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The Host (Chapter 28: Unenlightened)

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It was disorienting to wake in the absolute dark. In the past months, I'd gotten used to having the sun tell me it was morning. At first I thought it must still be night, but then, feeling the sting of my face and the ache of my back, I remembered where I was.

Beside me, I could hear the sound of quiet, even breathing; it did not frighten me, because it was the most familiar of sounds here. I was not surprised that Jamie had crept back and slept beside me last night.

Maybe it was the change in my breathing that woke him; maybe it was just that our schedules had become synchronized. But seconds after I was conscious, he gave a little gasp.

"Wanda?" he whispered.

"I'm right here."

He sighed in relief.

"It's really dark here," he said.

"Yes."

"You think it's breakfast time yet?"

"I don't know."

"I'm hungry. Let's go see."

I didn't answer him.

He interpreted my silence correctly, as the balk it was. "You don't have to hide out here, Wanda," he said earnestly, after waiting a moment for me to speak. "I talked to Jared last night. He's going to stop picking on you-he promised."

I almost smiled. Picking on me.

"Will you come with me?" Jamie pressed. His hand found mine.

"Is that what you really want me to do?" I asked in a low voice.

"Yes. Everything will be the same as it was before."

Mel? Is this best?

I don't know. She was torn. She knew she couldn't be objective; she wanted to see Jared.

That's crazy, you know.

Not as crazy as the fact that you want to see him, too.

"Fine, Jamie," I agreed. "But don't get upset when it's not the same as before, okay? If things get ugly… Well, just don't be surprised."

"It'll be okay. You'll see."

I let him lead the way out of the dark, towing me by the hand he still held. I braced myself as we entered the big garden cavern; I couldn't be sure of anyone's reaction to me today. Who knew what had been said as I slept?

But the garden was empty, though the sun was bright in the morning sky. It reflected off the hundreds of mirrors, momentarily blinding me.

Jamie was not interested in the vacant cave. His eyes were on my face, and he sucked in a sharp breath through his teeth as the light touched my cheek.

"Oh," he gasped. "Are you okay? Does that hurt bad?"

I touched my face lightly. The skin felt rough-grit crusted in the blood. It throbbed where my fingers brushed.

"It's fine," I whispered; the empty cavern made me wary-I didn't want to speak too loudly. "Where is everybody?"

Jamie shrugged, his eyes still tight as they surveyed my face. "Busy, I guess." He didn't lower his voice.

This reminded me of last night, of the secret he wouldn't tell me. My eyebrows pulled together.

What do you think he's not telling us?

You know what I know, Wanda.

You're human. Aren't you supposed to have intuition or something?

Intuition? My intuition tells me that we don't know this place as well as we thought we did, Melanie said.

We pondered the ominous sound of that.

It was almost a relief to hear the normal noises of mealtime coming from the kitchen corridor. I didn't particularly want to see anyone-besides the sick yearning to see Jared, of course-but the unpopulated tunnels, combined with the knowledge that something was being kept from me, made me edgy.

The kitchen was not even half full-an oddity for this time of the morning. But I barely noticed that, because the smell coming from the banked stone oven overruled every other thought.

"Oooh," Jamie moaned. "Eggs!"

Jamie pulled me faster now, and I had no reluctance to keep pace with him. We hurried, stomachs growling, to the counter by the oven where Lucina, the mother, stood with a plastic ladle in her hand. Breakfast was usually serve-yourself, but then breakfast was also usually tough bread rolls.

She looked only at the boy as she spoke. "They tasted better an hour ago."

"They'll taste just fine now," Jamie countered enthusiastically. "Has everyone eaten?"

"Pretty much. I think they took a tray down to Doc and the rest…" Lucina trailed off, and her eyes flickered to me for the first time; Jamie's eyes did the same. I didn't understand the expression that crossed Lucina's features-it disappeared too quickly, replaced by something else as she appraised the new marks on my face.

"How much is left?" Jamie asked. His eagerness sounded a trifle forced now.

Lucina turned and bent, tugging a metal pan off the hot stones in the bottom of the oven with the bowl of the ladle. "How much do you want, Jamie? There's plenty," she told him without turning.

"Pretend I'm Kyle," he said with a laugh.

"A Kyle-sized portion it is," Lucina said, but when she smiled, her eyes were unhappy.

She filled one of the soup bowls to overflowing with slightly rubbery scrambled eggs, stood up, and handed it to Jamie.

She eyed me again, and I understood what this look was for.

"Let's sit over there, Jamie," I said, nudging him away from the counter.

He stared in amazement. "Don't you want any?"

"No, I'm -" I was about to say "fine" again, when my stomach gurgled disobediently.

"Wanda?" He looked at me, then back at Lucina, who had her arms folded across her chest.

"I'll just have bread," I muttered, trying to shove him away.

"No. Lucina, what's the problem?" He looked at her expectantly. She didn't move. "If you're done here, I'll take over," he suggested, his eyes narrowing and his mouth setting in a stubborn line.

Lucina shrugged and set the ladle on the stone counter. She walked away slowly, not looking at me again.

"Jamie," I muttered urgently under my breath. "This food isn't meant for me. Jared and the others weren't risking their lives so that I could have eggs for breakfast. Bread is fine."

"Don't be stupid, Wanda," Jamie said. "You live here now, just like the rest of us. Nobody minds it when you wash their clothes or bake their bread. Besides, these eggs aren't going to last much longer. If you don't eat them, they'll get thrown out."

I felt all the eyes in the room boring into my back.

"That might be preferable to some," I said even more quietly. No one but Jamie could possibly hear.

"Forget that," Jamie growled. He hopped over the counter and filled another bowl with eggs, which he then shoved at me. "You're going to eat every bite," he told me resolutely.

I looked at the bowl. My mouth watered. I pushed the eggs a few inches away from me and then folded my arms.

Jamie frowned. "Fine," he said, and shoved his own bowl across the counter. "You don't eat, I don't eat." His stomach grumbled audibly. He folded his arms across his chest.

We stared at each other for two long minutes, both our stomachs rumbling as we inhaled the smell of the eggs. Every now and then, he would peek down at the food out of the corner of his eye. That's what beat me-the longing look in his eyes.

"Fine," I huffed. I slid his bowl back to him and then retrieved my own. He waited until I took the first bite to touch his. I stifled a moan as the taste registered on my tongue. I knew the cooled, rubbery eggs weren't the best thing I'd ever tasted, but that's how it felt. This body lived for the present.

Jamie had a similar reaction. And then he started shoveling the food into his mouth so fast it seemed he didn't have time to breathe. I watched him to make sure he didn't choke.

I ate more slowly, hoping that I'd be able to convince him to eat some of mine when he was done.

That was when, with our minor standoff over and my stomach satisfied, I finally noticed the atmosphere in the kitchen.

I would have expected, with the excitement of eggs for breakfast after months of monotony, more of a feeling of celebration. But the air was somber, the conversations all whispered. Was this a reaction to the scene last night? I scanned the room, trying to understand.

People were looking at me, a few here and there, but they weren't the only ones talking in serious whispers, and the others paid me no mind at all. Besides, none of them seemed angry or guilty or tense or any of the other emotions I was expecting.

No, they were sad. Despair was etched on every face in the room.

Sharon was the last person I noticed, eating in a distant corner, keeping to herself as usual. She was so composed as she mechanically ate her breakfast that at first I didn't notice the tears dripping in streaks down her face. They fell into her food, but she ate as if she were beyond noticing.

"Is something wrong with Doc?" I whispered to Jamie, suddenly afraid. I wondered if I was being paranoid-maybe this had nothing to do with me. The sadness in the room seemed to be part of some other human drama from which I'd been excluded. Was this what was keeping everyone busy? Had there been an accident?

Jamie looked at Sharon and sighed before he answered me. "No, Doc's fine."

"Aunt Maggie? Is she hurt?"

He shook his head.

"Where's Walter?" I demanded, still whispering. I felt a gnawing anxiety as I thought of harm befalling one of my companions here, even those who hated me.

"I don't know. He's fine, I'm sure."

I realized now that Jamie was just as sad as everyone else here.

"What's wrong, Jamie? Why are you upset?"

Jamie looked down at his eggs, eating them slowly and deliberately now, and did not answer me.

He finished in silence. I tried to pass him what was left in my bowl, but he glowered so fiercely that I took it back and ate the rest without any more resistance.

We added our bowls to the big plastic bin of dirty dishes. It was full, so I took it from the counter. I wasn't sure what was going on in the caves today, but dishes ought to be a safe occupation.

Jamie came along beside me, his eyes alert. I didn't like that. I wouldn't allow him to act as my bodyguard, if the necessity arose. But then, as we made our way around the edge of the big field, my regular bodyguard found me, so it became a moot point.

Ian was filthy; light brown dust covered him from head to toe, darker where it was wet with his sweat. The brown streaks smeared across his face did not disguise the exhaustion there. I was not surprised to see that he was just as down as everyone else. But the dust did make me curious. It was not the purple black dust inside the caves. Ian had been outside this morning.

"There you are," he murmured when he saw us. He was walking swiftly, his long legs cutting the distance with anxious strides. When he reached us, he did not slow, but rather caught me under the elbow and hurried me forward. "Let's duck in here for a minute."

He pulled me into the narrow tunnel mouth that led toward the eastern field, where the corn was almost ripe. He did not lead me far, just into the darkness where we were invisible from the big room. I felt Jamie's hand rest lightly on my other arm.

After half a minute, deep voices echoed through the big cavern. They were not boisterous-they were somber, as depressed as any of the faces I'd read this morning. The voices passed us, close by the crack where we hid, and Ian's hand tensed on my elbow, his fingers pressing into the soft spots above the bone. I recognized Jared's voice, and Kyle's. Melanie strained against my control, and my control was tenuous anyway. We both wanted to see Jared's face. It was a good thing Ian held us back.

"… don't know why we let him keep trying. When it's over, it's over," Jared was saying.

"He really thought he had it this time. He was so sure… Oh, well. It will be worth all this if he figures it out someday," Kyle disagreed.

"If." Jared snorted. "I guess it's a good thing we found that brandy. Doc's going to blow through the whole crate by nightfall at the rate he's going."

"He'll pass out soon enough," Kyle said, his voice beginning to fade in the distance. "I wish Sharon would…" And then I couldn't make out any more.

Ian waited until the voices faded completely, and then a few minutes more, before he finally released my arm.

"Jared promised," Jamie muttered to him.

"Yeah, but Kyle didn't," Ian answered.

They walked back out into the light. I followed slowly behind them, not sure what I was feeling.

Ian noticed for the first time what I carried. "No dishes now," he told me. "Let's give them a chance to clean up and move on."

I thought about asking him why he was dirty, but probably, like Jamie, he would refuse to answer. I turned to stare at the tunnel that led toward the rivers, speculating.

Ian made an angry sound.

I looked back at him, frightened, and then realized what had upset him-he'd only just seen my face.

He raised his hand as if to lift my chin, but I flinched and he dropped it.

"That makes me so sick," he said, and his voice truly did sound as if he were nauseated. "And worse, knowing that if I hadn't stayed behind, I might have been the one to do it…"

I shook my head at him. "It's nothing, Ian."

"I don't agree with that," he muttered, and then he spoke to Jamie. "You probably ought to get to school. It's better that we get everything back to normal as soon as possible."

Jamie groaned. "Sharon will be a nightmare today."

Ian grinned. "Time to take one for the team, kid. I don't envy you."

Jamie sighed and kicked the dirt. "Keep an eye on Wanda."

"Will do."

Jamie shuffled away, casting glances back at us every few minutes until he disappeared into another tunnel.

"Here, give me those," Ian said, pulling the bin of dishes from me before I could respond.

"They weren't too heavy for me," I told him.

He grinned again. "I feel silly standing here with my arms empty while you lug these around. Chalk it up to gallantry. C'mon-let's go relax somewhere out of the way until the coast is clear."

His words troubled me, and I followed him in silence. Why should gallantry apply to me?

He walked all the way to the cornfield, and then into the cornfield, stepping in the low part of the furrow, between the stalks. I trailed behind him until he stopped, somewhere in the middle of the field, set the dishes aside, and sprawled out on the dirt.

"Well, this is out of the way," I said as I settled to the ground beside him, crossing my legs. "But shouldn't we be working?"

"You work too hard, Wanda. You're the only one who never takes a day off."

"It gives me something to do," I mumbled.

"Everyone is taking a break today, so you might as well."

I looked at him curiously. The light from the mirrors threw double shadows through the cornstalks that crisscrossed over him like zebra stripes. Under the lines and the dirt, his pale face was weary.

"You look like you've been working."

His eyes tightened. "But I'm resting now."

"Jamie won't tell me what's going on," I murmured.

"No. And neither will I." He sighed. "It's nothing you want to know anyway."

I stared at the ground, at the dark purple and brown dirt, as my stomach twisted and rolled. I could think of nothing worse than not knowing, but maybe I was just lacking in imagination.

"It's not really fair," Ian said after a silent moment, "seeing as I won't answer your question, but do you mind if I ask you one?"

I welcomed the distraction. "Go ahead."

He didn't speak at once, so I looked up to find the reason for his hesitation. He was staring down now, looking at the dirt streaked across the backs of his hands.

"I know you're not a liar. I know that now," he said quietly. "I'll believe you, whatever your answer is."

I waited again while he continued to stare at the dirt on his skin.

"I didn't buy Jeb's story before, but he and Doc are pretty convinced… Wanda?" he asked, looking up at me. "Is she still in there with you? The girl whose body you wear?"

This was not just my secret anymore-both Jamie and Jeb knew the truth. Neither was it the secret that really mattered. At any rate, I trusted Ian not to go blabbing to anyone who would kill me over it. "Yes," I told him. "Melanie is still here."

He nodded slowly. "What is it like? For you? For her?"

"It's… frustrating, for us both. At first I would have given anything to have her disappear the way she should have. But now I… I've gotten used to her." I smiled wryly. "Sometimes it's nice to have the company. It's harder for her. She's like a prisoner in many ways. Locked away in my head. She prefers that captivity to disappearing, though."

"I didn't know there was a choice."

"There wasn't in the beginning. It wasn't until your kind discovered what was happening that any resistance started. That seems to be the key-knowing what's going to happen. The humans who were taken by surprise didn't fight back."

"So if I were caught?"

I appraised his fierce expression-the fire in his brilliant eyes.

"I doubt you would disappear. Things have changed, though. When they catch full-grown humans now, they don't offer them as hosts. Too many problems." I half smiled again. "Problems like me. Going soft, getting sympathetic to my host, losing my way…"

He thought about that for a long time, sometimes looking at my face, sometimes at the cornstalks, sometimes at nothing at all.

"What would they do with me, then, if they caught me now?" he finally asked.

"They'd still do an insertion, I think. Trying to get information. Probably they'd put a Seeker in you."

He shuddered.

"But they wouldn't keep you as a host. Whether they found the information or not, you would be… discarded." The word was hard to say. The idea sickened me. Odd-it was usually the human things that made me sick. But I'd never looked at the situation from the body's perspective before; no other planet had forced me to. A body that didn't function right was quickly and painlessly disposed of because it was as useless as a car that could not run. What was the point of keeping it around? There were conditions of the mind, too, that made a body unusable: dangerous mental addictions, malevolent yearnings, things that could not be healed and made the body unsafe to others. Or, of course, a mind with a will too strong to be erased. An anomaly localized on this planet.

I had never seen the ugliness of treating an unconquerable spirit as a defect as clearly as I did now, looking into Ian's eyes.

"And if they caught you?" he asked.

"If they realized who I was… if anyone is still looking for me…" I thought of my Seeker and shuddered as he had. "They would take me out and put me in another host. Someone young, tractable. They would hope that I would be able to be myself again. Maybe they would ship me off-planet-get me away from the bad influences."

"Would you be yourself again?"

I met his gaze. "I am myself. I haven't lost myself to Melanie. I would feel the same as I do now, even as a Bear or a Flower."

"They wouldn't discard you?"

"Not a soul. We have no capital punishment for our kind. Or any punishment, really. Whatever they did, it would be to save me. I used to think there was no need for any other way, but now I have myself as proof against that theory. It would probably be right to discard me. I'm a traitor, aren't I?"

Ian pursed his lips. "More of an expatriate, I'd say. You haven't turned on them; you've just left their society."

We were quiet again. I wanted to believe what he said was true. I considered the word expatriate, trying to convince myself that I was nothing worse.

Ian exhaled loudly enough to make me jump. "When Doc sobers up, we'll get him to take a look at your face." He reached over and put his hand under my chin; this time I didn't flinch. He turned my head to the side so he could examine the wound.

"It's not important. I'm sure it looks worse than it is."

"I hope so-it looks awful." He sighed and then stretched. "I suppose we've hidden long enough that Kyle's clean and unconscious. Want some help with the dishes?"

Ian wouldn't let me wash the dishes in the stream the way I usually did. He insisted that we go into the black bathing room, where I would be invisible. I scrubbed dishes in the shallow end of the dark pool, while he cleaned off the filth left behind by his mystery labors. Then he helped me with the last of the dirty bowls.

When we were done, he escorted me back to the kitchen, which was starting to fill up with the lunch crowd. More perishables were on the menu: soft white bread slices, slabs of sharp cheddar cheese, circles of lush pink bologna. People were scarfing down the delicacies with abandon, though the despair was still perceptible in the slump of their shoulders, in the absence of smiles or laughter.

Jamie was waiting for me at our usual counter. Two double stacks of sandwiches sat in front of him, but he wasn't eating. His arms were folded as he waited for me. Ian eyed his expression curiously but left to get his own food without asking.

I rolled my eyes at Jamie's stubbornness and took a bite. Jamie dug in as soon as I was chewing. Ian was back quickly, and we all ate in silence. The food tasted so good it was hard to imagine a reason for conversation-or anything else that would empty our mouths.

I stopped at two, but Jamie and Ian ate until they were groaning in pain. Ian looked as though he was about to collapse. His eyes struggled to stay open.

"Get back to school, kid," he said to Jamie.

Jamie appraised him. "Maybe I should take over…"

"Go to school," I told him quickly. I wanted Jamie a safe distance from me today.

"I'll see you later, okay? Don't worry about… about anything."

"Sure." A one-word lie wasn't quite so obvious. Or maybe I was just being sarcastic again.

Once Jamie was gone, I turned on the somnolent Ian. "Go get some rest. I'll be fine-I'll stay someplace inconspicuous. Middle of a cornfield or something."

"Where did you sleep last night?" he asked, his eyes surprisingly sharp under his half-closed lids.

"Why?"

"I can sleep there now, and you can be inconspicuous beside me."

We were just murmuring, barely over a whisper now. No one paid us any attention.

"You can't watch me every second."

"Wanna bet?"

I shrugged, giving up. "I was back at the… the hole. Where I was kept in the beginning."

Ian frowned; he didn't like that. But he got up and led the way back to the storage corridor. The main plaza was busy again now, full of people moving around the garden, all of them grave, their eyes on their feet.

When we were alone in the black tunnel, I tried to reason with him again.

"Ian, what's the point of this? Won't it hurt Jamie more, the longer I'm alive? In the end, wouldn't it be better for him if -"

"Don't think like that, Wanda. We're not animals. Your death is not an inevitability."

"I don't think you're an animal," I said quietly.

"Thanks. I didn't say that as an accusation, though. I wouldn't blame you if you did."

That was the end of our conversation; that was the moment we both saw the pale blue light reflecting dimly from around the next turn in the tunnel.

"Shh," Ian breathed. "Wait here."

He pressed my shoulder down gently, trying to stick me where I stood. Then he strode forward, making no attempt to hide the sound of his footsteps. He disappeared around the corner.

"Jared?" I heard him say, feigning surprise.

My heart felt heavy in my chest; the sensation was more pain than fear.

"I know it's with you," Jared answered. He raised his voice, so that anyone between here and the main plaza would hear. "Come out, come out, wherever you are," he called, his voice hard and mocking.

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