The Host (Chapter 18: Bored)
That exception occurred when Jeb brought food for both Jared 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 Jared grunt, irritated by our small exchange.
That was the only sound Jared made all day. I was sure he 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.
Melanie 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. Melanie 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," Jared 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. Jared made a sound of revulsion and turned his face away. He was holding the gun tightly, his knuckles white over the barrel. I didn't like to see it in his hands. It bothered me more than it did with Jeb.
Jared didn't make allowances for me the way Jeb had. He stalked off into the black tunnel without pausing for me to catch up.
It was hard-he didn't make much noise and he 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 he did not help me, he did wait till he 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 his back, traced across the shape of his shoulders, before I realized that I hadn't reached another wall. He jumped ahead, jerking out from under my fingers with an angry hiss.
"Sorry," I whispered, feeling my cheeks turn warm in the darkness.
He didn't respond, but sped his 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," Jared 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 him 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. Jared clenched his 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, Jared would probably see it as a kind intervention of fate.
I think he would be sad, Melanie disagreed as I edged my way around the black bathing room, hugging the wall. If we fell.
I doubt it. He might be reminded of the pain of losing you the first time, but he would be happy if I disappeared.
Because he doesn't know you, Melanie whispered, and then faded away as if she were suddenly exhausted.
I stood frozen where I was, surprised. I wasn't sure, but it felt as though Melanie had just given me a compliment.
"Move it," Jared 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.
Jared looked at the shapes by Jeb's feet.
"I am," he 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."
"She's not an animal, either, kid. And you wouldn't treat a dog this way."
Jared didn't answer. His teeth ground together.
"Never figured you for a cruel man," 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, honey," he said as he passed me, patting my shoulder.
"Cut that out!" Jared 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, coiling myself into a tight ball that I hoped was too small to see.
Instead of lurking silently and invisibly in the outside tunnel, Jared spread his bedroll directly in front of the mouth of my prison. He plumped his pillow a few times, possibly trying to rub it in that he had one. He lay down on the mat and crossed his arms over his chest. That was the piece of him that I could see through the hole-just his crossed arms and half of his stomach.
His 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," he warned. His voice was softer than before-sleepy. "If you try…" He 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 him? 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 he thought me capable of. What plan did he 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 he was deeply asleep because he started twitching the way Melanie remembered he occasionally did. He only slept so restlessly when he was upset. I watched his fingers clench and unclench, and I wondered if he 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. Jared 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 Jared; 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, Melanie and I worried that we were going to go mad.
We both hear a voice in our head, she 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. Well, I think it was four days ago. Four long sleeps ago, at least. She 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.
Jared didn't let Jeb bring food again. Instead, someone brought it to the end of the hall and Jared retrieved it. I got the same thing-bread, soup, and vegetables-twice every day. Sometimes there were extra things for Jared, 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 him to share-of course not-but I wondered sometimes if he thought I was hoping he would. One of my few entertainments was hearing him eat his treats, because he always did so ostentatiously, perhaps rubbing it in the way he had with the pillow that first night.
Once, Jared 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. He 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 him, but he got up and disappeared. After a long moment, I could hear him 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, his back to me. I pulled my head inside, afraid he might turn and catch me watching. From then on, he stayed down at that end of the hall as much as possible. Only at night did he stretch out in front of my prison.
Twice a day-or rather twice a night, as he 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.
Jared's sudden lunge to his feet woke me. "Get out of here," he 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."
Jared'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 Ian, or maybe someone whose name I hadn't learned. All I knew was that twice more I was woken by Jared jumping to his 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, Jared 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 Jared started awake, rolling to his knees in a swift movement. He came up with the gun in his hands and a curse on his lips.
"Easy," a voice murmured from the distance. "I come in peace."
"Whatever you're selling, I'm not buying," Jared 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," Jared said sarcastically.
"Oh, put the gun down. If I was planning to fight you, I would have come with four guys this time."
There was a short silence, and when Jared spoke again, his voice carried a hint of dark humor. "How's your brother these days?" he asked. Jared seemed to enjoy the question. It relaxed him to tease his visitor. He sat down and slouched against the wall halfway in front of my prison, at ease, but with the gun still ready.
My neck ached, seeming to comprehend that the hands that had crushed and bruised it were very close by.
"He's still fuming about his nose," Ian said. "Oh, well-it's not the first time it's been broken. I'll tell him you said you were sorry."
"I know. No one is ever sorry for hitting Kyle."
They laughed quietly together; there was a sense of camaraderie in their amusement that seemed wildly out of place while Jared held a gun loosely pointed in Ian's direction. But then, the bonds that were forged in this desperate place must have been very strong. Thicker than blood.
Ian sat down on the mat next to Jared. I could see his profile in silhouette, a black shape against the blue light. I noticed that his nose was perfect-straight, aquiline, the kind of nose that I'd seen in pictures of famous sculptures. Did that mean that others found him more bearable than the brother whose nose was often broken? Or that he was better at ducking?
"So what do you want, Ian? 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."
Jared didn't comment, but I could feel the sudden tension in the air around him.
"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." His profile turned toward me, and I hunched down, hoping it was too dark to see me in here-that, like his face, I would appear as only a black shape. "I imagine it'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."
Jared grumbled something incoherent; I could only pick out Jeb's name. Then he 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." Ian hesitated for a moment and then added, "Except… Well, it's probably nothing at all."
Jared tensed again; he didn't like having his intelligence edited. "Go on."
"No one but Kyle thinks much of it, and you know how Kyle is."
Jared grunted his 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," Ian said dryly, and then his 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 he used. It wasn't a familiar part of Melanie's vocabulary. When I understood that he was talking about a kind of gun, the wistful, envious tone in his 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," Ian 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?" Jared asked.
"It got in a car and drove halfway to Phoenix. Then it drove back to Tucson. Then it drove west again."
"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," Jared grunted. He was interested now, concentrating on the puzzle.
"Then it went for a hike up the peak-stupid little thing. Had to be burning alive, wearing black from head to toe."
A spasm rocked through my body; I found myself off the floor, cringing against the back wall of my cell. My hands flew up instinctively to protect my face. I heard a hiss echo through the small space, and only after it faded did I realize it was mine.
"What was that?" Ian asked, his voice shocked.
I peeked through my fingers to see both of their faces leaning through the hole toward me. Ian's was black, but part of Jared's was lit, his features hard as stone.
I wanted to be still, invisible, but tremors I couldn't control were shaking violently down my spine.
Jared leaned away and came back with the lamp in his hands.
"Look at its eyes," Ian muttered. "It's frightened."
I could see both their expressions now, but I looked only at Jared. His gaze was tightly focused on me, calculating. I guessed he was thinking through what Ian had said, looking for the trigger to my behavior.
My body wouldn't stop shaking.
She'll never give up, Melanie 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 black?" Jared suddenly barked at me.
My lips trembled, but I didn't answer. Silence was safest.
"I know you can talk," Jared growled. "You talk to Jeb and Jamie. And now you're going to talk to me."
He climbed into the mouth of the cave, huffing with surprise at how tightly he had to fold himself to manage it. The low ceiling forced him to kneel, and that didn't make him happy. I could see he'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 his breath on my skin.
"Tell me what you know," he ordered.