The Host (Chapter 12: Failed)

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It's impossible! You've got it wrong! Out of order! That can't be it!"

I stared into the distance, sick with disbelief that was turning quickly to horror.

Yesterday morning I'd eaten the last mangled Twinkie for breakfast. Yesterday afternoon I'd found the double peak and turned east again. Melanie had given me what she promised was the last formation to find. The news had made me nearly hysterical with joy. Last night, I'd drunk the last of the water. That was day four.

This morning was a hazy memory of blinding sun and desperate hope. Time was running out, and I'd searched the skyline for the last milestone with a growing sense of panic. I couldn't see any place where it could fit; the long, flat line of a mesa flanked by blunt peaks on either end, like sentinels. Such a thing would take space, and the mountains to the east and north were thick with toothy points. I couldn't see where the flat mesa could be hiding between them.

Midmorning-the sun was still in the east, in my eyes-I'd stopped to rest. I'd felt so weak that it frightened me. Every muscle in my body had begun to ache, but it was not from all the walking. I could feel the ache of exertion and also the ache from sleeping on the ground, and these were different from the new ache. My body was drying out, and this ache was my muscles protesting the torture of it. I knew that I couldn't keep going much longer.

I'd turned my back on the east to get the sun off my face for a moment.

That's when I'd seen it. The long, flat line of the mesa, unmistakable with the bordering peaks. There it was, so far away in the distant west that it seemed to shimmer above a mirage, floating, hovering over the desert like a dark cloud. Every step we'd walked had been in the wrong direction. The last marker was farther to the west than we'd come in all our journeying.

"Impossible," I whispered again.

Melanie was frozen in my head, unthinking, blank, trying desperately to reject this new comprehension. I waited for her, my eyes tracing the undeniably familiar shapes, until the sudden weight of her acceptance and grief knocked me to my knees. Her silent keen of defeat echoed in my head and added one more layer to the pain. My breathing turned ragged-a soundless, tearless sobbing. The sun crept up my back; its heat soaked deep into the darkness of my hair.

My shadow was a small circle beneath me when I regained control. Painstakingly, I got back on my feet. Tiny sharp rocks were embedded in the skin on my legs. I didn't bother to brush these off. I stared at the floating mesa mocking me from the west for a long, hot time.

And finally, not really sure why I did it, I started walking forward. I knew only this: that it was me who moved and no one else. Melanie was so small in my brain-a tiny capsule of pain wrapped tightly in on her herself. There was no help from her.

My footsteps were a slow crunch, crunch across the brittle ground.

"He was just a deluded old lunatic, after all," I murmured to myself. A strange shudder rocked my chest, and a hoarse coughing ripped its way up my throat. The stream of gravelly coughs rattled on, but it wasn't until I felt my eyes pricking for tears that couldn't come that I realized I was laughing.

"There was… never… ever… anything out here!" I gasped between spasms of hysteria. I staggered forward as though I were drunk, my footprints trailing unevenly behind me.

No. Melanie uncurled from her misery to defend the faith she still clung to. I got it wrong or something. My fault.

I laughed at her now. The sound was sucked away by the scorching wind.

Wait, wait, she thought, trying to pull my attention from the joke of it all. You don't think… I mean, do you think that maybe they tried this?

Her unexpected fear caught me midlaugh. I choked on the hot air, my chest throbbing from my fit of morbid hysteria. By the time I could breathe again, all trace of my black humor was gone. Instinctively, my eyes swept the desert void, looking for some evidence that I was not the first to waste my life this way. The plain was impossibly vast, but I couldn't halt my frantic search for… remains.

No, of course not. Melanie was already comforting herself. Jared's too smart. He would never come out here unprepared like we did. He'd never put Jamie in danger.

I'm sure you're right, I told her, wanting to believe it as much as she did. I'm sure no one else in the whole universe could be this stupid. Besides, he probably never came to look. He probably never figured it out. Wish you hadn't.

My feet kept moving. I was barely aware of the action. It meant so little in the face of the distance ahead. And even if we were magically transported to the very base of the mesa, what then? I was absolutely positive there was nothing there. No one waited at the mesa to save us.

"We're going to die," I said. I was surprised that there was no fear in my rasping voice. This was just a fact like any other. The sun is hot. The desert is dry. We are going to die.

Yes. She was calm, too. This, death, was easier to accept than that our efforts had been guided by insanity.

"That doesn't bother you?"

She thought for a moment before answering.

At least I died trying. And I won. I never gave them away. I never hurt them. I did my best to find them. I tried to keep my promise… I die for them.

I counted nineteen steps before I could respond. Nineteen sluggish, futile crunches across the sand.

"Then what am I dying for?" I wondered, the pricking feeling returning in my desiccated tear ducts. "I guess it's because I lost, then, right? Is that why?"

I counted thirty-four crunches before she had an answer to my question.

No, she thought slowly. It doesn't feel that way to me. I think… Well, I think that maybe… you're dying to be human. There was almost a smile in her thought as she heard the silly double meaning to the phrase. After all the planets and all the hosts you've left behind, you've finally found the place and the body you'd die for. I think you've found your home, Wanderer.

Ten crunches.

I didn't have the energy to open my lips anymore. Too bad I didn't get to stay here longer, then.

I wasn't sure about her answer. Maybe she was trying to make me feel better. A sop for dragging her out here to die. She had won; she had never disappeared.

My steps began to falter. My muscles screamed out to me for mercy, as if I had any means to soothe them. I think I would have stopped right there, but Melanie was, as always, tougher than I.

I could feel her now, not just in my head but in my limbs. My stride lengthened; the path I made was straighter. By sheer force of will, she dragged my half-dead carcass toward the impossible goal.

There was an unexpected joy to the pointless struggle. Just as I could feel her, she could feel my body. Our body, now; my weakness ceded control to her. She gloried in the freedom of moving our arms and legs forward, no matter how useless such a motion was. It was bliss simply because she could again. Even the pain of the slow death we had begun dimmed in comparison.

What do you think is out there? she asked me as we marched on toward the end. What will you see, after we're dead?

Nothing. The word was empty and hard and sure. There's a reason we call it the final death.

The souls have no belief in an afterlife?

We have so many lives. Anything more would be… too much to expect. We die a little death every time we leave a host. We live again in another. When I die here, that will be the end.

There was a long pause while our feet moved more and more slowly.

What about you? I finally asked. Do you still believe in something more, even after all of this? My thoughts raked over her memories of the end of the human world.

It seems like there are some things that can't die.

In our mind, their faces were close and clear. The love we felt for Jared and Jamie did feel very permanent. In that moment, I wondered if death was strong enough to dissolve something so vital and sharp. Perhaps this love would live on with her, in some fairytale place with pearly gates. Not with me.

Would it be a relief to be free of it? I wasn't sure. It felt like it was part of who I was now.

We only lasted a few hours. Even Melanie's tremendous strength of mind could ask no more than that of our failing body. We could barely see. We couldn't seem to find the oxygen in the dry air we sucked in and spit back out. The pain brought rough whimpers breaking through our lips.

You've never had it this bad, I teased her feebly as we staggered toward a dried stick of a tree standing a few feet taller than the low brush. We wanted to get to the thin streaks of shade before we fell.

No, she agreed. Never this bad.

We attained our purpose. The dead tree threw its cobwebby shadow over us, and our legs fell out from under us. We sprawled forward, never wanting the sun on our face again. Our head turned to the side on its own, searching for the burning air. We stared at the dust inches from our nose and listened to the gasping of our breath.

After a time, long or short we didn't know, we closed our eyes. Our lids were red and bright inside. We couldn't feel the faint web of shade; maybe it no longer touched us.

How long? I asked her.

I don't know, I've never died before.

An hour? More?

Your guess is as good as mine.

Where's a coyote when you really need one?

Maybe we'll get lucky… escaped claw beast or something… Her thought trailed off incoherently.

That was our last conversation. It was too hard to concentrate enough to form words. There was more pain than we thought there should be. All the muscles in our body rioted, cramping and spasming as they fought death.

We didn't fight. We drifted and waited, our thoughts dipping in and out of memories without a pattern. While we were still lucid, we hummed ourselves a lullaby in our head. It was the one we'd used to comfort Jamie when the ground was too hard, or the air was too cold, or the fear was too great to sleep. We felt his head press into the hollow just below our shoulder and the shape of his back under our arm. And then it seemed that it was our head cradled against a broader shoulder, and a new lullaby comforted us.

Our lids turned black, but not with death. Night had fallen, and this made us sad. Without the heat of day, we would probably last longer.

It was dark and silent for a timeless space. Then there was a sound.

It barely roused us. We weren't sure if we imagined it. Maybe it was a coyote, after all. Did we want that? We didn't know. We lost our train of thought and forgot the sound.

Something shook us, pulled our numb arms, dragged at them. We couldn't form the words to wish that it would be quick now, but that was our hope. We waited for the cut of teeth. Instead, the dragging turned to pushing, and we felt our face roll toward the sky.

It poured over our face-wet, cool, and impossible. It dribbled over our eyes, washing the grit from them. Our eyes fluttered, blinking against the dripping.

We did not care about the grit in our eyes. Our chin arched up, desperately searching, our mouth opening and closing with blind, pathetic weakness, like a newly hatched bird.

We thought we heard a sigh.

And then the water flowed into our mouth, and we gulped at it and choked on it. The water vanished while we choked, and our weak hands grasped out for it. A flat, heavy thumping pounded our back until we could breathe. Our hands kept clutching the air, looking for the water.

We definitely heard a sigh this time.

Something pressed to our cracked lips, and the water flowed again. We guzzled, careful not to inhale it this time. Not that we cared if we choked, but we did not want the water taken away again.

We drank until our belly stretched and ached. The water trickled to a stop, and we cried out hoarsely in protest. Another rim was pressed to our lips, and we gulped frantically until it was empty, too.

Our stomach would explode with another mouthful, yet we blinked and tried to focus, to see if we could find more. It was too dark; we could not see a single star. And then we blinked again and realized that the darkness was much closer than the sky. A figure hovered over us, blacker than the night.

There was a low sound of fabric rubbing against itself and sand shifting under a heel. The figure leaned away, and we heard a sharp rip-the sound of a zipper, deafening in the absolute stillness of the night.

Like a blade, light cut into our eyes. We moaned at the pain of it, and our hand flew up to cover our closed eyes. Even behind our lids, the light was too bright. The light disappeared, and we felt the breath of the next sigh hit our face.

We opened our eyes carefully, more blind than before. Whoever faced us sat very still and said nothing. We began to feel the tension of the moment, but it felt far away, outside ourself. It was hard to care about anything but the water in our belly and where we could find more. We tried to concentrate, to see what had rescued us.

The first thing we could make out, after minutes of blinking and squinting, was the thick whiteness that fell from the dark face, a million splinters of pale in the night. When we grasped that this was a beard-like Santa Claus, we thought chaotically-the other pieces of the face were supplied by our memory. Everything fit into place: the big cleft-tipped nose, the wide cheekbones, the thick white brows, the eyes set deep into the wrinkled fabric of skin. Though we could see only hints of each feature, we knew how light would expose them.

"Uncle Jeb," we croaked in surprise. "You found us."

Uncle Jeb, squatting next to us, rocked back on his heels when we said his name.

"Well, now," he said, and his gruff voice brought back a hundred memories. "Well, now, here's a pickle."

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