“The more he explains, the less I understand,” I said.
“I told you something’s not right with that dude,” he said, being very careful not to say I told you so. Okay, not really. He was basically saying it.
“What would you do if you didn’t have a body for ten thousand years and then all of a sudden you did?” I asked.
He cocked his head and fought back a smile. “Probably go to the bathroom.”
Dumbo and Megan had cleared out. We were alone. Ben was standing by the fireplace and golden light danced over his face, which had filled out some in the six weeks we had been holed up in Grace’s safe house. Plenty of rest, food, fresh water, and antibiotics, and Ben was almost back to his pre-invasion self. He’d never get all the way back. There was still a haunted look in his eyes, a wariness to him, like a rabbit in a hawk-patrolled meadow.
He wasn’t the only one. After we reached the safe house, it took two weeks for me to work up the courage to look in the mirror. The experience was like running into someone you hadn’t seen since middle school—you recognize them, but what you really notice is the ways they’ve changed. They don’t match your memory of how they should look and for a second you’re thrown off, because your memory of them is them. So when I looked in the mirror, I saw a self that didn’t match the memory of myself, particularly the nose, which now veered slightly to the right, thanks to Grace, but I’ve let that go, there’s no hard feelings. My nose may be crooked now, but hers has been vaporized—along with the rest of her.
“How’s Sam?” I asked.
Ben jerked his head toward the back of the house. “Hanging with Megan and Dumbo. He’s okay.”
“He hates my guts.”
“He doesn’t hate your guts.”
“He told me he hates my guts.”
“Kids say things they don’t mean.”
“Not just kids.”
He nodded. He looked over my shoulder toward the front door. “Ringer was right, Cassie. This doesn’t make a lot of sense. He kidnaps a human body so he can murder all the unkidnapped human bodies. Then one day he decides he’d rather murder his own kind so he can save all the unkidnapped human bodies. And not just murder one or two of his kind here or there. All of them. He wants to destroy his entire civilization, and for what? For a girl. A girl!”
Wrong thing to say. He knew it, too. But just in case there was any question, I said, very slowly, “You know, Parish, it may be a little more complicated than that. There is a human part of him, too.” Oh, Jesus, Cass, what’s the matter with you? One minute you’re furious at him, the next you’re defending him.
His expression hardened. “I’m not worried about the human part. I know you weren’t crazy about her, but Ringer’s pretty damn smart and she made a good point: If they don’t need bodies, they don’t need a planet. And if they don’t need a planet, why did they come for ours?”
“I don’t know,” I snapped. “Why don’t you ask Ringer, since she’s so damn smart?”
He took a breath, and then he said, “I’m going to.”
It took a second for me to understand what he meant. Then another to get that he was serious. A third second to do something about the first two seconds, which was to sit down.
“I’ve thought a lot about this,” he began. Then he stopped. Like he had to mince words—with me of all people! Like I had a temper or something. “And I think I know what you’re going to say, but before you say it, you need to hear me out. Just hear me out, okay? If Walker’s telling the truth, we’ve got four days until the pod arrives and he leaves to do his thing. That’s more than enough time for me to get there and back.”
“To get where and back, Ben?”
“I won’t go alone. I’ll take Dumbo with me.”
“Okaaaay. With you where?” Then I got it. “The caverns.”
He nodded quickly, relieved that I understood. “It’s killing me, Cassie. I can’t stop thinking about them. Maybe Cup caught up with Ringer and—well, maybe she didn’t. She might be dead. Ringer might be dead. Oh, hell, they probably are dead—or maybe they’re not. Maybe they made it to the caverns and Ringer came back to the hotel to get us, only there was no us there to get because there was no there to come back to. Anyway, alive or dead, they’re out there. And if they’re alive, they have no clue what’s coming. They’ll die unless someone goes back for them.”
He took a huge, shuddering breath, the first since he blasted off the verbal launching pad.
“Go back for them,” I said. “Like you went back for Sam. Like you didn’t go back for—”
“Yes. No. Oh, shit.” His face was red and it wasn’t from standing too close to the fire. He knew what I was saying. “This has nothing to do with my sister . . .”
“You ran away and you’ve been trying to go back ever since.”
He stepped toward me. Away from the firelight, his face plunged into shadow. “You don’t know a damn thing. I know that really bothers you, because Cassie Sullivan knows everything, right?”
“What do you want from me, Ben? I’m not your mother or commanding officer or whatever. Do what you want.”
I stood up. Then I sat back down. There was nowhere to go. Well, I could go to the kitchen and make a sandwich, except there was no bread or deli meat or cheese. I don’t know the particulars, but I’m pretty sure there’s a Subway on every corner in heaven. Also Godiva stores. On our second day here, I found Grace’s stash of forty-six boxes of Godiva chocolates. Not that I counted them.
“I’m having a bad day,” I told him. My little brother hated me, my human-alien personal security guard confessed he doesn’t know compassion from compost, and now my old high school crush informs me he’s embarking on a suicide mission to rescue two missing and probably dead people. Plus I wanted a sandwich that I could never have. Since the Arrival, I’ve been beset by more cravings than a woman pregnant with triplets, and always for things I’ll never taste again. Chocolate ice cream cones. Frozen pizza. Whipped cream in a can. Those cinnamon rolls Mom made every Saturday morning. McDonald’s french fries. Bacon. No, bacon was still a possibility. I would just have to find a hog, slaughter it, butcher it, cure the meat, then fry it up. Thinking about the bacon—the potential of bacon—gives me hope. Not all is lost if bacon isn’t.