Congratulations. The fact that you’re reading this means you’ve taken one giant step closer to surviving till your next birthday. Yes, you, standing there leafing through these pages. Do not put this book down. I’m dead serious-your life could depend on it.
This is my story, the story of my family, but it could just as easily be your story too. We’re all in this together; trust me on that.
I’ve never done anything like this, so I’m just going to jump in, and you try to keep up.
Okay. I’m Max. I’m fourteen. I live with my family, who are five kids not related to me by blood, but still totally my family.
We’re-well, we’re kind of amazing. Not to sound too full of myself, but we’re like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
Basically, we’re pretty cool, nice, smart-but not “average” in any way. The six of us-me, Fang, Iggy, Nudge, the Gasman, and Angel-were made on purpose, by the sickest, most horrible “scientists” you could possibly imagine. They created us as an experiment. An experiment where we ended up only 98 percent human. That other 2 percent has had a big impact, let me tell you.
We grew up in a science lab /prison called the School, in cages, like lab rats. It’s pretty amazing we can think or speak at all. But we can-and so much more.
There was one other School experiment that made it past infancy. Part human, part wolf-all predator: They’re called Erasers. They’re tough, smart, and hard to control. They look human, but when they want to, they are capable of morphing into wolf men, complete with fur, fangs, and claws. The School uses them as guards, police-and executioners.
To them, we’re six moving targets-prey smart enough to be a fun challenge. Basically, they want to rip our throats out. And make sure the world never finds out about us.
But I’m not lying down just yet. I’m telling you, right?
This story could be about you-or your children. If not today, then soon. So please, please take this seriously. I’m risking everything that matters by telling you-but you need to know.
Keep reading-don’t let anyone stop you.
-Max. And my family: Fang, Iggy, Nudge, the
Gasman, and Angel.
Welcome to our nightmare.
PART 1 FLOCK FRIGHT
The funny thing about facing imminent death is that it really snaps everything else into perspective. Take right now, for instance.
Run! Come on, run! You know you can do it.
I gulped deep lungfuls of air. My brain was on hyper-drive; I was racing for my life. My one goal was to escape. Nothing else mattered.
My arms being scratched to ribbons by a briar I’d run through? No biggie.
My bare feet hitting every sharp rock, rough root, pointed stick? Not a problem.
My lungs aching for air? I could deal.
As long as I could put as much distance as possible between me and the Erasers.
Yeah, Erasers. Mutants: half-men, half-wolves, usually armed, always bloodthirsty. Right now they were after me.
See? That snaps everything into perspective.
Run. You’re faster than they are. You can outrun anyone.
I’d never been this far from the School before. I was totally lost. Still, my arms pumped by my sides, my feet crashed through the underbrush, my eyes scanned ahead anxiously through the half-light. I could outrun them. I could find a clearing with enough space for me to-
Oh, no. Oh, no. The unearthly baying of bloodhounds on the scent wailed through the trees, and I felt sick. I could outrun men-all of us could, even Angel, and she’s only six. But none of us could outrun a big dog.
Dogs, dogs, go away, let me live another day.
They were getting closer. Dim light filtered in through the woods in front of me-a clearing? Please, please… a clearing could save me.
I burst through the trees, chest heaving, a thin sheen of cold sweat on my skin.
I skidded to a halt, my arms waving, my feet backpedaling in the rocky dirt.
It wasn’t a clearing. In front of me was a cliff, a sheer face of rock that dropped to an unseeable floor hundreds of feet below.
In back of me were woods filled with drooling bloodhounds and psycho Erasers with guns.
Both options stank.
The dogs were yelping excitedly-they’d found their prey: moi.
I looked over the deadly drop.
There was no choice, really. If you were me, you’d have done the same thing.
I closed my eyes, held out my arms… and let myself fall over the edge of the cliff.
The Erasers screamed angrily, the dogs barked hysterically, and then all I could hear was the sound of air rushing past me.
It was so dang peaceful, for a second. I smiled.
Then, taking a deep breath, I unfurled my wings as hard and fast as I could.
Thirteen feet across, pale tan with white streaks and some freckly looking brown spots, they caught the air, and I was suddenly yanked upward, hard, as if a parachute had just opened. Yow!
Note to self: No sudden unfurling.
Wincing, I pushed downward with all my strength, then pulled my wings up, then pushed downward again.
Oh, my god, I was flying-just like I’d always dreamed.
The cliff floor, draped in shadow, receded beneath me. I laughed and surged upward, feeling the pull of my muscles, the air whistling through my secondary feathers, the breeze drying the sweat on my face.
I soared up past the cliff edge, past the startled hounds and the furious Erasers.
One of them, hairy-faced, fangs dripping, raised his gun. A red dot of light appeared on my torn nightgown. Not today, you jerk, I thought, veering sharply west so the sun would be in his hate-crazed eyes.
I’m not going to die today.
I jolted upright in bed, gasping, my hand over my heart.
I couldn’t help checking my nightgown. No red laser dot. No bullet holes. I fell back on my bed, limp with relief.
Geez, I hated that dream. It was always the same: running away from the School, being chased by Erasers and dogs, me falling off a cliff, then suddenly whoosh, wings, flying, escaping. I always woke up feeling a second away from death.
Note to self: Give subconscious a pep talk re: better dreams.
It was chilly, but I forced myself out of my cozy bed. I threw on clean sweats-amazingly, Nudge had put the laundry away.
Everyone else was still asleep: I could have a few minutes of peace and quiet, get a jump on the day.
I glanced out the hall windows on the way to the kitchen. I loved this view: the morning sunlight breaking over the crest of the mountains, the clear sky, the deep shadows, the fact that I could see no sign of any other people.
We were high on a mountain, safe, just me and my family.
Our house was shaped like a letter E turned on its side. The bars of the E were cantilevered on stilts out over a steep canyon, so if I looked out a window, I felt like I was floating. On a “cool” scale from one to ten, this house was an easy fifteen.
Here, my family and I could be ourselves. Here, we could live free. I mean literally free, as in, not in cages.
Long story. More on that later.
And of course here’s the best part: no grown-ups. When we first moved here, Jeb Batchelder had taken care of us, like a dad. He’d saved us. None of us had parents, but Jeb had come as close as possible.
Two years ago, he’d disappeared. I knew he was dead, we all did, but we didn’t talk about it. Now we were on our own.
Yep, no one telling us what to do, what to eat, when to go to bed. Well, except me. I’m the oldest, so I try to keep things running as best I can. It’s a hard, thankless job, but someone has to do it.
We don’t go to school, either, so thank God for the Internet, because otherwise we wouldn’t know nothin’. But no schools, no doctors, no social workers knocking on our door. It’s simple: If no one knows about us, we stay alive.
I was rustling around for food in the kitchen when I heard sleepy shuffling behind me.
“Morning, Gazzy,” I said as the heavy-lidded eight-year-old slumped at the table. I rubbed his back and dropped a kiss on his head. He’d been the Gasman ever since he was a baby. What can I say? The child has something funky with his digestive system. A word to the wise: Stay upwind.
The Gasman blinked up at me, his gorgeous blue eyes round and trusting. “What’s for breakfast?” he asked, sitting up. His fine blond hair stuck up all over his head, reminding me of a fledgling’s downy feathers.
“Um, it’s a surprise,” 1 said, since I had no idea.
“I’ll pour juice,” the Gasman offered, and my heart swelled. He was a sweet, sweet kid, and so was his little sister. He and six-year-old Angel were the only blood siblings among us, but we were all a family anyway.
Soon Iggy, tall and pale, slouched into the kitchen. Eyes closed, he fell onto our beat-up couch with perfect aim. The only time he has trouble being blind is when one of us forgets and moves furniture or someth
“Hey, Ig, rise and shine,” I said.
“Bite me,” he mumbled sleepily.
“Fine,” I said. “Miss breakfast.”
I was looking in the fridge with naive hope-maybe the food fairies had come-when the back of my neck prickled. I straightened quickly and spun around.
“Will you quit that?” I said.
Fang always appeared silently like that, out of nowhere, like a dark shadow come to life. He regarded me calmly, dressed and alert, his dark, overlong hair brushed back. He was four months younger than me but already four inches taller. “Quit what?” he asked calmly. “Breathing?”
I rolled my eyes. “You know what.”
With a grunt, Iggy staggered upright. “I’ll make eggs,” he announced. I guess if I were more of a fembot, it would bother me that a blind guy six months younger than I am could cook better than I could.
But I’m not. So it didn’t.
I surveyed the kitchen. Breakfast was well under way. “Fang? You set the table. I’ll go get Nudge and Angel.”
The two girls shared the last small bedroom. I pushed the door open to find eleven-year-old Nudge asleep, tangled up in her covers. She was barely recognizable with her mouth shut, I thought wryly. When she was awake, we called it the Nudge Channel: all Nudge, all the time.
“Hey, sweetie, up and at ’em,” I said, gently shaking her shoulder. “Breakfast in ten.”
Nudge blinked, her brown eyes struggling to focus on me. “Wha’ ?” she mumbled.
“Another day,” 1 said. “Get up and face it.”
Groaning, Nudge levered herself into a crumpled but technically upright position.
Across the room, a thin curtain concealed one corner. Angel always liked small cozy spaces. Her bed, tucked behind the curtain, was like a nest-full of stuffed animals, books, most of her clothes. I smiled and pulled the curtain back.
“Hey, you’re already dressed,” I said, leaning over to hug her.
“Hi, Max,” Angel said, tugging her blond curls out of her collar. “Can you do my buttons?”
“Yep.” I turned her around and started doing her up.
I’d never told the others, but I just loved, loved, loved Angel. Maybe because I’d been taking care of her practically since she was a baby. Maybe because she was just so incredibly sweet and loving herself.
“Maybe because I’m like your little girl,” said Angel, turning around to look at me. “But don’t worry, Max. I won’t tell anybody. Besides, I love you best too.” She threw her skinny arms around my neck and planted a somewhat sticky kiss on my cheek. I hugged her back, hard. Oh, yeah-that’s another special thing about Angel.
She can read minds.
“I want to go pick strawberries today,” Angel said firmly, scooping up a forkful of scrambled eggs. “They’re ripe now.”
“Okay, Angel, I’ll go with you,” said the Gasman. Just then he let rip one of his unfortunate occurrences and giggled.
“Oh, jeez, Gazzy,” I said disapprovingly.
“Gas… mask!” Iggy choked out, grasping his neck and pretending to asphyxiate.
“I’m done,” Fang said, getting up quickly and taking his plate to the sink.
“Sorry,” the Gasman said automatically, but he kept eating.
“Yeah, Angel,” said Nudge. “I think the fresh air would do us all good. I’ll go too.”
“We’ll all go,” I said.
Outside, it was beautiful, clear and cloudless, with the first real heat of May. We carried buckets and baskets as Angel led us to a huge patch of wild strawberries.
She held my hand. “If you make cake, I can make strawberry shortcakes,” she said happily.
“Yeah, that’ll be the day, when Max makes a cake,” I heard Iggy say. “I’ll make it, Angel.”
I whirled. “Oh, thank you!” I exclaimed. “Okay, I’m not a fabulous cook. But I can still kick your butt, and don’t you forget it!”
Iggy was laughing, holding up his hands in denial. Nudge was trying not to laugh, even Fang was grinning, and the Gasman looked… mischievous.
“Was that you?” I asked Gazzy.
He grinned and shrugged, trying not to look too pleased with himself. The Gasman had been about three when I realized he could mimic just about any sound or voice. I’d lost count of how many times Iggy and Fang had almost come to blows over stuff Gazzy had said in their voices. It was a dark gift, and he wielded it happily.
It was just another weird ability-most of us had them. Whatever they were, they sure made life more interesting.
Next to me, Angel froze and screamed.
Startled, I stared down at her, and in the next second, men with wolfish muzzles, huge canines, and reddish, glinting eyes dropped out of the sky like spiders. Erasers! And it wasn’t a dream.
There was no time to think. Jeb had trained us not to think-just to act. I launched myself at an Eraser, spinning and planting a hard, roundhouse kick in his barrel chest. His breath went oof, and the odor was just awful, like raw sewage left out in the hot sun.
After that, it was like a movie, a bunch of superimposed images that hardly seemed real. I landed another blow, then an Eraser punched me so hard that my head snapped around and I felt a burst of blood in my mouth. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Fang holding his own against an Eraser-until two more ganged up on him, and he went down under flailing clawed hands.
Iggy was still upright, but one eye was already swelling shut.
Beyond shock, I scrambled to my feet, then saw the Gasman out cold, lying facedown on the ground.
I leaped toward him, only to be grabbed again. Two Erasers pinned my arms behind my back. Another leaned in, his reddish eyes glinting with excitement, his jaw fully morphed out and snoutlike. He pulled back his hand and curled it into a fist. Then he brought it in hard, punching me in the stomach. An unbelievable pain exploded inside me, and I doubled over, dropping like a stone.