Che! Again, it's been a while since I updated, and I apologize. It's not like I've been super busy or anything, I just haven't been writing.
Oh, well. Chapter...Eleven?
As the games stretched out over the day, we began trading players. Swapping. Bargaining. Lily pulled me to her team, happily relinquishing Brandt and Wes in return.
The tide seemed to turn as soon as I switched sides, but I refused to believe it was because of me. Brandt and Aaron, though they read each other well, each tried to dominate the other. Kyle became frustrated and distracted by them, and Ian and I gained the upper hand together.
After about another hour or so, Andy swapped half a dozen players to get Ian on his team. Ian seemed reluctant, at first, to play with his brother, against whom he was undoubtedly harboring a grudge. However, he couldn't help lapsing into the vibes of brotherly communication that bordered on telepathy.
I couldn't keep the ball—no one could. Kyle and Ian were unstoppable.
Lily bargained to take Aaron and Brandt back, and Andy left his team and came with them. However, it didn't seem to make a difference to Ian and Kyle. We seemed powerless against them. They let us have Wes back, and Maggie as goalie; it didn't matter. They didn't need anyone but each other.
"Okay, okay," Jeb called after seemingly hours of futile struggles against the O'Sheas' brilliance. "I think we all know the winners. Now, I hate to be a party pooper, but there's work waiting. And, to be honest, I'm bushed."
Most everyone began filing out, heading toward the kitchen for lunch. Kyle had caught his brother in a mock fight. I heard him say, "You got the brains, I got the looks. Seems fair." Ian responded by twisting him into a headlock, a smile tugging at his mouth. They seemed to be getting on relatively good terms again, which was comforting.
For the moment, Ian was occupied, and Wanda was still crippled. I made my way toward the mouth of the tunnel, where she'd moved to one side of the rock shelf to make room for those exiting the room.
I approached her quietly. "Hungry?"
Her head snapped up, her face going white for a split second before she shook her head. "I'm not sure why, since I've done nothing but sit here, but I'm just tired."
She needed rest. I could help her get somewhere to sleep. I held out my hand, since she probably couldn't get up with her leg.
Wanda took my hand, still apprehensive. I helped her stand up, where she balanced on her good leg, her injured one hanging limp. She clung to my fingers, though we stood arm's length apart.
"Where to?" I asked her. I didn't know where she'd slept last night after the funeral.
"Ah...I don't really know. I suppose there's still a mat by the hol—uh, in the storage area."
Her mouth was turned down; this prospect did not appeal to her. Nor to me.
I'd made Melanie sleep there. And not just there, in the dark, musty corridor—I hadn't even given her a mat. I'd made her lie in the cramped round hole, on the hard, curved rock. For a week.
I didn't want her to go back there.
Ian strutted up beside her. "I'll get her where she needs to go." He put his arm under her shoulders. He was supporting her weight helpfully, but the way he looked at her, at me, was...possessive. He was...staking his claim.
I kept my face closed off. His actions were making me angry. He had no right to treat Melanie that way.
"We were just discussing where that would be," I said. My voice was deliberately even, inflectionless. I still didn't want to upset Wanda. "She's tired. Maybe the hospital?"
They shook their heads simultaneously. "I've got a better place for her," Ian said. "Those cots aren't much softer than rock, and she's got a lot of sore spots."
"Why don't you get lunch?" I asked him pointedly. He needed to get his head on straight about this situation. "I'll take her wherever you had planned...?" I let my voice trail off, hoping he would tell me where that was.
Ian laughed once, sarcastically. "I'm fine. And honestly, Jared, Wanda needs a bit more help than a hand. I don't know if you're...comfortable enough with the situation to give her that. You see—" He hoisted her up into his arms.
I didn't let go of her hand.
"She's actually had enough exercise for one day, I think." Ian's expression was serious now. Like all he was doing was helping her. "You go on ahead to the kitchen."
I held his gaze. "I can carry her." I had before.
"Can you?" He held her out to me.
I studied her face. Wanda's. Our conversation today hadn't been too painful, talking about Melanie. Wanda, true to her nature, had forgiven me for abusing her, and Mel hadn't seemed too mad either, from what Wanda had said.
I would always be around to help Mel, to keep her safe from anyone who still wanted to hurt her body. But this—helping her right now—was something else.
Ian was turning it into a game, and I wasn't going to play.
It was the throbbing I felt in her fingers, from my grip, that made me release her hand, although I probably wouldn't have ended up carrying her. This body...it wasn't Mel. As good as Wanda was...I didn't want her. Didn't want to care for her.
Ian was right. I wasn't comfortable enough with her.
But I had to talk to him. To lay down some kind of boundary. "I think I'll tag along. There's something I want to discuss with you."
"Suit yourself," Ian said, heading for exit. He looked smug.
I followed him silently through the tunnels, composing my edict. Ian would leave Wanda alone. This was Mel's body, after all, and if she couldn't speak for herself, I'd speak for her. Say what I knew she'd want to say.
But I didn't want to say it in front of Wanda. I didn't really know what she'd think of this, what I was planning to say. I didn't want to encourage her any. My problem was with Ian right now, anyway.
I had to say something right now, though. I'd said I wanted to discuss something with Ian, and if I didn't start talking, Wanda might get curious. "What's your take on Kyle?" We had passed through the main plaza, into my sleeping corridor. I wondered vaguely where we were going.
Ian snorted without any humor. "He prides himself on being a man of his word. Usually, I would trust a promise from him. In this situation...I'm not letting her out of my sight."
"Good." Whatever he was doing, however he was annoying me, he was my ally in this. Keeping Wanda safe.
"It will be fine, Ian," she said bracingly. "I'm not afraid."
Why wasn't she afraid? People here were trying to kill her—and Mel—all the time.
"You don't have to be," Ian said resolutely. "I promise. No one is ever going to do something like this to you again. You will be safe here."
"Yes, you will," I affirmed. Mel had to be kept safe. I needed her.
"Thanks," she said in a small voice. Every time I spoke to her, she seemed to shrink into herself a little. I intimidated her, like Kyle did. She was frightened by me.
And she might...love me.
Ian paused at his room, at the red and gray doors. "Would you mind getting that?"
For a moment, I thought he needed to grab something from his room, but then it hit me. I stood still, rooted where I was. "Your room? This is your better place?"
"It's her room now," Ian retorted stubbornly.
He was giving her his room. I didn't like that at all. The gesture was chivalrous, yes, but there was a convenient, glaring loophole in this deal that would benefit him far more than just the warm-fuzzies of generosity.
It wasn't just Ian's room, though, that he was giving away. "Where's Kyle staying?"
"With Wes, for now."
"And you?" I dreaded his response.
"I'm not exactly sure."
Would he wait for her to invite him?
I sized him up, trying to decide how to tell him no. How to tell him I didn't want this, and how to convince him that my opinion held any weight in this matter. It was kind of hard.
"Ian, this is—" Wanda began, interrupting our staring contest.
"Oh," Ian said, his tone one of exaggerated, conspicuous realization. "You're exhausted, aren't you? Jared, could you get the door, please?"
I yanked the red door aside for him, not deigning to look at him as he entered the room and placed Wanda on his mattress, taking extra care with her injured leg. I stared down the hallway, toward the plaza, listening to their quiet conversation.
"You look tired."
"I shouldn't be—I've done nothing but sleep lately."
"Your body needs sleep to heal. I'll bring you food later. Don't worry about anything."
"This is your room. You'll sleep here, of course."
I ground my teeth.
"Why would I?"
"It's probably a good idea—best way to keep an eye on you. Get some sleep."
Mel would be furious.
After a few seconds, Ian exited his room, shutting the door behind him, a slight smile on his face. I watched out of the corner of my eye as he leaned against the wall for a second, then turned toward me.
"Do you think what happened this morning will influence Aaron or Brandt?"
Two others whom I knew, if they didn't share Kyle's rage, certainly agreed with him about Wanda being here. "You mean Kyle getting a bye?"
"Yeah. They didn't have to...do anything before. Not when it looked so likely that Kyle would do it for them."
"I see your point," I said. "I'll speak to them." I'd tell them they would not only have to answer to Jeb, but to me.
"You think that will be enough?" Ian said. He seemed concerned that my word would have no...authority.
"I've saved both their lives," I pointed out. "They owe me. If I ask them for something, they'll do it."
"You'd bet her life on that?" he pressed.
I thought about that. "We'll...keep an eye on her." No matter what now, I wasn't letting them kill Mel.
He gave a small nod, his gaze returning to the door. After several seconds of silence, he hadn't moved. I asked, "Aren't you going to go eat?"
"I'll think I'll hang out here for a bit," he said nonchalantly. "How about you?"
I had to tell him now, now that Wanda wasn't here, was probably asleep already behind the door.
"What?" Ian said. "Is there something you want to say to me, Jared?"
"The girl in there..." I began.
Even though I knew Wanda didn't mean us any harm, there was still a...problem with the body she was in. "That body doesn't belong to her."
"Your point?" Ian said impatiently.
He knew what I wanted. "Keep your hands off it."
Ian grinned, a low laugh escaping him. "Jealous, Howe?"
"That's not really the issue." It was more or less true. My motives for saying this to him now were to protect Melanie's body, to do what she couldn't—say stay away from me. However, I couldn't deny that I...envied Ian's familiarity with this body. The casual way he touched it, took care of it.
I didn't know how much of his attraction was for Wanda, and how much was for Mel's body. Maybe he wasn't insightful enough to see the difference like I did, having known Mel long before Wanda was inserted into her body. He was almost...ignoring Melanie. He didn't see her as I saw her constantly, didn't respect her body because he thought of it as Wanda's.
Yes, I wished Wanda wasn't in Melanie, wished Ian would leave both of them alone. But my feelings—my jealousy, my twisted longing—were secondary to Mel, Mel's needs.
Ian didn't buy that. "Really." He raised one eyebrow doubtfully, his voice derisive.
I had to explain, to make him see that this wasn't about me. "Wanda seems to be, more or less, cooperating with Melanie. It sounds like they're almost...on friendly terms. But obviously Wanda's making the decisions. What if it were you? How would you feel if you were Melanie?" I could hardly imagine it myself. "What if you were the one...invaded that way? What if you were trapped and someone else was telling your body what to do? If you couldn't speak for yourself? Wouldn't you want your wishes—as much as they could be known—respected? At the very least, by other humans?"
I broke off, my breath choking. Mel's existence had to be...miserable. Sharing headspace with Wanda, who was obviously very sensitive and sympathetic, wouldn't be too horrible, I supposed, but being trapped, having no choices...I couldn't fathom that.
"Okay, okay," Ian said, trying to pacify me. "I'll keep that in mind."
"What do you mean, you'll keep that in mind?" I exclaimed. This wasn't a reminder. It was an ultimatum.
"I mean I'll think about it."
"There's nothing to think about," I said through my teeth. "The body and the person locked inside it belong to me."
"You're sure that Melanie still feel the same—" he tried to protest.
"Melanie will always be mine. And I will always be hers." We were exactly right for each other. Alien insertion or not, Mel was still the woman I loved. Of course, Wanda's feelings complicated things a bit, but that would never change how Mel and I felt about each other. I knew she'd do and say these same things if the situation was reversed.
I was defending Melanie, how she'd been wronged in this situation, but Ian's thoughts were elsewhere. "But what if it were you?"
"What if you were stuffed in a human body and let loose on this planet, only to find yourself lost among your own kind?"
Oh. He was talking about Wanda. Thinking how she'd been wronged. Had she been wronged?
"What if you were such a good...person that you tried to save the life you'd taken, that you almost died trying to get her back to her family?" He was becoming more animated, more passionate, as he spoke. "What if you then found yourself surrounded by violent aliens who hated you and hurt you and tried to murder you over and over again?" His face was full of...anguish. He must have remembered how he'd hurt her in the beginning. Left those ugly bruises on her neck. Now, of course, he had to feel terrible about it.
I felt bad for hurting Mel. Ian felt bad for hurting...Wanda. He thought that her feelings and desires were just as important as the human's whose body had been invaded.
"What if you just kept doing whatever you could to save and heal those people despite that? Wouldn't you deserve a life, too? Wouldn't you have earned that much?"
I hadn't thought about it that way. I'd realized how good Wanda's intentions were, how she had tried to help by bringing Mel here to us, but I...I resented her nonetheless. When I'd helped her before...it had been for Mel. If there had been a way to have Melanie without Wanda...I would take it. Wanda was not supposed to be here. She was good, but still a body thief.
Ian, with his unbiased perspective on Melanie and the alien inside her, thought Wanda deserved her life. Deserved to stay here, even if in a stolen body. "Point taken?"
Did I agree?
"I—I'll have to think about that one."
He was right; I knew he was. Pragmatically, I could see what Wanda had done here. She was good. I just couldn't look past Melanie. "But still—"
Ian sighed, exasperated. "Don't get worked up. Wanda isn't exactly human, despite the body. She doesn't seem to respond to...physical contact the same way a human would."
"Is that your theory?" I asked. I was amused by his assumption, and gleeful that he was wrong. I had seen her do just that—what he thought she wasn't capable of.
"She is quite capable of responding to physical contact. She's human enough for that. Or her body is, anyway." I wasn't so amused anymore. I was remembering that night, when Mel had made herself known to me. Before Melanie punched me...Wanda had responded. Like Mel used to. She had liked it.
Ian apparently didn't. His brow was knitted as he processed what I'd said.
"Jealous, O'Shea?" I needled him.
"Actually...I am. Surprisingly so." He looked at me, slightly confused. "How would you know that?"
He didn't know. She'd never told him what I'd done, after he'd left her to talk to me. "It was...sort of an experiment."
"An experiment?" he repeated, his eyes going wide in consternation.
"It didn't go the way I thought it would. Mel punched me." I grinned merrily, remembering the sensation of the moment when I'd realized that the woman I loved could actually be alive, after I'd thought she'd died.
"It sure wasn't Wanda. You should have seen her face..." I trailed off, noticing Ian's face. It was slowly contorting with anger, indignation. "What?"
He look a step toward me, his fists clenched menacingly.
"Hey, Ian, easy, man!" I held my hands up in defense—he looked like he was about to attack me.
"Did you think for one moment what that must have done to her?" he spat.
"Mel?" I asked, bewildered. I had made Melanie mad when I'd kissed her stolen—or shared—body, but why would Ian have cared about that?
"No, you fool, Wanda!"
What did he mean? "Done to Wanda?" I didn't get it. I hadn't hurt Wanda. Melanie had, by punching me with the body they shared. Wanda wasn't a fighter—she didn't like violence. Of course she would be upset by her own arm hurting someone.
"Oh, get out of here," Ian said sharply. His eyes blazed. "Go eat something. Stay away from me for a few hours." He turned on his heel, jerking the door to his room out of his way to enter.
I stood there for a moment, trying to process his words. He thought I'd...hurt Wanda? By kissing her? But I hadn't even been kissing her...
At the hole...when I'd said I'd been kissing Mel, not Wanda...she had cried. Cried more. That I wasn't kissing her had upset her.
She did feel for me.
Urgh. This was so confusing.
I was hungry. Slowly, quietly, I strode from the corridor, through the main plaza, to the kitchen.
Most everyone was still eating, chatting merrily about the game this morning. I accepted an ear of corn from Ruth Ann behind the counter and grabbed a handful of beef jerky, along with a roll.
I went to sit by Jamie, who was talking animatedly to Paige and Andy. He didn't notice me at first, babbling something about...ice? Ice castles and rainbows.
"And they go in between cities across the ice fields. They have guides who take them back and forth all the time. It's like a full-time job. Wanda liked going alone, though. She wasn't a carver there, she—"
"What are you talking about, kid?" I demanded playfully. Andy shot me a grin, but turned quickly back to Jamie. He was engrossed in whatever fanciful story Jamie was telling.
"The Mists Planet," Paige answered me with a smile. "Wanda used to live there."
I had forgotten that Wanda used to tell everyone about other planets. I hadn't cared before, except to think she'd been tricking us somehow.
But apparently everyone here liked the stories. "Will you tell me about it?"
Jamie brightened at my request. I loved seeing him so happy. Things between us had been strained ever since Wanda had come. Funny that now Wanda's stories were helping us mend.
He told me about the Mists Planet and the species that lived there—Bears, they called them, though they were even bigger than bears here, with six arms and opposable thumbs. He described the sharp cold, the ice full of color patterns that we couldn't imagine, and their dreams that could inspire beautiful, glittering ice sculptures.
I was half-listening as I ate; my mind kept wandering back to Wanda herself. Wanda, Melanie, and Ian.
If Wanda loved Jamie because of the way Mel thought of him, then there was no doubt that Mel's memories of me had inspired something in the alien too.
She loved me. In some unsettling way, Wanda, a soul, had developed feelings for me. Not imitations of what Melanie felt, but wholly her own. They were because of Mel, but separate from Mel.
I could see now that this was why she'd come. Jeb had been right all along—Wanda was no Seeker. She had wandered out in the desert, away from her society, to find her body's family, nearly killing herself in the process. There had never been a master plan to bring an army of parasites here to subdue the last pocket of human resistance. Wanda had come to these caves to bring Melanie back to us. And she'd succeeded. Survived the desert and our multiple murder attempts, finally made me see that the human conscience was alive with her, and become part of the community. Probably more than she'd ever hoped to achieve.
I'd always be grateful for that. I'd given Melanie up for lost long before Wanda had come. Being proven wrong...had made me feel hopeful in a way I'd never thought I would again.
Mel and I obviously couldn't be together; Wanda was there and Melanie clearly didn't like her being a part of us. That was okay, I supposed. Just having her here, alive, was better than nothing. Maybe.
But I was absolutely certain that I would not be okay with Ian taking her away.
I knew he wasn't doing it on purpose, to hurt me or anything, and to my knowledge Wanda was practically unaware of his attraction for her. But I couldn't help being...jealous.
I was not about to let Melanie's body—especially when Mel was still in it—end up with another guy. Even if Wanda and Ian didn't develop an intimate relationship, seeing the two of them together was wrong. But what could I do about it?
"So, Jared, where's Wanda staying now?" Jamie inquired, interrupting my pensive musings. "Before she...she went to the hospital, she had to sleep at the storage hole because she said there wasn't room anywhere else. Since you came back, she didn't want to intrude. You're not gonna make her sleep down there, are you?"
Wanda's sleeping arrangements. How was I going to handle this? I did not want her sleeping in Ian's room with Ian, even if they were on separate mattresses. Of course I wouldn't make her sleep anywhere near the storage corridor, ever again. But where else could she...well...
I was not playing Ian's game with him, I told myself fiercely. Again, this was for Mel.
Jamie was still waiting for my answer. I quickly formulated my plan. "Actually...I don't think we're being very good hosts. She's used to our room, isn't she? She can move back in with you, like she did before."
It was a win-win. Jamie got to have his friend and his sister back with him, like he'd always had, and I got to keep Ian away—farther away—from Mel. Wanda felt for me and Jamie enough that she'd go along with it, even if she realized what I was doing. Yes, I was playing on her emotions a bit. But it was for the greater good.
"And what about you?" Jamie said. "We can't all fit on one bed."
"Well, the room's big enough for three," I said, calculating hastily. "I can sleep on another mattress. Doesn't Wes have an extra?"
"Oh, yeah!" Jamie crowed, his face lighting up. "That'll be great! Can I go tell Wanda now?"
"Yes," I said, a sardonic smile creeping on to my face. "That's a good idea. I think she's in Ian's room!" My voice grew in volume as Jamie bounded away from me, out of the kitchen.
I pressed my lips together, trying to hide my grin. I couldn't stop smiling, though. Mel was, little by little, coming back to me. Just like she'd promised.
Paige and Andy got up, carrying their empty dishes. Their vacated seats were quickly filled by Jeb. The shrewd look on the old man's face told me he had heard my conversation with Jamie.
"Are you sure you know what you're doing, kid?"
"What do you mean?" I asked, puzzled. I was keeping Mel away from Ian. Of course I knew.
"She would bend over backward to make you happy. Even if it made her miserable."
"Who? Wanda?" But I wasn't making her miserable. I was inviting her to come live with us. With Jamie. Surely that was something she wanted.
Jeb looked very serious, very earnest. "Do not get her confused with Melanie, Jared. She can tell, you know."
"Look, I know they're different people, Jeb. I know."
"But what you do for them...how much of that is for Wanda?"
I opened my mouth to retort, but I had nothing to say. He'd hit home—I wasn't doing this for Wanda. I was doing it for Mel. And myself. Wanda was just along for the ride in my schemes, and she was astute enough to see that. Did that hurt her feelings?
"She's a person, too. Her own person. Don't forget that," Jeb cautioned.
"Yeah," I muttered. He was right, too, though I didn't want him to be. Wanda wasn't Melanie. I knew that. Before I'd known Wanda at all, that fact had pained me. Cut me deep. Now, knowing Melanie was there too, the pain had eased some.
But I still wanted her back.
Thanks to my ingenious plan to keep Ian at a distance from the body of the girl I loved, I'd now have to wake up every morning and see a stranger looking at me through Melanie's eyes. Now more than ever, I'd be constantly reminded of the fact that my love was a prisoner in her own head. Would that fact get easier or harder to handle if I was in close proximity to Wanda?
I could be nice to her. I could.
When Jamie returned a few minutes later, bouncing with excitement, telling me that Wanda said yes, Jeb gave me an admonishing glare. I nodded at him, satisfied despite my preoccupations.
Your move, O'Shea.
Wanda moved into my room. She slept on our old mattress with Jamie; I had stolen Wes's extra twin mattress and now slept crammed between the wall and the head of the other mattress.
As I'd predicted, waking up every morning had me constantly correcting myself before I spoke—Good morning, Wanda—instead of Melanie. I was always very polite to her, perhaps a little formal, but always civil.
Jamie was the most comfortable of us—any time we were all together, he chattered away, talking a lot about Melanie, and sometimes even pulling her into the conversation, through Wanda. Wanda would shoot me an apprehensive glance every time Mel's name was mentioned, though I was somewhat getting used to this strange arrangement of consciences.
I was trying hard to consider Wanda as her own separate person, not just as Mel's body turned into a different awareness. Wanda was good, yes, but the body she wore was just too familiar to me. Every time I spoke to her, said good morning or good night, I'd ask about Mel. Wanda would flush and hesitate, but always answer for Mel.
I got the feeling that I would actually like Wanda as a person, if she wasn't inside Mel. She took wonderful care of Jamie and was so considerate toward everyone. She tried to work hard, to do as much as everyone else, but she was still crippled from Kyle's attack. She could hardly walk anywhere; she was slow and needed help.
Ian appointed himself as her primary aide. He carried her most places, helping her limp around when she wanted to. He brought her food and let her do little chores that didn't require much exertion. I couldn't deny that he took very good care of her. Better care than I would have. Melanie still distracted me.
Jamie confided to me that Melanie didn't like Ian. I could kind of tell that myself—sometimes when Ian would touch Wanda, or take her hand, she would wince, then smile apologetically. I guessed that was Mel, making Wanda's head hurt with the antagonism. Of course, she never punched Ian like she had me. I didn't know what to make of that—I half wished she would.
Melanie was here in the caves, with me, like I'd never imagined would happen. Wanda had brought us a strange, invigorating hope when she came, letting us know that we humans could survive an implantation, even if just as a ghost. But that hope only went so far for me.
Yes, Melanie was alive. I had no future with her, though. The woman I loved was doomed to be carried around in her head for the rest of her life because someone had stolen her body. I contemned that fact. No matter how innocent Wanda was, I still resented her for making a life here for herself in Melanie's body.
If only there was a way I could change that.
Sorry, I realize that was kinda short. The story is in the midst of a drastic tonal change, and I feel like I'm not doing it justice. I will keep working to make it better!
Please leave a review if you have any questions, critiques, or comments.
Thank you for reading KylerM.