“That’s like Grand Theft Auto,” the Gasman said helpfully. “I saw it on TV. It’s popular with kids.”
“Better ‘borrow’ it soon,” advised Iggy. “I hear a chopper.”
I made an executive decision. And yeah, I know-my karma’s going to come back and get me, too.
In movies, people always “borrow” cars by yanking some wires out from under the dash and connecting them. But the real way it works involves a screwdriver and the starter thingy, under the hood. My personal ethics prevent me from giving you more information. That’d be just what I need: a rash of car thefts across America, committed by dedicated readers.
I don’t think so.
Anyway, I did the engine thing while Iggy sat in the driver’s seat, pressing the gas. The motor grumbled into life, I slammed the hood, and we jumped into the van.
My heart was pounding at about two hundred beats a minute.
Then I just stared at the controls.
“Oh, my God,” said Fang. “None of us has ever driven.”
It wasn’t like him to have missed this important detail.
“I’ve seen people drive on TV,” 1 said, trying to sound confident. “How hard could it be?” I knew about the whole neutral, park, drive thing, so I put it into D.
“Okay, guys,” I said. “Here goes nothing.”
You might not know this, but cars have a separate parking brake, not just the foot pedal one. That brake is often not immediately obvious to the na*ed eye.
Attempting to drive a car before you find and release the parking brake is like trying to drag a Saint Bernard into a bathtub. But enough on that.
“Okay, okay, we’re doing okay,” I said twenty minutes later, after I finally found and released the parking brake. I felt like I was at the helm of a huge, clumsy runaway elephant.
I was sweating and about to jump out of my skin with anxiety about driving, but I tried to look way confident and calm. “I mean, it’s not as good as flying, but it beats the heck out of walking!”
I smiled bravely over at Fang to see him giving me a steady look. “What?”
“Could you take it easy on the hairpin turns?” he said.
“I’m getting better,” I said. “I just had to practice.”
“I didn’t know a van could go up on two wheels like that,” Nudge said. “For so long.”
“I don’t want to barf in a borrowed car,” the Gasman said.
I pressed my lips together and focused on the road. In-grates. “We need to turn east in about five hundred yards,” I muttered, peering out the van window.
A half mile later, I pulled over and rested my head against the steering wheel. “Where the heck is the road?” 1 bellowed in frustration. ‘There’s no freaking road there!”
“You’re going by your own directional senses,” Fang pointed out.
“And there can’t be roads everywhere you feel like there should be a road,” Iggy added reasonably.
I wanted to smack them both.
Sighing, I pulled out onto the turnoff-less road and did a U-ey.
“I’ll just have to take a less efficient route,” I said. I hated the sense of time ticking by, of not knowing whether Angel was still alive. And worse, 1 hated knowing I was getting closer and closer to the School, where everything bad that had ever happened to us had taken place. It felt like I was driving toward certain death, and it was hard to make myself do that.
“Argh!” After yet another unexpected turn that led us away from where we should have been going, I pulled over again and punched the steering wheel several times. Every one of my muscles was tense from driving and worry. I had a bad headache. Lately, I’d been having a lot of headaches. Gee, I wonder why?
“It’s okay, Max,” the Gasman said anxiously.
“Is she hitting the steering wheel?” Iggy asked.
“Look,” said Fang, pointing to a sign. “There’s a town up ahead. Let’s go there, get something to eat, and find an actual map. ‘Cause this wandering thing ain’t workin'”
Bennett was a small, almost cute town. I sat up tall in the driver’s seat and frowned, trying to look older. There were several places to eat. I turned into a parking lot slowly and then oh-so-carefully edged the van toward the back of the lot, away from everyone else.
I turned off the engine, and Nudge and Gazzy sprang for the door. “We’re alive!” yelled the Gasman.
“Wait!” I told them. “Look, we’re really close to the School. This might feel like the middle of nowhere, but really, Erasers could be anywhere and anyone. You know that. So we have to be careful.”
“We have to eat,” Nudge said, trying not to whine. It was hard on her-she seemed to burn through calories faster than anyone, except maybe the Gasman.
“I know, Nudge,” I said gently. “We’re going to. I’m just saying be really careful. Be on guard, be ready to run, okay? Anybody we see could be an Eraser.”
They nodded. I flipped down the visor so I could check myself in the mirror, and something small and heavy dropped into my lap.
I froze, my breath stuck in my throat. What-?
Gingerly, I looked down. It wasn’t a grenade. It was a key ring. One key was for this van. I looked at it blankly.
“Well, that’ll simplify things,” Fang said.
“I want my room to smell just like this.” Iggy inhaled deeply as the scents of flame-broiled burgers and hot french fries wafted around us.
“It would be an improvement,” I agreed, reading the menu board. My stomach felt like it was trying to digest itself. I was shaky with tension and adrenaline, and felt like I was going to come apart at the seams.
The fast-food restaurant was crowded and jarringly noisy. All of us felt nervous when we were around regular people. We shuffled into line, trying to be inconspicuous. As far as I could tell, no one here was an Eraser.
But of course Erasers looked pretty normal-until they started morphing and tried to bite your freaking head off.
“I don’t eat meat anymore,” Nudge announced. At my uncomprehending stare, she said, “Not after seeing the hawks go through rabbits and snakes and other birds. It’s just icky.”
Fang stepped up and ordered three double cheeseburgers, a chocolate shake, a soda with caffeine and sugar, three fries, three apple pies.
“Feeding a crowd?” the woman behind the counter asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” Fang said sweetly.
Yeah, him and all his split personalities, I thought. I turned back to Nudge.
“Okay,” I said, reaching deep into my well of leaderly patience. “But you still need lots of protein.”
Iggy ordered the same thing as Fang, and I paid for him. Fang waited for him to get his food and unobtrusively led him to the most private booth.
“Um, let’s see,” I said, stepping up. “Could I have two fried-chicken sandwiches, two double cheeseburgers, four fries, six apple pies, two vanilla shakes, one strawberry shake, and then two triple cheeseburgers, only hold the hamburger?”
“You mean, just cheese on the bun? No meat?”
“Yes. That would be great.” I looked over at Nudge, who nodded.
I was about to faint from hunger, and smelling all the food was killing me. Standing beside me, the Gasman was shifting from foot to foot, looking eager. It seemed like a lifetime before we got our three loaded trays, paid, and joined Fang and Iggy in the back.
Another glance around showed happy families, kids blowing straw wrappers, women talking together, teens hanging out. I sat down warily, and Nudge slid in next to me. The Gasman squeezed in next to her.
Am I tough? Am I strong? Am I hard-core? Absolutely.
Did I whimper with pathetic delight when I sank my teeth into my hot fried-chicken sandwich? You betcha.
Nudge was tearing into her cheese bun things, Fang was on his second burger, Iggy could hardly breathe through all the food in his mouth, and the Gasman was wolfing fries by the fistful. We probably looked like starving orphan children. Hey! We were starving orphan children. For several minutes all you could hear were disgusting chomping noises. I had a sudden flashback to the fun, civilized meals with Ella and her mom, where we used napkins and good manners and talked about normal things.
Great. Now I was choking up and having trouble swallowing.
I’m not sure when it happened, but slowly I became aware that my neck muscles were tensing. I glanced at Fang, who was looking at me sideways while he ate his french fries. / knew that look.
Acting tres casual, I glanced around again. The couple of families who’d been sitting close by were gone. Now it looked as if a bunch of male models had suddenly gotten the munchies. They were surrounding us, tables of them.
All good-looking, thick-haired guys with big, pretty eyes and the voices of angels.
Oh, man. My stomach dropped like a wheelbarrow full of lead.
I gave Fang an almost imperceptible nod and glanced back at the fire exit door behind him. He blinked to show he understood. Then he tapped Iggy’s hand.
“Nudge,” I said under my breath. “Gazzy. Don’t look up. In three seconds, jump over Fang and out that exit door.”
Giving no sign they had heard me, Nudge and Iggy kept chewing. Nudge casually took a sip of her shake. Then, in a burst, she leaped up, sprang off our table, and practically crashed through the fire door. The Gasman was practically glued to her back.
I was so proud of them.
The alarm started clanging, but I was right behind them-and Fang and Iggy were on my heels. We made it to the van before the Erasers were out the door.
Inside, I jammed the key into the ignition and cranked the engine. Erasers were swarming into the parking lot, already starting to become wolflike.
I stomped on the gas and reversed fast, crying out when we felt the thunk of an Eraser being hit. Then I yanked the gear stick into D and we roared over the curb, right through the shrubs that lined the parking lot. The tires squealed as I careened out into traffic, causing a bunch of angry honking from other cars.
I cut right through a gas station on the corner, narrowly avoiding hitting several cars. On the other side, I roared back into traffic.
“Max!” Nudge screamed, but I had seen the semitrailer too, and swerved out of its way at the last second. Behind me, I heard the crunch of metal as the truck scraped a car. Then I was weaving in and out of traffic, wishing I knew how to drive better, wishing we had stolen something besides a van.
“It’s so bulky!” I cried in frustration as we teetered on two wheels again just turning a corner. Okay, turning fast. But still.
“It’s a van,” Fang said, as though blaming me for not stealing a race car.
We sped out of town-I had to get away from all this traffic. My adrenaline was pumping, my arms felt like corded cables on the steering wheel. We had to ditch this van.
“I’m gonna stop!” I yelled over the noise of the engine. “Jump out and get into the air as fast as you can!”
“Okay!” the flock yelled back.
A glance in the rearview mirror showed three black cars following us, catching up to us. They were going a lot faster than we were. I had to buy time.
Gritting my teeth, I swung off road suddenly, right into a field of corn. We plowed through the dry stalks, wincing as they smacked the windshield. I tried to zigzag as best I could, and then a bit of light up ahead made me hopeful for a road.
I didn’t see anything in the rearview mirror, and the sound of crunching cornstalks was too loud for me to hear other engines. Had we lost them? And yes, here was a road! Excellent!
The van tumbled heavily out onto the road, with bone-jolting bumps. As soon as the front tires hit asphalt, I gunned the motor again-
Just as a sedan leaped out in front of us.
I hit it head-on at sixty miles an hour.
Note to self: Disable the air bags on the next car you steal.
The thing about airbags is that when you hit something at fifty or sixty miles an hour, they inflate with enough raw force to slam you back against your seat like a rag doll, possibly breaking your face. Which is what this one had done to me, I concluded, trying to stem the gush of blood from my nose.
“Report,” I called weakly.
“Okay here,” Fang said next to me. His neck was scraped raw by the seat belt, which had almost decapitated him.
“Okay here,” Nudge said from the backseat, sounding young and scared. I craned around to see her. She was pale, except where her forehead was bruised from hitting Fang’s seat. Her eyes widened with shock when she saw my bloody face.
“It’s just my nose,” I quickly assured her. “Head wounds always bleed a lot. Look, it’s already stopping.” A lie.
“I feel like, like pudding,” Iggy groaned. “Pudding with nerve endings. Pudding in great pain.”
“I feel sick,” the Gasman said, his face white, lips pale and bloodless.
All around us, windows smashed, and we jumped and threw our arms over our faces. I saw a gun hammering at the glass, then hairy hands with ragged claws popped the doors open.
There was no time even to get a good kick in-Fang and I were hauled out of the van and thrown to the ground.
“Run!” I bawled, then hissed in a breath as my nose took another jarring blow.
I glanced up in time to see the rear doors of the van open and Iggy and the Gasman shoot into the air. A rush of pure joy made me beam, then gag as fresh blood ran into my mouth.
I spit it out as the Erasers roared with fury and started shooting at the boys. But Iggy and Gazzy continued to soar into the air. Yes, yes, yes!
A kicking and shrieking Nudge was yanked from the back of the van and tossed down next to me. Tears were in her eyes, and I reached out to hold her.
An Eraser kicked me hard with his hand-sewn Italian boot. Ow!
“Tag. You’re it,” Ari cracked, and the others laughed, almost dancing with monstrous excitement and glee.
“It’s almost like you don’t want to go back to School,” he went on, showing his razor-sharp yellow teeth, dripping Eraser drool on me.
There were five Erasers and three of us. I’m weirdly, incredibly strong for my size, but Ari outweighed me by about 160 pounds, and he kept his booted foot pressed hard against my forehead. I wanted a shot at him-just one lethal, brain-splattering shot.
I met Fang’s eyes, which were dark and expressionless, and then Nudge’s. I tried to give her a reassuring smile, but since my face was one big gore-fest, it didn’t have the cheering effect I’d hoped for.
Then we all heard the horrible whup, whup of a chopper headed our way, and the Erasers started to shout and wave their arms.