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The Host (Chapter 55: Attached)

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Jeb cleared a path for me, pushing people aside with his rifle as though they were sheep and the gun a shepherd's staff.

"That's enough," he growled at those who complained. "You'll get a chance to dress 'im down later. We all will. Let's get this sorted out first, okay? Let me through."

From the corner of my eye, I saw Sharon and Maggie fall to the back of the crowd, melting away from the reinstatement of reason. Away from my involvement, really, more than anything else. Both with jaws locked, they continued to glare at Kyle.

Jared and Ian were the last two Jeb shoved aside. I brushed both of their arms as I passed, hoping to help calm them.

"Okay, Kyle," Jeb said, smacking the barrel of the gun against his palm. "Don't try to excuse yourself, 'cause there ain't no excuse. I'm plain torn between kickin' ya out and shootin' ya now."

The little face, pale under the deep tan of her skin, peeped around Kyle's elbow again with a swish of long, curly black hair. The girl's mouth was hanging open in horror, her dark eyes frantic. I thought I could see a faint sheen to those eyes, a hint of silver behind the black.

"But right now, let's calm everybody down." Jeb turned around, gun held low across his body, and suddenly it was as if he were guarding Kyle and the little face behind him. He glared at the mob. "Kyle's got a guest, and you're scarin' the snot out of her, people. I think you can all dig up some better manners than that. Now, all of you clear out and get to work on something useful. My cantaloupes are dying. Somebody do something about that, hear?"

He waited until the muttering crowd slowly dispersed. Now that I could see their faces, I could tell that they were already getting over it, most of them, anyway. This wasn't so bad, not after what they'd been fearing the last few days. Yes, Kyle was a self-absorbed idiot, their faces seemed to say, but at least he was back, no harm done. No evacuation, no danger of the Seekers. No more than usual, anyway. He'd brought another worm back, but then, weren't the caves full of them these days?

It just wasn't as shocking as it used to be.

Many went back toward their interrupted lunch, others returned to the irrigation barrel, others to their rooms. Soon only Jared, Ian, and Jamie were left beside me. Jeb looked at these three with a cross expression; his mouth opened, but before he could order them away again, Ian took my hand, and then Jamie grabbed the other. I felt another hand on my wrist, just above Jamie's. Jared.

Jeb rolled his eyes at the way they'd tethered themselves to me to avoid expulsion, and then turned his back on us.

"Thanks, Jeb," Kyle said.

"Shut the hell up, Kyle. Just keep your fat mouth shut. I'm dead serious about shooting you, you worthless maggot."

There was a weak whimper from behind Kyle.

"Okay, Jeb. But could you save the death threats till we're alone? She's terrified enough. You remember how that kind of stuff freaks Wanda out." Kyle smiled at me-I felt shock cross my face in reaction-and then he turned to the girl hiding behind him with the gentlest expression I'd ever seen on his face. "See, Sunny? This is Wanda, the one I told you about. She'll help us-she won't let anyone hurt you, just like me."

The girl-or was she a woman? She was tiny, but there was a subtle curviness to her shape that suggested more maturity than her size-stared at me, her eyes huge with fright. Kyle put his arms around her waist, and she let him pull her into his side. She clung there, as if he were an anchor, her pillar of safety.

"Kyle's right." Never thought I'd say that. "I won't let anyone hurt you. Your name is Sunny?" I asked softly.

The woman's eyes flashed up to Kyle's face.

"It's okay. You don't have to be afraid of Wanda. She's just like you." He turned to me. "Her real name is longer-something about ice."

"Sunlight Passing Through the Ice," she whispered to me.

I saw Jeb's eyes brighten with his unquenchable curiosity.

"She doesn't mind being called just Sunny, though. She said it was fine," Kyle assured me.

Sunny nodded. Her eyes flickered from my face to Kyle's and back again. The other men were totally silent and totally motionless. The little circle of calm soothed her a bit, I could see. She must have been able to feel the change in the atmosphere. There was no hostility toward her, none at all.

"I was a Bear, too, Sunny," I told her, trying to make her feel just a little more comfortable. "They called me Lives in the Stars, then. Wanderer, here."

"Lives in the Stars," she whispered, her eyes somehow, impossibly, getting wider. "Rides the Beast."

I suppressed a groan. "You lived in the second crystal city, I guess."

"Yes. I heard the story so many times…"

"Did you like being a Bear, Sunny?" I asked quickly. I didn't really want to get into my history right now. "Were you happy there?"

Her face crumpled at my questions; her eyes locked onto Kyle's face and filled with tears.

"I'm sorry," I apologized at once, looking to Kyle, too, for an explanation.

He patted her arm. "Don't be afraid. You won't be hurt. I promised."

I could barely hear her answering whisper. "But I like it here. I want to stay."

Her words brought a thick lump to my throat.

"I know, Sunny. I know." Kyle put his hand on the back of her head and, in a gesture so tender it made my eyes smart, held her face against his chest.

Jeb cleared his throat, and Sunny started and cringed. It was easy to imagine the frayed state her nerves must be in. Souls were not designed to handle violence and terror.

I remembered long ago when Jared had interrogated me; he'd asked if I was like other souls. I was not, nor was the other soul they'd dealt with, my Seeker. Sunny, however, seemed to embody the essence of my gentle, timid species; we were powerful only in great numbers.

"Sorry, Sunny," Jeb said. "Didn't mean to scare you, there. Maybe we ought to get out of here, though." His eyes swept around the cave, where a few people lingered by the exits, gawking at us. He stared hard at Reid and Lucina, and they ducked down the corridor toward the kitchen. "Probably ought to git along to Doc," Jeb continued with a sigh, giving the frightened little woman a wistful glance. I guessed he was sad to be missing out on new stories.

"Right," Kyle said. He kept his arm firmly around Sunny's tiny waist and pulled her with him toward the southern tunnel.

I followed right behind, towing the others who still adhered to me.

Jeb paused, and we all stopped with him. He jabbed the butt of his gun into Jamie's hip.

"Ain't you got school, kid?"

"Aw, Uncle Jeb, please? Please? I don't want to miss -"

"Get your behind to class."

Jamie turned his hurt eyes on me, but Jeb was absolutely right. This was nothing I wanted Jamie to see. I shook my head at him.

"Could you get Trudy on your way?" I asked. "Doc needs her."

Jamie's shoulders slumped, and he pulled his hand out of mine. Jared's slid down from my wrist to take its place.

"I miss everything," Jamie moaned as he turned back the other way.

"Thanks, Jeb," I whispered when Jamie was out of hearing.

"Yep."

The long tunnel seemed blacker than before because I could feel the fear radiating from the woman ahead of me.

"It's okay," Kyle murmured to her. "There's nothing that's going to hurt you, and I'm here."

I wondered who this strange man was, the one who had come back in Kyle's place. Had they checked his eyes? I couldn't believe he'd carried all this gentleness around inside his big angry body.

It must have been having Jodi back, being so close to what he wanted. Even knowing that this was his Jodi's body, I was surprised that he could expend so much kindness for the soul inside it. I would have thought such compassion was beyond him.

"How's the Healer?" Jared asked me.

"She woke up, just before I came to find you," I said.

I heard more than one sigh of relief in the darkness.

"She's disoriented, though, and very frightened," I warned them all. "She can't remember her name. Doc's working with her. She's going to be even more scared when she sees all of you. Try to be quiet and move slowly, okay?"

"Yes, yes," the voices whispered in the darkness.

"And, Jeb, do you think you could lose the gun? She's a little afraid of humans still."

"Uh-okay," Jeb answered.

"Afraid of humans?" Kyle murmured.

"We're the bad guys," Ian reminded him, squeezing my hand.

I squeezed it back, glad for the warmth of his touch, the pressure of his fingers.

How much longer would I have the feeling of a hand warm around mine? When was the last time I would walk down this tunnel? Was it this time?

No. Not yet, Mel whispered.

I was suddenly trembling. Ian's hand tightened again, and so did Jared's.

We walked in silence for a few moments.

"Kyle?" Sunny's timid voice asked.

"Yes?"

"I don't want to go back to the Bears."

"You don't have to. You can go somewhere else."

"But I can't stay here?"

"No. I'm sorry, Sunny."

There was a little hitch in her breathing. I was glad it was dark. No one could see the tears that started rolling down my face. I had no free hand to wipe them away, so I let them fall onto my shirt.

We finally reached the end of the tunnel. The sunlight streamed from the mouth of the hospital, reflecting off the dust motes dancing in the air. I could hear Doc murmuring inside.

"That's very good," he was saying. "Keep thinking of details. You know your old address-your name can't be far behind, eh? How does this feel? Not tender?"

"Careful," I whispered.

Kyle paused at the edge of the arch, Sunny still clinging to his side, and motioned for me to go first.

I took a deep breath and walked slowly into Doc's place. I announced my presence in a low, even voice. "Hello."

The Healer's host started and gasped out a little shriek.

"Just me again," I said reassuringly.

"It's Wanda," Doc reminded her.

The woman was sitting up now, and Doc was sitting beside her with his hand on her arm.

"That's the soul," the woman whispered anxiously to Doc.

"Yes, but she's a friend."

The woman eyed me doubtfully.

"Doc? You've got a few more visitors. Is that okay?"

Doc looked at the woman. "These are all friends, all right? More of the humans who live here with me. None of them would ever dream of hurting you. Can they come in?"

The woman hesitated, then nodded cautiously. "Okay," she whispered.

"This is Ian," I said, motioning him forward. "And Jared, and Jeb." One by one, they walked into the room and stood beside me. "And this is Kyle and… uh, Sunny."

Doc's eyes bugged wide as Kyle, Sunny attached to his side, entered the room.

"Are there any more?" the woman whispered.

Doc cleared his throat, trying to compose himself. "Yes. There are a lot of people who live here. All… well, mostly humans," he added, staring at Sunny.

"Trudy is on her way," I told Doc. "Maybe Trudy could…" I glanced at Sunny and Kyle. "… find a room for… her to rest in?"

Doc nodded, still wide-eyed. "That might be a good idea."

"Who's Trudy?" the woman whispered.

"She's very nice. She'll take care of you."

"Is she human, or is she like that one?" She nodded toward me.

"She's human."

This seemed to ease the woman's mind.

"Oh," Sunny gasped behind me.

I turned to see her staring at the cryotanks that held the Healers. They were standing in the middle of Doc's desk, the lights on top glowing muted red. On the floor in front of the desk, the seven remaining empty tanks were piled in an untidy heap.

Tears sprang to Sunny's eyes again, and she buried her face against Kyle's chest.

"I don't want to go! I want to stay with you," she moaned to the big man she seemed to trust so completely.

"I know, Sunny. I'm sorry."

Sunny broke down into sobs.

I blinked fast, trying to keep the tears from my own eyes. I crossed the small space to where Sunny stood, and stroked her springy black hair.

"I need to talk to her for a minute, Kyle," I murmured.

He nodded, his face troubled, and pulled the clinging girl from his side.

"No, no," she begged.

"It's okay," I promised. "He's not going anywhere. I just want to ask you a few questions."

Kyle turned her to face me, and her arms locked around me. I pulled her to the far corner of the room, as far from the nameless woman as I could get. I didn't want our conversation to confuse or frighten the Healer's host any more than she already was. Kyle followed, never more than a few inches away. We sat on the floor, facing the wall.

"Jeez," Kyle murmured. "I didn't think it would be like this. This really sucks."

"How did you find her? And catch her?" I asked. The sobbing girl didn't react as I questioned him; she just kept crying on my shoulder. "What happened? Why is she like this?"

"Well, I thought she might be in Las Vegas. I went there first, before I went on to Portland. See, Jodi was really close to her mother, and that's where Doris lived. I thought, seeing how you were about Jared and the kid, that maybe she would go there, even when she wasn't Jodi. And I was right. They were all there at the same old house, Doris 's house: Doris, and her husband, Warren-they had other names, but I didn't hear them clearly-and Sunny. I watched them all day, until it was nighttime. Sunny was in Jodi's old room, alone. I snuck in after they'd all been asleep for hours. I yanked Sunny up, threw her over my shoulder, and jumped out the window. I thought she was going to start screaming, so I was really booking it back to the jeep. Then I was afraid because she didn't start screaming. She was just so quiet! I was afraid she had… you know. Like that guy we caught once."

I winced-I had a more recent memory.

"So I pulled her off my shoulder, and she was alive, just staring up at me, all wide-eyed. Still not screaming. I carried her back to the jeep. I'd been planning to tie her up, but… she didn't look that upset. She wasn't trying to get away, at least. So I just buckled her in and started driving.

"She just stared at me for a long time, and then finally she said, ��You're Kyle,' and I said, ��Yeah, who are you?' and she told me her name. What is it again?"

"Sunlight Passing Through the Ice," Sunny whispered brokenly. "I like Sunny, though. It's nice."

"Anyway," Kyle went on after clearing his throat. "She didn't mind talking to me at all. She wasn't afraid like I'd thought she'd be. So we talked." He was quiet for a moment. "She was happy to see me."

"I used to dream about him all the time," Sunny whispered to me. "Every night. I kept hoping the Seekers would find him; I missed him so much… When I saw him, I thought it was the old dream again."

I swallowed loudly.

Kyle reached across me to lay his hand on her cheek.

"She's a good kid, Wanda. Can't we send her someplace really nice?"

"That's what I wanted to ask her about. Where have you lived, Sunny?"

I was vaguely aware of the subdued voices of the others, greeting Trudy's arrival. We had our backs to them. I wanted to see what was going on, but I was also glad not to have the distraction. I tried to concentrate on the crying soul.

"Just here and with the Bears. I was there five life terms. But I like it better here. I haven't had even a quarter of a life term here!"

"I know. Believe me, I understand. Is there anywhere else, though, that you've ever wanted to go? The Flowers, maybe? It's nice there; I've been."

"I don't want to be a plant," she mumbled into my shoulder.

"The Spiders…" I began, but then let my voice trail off. The Spiders were not the right place for Sunny.

"I'm tired of cold. And I like colors."

"I know." I sighed. "I haven't been a Dolphin, but I hear it's nice there. Color, mobility, family…"

"They're all so far away. By the time I got anywhere, Kyle would be… He'd be…" She hiccuped and then started crying again.

"Don't you have any other choices?" Kyle asked anxiously. "Aren't there a lot more places out there?"

I could hear Trudy talking to the Healer's host, but I tuned out the words. Let the humans take care of their own for the moment.

"Not that the off-world ships are going to," I told him, shaking my head. "There are lots of worlds, but only a few, mostly the newer ones, are still open for settling. And I'm sorry, Sunny, but I have to send you far away. The Seekers want to find my friends here, and they'd bring you back if they could, so you could show them the way."

"I don't even know the way," she sobbed. My shoulder was drenched with her tears. "He covered my eyes."

Kyle looked at me as if I could produce some kind of miracle to make this all work out perfectly. Like the medicine I'd provided, some kind of magic. But I knew that I was out of magic, out of happy endings-for the soul half of the equation, at least.

I stared back hopelessly at Kyle. "It's just the Bears, the Flowers, and the Dolphins," I told him. "I won't send her to the Fire Planet."

The small woman shuddered at the name.

"Don't worry, Sunny. You'll like the Dolphins. They'll be nice. Of course they'll be nice."

She sobbed harder.

I sighed and moved on.

"Sunny, I need to ask you about Jodi."

Kyle stiffened beside me.

"What about her?" Sunny mumbled.

"Is she… is she in there with you? Can you hear her?"

Sunny sniffed and looked up at me. "I don't understand what you mean."

"Does she ever talk to you? Are you ever aware of her thoughts?"

"My… body's? Her thoughts? She doesn't have any. I'm here now."

I nodded slowly.

"Is that bad?" Kyle whispered.

"I don't know enough about it to tell. It's probably not good, though."

Kyle's eyes tightened.

"How long have you been here, Sunny?"

She frowned, thinking. "How long is it, Kyle? Five years? Six? You disappeared before I came home."

"Six," he said.

"And how old are you?" I asked her.

"I'm twenty-seven."

That surprised me-she was such a little thing, so young looking. I couldn't believe she was six years older than Melanie.

"Why does that matter?" Kyle asked.

"I'm not sure. It just seems like the more time someone spent as a human before they became a soul, the better chance they might have at… making a recovery. The greater the percentage of their life they spent human, the more memories they have, the more connections, the more years being called by the right name… I don't know."

"Is twenty-one years enough?" he asked, his voice desperate.

"I guess we'll find out."

"It's not fair!" Sunny wailed. "Why do you get to stay? Why can't I stay, if you can?"

I had to swallow hard. "That wouldn't be fair, would it? But I don't get to stay, Sunny. I have to go, too. And soon. Maybe we'll leave together." Perhaps she'd be happier if she thought I was going to the Dolphins with her. By the time she knew otherwise, Sunny would have a different host with different emotions and no tie to this human beside me. Maybe. Anyway, it would be too late. "I have to go, Sunny, just like you. I have to give my body back, too."

And then, flat and hard from right behind us, Ian's voice broke the quiet like the crack of a whip.

"What?"

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