The Host (Chapter 27: Undecided)
It had been weeks and weeks since I'd been down this particular corridor; I hadn't been back since the morning after Jared had left and Jeb had set me free. It seemed to me that while I lived and Jared was in the caves, this must be where I belonged.
There was no dim light to greet me now. I was fairly sure I was in the last leg-the turns and twists were still vaguely familiar. I let my left hand drag against the wall as low as I could reach, feeling for the opening as I crept forward. I wasn't decided on crawling back inside the cramped hole, but at least it would give me a reference point, letting me know that I was where I meant to be.
As it happened, I didn't have the option of inhabiting my cell again.
In the same moment that my fingers brushed the rough edge at the top of the hole, my foot hit an obstacle and I stumbled, falling to my knees. I threw my hands out to catch myself, and they landed with a crunch and a crackle, breaking through something that wasn't rock and didn't belong here.
The sound startled me; the unexpected object frightened me. Perhaps I'd made a wrong turn and wasn't anywhere near my hole. Perhaps I was in someone's living space. I ran through the memory of my recent journey in my head, wondering how I could have gotten so turned about. Meanwhile, I listened for some reaction to my crashing fall, holding absolutely still in the darkness.
There was nothing-no reaction, no sound. It was only dark and stuffy and humid, as it always was, and so silent that I knew I must be alone.
Carefully, trying to make as little noise as possible, I took stock of my surroundings.
My hands were stuck in something. I pulled them free, tracing the contours of what felt like a cardboard box-a cardboard box with a sheet of thin, crackly plastic on top that my hands had fallen through. I felt around inside the box and found a layer of more crackly plastic-small rectangles that made a lot of noise when I handled them. I retreated quickly, afraid of drawing attention to myself.
I remembered that I'd thought I'd found the top of the hole. I searched to my left and found more stacks of cardboard squares on that side. I tried to find the top of the stack and had to stand in order to do so-it was as high as my head. I searched until I found the wall, and then the hole, exactly where I'd thought it was. I tried to climb in to ascertain if it really was the same place-one second on that bowed floor and I would know it for certain-but I could not get any farther than the opening. It, too, was crammed full of boxes.
Stymied, I explored with my hands, moving back out into the hall. I found I could go no deeper down the passageway; it was entirely filled with the mysterious cardboard squares.
As I hunted along the floor, trying to understand, I found something different from the crowd of boxes. It was rough fabric, like burlap, a sack full of something heavy that shifted with a quiet hissing sound when I nudged it. I kneaded the sack with my hands, less alarmed by the low hiss than by the plastic crackle-it seemed unlikely that this sound would alert anyone to my presence.
Suddenly, it all came clear. It was the smell that did it. As I played with the sand-like material inside the bag, I got an unexpected whiff of a familiar scent. It took me back to my bare kitchen in San Diego, to the low cupboard on the left side of the sink. In my head I could see so clearly the bag of uncooked rice, the plastic measuring cup I used to dole it out, the rows of canned food behind it…
Once I realized that I was touching a bag of rice, I understood. I was in the right place after all. Hadn't Jeb said they used this place for storage? And hadn't Jared just returned from a long raid? Now everything the raiders had stolen in the weeks they'd been gone was dumped in this out-of-the-way place until it could be used.
Many thoughts ran through my head at once.
First, I realized that I was surrounded by food. Not just rough bread and weak onion soup, but food. Somewhere in this stack, there could be peanut butter. Chocolate chip cookies. Potato chips. Cheetos.
Even as I imagined finding these things, tasting them again, being full for the first time since I'd left civilization, I felt guilty for thinking of it. Jared hadn't risked his life and spent weeks hiding and stealing to feed me. This food was for others.
I also worried that perhaps this wasn't the entire haul. What if they had more boxes to stow? Would Jared and Kyle be the ones to bring them? It didn't take any imagination at all to picture the scene that would result if they found me here.
But wasn't that why I was here? Wasn't that exactly what I'd needed to be alone to think about?
I slouched against the wall. The rice bag made a decent pillow. I closed my eyes-unnecessary in the inky darkness-and settled in for a consultation.
Okay, Mel. What now?
I was glad to find that she was still awake and alert. Opposition brought out her strength. It was only when things were going well that she drifted away.
Priorities, she decided. What's most important to us? Staying alive? Or Jamie?
She knew the answer. Jamie, I affirmed, sighing out loud. The sound of my breath whispered back from the black walls.
Agreed. We could probably last awhile if we let Jeb and Ian protect us. Will that help him?
Maybe. Would he be more hurt if we just gave up? Or if we let this drag on, only to have it end badly, which seems inevitable?
She didn't like that. I could feel her scrambling around, searching for alternatives.
Try to escape? I suggested.
Unlikely, she decided. Besides, what would we do out there? What would we tell them?
We imagined it together-how would I explain my months of absence? I could lie, make up some alternative story, or say I didn't remember. But I thought of the Seeker's skeptical face, her bulging eyes bright with suspicion, and knew my inept attempts at subterfuge would fail.
They'd think I took over, Melanie agreed. Then they'd take you out and put her in.
I squirmed, as if a new position on the rock floor would take me further away from the idea, and shuddered. Then I followed the thought to its conclusion. She'd tell them about this place, and the Seekers would come.
The horror washed through us.
Right, I continued. So escape is out.
Right, she whispered, emotion making her thought unstable.
So the decision is… quick or slow. Which hurts him less?
It seemed that as long as I focused on practicalities I could keep at least my side of the discussion numbly businesslike. Melanie tried to mimic my effort.
I'm not sure. On the one hand, logically, the longer the three of us are together, the harder our… separation would be for him. Then again, if we didn't fight, if we just gave up… he wouldn't like that. He'd feel betrayed by us.
I looked at both sides she'd presented, trying to be rational about it.
So… quick, but we have to do our best not to die?
Go down fighting, she affirmed grimly.
Fighting. Fabulous. I tried to imagine that-meeting violence with violence. Raising my hand to strike someone. I could form the words but not the mental picture.
You can do it, she encouraged. I'll help you.
Thanks, but no thanks. There has to be some other way.
I don't get you, Wanda. You've given up on your species entirely, you're ready to die for my brother, you're in love with the man I love who is going to kill us, and yet you won't let go of customs that are entirely impractical here.
I am who I am, Mel. I can't change that, though everything else may change. You hold on to yourself; allow me to do the same.
But if we're going to –
She would have continued to argue with me, but we were interrupted. A scuffing sound, shoe against rock, echoed from somewhere back down the corridor.
I froze-every function of my body arrested but my heart, and even that faltered jaggedly-and listened. I didn't have long to hope that I'd just imagined the sound. Within seconds, I could hear more quiet footsteps coming this way.
Melanie kept her cool, whereas I was lost to panic.
Get on your feet, she ordered.
You won't fight, but you can run. You have to try something-for Jamie.
I started breathing again, keeping it quiet and shallow. Slowly, I rolled forward till I was on the balls of my feet. Adrenaline coursed through my muscles, making them tingle and flex. I would be faster than most who would try to catch me, but where would I run to?
"Wanda?" someone whispered quietly. "Wanda? Are you here? It's me."
His voice broke, and I knew him.
"Jamie!" I rasped. "What are you doing? I told you I needed to be alone."
Relief was plain in his voice, which he now raised from the whisper. "Everybody is looking for you. Well, you know, Trudy and Lily and Wes-that everybody. Only we're not supposed to let anyone know that's what we're doing. No one is supposed to guess that you're missing. Jeb's got his gun again. Ian's with Doc. When Doc's free, he'll talk to Jared and Kyle. Everybody listens to Doc. So you don't have to hide. Everybody's busy, and you're probably tired…"
As Jamie explained, he continued forward until his fingers found my arm, and then my hand.
"I'm not really hiding, Jamie. I told you I had to think."
"You could think with Jeb there, right?"
"Where do you want me to go? Back to Jared's room? This is where I'm supposed to be."
"Not anymore." The familiar stubborn edge entered his voice.
"Why is everyone so busy?" I asked to distract him. "What's Doc doing?"
My attempt was unsuccessful; he didn't answer.
After a minute of silence, I touched his cheek. "Look, you should be with Jeb. Tell the others to stop looking for me. I'll just hang out here for a while."
"You can't sleep here."
"I have before."
I felt his head shake in my hand.
"I'll go get mats and pillows, at least."
"I don't need more than one."
"I'm not staying with Jared while he's being such a jerk."
I groaned internally. "Then you stay with Jeb and his snores. You belong with them, not with me."
"I belong wherever I want to be."
The threat of Kyle finding me here was heavy on my mind. But that argument would only make Jamie feel responsible for protecting me.
"Fine, but you have to get Jeb's permission."
"Later. I'm not going to bug Jeb tonight."
"What is Jeb doing?"
Jamie didn't answer. It was only at that point I realized he had deliberately not answered my question the first time. There was something he didn't want to tell me. Maybe the others were busy trying to find me, too. Maybe Jared's homecoming had returned them to their original opinion about me. It had seemed that way in the kitchen, when they'd hung their heads and eyed me with furtive guilt.
"What's going on, Jamie?" I pressed.
"I'm not supposed to tell you," he muttered. "And I'm not going to." His arms wrapped tightly around my waist, and his face pressed against my shoulder. "Everything is going to be all right," he promised me, his voice thick.
I patted his back and ran my fingers through his tangled mane. "Okay," I said, agreeing to accept his silence. After all, I had my secrets, too, didn't I? "Don't be upset, Jamie. Whatever it is, it will all work out for the best. You're going to be fine." As I said the words, I willed them to be true.
"I don't know what to hope for," he whispered.
As I stared into the dark at nothing in particular, trying to understand what he wouldn't say, a faint glow caught my eye at the far end of the hallway-dim but conspicuous in the black cave.
"Shhh," I breathed. "Someone is coming. Quick, hide behind the boxes."
Jamie's head snapped up, toward the yellow light that was getting brighter by the second. I listened for the accompanying footsteps but heard nothing.
"I'm not going to hide," he breathed. "Get behind me, Wanda."
"Jamie!" Jared shouted. "I know you're back here!"
My legs felt hollow, numb. Did it have to be Jared? It would be so much easier for Jamie if Kyle were the one to kill me.
"Go away!" Jamie shouted back.
The yellow light sped up and turned into a circle on the far wall.
Jared stalked around the corner, the flashlight in his hand sweeping back and forth across the rock floor. He was clean again, wearing a faded red shirt I recognized-it had hung in the room where I'd lived for weeks and so was a familiar sight. His face was also familiar-it wore exactly the same expression it had since the first moment I'd shown up here.
The beam of the flashlight hit my face and blinded me; I knew the light reflected brilliantly off the silver behind my eyes, because I felt Jamie jump-just a little start, and then he set himself more firmly than before.
"Get away from it!" Jared roared.
"Shut up!" Jamie yelled back. "You don't know her! Leave her alone!"
He clung to me while I tried to unlock his hands.
Jared came on like a charging bull. He grabbed the back of Jamie's shirt with one hand and yanked him away from me. He held on to his handful of fabric, shaking the boy while he yelled.
"You're being an idiot! Can't you see how it's using you?"
Instinctively, I shoved myself into the tight space between them. As I'd intended, my advance made him drop Jamie. I didn't want or need what else happened-the way his familiar smell assaulted my senses, the way the contours of his chest felt under my hands.
"Leave Jamie alone," I said, wishing for once that I could be more like Melanie wanted me to be-that my hands could be hard now, that my voice could be strong.
He snatched my wrists in one hand and used this leverage to hurl me away from him, into the wall. The impact caught me by surprise, knocked the breath out of me. I rebounded off the stone wall to the floor, landing in the boxes again, making another crinkly crash as I shredded through more cellophane.
The pulse thudded in my head as I lay awkwardly bent over the boxes, and for a moment, I saw strange lights pass in front of my eyes.
"Coward!" Jamie screamed at Jared. "She wouldn't hurt you to save her own life! Why can't you leave her alone?"
I heard the boxes shifting and felt Jamie's hands on my arm. "Wanda? Are you okay, Wanda?"
"Fine," I huffed, ignoring the throbbing in my head. I could see his anxious face hovering over me in the glow of the flashlight, which Jared must have dropped. "You should go now, Jamie," I whispered. "Run."
Jamie shook his head fiercely.
"Stay away from it!" Jared bellowed.
I watched as Jared grabbed Jamie's shoulders and yanked the boy up from his crouch. The boxes this displaced fell on me like a small avalanche. I rolled away, covering my head with my arms. A heavy one caught me right between the shoulder blades, and I cried out in pain.
"Stop hurting her!" Jamie howled.
There was a sharp crack, and someone gasped.
I struggled to pull myself out from under the heavy carton, rising up on my elbows dizzily.
Jared had one hand over his nose, and something dark was oozing down over his lips. His eyes were wide with surprise. Jamie stood in front of him with both hands clenched into fists, a furious scowl on his face.
Jamie's scowl melted slowly while Jared stared at him in shock. Hurt took its place-hurt and a betrayal so deep that it rivaled Jared's expression in the kitchen.
"You aren't the man I thought you were," Jamie whispered. He looked at Jared as though Jared were very far away, as if there were a wall between them and Jamie was utterly isolated on his side.
Jamie's eyes started to swim, and he turned his head, ashamed of showing weakness in front of Jared. He walked away with quick, jerky movements.
We tried, Melanie thought sadly. Her heart ached after the child, even as she longed for me to return my eyes to the man. I gave her what she wanted.
Jared wasn't looking at me. He was staring at the blackness into which Jamie had disappeared, his hand still covering his nose.
"Aw, damn it!" he suddenly shouted. "Jamie! Get back here!"
There was no answer.
Jared threw one bleak glance in my direction-I cringed away, though his fury seemed to have faded-then scooped up the flashlight and stomped after Jamie, kicking a box out of his way.
"I'm sorry, okay? Don't cry, kid!" He called out more angry apologies as he turned the corner and left me lying in the darkness.
For a long moment, it was all I could do to breathe. I concentrated on the air flowing in, then out, then in. After I felt I had that part mastered, I worked on getting up off the floor. It took a few seconds to remember how to move my legs, and even then they were shaky and threatened to collapse under me, so I sat against the wall again, sliding over till I found my rice-filled pillow. I slumped there and took stock of my condition.
Nothing was broken-except maybe Jared's nose. I shook my head slowly. Jamie and Jared should not be fighting. I was causing them so much turmoil and unhappiness. I sighed and went back to my assessment. There was a vast sore spot in the center of my back, and the side of my face felt raw and moist where it had hit the wall. It stung when I touched it and left warm fluid on my fingers. That was the worst of it, though. The other bruises and scrapes were mild.
As I realized that, I was unexpectedly overwhelmed by relief.
I was alive. Jared had had his chance to kill me and he had not used it. He'd gone after Jamie instead, to make things right between them. So whatever damage I was doing to their relationship, it was probably not irreparable.
It had been a long day-the day had already been long even before Jared and the others had shown up, and that seemed like eons ago. I closed my eyes where I was and fell asleep on the rice.