Host

My breaths come ragged and quick, trying to keep time with my feet as they pound the gritty pavement. My heart outraces them both, beating with a fire that spreads to my lungs.

I veer right, easily vaulting over a rotting wooden fence. When I land, a sharp stone imbeds itself into the rubber sole of my left shoe. It presses against the tender bottom of my foot, making me wince with every stride.

It’s coming, I tell myself, if you slow down it will catch you and kill you.

I ignore the discomfort, pushing onwards. I navigate the near-abandoned streets by the discrete pools of fluorescent light, relying on memory and intuition when they fail. Perhaps I should stop and conserve energy. The new moon is only a week away – overextending myself now could be deadly.

It won’t care if you’re tired or injured. You need to RUN.

I take a brief moment to turn, glancing down the narrow residential street where I’ve happened to turn. A man stands just inside a fence only three houses away. He looks at me. He’s not the Stalker, but it doesn’t matter.

He could be.

Fear strikes like lightning in my belly and adrenaline courses through my veins once more. It lends me the strength to keep running for another hour. I eventually duck under an unsuspecting resident’s porch to catch my breath and pluck the stone from my shoe.

Red sunlight bleeds from the jagged horizon by the time I arrive at home, my lungs raw and my legs trembling. Mom is sitting on the porch steps. She claps.

“That’s the longest you’ve gone,” she stands, helping me up the three steps to the front door.

“Mm,” is all I can manage.

“You’re strong,” she tells me, “And so fast. You’ll be perfect.”

I nod, her words washing over me. My bed welcomes my filthy, sweat-soaked body and I drop gratefully into oblivion.

My muscles burn for days after the trial run, but it doesn’t stop me from performing my daily training. I envy my brother, Brad, coming and going to school and work. Even if he is sick, at least he has a life. And friends.

I sit on the porch steps after a late afternoon jog and fiddle with the thin silver band on the middle finger of my right hand. I try to remember what it was like to trust people. What it was like to have friends and family instead of vulnerabilities and weaknesses. I wonder who the Stalker will choose this time. Which one of my loved ones it will use against me.

Nine years ago it was my father. My mother carried the ring then. She was the one who had to run from him while he called out to her. Begged her to listen to him. Told her how much he loved her. But she couldn’t stop, no matter how badly she wanted to, because it wasn’t my father. Not really. It was the Stalker, and if it put on the ring then it would be free. Free to return to its true form, hunting and eating humans as it pleased. I don’t even know what its true form looks like; my family never talks about it even though it was our ancestors that trapped it inside a host body three hundred years ago. Sometimes I wonder if it’s us who are really trapped.

I’m still staring at my feet, thinking and watching the sweat drip off of my hair and nose, when I feel a warm body sit beside me. I recognize the familiar rattle, like marbles rolling around his lungs whenever he breathes. Brad. He’s the one who should have inherited the ring – he’s the eldest after all. He’s 19 and I’m barely 17. But when Mom decided she wasn’t strong enough anymore, she gave it to me. Brad has always been sick – asthma and stuff. No endurance. You need endurance.

“Two days,” I tell him.

He doesn’t answer. I peek at him from under my left arm – he’s staring straight ahead, hardly blinking. When did he get so thin?

“You eating okay?”

He nods, still refusing to look at me. We haven’t talked a lot lately, I’ve been too busy and… sometimes I’m afraid. Afraid to lose him. Afraid that when I look at him, I might be looking my own death in the face.

I begin to fiddle with the silver band on my finger again and he turns, watching my hands closely. His eyebrows furrow.

“I’m okay,” I assure him, “I’m really fast now. And strong. Stronger than mom ever was and she’s still okay. I’ll be fine.”

He reaches out, as if to take my hand. Or maybe my ring. I pull back instinctively and his eyes snap to mine, surprised, like he has just woken up to find me there.

“Let’s get out of here,” he says finally, his voice like the rustling of the leaves.

“It’s kind of late, and I still have some laps to run and stuff.”

He shakes his head, shaggy hair drifting in front of his chestnut eyes. “Let’s run. Get out of here. Before she comes.”

“She?” I sit up straight, trying to meet his eyes again but he turns to face the street once more.

“The Stalker,” he clarifies, “Let’s just go. Me and you.”

“We can’t! It will come for us anyway. And then you… it will…” I hate the burning sensation rimming my eyes, hate the single tear that sneaks past my defences. I am strong, I remind myself. “I have to do this.”

He doesn’t answer for a while, just stares straight ahead. Finally he ventures: “Do you remember the night dad died?”

“Sort of – I was only eight. I was at grandma’s that night. I couldn’t sleep. I just kept waiting for something to happen. For something to come and take me. The sun came up and I just kept waiting – for the phone to ring, someone to pick me up, anything.”

“We got separated,” he says, “I didn’t see what happened. I was just wandering around the streets. Mom found me after the sun came up. She told me the Stalker had taken Dad as its host.”

“He’s still out there, you know.” He looks at me, confused, so I clarify, “Dad. He’s not dead. The Stalker is trapped in its host for 9 years. He won’t die until the Stalker leaves his body and takes a new host. In two days.”

“You think so?” His stare is piercing, and I fidget uncomfortably under the force of it.

“Yeah. I mean, his body is probably rotting by now.” It’s strange, talking about my father that way. As a corpse. Like Brad, I’ve considered him dead since that morning nine years ago, even though I know he’s still wandering around somewhere. Hunting us.

Brad opens his mouth to speak again, almost like he wants to argue, but then I hear the door behind us creak open. He closes his mouth, lips pressed in a deep grimace.

“Time for supper guys,” Mom says. I stretch, my joints popping, and follow her into the house. I turn to see Brad hesitate before stepping through the door behind me.

That night I lie awake, body still aching. The next two days are supposed to be about conserving energy, but I can’t sleep. My conversation with Brad is like the pea under the mattress, forcing me to toss and turn, never allowing me a moment’s comfort.

I glance at the clock. 3:21 AM. I roll onto my back and finally start to doze.

Click.

The back door.

My veins turn to ice. My pulse jumps up in tempo, deafening in my ears. Did someone come in or go out?

I stand, furious at the way my legs shake unsteadily, and tip-toe to the window. I peek out from the side of the slatted blinds, squinting in the dim moonlight. A shadowy figure stalks away from the house, toward the fence. He jumps the chain link fence, agilely landing in the yard behind us. He turns back for an instant and I recognize the pale face under the black hood. Brad.

He’s just sneaking out to see friends, I reassure myself, it’s nothing.

But why would he sneak? It’s not like Mom would stop him from going out. He’s an adult now.

I walk back to my bed, lying down and pulling the covers up to my chin, but sleep seems even more distant than before. My tired brain is putting together pieces in a puzzle that I don’t want to believe exists.

The Stalker can’t choose a new host until the new moon.

But he’s so thin. So sick.

You’d know if your own brother was a counterfeit.

I’ve been too busy to pay attention. He looked at my ring. He wanted to take it.

The Stalker took your father nine years ago. It’s impossible.

“We were separated,” he said. He was alone. Could the Stalker have taken him that night? Could Brad be an imposter? For nine years??

No. No no no. Mom would know. Wouldn’t she? That her own son was a body-snatching, flesh-eating killer?

As a last resort I tell myself that it doesn’t matter. This is what I prepared myself for, right? I always knew that one of them would come for me. I quit school, cut all social ties when I inherited the ring, so it was always going to be one or the other. Brad or mom. I just have to be fast. Strong. Two more days and it will be all over for another nine years.

I wake up next morning to the sound of Mom vomiting in the bathroom. She ends up stuck in bed with the flu, leaving me alone with my thoughts… and Brad. He is skittish, sneaking glances at me when he thinks I’m not looking. He slips out again that night, the final evening before the new moon. I try to focus only on the route I’m going to take tomorrow when the sun sets. Try to steel myself from the pain already growing deep in my chest. The fear of losing one of the only two people I’ve dared to love these past few years.

Brad is absent at dinner the next day. Mom and I sit alone at our tiny kitchen table. My stomach clenches in anticipation and I’m certain if I eat anything I will vomit.

“Shouldn’t I have left already?” I ask her, my legs bouncing with impatience.

“It’s good to get a head-start, but it’s better you know who you’re running from first. If you keep your enemy too far, you won’t know which direction they will…” Mom trails off, coughing wetly into the crook of her arm. When she looks up there is blood spattered around her mouth.

“Mom!” I shout, running to her. She puts an arm on my shoulder, bracing herself as she is wracked with more coughs. Phlegm and blood pour over her arm, soaking into her sleeve and overflowing onto her plate.

“It’s okay,” she manages. She looks up to me and I realize now how gaunt her face has become. How sunken her eyes are. I’ve been too distracted to notice. I had assumed she was tired, worried about me, but this is more than tired. This is…

“Mom?” I pull away and she falls to the side, catching herself on the table. I back away slowly, jumping as I bump into the kitchen counter. I glance out the window behind me. There are still a few minutes of sunlight left.

She rasps when she speaks, not unlike Brad when he catches a cold in winter. “Your Daddy was clever. He gave the ring to that weakling so no one would suspect. The boy was long gone before I realized I’d been tricked. By the time I found him the sun had risen and I had to wait another nine years.”

“No,” I object, looking down at the cursed silver band around my finger, “No. You had it. You gave it to me. The Stalker can’t possess the one who wears the ring.”

She laughs, like boiling syrup, “Did your parents ever show you the ring? Did you even know what it looked like before I showed it to you?”

I shake my head, a refusal to accept what she’s telling me, but also an accurate response to her question.

I should run, but instead I stare at the floor, my eyes darting back and forth as I scramble for an explanation. Any piece of evidence that will refute what my own eyes are telling me.

“B-but why then? Why train me so hard? And why would Brad stay? Why didn’t he run away years ago?”

Her head slips now, resting against her right shoulder at an unnatural angle. I heave at the sight of my mother and pray that she’s really dead. That she hasn’t been trapped inside with that monster these past nine years.

“He wasn’t sure it was me at first. He knew I couldn’t touch him until tonight, so he waited. He should have run, but he just couldn’t leave his poor baby sister behind. He’s been training too you know, pushing that frail body of his when he thinks we’re sleeping.”

Brad. I hope he’s long gone by now. Far away where she’ll never catch him. But then I realize that she hasn’t answered my first question and my stomach sinks. I already know the answer.

I don’t need to turn around to know that the sun has already set; darkness creeps into the room and my mother’s body sags, drooping like a puppet whose strings have been cut. For a split second a monster hangs in the air in front of me. Three great wings unfurl on each side of its worm-like body. It has no arms or legs – it doesn’t need them. Just rows upon rows of needle-thin teeth in its gaping mouth, like a jagged tear in the centre of a wriggling mass.

And then it’s gone.

I walk to the front door. My feet slap clumsily against the linoleum at first, arms swinging wildly at my sides, but this soon passes. Tears course down my cheeks, but it doesn’t matter. I’m still here, inside, but that doesn’t matter either.

Brad knows I’m coming – he’s trained hard and I’m sure he has a plan.

But I’m strong. I’m fast. Oh God, I’m so fast.

***Author’s Note***

Thank you for everyone’s votes! Host won both the Ambassador’s Choice AND Audience Choice awards for the Wattpad Urban-Fantasy Community’s 2016 Halloween Contest!

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