The Host (Chapter 43: Frenzied)
Inside, I was spinning apart, as if the pieces of my atoms were reversing polarity and blowing away from one another.
Bringing Melanie back had not saved him. All that I could do was not enough.
The hall outside our room was crowded. Jared, Kyle, and Ian were back from their desperate raid, empty-handed. A cooler of ice-that was all they had to show for three days of risking their lives. Trudy was making compresses and laying them across Jamie's forehead, the back of his neck, his chest.
Even if the ice cooled the fever, raging out of control, how long until it was all melted? An hour? More? Less? How long until he was dying again?
I would have been the one to put the ice on him, but I couldn't move. If I moved, I would fall into microscopic pieces.
"Nothing?" Doc murmured. "Did you check -"
"Every spot we could think of," Kyle interrupted. "It's not like painkillers, drugs-lots of people had reason to keep those hidden. The antibiotics were always kept in the open. They're gone, Doc."
Jared just stared down at the red-faced child on the bed, not speaking.
Ian stood beside me. "Don't look like that," he whispered. "He'll pull through. He's tough."
I couldn't respond. Couldn't even hear the words, really.
Doc knelt beside Trudy and pulled Jamie's chin down. With a bowl he scooped up some of the ice water from the cooler and let it trickle into Jamie's mouth. We all heard the thick, painful sound of Jamie's swallowing. But his eyes didn't open.
I felt as though I would never be able to move again. That I would turn into part of the stone wall. I wanted to be stone.
If they dug a hole for Jamie in the empty desert, they would have to put me in it, too.
Not good enough, Melanie growled.
I was despairing, but she was filled with fury.
Trying solves nothing. Jamie will not die. They have to go back out.
For what purpose? Even if they did find your old antibiotics, what are the chances they would still be any good? They only worked half the time anyway. Inferior. He doesn't need your medicine. He needs more than that. Something that really works…
My breathing sped up, deepened as I saw it.
He needs mine, I realized.
Mel and I were both awestruck by the obviousness of this idea. The simplicity of it.
My stone lips cracked apart. "Jamie needs real medicines. The ones the souls have. We need to get him those."
Doc frowned at me. "We don't even know what those things do, how they work."
"Does it matter?" Some of Melanie's anger was seeping into my voice. "They do work. They can save him."
Jared stared at me. I could feel Ian's eyes on me, too, and Kyle's, and all the rest in the room. But I saw only Jared.
"We can't get 'em, Wanda," Jeb said, his tone already one of defeat. Giving up. "We can only get into deserted places. There's always a bunch of your kind in a hospital. Twenty-four hours a day. Too many eyes. We won't do Jamie any good if we get caught."
"Sure," Kyle said in a hard voice. "The centipedes will be only too happy to heal his body when they find us here. And make him one of them. Is that what you're after?"
I turned to glare at the big, sneering man. My body tensed and leaned forward. Ian put his hand on my shoulder as if he were holding me back. I didn't think I would have made any aggressive move toward Kyle, but maybe I was wrong. I was so far from my normal self.
When I spoke, my voice was dead even, no inflection. "There has to be a way."
Jared was nodding. "Maybe someplace small. The gun would make too much noise, but if there were enough of us to overwhelm them, we could use knives."
"No." My arms came unfolded, my hands falling open in shock. "No. That's not what I meant. Not killing -"
No one even listened to me. Jeb was arguing with Jared.
"There's no way, kid. Somebody'd get a call off to the Seekers. Even if we were in and out, something like that would bring 'em down on us in force. We'd be hard-pressed to make it out at all. And they'd follow."
"Wait. Can't you -"
They still weren't listening to me.
"I don't want the boy to die, either, but we can't risk everyone's lives for one person," Kyle said. "People die here; it happens. We can't get crazy to save one boy."
I wanted to choke him, to cut off his air in order to stop his calm words. Me, not Melanie. I was the one who wanted to turn his face purple. Melanie felt the same way, but I could tell how much of the violence came directly from me.
"We have to save him," I said, louder now.
Jeb looked at me. "Hon, we can't just walk in there and ask."
Right then, another very simple and obvious truth occurred to me.
"You can't. But I can."
The room fell dead silent.
I was caught up in the beauty of the plan forming in my head. The perfection of it. I spoke mostly to myself, and to Melanie. She was impressed. This would work. We could save Jamie.
"They aren't suspicious. Not at all. Even if I'm a horrible liar, they would never suspect me of anything. They wouldn't be listening for lies. Of course not. I'm one of them. They would do anything to help me. I'd say I got hurt hiking or something… and then I'd find a way to be alone and I'd take as much as I could hide. Think of it! I could get enough to heal everyone here. To last for years. And Jamie would be fine! Why didn't I think of this before? Maybe it wouldn't have been too late even for Walter."
I looked up then, with shining eyes. It was just so perfect!
So perfect, so absolutely right, so obvious to me, that it took me forever to understand the expressions on their faces. If Kyle's had not been so explicit, it might have taken me longer.
Hatred. Suspicion. Fear.
Even Jeb's poker face was not enough. His eyes were tight with mistrust.
Every face said no.
Are they insane? Can't they see how this would help us all?
They don't believe me. They think I'll hurt them, hurt Jamie!
"Please," I whispered. "It's the only way to save him."
"Patient, isn't it?" Kyle spit. "Bided its time well, don't you think?"
I fought the desire to choke him again.
"Doc?" I begged.
He didn't meet my eyes. "Even if there was any way we could let you outside, Wanda… I just couldn't trust drugs I don't understand. Jamie's a tough kid. His system will fight this off."
"We'll go out again, Wanda," Ian murmured. "We'll find something. We won't come back until we do."
"That's not good enough." The tears were pooling in my eyes. I looked to the one person who might possibly be in as much pain as I was. "Jared. You know. You know I would never let anything hurt Jamie. You know I can do this. Please."
He met my gaze for one long moment. Then he looked around the room, at every other face. Jeb, Doc, Kyle, Ian, Trudy. Out the door at the silent audience whose expressions mirrored Kyle's: Sharon, Violetta, Lucina, Reid, Geoffrey, Heath, Heidi, Andy, Aaron, Wes, Lily, Carol. My friends mixed in with my enemies, all of them wearing Kyle's face. He stared at the next row, which I couldn't see. Then he looked down at Jamie. There was no sound of breathing in the whole room.
"No, Wanda," he said quietly. "No."
A sigh of relief from the rest.
My knees buckled. I fell forward and yanked free of Ian's hands when he tried to pull me back up. I crawled to Jamie and pushed Trudy aside with my elbow. The silent room watched. I took the compress from his head and refilled the melted ice. I didn't meet the stares I could feel on my skin. I couldn't see anyway. The tears swam in front of my eyes.
"Jamie, Jamie, Jamie," I crooned. "Jamie, Jamie, Jamie."
I couldn't seem to do anything but sob out his name and touch the packets of ice over and over, waiting for the moment they would need changing.
I heard them leave, a few at a time. I heard their voices, mostly angry, fade away down the halls. I couldn't make sense of the words, though.
Jamie, Jamie, Jamie…
"Jamie, Jamie, Jamie…"
Ian knelt beside me when the room was almost empty.
"I know you wouldn't… but Wanda, they'll kill you if you try," he whispered. "After what happened… in the hospital. They're afraid you have good reason to destroy us… Anyway, he'll be all right. You have to trust that."
I turned my face from him, and he went away.
"Sorry, kid," Jeb mumbled when he left.
Jared left. I didn't hear him go, but I knew when he was gone. That seemed right to me. He didn't love Jamie the way we did. He had proved that. He should go.
Doc stayed, watching helplessly. I didn't look at him.
The daylight faded slowly, turned orange and then gray. The ice melted and was gone. Jamie started to burn alive under my hands.
"Jamie, Jamie, Jamie…" My voice was cracked and hoarse now, but I couldn't stop. "Jamie, Jamie, Jamie…"
The room turned black. I couldn't see Jamie's face. Would he leave in the night? Had I already seen his face, his living face, for the last time?
His name was just a whisper on my lips now, low enough that I could hear Doc's quiet snoring.
I wiped the tepid cloth across his body without ceasing. As the water dried, it cooled him a little. The burn lessened. I began to believe that he wouldn't die tonight. But I wouldn't be able to hold him here forever. He would slip away from me. Tomorrow. The next day. And then I would die, too. I would not live without Jamie.
Jamie, Jamie, Jamie… Melanie groaned.
Jared didn't believe us. The lament was both of ours. We thought it at the same time.
It was still silent. I didn't hear anything. Nothing alerted me.
Then, suddenly, Doc cried out. The sound was oddly muffled, like he was shouting into a pillow.
My eyes couldn't make sense of the shapes in the darkness at first. Doc was jerking strangely. And he seemed too big-like he had too many arms. It was terrifying. I leaned over Jamie's inert form, to protect him from whatever was happening. I could not flee while he lay helpless. My heart pounded against my ribs.
Then the flailing arms were still. Doc's snore started up again, louder and thicker than before. He slumped to the ground, and the shape separated. A second figure pulled itself away from his and stood in the darkness.
"Let's go," Jared whispered. "We don't have time to waste."
My heart nearly exploded.
I jumped to my feet, forcing my stiff knees to unbend. "What did you do to Doc?"
"Chloroform. It won't last long."
I turned quickly and poured the warm water over Jamie, soaking his clothes and the mattress. He didn't stir. Perhaps that would keep him cool until Doc woke up.
I was on his heels. We moved silently, almost touching, almost running but not quite. Jared hugged the walls, and I did the same.
He stopped when we reached the light of the moon-bright garden room. It was deserted and still.
I could see Jared clearly for the first time. He had the gun slung behind his back and a knife sheathed at his waist. He held out his hands, and there was a length of dark fabric in them. I understood at once.
The whispered words raced out of my mouth. "Yes, blindfold me."
He nodded, and I closed my eyes while he tied the cloth over them. I would keep them closed anyway.
The knot was quick and tight. When he was done, I spun myself in a fast circle-once, twice…
His hands stopped me. "That's okay," he said. And then he gripped me harder and lifted me off the ground. I gasped in surprise as he threw me against his shoulder. I folded there, my head and chest hanging over his back, beside the gun. His arms held my legs against his chest, and he was already moving. I bounced as he jogged, my face brushing against his shirt with each stride.
I had no sense of which way we were going; I didn't try to guess or think or feel. I concentrated only on the bouncing of his gait, counting steps. Twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three…
I could feel him lean as the path took him down and then up. I tried not to think about it.
Four hundred twelve, four hundred thirteen, four hundred fourteen…
I knew when we were out. I smelled the dry, clean breeze of the desert. The air was hot, though it had to be close to midnight.
He pulled me down and set me on my feet.
"The ground is flat. Do you think you can run blindfolded?"
He grabbed my elbow tightly in his hand and took off, setting a rigorous pace. It wasn't easy. He caught me time and time again before I could fall. I started to get used to it after a while, and I kept my balance better over the tiny pits and rises. We ran until we were both gasping.
"If… we can get… to the jeep… we'll be in… the clear."
The jeep? I felt a strange wave of nostalgia. Mel hadn't seen the jeep since the first leg of that disastrous trip to Chicago, hadn't known it had survived.
"If we… can't?" I asked.
"They catch us… they'll kill you. Ian's… right about… that part."
I tried to run faster. Not to save my life, but because I was the only one who could save Jamie's. I stumbled again.
"Going to… take off the blindfold. You'll be… faster."
"Don't… look around. 'Kay?"
He yanked at the knots behind my head. As the fabric fell away from my eyes, I focused them only on the ground at my feet.
It made a world of difference. The moonlight was bright, and the sand was very smooth and pale. Jared dropped his arm and broke into a faster stride. I kept up easily now. Distance running was familiar to my body. I settled into my preferred stride. Just over a six-minute mile, I'd guess. I couldn't keep up that pace forever, but I'd run myself into the ground trying.
"You hear… anything?" he asked.
I listened. Just two sets of running feet on the sand.
He grunted in approval.
I guessed this was the reason he'd stolen the gun. They couldn't stop us from a distance without it.
It took about an hour more. I was slowing then, and so was he. My mouth burned for water.
I'd never looked up from the ground, so it startled me when he put his hand over my eyes. I faltered, and he pulled us to a walk.
"We're okay now. Just ahead…"
He left his hand over my eyes and tugged me forward. I heard our footsteps echo off something. The desert wasn't as flat here.
His hand disappeared.
It was nearly as dark as it was with him covering my eyes. Another cave. Not a deep one. If I turned around, I would be able to see out of it. I didn't turn.
The jeep faced into the darkness. It looked just the same as I remembered it, this vehicle I had never seen. I swung myself over the door into the seat.
Jared was in his seat already. He leaned over and tied the blindfold over my eyes again. I held still to make it easier.
The noise of the engine scared me. It seemed too dangerous. There were so many people who shouldn't find us now.
We moved in reverse briefly, and then the wind was blasting my face. There was a funny sound behind the jeep, something that didn't fit Melanie's memories.
"We're going to Tucson," he told me. "We never raid there-it's too close. But we don't have time for anything else. I know where a small hospital is, not too deep into town."
"Not Saint Mary's?"
He heard the alarm in my voice. "No, why?"
"I know someone there."
He was quiet for a minute. "Will you be recognized?"
"No. No one will know my face. We don't have… wanted people. Not like you did."
But he had me thinking now, thinking about my appearance. Before I could voice my concerns, he took my hand and folded it around something very small.
"Keep that close to you."
"What is it?"
"If they guess that you're… with us, if they're going to… put someone else in Mel's body, you put that in your mouth and bite down on it hard."
I thought about that for a moment. And then I laughed; I couldn't help it. My nerves were frayed with worry.
"It's not a joke, Wanda," he said angrily. "If you can't do it, then I have to take you back."
"No, no, I can." I tried to get a hold of myself. "I know I can. That's why I'm laughing."
His voice was harsh. "I don't get the joke."
"Don't you see? For millions of my own kind, I've never been able to do that. Not for my own… children. I was always too afraid to die that final time. But I can do it for one alien child." I laughed again. "It doesn't make any sense. Don't worry, though. I can die to protect Jamie."
"I'm trusting you to do just that."
It was silent for a moment, and then I remembered what I looked like.
"Jared, I don't look right. For walking into a hospital."
"We've got better clothes stashed with the… less-conspicuous vehicles. That's where we're headed now. About five more minutes."
That wasn't what I meant, but he was right. These clothes would never do. I waited to talk to him about the rest. I needed to look at myself first.
The jeep stopped, and he pulled off the blindfold.
"You don't have to keep your eyes down," he told me when my head ducked automatically. "There's nothing here to give us away. Just in case this place was ever discovered."
It wasn't a cave. It was a rock slide. A few of the bigger boulders had been carefully excavated, leaving clever dark spaces under them that no one would suspect of housing anything but dirt and smaller rocks.
The jeep was already lodged in a tight space. I was so close to the rock, I had to climb over the back of the jeep to get out. There was something odd attached to the bumper-chains and two very dirty tarps, all ragged and torn.
"Here," Jared said, and led the way to a shadowy crevice just a little shorter than he was. He brushed aside a dusty, dirt-colored tarp and rifled through a pile hiding behind it. He pulled out a T-shirt, soft and clean, with tags still attached. He ripped those off and threw the shirt to me. Then he dug until he found a pair of khaki pants. He checked the size, then flipped them to me, too.
"Put them on."
I hesitated for a moment while he waited, wondering what my problem was. I flushed and then turned my back to him. I yanked my ragged shirt over my head and replaced it as quickly as my fumbling fingers could manage.
I heard him clear his throat. "Oh. I'll, uh, get the car." His footsteps moved away.
I stripped off my tattered cutoff sweats and pulled the crisp new pants into place. My shoes were in bad shape, but they weren't that noticeable. Besides, comfortable shoes weren't always easy to come by. I could pretend I had an attachment to this pair.
Another engine came to life, quieter than the jeep's. I turned to see a modest, unremarkable sedan pull out of a deep shadow under a boulder. Jared got out and chained the tattered tarps from the jeep to this car's rear bumper. Then he drove it to where I stood, and as I saw the heavy tarps wipe the tire tracks from the dirt, I comprehended their purpose.
Jared leaned across the seat to open the passenger door. There was a backpack on the seat. It lay flat, empty. I nodded to myself. Yes, this I needed.
"Hold on," I said.
I crouched to look at myself in the side mirror.
Not good. I flipped my chin-length hair over my cheek, but it wasn't enough. I touched my cheek and bit my lip.
"Jared. I can't go in with my face like this." I pointed to the long, jagged scar across my skin.
"What?" he demanded.
"No soul would have a scar like this. They would have had it treated. They'll wonder where I've been. They'll ask questions."
His eyes widened and then narrowed. "Maybe you should have thought of this before I snuck you out. If we go back now, they'll think it was a ploy for you to learn the way out."
"We're not going back without medicine for Jamie." My voice was harder than his.
His got harder to match it. "What do you propose we do, then, Wanda?"
"I'll need a rock." I sighed. "You're going to have to hit me."