The Host (Chapter 11: Dehydrated)
Melanie wasn't saying "I told you so." Not in so many words. But I could feel the accusation in her silence.
I was still unwilling to leave the car, though it was useless to me now. When the gas ran out, I had let it roll forward with the remaining momentum until it took a nosedive into a shallow gorge-a thick rivulet cut by the last big rain. Now I stared out the windshield at the vast, vacant plain and felt my stomach twist with panic.
We have to move, Wanderer. It's only going to get hotter.
If I hadn't wasted more than a quarter of a tank of gas stubbornly pushing on to the very base of the second landmark-only to find that the third milestone was no longer visible from that vantage and to have to turn around and backtrack-we would have been so much farther down this sandy wash, so much closer to our next goal. Thanks to me, we were going to have to travel on foot now.
I loaded the water, one bottle at a time, into the pack, my motions unnecessarily deliberate; I added the remaining granola bars just as slowly. All the while, Melanie ached for me to hurry. Her impatience made it hard to think, hard to concentrate on anything. Like what was going to happen to us.
C'mon, c'mon, c'mon, she chanted until I lurched, stiff and awkward, out of the car. My back throbbed as I straightened up. It hurt from sleeping so contorted last night, not from the weight of the pack; the pack wasn't that heavy when I used my shoulders to lift it.
Now cover the car, she instructed, picturing me ripping thorny branches from the nearby creosotes and palo verdes and draping them over the silver top of the car.
Her tone implied that I was quite stupid for not understanding. So no one finds us.
But what if I want to be found? What if there's nothing out here but heat and dirt? We have no way to get home!
Home? she questioned, throwing cheerless images at me: the vacant apartment in San Diego, the Seeker's most obnoxious expression, the dot that marked Tucson on the map… a brief, happier flash of the red canyon that slipped in by accident. Where would that be?
I turned my back on the car, ignoring her advice. I was in too far already. I wasn't going to give up all hope of return. Maybe someone would find the car and then find me. I could easily and honestly explain what I was doing here to any rescuer: I was lost. I'd lost my way… lost my control… lost my mind.
I followed the wash at first, letting my body fall into its natural long-strided rhythm. It wasn't the way I walked on the sidewalks to and from the university-it wasn't my walk at all. But it fit the rugged terrain here and moved me smoothly forward with a speed that surprised me until I got used to it.
"What if I hadn't come this way?" I wondered as I walked farther into the desert waste. "What if Healer Fords were still in Chicago? What if my path hadn't taken us so close to them?"
It was that urgency, that lure-the thought that Jared and Jamie might be right here, somewhere in this empty place-that had made it impossible to resist this senseless plan.
I'm not sure, Melanie admitted. I think I might still have tried, but I was afraid while the other souls were near. I'm still afraid. Trusting you could kill them both.
We flinched together at the thought.
But being here, so close… It seemed like I had to try. Please-and suddenly she was pleading with me, begging me, no trace of resentment in her thoughts-please don't use this to hurt them. Please.
"I don't want to… I don't know if I can hurt them. I'd rather…"
What? Die myself? Than give a few stray humans up to the Seekers?
Again we flinched at the thought, but my revulsion at the idea comforted her. And it frightened me more than it soothed her.
When the wash started angling too far toward the north, Melanie suggested that we forget the flat, ashen path and take the direct line to the third landmark, the eastern spur of rock that seemed to point, fingerlike, toward the cloudless sky.
I didn't like leaving the wash, just as I'd resisted leaving the car. I could follow this wash all the way back to the road, and the road back to the highway. It was miles and miles, and it would take me days to traverse, but once I stepped off this wash I was officially adrift.
Have faith, Wanderer. We'll find Uncle Jeb, or he'll find us.
If he's still alive, I added, sighing and loping off my simple path into the brush that was identical in every direction. Faith isn't a familiar concept for me. I don't know that I buy into it.
In who? You? I laughed. The hot air baked my throat when I inhaled.
Just think, she said, changing the subject, maybe we'll see them by tonight.
The yearning belonged to us both; the image of their faces, one man, one child, came from both memories. When I walked faster, I wasn't sure that I was completely in command of the motion.
It did get hotter-and then hotter, and then hotter still. Sweat plastered my hair to my scalp and made my pale yellow T-shirt cling unpleasantly wherever it touched. In the afternoon, scorching gusts of wind kicked up, blowing sand in my face. The dry air sucked the sweat away, crusted my hair with grit, and fanned my shirt out from my body; it moved as stiffly as cardboard with the dried salt. I kept walking.
I drank water more often than Melanie wanted me to. She begrudged me every mouthful, threatening me that we would want it much more tomorrow. But I'd already given her so much today that I was in no mood to listen. I drank when I was thirsty, which was most of the time.
My legs moved me forward without any thought on my part. The crunching rhythm of my steps was background music, low and tedious.
There was nothing to see; one twisted, brittle shrub looked exactly the same as the next. The empty homogeny lulled me into a sort of daze-I was only really aware of the shape of the mountains' silhouettes against the pale, bleached sky. I read their outlines every few steps, till I knew them so well I could have drawn them blindfolded.
The view seemed frozen in place. I constantly whipped my head around, searching for the fourth marker-a big dome-shaped peak with a missing piece, a curved absence scooped from its side that Melanie had only shown me this morning-as if the perspective would have changed from my last step. I hoped this last clue was it, because we'd be lucky to get that far. But I had a sense that Melanie was keeping more from me, and our journey's end was impossibly distant.
I snacked on my granola bars through the afternoon, not realizing until it was too late that I'd finished the last one.
When the sun set, the night descended with the same speed as it had yesterday. Melanie was prepared, already scouting out a place to stop.
Here, she told me. We'll want to stay as far from the cholla as possible. You toss in your sleep.
I eyed the fluffy-looking cactus in the failing light, so thick with bone-colored needles that it resembled fur, and shuddered. You want me to just sleep on the ground? Right here?
You see another option? She felt my panic, and her tone softened, as if with pity. Look-it's better than the car. At least it's flat. It's too hot for any critters to be attracted to your body heat and –
"Critters?" I demanded aloud. "Critters?"
There were brief, very unpleasant flashes of deadly-looking insects and coiled serpents in her memories.
Don't worry. She tried to soothe me as I arched up on my tiptoes, away from anything that might be hiding in the sand below, my eyes searching the blackness for some escape. Nothing's going to bother you unless you bother it first. After all, you're bigger than anything else out here. Another flash of memory, this time a medium-size canine scavenger, a coyote, flitted through our thoughts.
"Perfect," I moaned, sinking down into a crouch, though I was still afraid of the black ground beneath me. "Killed by wild dogs. Who would have thought it would end so… so trivially? How anticlimactic. The claw beast on the Mists Planet, sure. At least there'd be some dignity in being taken down by that."
Melanie's answering tone made me picture her rolling her eyes. Stop being a baby. Nothing is going to eat you. Now lie down and get some rest. Tomorrow will be harder than today.
"Thanks for the good news," I grumbled. She was turning into a tyrant. It made me think of the human axiom Give him an inch and he'll take a mile. But I was more exhausted than I realized, and as I settled unwillingly to the ground, I found it impossible not to slump down on the rough, gravelly dirt and let my eyes close.
It seemed like just minutes later when the morning dawned, blindingly bright and already hot enough to have me sweating. I was crusted in dirt and rocks when I woke; my right arm was pinned under me and had lost feeling. I shook out the tingles and then reached into my pack for some water.
Melanie did not approve, but I ignored her. I looked for the half-empty bottle I'd last drunk from, rummaging through the fulls and empties until I began to see a pattern.
With a slowly growing sense of alarm, I started counting. I counted twice. There were two more empties than there were fulls. I'd already used up more than half my water supply.
I told you that you were drinking too much.
I didn't answer her, but I pulled the pack on without taking a drink. My mouth felt horrible, dry and sandy and tasting of bile. I tried to ignore that, tried to stop running my sandpaper tongue over my gritty teeth, and started walking.
My stomach was harder to ignore than my mouth as the sun rose higher and hotter above me. It twisted and contracted at regular intervals, anticipating meals that didn't appear. By afternoon, the hunger had gone from uncomfortable to painful.
This is nothing, Melanie reminded me wryly. We've been hungrier.
You have, I retorted. I didn't feel like being an audience to her endurance memories right now.
I was beginning to despair when the good news came. As I swung my head across the horizon with a routine, halfhearted movement, the bulbous shape of the dome jumped out at me from the middle of a northern line of small peaks. The missing part was only a faint indentation from this vantage point.
Close enough, Melanie decided, as thrilled as I was to be making some progress. I turned north eagerly, my steps lengthening. Keep a lookout for the next. She remembered another formation for me, and I started craning my head around at once, though I knew it was useless to search for it this early.
It would be to the east. North and then east and then north again. That was the pattern.
The lift of finding another milestone kept me moving despite the growing weariness in my legs. Melanie urged me on, chanting encouragements when I slowed, thinking of Jared and Jamie when I turned apathetic. My progress was steady, and I waited till Melanie okayed each drink, even though the inside of my throat felt as though it was blistering.
I had to admit that I was proud of myself for being so tough. When the dirt road appeared, it seemed like a reward. It snaked toward the north, the direction I was already headed, but Melanie was skittish.
I don't like the look of it, she insisted.
The road was just a sallow line through the scrub, defined only by its smoother texture and lack of vegetation. Ancient tire tracks made a double depression, centered in the single lane.
When it goes the wrong way, we'll leave it. I was already walking down the middle of the tracks. It's easier than weaving through the creosote and watching out for cholla.
She didn't answer, but her unease made me feel a little paranoid. I kept up my search for the next formation-a perfect M, two matching volcanic points-but I also watched the desert around me more carefully than before.
Because I was paying extra attention, I noticed the gray smudge in the distance long before I could make out what it was. I wondered if my eyes were playing tricks on me and blinked against the dust that clouded them. The color seemed wrong for a rock, and the shape too solid for a tree. I squinted into the brightness, making guesses.
Then I blinked again, and the smudge suddenly jumped into a structured shape, closer than I'd been thinking. It was some kind of house or building, small and weathered to a dull gray.
Melanie's spike of panic had me dancing off the narrow lane and into the dubious cover of the barren brush.
Hold on, I told her. I'm sure it's abandoned.
How do you know? She was holding back so hard that I had to concentrate on my feet before I could move them forward.
Who would live out here? We souls live for society. I heard the bitter edge to my explanation and knew it was because of where I now stood-physically and metaphorically in the middle of nowhere. Why did I no longer belong to the society of souls? Why did I feel like I didn't… like I didn't want to belong? Had I ever really been a part of the community that was meant to be my own, or was that the reason behind my long line of lives lived in transience? Had I always been an aberration, or was this something Melanie was making me into? Had this planet changed me, or revealed me for what I already was?
Melanie had no patience for my personal crisis-she wanted me to get far away from that building as fast as possible. Her thoughts yanked and twisted at mine, pulling me out of my introspection.
Calm down, I ordered, trying to focus my thoughts, to separate them from hers. If there is anything that actually lives here, it would be human. Trust me on this; there is no such thing as a hermit among souls. Maybe your Uncle Jeb –
She rejected that thought harshly. No one could survive out in the open like this. Your kind would have searched any habitation thoroughly. Whoever lived here ran or became one of you. Uncle Jeb would have a better hiding place.
And if whoever lived here became one of us, I assured her, then they left this place. Only a human would live this way… I trailed off, suddenly afraid, too.
What? She reacted strongly to my fright, freezing us in place. She scanned my thoughts, looking for something I'd seen to upset me.
But I'd seen nothing new. Melanie, what if there are humans out here-not Uncle Jeb and Jared and Jamie? What if someone else found us?
She absorbed the idea slowly, thinking it through. You're right. They'd kill us immediately. Of course.
I tried to swallow, to wash the taste of terror from my dry mouth.
There won't be anyone else. How could there be? she reasoned. Your kind are far too thorough. Only someone already in hiding would have had a chance. So let's go check it out-you're sure there are none of you, and I'm sure there are none of me. Maybe we can find something helpful, something we can use as a weapon.
I shuddered at her thoughts of sharp knives and long metal tools that could be turned into clubs. No weapons.
Ugh. How did such spineless creatures beat us?
Stealth and superior numbers. Any one of you, even your young, is a hundred times as dangerous as one of us. But you're like one termite in an anthill. There are millions of us, all working together in perfect harmony toward our goal.
Again, as I described the unity, I felt the dragging sense of panic and disorientation. Who was I?
We kept to the creosote as we approached the little structure. It looked to be a house, just a small shack beside the road, with no hint at all of any other purpose. The reason for its location here was a mystery-this spot had nothing to offer but emptiness and heat.
There was no sign of recent habitation. The door frame gaped, doorless, and only a few shards of glass clung to the empty window frames. Dust gathered on the threshold and spilled inside. The gray weathered walls seemed to lean away from the wind, as if it always blew from the same direction here.
I was able to contain my anxiety as I walked hesitantly to the vacant door frame; we must be just as alone here as we had been all day and all yesterday.
The shade the dark entry promised drew me forward, trumping my fears with its appeal. I still listened intently, but my feet moved ahead with swift, sure steps. I darted through the doorway, moving quickly to one side so as to have a wall at my back. This was instinctual, a product of Melanie's scavenging days. I stood frozen there, unnerved by my blindness, waiting for my eyes to adjust.
The little shack was empty, as we'd known it would be. There were no more signs of occupation inside than out. A broken table slanted down from its two good legs in the middle of the room, with one rusted metal chair beside it. Patches of concrete showed through big holes in the worn, grimy carpet. A kitchenette lined the wall with a rusted sink, a row of cabinets-some doorless-and a waist-high refrigerator that hung open, revealing its moldy black insides. A couch frame sat against the far wall, all the cushions gone. Still mounted above the couch, only a little crooked, was a framed print of dogs playing poker.
Homey, Melanie thought, relieved enough to be sarcastic. It's got more decor than your apartment.
I was already moving for the sink.
Dream on, Melanie added helpfully.
Of course it would be wasteful to have water running to this secluded place; the souls managed details like that better than to leave such an anomaly behind. I still had to twist the ancient knobs. One broke off in my hand, rusted through.
I turned to the cupboards next, kneeling on the nasty carpet to peek carefully inside. I leaned away as I opened the door, afraid I might be disturbing one of the venomous desert animals in its lair.
The first was empty, backless, so that I could see the wooden slats of the outside wall. The next had no door, but there was a stack of antique newspapers inside, covered with dust. I pulled one out, curious, shaking the dirt to the dirtier floor, and read the date.
From human times, I noted. Not that I needed a date to tell me that.
"Man Burns Three-Year-Old Daughter to Death," the headline screamed at me, accompanied by a picture of an angelic blond child. This wasn't the front page. The horror detailed here was not so hideous as to rate priority coverage. Beneath this was the face of a man wanted for the murders of his wife and two children two years before the print date; the story was about a possible sighting of the man in Mexico. Two people killed and three injured in a drunk-driving accident. A fraud and murder investigation into the alleged suicide of a prominent local banker. A suppressed confession setting an admitted child molester free. House pets found slaughtered in a trash bin.
I cringed, shoving the paper away from me, back into the dark cupboard.
Those were the exceptions, not the norm, Melanie thought quietly, trying to keep the fresh horror of my reaction from seeping into her memories of those years and recoloring them.
Can you see how we thought we might be able to do better, though? How we could have supposed that maybe you didn't deserve all the excellent things of this world?
Her answer was acidic. If you wanted to cleanse the planet, you could have blown it up.
Despite what your science fiction writers dream, we simply don't have the technology.
She didn't think my joke was funny.
Besides, I added, that would have been such a waste. It's a lovely planet. This unspeakable desert excepted, of course.
That's how we realized you were here, you know, she said, thinking of the sickening news headlines again. When the evening news was nothing but inspiring human-interest stories, when pedophiles and junkies were lining up at the hospitals to turn themselves in, when everything morphed into Mayberry, that's when you tipped your hand.
"What an awful alteration!" I said dryly, turning to the next cupboard.
I pulled the stiff door back and found the mother lode.
"Crackers!" I shouted, seizing the discolored, half-smashed box of Saltines. There was another box behind it, one that looked like someone had stepped on it. "Twinkies!" I crowed.
Look! Melanie urged, pointing a mental finger at three dusty bottles of bleach at the very back of the cupboard.
What do you want bleach for? I asked, already ripping into the cracker box. To throw in someone's eyes? Or to brain them with the bottle?
To my delight, the crackers, though reduced to crumbs, were still inside their plastic sleeves. I tore one open and started shaking the crumbs into my mouth, swallowing them half chewed. I couldn't get them into my stomach fast enough.
Open a bottle and smell it, she instructed, ignoring my commentary. That's how my dad used to store water in the garage. The bleach residue kept the water from growing anything.
In a minute. I finished one sleeve of crumbs and started on the next. They were very stale, but compared to the taste in my mouth, they were ambrosia. When I finished the third, I became aware that the salt was burning the cracks in my lips and at the corners of my mouth.
I heaved out one of the bleach bottles, hoping Melanie was right. My arms felt weak and noodley, barely able to lift it. This concerned us both. How much had our condition deteriorated already? How much farther would we be able to go?
The bottle's cap was so tight, I wondered if it had melted into place. Finally, though, I was able to twist it off with my teeth. I sniffed at the opening carefully, not especially wanting to pass out from bleach fumes. The chemical scent was very faint. I sniffed deeper. It was water, definitely. Stagnant, musty water, but water all the same. I took a small mouthful. Not a fresh mountain stream, but wet. I started guzzling.
Easy there, Melanie warned me, and I had to agree. We'd lucked into this cache, but it made no sense to squander it. Besides, I wanted something solid now that the salt burn had eased. I turned to the box of Twinkies and licked three of the smooshed-up cakes from the inside of the wrappers.
The last cupboard was empty.
As soon as the hunger pangs had eased slightly, Melanie's impatience began to leak into my thoughts. Feeling no resistance this time, I quickly loaded my spoils into my pack, pitching the empty water bottles into the sink to make room. The bleach jugs were heavy, but theirs was a comforting weight. It meant I wouldn't stretch out to sleep on the desert floor thirsty and hungry again tonight. With the sugar energy beginning to buzz through my veins, I loped back out into the bright afternoon.