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The Host (Chapter 8: Loved)

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Y ou're afraid to fly?" The Seeker's voice was full of disbelief edging toward mockery. "You've traveled through deep space eight times and you're afraid to take a shuttle to Tucson, Arizona?"

"First of all, I'm not afraid. Second, when I traveled through deep space I wasn't exactly aware of where I was, what with being stored in a hibernation chamber. And third, this host gets motion sickness on shuttles."

The Seeker rolled her eyes in disgust. "So take medication! What would you have done if Healer Fords hadn't relocated to Saint Mary's? Would you be driving to Chicago?"

"No. But since the option of driving is now reasonable, I will take it. It will be nice to see a bit more of this world. The desert can be stunning -"

"The desert is dead boring."

"-and I'm not in any hurry. I have many things to think through, and I will appreciate some time alone." I looked pointedly at her as I emphasized the last word.

"I don't understand the point of visiting your old Healer anyway. There are many competent Healers here."

"I'm comfortable with Healer Fords. He has experience with this, and I don't trust that I have all the information I need." I gave her another significant look.

"You don't have time to not hurry, Wanderer. I recognize the signs."

"Forgive me if I don't consider your information impartial. I know enough of human behavior to recognize the signs of manipulation."

She glowered at me.

I was packing my rental car with the few things I planned to take with me. I had enough clothes to go a week between washing, and the basic hygiene necessities. Though I wasn't bringing much, I was leaving even less behind. I'd accumulated very little in the way of personal belongings. After all these months in my small apartment, the walls were still bare, the shelves empty. Perhaps I'd never meant to settle here.

The Seeker was planted on the sidewalk next to my open trunk, assailing me with snide questions and comments whenever I was in hearing distance. At least I was secure in the belief that she was far too impatient to follow me on the road. She would take a shuttle to Tucson, just as she was hoping to shame me into doing. It was a huge relief. I imagined her joining me every time I stopped to eat, hovering outside gas station bathrooms, her inexhaustible inquisitions waiting for me whenever my vehicle paused at a light. I shuddered at the thought. If a new body meant freeing myself of the Seeker… well, that was quite an inducement.

I had another choice, too. I could abandon this entire world as a failure and move on to a tenth planet. I could work to forget this whole experience. Earth could be just a short blip in my otherwise spotless record.

But where would I go? A planet I'd already experienced? The Singing World had been one of my favorites, but to give up sight for blindness? The Planet of the Flowers was lovely… Yet chlorophyll-based life-forms had so little range of emotion. It would feel unbearably slow after the tempo of this human place.

A new planet? There was a recent acquisition-here on Earth, they were calling the new hosts Dolphins for lack of a better comparison, though they resembled dragonflies more than marine mammals. A highly developed species, and certainly mobile, but after my long stay with the See Weeds, the thought of another water planet was repugnant to me.

No, there was still so much to this planet that I hadn't experienced. Nowhere else in the known universe called to me as strongly as this shady little green yard on this quiet street. Or held the lure of the empty desert sky, which I'd seen only in Melanie's memories.

Melanie did not share her opinion on my options. She had been very quiet since my decision to find Fords Deep Waters, my first Healer. I wasn't sure what the detachment meant. Was she trying to seem less dangerous, less of a burden? Was she preparing herself for the invasion of the Seeker? For death? Or was she preparing to fight me? To try to take over?

Whatever her plan, she kept herself distant. She was just a faint, watchful presence in the back of my head.

I made my last trip inside, searching for anything forgotten. The apartment looked empty. There were only the basic furnishings that had been left by the last tenant. The same plates were still in the cupboards, the pillows on the bed, the lamps on the tables; if I didn't come back, there would be little for the next tenant to clear out.

The phone rang as I was stepping out the door, and I turned back to get it, but I was too late. I'd already set the message system to answer on the first ring. I knew what the caller would hear: my vague explanation that I would be out the rest of the semester, and that my classes would be canceled until a replacement could be found. No reason given. I looked at the clock on top of the television. It was barely past eight in the morning. I was sure it must be Curt on the phone, having just received the only slightly more detailed e-mail I'd sent him late last night. I felt guilty about not finishing out my commitment to him, almost like I was already skipping. Perhaps this step, this quitting, was the prelude to my next decision, my greater shame. The thought was uncomfortable. It made me unwilling to listen to whatever the message said, though I wasn't in any real hurry to leave.

I looked around the empty apartment one more time. There was no sense of leaving anything behind me, no fondness for these rooms. I had the strange feeling that this world-not just Melanie, but the entire orb of the planet-did not want me, no matter how much I wanted it. I just couldn't seem to get my roots in. I smiled wryly at the thought of roots. This feeling was just superstitious nonsense.

I'd never had a host that was capable of superstition. It was an interesting sensation. Like knowing you were being watched without being able to find the watcher. It raised goose bumps on the nape of my neck.

I shut the door firmly behind me but did not touch the obsolete locks. No one would disturb this place until I returned or it was given to someone new.

Without looking at the Seeker, I climbed into the car. I hadn't done much driving, and neither had Melanie, so this made me a bit nervous. But I was sure I would get used to it soon enough.

"I'll be waiting for you in Tucson," the Seeker said, leaning in the open passenger-side window as I started the engine.

"I have no doubt of that," I muttered.

I found the controls on the door panel. Trying to hide a smile, I hit the button to raise the glass and watched her jump back.

"Maybe…," she said, raising her voice to almost a shout so that I could hear her over the engine noise and through the closed window, "maybe I'll try it your way. Maybe I'll see you on the road."

She smiled and shrugged.

She was just saying it to upset me. I tried not to let her see that she had. I focused my eyes on the road ahead and pulled carefully away from the curb.

It was easy enough to find the freeway and then follow the signs out of San Diego. Soon there were no signs to follow, no wrong turns to take. In eight hours I would be in Tucson. It wasn't long enough. Perhaps I would stay a night in some small town along the way. If I could be sure that the Seeker would be ahead, waiting impatiently, rather than following behind, a stop would be a nice delay.

I found myself looking in the rearview mirror often, searching for a sign of pursuit. I was driving slower than anyone else, unwilling to reach my destination, and the other cars passed me without pause. There were no faces I recognized as they moved ahead. I shouldn't have let the Seeker's taunt bother me; she clearly didn't have the temperament to go anywhere slowly. Still… I continued to watch for her.

I'd been west to the ocean, north and south up and down the pretty California coastline, but I'd never been east for any distance at all. Civilization fell behind me quickly, and I was soon surrounded by the blank hills and rocks that were the precursors to the empty desert wastelands.

It was very relaxing to be away from civilization, and this bothered me. I should not have found the loneliness so welcoming. Souls were sociable. We lived and worked and grew together in harmony. We were all the same: peaceful, friendly, honest. Why should I feel better away from my kind? Was it Melanie who made me this way?

I searched for her but found her remote, dreaming in the back of my head.

This was the best it had been since she'd started talking again.

The miles passed quickly. The dark, rough rocks and the dusty plains covered in scrub flew by with monotonous uniformity. I realized I was driving faster than I'd meant to. There wasn't anything to keep my mind occupied here, so I found it hard to linger. Absently, I wondered why the desert was so much more colorful in Melanie's memories, so much more compelling. I let my mind coast with hers, trying to see what it was that was special about this vacant place.

But she wasn't seeing the sparse, dead land surrounding us. She was dreaming of another desert, canyoned and red, a magical place. She didn't try to keep me out. In fact, she seemed almost unaware of my presence. I questioned again what her detachment meant. I sensed no thought of attack. It felt more like a preparation for the end.

She was living in a happier place in her memory, as if she were saying goodbye. It was a place she had never allowed me to see before.

There was a cabin, an ingenious dwelling tucked into a nook in the red sandstone, perilously close to the flash flood line. An unlikely place, far from any trail or path, built in what seemed a senseless location. A rough place, without any of the conveniences of modern technology. She remembered laughing at the sink one had to pump to pull water up from the ground.

"It beats pipes," Jared says, the crease between his eyes deepening as his brows pull together. He seems worried by my laugh. Is he afraid I don't like it? "Nothing to trace, no evidence that we're here."

"I love it," I say quickly. "It's like an old movie. It's perfect."

The smile that never truly leaves his face-he smiles even in his sleep-grows wide. "They don't tell you the worst parts in the movies. C'mon, I'll show you where the latrine is."

I hear Jamie's laughter echo through the narrow canyon as he runs ahead of us. His black hair bounces with his body. He bounces all the time now, this thin boy with the sun-darkened skin. I hadn't realized how much weight those narrow shoulders were carrying. With Jared, he is positively buoyant. The anxious expression has faded, replaced by grins. We are both more resilient than I gave us credit for.

"Who built this place?"

"My father and older brothers. I helped, or rather hindered, a little. My dad loved to get away from everything. And he didn't care much about convention. He never bothered to find out who the land actually belonged to or file permits or any of that pesky stuff." Jared laughs, throwing his head back. The sun dances off the blond bits in his hair. "Officially, this place doesn't exist. Convenient, isn't it?" Without seeming to think about it, he reaches out and takes my hand.

My skin burns where it meets his. It feels better than good, but it sets off a strange aching in my chest.

He is forever touching me this way, always seeming to need to reassure himself that I am here. Does he realize what it does to me, the simple pressure of his warm palm next to mine? Does his pulse jump in his veins, too? Or is he just happy to not be alone anymore?

He swings our arms as we walk beneath a little stand of cottonwood trees, their green so vivid against the red that it plays tricks on my eyes, confusing my focus. He is happy here, happier than in other places. I feel happy, too. The feeling is still unfamiliar.

He hasn't kissed me since that first night, when I screamed, finding the scar on his neck. Does he not want to kiss me again? Should I kiss him? What if he doesn't like that?

He looks down at me and smiles, the lines around his eyes crinkling into little webs. I wonder if he is as handsome as I think he is, or if it's just that he's the only person left in the whole world besides Jamie and me.

No, I don't think that's it. He really is beautiful.

"What are you thinking, Mel?" he asks. "You seem to be concentrating on something very important." He laughs.

I shrug, and my stomach flutters. "It's beautiful here."

He looks around us. "Yes. But then, isn't home always beautiful?"

"Home." I repeat the word quietly. "Home."

"Your home, too, if you want it."

"I want it." It seems like every mile I've walked in the past three years has been toward this place. I never want to leave, though I know we'll have to. Food doesn't grow on trees. Not in the desert, at least.

He squeezes my hand, and my heart punches against my ribs. It's just like pain, this pleasure.

There was a blurring sensation as Melanie skipped ahead, her thoughts dancing through the hot day until hours after the sun had fallen behind the red canyon walls. I went along, almost hypnotized by the endless road stretching ahead of me, the skeletal bushes flying by with mind-numbing sameness.

I peek into the one narrow little bedroom. The full-size mattress is only inches away from the rough stone walls on either side.

It gives me a deep, rich sense of joy to see Jamie asleep on a real bed, his head on a soft pillow. His lanky arms and legs sprawl out, leaving little room for me where I am meant to sleep. He is so much bigger in reality than the way I see him in my head. Almost ten-soon he won't be a child at all. Except that he will always be a child to me.

Jamie breathes evenly, sleeping sound. There is no fear in his dream, for this moment at least.

I shut the door quietly and go back to the small couch where Jared waits.

"Thank you," I whisper, though I know shouting the words wouldn't wake Jamie now. "I feel bad. This couch is much too short for you. Maybe you should take the bed with Jamie."

Jared chuckles. "Mel, you're only a few inches shorter than I am. Sleep comfortably, for once. Next time I'm out, I'll steal myself a cot or something."

I don't like this, for lots of reasons. Will he be leaving soon? Will he take us with him when he goes? Does he see this room assignment as a permanent thing?

He drops his arm around my shoulders and tucks me against his side. I scoot closer, though the heat of touching him has my heart aching again.

"Why the frown?" he asks.

"When will you… when will we have to leave again?"

He shrugs. "We scavenged enough on our way up that we're set for a few months. I can do a few short raids if you want to stay in one place for a while. I'm sure you're tired of running."

"Yes, I am," I agree. I take a deep breath to make me brave. "But if you go, I go."

He hugs me tighter. "I'll admit, I prefer it that way. The thought of being separated from you…" He laughs quietly. "Does it sound crazy to say that I'd rather die? Too melodramatic?"

"No, I know what you mean."

He must feel the same way I do. Would he say these things if he thought of me as just another human, and not as a woman?

I realize that this is the first time we've ever been really alone since the night we met-the first time there's been a door to close between a sleeping Jamie and the two of us. So many nights we've stayed awake, talking in whispers, telling all of our stories, the happy stories and the horror stories, always with Jamie's head cradled on my lap. It makes my breath come faster, that simple closed door.

"I don't think you need to find a cot, not yet."

I feel his eyes on me, questioning, but I can't meet them. I'm embarrassed now, too late. The words are out.

"We'll stay here until the food is gone, don't worry. I've slept on worse things than this couch."

"That's not what I mean," I say, still looking down.

"You get the bed, Mel. I'm not budging on that."

"That's not what I mean, either." It's barely a whisper. "I meant the couch is plenty big for Jamie. He won't outgrow it for a long time. I could share the bed with… you."

There is a pause. I want to look up, to read the expression on his face, but I'm too mortified. What if he is disgusted? How will I stand it? Will he make me go away?

His warm, callused fingers tug my chin up. My heart throbs when our eyes meet.

"Mel, I…" His face, for once, has no smile.

I try to look away, but he holds my chin so that my gaze can't escape his. Does he not feel the fire between his body and mine? Is that all me? How can it all be me? It feels like a flat sun trapped between us-pressed like a flower between the pages of a thick book, burning the paper. Does it feel like something else to him? Something bad?

After a moment, his head turns; he's the one looking away now, still keeping his grip on my chin. His voice is quiet. "You don't owe me that, Melanie. You don't owe me anything at all."

It's hard for me to swallow. "I'm not saying… I didn't mean that I felt obligated. And… you shouldn't, either. Forget I said anything."

"Not likely, Mel."

He sighs, and I want to disappear. Give up-lose my mind to the invaders if that's what it takes to erase this huge blunder. Trade the future to blot out the last two minutes of the past. Anything.

Jared takes a deep breath. He squints at the floor, his eyes and jaw tight. "Mel, it doesn't have to be like that. Just because we're together, just because we're the last man and woman on Earth…" He struggles for words, something I don't think I've ever seen him do before. "That doesn't mean you have to do anything you don't want to. I'm not the kind of man who would expect… You don't have to…"

He looks so upset, still frowning away, that I find myself speaking, though I know it's a mistake before I start. "That's not what I mean," I mutter. "��Have to' is not what I'm talking about, and I don't think you're ��that kind of man.' No. Of course not. It's just that -"

Just that I love him. I grit my teeth together before I can humiliate myself more. I should bite my tongue off right now before it ruins anything else.

"Just that…?" he asks.

I try to shake my head, but he's still holding my chin tight between his fingers.

"Mel?"

I yank free and shake my head fiercely.

He leans closer to me, and his face is different suddenly. There's a new conflict I don't recognize in his expression, and even though I don't understand it completely, it erases the feeling of rejection that's making my eyes sting.

"Will you talk to me? Please?" he murmurs. I can feel his breath on my cheek, and it's a few seconds before I can think at all.

His eyes make me forget that I am mortified, that I wanted to never speak again.

"If I got to pick anyone, anyone at all, to be stranded on a deserted planet with, it would be you," I whisper. The sun between us burns hotter. "I always want to be with you. And not just… not just to talk to. When you touch me…" I dare to let my fingers brush lightly along the warm skin of his arm, and it feels like the flames are flowing from their tips now. His arm tightens around me. Does he feel the fire? "I don't want you to stop." I want to be more exact, but I can't find the words. That's fine. It's bad enough having admitted this much. "If you don't feel the same way, I understand. Maybe it isn't the same for you. That's okay." Lies.

"Oh, Mel," he sighs in my ear, and pulls my face around to meet his.

More flames in his lips, fiercer than the others, blistering. I don't know what I'm doing, but it doesn't seem to matter. His hands are in my hair, and my heart is about to combust. I can't breathe. I don't want to breathe.

But his lips move to my ear, and he holds my face when I try to find them again.

"It was a miracle-more than a miracle-when I found you, Melanie. Right now, if I was given the choice between having the world back and having you, I wouldn't be able to give you up. Not to save five billion lives."

"That's wrong."

"Very wrong but very true."

"Jared," I breathe. I try to reach for his lips again. He pulls away, looking like he has something to say. What more can there be?

"But…"

"But?" How can there be a but? What could possibly follow all this fire that starts with a but?

"But you're seventeen, Melanie. And I'm twenty-six."

"What's that got to do with anything?"

He doesn't answer. His hands stroke my arms slowly, painting them with fire.

"You've got to be kidding me." I lean back to search his face. "You're going to worry about conventions when we're past the end of the world?"

He swallows loudly before he speaks. "Most conventions exist for a reason, Mel. I would feel like a bad person, like I was taking advantage. You're very young."

"No one's young anymore. Anyone who's survived this long is ancient."

There's a smile pulling up one corner of his mouth. "Maybe you're right. But this isn't something we need to rush."

"What is there to wait for?" I demand.

He hesitates for a long moment, thinking.

"Well, for one thing, there are some… practical matters to consider."

I wonder if he is just searching for a distraction, trying to stall. That's what it feels like. I raise one eyebrow. I can't believe the turn this conversation has taken. If he really does want me, this is senseless.

"See," he explains, hesitating. Under the deep golden tan of his skin, it looks like he might be blushing. "When I was stocking this place, I wasn't much planning for… guests. What I mean is…" The rest comes out in a rush. "Birth control was pretty much the last thing on my mind."

I feel my forehead crease. "Oh."

The smile is gone from his face, and for one short second there is a flash of anger I've never seen there before. It makes him look dangerous in a way I hadn't imagined he could. "This isn't the kind of world I'd want to bring a child into."

The words sink in, and I cringe at the thought of a tiny, innocent baby opening his eyes to this place. It's bad enough to watch Jamie's eyes, to know what this life will bring him, even in the best possible circumstances.

Jared is suddenly Jared again. The skin around his eyes crinkles. "Besides, we've got plenty of time to… think about this." Stalling again, I suspect. "Do you realize how very, very little time we've been together so far? It's been just four weeks since we found each other."

This floors me. "That can't be."

"Twenty-nine days. I'm counting."

I think back. It's not possible that it has been only twenty-nine days since Jared changed our lives. It seems like Jamie and I have been with Jared every bit as long as we were alone. Two or three years, maybe.

"We've got time," Jared says again.

An abrupt panic, like a warning premonition, makes it impossible for me to speak for a long moment. He watches the change on my face with worried eyes.

"You don't know that." The despair that softened when he found me strikes like the lash of a whip. "You can't know how much time we'll have. You don't know if we should be counting in months or days or hours."

He laughs a warm laugh, touching his lips to the tense place where my eyebrows pull together. "Don't worry, Mel. Miracles don't work that way. I'll never lose you. I'll never let you get away from me."

She brought me back to the present-to the thin ribbon of the highway winding through the Arizona wasteland, baking under the fierce noon sun-without my choosing to return. I stared at the empty place ahead and felt the empty place inside.

Her thought sighed faintly in my head: You never know how much time you'll have.

The tears I was crying belonged to both of us.

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