The Host (Chapter 59: Remembered)
But this time the end was a greater surprise than it had ever been. Greater than any end I'd remembered in nine lives. Greater than jumping down an elevator shaft. I had expected no more memories, no more thoughts. What end was this?
The sun is setting-the colors are all rosy, and they make me think of my friend… what would her name be here? Something about… ruffles? Ruffles and more ruffles. She was a beautiful Flower. The flowers here are so lifeless and boring. They smell wonderful, though. Smells are the best part of this place.
Footsteps behind me. Has Cloud Spinner followed me again? I don't need a jacket. It's warm here-finally!-and I want to feel the air on my skin. I won't look at her. Maybe she'll think I can't hear and she'll go home. She is so careful with me, but I'm almost grown now. She can't mother me forever.
"Excuse me?" someone says, and I don't know the voice.
I turn to look at her, and I don't know the face, either. She's pretty.
The face in the memory jerked me back to myself. That was my face! But I didn't remember this…
"Hi," I say.
"Hello. My name is Melanie." She smiles at me. "I'm new in town and… I think I'm lost."
"Oh! Where are you trying to go? I'll take you. Our car is just back -"
"No, it's not far. I was going for a walk, but now I can't find my way back to Becker Street."
She's a new neighbor-how nice. I love new friends.
"You're very close," I tell her. "It's just around the second corner up that way, but you can cut right through this little alley here. It takes you straight there."
"Could you show me? I'm sorry, what's your name?"
"Of course! Come with me. I'm Petals Open to the Moon, but my family mostly calls me Pet. Where are you from, Melanie?"
She laughs. "Do you mean San Diego or the Singing World, Pet?"
"Either one." I laugh, too. I like her smile. "There are two Bats on this street. They live in that yellow house with the pine trees."
"I'll have to say hello," she murmurs, but her voice has changed, tensed. She's looking into the dusky alley as though she's expecting to see something.
And there is something there. Two people, a man and a boy. The boy drags his hand through his long black hair like he's nervous. Maybe he is worried because he's lost, too. His pretty eyes are wide and excited. The man is very still.
Jamie. Jared. My heart thumped, but the feeling was peculiar, wrong. Too small and… fluttery.
"These are my friends, Pet," Melanie tells me.
"Oh! Oh, hello." I stretch my hand out to the man-he's the closest.
He reaches for my hand, and his grip is so strong.
He yanks me forward, right up to his body. I don't understand. This feels wrong. I don't like it.
My heart beats faster, and I'm afraid. I've never been scared like this before. I don't understand.
His hand swings toward my face, and I gasp. I suck in the mist that comes from his hand. A silver cloud that tastes like raspberries.
"Wha -" I want to ask, but I can't see them anymore. I can't see anything…
There was no more.
"Wanda? Can you hear me, Wanda?" a familiar voice asked.
That wasn't the right name… was it? My ears didn't react to it, but something did. Wasn't I Petals Open to the Moon? Pet? Was that it? That didn't feel right, either. My heart beat faster, an echo of the fear in my memory. A vision of a woman with white-and-red-streaked hair and kind green eyes filled my head. Where was my mother? But… she wasn't my mother, was she?
A sound, a low voice that echoed around me. "Wanda. Come back. We aren't letting you go."
The voice was familiar, and it was also not. It sounded like… me?
Where was Petals Open to the Moon? I couldn't find her. Just a thousand empty memories. A house full of pictures but no inhabitants.
"Use the Awake," a voice said. I didn't recognize this one.
Something brushed my face, light as the touch of fog. I knew that scent. It was the smell of grapefruit.
I took a deeper breath, and my mind suddenly cleared.
I could feel that I was lying down… but this felt wrong, too. There wasn't… enough of me. I felt shrunken.
My hands were warmer than the rest of me, and that was because they were being held. Held in big hands, hands that swallowed them right up.
It smelled odd-stuffy and a little moldy. I remembered the smell… but surely I'd never smelled it before in my life.
I saw nothing but dull red-the insides of my eyelids. I wanted to open them, so I went searching for the right muscles to do that.
"Wanderer? We're all waiting for you, honey. Open your eyes."
This voice, this warm breath against my ear, was even more familiar. A strange feeling tickled through my veins at the sound. A feeling I'd never, ever felt before. The sound made my breath catch and my fingers tremble.
I wanted to see the face that went with that voice.
A color washed through my mind-a color that called to me from a faraway life-a brilliant, glowing blue. The whole universe was bright blue…
And finally I knew my name. Yes, that was right. Wanderer. I was Wanderer. Wanda, too. I remembered that now.
A light touch on my face-a warm pressure on my lips, on my eyelids. Ah, that's where they were. I could make them blink now that I'd found them.
"She's waking up!" someone crowed excitedly.
Jamie. Jamie was here. My heart gave another fluttery little thump.
It took a moment for my eyes to focus. The blue that stabbed my eyes was all wrong-too pale, too washed out. It wasn't the blue I wanted.
A hand touched my face. "Wanderer?"
I looked to the sound. The movement of my head on my neck felt so odd. It didn't feel like it used to, but at the same time it felt the way it had always felt.
My searching eyes found the blue I'd been looking for. Sapphire, snow, and midnight.
"Ian? Ian, where am I?" The sound of the voice coming out of my throat frightened me. So high and trilling. Familiar, but not mine. "Who am I?"
"You're you," Ian told me. "And you're right where you belong."
I pulled one of my hands free from the giant's hand that held it. I meant to touch my face, but someone's hand reached toward me, and I froze.
The reaching hand also froze above me.
I tried to move my hand again, to protect myself, but that moved the hand above me. I started shaking, and the hand trembled.
I opened and closed the hand, looking at it carefully.
Was this my hand, this tiny thing? It was a child's hand, except for the long pink-and-white nails, filed into perfect, smooth curves. The skin was fair, with a strange silvery cast to it and, entirely incongruous, a scattering of golden freckles.
It was the odd combination of silver and gold that brought the image back: I could see a face in my head, reflected in a mirror.
The setting of the memory threw me off for a moment because I wasn't used to so much civilization-at the same time, I knew nothing but civilization. A pretty dresser with all kinds of frilly and delicate things on top of it. A profusion of dainty glass bottles containing the scents I loved-I loved? Or she loved?-so much. A potted orchid. A set of silver combs.
The big round mirror was framed in a wreath of metal roses. The face in the mirror was roundish, too, not quite oval. Small. The skin on the face had the same silver undertone-silver like moonlight-as the hand did, with another handful of the golden freckles across the bridge of the nose. Wide gray eyes, the silver of the soul shimmering faintly behind the soft color, framed by tangled golden lashes. Pale pink lips, full and almost round, like a baby's. Small, even white teeth behind them. A dimple in the chin. And everywhere, everywhere, golden, waving hair that stood away from my face in a bright halo and fell below where the mirror showed.
My face or her face?
It was the perfect face for a Night Flower. Like an exact translation from Flower to human.
"Where is she?" my high, reedy voice demanded. "Where is Pet?" Her absence frightened me. I'd never seen a more defenseless creature than this half-child with her moonlight face and sunlight hair.
"She's right here," Doc assured me. "Tanked and ready to go. We thought you could tell us the best place to send her."
I looked toward his voice. When I saw him standing in the sunlight, a lit cryotank in his hands, a rush of memories from my former life came back to me.
"Doc!" I gasped in the tiny, fragile voice. "Doc, you promised! You gave me your oath, Eustace! Why? Why did you break your word?"
A dim recollection of misery and pain touched me. This body had never felt such agony before. It shied away from the sting.
"Even an honest man sometimes caves to duress, Wanda."
"Duress," another terribly familiar voice scoffed.
"I'd say a knife to the throat counts as duress, Jared."
"You knew I wouldn't really use it."
"That I did not. You were quite persuasive."
"A knife?" My body trembled.
"Shh, it's all okay," Ian murmured. His breath blew strands of golden hair across my face, and I brushed them away-a routine gesture. "Did you really think you could leave us that way? Wanda!" He sighed, but the sigh was joyful.
Ian was happy. This insight made my worry suddenly much lighter, easier to bear.
"I told you I didn't want to be a parasite," I whispered.
"Let me through," my old voice ordered. And then I could see my face, the strong one, with the sun-brown skin, the straight black line of the eyebrows over the almond-shaped, hazel eyes, the high, sharp cheekbones… See it backward, not as a reflection, the way I'd always seen it before.
"Listen up, Wanda. I know exactly what you don't want to be. But we're human, and we're selfish, and we don't always do the right thing. We aren't going to let you go. Deal with it."
The way she spoke, the cadence and the tone, not the voice, brought back all the silent conversations, the voice in my head, my sister.
"Mel? Mel, you're okay!"
She smiled then and leaned over to hug my shoulders. She was bigger than I remembered being.
"Of course I am. Wasn't that the point of all the drama? And you're going to be fine, too. We weren't stupid about it. We didn't just grab the first body we saw."
"Let me tell her, let me!" Jamie shoved in beside Mel. It was getting very crowded around the cot. It rocked, unstable.
I took his hand and squeezed it. My hands felt so feeble. Could he even feel the pressure?
"Hey, Wanda! This is cool, isn't it? You're smaller than me now!" He grinned, triumphant.
"But still older. I'm almost -" And then I stopped, changing my sentence abruptly. "My birthday is in two weeks."
I might have been disoriented and confused, but I wasn't stupid. Melanie's experiences had not gone to waste; I had learned from them. Ian was every bit as honorable as Jared, and I was not going to go through the frustration Melanie had.
So I lied, giving myself an extra year. "I'll be eighteen."
From the corner of my eye, I saw Melanie and Ian stiffen in surprise. This body looked much younger than her true age, hovering on the edge of seventeen.
It was this little deception, this preemptive claiming of my partner, that made me realize I was staying here. That I would be with Ian and the rest of my family. My throat thickened, felt oddly swollen.
Jamie patted my face, calling my attention back. I was surprised at how big his hand felt on my cheek. "They let me come on the raid to get you."
"I know," I muttered. "I remember… Well, Pet remembers seeing you there." I glared at Mel, who shrugged.
"We tried not to scare her," Jamie said. "She's so… kind of fragile-looking, you know? And nice, too. We picked her out together, but I got to decide! See, Mel said we had to get someone young-someone who had a bigger percentage of life as a soul or something. But not too young, because she knew you wouldn't want to be a child. And then Jared liked this face, because he said no one could ever dis… distrust it. You don't look dangerous at all. You look the opposite of dangerous. Jared said anyone who sees you would just naturally want to protect you, right, Jared? But then I got the final say, because I was looking for someone who looked like you. And I thought this looked like you. Because she sort of looks like an angel, and you're good like that. And real pretty. I knew you would be pretty." Jamie smiled hugely. "Ian didn't come. He just sat here with you-he said he didn't care what you looked like. He wouldn't let anyone else put a finger on your tank at all, not even me or Mel. But Doc let me watch this time. It was way cool, Wanda. I don't know why you wouldn't let me watch before. They wouldn't let me help, though. Ian wouldn't let anyone touch you but him."
Ian squeezed my hand and leaned in to whisper through all the hair. His voice was so low that I was the only one who could hear. "I held you in my hand, Wanderer. And you were so beautiful."
My eyes got all wet, and I had to sniff.
"You like it, don't you?" Jamie asked, his voice worried now. "You're not mad? There's nobody in there with you, is there?"
"I'm not mad, exactly," I whispered. "And I-I can't find anybody else. Just Pet's memories. Pet's been in here since… I can't remember when she wasn't here. I can't remember any other name."
"You're not a parasite," Melanie said firmly, touching my hair, pulling up a strand and letting the gold slide between her fingers. "This body didn't belong to Pet, but there's nobody else to claim it. We waited to make sure, Wanda. We tried to wake her up almost as long as we tried with Jodi."
"Jodi? What happened to Jodi?" I chirped, my little voice going higher, like a bird's, with anxiety. I struggled to get up, and Ian pulled me-it took no effort, no strength to move my tiny new body-into a sitting position with his arm supporting me. I could see all the faces then.
Doc, no more tears in his eyes. Jeb, peeking around Doc, his expression satisfied and burning with curiosity at the same time. Next, a woman I didn't recognize for a second because her face was more animated than I'd ever seen it, and I hadn't seen it much anyway-Mandy, the former Healer. Closer to me, Jamie, with his bright, excited smile, Melanie beside him, and Jared behind her, his hands around her waist. I knew that his hands would never feel right unless they were touching her body-my body!-now. That he would keep her as close as he could forever, hating any inch that came between them. This caused me a fierce, aching pain. The delicate heart in my thin chest shuddered. It had never been broken before, and it didn't understand this memory.
It made me sorry to realize that I still loved Jared. I wasn't free of that, wasn't free of jealousy for the body he loved. My glance flickered back to Mel. I saw the rueful twist of the mouth that used to be mine, and knew she understood.
I continued quickly around the cluster of faces circling my bed, while Doc, after a pause, answered my question.
Trudy and Geoffrey, Heath, Paige and Andy. Brandt, even…
"Jodi didn't respond. We kept trying as long as we could."
Was Jodi gone, then? I wondered, my inexperienced heart throbbing. I was giving the poor frail thing such a rough awakening.
Heidi and Lily, Lily smiling a pained little smile-none the less sincere for the pain…
"We were able to keep her hydrated, but we had no way to feed her. We were worried about atrophy-her muscles, her brain…"
While my new heart ached harder than it had ever ached-ached for a woman I'd never known-my eyes continued around the circle and then froze.
Jodi, clinging to Kyle's side, stared back at me.
She smiled tentatively, and suddenly I recognized her.
"I got to stay," she said, not quite smug but almost. "Just like you." She glanced at Kyle's face-which was more stoic than I was used to seeing it-and her voice turned sad. "I'm trying, though. I am looking for her. I will keep looking."
"Kyle had us put Sunny back when it looked like we would lose Jodi," Doc continued quietly.
I stared at Sunny and Kyle for a moment, stunned, and then finished the circle.
Ian was watching me with a strange combination of joy and nervousness. His face was higher than it should have been, bigger than it used to be. But his eyes were still the blue I remembered. The anchor that held me to this planet.
"You okay in there?" he asked.
"I… I don't know," I admitted. "This feels very… weird. Every bit as weird as switching species. So much weirder than I would have thought. I… I don't know."
My heart fluttered again, looking into those eyes, and this was no memory of another lifetime's love. My mouth felt dry, and my stomach quivered. The place where his arm touched my back felt more alive than the rest of my body.
"You don't mind staying here too much, do you, Wanda? Do you think that maybe you could tolerate it?" he murmured.
Jamie squeezed my hand. Melanie put hers on top of his, then smiled when Jared added his to the pile. Trudy patted my foot. Geoffrey, Heath, Heidi, Andy, Paige, Brandt, and even Lily were beaming at me. Kyle had shuffled closer, a grin spreading across his face. Sunny's smile was the smile of a coconspirator.
How much No Pain had Doc given me? Everything was glowing.
Ian brushed the cloud of golden hair back from my face and laid his hand on my cheek. His hand was so big just the palm covered from my jaw to my forehead; the contact sent a jolt of electricity through my silvery skin. It tingled after that first jolt, and the pit of my stomach tingled along with it.
I could feel a warm flush pinking my cheeks. My heart had never been broken before, but it had also never flown. It made me shy; I had a hard time finding my voice.
"I suppose I could do that," I whispered. "If it makes you happy."
"That's not good enough, actually," Ian disagreed. "It has to make you happy, too."
I could only meet his gaze for a few seconds at a time; the shyness, so new and confusing to me, had my eyes dropping to my lap again and again.
"I… think it might," I agreed. "I think it might make me very, very happy."
Happy and sad, elated and miserable, secure and afraid, loved and denied, patient and angry, peaceful and wild, complete and empty… all of it. I would feel everything. It would all be mine.
Ian coaxed my face up until I looked him in the eyes, my cheeks flushing darker.
"Then you will stay."
He kissed me, right in front of everyone, but I forgot the audience quickly. This was easy and right, no division, no confusion, no objection, just Ian and me, the molten rock moving through this new body, melding it into the pact.
"I will stay," I agreed.
And my tenth life began.