“I know this is all confusing, Angel,” Jeb said gently.
“I can’t explain everything now. It will all become clear soon, though, and then you’ll understand.”
“Suurrre.” Angel put every bit of pain at her betrayal into that one word.
“The thing is, Angel,” Jeb went on earnestly, “life itself is a test. It’s all a test. Sometimes you just have to get through it, and then later on everything makes more sense. You’ll see. Now, go ahead and eat. I promise it’s okay. I promise.”
Like she would believe any of his promises.
“I hate you,” she said.
Jeb didn’t look surprised. Maybe a bit sad. “That’s okay too, sweetheart. That’s perfectly okay.”
“I. Am. In. Heaven,” I said, inhaling deeply.
Dr. Martinez laughed. “Watched cookies never brown,” she teased me.
To make my Mayberry holiday complete, the three of us had actually made chocolate chip cookies-from scratch-after dinner.
I ate enough raw cookie dough to make myself sick, and then I got high off the fumes of gently baking cookies. I could see the chocolate chips melting through the oven window.
Note to self: Show Nudge and Angel how to make choc-chip cookies.
If I ever saw Angel again.
Ella’s mom took the first cookie sheet out of the oven and slid in the second. I could hardly wait for the cookies to cool and, seizing one, took a bite, almost burning my tongue.
Incoherent murmurings of pleasure escaped my lips as I chewed slowly, savoring every bite. Ella and her mom watched me, identical smiles lighting their faces.
“You’d think you’d never tasted homemade cookies before,” Ella said.
“Haven’t,” I mumbled, swallowing. It was the best thing I had ever tasted in my entire life. It tasted like home.
“Well, have another,” said Dr. Martinez.
“I have to take off tomorrow,” I told Ella that night when we were getting ready for bed.
“No!” she said, distressed. “I love having you here. You’re like a cousin. Or my sister.”
Funny how something like that can make you feel worse. “People are depending on me-it’s really important.”
“Will you come back to visit?” she asked. “Ever? ”
I looked at her helplessly. It was the first time I had ever connected with a nonflock human being-besides Jeb.
It had been really cool. The best.
Plus her mom was so awesome. She was strict about some things-don’t leave your socks lying around-but so not strict about other things, like calling the cops about my bullet wound. Unlike any other parent I’d ever heard of, she didn’t press for details, didn’t lecture, and believed what I said. She actually accepted me. Like she accepted Ella, for who she was.
It was enough to give me a psychotic break-if I let myself dwell on it.
“Probably not,” I said, hating the hurt look on Ella’s face. “I just-don’t think I’ll be able to. If I ever could, I would, but-”
I turned away and started brushing my teeth. Jeb had always said to think with your brain, not your emotions. He’d been right, as usual. So I put all my feelings in a box and locked it.
Nudge still couldn’t accept that Max and the others were dead. It was impossible-she couldn’t deal with it-so she forced herself to think other thoughts.
Nudge guessed it was kind of sad that, right now, this scraped-out shallow ledge in the middle of a desert cliff actually felt cozy and comfortable to her. She lay on her back, feet up against the wall, bruised legs out straight, examining the strata of colors-cream, tan, pink, peach-in the solid rock overhead. The sun out there was hot, but it was cool in here, and breezy.
It just goes to show you, she thought. You think you need all your stuff, your favorite cup, your best blanket, soap, your parents-and then you realize that all you really need is to be where the Erasers can’t get you.
She couldn’t get over Ari. He’d been a little kid the last time she’d seen him. She remembered how he’d seemed to get on Max’s nerves, always following her around. Now he was a full-grown Eraser, the worst of them all. How could that have happened in only four years?
Half an hour ago, she and Fang had heard the very distant chop-chop of a helicopter. They’d pulled as far back into the cave as they could, flattening themselves against the cool back wall. After twenty minutes of silence, Fang had decided it was safe and gone to look for food. She hoped he came back soon.
Their house was burned to cinders. Every one of her friends except Fang was dead. She and Fang were really on their own-maybe forever.
Fang flapped up the side of the cliff, landing almost silently on their ledge. Nudge felt a warm flow of relief.
“Can I interest you in a bit of raw desert rat?” he asked, patting his windbreaker pocket.
“Oh, no!” Nudge said, horrified.
He shrugged off his windbreaker and brushed some dust off his black T-shirt. Popping something in his mouth, he chewed and swallowed loudly. “Can’t get fresher,” he said cajolingly.
“Ugh!” Nudge shuddered and turned away from him. Rat! Flying like the hawks was one thing; eating like them was not going to happen.
“Okay, then,” said Fang. “How about some kabobs? You get the vegetables.”
Whirling, Nudge saw Fang unfolding a foil packet. Instantly, the smoky, meaty smell of cooked beef and vegetables filled her nose.
“Kabobs!” she said, hurrying to sit by Fang. “Where did you get them? You didn’t have time to go all the way to town. Oh, my gosh, they’re still hot.”
“Let’s just say some campers are going to be a little surprised,” Fang said drily, pushing the meat off into one pile, the onions and peppers into another.
Nudge took a bite of grilled pepper. It was warm, smoky, tender-utter heaven.
“Now, this is food,” she said, closing her eyes.
“So I guess we have to decide whether to keep looking for Max or go try to save Angel,” said Fang, eating the chunks of beef.
“But the Erasers said everyone else was dead. Doesn’t that mean Angel and Max too?” Nudge asked, feeling a sad weight settle on her again.
“No way to tell,” Fang said. “The thing is, if Max isn’t here, is it because she’s dead? How would they have found her? Angel…” He paused. “Well, we knew they had Angel. That’s probably all over by now.”
Nudge held her head in her hands. “I can’t think about it.”
“I know. But what are your-” He stopped, squinting, looking off into the distance.
Shading her eyes, Nudge looked out too. Way far off, she could barely make out two dark splotches. Well, so what? Just more hawks.
She sat back and slowly ate her last chunk of onion, then licked the foil they’d been wrapped in. Fang had to come up with a plan-that was all there was to it.
But Fang kept looking out at the sky.
Nudge frowned. The two dark splotches were bigger now, closer. They must be mighty big hawks. Maybe they were eagles!
Suddenly, Fang stood and fished in his pocket for his small metal mirror. Holding out his hand, he caught the last bits of sunset in the mirror, flashing their reflection outward.
He flashed it, then stopped, flashed, then stopped.
The hawks became larger, closer. Now they were definitely spiraling downward in their direction.
Please don’t let them be flying Erasers, Nudge thought in sudden panic. She’d realized they were too big, too awkward to be real raptors.
Then her mouth dropped open. Half a minute later, Iggy and the Gasman landed clumsily on the ledge, knocking rocks and dust everywhere. Nudge just stared at them, so happy she could hardly believe it.
“You aren’t dead,” she said.
“No. You aren’t dead either,” said Iggy irritably. “How about just ‘hello’?”
“Hi, guys,” said the Gasman, brushing dust out of his hair. “We couldn’t stay home-there’s Erasers all over the mountain. So we decided to come here. Anybody have a problem with that?”
The next morning I pulled on my new sweatshirt. I’d tried out my wing. It worked, though it was incredibly stiff and sore.
I was relieved to go, to get back in the air. I knew Fang and Nudge were going to kill me. I knew I had let Angel down. But there was no way I could have not done what I did. I wouldn’t be Max.
To tell you the truth, not being Max sometimes had its appeal.
Dr. Martinez pushed a small backpack at me. “It’s an old one-I don’t use it,” she said quickly, knowing I wanted to refuse any more help. “Please take it.”
“Well, since you said ‘please,'” I muttered, and she laughed.
Ella was watching the ground, her shoulders hunched. I tried not to look at her either.
“If you ever need anything, anything at all, please call us,” said Ella’s mom. “I put my phone numbers inside the pack.”
I nodded, even though I knew I would never use the numbers. I had no idea what to say. But I had to try.
“You guys helped me,” I said stiffly, “and you didn’t even know me. It would have been bad if you hadn’t.” How’s that for eloquent, eh? I sounded like freaking Tarzxm.
“You helped me,” Ella pointed out. “And you didn’t even know me. You got hurt because of me.”
I shrugged in that endearing way I have. “Anyway- thanks. Thanks for everything. I really appreciate it.”
“You’re welcome,” said Ella’s mom, smiling kindly. “We were glad to do it. And good luck-with whatever happens.”
I nodded, and then-get this-they both hugged me at once, like a Max sandwich. Once again, I felt the horror of tears starting in my eyes, and I blinked them back quickly. But I let them hug me, and sort of patted Ella’s elbow, which was all I could reach. I won’t lie to you-it felt really good. And really awful at the same time. Because what’s worse than knowing you want something, besides knowing you can never have it?
I disengaged myself gently and opened the door. Outside, it was sunny and warm. I gave a little half-wave, hoping it was jaunty, then headed out into the yard. I’d decided to give them a sort-of present. I felt they deserved it.
Would they think I looked goofy? What did we-the flock-look like to outsiders? I had no idea, and I didn’t have time to start caring. I adjusted my sweatshirt and the backpack. I turned. Ella and her mom were watching me with wide, curious eyes.
I ran a few steps and leaped upward, unfurling my wings, feeling them fill with air, wincing slightly as my damaged muscles pulled and strained. Fully extended, my wings were thirteen feet across, speckled brown and splotched with white.
A hard downstroke, ouch, then upward, ouch, then down. The familiar rhythm. Ella’s face was awed and delighted, her hands clasped together. Dr. Martinez was wiping her eyes, her smile wobbly.
A minute later, I was way high, looking down on Ella’s little house, at the two small figures waving hard up at me. I waved back, then banked, feeling the familiar joy of flying, the freedom, the speed. I soared off toward the horizon, heading northwest, on my way to meet Nudge and Fang, who I hoped would miraculously still be where I’d told them to be.
Thanks, Ella, I thought, refusing to feel sad. Thank you both, for everything.
Angel, I’m on my way at last.
PART 3 SCHOOL-WHAT COULD BE SCARIER THAN THAT?
After about half an hour, I felt like I’d worked most of the kinks out of my muscles. I knew tomorrow I’d be horribly sore, but right now I felt okay, and right now was what mattered. I flew hard and fast, coasting on air currents whenever I could.
This time, I didn’t look down.
An hour later, I was approaching the meeting place, praying that Nudge and Fang had waited for me.
I was two days late, and I wouldn’t blame them for giving up on me, but I didn’t want to think about the possibility that they had decided to rescue Angel on their own.
When I got close to the meeting place, I started circling big, losing altitude slowly while examining the ground, the cliffs, the shadows. Nothing.
I flew the length of a canyon, looking for signs, but was disappointed again. Panic made my throat tighten. I’d been so stupid.
Oh, God, what if they had never made it here? What if-
A shadow fell across me, and I glanced up, thinking, helicopter! But it wasn’t-just a scattered flock of hawks above me, wheeling through the sky.
I frowned and angled myself upward. Several of the hawks were oddly large and misshapen. But they were flying right along with the others and seemed part of their flock. I squinted and focused, all the time gaining altitude.
My heart swelled-there were four way-too-big hawks, all right. Except hawks usually weren’t quite as awkward as these four. And hawks didn’t usually wear sneakers.
They had waited for me, all right, and they were safe. Relief and joy flooded through my body and soul. Now we would go find Angel, and then the flock would be whole again.
And yes, I did say soul.
They spotted me, and bright, goofy smiles lit the faces of the Gasman and Nudge.
Iggy of course didn’t see me at all, and Fang wasn’t a big smiler. He caught my eye and motioned with his head, over toward a cliff. It had been only two days since I’d seen him, but he seemed to be flying with a new grace and power, his fourteen-foot wingspan glinting darkly in the sun. As we got closer, Nudge squealed happily, brushing her wing against mine. “Max! Max! I can’t believe it! Can I believe it?”
Fang landed first, almost disappearing into nothing. It was only when I was about twenty feet from the cliff that I saw he had tucked into a shallow ledge scraped out of the cliff face. It was an excellent waiting place.
One after another, we flew in and landed, scurrying toward the back of the cave so others could come in after us. We were together. We five were safe, at least.
“Max!” Nudge cried, rushing over to hug me. Her thin arms gripped me tight, and I hugged her back, scratching her wings where they joined her shoulders, the way she liked. “We were so worried-I didn’t know what had happened to you, and we didn’t know what to do, and Fang said we were going to eat rats, and-”
“Okay, okay. Everything’s okay,” I told her. I met Fang’s eyes over her shoulder and mouthed Rats? silently. A flicker of a grin crossed his lips and then was gone. I looked down into Nudge’s big brown eyes. “I’m just so glad to see you safe,” I told her. I turned to the Gasman and Iggy. “What are you two doing here? Why didn’t you stay home?”