The Host (Chapter 48: Detained)
Before the souls had come to this place, these lights and sounds had had only one meaning. The law, the keepers of the peace, the punishers of offenders.
Now, again, the flashing colors and angry noise had only one meaning. A very similar meaning. Still the keepers of the peace. Still the punishers.
It wasn't as common a sight or sound as it had been before. The police force was only needed to help in cases of accidents or other emergencies, not to enforce laws. Most civil servants didn't have vehicles with sirens, unless the vehicle was an ambulance or a fire truck.
This low, sleek car behind us was not for any accident. This was a vehicle made for pursuit. I'd never seen anything quite like it before, but I knew exactly what it meant.
Jared was frozen, his foot still pushing down on the gas pedal. I could see that he was trying to find a solution, a way to outrun them in this decrepit van or a way to evade them-to hide our wide white profile in the low, gaunt brush of the desert-without leading them back to the rest. Without giving everyone away. We were so close to the others now. They slumbered, unaware…
When he gave up after two seconds of frantic thought, he exhaled.
"I'm so sorry, Wanda," he whispered. "I blew it."
He reached for my hand and eased up on the gas. The car started to slow.
"Got your pill?" he choked.
"Yes," I whispered.
"Can Mel hear me?"
Yes. The thought was a sob.
"Yes." My voice only barely escaped being a sob, too.
"I love you, Mel. Sorry."
"She loves you. More than anything."
A short, aching silence.
"Wanda, I… I care about you, too. You're a good person, Wanda. You deserve better than what I've given you. Better than this."
He had something small, much too small to be so deadly, between his fingers.
"Wait," I gasped.
He could not die.
"Wanda, we can't take the chance. We can't outrun them, not in this. If we try to run, a thousand of them will swarm after us. Think of Jamie."
The van was slowing, drifting to the shoulder.
"Give me one try," I begged. I fumbled quickly for the pill in my pocket. I pinched it between my thumb and forefinger and held it up. "Let me try to lie us out of this. I'll swallow it right away if anything goes wrong."
"You'll never lie your way past a Seeker!"
"Let me try. Quick!" I pulled off my seat belt and crouched be-side him, unfastening his. "Switch with me. Fast, before they're close enough to see."
"One try. Hurry!"
He was the best at split-second decisions. Smooth and fast, he was out of the driver's seat and over my crouched body. I rolled up into his seat while he took mine.
"Seat belt," I ordered tersely. "Close your eyes. Turn your head away."
He did as I said. It was too dark to see it, but his new soft pink scar would be visible from this angle.
I strapped my seat belt on and then leaned my head back.
Lying with my body, that was the key. It was simply a matter of the right movements. Imitation. Like the actors on the TV program, only better. Like a human.
"Help me, Mel," I murmured.
I can't help you be a better soul, Wanda. But you can do this. Save him. I know you can.
A better soul. I only had to be myself.
It was late. I was tired. I wouldn't have to act that part.
I let my eyelids droop, let my body sag against the seat.
Chagrin. I could do chagrin. I could feel it now.
My mouth turned down into a sheepish grimace.
The Seekers' car did not park behind us, the way I could feel Mel expected. It stopped across the road, on the shoulder, facing the wrong way for that lane's traffic flow. A dazzling light exploded through the window of the other car. I blinked into it, raising my hand to shade my face with deliberate slowness. Faintly, past the glare of the spotlight, I saw the gleam of my eyes bounce against the road as I looked down.
A car door slammed. One set of footsteps made a pattern of low thuds as someone crossed the pavement. There was no sound of dirt or rocks, so the Seeker had emerged from the passenger side. Two of them, at least, but only one coming to interrogate me. This was a good sign, a sign of comfort and confidence.
My glowing eyes were a talisman. A compass that could not fail-like the North Star, undoubtable.
Lying with my body was not the key. Telling the truth with it was enough. I had something in common with the human baby in the park: nothing like me had ever existed before.
The Seeker's body blocked the light, and I could see again.
It was a man. Probably middle-aged-his features conflicted with one another, making it hard to tell; his hair was all white, but his face was smooth and unwrinkled. He wore a T-shirt and shorts, a blocky gun clearly visible on his hip. One hand rested on the butt of the weapon. In his other hand was a dark flashlight. He didn't turn it on.
"Having a problem, miss?" he said when he was a few feet away. "You were going much too fast for safety."
His eyes were restless. They swiftly appraised my expression-which was, hopefully, sleepy-and then ran along the length of the van, darted into the darkness behind us, flashed forward to the stretch of highway ahead, lit by our headlights, and came back to my face. They repeated the course another time.
He was anxious. This knowledge made my palms sweaty, but I tried to keep the panic from my voice.
"I'm so sorry," I apologized in a loud whisper. I glanced at Jared, as if checking to see whether our words had woken him. "I think… well, I think I might have fallen asleep. I didn't realize I was so tired."
I tried to smile remorsefully. I could tell I sounded stiff, like the too-careful actors on the television.
The Seeker's eyes traced their route again, this time lingering on Jared. My heart jumped painfully against the inside of my ribs. I pinched the pill tighter.
"It was irresponsible for me to drive for so long without sleep," I said quickly, trying again to smile a little. "I thought we could make it to Phoenix before I would need rest. I'm very sorry."
"What's your name, miss?"
His voice was not harsh, but neither was it warm. He kept it low, though, following my cue.
"Leaves Above," I said, using the name from the last hotel. Would he want to check my story? I might need someplace to refer him to.
"Upside-down Flower?" he guessed. His eyes flickered around their course.
"Yes, I was."
"My partner, too. Were you on the island?"
"No," I said quickly. "The mainland. Between the great rivers."
He nodded, perhaps a little disappointed.
"Should I go back to Tucson?" I asked. "I think I'm quite awake now. Or maybe I should take a nap right here first -"
"No!" he interrupted me in a louder voice.
I jumped, startled, and the little pill slipped from my fingers. It dropped to the metal floor with a faintly audible clink. I felt the blood drain from my face as though a plug had been pulled.
"Didn't mean to startle you," he apologized quickly, his eyes repeating their restless circle. "But you shouldn't linger here."
"Why?" I managed to whisper. My fingers twitched anxiously at the empty air.
"There was a… disappearance recently."
"I don't understand. A disappearance?"
"It could have been an accident… but there might be…" He hesitated, unwilling to say the word. "Humans may be in this area."
"Humans?" I squeaked, too loud. He heard the fear in my voice and interpreted it the only way he could.
"There's no proof of that, Leaves Above. No sightings or anything. Don't be anxious. But you should proceed on to Phoenix without unnecessary delay."
"Of course. Or maybe Tucson? That would be closer."
"There's no danger. You can continue with your plans."
"If you're sure, Seeker…"
"I'm quite sure. Just don't go wandering off into the desert, Flower." He smiled. The expression warmed his face, making it kind. Just like all the other souls I'd dealt with. He wasn't anxious about me, but for me. He wasn't listening for lies. And he probably wouldn't recognize them if he was. Just another soul.
"I wasn't planning on it." I smiled back at him. "I'll be more careful. I know I couldn't fall asleep now." I glanced at the desert out Jared's window with a wary expression, so the Seeker would think that fear was making me alert. My expression tensed into a taut mask as I caught sight of a pair of lights reflected in the side mirror.
Jared's spine stiffened at the same time, but he held his pose. It looked too tight.
My eyes darted back to the Seeker's face.
"I can help with that," he said, still smiling but looking down now as he fumbled to remove something from his pocket.
He hadn't seen the change in my face. I tried to control the muscles in my cheeks, to make them relax, but I couldn't concentrate hard enough to make it happen.
In the rearview mirror, the headlights got closer.
"You should not use this often," the Seeker went on, searching the other pocket now. "It's not harmful, of course, or the Healers wouldn't have us give it out. But if you use it frequently, it will alter your sleep cycles… Ah, here it is. Awake."
The lights slowed as they approached.
Just drive by, I begged in my head. Don't stop, don't stop, don't stop.
Let it be Kyle at the wheel, Melanie added, thinking the words like a prayer.
Don't stop. Just drive. Don't stop. Just drive.
I blinked, trying to focus. "Um, Awake?"
"Just inhale this, Leaves Above."
He had a thin white aerosol can in his hand. He sprayed a puff of mist into the air in front of my face. I leaned forward obediently and took a sniff, my eyes darting to the mirror at the same time.
"It's grapefruit scented," the Seeker said. "Nice, don't you think?"
"Very nice." My brain was suddenly sharp, focused.
The big moving truck slowed and then idled on the road be-hind us.
No! Mel and I shouted together. I searched the dark floor for one half second, hoping against hope that the little pill would be visible. I couldn't even make out my feet.
The Seeker glanced absently at the truck and then waved it forward.
I looked back at the truck, too, a forced smile on my face. I couldn't see who was driving. My eyes reflected the headlights, shot out faint beams of their own.
The truck hesitated.
The Seeker waved again, more broadly this time. "Go ahead," he muttered to himself.
Drive! Drive! Drive!
Beside me, Jared's hand was clenched in a fist.
Slowly, the big truck shuddered into first gear and then inched forward through the space between the Seeker's vehicle and ours. The Seeker's spotlight outlined two silhouettes, two black profiles, both facing straight forward. The one in the driver's seat had a crooked nose.
Mel and I both exhaled in relief.
"How do you feel?"
"Alert," I told the Seeker.
"It will wear off in about four hours."
The Seeker chuckled. "Thank you, Leaves Above. When we saw you racing down the road, we thought we might have humans on our hands. I was sweating, but not from the heat!"
"Don't worry. You'll be perfectly fine. If you'd like, we can follow you to Phoenix."
"I'm just fine. You don't need to trouble yourself."
"It was nice to meet you. I'll be pleased when my shift is over, so that I can go home and tell my partner I met another green-first Flower. She'll be so excited."
"Um… tell her, ��Brightest sun, longest day' for me," I said, giving him the Earthly translation of the common greeting and farewell on the Flower Planet.
"Certainly. Have a pleasant journey."
"And you have a pleasant night."
He stepped back, and the spotlight hit my eyes again. I blinked furiously.
"Cut it, Hank," the Seeker said, shading his eyes as he turned to walk toward the car. The night turned black again, and I forced another smile toward the invisible Seeker named Hank.
I started the engine with shaking hands.
The Seekers were faster. The little black car with the incongruous light bar atop it purred to life. It executed a sharp U-turn, and then the taillights were all I could see. They disappeared quickly into the night.
I pulled back onto the road. My heart pumped the blood through my veins in hard little bursts. I could feel the fierce pulse throbbing through to my fingertips.
"They're gone," I whispered through my suddenly chattering teeth.
I heard Jared swallow.
"That was… close," he said.
"I thought Kyle was going to stop."
Neither of us could speak above a whisper.
"The Seeker bought it." His teeth were still clenched in anxiety.
"I wouldn't have. Your acting hasn't improved much."
I shrugged. My body was so rigid, it all moved together. "They can't not believe me. What I am… well, it's something impossible. Something that shouldn't exist."
"Something unbelievable," he agreed. "Something wonderful."
His praise thawed some of the ice in my stomach, in my veins.
"Seekers aren't all that different from the rest of them," I murmured to myself. "Nothing to be especially afraid of."
He shook his head back and forth slowly. "There really isn't anything you can't do, is there?"
I wasn't sure how to respond to that.
"Having you with us is going to change everything," he continued under his breath, talking to himself now.
I could feel how his words made Melanie sad, but she was not angry this time. She was resigned.
You can help them. You can protect them better than I could. She sighed.
The slow-moving taillights did not frighten me when they appeared on the road ahead. They were familiar, a relief. I sped up-just a little, still a few miles below the limit-to pass them.
Jared pulled a flashlight out of the glove compartment. I understood what he was doing: reassurance.
He held the light to his own eyes as we passed the cab of the truck. I looked past him, through the other window. Kyle nodded once at Jared and took a deep breath. Ian was leaning anxiously around him, his eyes focused on me. I waved once, and he grimaced.
We were getting close to our hidden exit.
"Should I go all the way to Phoenix?"
Jared thought about it. "No. They might see us on the way back and stop us again. I don't think they're following. They're focused on the road."
"No, they won't follow." I was sure of this.
"Let's go home, then."
"Home," I agreed wholeheartedly.
We killed the lights, and so did Kyle behind us.
We would take both vehicles right to the caves and unload quickly so they could be hidden before morning. The little overhang by the entrance would not hide them from view.
I rolled my eyes as I thought of the way into and out of the caves. The big mystery I hadn't been able to solve for myself. Jeb was so tricky.
Tricky-just like the directions he'd given Mel, the lines he'd carved onto the back of her photo album. They didn't lead to his cave hideout at all. No, instead they made the person following them parade back and forth in front of his secret place, giving him ample opportunity to decide whether or not to extend an invitation inside.
"What do you think happened?" Jared asked, interrupting my thoughts.
"What do you mean?"
"The recent disappearance the Seeker mentioned."
I stared ahead blankly. "Wouldn't that be me?"
"I don't think you would count as recent, Wanda. Besides, they weren't watching the freeway before we left. That's new. They're looking for us. Here."
His eyes narrowed, while mine widened.
"What have they been doing?" Jared suddenly exploded, slapping his hand loudly against the dashboard. I jumped.
"You think Jeb and the others did something?"
He didn't answer me; he just stared out across the star-bright desert with furious eyes.
I didn't understand. Why would the Seekers be looking for humans just because someone had disappeared in the desert? Accidents did happen. Why would they jump to that particular conclusion?
And why was Jared angry? Our family in the caves wouldn't do anything to draw attention to themselves. They knew better than that. They wouldn't go outside unless there was an emergency of some kind.
Or something they felt was urgent. Necessary.
Had Doc and Jeb been taking advantage of my absence?
Jeb had only agreed to stop slaughtering people and souls while I was under the same roof. Was this their compromise?
"You okay?" Jared asked.
My throat was too thick to answer. I shook my head. Tears streamed down my cheeks and fell from my chin to my lap.
"Maybe I'd better drive."
I shook my head again. I could see well enough.
He didn't argue with me.
I was still crying silently when we got to the little mountain that hid our vast cave system. It was actually just a hill-an insignificant outcropping of volcanic rock, like so many others, sparsely decorated with spindly creosote and flat-bladed prickly pears. The thousands of tiny vents were invisible, lost in the jumble of loose purple rocks. Somewhere, smoke would be rising, black on black.
I got out of the van and leaned against the door, wiping my eyes. Jared came to stand beside me. He hesitated, then put a hand on my shoulder.
"Sorry. I didn't know they were planning this. I had no idea. They shouldn't have…"
But he only thought that because they'd somehow gotten caught.
The moving truck rumbled to a stop behind us. Two doors slammed shut, and then feet were running toward us.
"What happened?" Kyle demanded, there first.
Ian was right behind him. He took one look at my expression, at the tears still running down my cheeks, at Jared's hand on my shoulder, and then rushed forward and threw his arms around me. He pulled me into his chest. I didn't know why this made me cry harder. I clung to him while my tears leaked onto his shirt.
"It's okay. You did great. It's over."
"Seeker's not the problem, Ian," Jared said, voice strained, his hand still touching me, though he had to lean forward to preserve that point of contact.
"They were watching the road for a reason. Sounds like Doc's been… working in our absence."
I shuddered, and for a moment, it seemed like I could taste silver blood in the back of my throat.
"Why, those -!" Ian's fury robbed him of speech. He couldn't finish his sentence.
"Nice," Kyle said in a disgusted tone. "Idiots. We're gone for a few weeks, and they've got the Seekers on patrol. They could have just asked us to -"
"Shut up, Kyle," Jared said harshly. "That's neither here nor there at the moment. We've got to get this all unloaded fast. Who knows how many are watching for us? Let's grab a load and then get some more hands."
I shook Ian off so that I could help. The tears did not stop running. Ian stayed close to my side, taking the heavy flat of canned soup I picked up and replacing it with a big but light box of pasta.
We started down the steep pathway in, Jared leading. The utter blackness did not bother me. I still didn't know this path well, but it wasn't difficult. Straight down, then straight up.
We were halfway there when a familiar voice called out from a distance. It echoed down the tunnel, fracturing.
"They're back… ack… back!" Jamie was shouting.
I tried to dry my tears on my shoulder, but I couldn't get them all.
A blue light approached, bouncing as the carrier ran. Then Jamie bounded into view.
His face threw me.
I was trying to compose myself to greet him, assuming he would be joyful and not wanting to upset him. But Jamie was already upset. His face was white and tense, his eyes rimmed in red. His dirty cheeks had rivulets through the dust there, tracks made by tears.
"Jamie?" Jared and I said together, dropping our boxes to the floor.
Jamie ran straight for me and threw his arms around my waist.
"Oh, Wanda! Oh, Jared!" he sobbed. "Wes is dead! He's dead! The Seeker killed him!"