't imagine that he was apologizing for trying to kill me. Surely he still wanted me dead. But I wasn't going to ask. I started walking, and Jeb fell into step behind me.
"So, today wasn't that bad," Jeb said as we walked through the dark corridor.
"Not that bad," I murmured. After all, I hadn't been murdered. That was always a plus.
"Tomorrow will be even better," he promised. "I always enjoy planting-seeing the miracle of the little dead-looking seeds having so much life in them. Makes me feel like a withered old guy might have some potential left in him. Even if it's only to be fertilizer." Jeb laughed at his joke.
When we got to the big garden cavern, Jeb took my elbow and steered me east rather than west.
"Don't try to tell me you're not hungry after all that digging," he said. "It's not my job to provide room service. You're just going to have to eat where everyone else eats."
I grimaced at the floor but let him lead me to the kitchen.
It was a good thing the food was exactly the same thing as always, because if, miraculously, a filet mignon or a bag of Cheetos had materialized, I wouldn't have been able to taste a thing. It took all my concentration just to make myself swallow-I hated to make even that small sound in the dead silence that followed my appearance. The kitchen wasn't crowded, just ten people lounging against the counters, eating their tough rolls and drinking their watery soup. But I killed all conversation again. I wondered how long things could last like this.
The answer was exactly four days.
It also took me that long to understand what Jeb was up to, what the motivation was behind his switch from the courteous host to the curmudgeonly taskmaster.
The day after turning the soil I spent seeding and irrigating the same field. It was a different group of people than the day before; I imagined there was some kind of rotation of the chores here. Maggie was in this group, and the caramel-skinned woman, but I didn't learn her name. Mostly everyone worked in silence. The silence felt unnatural-a protest against my presence.
Ian worked with us, when it was clearly not his turn, and this bothered me.
I had to eat in the kitchen again. Jamie was there, and he kept the room from total silence. I knew he was too sensitive not to notice the awkward hush, but he deliberately ignored it, seeming to pretend that he and Jeb and I were the only people in the room. He chattered about his day in Sharon's class, bragging a little about some trouble he'd gotten into for speaking out of turn, and complaining about the chores she'd given him as punishment. Jeb chastised him halfheartedly. They both did a very good job of acting normal. I had no acting ability. When Jamie asked me about my day, the best I could do was stare intently at my food and mumble one-word answers. This seemed to make him sad, but he didn't push me.
At night it was a different story-he wouldn't let me stop talking until I begged to be allowed to sleep. Jamie had reclaimed his room, taking Jared's side of the bed and insisting that I take his. This was very much as Melanie remembered things, and she approved of the arrangement.
Jeb did, too. "Saves me the trouble of finding someone to play guard. Keep the gun close and don't forget it's there," he told Jamie.
I protested again, but both the man and the boy refused to listen to me. So Jamie slept with the gun on the other side of his body from me, and I fretted and had nightmares about it.
The third day of chores, I worked in the kitchen. Jeb taught me how to knead the coarse bread dough, how to lay it out in round lumps and let it rise, and, later on, how to feed the fire in the bottom of the big stone oven when it was dark enough to let the smoke out.
In the middle of the afternoon, Jeb left.
"I'm gonna get some more flour," he muttered, playing with the strap that held the gun to his waist.
The three silent women who kneaded alongside us didn't look up. I was up to my elbows in the sticky dough, but I started to scrape it off so I could follow him.
Jeb grinned, flashed a look at the unobserving women, and shook his head at me. Then he spun around and dashed out of the room before I could free myself.
I froze there, no longer breathing. I stared at the three women-the young blonde from the bathing room, the salt-and-pepper braid, and the heavy-lidded mother-waiting for them to realize that they could kill me now. No Jeb, no gun, my hands trapped in the gluey dough-nothing to stop them.
But the women kept on kneading and shaping, not seeming to realize this glaring truth. After a long, breathless moment, I started kneading again, too. My stillness would probably alert them to the situation sooner than if I kept working.
Jeb was gone for an eternity. Perhaps he had meant that he needed to grind more flour. That seemed like the only explanation for his endless absence.
"Took you long enough," the salt-and-pepper-braid woman said when he got back, so I knew it wasn't just my imagination.
Jeb dropped a heavy burlap sack to the floor with a deep thud. "That's a lot of flour there. You try carryin' it, Trudy."
Trudy snorted. "I imagine it took a lot of rest stops to get it this far."
Jeb grinned at her. "It sure did."
My heart, which had been thrumming like a bird's for the entire episode, settled into a less frantic rhythm.
The next day we were cleaning mirrors in the room that housed the cornfield. Jeb told me this was something they had to do routinely, as the combination of humidity and dust caked the mirrors until the light was too dim to feed the plants. It was Ian, working with us again, who scaled the rickety wooden ladder while Jeb and I tried to keep the base steady. It was a difficult task, given Ian's weight and the homemade ladder's poor balance. By the end of the day, my arms were limp and aching.
I didn't even notice until we were done and heading for the kitchen that the improvised holster Jeb always wore was empty.
I gasped out loud, my knees locking like a startled colt's. My body tottered to a halt.
"What's wrong, Wanda?" Jeb asked, too innocent.
I would have answered if Ian hadn't been right beside him, watching my strange behavior with fascination in his vivid blue eyes.
So I just gave Jeb a wide-eyed look of mingled disbelief and reproach, and then slowly began walking beside him again, shaking my head. Jeb chuckled.
"What's that about?" Ian muttered to Jeb, as if I were deaf.
"Beats me," Jeb said; he lied as only a human could, smooth and guileless.
He was a good liar, and I began to wonder if leaving the gun behind today, and leaving me alone yesterday, and all this effort forcing me into human company was his way of getting me killed without doing the job himself. Was the friendship all in my head? Another lie?
This was my fourth day eating in the kitchen.
Jeb, Ian, and I walked into the long, hot room-into a crowd of humans chatting in low voices about the day's events-and nothing happened.
There was no sudden silence. No one paused to stare daggers at me. No one seemed to notice us at all.
Jeb steered me to an empty counter and then went to get enough bread for three. Ian lounged next to me, casually turning to the girl on his other side. It was the young blonde-he called her Paige.
"How are things going? How are you holding up with Andy gone?" he asked her.
"I'd be fine if I weren't so worried," she told him, biting her lip.
"He'll be home soon," Ian assured her. "Jared always brings everyone home. He's got a real talent. We've had no accidents, no problems since he showed up. Andy will be fine."
My interest sparked when he mentioned Jared-and Melanie, so somnolent these days, stirred-but Ian didn't say anything else. He just patted Paige's shoulder and turned to take his food from Jeb.
Jeb sat next to me and surveyed the room with a deep sense of satisfaction plain on his face. I looked around the room, too, trying to see what he saw. This must have been what it was usually like here, when I wasn't around. Only today I didn't seem to bother them. They must have been tired of letting me interrupt their lives.
"Things are settling down," Ian commented to Jeb.
"Knew they would. We're all reasonable folks here."
I frowned to myself.
"That's true, at the moment," Ian said, laughing. "My brother's not around."
"Exactly," Jeb agreed.
It was interesting to me that Ian counted himself among the reasonable folks. Had he noticed that Jeb was unarmed? I was burning with curiosity, but I couldn't risk pointing it out in case he hadn't.
The meal continued as it had begun. My novelty had apparently worn off.
When the meal was over, Jeb said I deserved a rest. He walked me all the way to my door, playing the gentleman again.
"Afternoon, Wanda," he said, tipping his imaginary hat.
I took a deep breath for bravery. "Jeb, wait."
"Jeb…" I hesitated, trying to find a polite way to put it. "I… well, maybe it's stupid of me, but I sort of thought we were friends."
I scrutinized his face, looking for any change that might indicate that he was about to lie to me. He only looked kind, but what did I know of a liar's tells?
"Of course we are, Wanda."
"Then why are you trying to get me killed?"
His furry brows pulled together in surprise. "Now, why would you think that, honey?"
I listed my evidence. "You didn't take the gun today. And yesterday you left me alone."
Jeb grinned. "I thought you hated that gun."
I waited for an answer.
"Wanda, if I wanted you dead, you wouldn't have lasted that first day."
"I know," I muttered, starting to feel embarrassed without understanding why. "That's why it's all so confusing."
Jeb laughed cheerfully. "No, I don't want you dead! That's the whole point, kid. I've been getting them all used to seeing you around, getting them to accept the situation without realizing it. It's like boiling a frog."
My forehead creased at the eccentric comparison.
Jeb explained. "If you throw a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will hop right out. But if you put that frog in a pot of tepid water and slowly warm it, the frog doesn't figure out what's going on until it's too late. Boiled frog. It's just a matter of working by slow degrees."
I thought about that for a second-remembered how the humans had ignored me at lunch today. Jeb had gotten them used to me. The realization made me feel strangely hopeful. Hope was a silly thing in my situation, but it seeped into me anyway, coloring my perceptions more brightly than before.
"Am I the frog or the water?"
He laughed. "I'll leave that one for you to puzzle over. Self-examination is good for the soul." He laughed again, louder this time, as he turned to leave. "No pun intended."
"Wait-can I ask one more?"
"Sure. I'd say it's your turn anyway, after all I've asked you."
"Why are you my friend, Jeb?"
He pursed his lips for a second, considering his answer.
"You know I'm a curious man," he began, and I nodded. "Well, I get to watch your souls a lot, but I never get to talk with 'em. I've had so many questions just piling up higher and higher… Plus, I've always thought that if a person wants to, he can get along with just about anybody. I like putting my theories to the test. And see, here you are, one of the nicest gals I ever met. It's real interesting to have a soul as a friend, and it makes me feel super special that I've managed it."
He winked at me, bowed from the waist, and walked away.
Just because I now understood Jeb's plan, it didn't make things easier when he escalated it.
He never took the gun anywhere anymore. I didn't know where it was, but I was grateful that Jamie wasn't sleeping with it, at least. It made me a little nervous to have Jamie with me unprotected, but I decided he was actually in less danger without the gun. No one would feel the need to hurt him when he wasn't a threat. Besides, no one came looking for me anymore.
Jeb started sending me on little errands. Run back to the kitchen for another roll, he was still hungry. Go fetch a bucket of water, this corner of the field was dry. Pull Jamie out of his class, Jeb needed to speak with him. Were the spinach sprouts up yet? Go and check. Did I remember my way through the south caves? Jeb had a message for Doc.
Every time I had to carry out one of these simple directives, I was in a sweaty haze of fear. I concentrated on being invisible and walked as quickly as I could without running through the big rooms and the dark corridors. I tended to hug the walls and keep my eyes down. Occasionally, I would stop conversation the way I used to, but mostly I was ignored. The only time I felt in immediate danger of death was when I interrupted Sharon's class to get Jamie. The look Sharon gave me seemed designed to be followed by hostile action. But she let Jamie go with a nod after I choked out my whispered request, and when we were alone, he held my shaking hand and told me Sharon looked the same way at anyone who interrupted her class.
The very worst was the time I had to find Doc, because Ian insisted on showing me the way. I could have refused, I suppose, but Jeb didn't have a problem with the arrangement, and that meant Jeb trusted Ian not to kill me. I was far from comfortable with testing that theory, but it seemed the test was inevitable. If Jeb was wrong to trust Ian, then Ian would find his opportunity soon enough. So I went with Ian through the long black southern tunnel as if it were a trial by fire.
I lived through the first half. Doc got his message. He seemed unsurprised to see Ian tagging along beside me. Perhaps it was my imagination, but I thought they exchanged a significant glance. I half expected them to strap me to one of Doc's gurneys at that point. These rooms continued to make me feel nauseated.
But Doc just thanked me and sent me on my way as if he were busy. I couldn't really tell what he was doing-he had several books open and stacks and stacks of papers that seemed to contain nothing but sketches.
On the way back, curiosity overcame my fear.
"Ian?" I asked, having a bit of difficulty saying the name for the first time.
"Yes?" He sounded surprised that I'd addressed him.
"Why haven't you killed me yet?"
He snorted. "That's direct."
"You could, you know. Jeb might be annoyed, but I don't think he'd shoot you." What was I saying? It sounded like I was trying to convince him. I bit my tongue.
"I know," he said, his tone complacent.
It was quiet for a moment, just the sounds of our footsteps echoing, low and muffled, from the tunnel walls.
"It doesn't seem fair," Ian finally said. "I've been thinking about it a lot, and I can't see how killing you would make anything right. It would be like executing a private for a general's war crimes. Now, I don't buy all of Jeb's crazy theories-it would be nice to believe, sure, but just because you want something to be true doesn't make it that way. Whether he's right or wrong, though, you don't appear to mean us any harm. I have to admit, you seem honestly fond of that boy. It's very strange to watch. Anyway, as long as you don't put us in danger, it seems… cruel to kill you. What's one more misfit in this place?"
I thought about the word misfit for a moment. It might have been the truest description of me I'd ever heard. Where had I ever fit in?
How strange that Ian, of all the humans, should have such a surprisingly gentle interior. I didn't realize that cruelty would seem a negative to him.
He waited in silence while I considered all this.
"If you don't want to kill me, then why did you come with me today?" I asked.
He paused again before answering.
"I'm not sure that…" He hesitated. "Jeb thinks things have calmed down, but I'm not completely sure about that. There're still a few people… Anyway, Doc and I have been trying to keep an eye on you when we can. Just in case. Sending you down the south tunnel seemed like pushing your luck, to me. But that's what Jeb does best-he pushes luck as far as it will go."
"You… you and Doc are trying to protect me?"
"Strange world, isn't it?"
It was a few seconds before I could answer.
"The strangest," I finally agreed.