Nudge, my Voice said, and then I heard Nudge cry out.
An Eraser had her tight in his arms, his fangs moving toward her neck. His teeth were just starting to scrape her skin when I dropped on him from above. I wrapped one arm around his neck and yanked hard, hearing him gag and choke. Grabbing my wrist with my other hand, I yanked harder until he let Nudge drop away from him.
“Scat!” I told her, and, coughing, she swooped away from the fight. My Eraser was still struggling but starting to weaken. “You better get your guys out of here,” I snarled into his ear. “We’re kicking your hairy butts.”
“You’re gonna fall now,” I heard Angel say in a normal voice. I swung my head to see her gravely watching an Eraser who looked confused, paralyzed. Angel shifted her gaze to the dark water below. Fear entered the Eraser’s eyes, and his wings folded. He dropped like a rock.
“You’re getting scary, you know that?” I said to Angel, not really kidding. I mean, making an Eraser drop right out of the sky just by telling him to—jeez.
And Iggy, said the Voice. I veered off to help Iggy, who was in tight hand-to-hand with an Eraser.
“Ig!” I called, as he grabbed the Eraser’s shirt.
“Max, get out of here!” Iggy yelled, and released the shirt, letting himself fall quickly out of reach.
I had time to think Uh-oh, and then the small explosive Iggy had stuck down the Eraser’s shirt detonated, leaving an ugly gaping hole in his chest. Shrieking, the Eraser plummeted heavily downward.
And how did Iggy manage to stash his seemingly endless supply of explosives on his person without my even having a clue? Got me.
“You . . . are . . . a . . . fridge . . . with wings,” Fang ground out, punching an Eraser hard with every word. “We’re . . . freaking . . . ballet . . . dancers.”
Take a deep breath, Max, said my Voice, and I obeyed without question.
At that moment, I felt a blow to my back, between my wings, that knocked the wind out of me. I rolled, belly-up, using the oxygen I’d just gotten, trying to suck in more air.
Whirling, I snapped both feet out in a hard kick into the Eraser’s face, then froze in shock. Ari!
He wheeled backward and I floundered away, wheezing and hoping I wouldn’t pass out. Ari! But he was dead—I’d killed him. Hadn’t I?
Ari lunged at Fang, just as I yelled “Fang!” Ari managed to take a swipe at Fang’s side, shredding his jacket.
Drawing back, gasping, I took stock of the situation. The few remaining Erasers were falling back, retreating. Below, I saw a white splash as an Eraser hit the ocean. That had to hurt.
Now it was just Ari against us. He looked around, then fell back as well, closer to his squad.
The six of us slowly regrouped as Ari began to fly clumsily away, his enormous wings working hard to keep his heavy body aloft. His squad surrounded him, a bunch of huge, hairy crows gone wrong.
“We’ll be back!” he snarled.
It was really Ari’s voice.
“Boy, you just can’t kill people like you used to,” said Fang.
We hovered in place for several minutes, waiting to see if there would be a second attack. For the moment, we seemed in the clear, and I took the time to catalogue our injuries. Fang was flying awkwardly, his arm pressed against his side.
“I’m fine,” he said curtly, noticing me watching him.
“Angel? Gazzy? Nudge? Report,” I said.
“Leg hurts, but I’m okay,” said the Gasman.
“I’m fine,” said Angel. “And so are Total and Celeste.” Celeste was the small angel-dressed stuffed bear Angel had—well, let’s say—been given at a toy store in New York.
“I’m okay,” said Nudge, but she sounded whipped.
“My nose,” said Iggy, pressing it hard to stop the bleeding. “But no biggie.”
“Okay, then,” I said. “We’re almost to DC, and it should be easy to get lost in another big city. We good to go?”
Everyone nodded, and we swung in a tight, graceful arc to return to our flight path.
“So . . . what was with the flying Erasers?” Iggy said a few minutes later.
“I’m guessing a new prototype,” I said. “But, man, they’re failures. They were having a hard time flying and fighting at the same time.”
“Like they’d just learned to fly, you know?” said Nudge. “I mean, compared to hawks, we look clumsy. But compared to those Erasers, we’re, like, poetry in motion.”
I smiled at Nudge’s description, silently checking out my own aches and pains.
“They were bad fliers,” Angel chimed in. “And in their minds, they weren’t all Kill the mutants, like they usually are. They were like, Remember to flap!”
I laughed at her imitation of a deep, growly Eraser voice. “Did you pick up on anything else, Angel?” I asked.
“You mean besides dead Ari showing up?” Gazzy said, sounding bummed.
“Yeah,” I said. Just then I caught a warm updraft and coasted for a minute, enjoying a feeling of pure bliss.
“Well, none of them really felt familiar,” said Angel, thinking.
Having a six-year-old mind reader came in handy. Sometimes I wished Angel’s mind reads were a little more specific, or that they’d come when we wanted. Then maybe she’d be able to warn us that an Eraser was about to drop in and say hi. But sometimes she just gave me the willies. Angel was starting to control people with her mind—not just Erasers—and I wasn’t sure when she was crossing the line into, say, witchcraft, for instance.
A while later, I realized that Fang wasn’t beside me and I looked around to see him below, maybe twenty feet back. He’d been silent, not unusual for him, but now I could see that his flying was ragged and off-balance. His face seemed paler, and his lips were pressed tightly together.
I dropped back and swooped down next to him.
“What’s going on?” I said in my no-nonsense tone. It had never worked on him before, but a girl had to keep trying.
“Nothing,” he said, but that one word was tight and strained. Which meant he was lying through his teeth.
“Fang—,” I began, and then saw that the arm pressed against his side was dark and wet. Blood. “Your arm!”
“’S not my arm,” he muttered. Then his eyes fluttered shut and he started to lose altitude fast.
“Iggy!” I yelled, as cold panic ripped right through me. Not Fang. Please let Fang be okay. “Over here!”
Then Iggy and I flew beneath Fang, supporting him. I felt Fang’s dead weight on me, saw his closed eyes, and suddenly I felt as if I couldn’t breathe.
“Let’s land, see what’s wrong!” I told Iggy, and he nodded.
We flew hard toward the narrow, rocky shore edging the black ocean. Iggy and I landed awkwardly, Fang limp between us. The younger kids scurried over to help us carry him to a flattish, sandier place.
Stop the bleeding, said the Voice.
“What’s the matter with him?” Nudge asked, dropping to her knees next to Fang.
Checking him out, I saw that Fang’s shirt and jacket were soaked with blood, the dark fabric gleaming wetly. I tried to keep my face calm.
“Let’s just see what we’re dealing with here,” I said steadily, and quickly unbuttoned Fang’s shirt.
Now I saw that the shirt was shredded, and beneath it, so was Fang. Ari had managed to do this . . . obscenity.
Nudge drew in a quick gasp when she saw the damage, and I looked up. “Nudge, you and Gazzy and Angel rip up a shirt or something. Make strips for bandages.”
Nudge just stared at Fang.
“Nudge!” I said more firmly, and she snapped out of it.
“Uh, yeah. Come on, guys. I have an extra shirt here . . . an’ I got a knife. . . .”
The three younger kids moved away while Iggy’s sensitive hands brushed Fang’s skin like butterflies.
“This feels real bad. Real bad,” Iggy said in low voice. �
�How much blood has he lost?”
“A lot,” I said grimly. Even his jeans were soaked with it.
“Jus’ a scratch,” Fang said fuzzily, his eyelids fluttering.
“Shhh!” I hissed at him. “You should have told us you were hurt!”
Stop the bleeding, the Voice said again.
“How?” I cried in frustration.
“How what?” Iggy asked, and I shook my head impatiently.
Put pressure on it, said the Voice. Press the cloth over it and lean on the wounds with both hands. Elevate his feet, Max.
“Iggy,” I said, “lift Fang’s feet. Guys, you got those strips ready?”
The Gasman handed me a bunch, and I quickly folded them into a pad. Placing it over the gaping slices in Fang’s stomach was like putting my finger in a dike to stop a flood, but it was all I had, so I did it. I pressed both my hands over the pad, trying to keep a steady pressure on it.
Under Fang’s side, the sand was turning dark with his blood.
“Someone’s coming,” said Angel.
Erasers? I looked up to see a man jogging along the shore. It was almost dawn, and seagulls were starting to wheel and cry above the water.
The man slowed to a walk when he saw us. He seemed ordinary, but looks could be deceiving, and usually were.
“Kids, you okay?” he called. “What are you doing out here so early?” He frowned when he saw Fang, then looked scared when he figured out what all the dark wet stuff was.
Before I could say anything, he’d whipped out his cell phone and called 911.
I looked down at Fang, then glanced over at Iggy’s tight face. In a second I realized we had to suck it up—Fang was hurt bad. We needed outside help. Everything in me wanted to grab Fang, get the flock, and tear out of here, away from strangers and doctors and hospitals. But if I did that, Fang would die.
“Max?” The Gasman sounded scared. In the distance, the obnoxious wail of an ambulance siren was drawing closer.
“Nudge?” I said, speaking fast. “Take Gazzy and Angel and find a place to hide. We’ll go to the hospital. You stay around here, and I’ll come back when I can. Quick, before the EMT guys get here.”
“No,” said the Gasman, his eyes on Fang.
I stared at him. “What did you say?”
“No,” he repeated, a mulish look coming over his face. “We’re not leaving you and Fang and Iggy.”
“Excuse me?” I said, steel in my voice. Fang’s blood had soaked the cloth and was seeping between my fingers. “I’m telling you to get out of here.” I made myself sound cold as ice.
“No,” Gazzy said again. “I don’t care what happens—you’re not leaving us again.”
“That’s right,” said Nudge, crossing her arms over her skinny chest.
Angel nodded next to her. Even Total, sitting on the sand by Angel’s feet, seemed to bob his head in agreement.
My mouth opened, but nothing came out. I was stunned—they’d never disobeyed a direct order.
I wanted to start shrieking at them, but it was already too late: Two paramedics were running across the sand, holding a body board. The flashing lights of the ambulance made intermittent rosy stripes across all our faces.
“Goveryou,” I said tightly, using a secret language that went back to when we were kept in a lab. It was used in cases of extreme emergency when we didn’t want anyone to understand us. “Allay. Todo ustedes. Egway.”
“No,” said the Gasman, his lower lip starting to tremble. “Neckerchu.”
“What’s happened here?” One of the paramedics dropped down next to Fang, already taking out his stethoscope.
“Accident,” I said, still glaring at Gazzy, Nudge, and Angel.
Reluctantly I removed my hands from the soaked pad. Fang’s face was white and still.
“Accident?” repeated the paramedic, staring at the injury. “With what, a rabid bear?”
“Kind of,” I said tensely. The other paramedic shone a small flashlight into Fang’s eyes, and I realized Fang was truly unconscious. My sense of fear and danger escalated: Not only were we about to enter a hospital, which would freak us all out, but it might end up being for nothing.
Because Fang could die anyway.
The ambulance felt like a jail cell on wheels.
The antiseptic smell inside made my stomach knot with nightmare memories of the School. In the back of the ambulance, I held Fang’s cold hand, which now had a saline drip taped into it. I couldn’t say anything to the flock, not in front of the EMT, and I was too upset, scared, and mad to come up with anything coherent anyway.
Is Fang okay? I silently asked my Voice. Not that the Voice had ever once answered a direct freaking question. It didn’t break the pattern now.
“Uh-oh—he’s fibrillating,” one paramedic said urgently.
He pointed to the portable EKG machine, which was going thump-thump-thump very fast. “Get the paddles.”
“No!” I said loudly, startling everyone. The paramedic held the shock paddles, looking surprised. “That’s always how his heart is. It always beats really fast. That’s normal for him.”
I don’t know if the paramedic would have used the paddles anyway, but just then we roared into the hospital emergency bay and all was chaos.
Orderlies ran out with a gurney, the EMT guys started rattling off Fang’s stats to a nurse. And then Fang was wheeled out of sight, down a hall and through some doors.
I started to follow, but a nurse stopped me.
“Let the doctors see him first,” she said, flipping a page on her clipboard. “You can give me some information. Now, what’s his name? Is he your boyfriend?”
“His name is . . . Nick,” I lied nervously. “Nick, um, Ride. He’s my brother.”
The nurse looked at me, my blond hair and fair skin, and I could tell she was mentally comparing me with Fang—who had black hair, dark eyes, olive skin.
“He’s all of our brother’s,” said Nudge ungrammatically.
The nurse looked at Nudge, who was black, and at the rest of us, none of whom really matched, except Angel and Gazzy, the only true siblings among us.
“We were adopted,” I said. “Our parents are . . . missionaries.” Excellent! I mentally patted myself on the back. Brilliant! Missionaries! “They’re away on a . . . short mission. I’m in charge.”
A doctor in green jammies hurried up to us. “Miss?” he said, looking at me, glancing at all of us. “Could you come with me, right now?”
“Think he noticed the wings yet?” I heard Iggy barely murmur.
I tapped Iggy twice on the back of his hand. It meant, You’re in charge till I get back. He nodded, and I followed the doctor down the hall, feeling like I was on death row.
Walking quickly, the doctor looked at me in that zoo-exhibit way I’ve become familiar with. My heart sank.
All of my worst fears were coming true. I could already see the mesh of a big dog crate closing in around me. Those freaking Erasers! I hated them! They always showed up, and when they did, they destroyed everything.
You have to respect your enemy, Max, said the Voice. Never, ever underestimate them. The second you do, they’ll squash you. Be smart about them. Respect their abilities, even if they don’t respect yours.
I swallowed hard. Whatever.
We pushed through heavy double doors and were in a small, tiled, very scary room. Fang was on a gurney.
He had a tube going down his throat and more tubes attached to his arms. I pressed my hand to my mouth. I’m not squeamish, but cracked, painful memories of the experiments done on us at the School were seeping into my brain, and I wished that my Voice would keep talking, say something really annoying to distract me.
Another doctor and a nurse were standing by Fang. They had cut his shirt and jacket off. The horrible jagged claw wounds in his side were still bleeding.
Now that he had me here, the doctor didn’t seem to know what to say.<br
“Will—will he be okay?” I asked, feeling as if I were choking. Life without Fang was unimaginable.
“We don’t know,” said one of the doctors, looking very concerned.
The woman doctor gestured to Fang. “How well do you know him?”
“He’s my brother.”
“Are you—like him?” she asked.
“Yes.” I set my jaw and kept my eyes on Fang. I felt my muscles tighten, a new, unwelcome flood of adrenaline icing its way through my veins. Okay, first I would slam this little trolley against the nurse’s legs. . . .
“So you can help us,” the first doctor said, sounding relieved. “’Cause we’re not recognizing this stuff. What about his heartbeat?”
I looked at the EKG. The blips were fast and erratic.
“It should be smoother,” I said. “And faster.” I snapped my fingers a bunch of times to demonstrate.
“Can I . . . ?” the doctor asked, motioning his stethoscope toward me. I nodded warily.
He listened to my heart, a look of total amazement on his face.
Then he moved his stethoscope over my stomach, in several places. “Why can I hear air moving down here?” he asked.
“We have air sacs,” I explained quietly, feeling as if my throat were closing. My hands tightened into fists by my sides. “We have lungs, but we also have smaller air sacs. And—our stomachs are different. Our bones. Our blood.” Gee, pretty much everything.
“And you have . . . wings?” the second doctor asked in a low voice. I nodded.
“You’re a human-avian hybrid,” the first doctor said.
“That’s one name for it,” I said tightly. As opposed to, say, mutant freak. “I prefer Avian American.”
I glanced at the nurse, who looked scared and like she’d rather be anywhere but here. I so related.
The female doctor became all business. “We’re giving him saline, to counter the shock, but he needs blood.”
“You can’t give him hu—regular blood,” I said. All the scientific knowledge I’d gleaned over the years from reports and experiments started coming to the surface. “Our red blood cells have nuclei.” Like birds’.