Disclaimer: I'm not Stephanie Meyer, therefore I don't own the 'Host' or any of it's characters.
Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! I mentally chastise myself as I rummage through cupboard after cupboard, stuffing my rucksack full with numerous cans of dried fruit, pasteurised meat and anything else that may prove to be of some use to me.
Adrenaline pulses through my veins—half from the potential dangers that come with raiding, half from the events of the past half hour—and my nerves are completely shot from my encounter with Melanie who is, hopefully, still outside waiting for my return.
She's the first person I've actually seen, let alone spoken to, in over two years. I never thought that there were other survivors until today. I always assumed I was alone on this God-forsaken planet and now I never have to be alone again, provided that she still trusts me and is waiting patiently by the fringes of the woods where I saw her last. In fact, the more I think of about it, the more I worry about the very real possibility of her doing a runner, or worse hotwiring my jeep so that she can drive as far away from me as she possibly can. And given everything that's happened since we first met, I wouldn't blame her. I've threatened her life, assaulted her and kissed her, not once but twice, all in the past half hour. Needless to say, I won't be surprised if I return to my jeep only to find she isn't there anymore.
I grab the rest of my things, do a once-over of the kitchen to make sure no evidence of our raid is left behind, and quickly dart back out into the darkness of the night.
Nervousness grips a hold of my entire body as I stealthily climb back over the fence, and run along the side of the house towards the street, silently praying that tonight's encounter hasn't been for nothing.
Relief floods through me when I see Melanie waiting anxiously by the side of the jeep, her arms crossed and her eyes restless as she scans our surroundings warily. She hears my approach and our gazes meet for the briefest of moments before she looks away again, her cheeks flushing red.
Her blush only reinforces my guilt at kissing her again in spite of having known her for what? A few of minutes? I mean the kiss itself was great but it was too much, it was too soon, and the fact that she found my scar and started screaming her head off like a flaming banshee didn't help either. I continue scolding myself for being such a dunce as I start packing the jeep with our stolen goods.
"Do you need any help with that?" Melanie asks from beside me, nodding her head towards the loaded bags that I hold in my hands.
"Nah, you're alright. I can manage," I say, swinging my rucksack over into the back seats. She nods and watches me for a while but then her stomach starts grumbling loudly again, causing her to look up at me in mortification.
I smirk, turning around and grabbing a packet of Cheetos from one of the bags before offering it to her.
"Here, take it. You still must be hungry, even after eating that chocolate," I tease, holding the packet out towards her.
Melanie looks at the packet in my hands with a torn expression, "I don't know…"
"Come on," I insist, "Take it. We've plenty to last us for a month at least."
She reluctantly takes the bag and tears it open. She pulls out a single chip and pops it into her mouth, a long groan of contentment resounding from her throat as her eyes flutter shut.
"Mm. I've really missed these," She mumbles, grabbing a couple more chips from the packet and eating them as I continue loading the rest of the supplies.
I grin, "Cheetos? Really?"
"Yeah," She answers, "These were my favourite snack as a kid and just eating them now after all this time…it's like heaven." She shoves another into her mouth and squeaks in delight.
I laugh, my spirits suddenly lifted by this light-hearted confession, "You really are something Melanie."
"My last name," She mutters, "It's Stryder. I didn't mention it before. When you asked," She explains, looking down at her feet again.
"Yeah. What's wrong with that Howe?" She asks, raising an eyebrow challengingly. Man this girl's got sass.
I shake my head, "Nothing. I just thought it suits you is all."
She nods, seemingly happy with my response, and I return back to loading the truck with stolen as she finishes off the bag of Cheetos.
"So where is your brother hiding?" I ask after a couple of minutes of silence, slamming the trunk door shut.
Melanie chews on her lip, still unsure whether to trust me or not. And honestly, I don't blame her. What if some other guy had found her instead of me? I shudder. Anything could have happened to her. I guess it's lucky that no one like that is out here anymore. At least that's something the aliens managed to get right.
"You know Apache National Forest?" She asks and I nod, "There's a small grotto about two or three miles uphill from the trail head."
"Wow. You really walked all that way to Eager?"
"Well I wasn't fortunate enough to have a jeep. Plus, I don't even know how to drive. At least not properly," She adds.
This completely stumps me. She must be what 20? 21? The invasion was only two years ago, surely she must have at learnt to drive at least.
"Exactly how old are you Melanie?"
"Seventeen," She answers, "I'd only just turned fifteen when we ran away from the aliens."
If I wasn't blown away before I certainly am now. "And you've been alone? With your kid brother all this time?" I ask in disbelief that someone so young could manage to survive for this long without any kind of help.
Then it sinks in. She's seventeen, still a minor by law, and I just kissed her. And not just a simple peck on the cheek either, it was a full-on passionate mouth to mouth kiss. My stomach churns uneasily.
"No," Melanie answers, effectively pulling me out of my reverie, "My dad was with us for the first few months."
"So he's not with you now?"
She shakes her head, "No. He's dead."
"I'm so sorry. I shouldn't have said anything."
"No. It's alright," Melanie says, surprising me yet again, "We've all lost people."
"But still. It's a pretty insensitive thing for me to say since we've only just met and all."
"Maybe, if everything was still as it was beforehand," She replies, "Besides we shouldn't dwell on things like civility anymore. Not when everything is a matter of life or death now."
I watch this girl, no woman, standing before me in amazement. By the sound of things she's been through a lot worse than I have and has had things a lot tougher at times too. The fact that she's only seventeen further adds to my awe.
"You're wiser beyond your years Melanie."
"Gee, what told you that?"
"Intuition," I answer, "So tell me, how did you and your dad figure out what was going on?"
"I first noticed something was wrong when the media started spouting out all those inspirational stories about our community being one big happy family. It just seemed too good to be true, all those murderers turned do-gooders overnight and people throwing away knives and guns in exchange for a bucket and mop. I didn't know what any of it meant at the time though," She says regretfully.
"At least you were perceptive enough to know something was wrong. If you were as oblivious as everyone else you wouldn't be here right now."
"That's just it," She sighs, "I probably would have ended up like everyone else if it wasn't for my Uncle Jeb."
Now she really does have my attention. "Why, what happened?"
"He came over to our house, to warn us, which was strange in itself."
"He and my mom have always had this bitterness between them. You see, my Uncle Jeb was a bit of sceptic. It takes a lot to gain his trust. But for as long as I can remember he's had this thing with conspiracies. I guess you could say he was a bit crazy like that," She laughs, "Anyway he generally avoided visiting us since my mom would kick up a fuss, but one day, whilst she was out-of-town, he came over looking as if he'd seen a ghost." Melanie pauses and her eyes go a little foggy as she thinks back to the past.
"He told my dad that he had something to tell him. That it was important, a matter of life and death. So my dad invited him in, and ushered me and Jamie upstairs so that they could talk. Jamie was too young to find anything even remotely suspicious but I had a bad feeling about whatever Jeb was about to say so I hid by the door and listened in." She continues.
"Jeb was ranting to my dad about how these aliens had infiltrated the planet. He said they concealed themselves among us through taking over other people bodies, like parasites, and that if we didn't act soon we'd be caught up in the mess when everything blew over. At some point my dad grew disinterested and asked when he was ever going to stop believing in all that conspiracy crap; it wasn't the first time that my Uncle Jeb had warned us about an impending invasion and if he hadn't had been right, I doubt it would have been the last. Uncle Jeb ignored him and mentioned something about my mom, how she'd act differently when she gets home from my grandma's. My dad took offense to this and told him to get out, to stop bothering us, and to never talk badly about my mom again."
"What did your Uncle Jeb do?"
"He left, but not before he talked to me. He told me to not let them get me, to stay safe. I haven't seen him since."
"So then what happened?"
"My mom came home the next day only she wasn't herself anymore, she was one of them. My dad realised that Jeb had been right. So he did the only thing he could think of, he got me and Jamie, told us to pack anything we couldn't live without, that we were going on a camping trip, and we went," Melanie explains.
"It wasn't until about two hours later, when Jamie fell asleep, that my dad told me what happened. I told him I already knew, that I eavesdropped, and we cried. We cried until our eyes ran dry and then we started making plans, where to go, and how, and when. It was all so easy when he was there. But then, he got caught and-" She breaks off and bites back a sob.
"Hey. It's ok! I'm sorry. Don't cry! I'm sorry."
Melanie shakes her head, tears brimming in her eyes although she doesn't let them fall. "It's just that it still hurts to think about it sometimes. At least now anyway. It's still too soon. Do you know what I mean?"
I nod. I know all too well what that's like. It never leaves you, not really. "Yeah, I do. But even then you're clearly intuitive enough to survive on your own."
"Just barely," She mumbles scornfully.
"But you're still here. You obviously knew what was happening otherwise you wouldn't have run in the first place."
"How do you know?" She asks.
I shrug. "It's just a feeling."
Melanie smiles at me sadly. "Thanks."
"So what about you?"
"What happened to you?" She elaborates. "Obviously you know how to survive. But so do others and yet you're the only person besides myself and Jamie that seem to have escaped. Something must have alerted you to the invasion. What happened?"
"It's a long story."
"I've got plenty of time." She counters.
"Maybe later." I suggest.
Melanie eyes me curiously but doesn't push further so she leans her head back against the headrest and stares out the window blankly, leaving me with haunting thoughts from the past.