The Host (Chapter 29: Betrayed)

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Maybe I should have run the other way. But no one was holding me back now, and though his voice was cold and angry, Jared was calling to me. Melanie was even more eager than I was as I stepped carefully around the corner and into the blue light; I hesitated there.

Ian stood just a few feet ahead of me, poised on the balls of his feet, ready for whatever hostile movement Jared might make toward me.

Jared sat on the ground, on one of the mats Jamie and I had left here. He looked as weary as Ian, though his eyes, too, were more alert than the rest of his exhausted posture.

"At ease," Jared said to Ian. "I just want to talk to it. I promised the kid, and I'll stand by that promise."

"Where's Kyle?" Ian demanded.

"Snoring. Your cave might shake apart from the vibrations."

Ian didn't move.

"I'm not lying, Ian. And I'm not going to kill it. Jeb is right. No matter how messed up this stupid situation is, Jamie has as much say as I do, and he's been totally suckered, so I doubt he'll be giving me the go-ahead anytime soon."

"No one's been suckered," Ian growled.

Jared waved his hand, dismissing the disagreement over terminology. "It's not in any danger from me, is my point." For the first time he looked at me, evaluating the way I hugged the far wall, watching my hands tremble. "I won't hurt you again," he said to me.

I took a small step forward.

"You don't have to talk to him if you don't want to, Wanda," Ian said quickly. "This isn't a duty or a chore to be done. It's not mandatory. You have a choice."

Jared's eyebrows pulled low over his eyes-Ian's words confused him.

"No," I whispered. "I'll talk to him." I took another short step. Jared turned his hand palm up and curled his fingers twice, encouraging me forward.

I walked slowly, each step an individual movement followed by a pause, not part of a steady advance. I stopped a yard away from him. Ian shadowed each step, keeping close to my side.

"I'd like to talk to it alone, if you don't mind," Jared said to him.

Ian planted himself. "I do mind."

"No, Ian, it's okay. Go get some sleep. I'll be fine." I nudged his arm lightly.

Ian scrutinized my face, his expression dubious. "This isn't some death wish? Sparing the kid?" he demanded.

"No. Jared wouldn't lie to Jamie about this."

Jared scowled when I said his name, the sound of it full of confidence.

"Please, Ian," I pleaded. "I want to talk to him."

Ian looked at me for a long minute, then turned to scowl at Jared. He barked out each sentence like an order.

"Her name is Wanda, not it. You will not touch her. Any mark you leave on her, I will double on your worthless hide."

I winced at the threat.

Ian turned abruptly and stalked into the darkness.

It was silent for a moment as we both watched the empty space where he had disappeared. I looked at Jared's face first, while he still stared after Ian. When he turned to meet my gaze, I dropped my eyes.

"Wow. He's not kidding, is he?" Jared said.

I treated that as a rhetorical question.

"Why don't you have a seat?" he asked me, patting the mat be-side him.

I deliberated for a moment, then went to sit against the same wall but close to the hole, putting the length of the mat between us. Melanie didn't like this; she wanted to be near him, for me to smell his scent and feel the warmth of his body beside me.

I did not want that-and it wasn't because I was afraid he would hurt me; he didn't look angry at the moment, only tired and wary. I just didn't want to be any closer to him. Something in my chest was hurting to have him so near-to have him hating me in such close proximity.

He watched me, his head tilted to the side; I could only meet his gaze fleetingly before I had to look away.

"I'm sorry about last night-about your face. I shouldn't have done that."

I stared at my hands, knotted together in a double fist on my lap.

"You don't have to be afraid of me."

I nodded, not looking at him.

He grunted. "Thought you said you would talk to me?"

I shrugged. I couldn't find my voice with the weight of his antagonism in the air between us.

I heard him move. He scooted down the mat until he sat right beside me-the way Melanie had hoped for. Too close-it was hard to think straight, hard to breathe right-but I couldn't bring myself to scoot away. Oddly, for this was what she'd wanted in the first place, Melanie was suddenly irritated.

What? I asked, startled by the intensity of her emotion.

I don't like him next to you. It doesn't feel right. I don't like the way you want him there. For the first time since we'd abandoned civilization together, I felt waves of hostility emanating from her. I was shocked. That was hardly fair.

"I just have one question," Jared said, interrupting us.

I met his gaze and then shied away-recoiling both from his hard eyes and from Melanie's resentment.

"You can probably guess what it is. Jeb and Jamie spent all night jabbering at me…"

I waited for the question, staring across the dark hall at the rice bag-last night's pillow. In my peripheral vision, I saw his hand come up, and I cringed into the wall.

"I'm not going to hurt you," he said again, impatient, and cupped my chin in his rough hand, pulling my face around so I had to look at him.

My heart stuttered when he touched me, and there was suddenly too much moisture in my eyes. I blinked, trying to clear them.

"Wanda." He said my name slowly-unwillingly, I could tell, though his voice was even and toneless. "Is Melanie still alive-still part of you? Tell me the truth."

Melanie attacked with the brute strength of a wrecking ball. It was physically painful, like the sudden stab of a migraine headache, where she tried to force her way out.

Stop it! Can't you see?

It was so obvious in the set of his lips, the tight lines under his eyes. It didn't matter what I said or what she said.

I'm already a liar to him, I told her. He doesn't want the truth-he's just looking for evidence, some way to prove me a liar, a Seeker, to Jeb and Jamie so that he'll be allowed to kill me.

Melanie refused to answer or believe me; it was a struggle to keep her silent.

Jared watched the sweat bead on my forehead, the strange shiver that shook down my spine, and his eyes narrowed. He held on to my chin, refusing to let me hide my face.

Jared, I love you, she tried to scream. I'm right here.

My lips didn't quiver, but I was surprised that he couldn't read the words spelled out plainly in my eyes.

Time passed slowly while he waited for my answer. It was agonizing, having to stare into his eyes, having to see the revulsion there. As if that weren't enough, Melanie's anger continued to slice at me from the inside. Her jealousy swelled into a bitter flood that washed through my body and left it polluted.

More time passed, and the tears welled up until they couldn't be contained in my eyes anymore. They spilled over onto my cheeks and rolled silently into Jared's palm. His expression didn't change.

Finally, I'd had enough. I closed my eyes and jerked my head down. Rather than hurt me, he dropped his hand.

He sighed, frustrated.

I expected he would leave. I stared at my hands again, waiting for that. My heartbeat marked the passing minutes. He didn't move. I didn't move. He seemed carved out of stone beside me. It fit him, this stonelike stillness. It fit his new, hard expression, the flint in his eyes.

Melanie pondered this Jared, comparing him with the man he used to be. She remembered an unremarkable day on the run…

"Argh!" Jared and Jamie groan together.

Jared lounges on the leather sofa and Jamie sprawls on the carpet in front of him. They're watching a basketball game on the big-screen TV. The para-sites who live in this house are at work, and we've already filled the jeep with all it can hold. We have hours to rest before we need to disappear again.

On the TV, two players are disagreeing politely on the sideline. The cameraman is close; we can hear what they're saying.

"I believe I was the last one to touch it-it's your ball."

"I'm not sure about that. I wouldn't want to take any unfair advantage. We'd better have the refs review the tape."

The players shake hands, pat each other's shoulders.

"This is ridiculous," Jared grumbles.

"I can't stand it," Jamie agrees, mirroring Jared's tone perfectly; he sounds more like Jared every day-one of the many forms his hero worship has taken. "Is there anything else on?"

Jared flips through a few channels until he finds a track and field meet. The parasites are holding the Olympics in Haiti right now. From what we can see, the aliens are all hugely excited about it. Lots of them have Olympic flags outside their houses. It's not the same, though. Everyone who participates gets a medal now. Pathetic.

But they can't really screw up the hundred-meter dash. Individual parasite sports are much more entertaining than when they try to compete against each other directly. They perform better in separate lanes.

"Mel, come relax," Jared calls.

I stand by the back door out of habit, not because I'm tensed to run. Not because I'm frightened. Empty habit, nothing more.

I go to Jared. He pulls me onto his lap and tucks my head under his chin.

"Comfortable?" he asks.

"Yes," I say, because I really, truly am entirely comfortable. Here, in an alien's house.

Dad used to say lots of funny things-like he was speaking his own language sometimes. Twenty-three skidoo, salad days, nosy parker, bandbox fresh, the catbird seat, chocolate teapot, and something about Grandma sucking eggs. One of his favorites was safe as houses.

Teaching me to ride a bike, my mother worrying in the doorway: "Calm down, Linda, this street is safe as houses." Convincing Jamie to sleep without his nightlight: "It's safe as houses in here, son, not a monster for miles."

Then overnight the world turned into a hideous nightmare, and the phrase became a black joke to Jamie and me. Houses were the most dangerous places we knew.

Hiding in a patch of scrubby pines, watching a car pull out from the garage of a secluded home, deciding whether to make a food run, whether it was too dicey. "Do you think the parasites'll be gone for long?" "No way-that place is safe as houses. Let's get out of here."

And now I can sit here and watch TV like it is five years ago and Mom and Dad are in the other room and I've never spent a night hiding in a drainpipe with Jamie and a bunch of rats while body snatchers with spotlights search for the thieves who made off with a bag of dried beans and a bowl of cold spaghetti.

I know that if Jamie and I survived alone for twenty years we would never find this feeling on our own. The feeling of safety. More than safety, even-happiness. Safe and happy, two things I thought I'd never feel again.

Jared makes us feel that way without trying, just by being Jared.

I breathe in the scent of his skin and feel the warmth of his body under mine.

Jared makes everything safe, everything happy. Even houses.

He still makes me feel safe, Melanie realized, feeling the warmth where his arm was just half an inch from mine. Though he doesn't even know I'm here.

I didn't feel safe. Loving Jared made me feel less safe than anything else I could think of.

I wondered if Melanie and I would have loved Jared if he'd always been who he was now, rather than the smiling Jared in our memories, the one who had come to Melanie with his hands full of hope and miracles. Would she have followed him if he'd always been so hard and cynical? If the loss of his laughing father and wild big brothers had iced him over the way nothing but Melanie's loss had?

Of course. Mel was certain. I would love Jared in any form. Even like this, he belongs with me.

I wondered if the same held true for me. Would I love him now if he were like this in her memory?

Then I was interrupted. Without any cue that I perceived, suddenly Jared was talking, speaking as if we were in the middle of a conversation.

"And so, because of you, Jeb and Jamie are convinced that it's possible to continue some kind of awareness after… being caught. They're both sure Mel's still kicking in there."

He rapped his fist lightly against my head. I flinched away from him, and he folded his arms.

"Jamie thinks she's talking to him." He rolled his eyes. "Not really fair to play the kid like that-but that's assuming a sense of ethics that clearly does not apply."

I wrapped my arms around myself.

"Jeb does have a point, though-that's what's killing me! What are you after? The Seekers' search wasn't well directed or even… suspicious. They only seemed to be looking for you-not for us. So maybe they didn't know what you were up to. Maybe you're freelancing? Some kind of undercover thing. Or…"

It was easier to ignore him when he was speculating so foolishly. I focused on my knees. They were dirty, as usual, purple and black.

"Maybe they're right-about the killing-you part, anyway."

Unexpectedly, his fingers brushed lightly once across the goose bumps his words had raised on my arm. His voice was softer when he spoke again. "Nobody's going to hurt you now. As long as you aren't causing any trouble…" He shrugged. "I can sort of see their point, and maybe, in a sick way, it would be wrong, like they say. Maybe there is no justifiable reason to… Except that Jamie…"

My head flipped up-his eyes were sharp, scrutinizing my reaction. I regretted showing interest and watched my knees again.

"It scares me how attached he's getting," Jared muttered. "Shouldn't have left him behind. I never imagined… And I don't know what to do about it now. He thinks Mel's alive in there. What will it do to him when…?"

I noticed how he said when, not if. No matter what promises he'd made, he didn't see me lasting in the long term.

"I'm surprised you got to Jeb," he reflected, changing the subject. "He's a canny old guy. He sees through deceptions so easily. Till now."

He thought about that for a minute.

"Not much for conversation, are you?"

There was another long silence.

His words came in a sudden gush. "The part that keeps bugging me is what if they're right? How the hell would I know? I hate the way their logic makes sense to me. There's got to be another explanation."

Melanie struggled again to speak, not as viciously as before, this time without hope of breaking through. I kept my arms and lips locked.

Jared moved, shifting away from the wall so that his body was turned toward me. I watched the movement from the corner of my eye.

"Why are you here?" he whispered.

I peeked up at his face. It was gentle, kind, almost the way Melanie remembered it. I felt my control slipping; my lips trembled. Keeping my arms locked took all my strength. I wanted to touch his face. I wanted it. Melanie did not like this.

If you won't let me talk, then at least keep your hands to yourself, she hissed.

I'm trying. I'm sorry. I was sorry. This was hurting her. We were both hurting, different hurts. It was hard to know who had it worse at the moment.

Jared watched me curiously while my eyes filled again.

"Why?" he asked softly. "You know, Jeb has this crazy idea that you're here for me and Jamie. Isn't that nuts?"

My mouth half-opened; I quickly bit down on my lip.

Jared leaned forward slowly and took my face between both his hands. My eyes closed.

"Won't you tell me?"

My head shook once, fast. I wasn't sure who did it. Was it me saying won't or Melanie saying can't?

His hands tightened under my jaw. I opened my eyes, and his face was inches away from mine. My heart fluttered, my stomach dropped-I tried to breathe, but my lungs did not obey.

I recognized the intention in his eyes; I knew how he would move, exactly how his lips would feel. And yet it was so new to me, a first more shocking than any other, as his mouth pressed against mine.

I think he meant just to touch his lips to mine, to be soft, but things changed when our skin met. His mouth was abruptly hard and rough, his hands trapped my face to his while his lips moved mine in urgent, unfamiliar patterns. It was so different from remembering, so much stronger. My head swam incoherently.

The body revolted. I was no longer in control of it-it was in control of me. It was not Melanie-the body was stronger than either of us now. Our breathing echoed loudly: mine wild and gasping, his fierce, almost a snarl.

My arms broke free from my control. My left hand reached for his face, his hair, to wind my fingers in it.

My right hand was faster. Was not mine.

Melanie's fist punched his jaw, knocked his face away from mine with a blunt, low sound. Flesh against flesh, hard and angry.

The force of it was not enough to move him far, but he scrambled away from me the instant our lips were no longer connected, gaping with horrorstruck eyes at my horrorstruck expression.

I stared down at the still-clenched fist, as repulsed as if I'd found a scorpion growing on the end of my arm. A gasp of revulsion choked its way out of my throat. I grabbed the right wrist with my left hand, desperate to keep Melanie from using my body for violence again.

I glanced up at Jared. He was staring at the fist I restrained, too, the horror fading, surprise taking its place. In that second, his expression was entirely defenseless. I could easily read his thoughts as they moved across his unlocked face.

This was not what he had expected. And he'd had expectations; that was plain to see. This had been a test. A test he'd thought he was prepared to evaluate. A test with results he'd anticipated with confidence. But he'd been surprised.

Did that mean pass or fail?

The pain in my chest was not a surprise. I already knew that a breaking heart was more than an exaggeration.

In a fight-or-flight situation, I never had a choice; it would always be flight for me. Because Jared was between me and the darkness of the tunnel exit, I wheeled and threw myself into the box-packed hole.

The boxes crunched, crackled, and cracked as my weight shoved them into the wall, into the floor. I wriggled my way into the impossible space, twisting around the heavier squares and crushing the others. I felt his fingers scrape across my foot as he made a grab for my ankle, and I kicked one of the more solid boxes between us. He grunted, and despair wrapped choking hands around my throat. I hadn't meant to hurt him again; I hadn't meant to strike. I was only trying to escape.

I didn't hear my own sobbing, loud as it was, until I could go no farther into the crowded hole and the sound of my thrashing stopped. When I did hear myself, heard the ragged, tearing gasps of agony, I was mortified.

So mortified, so humiliated. I was horrified at myself, at the violence I'd allowed to flow through my body, whether consciously or not, but that was not why I was sobbing. I was sobbing because it had been a test, and, stupid, stupid, stupid, emotional creature that I was, I wanted it to be real.

Melanie was writhing in agony inside me, and it was hard to make sense of the double pain. I felt as though I was dying because it was not real; she felt as though she was dying because, to her, it had felt real enough. In all that she'd lost since the end of her world, so long ago, she'd never before felt betrayed. When her father had brought the Seekers after his children, she'd known it was not him. There was no betrayal, only grief. Her father was dead. But Jared was alive and himself.

No one's betrayed you, stupid, I railed at her. I wanted her pain to stop. It was too much, the extra burden of her agony. Mine was enough.

How could he? How? she ranted, ignoring me.

We sobbed, beyond control.

One word snapped us back from the edge of hysteria.

From the mouth of the hole, Jared's low, rough voice-broken and strangely childlike-asked, "Mel?"

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