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The Host (Chapter 58: Finished)

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I was so tightly wound that I shrieked in terror; I was so terrified that my shriek was only a breathless little squeal.

"Sorry!" Jared's arm went around my shoulders, comforting. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare you."

"What are you doing here?" I demanded, still breathless.

"Following you. I've been following you all night."

"Well, stop it now."

There was a hesitation in the dark, and his arm didn't move. I shrugged out from under it, but he caught my wrist. His grip was firm; I wouldn't be able to shake free easily.

"You're going to see Doc?" he asked, and there was no confusion in the question. It was obvious that he wasn't talking about a social visit.

"Of course I am." I hissed the words so that he wouldn't hear the panic in my voice. "What else can I do after today? It's not going to get any better. And this isn't Jeb's decision to make."

"I know. I'm on your side."

It made me angry that these words still had the power to hurt me, to bring tears stinging into my eyes. I tried to hold on to the thought of Ian-he was the anchor, as Kyle somehow had been for Sunny-but it was hard with Jared's hand touching me, with the smell of him in my nose. Like trying to make out the song of one violin when the entire percussion section was bashing away…

"Then let me go, Jared. Go away. I want to be alone." The words came out fierce and fast and hard. It was easy to hear that they weren't lies.

"I should come with you."

"You'll have Melanie back soon enough," I snapped. "I'm only asking for a few minutes, Jared. Give me that much."

Another pause; his hand didn't loosen.

"Wanda, I would come to be with you."

The tears spilled over. I was grateful for the darkness.

"It wouldn't feel that way," I whispered. "So there's no point."

Of course Jared could not be allowed to be there. Only Doc could be trusted. Only he had promised me. And I wasn't leaving this planet. I wasn't going to go live as a Dolphin or a Flower, always grieving for the loves I'd left behind me, all dead by the time I opened my eyes again-if I even had eyes. This was my planet, and they wouldn't make me leave. I would stay in the dirt, in the dark grotto with my friends. A human grave for the human I had become.

"But Wanda, I… There's so much that I need to say to you."

"I don't want your gratitude, Jared. Trust me on that."

"What do you want?" he whispered, his voice strained and choked. "I would give you anything."

"Take care of my family. Don't let the others kill them."

"Of course I'll take care of them." He dismissed my request brusquely. "I meant you. What can I give you?"

"I can't take anything with me, Jared."

"Not even a memory, Wanda? What do you want?"

I brushed the tears away with my free hand, but others took their place too quickly for it to matter. No, I couldn't take even a memory.

"What can I give you, Wanda?" he insisted.

I took a deep breath and tried to keep my voice steady.

"Give me a lie, Jared. Tell me you want me to stay."

There was no hesitation this time. His arms wound around me in the dark, held me securely against his chest. He pressed his lips against my forehead, and I felt his breath move my hair when he spoke.

Melanie was holding her breath in my head. She was trying to bury herself again, trying to give me my freedom for these last minutes. Maybe she was afraid to listen to these lies. She wouldn't want this memory when I was gone.

"Stay here, Wanda. With us. With me. I don't want you to go. Please. I can't imagine having you gone. I can't see that. I don't know how to… how to…" His voice broke.

He was a very good liar. And he must have been very, very sure of me to say those things.

I rested against him for a moment, but I could feel the time pulling me away. Time was up. Time was up.

"Thank you," I whispered, and I tried to extricate myself.

His arms tightened. "I'm not done."

Our faces were only inches apart. He closed the distance, and even here, on the edge of my last breath on this planet, I couldn't help responding. Gasoline and an open flame-we exploded again.

It wasn't the same, though. I could feel that. This was for me. It was my name that he gasped when he held this body-and he thought of it as my body, thought of it as me. I could feel the difference. For one moment, it was just us, just Wanderer and Jared, both of us burning.

No one had ever lied better than Jared lied with his body in my last minutes, and for that I was grateful. I couldn't take it with me, because I wasn't going anywhere, but it eased some of the pain of leaving. I could believe the lie. I could believe that he would miss me so much that it might even mar some of his joy. I shouldn't want that, but it felt good to believe it anyway.

I couldn't ignore the time, the seconds ticking like a countdown. Even on fire, I could feel them dragging at me, sucking me down the dark corridor. Taking me away from all this heat and feeling.

I managed to pull my lips away from his. We panted in the dark, our breath warm on each other's faces.

"Thank you," I said again.

"Wait…"

"I can't. I can't… bear any more. Okay?"

"Okay," he whispered.

"I just want one more thing. Let me do this alone. Please?"

"If… if you're sure that's what you want…" He trailed off, unsure.

"It's what I need, Jared."

"Then I'll stay here," he said hoarsely.

"I'll send Doc to get you when it's over."

His arms were still locked around me.

"You know that Ian is going to try to kill me for letting you do this? Maybe I should let him. And Jamie. He'll never forgive either of us."

"I can't think about them right now. Please. Let me go."

Slowly, with a palpable reluctance that warmed some of the cold emptiness in the center of my body, Jared let his arms slide away.

"I love you, Wanda."

I sighed. "Thanks, Jared. You know how much I love you. With my whole heart."

Heart and soul. Not the same thing, in my case. I'd been divided too long. It was time to make something whole again, make a whole person. Even if that excluded me.

The ticking seconds pulled me toward the end. It was cold when he no longer held me. It got colder every step I took away from him.

Just my imagination, of course. It was still summer here. It would always be summer here for me.

"What happens here when it rains, Jared?" I whispered. "Where do people sleep?"

It took him a moment to answer, and I could hear tears in his voice. "We…" He swallowed. "We all move into the game room. Everyone sleeps in there together."

I nodded to myself. I wondered what the atmosphere would be like. Awkward, with all the conflicting personalities? Or was it fun? A change? Like a slumber party?

"Why?" he whispered.

"I just wanted to… imagine. How it will be." Life and love would go on. Even though it would happen without me, the idea brought me joy. "Goodbye, Jared. Mel says she'll see you soon."

Liar.

"Wait… Wanda…"

I hurried down the tunnel, hurried away from any chance that he might, with his grateful lies, convince me not to go. There was only silence behind me.

His pain did not hurt me the way Ian's had. For Jared, pain would be over soon. Joy was only minutes away. The happy ending.

The southern tunnel felt only a few yards long. I could see the bright lantern burning ahead, and I knew Doc was waiting for me.

I walked into the room that had always frightened me with my shoulders squared. Doc had everything prepared. In the dimmest corner, I could see two cots pushed together, Kyle snoring with his arm around Jodi's motionless form. His other arm was still curled around Sunny's tank. She would have liked that. I wished there was some way to tell her.

"Hey, Doc," I whispered.

He looked up from the table where he was setting out the medicine. There were already tears streaming down his face.

And suddenly, I was brave. My heart slowed to an even pace. My breath deepened and relaxed. The hardest parts were over.

I had done this before. Many times. I had closed my eyes and gone away. Always knowing new eyes would open again, but still. This was familiar. Nothing to fear.

I went to the cot and hopped up so that I was sitting on it. I reached for the No Pain with steady hands and screwed the lid off. I put the little tissue square on my tongue, let it dissolve.

There was no change. I wasn't in any pain this time. No physical pain.

"Tell me something, Doc. What's your real name?"

I wanted to answer all the little puzzles before the end.

Doc sniffed and wiped the back of his hand under his eyes.

"Eustace. It's a family name, and my parents were cruel people."

I laughed once. Then I sighed. "Jared's waiting, back by the big cave. I promised him you'd tell him when it was over. Just wait until I-until I… stop moving, okay? It will be too late for him to do anything about my decision then."

"I don't want to do this, Wanda."

"I know. Thanks for that, Doc. But I'm holding you to your promise."

"Please?"

"No. You gave me your word. I did my part, didn't I?"

"You did."

"Then do yours. Let me stay with Walt and Wes."

His thin face worked as he tried to keep back a sob.

"Will you be… in pain?"

"No, Doc," I lied. "I won't feel anything."

I waited for the euphoria to come, for the No Pain to set everything glowing the way it had the last time. I still didn't feel any difference.

It must not have been the No Pain after all-it had just been being loved. I sighed again.

I stretched out on the cot, on my stomach, and turned my face toward him.

"Put me under, Doc."

The bottle opened. I heard him shake it onto the cloth in his hand.

"You are the noblest, purest creature I've ever met. The universe will be a darker place without you," he whispered.

These were his words over my grave, my epitaph, and I was glad that I got to hear them.

Thank you, Wanda. My sister. I will never forget you.

Be happy, Mel. Enjoy it all. Appreciate it for me.

I will, she promised.

Bye, we thought together.

Doc's hand pressed the cloth gently over my face. I breathed in deeply, ignoring the thick, uncomfortable scent. As I took another breath, I saw the three stars again. They were not calling to me; they were letting me go, leaving me to the black universe I had wandered for so many lifetimes. I drifted into the black, and it got brighter and brighter. It wasn't black at all-it was blue. Warm, vibrant, brilliant blue… I floated into it with no fear at all.

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