The Host (Chapter 47: Employed)
"You wanted to come," Ian reminded him.
He and Ian were in the windowless back of the van, sorting through the nonperishable groceries and toiletries I'd just collected from the store. It was the middle of the day, and the sun was shining on Wichita. It was not as hot as the Arizona desert, but it was more humid. The air swarmed with tiny flying bugs.
Jared drove toward the highway out of town, carefully keeping below the speed limit. This continued to irritate him.
"Getting tired of shopping yet, Wanda?" Ian asked me.
"No. I don't mind it."
"You always say that. Isn't there anything you mind?"
"I mind… being away from Jamie. And I mind being outside, a little bit. During the day especially. It's like the opposite of claustrophobia. Everything is too open. Does that bother you, too?"
"Sometimes. We don't go out during the day much."
"At least she gets to stretch her legs," Kyle muttered. "I don't know why you want to hear her complain."
"Because it's so uncommon. Which makes it a nice change from listening to you complain."
I tuned them out. Once Ian and Kyle got started, they usually went on for a while. I consulted the map.
" Oklahoma City next?" I asked Jared.
"And a few small towns on the way, if you're up for it," he answered, eyes on the road.
Jared rarely lost his focus when on a raid. He didn't relax into relieved banter the way Ian and Kyle did every time I completed another mission successfully. It made me smile when they used that word-mission. That sounded so formidable. In reality, it was just a trip to the store. Just like I'd done a hundred times in San Diego when I was only feeding myself.
Like Kyle said, it was too easy to provide any excitement. I pushed my cart up and down the aisles. I smiled at the souls who smiled at me, and I filled my cart with things that would last. I usually grabbed a few things that wouldn't, for the men hiding in the back of the van. Premade sandwiches from the deli-things like that for our meals. And maybe a treat or two. Ian had a fondness for mint chocolate chip ice cream. Kyle liked caramel sweets best. Jared ate anything he was offered; it seemed as if he'd given up favorites many years before, embracing a life where wants were unwelcome and even needs were carefully assessed before they were met. Another reason he was good at this life-he saw priorities uncontaminated by personal desire.
Occasionally, in the smaller towns, someone would notice me, would speak to me. I had my lines down so well that I could probably have fooled a human by this point.
"Hi there. New in town?"
"What brings you to Byers?"
I was always careful to check the map before I left the van, so the town's name would be familiar.
"My partner travels a lot. He's a photographer."
"How wonderful! An Artist. Well, there's certainly a lot of beautiful land around here."
Originally, I'd been the Artist. But I'd found that throwing in the information that I was already partnered saved me some time when I was speaking to males.
"Thank you so much for your help."
"You're very welcome. Come back soon."
I'd only had to speak to a pharmacist once, in Salt Lake City; after that, I'd known what to look for.
A sheepish smile. "I'm not sure I'm getting the right nutrition. I can't seem to avoid the junk food. This body has such a sweet tooth."
"You need to be wise, Thousand Petals. I know it's easy to give in to your cravings, but try to think about what you're eating. In the meantime, you should take a supplement."
Health. Such an obvious title on the bottle, it made me feel silly for asking.
"Would you like the ones that taste like strawberries or the ones that taste like chocolate?"
"Could I try both?"
And the pleasant soul named Earthborn gave me both of the large bottles.
Not very challenging. The only fear or sense of danger I ever felt came when I thought of the small cyanide pill that I always kept in an easily reachable pocket. Just in case.
"You should get new clothes in the next town," Jared said.
"Those are looking a little creased."
"Okay," I agreed. I didn't like the excess, but the steadily growing pile of dirty laundry wouldn't go to waste. Lily and Heidi and Paige were all close to my size, and they would be grateful for something new to wear. The men rarely bothered with things like clothes when they were raiding. Every foray was life-or-death-clothes were not a priority. Nor were the gentle soaps and shampoos that I'd been collecting at every store.
"You should probably clean up, too," Jared said with a sigh. "Guess that means a hotel tonight."
Keeping up appearances was not something they'd worried about before. Of course, I was the only one who had to look as if I were a part of civilization from close up. The men wore jeans and dark T-shirts now, things that didn't show dirt or attract attention in the brief moments they might be seen.
They all hated sleeping in the roadside inns-succumbing to unconsciousness inside the very mouth of the enemy. It scared them more than anything else we did. Ian said he'd rather charge an armed Seeker.
Kyle simply refused. He mostly slept in the van during the day and then sat up at night, acting as sentry.
For me, it was as easy as shopping in the stores. I checked us in, made conversation with the clerk. Told the story about my photographer partner and the friend who was traveling with us (just in case someone saw all three of us enter the room). I used generic names from unremarkable planets. Sometimes we were Bats: Word Keeper, Sings the Egg Song, and Sky Roost. Sometimes we were See Weeds: Twisting Eyes, Sees to the Surface, and Second Sunrise. I changed the names every time, not that anyone was trying to trace our path. It just made Melanie feel safer to do that. All this made her feel like a character in a human movie about espionage.
The hard part, the part I really minded-not that I would say this in front of Kyle, who was so quick to doubt my intentions-was all the taking without giving anything back. It had never bothered me to shop in San Diego. I took what I needed and nothing more. Then I spent my days at the university giving back to the community by sharing my knowledge. Not a taxing Calling, but one I took seriously. I took my turns at the less-appealing chores. I did my day collecting garbage and cleaning streets. We all did.
And now I took so much more and gave nothing in return. It made me feel selfish and wrong.
It's not for yourself. It's for others, Mel reminded me when I brooded.
It still feels wrong. Even you can feel that, can't you?
Don't think about it was her solution.
I was glad we were on the homestretch of our long raid. Tomorrow we would visit our growing cache-a moving truck we kept hidden within a day's reach of our path-and clean out the van for the last time. Just a few more cities, a few more days, down through Oklahoma, then New Mexico, and then a straight drive through Arizona with no stops.
Home again. At last.
When we slept in hotels rather than in the crowded van, we usually checked in after dark and left before dawn to keep the souls from getting a good look at us. Not really necessary.
Jared and Ian were beginning to realize that. This night, because we'd had such a successful day-the van was completely full; Kyle would have little space-and because Ian thought I looked tired, we stopped early. The sun had not set when I returned to the van with the plastic key card.
The little inn was not very busy. We parked close to our room, and Jared and Ian went straight from the van to the room in a matter of five or six steps, their eyes on the ground. On their necks, small, faint pink lines provided camouflage. Jared carried a half-empty suitcase. No one looked at them or me.
Inside, the room-darkening curtains were drawn, and the men relaxed a little bit.
Ian lounged on the bed he and Jared would use, and flipped on the TV. Jared put the suitcase on the table, took out our dinner-cooled greasy breaded chicken strips I'd ordered from the deli in the last store-and passed it around. I sat by the window, peeking through the corner at the falling sun as I ate.
"You have to admit, Wanda, we humans had better entertainment," Ian teased.
On the television screen, two souls were speaking their lines clearly, their bodies held with perfect posture. It wasn't hard to pick up what was happening in the story because there wasn't a lot of variety in the scripts souls wrote. In this one, two souls were reconnecting after a long separation. The male's stint with the See Weeds had come between them, but he'd chosen to be human because he guessed his partner from the Mists Planet would be drawn to these warm-blooded hosts. And, miracle of miracles, he'd found her here.
They all had happy endings.
"You have to consider the intended audience."
"True. I wish they'd run old human shows again." He flipped through the channels and frowned. "Used to be a few of them on."
"They were too disturbing. They had to be replaced with things that weren't so… violent."
"The Brady Bunch?"
I laughed. I'd seen that show in San Diego, and Melanie knew it from her childhood. "It condoned aggression. I remember one where a little male child punched a bully, and that was portrayed as being the right thing to do. There was blood."
Ian shook his head in disbelief but returned to the show with the former See Weed. He laughed at the wrong parts, the parts that were supposed to be touching.
I stared out the window, watching something much more interesting than the predictable story on television.
Across the two-lane road from the inn was a small park, bordered on one side by a school and on the other by a field where cows grazed. There were a few young trees, and an old-fashioned playground with a sandbox, a slide, a set of monkey bars, and one of those hand-pulled merry-go-rounds. Of course there was a swing set, too, and that was the only equipment being used currently.
A little family was taking advantage of the cooler evening air. The father had some silver in his dark hair at the temples; the mother looked many years his junior. Her red brown hair was pulled back in a long ponytail that bobbed when she moved. They had a little boy, no more than a year old. The father pushed the child in the swing from behind, while the mother stood in front, leaning in to kiss his forehead when he swung her way, making him giggle so hard that his chubby little face was bright red. This had her laughing, too-I could see her body shake with it, her hair dancing.
"What are you staring at, Wanda?"
Jared's question wasn't anxious, because I was smiling softly at the surprising scene.
"Something I've never seen in all my lives. I'm staring at… hope."
Jared came to stand behind me, peeking out over my shoulder. "What do you mean?" His eyes swept across the buildings and the road, not pausing on the playing family.
I caught his chin and pointed his face in the right direction. He didn't so much as flinch at my unexpected touch, and that gave me a strange jolt of warmth in the pit of my stomach. "Look," I said.
"What am I looking at?"
"The only hope for survival I've ever seen for a host species."
"Where?" he demanded, bewildered.
I was aware of Ian close behind us now, listening silently.
"See?" I pointed at the laughing mother. "See how she loves her human child?"
At that moment, the woman snatched her son from the swing and squeezed him in a tight embrace, covering his face with kisses. He cooed and flailed-just a baby. Not the miniature adult he would have been if he carried one of my kind.
Jared gasped. "The baby is human? How? Why? For how long?"
I shrugged. "I've never seen this before-I don't know. She has not given him up for a host. I can't imagine that she would be… forced. Motherhood is all but worshipped among my kind. If she is unwilling…" I shook my head. "I have no idea how that will be handled. This doesn't happen elsewhere. The emotions of these bodies are so much stronger than logic."
I glanced up at Jared and Ian. They were both staring openmouthed at the interspecies family in the park.
"No," I murmured to myself. "No one would force the parents if they wanted the child. And just look at them."
The father had his arms around both the mother and the child now. He looked down at his host body's biological son with staggering tenderness in his eyes.
"Aside from ourselves, this is the first planet we've discovered with live births. Yours certainly isn't the easiest or most prolific system. I wonder if that's the difference… or if it's the helplessness of your young. Everywhere else, reproduction is through some form of eggs or seeds. Many parents never even meet their young. I wonder…" I trailed off, my thoughts full of speculation.
The mother lifted her face to her partner, and he kissed her lips. The human child crowed with delight.
"Hmm. Perhaps, someday, some of my kind and some of yours will live in peace. Wouldn't that be… strange?"
Neither man could tear his eyes from the miracle in front of them.
The family was leaving. The mother dusted the sand off her jeans while the father took the boy. Then, holding hands that they swung between them, the souls strolled toward the apartments with their human child.
Ian swallowed loudly.
We didn't speak for the rest of the evening, all of us made thoughtful by what we'd seen. We went to sleep early, so we could rise early and get back to work.
I slept alone, in the bed farthest from the door. This made me uncomfortable. The two big men did not fit easily on the other bed; Ian tended to sprawl when he was deeply asleep, and Jared was not above throwing punches when that happened. Both of them would be more comfortable if I shared. I slept in a small ball now; maybe it was the too-open spaces I moved in all day that had me constricting in on myself at night, or maybe I was just so used to curling up to sleep in the tiny space behind the passenger seat on the van's floor that I'd forgotten how to sleep straight.
But I knew why no one asked me to share. The first night the men had unhappily realized the necessity of a hotel shower for me, I'd heard Ian and Jared talking about me over the whir of the bathroom fan.
"… not fair to ask her to choose," Ian was saying. He kept his voice low, but the fan was not loud enough to drown it out. The hotel room was very small.
"Why not? It's fairer to tell her where she's going to sleep? Don't you think it's more polite -"
"For someone else. But Wanda will agonize over this. She'll be trying so hard to please us both, she'll make herself miserable."
"Not this time. I just know how she thinks."
There was a silence. Ian was right. He did know how I thought. He'd probably already foreseen that given the slightest hint that Jared would prefer it, I would choose to sleep beside Jared, and then keep myself awake worrying that I'd made Jared unhappy by being there and that I'd hurt Ian's feelings in the bargain.
"Fine," Jared snapped. "But if you try cuddling up to me tonight… so help me, O'Shea."
Ian chuckled. "Not to sound overly arrogant, but to be perfectly honest, Jared, were I so inclined, I think I could do better."
Despite feeling a little guilty about wasting so much needed space, I probably did sleep better alone.
We didn't have to go to a hotel again. The days started to pass more quickly, as if even the seconds were trying to run home. I could feel a strange western pull on my body. We were all eager to get back to our dark, crowded haven.
Even Jared got careless.
It was late, no sunlight left lingering behind the western mountains. Behind us, Ian and Kyle were taking turns driving the big moving truck loaded with our spoils, just as Jared and I took turns with the van. They had to drive the heavy vehicle more carefully than Jared did the van. The headlights had faded slowly into the distance, until they disappeared around a wide curve in the road.
We were on the homestretch. Tucson was behind us. In a few short hours, I would see Jamie. We would unload the welcome provisions, surrounded by smiling faces. A real homecoming.
My first, I realized.
For once the return would bring nothing but joy. We carried no doomed hostages this time.
I wasn't paying attention to anything but anticipation. The road didn't seem to be flying by too fast; it couldn't fly past fast enough as far as I was concerned.
The truck's headlights reappeared behind us.
"Kyle must be driving," I murmured. "They're catching up."
And then the red and blue lights suddenly spun out in the dark night behind us. They reflected off all the mirrors, dancing spots of color across the roof, the seats, our frozen faces, and the dashboard, where the needle on the speed gauge showed that we were traveling twenty miles over the speed limit.
The sound of a siren pierced the desert calm.