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The Host (Chapter 30: Abbreviated)

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M el?" he asked again, the hope he didn't want to feel coloring his tone.

My breath caught in another sob, an aftershock.

"You know that was for you, Mel. You know that. Not for h-it. You know I wasn't kissing it."

My next sob was louder, a moan. Why couldn't I shut up? I tried holding my breath.

"If you're in there, Mel…" He paused.

Melanie hated the "if." A sob burst up through my lungs, and I gasped for air.

"I love you," Jared said. "Even if you're not there, if you can't hear me. I love you."

I held my breath again, biting my lip until it bled. The physical pain didn't distract me as much as I wished it would.

It was silent outside the hole, and then silent inside, too, as I turned blue. I listened intently, concentrating only on what I could hear. I wouldn't think. There was no sound.

I was twisted into the most impossible position. My head was the lowest point, the right side of my face pressed against the rough rock floor. My shoulders were slanted around a crumpled box edge, the right higher than the left. My hips angled the opposite way, with my left calf pressed to the ceiling. Fighting with the boxes had left bruises-I could feel them forming. I knew I would have to find some way to explain to Ian and Jamie that I had done this to myself, but how? What should I say? How could I tell them that Jared had kissed me as a test, like giving a lab rat a jolt of electricity to observe its reaction?

And how long was I supposed to hold this position? I didn't want to make any noise, but it felt like my spine was going to snap in a minute. The pain got more difficult to bear every second. I wouldn't be able to bear it in silence for long. Already, a whimper was rising in my throat.

Melanie had nothing to say to me. She was quietly working through her own relief and fury. Jared had spoken to her, finally recognized her existence. He had told her he loved her. But he had kissed me. She was trying to convince herself that there was no reason to be wounded by this, trying to believe all the solid reasons why this wasn't what it felt like. Trying, but not yet succeeding. I could hear all this, but it was directed internally. She wasn't speaking to me-in the juvenile, petty sense of the phrase. I was getting the cold shoulder.

I felt an unfamiliar anger toward her. Not like the beginning, when I feared her and wished for her eradication from my mind. No, I felt my own sense of betrayal now. How could she be angry with me for what had happened? How did that make sense? How was it my fault that I'd fallen in love because of the memories she forced on me and then been overthrown by this unruly body? I cared that she was suffering, yet my pain meant nothing to her. She enjoyed it. Vicious human.

Tears, much weaker than the others, flowed down my cheeks in silence. Her hostility toward me simmered in my mind.

Abruptly, the pain in my bruised, twisted back was too much. The straw on the camel.

"Ung," I grunted, pushing against stone and cardboard as I shoved myself backward.

I didn't care about the noise anymore, I just wanted out. I swore to myself that I would never cross the threshold of this wretched pit again-death first. Literally.

It was harder to worm out than it had been to dive in. I wiggled and squirmed around until I felt like I was making things worse, bending myself into the shape of a lopsided pretzel. I started to cry again, like a child, afraid that I would never get free.

Melanie sighed. Hook your foot around the edge of the mouth and pull yourself out, she suggested.

I ignored her, struggling to work my torso around a particularly pointy corner. It jabbed me just under the ribs.

Don't be petty, she grumbled.

That's rich, coming from you.

I know. She hesitated, then caved. Okay, sorry. I am. Look, I'm human. It's hard to be fair sometimes. We don't always feel the right thing, do the right thing. The resentment was still there, but she was trying to forgive and forget that I'd just made out with her true love-that's the way she thought of it, at least.

I hooked my foot around the edge and yanked. My knee hit the floor, and I used that leverage to lift my ribs off the point. It was easier then to get my other foot out and yank again. Finally, my hands found the floor and I shoved my way through, a breech birth, falling onto the dark green mat. I lay there for a moment, facedown, breathing. I was sure at this point that Jared was long gone, but I didn't make certain of that right away. I just breathed in and out until I felt prepared to lift my head.

I was alone. I tried to hold on to the relief and forget the sorrow this fact engendered. It was better to be alone. Less humiliating.

I curled up on the mat, pressing my face against the musty fabric. I wasn't sleepy, but I was tired. The crushing weight of Jared's rejection was so heavy it exhausted me. I closed my eyes and tried to think about things that wouldn't make my stinging eyes tear again. Anything but the appalled look on Jared's face when he'd broken away from me…

What was Jamie doing now? Did he know I was here, or was he looking for me? Ian would be asleep for a long time, he'd looked so exhausted. Would Kyle wake soon? Would he come in search? Where was Jeb? I hadn't seen him all day. Was Doc really drinking himself unconscious? That seemed so unlike him…

I woke slowly, roused by my growling stomach. I lay quietly for a few minutes, trying to orient myself. Was it day or night? How long had I slept here alone?

My stomach wouldn't be ignored for long, though, and I rolled up onto my knees. I must have slept for a while to be this hungry-missed a meal or two.

I considered eating something from the supply pile in the hole-after all, I'd already damaged pretty much everything, maybe destroyed some. But that only made me feel guiltier about the idea of taking more. I'd go scavenge some rolls from the kitchen.

I was feeling a little hurt, on top of all the big hurt, that I'd been down here so long without anyone coming to look for me-what a vain attitude; why should anyone care what happened to me?-so I was relieved and appeased to find Jamie sitting in the doorway to the big garden, his back turned on the human world behind him, unmistakably waiting for me.

My eyes brightened, and so did his. He scrambled to his feet, relief washing over his features.

"You're okay," he said; I wished he were right. He began to ramble. "I mean, I didn't think Jared was lying, but he said he thought you wanted to be alone, and Jeb said I couldn't go check on you and that I had to stay right here where he could see that I wasn't sneaking back there, but even though I didn't think you were hurt or anything, it was hard to not know for sure, you know?"

"I'm fine," I told him. But I held my arms out, seeking comfort. He threw his arms around my waist, and I was shocked to find that his head could rest on my shoulder while we stood.

"Your eyes are red," he whispered. "Was he mean to you?"

"No." After all, people weren't intentionally cruel to lab rats-they were just trying to get information.

"Whatever you said to him, I think he believes us now. About Mel, I mean. How does she feel?"

"She's glad about that."

He nodded, pleased. "How about you?"

I hesitated, looking for a factual response. "Telling the truth is easier for me than trying to hide it."

My evasion seemed to answer the question enough to satisfy him.

Behind him, the light in the garden was red and fading. The sun had already set on the desert.

"I'm hungry," I told him, and I pulled away from our hug.

"I knew you would be. I saved you something good."

I sighed. "Bread's fine."

"Let it go, Wanda. Ian says you're too self-sacrificing for your own good."

I made a face.

"I think he's got a point," Jamie muttered. "Even if we all want you here, you don't belong until you decide you do."

"I can't ever belong. And nobody really wants me here, Jamie."

"I do."

I didn't fight with him, but he was wrong. Not lying, because he believed what he was saying. But what he really wanted was Melanie. He didn't separate us the way he should.

Trudy and Heidi were baking rolls in the kitchen and sharing a bright green, juicy apple. They took turns taking bites.

"It's good to see you, Wanda," Trudy said sincerely, covering her mouth while she spoke because she was still chewing her last bite. Heidi nodded in greeting, her teeth sunk in the apple. Jamie nudged me, trying to be inconspicuous about it-pointing out that people wanted me. He wasn't making allowances for common courtesy.

"Did you save her dinner?" he asked eagerly.

"Yep," Trudy said. She bent down beside the oven and came back with a metal tray in her hand. "Kept it warm. It's probably nasty and tough now, but it's better than the usual."

On the tray was a rather large piece of red meat. My mouth started to water, even as I rejected the portion I'd been allotted.

"It's too much."

"We have to eat all the perishables the first day," Jamie encouraged me. "Everyone eats themselves sick-it's a tradition."

"You need the protein," Trudy added. "We were on cave rations too long. I'm surprised no one's in worse shape."

I ate my protein while Jamie watched with hawk-like attention as each bite traveled from the tray to my mouth. I ate it all to please him, though it made my stomach ache to eat so much.

The kitchen started to fill up again as I was finishing. A few had apples in their hands-all sharing with someone else. Curious eyes examined the sore side of my face.

"Why's everyone coming here now?" I muttered to Jamie. It was black outside, the dinner hour long over.

Jamie looked at me blankly for a second. "To hear you teach." His tone added the words of course.

"Are you kidding me?"

"I told you nothing's changed."

I stared around the narrow room. It wasn't a full house. No Doc tonight, and none of the returned raiders, which meant no Paige, either. No Jeb, no Ian, no Walter. A few others missing: Travis, Carol, Ruth Ann. But more than I would have thought, if I'd thought anyone would consider following the normal routine after such an abnormal day.

"Can we go back to the Dolphins, where we left off?" Wes asked, interrupting my evaluation of the room. I could see that he'd taken it upon himself to start the ball rolling, rather than that he was vitally interested in the kinship circles of an alien planet.

Everyone looked at me expectantly. Apparently, life was not changing as much as I'd thought.

I took a tray of rolls from Heidi's hands and turned to shove it into the stone oven. I started talking with my back still turned.

"So… um… hmm… the, uh, third set of grandparents… They traditionally serve the community, as they see it. On Earth, they would be the breadwinners, the ones who leave the home and bring back sustenance. They are farmers, for the most part. They cultivate a plant-like growth that they milk for its sap…"

And life went on.

Jamie tried to talk me out of sleeping in the supply corridor, but his attempt was halfhearted. There just wasn't another place for me. Stubborn as usual, he insisted on sharing my quarters. I imagined Jared didn't like that, but as I didn't see him that night or the next day, I couldn't verify my theory.

It was awkward again, going about my usual chores, with the six raiders home-just like when Jeb had first forced me to join the community. Hostile stares, angry silences. It was harder for them than it was for me, though-I was used to it. They, on the other hand, were entirely unaccustomed to the way everyone else treated me. When I was helping with the corn harvest, for example, and Lily thanked me for a fresh basket with a smile, Andy's eyes bulged in their sockets at the exchange. Or when I was waiting for the bathing pool with Trudy and Heidi, and Heidi began playing with my hair. It was growing, always swinging in my eyes these days, and I was planning to shear it off again. Heidi was trying to find a style for me, flipping the strands this way and that. Brandt and Aaron-Aaron was the oldest man who'd gone on the long raid, someone I couldn't remember having seen before at all-came out and found us there, Trudy laughing at some silly atrocity Heidi was attempting to create atop my head, and both men turned a little green and stalked silently past us.

Of course, little things like that were nothing. Kyle roamed the caves now, and though he was obviously under orders to leave me in peace, his expression made it clear that this restriction was repugnant to him. I was always with others when I crossed his path, and I wondered if that was the only reason he did nothing more than glower at me and unconsciously curl his thick fingers into claws. This brought back all the panic from my first weeks here, and I might have succumbed to it-begun hiding again, avoiding the common areas-but something more important than Kyle's murderous glares came to my attention that second night.

The kitchen filled up again-I'm not sure how much was interest in my stories and how much was interest in the chocolate bars Jeb handed out. I declined mine, explaining to a disgruntled Jamie that I couldn't talk and chew at the same time; I suspected that he would save one for me, obstinate as ever. Ian was back in his usual hot seat by the fire, and Andy was there-eyes wary-beside Paige. None of the other raiders, including Jared, of course, was in attendance. Doc was not there, and I wondered if he was still drunk or perhaps hung-over. And again, Walter was absent.

Geoffrey, Trudy's husband, questioned me for the first time tonight. I was pleased, though I tried not to show it, that he seemed to have joined the ranks of the humans who tolerated me. But I couldn't answer his questions well, which was too bad. His questions were like Doc's.

"I don't really know anything about Healing," I admitted. "I never went to a Healer after… after I first got here. I haven't been sick. All I know is that we wouldn't choose a planet unless we were able to maintain the host bodies perfectly. There's nothing that can't be healed, from a simple cut, a broken bone, to a disease. Old age is the only cause of death now. Even healthy human bodies were only designed to last for so long. And there are accidents, too, I guess, though those don't happen as often with the souls. We're cautious."

"Armed humans aren't just an accident," someone muttered. I was moving hot rolls; I didn't see who spoke, and I didn't recognize the voice.

"Yes, that's true," I agreed evenly.

"So you don't know what they use to cure diseases, then?" Geoffrey pressed. "What's in their medications?"

I shook my head. "I'm sorry, I don't. It wasn't something I was interested in, back when I had access to the information. I'm afraid I took it for granted. Good health is simply a given on every planet I've lived on."

Geoffrey's red cheeks flushed brighter than usual. He looked down, an angry set to his mouth. What had I said to offend him?

Heath, sitting beside Geoffrey, patted his arm. There was a pregnant silence in the room.

"Uh-about the Vultures…" Ian said-the words were forced, a deliberate subject change. "I don't know if I missed this part sometime, but I don't remember you ever explaining about them being ��unkind'…?"

It wasn't something I had explained, but I was pretty sure he wasn't really that interested-this was just the first question he'd been able to think of.

My informal class ended earlier than usual. The questions were slow, and most of them supplied by Jamie and Ian. Geoffrey's questions had left everyone else preoccupied.

"Well, we've got an early one tomorrow, tearing down the stalks…" Jeb mused after yet another awkward silence, making the words a dismissal. People rose to their feet and stretched, talking in low voices that weren't casual enough.

"What did I say?" I whispered to Ian.

"Nothing. They've got mortality on their minds." He sighed.

My human brain made one of those leaps in understanding that they called intuition.

"Where's Walter?" I demanded, still whispering.

Ian sighed again. "He's in the south wing. He's… not doing well."

"Why didn't anyone tell me?"

"Things have been… difficult for you lately, so…"

I shook my head impatiently at that consideration. "What's wrong with him?"

Jamie was there beside me now; he took my hand.

"Some of Walter's bones snapped, they're so brittle," he said in a hushed voice. "Doc's sure it's cancer-final stages, he says."

"Walt must have been keeping quiet about the pain for a long while now," Ian added somberly.

I winced. "And there's nothing to be done? Nothing at all?"

Ian shook his head, keeping his brilliant eyes on mine. "Not for us. Even if we weren't stuck here, there would be no help for him now. We never cured that one."

I bit my lip against the suggestion I wanted to make. Of course there was nothing to do for Walter. Any of these humans would rather die slowly and in pain than trade their mind for their body's cure. I could understand that… now.

"He's been asking for you," Ian continued. "Well, he says your name sometimes; it's hard to tell what he means-Doc's keeping him drunk to help with the pain."

"Doc feels real bad about using so much of the alcohol himself," Jamie added. "Bad timing, all around."

"Can I see him?" I asked. "Or will that make the others unhappy?"

Ian frowned and snorted. "Wouldn't that be just like some people, to get worked up over this?" He shook his head. "Who cares, though, right? If it's Walt's final wish…"

"Right," I agreed. The word final had my eyes burning. "If seeing me is what Walter wants, then I guess it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks, or if they get mad."

"Don't worry about that-I'm not going to let anybody harass you." Ian's white lips pressed into a thin line.

I felt anxious, like I wanted to look at a clock. Time had ceased to mean much to me, but suddenly I felt the weight of a deadline. "Is it too late to go tonight? Will we disturb him?"

"He's not sleeping regular hours. We can go see."

I started walking at once, dragging Jamie because he still gripped my hand. The sense of passing time, of endings and finality, propelled me forward. Ian caught up quickly, though, with his long stride.

In the moonlit garden cavern, we passed others who for the most part paid us no mind. I was too often in the company of Jamie and Ian to cause any curiosity, though we weren't headed for the usual tunnels.

The one exception was Kyle. He froze midstride when he saw his brother beside me. His eyes flashed down to see Jamie's hand in mine, and then his lips twisted into a snarl.

Ian squared his shoulders as he absorbed his brother's reaction-his mouth curled into a mirror of Kyle's-and he deliberately reached for my other hand. Kyle made a noise like he was about to be sick and turned his back on us.

When we were in the blackness of the long tunnel south, I tried to free that hand. Ian gripped it tighter.

"I wish you wouldn't make him angrier," I muttered.

"Kyle is wrong. Being wrong is sort of a habit with him. He'll take longer than anyone else to get over it, but that doesn't mean we should make allowances for him."

"He frightens me," I admitted in a whisper. "I don't want him to have more reasons to hate me."

Ian and Jamie squeezed my hands at the same time. They spoke simultaneously.

"Don't be afraid," Jamie said.

"Jeb's made his opinion very clear," Ian said.

"What do you mean?" I asked Ian.

"If Kyle can't accept Jeb's rules, then he's no longer welcome here."

"But that's wrong. Kyle belongs here."

Ian grunted. "He's staying… so he'll just have to learn to deal."

We didn't talk again through the long walk. I was feeling guilty-it seemed to be a permanent emotional state here. Guilt and fear and heartbreak. Why had I come?

Because you do belong here, oddly enough, Melanie whispered. She was very aware of the warmth of Ian's and Jamie's hands, wrapped around and twined with mine. Where else have you ever had this?

Nowhere, I confessed, feeling only more depressed. But it doesn't make me belong. Not the way you do.

We're a package deal, Wanda.

As if I needed reminding…

I was a little surprised to hear her so clearly. She'd been quiet the last two days, waiting, anxious, hoping to see Jared again. Of course, I'd been similarly occupied.

Maybe he's with Walter. Maybe that's where he's been, Melanie thought hopefully.

That's not why we're going to see Walter.

No. Of course not. Her tone was repentant, but I realized that Walter did not mean as much to her as he did to me. Naturally, she was sad that he was dying, but she had accepted that outcome from the beginning. I, on the other hand, could not bring myself to accept it, even now. Walter was my friend, not hers. I was the one he'd defended.

One of those dim blue lights greeted us as we approached the hospital wing. (I knew now that the lanterns were solar powered, left in sunny corners during the day to charge.) We all moved more quietly, slowing at the same time without having to discuss it.

I hated this room. In the darkness, with the odd shadows thrown by the weak glow, it seemed only more forbidding. There was a new smell-the room reeked of slow decay and stinging alcohol and bile.

Two of the cots were occupied. Doc's feet hung over the edge of one; I recognized his light snore. On the other, looking hideously withered and misshapen, Walter watched us approach.

"Are you up for visitors, Walt?" Ian whispered when Walter's eyes drifted in his direction.

"Ungh," Walter moaned. His lips drooped from his slack face, and his skin gleamed wetly in the low light.

"Is there anything you need?" I murmured. I pulled my hands free-they fluttered helplessly in the air between me and Walter.

His loosely rolling eyes searched the darkness. I took a step closer.

"Is there anything we can do for you? Anything at all?"

His eyes roamed till they found my face. Abruptly, they focused through the drunken stupor and the pain.

"Finally," he gasped. His breath wheezed and whistled. "I knew you would come if I waited long enough. Oh, Gladys, I have so much to tell you."

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