The Host (Chapter 49: Interrogated)

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I killed Wes.

My hands, scratched and bruised and painted with purple dust in the course of the frantic unloading, might as well have been painted red with his blood.

Wes was dead, and it was as much my fault as if I'd pulled the trigger myself.

All of us but five were gathered in the kitchen now that the truck was unloaded, eating some of the perishables we'd picked up on the final shopping trip-cheese and fresh bread with milk-and listening to Jeb and Doc as they explained everything to Jared, Ian, and Kyle.

I sat a little space away from the others, my head in my hands, too numb with grief and guilt to ask questions the way they did. Jamie sat with me. He patted my back now and then.

Wes was already buried in the dark grotto beside Walter. He had died four days ago, the night that Jared and Ian and I had sat watching the family in the park. I would never see my friend again, never hear his voice…

Tears splashed on the stone beneath me, and Jamie's pats increased in tempo.

Andy and Paige were not here.

They'd driven the truck and the van back to their hiding places. They would take the jeep from there to its usual rough garage, and then they'd have to walk the rest of the way home. They would be back before sunrise.

Lily was not here.

"She's not… doing so well," Jamie had murmured when he'd caught me scanning the room for her. I didn't want to know any more. I could imagine well enough.

Aaron and Brandt were not here.

Brandt now bore a smooth, pink, circular scar in the hollow space beneath his left collarbone. The bullet had missed his heart and lungs by a hair and then burrowed halfway through his shoulder blade trying to escape. Doc had used most of the Heal getting it out of him. Brandt was fine now.

Wes's bullet had been better aimed. It had pierced his high olive-skinned forehead and blown out the back of his head. There was nothing Doc could have done, even if he'd been right there with them, a gallon of Heal at his disposal.

Brandt, who now carried in a holster on his hip a boxy, heavy trophy from the encounter, was with Aaron. They were in the tunnel where we would have stored our spoils if it had not been occupied. If it was not being used as a prison again.

As if losing Wes was not enough.

It seemed hideously wrong to me that the numbers remained the same. Thirty-five living bodies, just like before I'd come to the caves. Wes and Walter were gone, but I was here.

And now so was the Seeker.

My Seeker.

If I'd just gone straight to Tucson. If I had just stayed in San Diego. If I had just skipped this planet and gone somewhere entirely different. If I'd given myself as a Mother like anyone else would have after five or six planets. If, if, if… If I had not come here, if I had not given the Seeker the clues she needed to follow, then Wes would be alive. It had taken her longer than me to figure them out, but when she did, she didn't have to pursue them with caution. She'd barreled through the desert in an all-terrain SUV, leaving bright new scars across the fragile desert landscape, each pass getting closer.

They had to do something. They had to stop her.

I had killed Wes.

They still would have caught me in the first place, Wanda. I led them here, not you.

I was too miserable to answer her.

Besides, if we hadn't come here, Jamie would be dead. And maybe Jared, too. He would have died tonight, without you.

Death on every side. Death everywhere I looked.

Why did she have to follow me? I moaned to myself. I'm not hurting the other souls here, not really. I'm even saving some of their lives by being here, by keeping Doc from his doomed efforts. Why did she have to follow?

Why did they keep her? Mel snarled. Why didn't they kill her right away? Or kill her slow-I don't care how! Why is she still alive?

Fear fluttered in my stomach. The Seeker was alive; the Seeker was here.

I shouldn't have been afraid of her.

Of course, it made sense to be afraid that her disappearance would bring the other Seekers down on us. Everyone was afraid of that. Spying on the search for my body, the humans had seen how vocal she was about her convictions. She'd been trying to convince the other Seekers that there were humans hiding in this desert wasteland. None seemed to take her seriously. They had gone home; she was the only one who kept looking.

But now she'd vanished in the middle of her search. That changed everything.

Her vehicle had been moved far away, left in the desert on the other side of Tucson. It looked as though she'd disappeared in the same way it was believed I had: pieces of her bag left torn nearby, the snacks she'd carried with her chewed open and scattered. Would the other souls accept such a coincidence?

We already knew they would not. Not entirely. They were looking. Would the search become more intense?

But to be afraid of the Seeker herself… That didn't make much sense. She was physically insignificant, probably smaller than Jamie. I was stronger and faster than she was. I was surrounded by friends and allies, and she, inside these caves at least, was all alone. Two guns, the rifle and her own Glock-the very gun Ian had once envied, the gun that had killed my friend Wes-were trained on her at every moment. Only one thing had kept her alive until now, and it couldn't save her for long.

Jeb had thought I might want to talk to her. That was all.

Now that I was back, she was condemned to die within hours whether I spoke to her or not.

So why did I feel as though I was at the disadvantage? Why this strange premonition that she would be the one to walk away from our confrontation?

I hadn't decided if I wanted to talk to her. At least, that was what I'd told Jeb.

Without a doubt, I did not want to talk to her. I was terrified to ever see her face again-a face that, no matter how I tried, I could not imagine looking frightened.

But if I told them I had no desire for conversation, Aaron would shoot her. It would be like I'd given him the order to fire. Like I'd pulled the trigger.

Or worse, Doc would try to cut her out of the human body. I flinched away from the memory of the silver blood smeared all over the hands of my friend.

Melanie twisted uneasily, trying to escape the torment in my head.

Wanda? They're just going to shoot her. Don't panic.

Should this comfort me? I couldn't avoid the imagined tableau. Aaron, the Seeker's gun in his hand; the Seeker's body slowly crumpling to the stone floor, the red blood pooling around her…

You don't have to watch.

That wouldn't stop it from happening.

Melanie's thoughts became a little frantic. But we want her to die. Right? She killed Wes! Besides, she can't stay alive. No matter what.

She was right about everything, of course. It was true that there was no way the Seeker could stay alive. Imprisoned, she would work doggedly to escape. Freed, she would quickly be the death of all my family.

It was true she had killed Wes. He was so young and so loved. His death left a burning agony in its wake. I understood the claim of human justice that demanded her life in return.

It was also true that I wanted her to die.

"Wanda? Wanda?"

Jamie shook my arm. It took me a moment to realize that someone had called my name. Perhaps many times already.

"Wanda?" Jeb's voice asked again.

I looked up. He was standing over me. His face was expressionless, the blank facade that meant he was in the grip of some strong emotion. His poker face.

"The boys want to know if you have any questions for the Seeker."

I put one hand to my forehead, trying to block the images there. "If I don't?"

"They're ready to be done with guard duty. It's a hard time. They'd rather be with their friends right now."

I nodded. "Okay. I guess I'd better… go and see her at once, then." I shoved myself away from the wall and to my feet. My hands were shaking, so I clenched them into fists.

You don't have any questions.

I'll think of some.

Why prolong the inevitable?

I have no idea.

You're trying to save her, Melanie accused, full of outrage.

There's no way to do that.

No. There isn't. And you want her dead anyway. So let them shoot her.

I cringed.

"You okay?" Jamie asked.

I nodded, not trusting my voice enough to speak.

"You don't have to," Jeb told me, his eyes sharp on my face.

"It's okay," I whispered.

Jamie's hand wrapped around mine, but I shook it off. "Stay here, Jamie."

"I'll come with you."

My voice was stronger now. "Oh, no, you will not."

We stared at each other for a moment, and for once I won the argument. He stuck his chin out stubbornly but slouched back against the wall.

Ian, too, seemed inclined to follow me out of the kitchen, but I stopped him in his tracks with a single look. Jared watched me go with an unfathomable expression.

"She's a complainer," Jeb told me in a low voice as we walked back toward the hole. "Not quiet like you were. Always asking for more-food, water, pillows… She threatens a lot, too. ��The Seekers will get you all!' That kinda thing. It's been hard on Brandt especially. She's pushed his temper right to the edge."

I nodded. This did not surprise me one bit.

"She hasn't tried to escape, though. A lot of talk and no action. Once the guns come up, she backs right down."

I recoiled.

"My guess is, she wants to live pretty dang bad," Jeb murmured to himself.

"Are you sure this is the… safest place to keep her?" I asked as we started down the black, twisting tunnel.

Jeb chuckled. "You didn't find your way out," he reminded me. "Sometimes the best hiding place is the one that's in plain sight."

My answer was flat. "She's more motivated than I was."

"The boys're keepin' a sharp eye on her. Nothin' to worry about."

We were almost there. The tunnel turned back on itself in a sharp V.

How many times had I rounded this corner, my hand tracing along the inside of the pointed switchback, just like this? I'd never traced along the outside wall. It was uneven, with jutting rocks that would leave bruises and cause me to trip. Staying on the inside was a shorter walk anyway.

When they'd first showed me that the V was not a V but a Y-two branches forking off from another tunnel, the tunnel-I'd felt pretty stupid. Like Jeb said, hiding things in plain sight was sometimes the cleverest route. The times I'd been desperate enough to even consider escaping the caves, my mind had skipped right over this place in my speculations. This was the hole, the prison. In my head, it was the darkest, deepest well in the caves. This was where they'd buried me.

Even Mel, sneakier than I was, had never dreamed that they'd held me captive just a few paces from the exit.

It wasn't even the only exit. But the other was small and tight, a crawl space. I hadn't found that one because I'd walked into these caves standing upright. I hadn't been looking for that kind of tunnel. Besides, I'd never explored the edges of Doc's hospital; I'd avoided it from the beginning.

The voice, familiar even though it seemed part of another life, interrupted my thoughts.

"I wonder how you're still alive, eating like this. Ugh!"

Something plastic clattered against the rocks.

I could see the blue light as we rounded the last corner.

"I didn't know humans had the patience to starve someone to death. That seems like too complex a plan for you shortsighted creatures to grasp."

Jeb chuckled. "Gotta say, I'm impressed with those boys. Surprised they held up this long."

We turned into the lit dead-end tunnel. Brandt and Aaron, both sitting as far as possible from the end of the tunnel where the Seeker paced, both with guns in their hands, sighed with relief when they saw us approaching.

"Finally," Brandt muttered. His face was etched in hard lines of grief.

The Seeker halted in her pacing.

I was surprised to see the conditions she was kept in.

She was not stuffed into the tiny cramped hole, but comparatively free, stomping to and fro across the short width of the tunnel. On the floor, against the flat end of the tunnel, were a mat and a pillow. A plastic tray was tilted at an angle against the wall at about the midpoint of the cave; a few jicama roots lay scattered near it with a soup bowl. A little soup was splattered out from where that lay. This explained the clatter I'd just heard-she'd thrown her food. It looked as though she'd eaten most of it first, though.

I stared at this relatively humane setup and felt an odd pain in my stomach.

Who did we kill? Melanie muttered sullenly. This stung her, too.

"You want a minute with her?" Brandt asked me, and the pain stabbed again. Had Brandt ever referred to me using a feminine pronoun? I wasn't surprised that Jeb had done this for the Seeker, but everyone else?

"Yes," I whispered.

"Careful," Aaron cautioned. "She's an angry little thing."

I nodded.

The others stayed where they were. I walked down the tunnel alone.

It was hard to lift my eyes, to meet the gaze that I could feel like cold fingers pressing against my face.

The Seeker was glaring at me, a harsh sneer twisting her features. I'd never seen a soul use that expression before.

"Well, hello there, Melanie," she mocked me. "What took you so long to come visit?"

I didn't answer. I walked toward her slowly, trying hard to believe that the hate coursing through my body really did not belong to me.

"Did your little friends think I would talk to you? Spill all my secrets because you carry a gagged and lobotomized soul around in your head, reflecting through your eyes?" She laughed abrasively.

I stopped two long strides away from her, my body tensed to run. She made no aggressive move toward me, but I could not relax my muscles. This was not like meeting the Seeker on the highway-I didn't have the usual sensation of safety that I felt around the gentle others of my kind. Again, the strange conviction that she would live long after I was gone swept through me.

Don't be ridiculous. Ask her your questions. Have you come up with any?

"So, what do you want? Did you request permission to kill me personally, Melanie?" the Seeker hissed.

"They call me Wanda here," I said.

She flinched slightly when I opened my lips to speak, as if expecting me to shout. My low, even voice seemed to upset her more than the scream she anticipated.

I examined her face while she glared at me with her bulging eyes. It was dirty, stained with purple dust and dried sweat. Other than that, there wasn't a mark on it. Again, this gave me an odd ache.

"Wanda," she repeated in a flat voice. "Well, what are you waiting for? Didn't they give you the okay? Were you planning to use your bare hands or my gun?"

"I'm not here to kill you."

She smiled sourly. "To interrogate me, then? Where are your instruments of torture, human?"

I cringed. "I won't hurt you."

Insecurity flickered across her face and then vanished behind her sneer. "What are they keeping me for, then? Do they think I can be tamed, like your pet soul?"

"No. They just… they didn't want to kill you until they had… consulted me. In case I wanted to talk to you first."

Her lids lowered, narrowing her protruding eyes. "Do you have something to say?"

I swallowed. "I was wondering…" I only had the same question I'd been unable to answer for myself. "Why? Why couldn't you let me be dead, like the rest of them? Why were you so determined to hunt me down? I didn't want to hurt anyone. I just wanted… to go my own way."

She leaped up onto her toes, shoving her face toward mine. Someone moved behind me, but I couldn't hear more than that-she was shouting in my face.

"Because I was right!" she shrieked. "More than right! Look at them all! A vile nest of killers, lurking in wait! Just like I thought, only so much worse! I knew you were out here with them! One of them! I told them there was danger! I told them!"

She stopped, panting, and took a step back from me, staring over my shoulder. I didn't look away to see what had made her retreat. I assumed it had something to do with what Jeb had just told me-once the guns come up, she backs right down. I analyzed her expression for a moment as her heavy breathing slowed.

"But they didn't listen to you. So you came for us alone."

The Seeker didn't answer. She took another step back from me, doubt twisting her expression. She looked oddly vulnerable for a second, as if my words had stripped away the shield she'd been hiding behind.

"They'll look for you, but in the end, they never believed you at all, did they?" I said, watching as each word was confirmed in her desperate eyes. It made me very sure. "So they won't take the search further than that. When they don't find you, their interest will fade. We'll be careful, as usual. They won't find us."

Now I could see true fear in her eyes for the first time. The terrible-to her-knowledge that I was right. And I felt better for my nest of humans, my little family. I was right. They would be safe. Yet, incongruously, I didn't feel any better for myself.

I had no more questions for the Seeker. When I walked away, she would die. Would they wait until I was far enough not to hear the shot? Was there anywhere in the caves that was far enough for that?

I stared at her angry, fearful face, and I knew how deeply I hated her. How much I never wanted to see that face again for the rest of my lives.

The hate that made it impossible for me to allow her to die.

"I don't know how to save you," I whispered, too low for the humans to hear. Why did that sound like a lie in my ears? "I can't think of a way."

"Why would you want to? You're one of them!" But a spasm of hope sparked in her eyes. Jeb was right. All the bluster, all the threats… She wanted very much to stay alive.

I nodded at her accusation, a little absently because I was thinking hard and fast. "But still me," I murmured. "I don't want… I don't want…"

How to finish that sentence? I didn't want… the Seeker to die? No. That wasn't true.

I didn't want… to hate the Seeker? To hate her so much that I wanted her to die. To have her die while I hated her. Almost as if she died because of my hate.

If I truly did not want her death, would I be able to think of a way to save her? Was it my hate that was blocking an answer? Would I be responsible if she died?

Are you insane? Melanie protested.

She'd killed my friend, shot him dead in the desert, broken Lily's heart. She'd put my family in danger. As long as she lived, she was a danger to them. To Ian, to Jamie, to Jared. She would do everything in her power to see them all dead.

That's more like it. Melanie approved of this train of thought.

But if she dies, and I could have saved her if I'd wanted to… who am I then?

You have to be practical, Wanda. This is a war. Whose side are you on?

You know the answer to that.

I do. And that's who you are, Wanda.

But… but what if I could do both? What if I could save her life and keep everyone here safe at the same time?

A heavy wave of nausea rolled in my stomach as I saw the answer I'd been trying to believe didn't exist.

The only wall I'd ever built between Melanie and me crumbled to dust.

No! Mel gasped. And then screamed, NO!

The answer I must have known I would find. The answer that explained my strange premonition.

Because I could save the Seeker. Of course I could. But it would cost me. A trade. What had Kyle said? A life for a life.

The Seeker stared at me, her dark eyes full of venom.

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