The Host (Chapter 31: Needed)
"Gladys was his wife," Jamie whispered almost silently. "She didn't escape."
"Gladys," Walter said to me, oblivious to my reaction. "Would you believe I went and got cancer? What are the odds, eh? Never took a sick day in my life…" His voice faded out until I couldn't hear it, but his lips continued to move. He was too weak to lift his hand; his fingers dragged themselves toward the edge of the cot, toward me.
Ian nudged me forward.
"What should I do?" I breathed. The sweat beading on my forehead had nothing to do with the humid heat.
"… grandfather lived to be a hundred and one," Walter wheezed, audible again. "Nobody ever had cancer in my family, not even the cousins. Didn't your aunt Regan have skin cancer, though?"
He looked at me trustingly, waiting for an answer. Ian poked me in the back.
"Um…" I mumbled.
"Maybe that was Bill's aunt," Walter allowed.
I shot a panicked glance at Ian, who shrugged. "Help," I mouthed at him.
He motioned for me to take Walter's searching fingers.
Walter's skin was chalk white and translucent. I could see the faint pulse of blood in the blue veins on the back of his hand. I lifted his hand gingerly, worried about the slender bones that Jamie had said were so brittle. It felt too light, as if it were hollow.
"Ah, Gladdie, it's been hard without you. It's a nice place here; you'll like it, even when I'm gone. Plenty of people to talk to-I know how you need to have your conversation…" The volume of his voice sank until I couldn't make out the words anymore, but his lips still shaped the words he wanted to share with his wife. His mouth kept moving, even when his eyes closed and his head lolled to the side.
Ian found a wet cloth and began wiping Walter's shining face.
"I'm not good at… at deception," I whispered, watching Walter's mumbling lips to make sure he wasn't listening to me. "I don't want to upset him."
"You don't have to say anything," Ian reassured me. "He's not lucid enough to care."
"Do I look like her?"
"Not a bit-I've seen her picture. Stocky redhead."
"Here, let me do that."
Ian gave me the rag, and I cleaned the sweat off Walter's neck. Busy hands always made me feel more comfortable. Walter continued to mumble. I thought I heard him say, "Thanks, Gladdie, that's nice."
I didn't notice that Doc's snores had stopped. His familiar voice was suddenly there behind me, too gentle to startle.
"How is he?"
"Delusional," Ian whispered. "Is that the brandy or the pain?"
"More the pain, I would think. I'd trade my right arm for some morphine."
"Maybe Jared will produce another miracle," Ian suggested.
"Maybe," Doc sighed.
I wiped absently at Walter's pallid face, listening more intently now, but they didn't speak of Jared again.
Not here, Melanie whispered.
Looking for help for Walter, I agreed.
Alone, she added.
I thought about the last time I'd seen him-the kiss, the belief… He probably wanted some time to himself.
I hope he isn't out there convincing himself that you're a very talented actress-slash-Seeker again…
That's possible, of course.
Melanie groaned silently.
Ian and Doc murmured in quiet voices about inconsequential things, mostly Ian catching Doc up on what was going on in the caves.
"What happened to Wanda's face?" Doc whispered, but I could still hear him easily.
"More of the same," Ian said in a tight voice.
Doc made an unhappy noise under his breath and then clicked his tongue.
Ian told him a bit about tonight's awkward class, about Geoffrey's questions.
"It would have been convenient if Melanie had been possessed by a Healer," Doc mused.
I flinched, but they were behind me and probably didn't notice.
"We're lucky it was Wanda," Ian murmured in my defense. "No one else -"
"I know," Doc interrupted, good-natured as always. "I guess I should say, it's too bad Wanda didn't have more of an interest in medicine."
"I'm sorry," I murmured. I was careless to reap the benefits of perfect health without ever being curious about the cause.
A hand touched my shoulder. "You have nothing to apologize for," Ian said.
Jamie was being very quiet. I looked around and saw that he was curled up on the cot where Doc had been napping.
"It's late," Doc noted. "Walter's not going anywhere tonight. You should get some sleep."
"We'll be back," Ian promised. "Let us know what we can bring, for either of you."
I laid Walter's hand down, patting it cautiously. His eyes snapped open, focusing with more awareness than before.
"Are you leaving?" he wheezed. "Do you have to go so soon?"
I took his hand again quickly. "No, I don't have to leave."
He smiled and closed his eyes again. His fingers locked around mine with brittle strength.
"You can go," I told him. "I don't mind. Take Jamie back to his bed."
Ian glanced around the room. "Hold on a sec," he said, and then he grabbed the cot closest to him. It wasn't heavy-he lifted it easily and slid it into place next to Walter's. I stretched my arm to the limit, trying not to jostle Walter, so that Ian could arrange the cot under it. Then he grabbed me up just as easily and set me on the cot beside Walter. Walter's eyes never fluttered. I gasped quietly, caught off guard by the casual way Ian was able to put his hands on me-as though I were human.
Ian jerked his chin toward Walter's hand clasped around mine. "Do you think you can sleep like that?"
"Yes, I'm sure I can."
"Sleep well, then." He smiled at me, then turned and lifted Jamie from the other cot. "Let's go, kid," he muttered, carrying the boy with no more effort than if he were an infant. Ian's quiet footsteps faded into the distance until I couldn't hear them anymore.
Doc yawned and went to sit behind the desk he'd constructed out of wooden crates and an aluminum door, taking the dim lamp with him. Walter's face was too dark to see, and that made me nervous. It was like he was already gone. I took comfort in his fingers, still curled stiffly around mine.
Doc began to shuffle through some papers, humming almost inaudibly to himself. I drifted off to the sound of the gentle rustling.
Walter recognized me in the morning.
He didn't wake until Ian showed up to escort me back; the cornfield was due to be cleared of the old stalks. I promised Doc I would bring him breakfast before I got to work. The very last thing I did was to carefully loosen my numb fingers, freeing them from Walter's grasp.
His eyes opened. "Wanda," he whispered.
"Walter?" I wasn't sure how long he would know me, or if he would remember last night. His hand clutched at the empty air, so I gave him my left, the one that wasn't dead.
"You came to see me. That was nice. I know… with the others back… must be hard… for you… Your face…"
He seemed to be having a difficult time making his lips form the words, and his eyes went in and out of focus. How like him, that his first words to me would be full of concern.
"Everything's fine, Walter. How are you feeling?"
"Ah -" He groaned quietly. "Not so… Doc?"
"Right here," Doc murmured, close behind me.
"Got any more liquor?" he gasped.
Doc was already prepared. He held the mouth of a thick glass bottle to Walter's slack lips and carefully poured the dark brown liquid in slow drips into his mouth. Walter winced as each sip burned down his throat. Some of it trickled out the side of his mouth and onto his pillow. The smell stung my nose.
"Better?" Doc asked after a long moment of slow pouring.
Walter grunted. It didn't sound like assent. His eyes closed.
"More?" Doc asked.
Walter grimaced and then moaned.
Doc cursed under his breath. "Where's Jared?" he muttered.
I stiffened at the name. Melanie stirred and then drifted again.
Walter's face sagged. His head rolled back on his neck.
"Walter?" I whispered.
"The pain's too much for him to stay conscious. Let him be," Doc said.
My throat felt swollen. "What can I do?"
Doc's voice was desolate. "About as much as I can. Which is nothing. I'm useless."
"Don't be like that, Doc," I heard Ian murmur. "This isn't your fault. The world doesn't work the way it used to. No one expects more of you."
My shoulders hunched inward. No, their world didn't work the same way anymore.
A finger tapped my arm. "Let's go," Ian whispered.
I nodded and started to pull my hand free again.
Walter's eyes rolled open, unseeing. "Gladdie? Are you here?" he implored.
"Um… I'm here," I said uncertainly, letting his fingers lock around mine.
Ian shrugged. "I'll get you both some food," he whispered, and then he left.
I waited anxiously for him to return, unnerved by Walter's misconception. Walter murmured Gladys's name over and over, but he didn't seem to need anything from me, for which I was grateful. After a while, half an hour maybe, I began listening for Ian's footsteps in the tunnel, wondering what could be taking him so long.
Doc stood by his desk the whole time, staring into nothing with his shoulders slumped. It was easy to see how useless he felt.
And then I did hear something, but it wasn't footsteps.
"What is that?" I asked Doc in a whisper; Walter was quiet again, maybe unconscious. I didn't want to disturb him.
Doc turned to look at me, cocking his head to the side at the same time to listen.
The noise was a funny thrumming, a fast, soft beat. I thought I heard it get just a little louder, but then it seemed quieter again.
"That's weird," Doc said. "It almost sounds like…" He paused, his forehead furrowing in concentration as the unfamiliar sound faded.
We were listening intently, so we heard the footsteps when they were still far away. They did not match the expected, even pace of Ian's return. He was running-no, sprinting.
Doc reacted immediately to the sound of trouble. He jogged quickly out to meet Ian. I wished I could see what was wrong, too, but I didn't want to upset Walter by trying to free my hand again. I listened hard instead.
"Brandt?" I heard Doc say in surprise.
"Where is it? Where is it?" the other man demanded breathlessly. The running footsteps only paused for a second, then started up again, not quite as fast.
"What are you talking about?" Doc asked, calling back this way.
"The parasite!" Brandt hissed impatiently, anxiously, as he burst through the arched entry.
Brandt was not a big man like Kyle or Ian; he was probably only a few inches taller than me, but he was thick and solid as a rhinoceros. His eyes swept the room; his piercing gaze focused on my face for half a second, then took in Walter's oblivious form, and then raced around the room only to end up on me again.
Doc caught up with Brandt then, his long fingers gripping Brandt's shoulder just as the broader man took the first step in my direction.
"What are you doing?" Doc asked, his voice the closest to a growl I'd ever heard it.
Before Brandt answered, the odd sound returned, going from soft to screaming loud to soft again with a suddenness that had us all frozen. The beats thudded right on top of one another, shaking the air when they were at their loudest.
"Is that-is that a helicopter?" Doc asked, whispering.
"Yes," Brandt whispered back. "It's the Seeker-the one from before, the one who was looking for it." He jerked his chin at me.
My throat was suddenly too small-the breaths moving through it were thin and shallow, not enough. I felt dizzy.
No. Not now. Please.
What is her problem? Mel snarled in my head. Why can't she leave us alone?
We can't let her hurt them!
But how do we stop her?
I don't know. This is all my fault!
Mine, too, Wanda. Ours.
"Are you sure?" Doc asked.
"Kyle got a clear view through the binoculars while it was hovering. Same one he saw before."
"Is it looking here?" Doc's voice was suddenly horrified. He half spun, eyes flashing toward the exit. "Where's Sharon?"
Brandt shook his head. "It's just running sweeps. Starts at Picacho, then fans out in spokes. Doesn't look like it's focusing on anything close. Circled around a few times where we dumped the car."
"Sharon?" Doc asked again.
"She's with the kids and Lucina. They're fine. The boys are getting things packed in case we have to roll tonight, but Jeb says it's not likely."
Doc exhaled, then paced over to his desk. He slouched against it, looking as if he'd just run a long race. "So it's nothing new, really," he murmured.
"Naw. Just have to lay low for a few days," Brandt reassured him. His eyes were flickering around the room again, settling on me every other second. "Do you have any rope handy?" he asked. He pulled up the edge of the sheet on an empty cot, examining it.
"Rope?" Doc echoed blankly.
"For the parasite. Kyle sent me out here to secure it."
My muscles contracted involuntarily; my hand gripped Walter's fingers too tightly, and he whimpered. I tried to force it to relax while I kept my eyes on Brandt's hard face. He was waiting for Doc, expectant.
"You're here to secure Wanda?" Doc said, his voice hard again. "And what makes you think that's necessary?"
"Come on, Doc. Don't be stupid. You've got some big vents in here, and a lot of reflective metal." Brandt gestured to a file cabinet against the far wall. "You let your attention wander for half a minute, and it'll be flashing signals to that Seeker."
I sucked in a shocked breath; it was loud in the still room.
"See?" Brandt said. "Guessed its plan in one."
I wanted to bury myself under a boulder to hide from the bulging, relentless eyes of my Seeker, yet he imagined I wanted to guide her in. Bring her here to kill Jamie, Jared, Jeb, Ian… I felt like gagging.
"You can go, Brandt," Doc said in an icy tone. "I will keep an eye on Wanda."
Brandt raised one eyebrow. "What happened to you guys? To you and Ian and Trudy and the rest? It's like you're all hypnotized. If your eyes weren't right, I'd have to wonder…"
"Go ahead and wonder all you want, Brandt. But get out while you're doing it."
Brandt shook his head. "I've got a job to do."
Doc walked toward Brandt, stopping when he was between Brandt and me. He folded his arms across his chest.
"You're not going to touch her."
The throbbing helicopter blades sounded in the distance. We were all very still, not breathing, until they faded.
Brandt shook his head when it was quiet again. He didn't speak; he just went to the desk and picked up Doc's chair. He carried it to the wall by the file cabinet, slammed it to the ground, and then sat down hard, making the metal legs squeal against the stone. He leaned forward, his hands on his knees, and stared at me. A vulture waiting for a dying hare to stop moving.
Doc's jaw tightened, making a little popping noise.
"Gladys," Walter muttered, surfacing from his dazed sleep. "You're here."
Too nervous to speak with Brandt watching, I just patted his hand. His clouded eyes searched my face, seeing features that weren't there.
"It hurts, Gladdie. It hurts a lot."
"I know," I whispered. "Doc?"
He was already there, the brandy in hand. "Open up, Walter."
The sound of the helicopter thumped quietly, far away but still much too close. Doc flinched, and a few drops of brandy splattered on my arm.
It was a horrible day. The worst of my life on this planet, even including my first day in the caves and the last hot, dry day in the desert, hours from death.
The helicopter circled and circled. Sometimes more than an hour would pass, and I would think it was finally over. Then the sound would come back, and I would see the Seeker's obstinate face in my head, her protruding eyes scouring the blank desert for some sign of humans. I tried to will her away, concentrating hard on my memories of the desert's featureless, colorless plain, as if I could somehow make sure she saw nothing else, as if I could bore her into leaving.
Brandt never took his suspicious stare off of me. I could always feel it, though I rarely looked at him. It got a little better when Ian came back with both breakfast and lunch. He was all dirty from packing in case of an evacuation-whatever that meant. Did they have anywhere to go? Ian scowled so hard he looked like Kyle when Brandt explained in clipped phrases why he was there. Then Ian dragged another empty cot beside mine, so that he could sit in Brandt's line of sight and block his view.
The helicopter, Brandt's distrustful watch, these were not really so bad. On an ordinary day-if there was really such a thing anymore-either one of these might have seemed agonizing. Today, they were nothing.
By noon, Doc had given Walter the last of the brandy. It seemed like only minutes later that Walter was writhing, moaning, and gasping for breath. His fingers bruised and chafed mine, but if I ever pulled away, his moans turned to shrill screams. I ducked out once to use the latrine; Brandt followed me, which made Ian feel like he had to come, too. By the time we got back-after nearly running the whole way-Walter's screams no longer sounded human. Doc's face was hollow with echoed agony. Walter quieted after I spoke to him for a moment, letting him think his wife was near. It was an easy lie, a kind one. Brandt made little noises of irritation, but I knew that he was wrong to be upset. Nothing mattered beside Walter's pain.
The whimpers and the writhing continued, though, and Brandt paced back and forth at the other end of the room, trying to be as far from the sound as possible.
Jamie came looking for me, bringing food enough for four, when the light was growing orangey overhead. I wouldn't let him stay; I made Ian take him back to the kitchen to eat, made Ian promise to watch him all night so he wouldn't sneak back here. Walter couldn't help shrieking when his twisting moved his broken leg, and the sound of it was nearly unbearable. Jamie shouldn't have this night burned into his memory the way it would surely be burned into Doc's and mine. Perhaps Brandt's as well, though he did what he could to ignore Walter, plugging his ears and humming a dissonant tune.
Doc did not try to distance himself from Walter's hideous suffering; instead, he suffered with him. Walter's cries carved deep lines in Doc's face, like claws raking his skin.
It was strange to see such depths of compassion in a human, particularly Doc. I couldn't look at him the same way after watching him live Walter's pain. So great was his compassion, he seemed to bleed internally with it. As I watched, it became impossible to believe that Doc was a cruel person; the man simply could not be a torturer. I tried to remember what had been said to found my conjectures-had anyone made the accusation outright? I didn't think so. I must have jumped to false conclusions in my terror.
I doubted I could ever mistrust Doc again after this nightmarish day. However, I would always find his hospital a horrible place.
When the last of the daylight disappeared, so did the helicopter. We sat in the darkness, not daring to turn on even the dim blue light. It took a few hours before any of us would believe the hunt was over. Brandt was the first to accept it; he'd had enough of the hospital, too.
"Makes sense for it to give up," he muttered, edging out the exit. "Nothing to see at night. I'll just take your light with me, Doc, so that Jeb's pet parasite can't get up to anything, and be on my way."
Doc didn't respond, didn't even look at the sullen man as he left.
"Make it stop, Gladdie, make it stop!" Walter begged me. I wiped the sweat from his face while he crushed my hand.
Time seemed to slow down and stop; the black night felt unending. Walter's screams got more and more frequent, more and more excruciating.
Melanie was far away, knowing she could do nothing useful. I would have hidden, too, if Walter hadn't needed me. I was all alone in my head-exactly what I had once wanted. It made me feel lost.
Eventually, a dim gray light started to creep in through the high vents overhead. I was hovering on the edge of sleep, Walter's moans and screams keeping me from sinking under. I could hear Doc snoring behind me. I was glad that he'd been able to escape for a little while.
I didn't hear Jared come in. I was mumbling weak assurances, barely coherent, trying to calm Walter.
"I'm here, I'm here," I murmured as he cried out his wife's name. "Shh, it's okay." The words were meaningless. It was something to say, though, and it did seem that my voice calmed the worst of his cries.
I don't know how long Jared watched me with Walter before I realized he was there. It must have been a while. I was sure his first reaction would be anger, but when I heard him speak, his voice was cool.
"Doc," he said, and I heard the cot behind me shake. "Doc, wake up."
I jerked my hand free, whirling, disoriented, to see the face that went with the unmistakable voice.
His eyes were on me as he shook the sleeping man's shoulder. They were impossible to read in the dim light. His face had no expression at all.
Melanie jolted into awareness. She pored over his features, trying to read the thoughts behind the mask.
"Gladdie! Don't leave! Don't!" Walter's screech had Doc bolting upright, nearly capsizing his cot.
I spun back to Walter, shoving my sore hand into his searching fingers.
"Shhh, shhh! Walter, I'm here. I won't leave. I won't, I promise."
He quieted down, whimpering like a small child. I wiped the damp cloth over his forehead; his sob hitched and turned into a sigh.
"What's that about?" Jared murmured behind me.
"She's the best painkiller I've been able to find," Doc said wearily.
"Well, I've found you something better than a tame Seeker."
My stomach knotted, and Melanie hissed in my head. So stupidly, blindly stubborn! she growled. He wouldn't believe you if you told him the sun sets in the west.
But Doc was beyond caring about the slight to me. "You found something!"
"Morphine-there's not much. I would have gotten here sooner if the Seeker hadn't pinned me down out there."
Doc was instantly in action. I heard him rustling through something papery, and he crowed in delight. "Jared, you're the miracle man!"
"Doc, just a sec…"
But Doc was at my side already, his haggard face alight with anticipation. His hands were busy with a small syringe. He stuck the tiny needle into the crease at Walter's elbow, on the arm that was attached to me. I turned my face away. It seemed so horribly invasive to stab something through his skin.
I couldn't argue with the results, though. Within half a minute, Walter's entire body relaxed, melting into a pile of loose flesh against the thin mattress. His breathing went from harsh and urgent to whispery and even. His hand relaxed, freeing mine.
I massaged my left hand with my right, trying to bring the blood back to my fingertips. Little prickles followed the flow of blood under my skin.
"Uh, Doc, there really isn't enough for that," Jared murmured.
I looked up from Walter's face, peaceful at last. Jared had his back to me, but I could see the surprise in Doc's expression.
"Enough for what? I'm not going to save this for a rainy day, Jared. I'm sure we'll wish we had it again, and too soon, but I'm not going to let Walter scream in agony while I have a way to help him!"
"That's not what I meant," Jared said. He spoke the way he did when he'd already thought about something long and hard. Slow and even, like Walter's breath.
Doc frowned, confused.
"There's enough to stop the pain for maybe three or four days, that's all," Jared said. "If you give it to him in doses."
I didn't understand what Jared was saying, but Doc did.
"Ah," he sighed. He turned to look at Walter again, and I saw a rim of fresh tears start to pool above his lower lids. He opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out.
I wanted to know what they were talking about, but Jared's presence made me silent, brought back the reserve I rarely felt the need for anymore.
"You can't save him. You can only save him pain, Doc."
"I know," Doc said. His voice broke, like he was holding back a sob. "You're right."
What's going on? I asked. As long as Melanie was going to be around, I might as well make use of her.
They're going to kill Walter, she told me matter-of-factly. There's enough morphine to give him an overdose.
My gasp sounded loud in the quiet room, but it was really just a breath. I didn't look up to see how the two healthy men would react. My own tears pooled as I leaned over Walter's pillow.
No, I thought, no. Not yet. No.
You'd rather he died screaming?
I just… I can't stand the… finality. It's so absolute. I'll never see my friend again.
How many of your other friends have you gone back to visit, Wanderer?
I've never had friends like this before.
My friends on other planets were all blurred together in my head; the souls were so similar, almost interchangeable in some ways. Walter was distinctly himself. When he was gone, there would be no one who could fill his place.
I cradled Walter's head in my arms and let my tears fall onto his skin. I tried to stifle my crying, but it made its way out regardless, a keening rather than sobs.
I know. Another first, Melanie whispered, and there was compassion in her tone. Compassion for me-that was a first, too.
"Wanda?" Doc asked.
I just shook my head, not able to answer.
"I think you've been here too long," he said. I felt his hand, light and warm, on my shoulder. "You should take a break."
I shook my head again, still keening softly.
"You're worn out," he said. "Go clean up, stretch your legs. Eat something."
I glared up at him. "Will Walter be here when I get back?" I mumbled through my tears.
His eyes tightened anxiously. "Do you want that?"
"I'd like a chance to say goodbye. He's my friend."
He patted my arm. "I know, Wanda, I know. Me, too. I'm in no hurry. You get some air and then come back. Walter will be sleeping for a while."
I read his worn face, and I believed the sincerity there.
I nodded and carefully put Walter's head back on the pillow. Maybe if I got away from this place for a little bit, I'd find a way to handle this. I wasn't sure how-I had no experience with real goodbyes.
Because I was in love with him, no matter that it was unwilling, I had to look at Jared before I left. Mel wanted this, too, but wished that she could somehow exclude me from the process.
He was staring at me. I had a feeling his eyes had been on me for a long time. His face was carefully composed, but there was surprise and suspicion in there again. It made me tired. What would be the point of acting out a charade now, even if I were that talented a liar? Walter would never stand up for me again. I couldn't sucker him anymore.
I met Jared's gaze for one long second, then turned to hurry down the pitch-black corridor that was brighter than his expression.