Something was wrong. Wanda suspected. Wanda knew. Her lies were so obvious, it was easy to tell that she hadn't wanted food. She hadn't sent me away to get her and Jamie something to eat- there was so much for her to pick up on in the caves. Everyone's disappearance, the lies Trudy had told her, Jamie's aversion for Doc when his leg was bleeding from a two-inch gash... She had to be burning with curiosity.
A sudden, heart-shattering scream, echoing from the Southern tunnels, tore my world apart and proved me right.
My body jolted into a running stance, the meal I'd retrieved for Wanda and Jamie spilling to the floor as I shot forward. The screaming- more of a high keening, which made my stomach roll- didn't cut off like I expected it to. It continued, becoming more animal-like by the second. I forced my legs to move faster, flying past a few faceless people.
I neared the hospital, and I could hear more shouting. Terrified, frantic shouting. "What did she see?" Seconds later. "Is she conscious?" My heart sputtered. "Hold onto her- don't let her hurt herself!"
And that's when I came upon the scene. Jared, Kyle, Jeb, and Doc all struggling to restrain Wanda. Kyle held her face- so bruised! So scarred!- between his palms, and Jeb had a death grip on her arms, which were flailing, writhing. "Let me go!" she shrieked, and I could see in the dim light that she'd vomited all over herself.
Jared had his hands on her thighs, trying to hold her still and comfort her at the same time. My worry held me too speechless to yell at him.
"Get away from me! Get away!" Her face was twisted into an expression of pain. Sheer, unadulterated pain. Tears swam down her face in rivers. She'd bitten her lip in an attempt to escape their hold, and blood was spilling from the cut. "Monsters! Torturers!"
My eyes moved to the scenery- the body. It was hidden under the thick green plaid. But silver caught my eye and fury bubbled in my chest. My gaze flew over the silvery substance that coated Doc's table, the floor, the walls. My breath, already labored, hitched at the sight of what I knew had started this.
"Monster!" Wanda yelled again, and I looked back at her to see her manage to kick Jared away from her.
"She's hysterical," Doc announced, pushing Kyle away. "Hold on."
My head swam as I watched him slap her across the face with the back of his bloodied hand.
"What are you doing?" I shouted, the sight of yet another bruise forming on her face breaking my silence.
They didn't even look up from the struggle. Kyle yelled, "It's having a seizure or something, Ian. Doc's trying to bring it around."
I pressed my palm against the entry of the hospital, leaning against the wall as I gagged against the word "seizure." My stomach rolled, and I glared at the men in the room. How could they be so careless with Wanda here? This madness should have stopped when Wanda arrived. I knew this would happen- I should have stopped it.
Wanda's struggling slowly calmed, and she gave one last shriek of terror before going limp against Jeb's arms. All four men gave a sigh of relief, and Doc stood up, his own sobs returning. Jeb tried shifting her to Jared, but he recoiled, as did Kyle.
"Give her to me," I hissed, shoving my brother and his partner in idiocy away. I cradled the poor, unconscious girl in my arms. She was almost as light as Jamie when he was asleep. "I can't believe you were stupid enough to do this!"
"It's my house-" Jeb began, but I interrupted him.
"This was your idea, wasn't it?" I glowered at Jared. "All for your stupid Melanie!" Leaning Wanda's head against my shoulder, I turned around and left the hospital. Geoffrey, Travis, and Violetta were standing a few feet away, their eyes wide and afraid. They must have heard the screaming.
My gaze landed on Geoffrey, and my lip curled in disgust. I spat at the floor by his feet and kept walking, taking Wanda to the room she'd agreed to share with me that night. That game of soccer seemed like eons ago.
It didn't take long for me to hear the second pair of footsteps, and I exhaled shortly, sharply. "Get away from me," I hissed.
"I'm not sorry that we did it," Jared murmured in the darkness. I started to make a sarcastic remark, but he continued. "I didn't want her to see that, though. That was... bad."
"Horrific is the more appropriate word. Can you imagine how that must have scarred her?" I absently stroked Wanda's tangled, sweaty hair.
He sighed in the dark, faintly regretful. "I guess I convinced myself... Well, honestly, I thought she'd have guessed what we were up to. Looks like I was wrong."
"You think that's what happened?" I snapped incredulously, trying not to imagine Doc reopening the pink scar on the back of Wanda's neck. I gently fingered the soft, puckered skin. "That she was scared because Doc was trying to take the other souls out? That she was afraid for herself?" Wanda was never afraid for herself. Stupidly, she only cared about others. Admirably, she only cared about others.
It was quiet for a long moment before Jared whispered, "You don't?"
I scoffed. "No. I don't. As disgusted as I am that you would bring back more... victims for Doc, bring them back now!" I shook my head. "As much as that turns my stomach, that's not what upset her. How can you be so blind? Can't you imagine what that must have looked like to her in there?" Shuddering, I pictured my own kind so tortuously mangled. It was too easy.
"I know we had the bodies covered before-"
"The wrong bodies, Jared," I hissed. "Oh, I'm sure Wanda would be upset by a human corpse- she's so gentle; violence and death aren't a part of her normal world. But think what the things on that table must have meant to her."
I rolled my eyes as his silence took up another long portion of our walk. "Oh."
"Yes. If you or I had walked in on a human vivisection, with torn body parts, with blood splattered everything, it wouldn't have been as bad for us as it was for her." I paused for a second, imagining her terrifying disgust. "We'd have seen it all before- even before the invasion, in horror movies, at least. I"d bet she's never been exposed to anything like that in all her lives."
I didn't mean to hold her tighter, but my arms squeezed without command.
Wanda shuddered in my hold. "Let me go," she breathed. "Put me down."
My eyes shot to her face, wet tears rolling down her cheeks again. "I didn't mean to wake you," I whispered. "I'm sorry." So, so sorry. She should never have seen that, or even heard of anything like it in these caves.
"Let me go," she said again, her voice a bit louder this time.
"You're not well," I told her. "I'll take you to your room."
"No. Put me down." She was insisting, but I didn't plan on letting her have her way.
"Now!" she shrieked, pushing away from me and flailing until I lost my grip. She tumbled from my arms and took off running into the dark.
Wanda!" I called after her, ready to start sprinting as well.
"Let her go," Jared spoke up, grabbing my forearm.
Shaking him off, I shoved him away. "Don't touch me! Wanda, come back!"
Jared didn't give up, grabbing my arm and twisting it behind my back. I threw my elbow into his gut and caught him in a headlock. It didn't take long for him to break it- he shoved one of his legs between mine, kicking my left foot out from under me. I fell to the ground, grabbing a fistful of his hair to bring him down with me.
He had my legs and my right arm pinned to the cave floor when Jeb found us, wrestling on the floor like children. "Jared!" he barked. "Let Ian up!"
"He'll go after Wanda!" Jared growled, not breaking his glare at me.
"Wanda?" Jeb's head spun in either direction, his tone suddenly changed. "Where's Wanda?"
Jared looked up at him, and I took his distraction as an opportunity to land one last good punch to the side of his face. I used the momentum to roll him off of me and jumped to my feet. "She ran off. Jared wouldn't let me go after her."
"Fool!" Jeb spat. "She just saw us hacking up her kin! What would be keeping her here any longer?"
Ice froze in the pit of my stomach, and my heart lurched at the same moment. The ice: she'd leave. She'd give us away and hand our location over to her seeker without a second thought. The lurch: she'd leave. I'd just lost all chances at her heart.
Everybody went into panic mode. Jeb ran off in the direction that Wanda had gone, and Jared and I took the other tunnel. I wanted to go with Jeb, but I needed light. When we passed through the common room, Jared began to announce the emergency to those present. I kept running to the kitchen and snatched the lamp off the table.
We all scattered, inspecting every hallway and room. I went above ground, looking as far as I could see for a silhouette of Melanie Stryder's body. Wanda would, no doubt, ask for a new host, not wanting her emotions to conflict with the ones Mel gave her. I looked outside until the night was too black to see anything, and then returned to the caves.
"Ian!" somebody was shouting. "Ian!" I ran toward the voice- it sounded like Trudy. She met me midway to the game room, her face wet with old tears. "Ian, we found her."
Relief poured out of me, spilling out of my mouth in a quiet "Thank God." The ice that had frozen my core slowly melted, the frantic pattering of my heart thudding unevenly. Handing the solar lamp to her, I said, "Take me to her."
She nodded and then turned toward the bathing room. I followed her as she too-slowly led me towards Wanda. Was she having another fit? Was she asking for me? I removed this idea as soon as I'd thought of it- there was no chance. Did Jeb have her hostage again, pointing the gun she hated at her?
I prayed it wasn't so.
Trudy, possibly having sensed my anxiousness, sped up a bit. It still wasn't fast enough. My hands twitched, my body wanting to run towards Wanda. To comfort her and tell her I was there. "The bathing room?" I asked her impatiently, and she nodded. I ran- a bullet from a gun. The darkness swallowed me as I got farther from the lamp, but I didn't need the light. I knew these caves better than almost anyone. Jeb and Trudy may have been the only ones who could navigate them blindfolded backwards like I could.
A faint light emerged from the blackness as I neared the mouth of the cave. I scowled when Jared came out to meet me. "Where is she?" I muttered, looking over his shoulder into the dark.
"She wants to be alone," he whispered. "Let her be."
My fist curled. I wanted to hit him. Badly. Wanted to wipe the face that Wanda and Melanie loved so much off of the bone.
And I wondered why Wanda thought us violent. Brutish.
"Don't get in my way again, Howe." I tried to move past him, but he stepped in my path.
"Do you think she wants comfort from you? From a human?"
No. Of course not. "I wasn't party to this-" I tried to object, but he cut me off.
"Not this time. You're one of us, Ian. Her enemy. Did you hear what she said in there? She was screaming monsters. That's how she sees us now. She doesn't want your comfort."
I hated that he was right, and my muscles clenched with pain and worry. But I needed to be with Wanda. She might not have wanted me to comfort her, but I needed to. I had to. The thought of her misery lit a flame of my own hurt. "Give me the light," I said calmly.
He stared at me, his unremarkable brown eyes not breaking gazes with my own. Holding my hand out expectantly, I pressed my lips tightly together. After a long contest, he glanced back over his shoulder and handed me the lamp. I took the handle tightly, but he didn't let go. "I'm not going to let myself feel guilty about this," he whispered, almost too low for me to hear, and then released the light, pushing past me.
I stood there for a moment, breathing in and out, calming my fury. Eventually, my worry overthrew my anger, and I eased myself inside the lip of the cave, not wanting to accidentally step on the girl if she was lying on the floor. I let the light pour over the ground, and for a terrifying second, the dark water. Relieved that she'd not tried to drown herself, or anything of the like, I continued with my search.
And then the light fell on her, curled up in a tight ball by the wall closest to the smaller bubbling stream. Her eyes were closed, her forehead creased, as if she was trying to make herself smaller. She must have felt my eyes on her, because she tightened her grip on herself, her clothes the only noise as she squeezed herself as compactly as she could.
I opened my mouth before I could think of anything, and no words came out. What was I supposed to tell her? That she shouldn't mourn for her mangled brother or sister? That she should forgive us for being the monsters I well knew we were?
So instead of saying anything, I leaned against the wall and slid down until I was sitting. After another moment of resisting the urge to touch her, I granted myself one last glance and then turned off the light.
I thought maybe if I gave her long enough, she'd say something. Anything. A simple, "How could you?" would have sufficed. It'd hurt like hell if gave me an "I hate you," but I would have dealt with it. I would have been content with a, "Leave me alone." But she never spoke. Not once.
Centuries passed. In my mind, I could see the seasons coming, crops growing and dying. I could feel the warmth of every sunrise and the freezing cold of millions of passing nights. I could see my body growing old and frail, wrinkles edging themselves in my hands and face. I could watch lakes and oceans drying up, and rain forests becoming wastelands.
Or maybe it was just a few seconds. Maybe only minutes had passed since I'd sat down. It was possible. I touched my face to feel for lines that had not been there before. There were none.
I could feel my eyelids getting heavy, and I made myself focus on the pattern of Wanda's breathing. It was slow and even, not the frantic, forced rhythm that it'd been when I'd first walked in. Flicking the lamp on, I could see that her muscles had relaxed. She didn't react to the light, and she was slightly sprawled, as if she was exhausted from holding herself together for so long.
The internal debate I hosted did not last long. After mere seconds of telling myself I shouldn't, I turned off the lamp again and crawled over to Wanda. I kept my back against the wall and gently coaxed her head into my lap. Her breathing did not change. She didn't even stir.
"I never wanted this to happen," I murmured to her sleeping form, pushing her hair back. "I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry..." I repeated this to her. To myself. Another century had passed before I realized that my lips were frozen closed. Unconsciousness claimed me before I could force my mouth to form the words again.
I'm so sorry.