Oh lucky you guys two chapters in two days. Who'd ever thought that would happen. Don't know if it will again but I will try.

I do not own the Host

Chapter 19


I spent the rest of the day, with one brief exception, in total silence.

That exception occurred when Jeb brought food for both Melanie and me several hours later. As he set the tray inside the entrance to my tiny cave, he smiled at me apologetically.

"Thank you," I whispered.

"You're welcome," he told me.

I heard Melanie grunt, irritated by our small exchange.

That was the only sound Melanie made all day. I was sure she was out there, but there was never so much as an audible breath to confirm that conviction.

It was a very long day-very cramped and very dull. I tried every position I could imagine, but I could never quite manage to get all of me stretched out comfortably at once. The small of my back began a steady throbbing.

Jared and I thought a lot about Jamie. Mostly we worried that we had damaged him by coming here, that we were injuring him now. What was a kept promise in comparison with that?

Time lost meaning. It could have been sunset, it could have been dawn-I had no references here, buried in the earth. Jared and I ran out of topics for discussion. We flipped through our joint memories apathetically, like switching TV channels without stopping to watch anything in particular. I napped once but could not fall soundly asleep because I was so uncomfortable.

When Jeb finally came back, I could have kissed his leathery face. He leaned into my cell with a grin stretching his cheeks.

"'Bout time for another walk?" he asked me.

I nodded eagerly.

"I'll do it," Melanie growled. "Give me the gun"

I hesitated, crouched awkwardly in the mouth of my cave, until Jeb nodded at me.

"Go ahead," he told me.

I climbed out, stiff and unsteady, and took Jeb's offered hand to balance myself. Melanie made a sound of revulsion and turned her face away. She was holding the gun tightly, her knuckles white over the barrel. I didn't like to see it in her hands. It bothered me more than it did with Jeb.

Melanie didn't make allowances for me the way Jeb had. She stalked off into the black tunnel without pausing for me to catch up.

It was hard-she didn't make much noise and she didn't guide me, so I had to walk with one hand in front of my face and one hand on the wall, trying not to run into the rock. I fell twice on the uneven floor. Though she did not help me, she did wait till she could hear that I was on my feet again to continue. Once, hurrying through a straighter section of the tube, I got too close and my searching hand touched her back, traced across the shape of her shoulders, before I realized that I hadn't reached another wall. She jumped ahead, jerking out from under my fingers with an angry hiss.

"Sorry," I whispered, feeling my cheeks turn warm in the darkness.

She didn't respond, but sped her pace so that following was even more difficult.

I was confused when, finally, some light appeared ahead of me. Had we taken a different route? This was not the white brilliance of the biggest cavern. It was muted, pale and silvery. But the narrow crevice we'd had to pass through seemed the same... It wasn't until I was inside the giant, echoing space that I realized what caused the difference.

It was nighttime; the light that shone dimly from above mimicked the light of the moon rather than the sun. I used the less-blinding illumination to examine the ceiling, trying to ferret out its secret. High, so very high above me, a hundred tiny moons shone their diluted light toward the dim, distant floor. The little moons were scattered in patternless clusters, some farther away than others. I shook my head. Even though I could look directly at the light now, I still didn't understand it.

"C'mon," Melanie ordered angrily from several paces ahead.

I flinched and hurried to follow. I was sorry I'd let my attention wander. I could see how much it irritated her to have to speak to me.

I didn't expect the help of a flashlight when we reached the room with the rivers, and I didn't receive it. It was dimly lit now, too, like the big cave, but with only twenty-odd miniature moons here. Melanie clenched her jaw and stared at the ceiling while I walked hesitantly into the room with the inky pool. I guessed that if I stumbled into the fierce underground hot spring and disappeared, Melanie would probably see it as a kind intervention of fate.

I think she would be sad, Jared disagreed as I edged my way around the black bathing room, hugging the wall. If we fell.

I doubt it. She might be reminded of the pain of losing you the first time, but she would be happy if I disappeared.

Because she doesn't know you, Jared whispered, and then faded away as if he were suddenly exhausted.

I stood frozen where I was, surprised. I wasn't sure, but it felt as though Jared had just given me a compliment.

"Move it," Melanie barked from the other room.

I hurried as fast as the darkness and my fear would allow.

When we returned, Jeb was waiting by the blue lamp; at his feet were two lumpy cylinders and two uneven rectangles. I hadn't noticed them before. Perhaps he'd gone to get them while we were away.

"Are you sleeping here tonight or am I?" Jeb asked Jared in a casual tone.

Melanie looked at the shapes by Jeb's feet.

"I am," she answered curtly. "And I only need one bedroll"

Jeb raised a thick eyebrow.

"It's not one of us, Jeb. You left this on me-so butt out"

"He's not an animal, either, kid. And you wouldn't treat a dog this way."

Melanie didn't answer. Her teeth ground together.

"Thought your father raised you better than this," Jeb said softly. But he picked up one of the cylinders, put his arm through a strap, and slung it over his shoulder, then stuffed one rectangle-a pillow-under his arm.

"Sorry, son," he said as he passed me, patting my shoulder.

"Cut that out!" Melanie growled.

Jeb shrugged and ambled away. Before he was out of sight, I hurried to disappear into my cell; I hid in its darkest reaches, leaning against the farthest wall with my knees up.

Instead of lurking silently and invisibly in the outside tunnel, Melanie spread her bedroll directly in front of the mouth of my prison. She plumped her pillow a few times, possibly trying to rub it in that she had one. She lay down on the mat and crossed her arms over her chest. That was the piece of her that I could see through the hole-just her crossed arms and half of her stomach.

Her skin was that same dark gold tan that had haunted my dreams for the last half year. It was very strange to have that piece of my dream in solid reality not five feet from me. Surreal.

"You won't be able to sneak past me," she warned. Her voice was softer than before-sleepy. "If you try..." She yawned. "I will kill you"

I didn't respond. The warning struck me as a bit of an insult. Why would I try to sneak past her? Where would I go? Into the hands of the barbarians out there waiting for me, all of them wishing that I would make exactly that kind of stupid attempt? Or, supposing I could somehow sneak past them, back out into the desert that had nearly baked me to death the last time I'd tried to cross it? I wondered what she thought me capable of. What plan did she think I was hatching to overthrow their little world? Did I really seem so powerful? Wasn't it clear how pathetically defenseless I was?

I could tell when she was deeply asleep because she started twitching the way Jared remembered she occasionally did. She only slept so restlessly when she was upset. I watched her fingers clench and unclench, and I wondered if she was dreaming that they were wrapped around my neck.

The days that followed-perhaps a week of them, it was impossible to keep track-were very quiet. Melanie was like a silent wall between me and everything else in the world, good or bad. There was no sound but that of my own breathing, my own movements; there were no sights but the black cave around me, the circle of dull light, the familiar tray with the same rations, the brief, stolen glimpses of Melanie; there were no touches but the pitted rocks against my skin; there were no tastes but the bitter water, the hard bread, the bland soup, the woody roots, over and over again.

It was a very strange combination: constant terror, persistent aching physical discomfort, and excruciating monotony. Of the three, the killer boredom was the hardest to take. My prison was a sensory-deprivation chamber.

Together, Jared and I worried that we were going to go mad.

We both hear a voice in our head, he pointed out. That's never a good sign.

We're going to forget how to speak, I worried. How long has it been since anyone talked to us?

Four days ago you thanked Jeb for bringing us food, and he said you were welcome. And before that was when we saw the kids and Ginny. Well, I think it was four days ago. Four long sleeps ago, at least. He seemed to sigh. Stop chewing your nails-it took me years to break that habit.

But the long, scratchy nails bothered me. I don't really think we need to worry about bad habits in the long term.

Melanie didn't let Jeb bring food again. Instead, someone brought it to the end of the hall and she retrieved it. I got the same thing-bread, soup, and vegetables-twice every day. Sometimes there were extra things for Melanie, packaged foods with brand names I recognized-Red Vines, Snickers, Pop-Tarts. I tried to imagine how the humans had gotten their hands on these delicacies.

I didn't expect her to share-of course not-but I wondered sometimes if she thought I was hoping she would. One of my few entertainments was hearing her eat her treats, because she always did so ostentatiously, perhaps rubbing it in the way she had with the pillow that first night.

Once, Melanie slowly ripped open a bag of Cheetos-showy about it as usual-and the rich smell of fake powdered cheese rolled through my cave... delicious, irresistible. Her favorite. She ate one slowly, letting me hear each distinct crunch.

My stomach growled loudly, and I laughed at myself. I hadn't laughed in so long; I tried to remember the last time and couldn't-just that strange bout of macabre hysteria in the desert, which really didn't count as laughter. Even before I'd come here, there hadn't been much I'd found funny.

But this seemed hilarious to me for some reason-my stomach yearning after that one small Cheeto-and I laughed again. A sign of madness, surely.

I didn't know how my reaction offended her, but she got up and disappeared. After a long moment, I could hear her eating the Cheetos again, but from farther away. I peeked out of the hole to see that he was sitting in the shadows at the end of the corridor, her back to me. I pulled my head inside, afraid she might turn and catch me watching. From then on, she stayed down at that end of the hall as much as possible. Only at night did she stretch out in front of my prison.

Twice a day-or rather twice a night, as she never took me when the others were about-I got to walk to the room with the rivers; it was a highlight, despite the terror, as it was the only time I was not hunched into the unnatural shapes my small cave forced on me. Each time I had to crawl back inside was harder than the last.

Three times that week, always during the sleeping hours, someone came to check on us.

The first time it was Kyle.

Melanie's sudden lunge to his feet woke me. "Get out of here," she warned, holding the gun ready.

"Just checking," Kyle said. His voice was far away but loud and rough enough that I was sure it was not his brother. "Someday you might not be here. Someday you might sleep too soundly"

Melanie's only answer was to cock the gun.

I heard Kyle's laughter trailing behind him as he left.

The other two times I didn't know who it was. Kyle again, or maybe Brandt, or maybe someone whose name I hadn't learned. All I knew was that twice more I was woken by Melanie jumping to her feet with the gun pointed at the intruder. No more words were spoken. Whoever was just checking didn't bother to make conversation. When they were gone, Melanie went back to sleep quickly. It took me longer to quiet my heart.

The fourth time was something new.

I was not quite asleep when Melanie started awake, rolling to her knees in a swift movement. She came up with the gun in her hands and a curse on her lips.

"Easy," a voice murmured from the distance. "I come in peace"

"Whatever you're selling, I'm not buying," Melanie growled.

"I just want to talk" The voice came closer. "You're buried down here, missing the important discussions... We miss your take on things"

"I'm sure," Melanie said sarcastically.

"Oh, put the gun down. You seriously think I'm here to hurt him?" the voice asks getting high pitched at the end. Wanda, I thought.

There was a short silence, and when Melanie spoke again, her voice carried a hint of dark humor. "How's your brother these days?" she asked. Melanie seemed to enjoy the question. It relaxed her to tease her visitor. She sat down and slouched against the wall halfway in front of my prison, at ease, but with the gun still ready.

I had a strange fluttering in the pit of my stomach thinking about the petite blonde who has saved me already twice.

"He's still fuming about his nose, and his knees, oh and don't forget the family jewels," Wanda said giggling. "Oh, well-it's not the first time it's been broken or been kicked. I'll tell him you said you were sorry"

"I'm not"

"I know. No one is ever sorry for hitting Kyle. I'm not"

They laughed quietly together; there was a sense of camaraderie in their amusement that seemed wildly out of place while Melanie held a gun loosely pointed in Wanda's direction. But then, the bonds that were forged in this desperate place must have been very strong. Thicker than blood.

Wanda sat down on the mat next to Melanie. I could see her profile in silhouette, a black shape against the blue light. I noticed that her nose was perfect-straight, aquiline, the kind of nose that I'd seen in pictures of famous sculptures. She was like a living goddess. No one would ever want to hurt her in any way.

"So what do you want, Wanda? Not just an apology for Kyle, I imagine"

"Did Jeb tell you?"

"I don't know what you're talking about"

"They've given up the search. Even the Seekers"

Melanie didn't comment, but I could feel the sudden tension in the air around her.

"We've been keeping a close watch for some change, but they never seemed overly anxious. The search never strayed from the area where we abandoned the car, and for the past few days they were clearly looking for a body rather than a survivor. Then two nights ago we caught a lucky break-the search party left some trash in the open, and a pack of coyotes raided their base camp. One of them was coming back late and surprised the animals. The coyotes attacked and dragged the Seeker a good hundred yards into the desert before the rest of them heard its screams and came to the rescue. The other Seekers were armed, of course. They scared the coyotes off easily, and the victim wasn't seriously hurt, but the event seems to have answered any questions they might have had about what happened to our guest here"

I wondered how they were able to spy on the Seekers who searched for me-to see so much. I felt strangely exposed by the idea. I didn't like the picture in my head: the humans invisible, watching the souls they hated. The thought made the skin on the back of my neck prickle.

"So they packed up and left. The Seekers gave up the search. All the volunteers went home. No one is looking for it" Her profile turned toward me, and I looked at a wall, hoping it was too dark to see me in here-that, like her face, I would appear as only a black shape. "I imagine he's been declared officially dead, if they keep track of those things the way we used to. Jeb's been saying 'I told you so' to anyone who'll stand still long enough to hear it"

Melanie grumbled something incoherent; I could only pick out Jeb's name. Then she inhaled a sharp breath, blew it out, and said, "All right, then. I guess that's the end of it"

"That's what it looks like" Wanda hesitated for a moment and then added, "Except... Well, it's probably nothing at all"

Melanie tensed again; she didn't like having her intelligence edited. "Go on"

"No one but Kyle thinks much of it, and you know how Kyle is"

Melanie grunted her assent to that.

"You've got the best instincts for this kind of thing; I wanted your opinion. That's why I'm here, taking my life into my hands to infiltrate the restricted area," Wanda said dryly, and then her voice was utterly serious again. "You see, there's this one... a Seeker, no doubt about that-it packs a Glock"

It took me a second to understand the word she used. It was a familiar part of Jared's vocabulary. She was talking about a kind of gun.

"Hmm" Melanie muttered. The wistful, envious tone in her voice made me feel slightly ill.

"Kyle was the first to notice how this one stood out. It didn't seem important to the rest-certainly not part of the decision-making process. Oh, it had suggestions enough, from what we could see, but no one seemed to listen to it. Wish we could've heard what it was saying..."

My skin prickled anxiously again.

"Anyway," Wanda continued, "when they called off the search, this one wasn't happy with the decision. You know how the parasites are always so... very pleasant? This was weird-it's the closest I've ever seen them come to an argument. Not a real argument, because none of the others argued back, but the unhappy one sure looked like it was arguing with them. The core group of Seekers disregarded it-they're all gone"

"But the unhappy one?" Melanie asked.

"It got in a car and drove halfway to Phoenix. Then it drove back to Tucson. Then it drove west again"

"Still searching"

"Or very confused. It stopped at that convenience store by the peak. Talked to the parasite that worked there, though that one had already been questioned"

"Huh," Melanie grunted. She was interested now, concentrating on the puzzle.

"Then it went for a hike up the peak-stupid little thing. Who wears all white from head to toe in the desert, even the shoes"

She's never going to give up! That stupid...leech of a person will never give up! Ugh!

A spasm rocked through my body; I found myself trying to stand up, my fists curling up in anger. The anger belong to Jared and to my surprise some of it came from me.

Why can't she just believe i am dead and go on with her life? I don't know what comes over me but before i can react my fist collides with one of the walls. A loud crack is heard. I bury my face in my hands trying to calm myself down a bit.

"What was that?" Wanda asked, her voice shocked.

I peeked through my fingers to see both of their faces leaning through the hole toward me. Wanda's was black, but part of Melanie's was lit, her features hard as stone.

I sank down from my knees to lean up back against the back wall, wanting to be far away from then when I am like this.

Melanie leaned away and came back with the lamp in her hands.

"Look at his eyes," Wanda muttered. "He's angry"

I could see both their expressions now, but I looked only at Melanie. Her gaze was tightly focused on me, calculating. I guessed she was thinking through what Wanda had said, looking for the trigger to my behavior.

My body wouldn't stop shaking now.

She'll never give up, Jared moaned.

I know, I know, I moaned back.

When had our distaste turned to fear? My stomach knotted and heaved. Why couldn't she just let me be dead like the rest of them had? When I was dead, would she hunt me still?

"Who is the Seeker in white?" Melanie suddenly barked at me.

My lips trembled, but I didn't answer. Silence was safest.

"I know you can talk," Melanie growled. "You talk to Jeb and Jamie. You talk to Wanda. And now you're going to talk to me"

She climbed into the mouth of the cave, huffing with surprise at how tightly she had to fold himself to manage it. The low ceiling forced her to kneel, and that didn't make her happy. I could see she'd rather stand over me.

I had nowhere to run. I was already wedged into the deepest corner. The cave barely had room for the two of us. I could feel her breath on my skin.

"Tell me what you know," she ordered.