The Host (Chapter 6: Followed)
I sniffled and twisted the wet handkerchief into another knot. "Kathy, you must have other obligations. Curt will be wondering where you are."
"I can't stay here forever. And we're no closer to an answer than before."
"Quick fixes aren't my specialty. You are decided against a new host -"
"So dealing with this will probably take some time."
I clenched my teeth in frustration.
"And it will go faster and more smoothly if you have some help."
"I'll be better with making my appointments, I promise."
"That's not exactly what I mean, though I hope you will."
"You mean help… other than you?" I cringed at the thought of having to relive today's misery with a stranger. "I'm sure you're just as qualified as any Comforter-more so."
"I didn't mean another Comforter." She shifted her weight in the chair and stretched stiffly. "How many friends do you have, Wanderer?"
"You mean people at work? I see a few other teachers almost every day. There are several students I speak to in the halls…"
"Outside of the school?"
I stared at her blankly.
"Human hosts need interaction. You're not used to solitude, dear. You shared an entire planet's thoughts -"
"We didn't go out much." My attempt at humor fell flat.
She smiled slightly and went on. "You're struggling so hard with your problem that it's all you can concentrate on. Maybe one answer is to not concentrate quite so hard. You said Melanie grows bored during your working hours… that she is more dormant. Perhaps if you developed some peer relationships, those would bore her also."
I pursed my lips thoughtfully. Melanie, sluggish from the long day of attempted comfort, did seem rather unenthused by the idea.
Kathy nodded. "Get involved with life rather than with her."
"That makes sense."
"And then there are the physical drives these bodies have. I've never seen or heard of their equal. One of the most difficult things we of the first wave had to conquer was the mating instinct. Believe me, the humans noticed when you didn't." She grinned and rolled her eyes at some memory. When I didn't react as she'd expected, she sighed and crossed her arms impatiently. "Oh, come now, Wanderer. You must have noticed."
"Well, of course," I mumbled. Melanie stirred restlessly. "Obviously. I've told you about the dreams…"
"No, I didn't mean just memories. Haven't you come across anyone that your body has responded to in the present-on strictly a chemical level?"
I thought her question through carefully. "I don't think so. Not so I've noticed."
"Trust me," Kathy said dryly. "You'd notice." She shook her head. "Perhaps you should open your eyes and look around for that specifically. It might do you a lot of good."
My body recoiled from the thought. I registered Melanie's disgust, mirrored by my own.
Kathy read my expression. "Don't let her control how you interact with your kind, Wanderer. Don't let her control you."
My nostrils flared. I waited a moment to answer, reining in the anger that I'd never quite gotten used to.
"She does not control me."
Kathy raised an eyebrow.
The anger tightened my throat. "You did not look too far afield for your current partner. Was that choice controlled?"
She ignored my anger and considered the question thoughtfully.
"Perhaps," she finally said. "It's hard to know. But you've made your point." She picked at a string in the hem of her shirt, and then, as if realizing that she was avoiding my gaze, folded her hands resolutely and squared her shoulders. "Who knows how much comes from any given host on any given planet? As I said before, I think time is probably your answer. Whether she grows apathetic and silent gradually, allowing you to make another choice besides this Jared, or… well, the Seekers are very good. They're already looking for him, and maybe you'll remember something that helps."
I didn't move as her meaning sank in. She didn't seem to notice that I was frozen in place.
"Perhaps they'll find Melanie's love, and then you can be together. If his feelings are as fervent as hers, the new soul will probably be amenable."
"No!" I wasn't sure who had shouted. It could have been me. I was full of horror, too.
I was on my feet, shaking. The tears that came so easily were, for once, absent, and my hands trembled in tight fists.
But I turned and ran for the door, fighting the words that could not come out of my mouth. Words that could not be my words. Words that made no sense unless they were hers, but they felt like mine. They couldn't be mine. They couldn't be spoken.
That's killing him! That's making him cease to be! I don't want someone else. I want Jared, not a stranger in his body! The body means nothing without him.
I heard Kathy calling my name behind me as I ran into the road.
I didn't live far from the Comforter's office, but the darkness in the street disoriented me. I'd gone two blocks before I realized I was running in the wrong direction.
People were looking at me. I wasn't dressed for exercise, and I wasn't jogging, I was fleeing. But no one bothered me; they politely averted their eyes. They would guess that I was new to this host. Acting out the way a child would.
I slowed to a walk, turning north so that I could loop around without passing Kathy's office again.
My walk was only slightly slower than a run. I heard my feet hitting the sidewalk too quickly, as though they were trying to match the tempo of a dance song. Slap, slap, slap against the concrete. No, it wasn't like a drumbeat, it was too angry. Like violence. Slap, slap, slap. Someone hitting someone else. I shuddered away from the horrible image.
I could see the lamp on over my apartment door. It hadn't taken me long to cover the distance. I didn't cross the road, though.
I felt sick. I remembered what it felt like to vomit, though I never had. The cold wetness dewed on my forehead, the hollow sound rang in my ears. I was pretty sure I was about to have that experience for my own.
There was a bank of grass beside the walk. Around a streetlamp there was a well-trimmed hedge. I had no time to look for a better place. I stumbled to the light and caught the post to hold myself up. The nausea was making me dizzy.
Yes, I was definitely going to experience throwing up.
"Wanderer, is that you? Wanderer, are you ill?"
The vaguely familiar voice was impossible to concentrate on. But it made things worse, knowing I had an audience as I leaned my face close to the bush and violently choked up my most recent meal.
"Who's your Healer here?" the voice asked. It sounded far away through the buzzing in my ears. A hand touched my arched back. "Do you need an ambulance?"
I coughed twice and shook my head. I was sure it was over; my stomach was empty.
"I'm not ill," I said I as pulled myself upright using the lamppost for support. I looked over to see who was watching my moment of disgrace.
The Seeker from Chicago had her cell phone in her hand, trying to decide which authority to call. I took one good look at her and bent over the leaves again. Empty stomach or no, she was the last person I needed to see right now.
But, as my stomach heaved uselessly, I realized that there would be a reason for her presence.
Oh, no! Oh, no no no no no no!
"Why?" I gasped, panic and sickness stealing the volume from my voice. "Why are you here? What's happened?" The Comforter's very uncomforting words pounded in my head.
I stared at the hands gripping the collar of the Seeker's black suit for two seconds before I realized they were mine.
"Stop!" she said, and there was outrage on her face. Her voice rattled.
I was shaking her.
My hands jerked open and landed against my face. "Excuse me!" I huffed. "I'm sorry. I don't know what I was doing."
The Seeker scowled at me and smoothed the front of her outfit. "You're not well, and I suppose I startled you."
"I wasn't expecting to see you," I whispered. "Why are you here?"
"Let's get you to a Healing facility before we speak. If you have a flu, you should get it healed. There's no point in letting it wear your body down."
"I don't have a flu. I'm not ill."
"Did you eat bad food? You must report where you got it."
Her prying was very annoying. "I did not eat bad food, either. I'm healthy."
"Why don't you have a Healer check? A quick scan-you shouldn't neglect your host. That's irresponsible. Especially when health care is so easy and effective."
I took a deep breath and resisted the urge to shake her again. She was a full head shorter than I was. It was a fight I would win.
A fight? I turned away from her and walked swiftly toward my home. I was dangerously emotional. I needed to calm down before I did something inexcusable.
"Wanderer? Wait! The Healer -"
"I need no Healer," I said without turning. "That was just… an emotional imbalance. I'm fine now."
The Seeker didn't answer. I wondered what she made of my response. I could hear her shoes-high heels-tapping after me, so I left the door open, knowing she would follow me in. I went to the sink and filled a glass with water. She waited silently while I rinsed my mouth and spat. When I was through, I leaned against the counter, staring into the basin.
She was soon bored.
"So, Wanderer… or do you still go by that name? I don't mean to be rude in calling you that."
I didn't look at her. "I still go by Wanderer."
"Interesting. I pegged you for one that would choose her own."
"I did choose. I chose Wanderer."
It had long been clear to me that the mild spat I'd overheard the first day I woke in the Healing facility was the Seeker's fault. The Seeker was the most confrontational soul I'd come across in nine lives. My first Healer, Fords Deep Waters, had been calm, kind, and wise, even for a soul. Yet he had not been able to help reacting to her. That made me feel better about my own response.
I turned around to face her. She was on my small couch, nestled in comfortably as if for a long visit. Her expression was self-satisfied, the bulging eyes amused. I controlled the desire to scowl.
"Why are you here?" I asked again. My voice was a monotone. Restrained. I would not lose control again in front of this woman.
"It's been a while since I heard anything from you, so I thought I would check in personally. We've still made no headway in your case."
My hands clamped down on the edge of the counter behind me, but I kept the wild relief from my voice.
"That seems… overzealous. Besides, I sent you a message last night."
Her eyebrows came together in that way she had, a way that made her look angry and annoyed at the same time, as if you, not she, were responsible for her anger. She pulled out her palm computer and touched the screen a few times.
"Oh," she said stiffly. "I haven't checked my mail today."
She was quiet as she scanned through what I had written.
"I sent it very early in the morning," I said. "I was half asleep at the time. I'm not sure how much of what I wrote was memory or dream, or sleep-typing, maybe."
I went along with the words-Melanie's words-as they flowed easily from my mouth; I even added my own lighthearted laugh at the end. It was dishonest of me. Shameful behavior. But I would not let the Seeker know that I was weaker than my host.
For once, Melanie was not smug at having bested me. She was too relieved, too grateful that I had not, for my own petty reasons, given her away.
"Interesting," the Seeker murmured. "Another one on the loose." She shook her head. "Peace continues to elude us." She did not seem dismayed by the idea of a fragile peace-rather, it seemed to please her.
I bit my lip hard. Melanie wanted so badly to make another denial, to claim the boy was just part of a dream. Don't be stupid, I told her. That would be so obvious. It said much for the repellent nature of the Seeker that she could put Melanie and me on the same side of an argument.
I hate her. Melanie's whisper was sharp, painful like a cut.
I know, I know. I wished I could deny that I felt… similarly. Hate was an unforgivable emotion. But the Seeker was… very difficult to like. Impossible.
The Seeker interrupted my internal conversation. "So, other than the new location to review, you have no more help for me on the road maps?"
I felt my body react to her critical tone. "I never said they were lines on a road map. That's your assumption. And no, I have nothing else."
She clicked her tongue quickly three times. "But you said they were directions."
"That's what I think they are. I'm not getting anything more."
"Why not? Haven't you subdued the human yet?" She laughed loudly. Laughing at me.
I turned my back to her and concentrated on calming myself. I tried to pretend that she wasn't there. That I was all alone in my austere kitchen, staring out the window into the little patch of night sky, at the three bright stars I could see through it.
Well, as alone as I ever was.
While I stared at the tiny points of light in the blackness, the lines that I'd seen over and over again-in my dreams and in my broken memories, cropping up at strange, unrelated moments-flashed through my head.
The first: a slow, rough curve, then a sharp turn north, another sharp turn back the other way, twisting back to the north for a longer stretch, and then the abrupt southern decline that flattened out into another shallow curve.
The second: a ragged zigzag, four tight switchbacks, the fifth point strangely blunt, like it was broken…
The third: a smooth wave, interrupted by a sudden spur that swung a thin, long finger out to the north and back.
Incomprehensible, seemingly meaningless. But I knew this was important to Melanie. From the very beginning I'd known that. She protected this secret more fiercely than any other, next to the boy, her brother. I'd had no idea of his existence before the dream last night. I wondered what it was that had broken her. Maybe as she grew louder in my head, she would lose more of her secrets to me.
Maybe she would slip up, and I would see what these strange lines meant. I knew they meant something. That they led somewhere.
And at that moment, with the echo of the Seeker's laugh still hanging in the air, I suddenly realized why they were so important.
They led back to Jared, of course. Back to both of them, Jared and Jamie. Where else? What other location could possibly hold any meaning for her? Only now I saw that it was not back, because none of them had ever followed these lines before. Lines that had been as much of a mystery to her as they were to me, until…
The wall was slow to block me. She was distracted, paying more attention to the Seeker than I was. She fluttered in my head at a sound behind me, and that was the first I was aware of the Seeker's approach.
The Seeker sighed. "I expected more of you. Your track record seemed so promising."
"It's a pity you weren't free for the assignment yourself. I'm sure if you'd had to deal with a resistant host, it would have been child's play." I didn't turn to look at her. My voice stayed level.
She sniffed. "The early waves were challenging enough even without a resistant host."
"Yes. I've experienced a few settlings myself."
The Seeker snorted. "Were the See Weeds very difficult to tame? Did they flee?"
I kept my voice calm. "We had no trouble in the South Pole. Of course, the North was another matter. It was badly mishandled. We lost the entire forest." The sadness of that time echoed behind my words. A thousand sentient beings, closing their eyes forever rather than accept us. They'd curled their leaves from the suns and starved.
Good for them, Melanie whispered. There was no venom attached to the thought, only approval as she saluted the tragedy in my memory.
It was such a waste. I let the agony of the knowledge, the feel of the dying thoughts that had racked us with our sister forest's pain, wash through my head.
It was death either way.
The Seeker spoke, and I tried to concentrate on just one conversation.
"Yes." Her voice was uncomfortable. "That was poorly executed."
"You can never be too careful when it comes to doling out power. Some aren't as careful as they should be."
She didn't answer, and I heard her move a few steps back. Everyone knew that the misstep behind the mass suicide belonged to the Seekers, who, because the See Weeds couldn't flee, had underestimated their ability to escape. They'd proceeded recklessly, beginning the first settlement before we had adequate numbers in place for a full-scale assimilation. By the time they realized what the See Weeds were capable of, were willing to do, it was too late. The next shipment of hibernating souls was too far away, and before they'd arrived, the northern forest was lost.
I faced the Seeker now, curious to judge the impact of my words. She was impassive, staring at the white nothingness of the bare wall across the room.
"I'm sorry I can't help you further." I said the words firmly, trying to make the dismissal clear. I was ready to have my house to myself again. To ourselves, Melanie inserted spitefully. I sighed. She was so full of herself now. "You really shouldn't have troubled yourself to come so far."
"It's the job," the Seeker said, shrugging. "You're my only assignment. Until I find the rest of them, I may as well stick close to you and hope I get lucky."