“We couldn’t,” the Gasman began earnestly. “There were Erasers all over the mountain. They were hunting for us. We’d be dog meat by now.”
“When did they start hunting for you?” I asked, startled. “Right after we left?”
“No,” said the Gasman slowly. He slanted a glance at Iggy, who was standing impassively, brushing dust he couldn’t see off his dark pants.
“What?” I said, suspicion starting to rise in me. “When did they start coming after you?”
“Was it-was it after the oil-slick Hummer crash?” the Gasman asked Iggy tentatively.
My eyes widened. Oil-slick Hummer crash?
Iggy rubbed his chin, thinking.
“Or maybe it was more-after the bomb,” the Gasman said in a low voice, looking down.
“I think it was the bomb,” Iggy agreed. ‘That definitely seemed to tick them off.”
“Bomb?” 1 asked incredulously. “Bomb? You guys set off a bomb? Didn’t that tell the Erasers exactly where you were? You should have stayed hidden!”
“They already knew where we were,” the Gasman explained. ‘They’d seen all of us-they knew we were in the area.”
“It was just a matter of time,” Iggy agreed.
I didn’t know what to say. To tell you the truth, I hadn’t actually considered the fact that the Erasers might find our house. I opened my mouth and closed it again, at a loss. Maybe in about twenty years I would get the hang of dealing with boys. And maybe not.
“Well, I’m glad you’re safe,” I said lamely, and heard Fang trying to smother his laughter. I ignored him. “You were right to come here. Smart thinking. Excellent.”
I hugged the Gasman, then Iggy, who was almost five inches taller than I am, I realized. I hugged Nudge again, and she clung to me as I stroked her hair. “It’s okay, sweetie,” I said softly.
Finally, she let me go and I reached out to hug Fang. Fang is not the huggiest person in the world-he turns into an unbending statue, and you just have to do the best you can. Which I did.
Then I held my left hand out in a fist, and the other four instantly stacked their left fists on top of it. We each tapped the other’s hands twice, then threw our arms up in the air.
“To Angel!” I yelled, and their voices echoed mine.
“To Angel! To Angel!”
Then, one by one, we fell off the side of the cliff, opened our wings, and headed for the hated, dreaded School.
“Okay,” I said, once we were high, flying with a steady rhythm. “How about some quick reports?”
“I tried to find my mom,” Nudge said with no warning.
“Whaaat?” My eyes went as wide as they could go. “Your mom?”
Nudge shrugged. “I made Fang go down to Tipisco while we were waiting for you. We found the right address. I saw a woman, and she was my kind of color, but I wasn’t sure. Then the Erasers, including that dirtbag Ari, showed up, so we kicked butt and left.”
It took me a minute to digest this. “So you didn’t talk to her? Umm, your mom?”
“No.” Nudge carefully examined her fingernails, keeping her wings moving steadily.
“Did she look nice?” I was consumed with curiosity. Parents were something we all obsessed about, talked about constantly, cried about-if truth be told.
“I’ll tell you about it later,” Nudge said offhandedly, so I knew it had gone badly.
I narrowed my eyes at Gazzy and Iggy. “We know what you’ve been up to,” I said. Gazzy gave me his sweet, abashed smile. That kid.
Time for news of my own.
“I think I have a tracer chip implanted in me,” I said baldly, feeling a coaster current in my face. I angled my wings and glided. “I’m not positive, but it showed up on an X-ray, and that’s what it looked like.”
Jaws dropped. Everyone stared at me in horror.
“You had an X-ray?” Fang looked incredulous.
I nodded. “Details later. If I do have this chip, it explains all the Erasers everywhere-but not why it’s taken them four years to hunt us down. And I don’t know if any of you have one,” I added, seeing the question on Iggy’s face.
Everyone was quiet, flying with their thoughts and fears.
Then, “Max? Do you think there’s still a chance?” The Gasman was forcing himself to be strong. Another reason I like that kid.
“I don’t know. I hope so,” I said honestly. Honesty is always good, except when it’s better to lie. Like to protect them. “I know I’ve delayed us by two days. I’m really sorry about that. I just did what I felt I had to do. But we’ve come this far-there’s no turning back. We’re going after Angel, no matter what.”
There were a few moments of silence, as if we were all gathering our courage again. I know I was, trying to pull my strength into a tight, hard ball that would carry me through the rest of the day, as we headed back to our worst nightmare.
Anybody’s worst nightmare, believe me.
I don’t think I’ve mentioned this, but all of us in the flock have an inborn sense of direction. I don’t know how it works. We just always know which way we’re going. So we rocketed west-northwest for a good two hours. Many of the hawks whose cliff Fang and Nudge had shared stayed with us, flying in loose formation. Our new best pals.
“We learned some stuff from the hawks,” Fang said, seeing me watch them. “Some banking moves, how they communicate, stuff like that.”
“They’re really cool,” Nudge added, flying closer to me. “They, like, use the tips of their feathers to help aim them, and we tried it, and it was amazing. A little thing like that makes such a difference. Like, I practically didn’t even know I could move those feathers.”
“Can you teach us what you learned?” I asked.
“Yeah, sure,” said Fang.
We ate our last granola bars in midair. We flew over desert, mountains, rivers, scrubby plains. I only looked down when I had to, and forced myself not to think about Ella or her mom, who I missed like a real mom.
I watched the hawks, imitating their moves, banking, tailing, soaring, diving-all the things they were doing, minus the dead rodents. I was exhilarated to be included among those fierce, awesome birds. When they split away from us at the edge of their territory, I was sad to see them go.
Just as I was starting to feel shaky from lack of sugar, our markers came into view. Signaling to the others, I headed downward, aiming for a small wood on the backside of a foothill.
It was a pretty unpopulated area, and I couldn’t see much activity, except for a strip mall about a mile away.
We landed and looked around. I rubbed my aching shoulder. “Okay, we need food. And a street map wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world.”
“The School isn’t going to show up on any map,” Fang said.
“I know. But we know pretty much where it is- there’ll be a blank space on the map, but it would still help us to find roads to get there,” I said.
Fifteen minutes of hiking brought us to the back of the strip mall. It was a decent-sized place, with a dollar store, gas station, a freestanding bank machine, dry cleaner, and a beauty salon. No food, except at the gas station store.
“Need to get your hair done?” Fang asked, and I elbowed him. Like I’d ever had my hair done in my life. Mostly I whacked it shorter with the kitchen scissors when it got too annoying.
“Well, what now?” the Gasman asked. “Should we keep going?”
“Let me think,” I muttered, looking the mall up and down. Hitchhiking was out of the question-we’d end up murdered in a ditch or something. It was at least ten miles to the School. We could fly it, but I didn’t want to approach from the air. So we’d have to walk, but it would , take a while, and we were already hungry.
“Okay,” I said finally. “Looks like we’ll have to-”
I was interrupted by the squeal of a car pulling in. Without speaking, we, drew back into a clump of bushes by the side of the building. A fancy gray car with a silver hood ornament roared up by the little bank machine.
The window opened, and loud music spilled out. A slick-looking guy leaned toward the machine, a cell phone up to his ear.
“Shut up, you idiot!” he was saying. “If you hadn’t lost your card, I wouldn’t need cash!”
The man stuck his arm out and pushed his card into the machine. Quickly, he punched in his code, then waited. “That’s what I get for trusting you with anything!” he snapped into the phone. “You can’t handle getting dressed in the morning!”
“Jerk,” Nudge whispered next to me. I nodded.
Like magic, the machine spit some green bills through a slit, and the man snatched them and started counting. The next moment, a big black pickup truck screeched into the parking lot, way close to the fancy car. Its rear tires spun and spit rocks, and we could hear little pinging noises as they hit the cushmobile.
We shrank back farther into the woods. Goose bumps rose on my arms, and my breath caught in my throat. Erasers? The chip I had. Should I run now, getting the Erasers to follow me and leave the flock alone?
“He’s going to go ballistic,” Fang predicted quietly.
Veins practically popping out of his neck, the jerk leaned out his window and yelled a bunch of swear words, including a new one I tucked away in my brain for future use, if necessary.
The darkened window of the pickup rolled down, and I inhaled silently.
“What’d you say, dipstick?” Ari asked with a creepy smile.
I swallowed hard, my muscles tightening. I put my hand on Gazzy’s shoulder. “Shhh. Shhhh.”
The jerk in the gray car’s eyes bugged out, and the next thing we knew, he had stomped on his gas pedal. His car leaped forward.
Ari laughed like a maniac, and the black pickup peeled out too, spraying gravel. Five heartbeats later, we could barely hear the roar of the two engines racing down the road.
“He gets around,” said Fang quietly.
“Was Ari’s hair green?” I asked, confused.
“Yep,” Nudge said, unusually brief.
The five of us looked at one another-well, not Iggy, so much-then at the ATM.
It was beeping quietly. We glanced around. There were people inside the stores, but the machine faced away from them. Without saying a word, we dropped low and slipped across the parking lot.
None of us had ever used one of these. For some strange reason, the mad scientists at the School had neglected to set up bank accounts and trust funds for us.
Fortunately, the machine was designed to be used by idiots.
Do you want another transaction? it asked in orange letters.
“Get cash,” Fang advised unnecessarily.
“You think?” I said snidely.
“Hurry,” the Gasman said.
I hit the withdrawal button.
Please enter the amount you wish to withdraw.
I hesitated. “Sixty dollars?” That would buy a lot of food, right?
“He was a total jerk,” said Fang. ‘Take him for all he’s got.”
I grinned. “You are evil. I like that.” I worked my way through the account balances, and we all stared and whistled.
“Oh, yeah, oh, yeah,” Nudge sang, doing a little dance. “We’re ri-ich, we’re gonna buy a ca-ar, oh, yeah.”
You might not know this, but ATMs have a built-in limit of how much dough they’re willing to give you at one time. So our plans to buy our own country crumbled. However, it was willing to give me two hundred bucks.
Once we punched in our access code again, for security purposes.
“Oh, no,” I groaned. “Did anyone see it?”
“I heard it,” said Iggy slowly.
“I think if we put in the wrong code more than twice, the whole thing shuts down and swallows the card,” said Fang.
“Can you do it?” I asked Iggy.
“Um, I’ll try…” Iggy hesitantly put his hand over the keypad. His sensitive fingers oriented themselves to the keys.
“It’s okay, Ig,” said Fang. “Just give it your best shot.” Sometimes the Fangster is incredibly supportive, just not with me.
Iggy punched in five numbers, and we all held our breath.
Access denied. Please check your PIN and try AGAIN.
“Try again,” I said tensely. “You’ve got the best ears on the planet.”
Once again, Iggy’s pale hand hovered over the keyboard. He concentrated and punched in five numbers.
Nothing. My heart sank down into my stomach.
Then the machine started whirring, and soon a stack of twenties shot out.
“Yes!” said Fang, punching the air. “Freaks rule.”
“Grab it and go!” I said as Nudge began pulling out bills and stuffing them into her pockets. We were turning to run when the machine beeped again.
Thank you for your business. Please take your card.
“Okay, thank you,” I said, grabbing the card. Then we ran back to the woods. Well, we ran and flew.
For some reason, I didn’t feel too bad about taking that guy’s money. Maybe because he seemed like such a jerk. We were like his karma getting back at him.
I don’t know. I do know that I wouldn’t have stolen even ajar of peanut butter from Ella and her mom. Never. Nothing.
“Too bad we couldn’t get more,” Fang said, counting the money.
“Let’s go back to the gas station and buy a bunch of food,” Nudge urged.
I shook my head. “People there may have already seen us. We’ve got to get out of here.”
While we’d hidden in the woods, a red van had pulled up behind one of the stores. A young guy had unloaded some stuff from the back of it, then headed inside. Before the door swung shut, we saw him punch a time card.
So he was at work for at least a couple hours, till his first break.
And there was his van, just sitting there.
Fang and I looked at each other.
“Money from a jerk is one thing,” I said. “A car from just a guy is something else.”
“We’d only need to borrow it for a few hours,” Fang said. “We could leave him some money as a rental fee.”
“Are we stealing that car?” the Gasman asked. “Let’s.”
I frowned. “No. We’re sort of thinking about borrowing it.” On the one hand, I really didn’t want to become a teenage criminal. On the other hand, every minute that ticked by was another minute closer to Angel’s being the number one dissection lesson for a bunch of rabid geneticists.