“What a touching scene,” Ari called down at me. “We’re all going home. Just like old times.”
Angel was alive. As long as she was, I could deal with just about anything else.
I knew she was alive because I could see her in the pitiful cage next to mine. If we pushed our fingers through our bars as hard as we could, we were an inch away from actually touching each other.
“At least they gave you a big crate,” she said in a small, raspy voice. “I’m in a medium.”
My throat closed up. That she was still trying to be brave just rocked my world. I felt ashamed for taking so long to get here, ashamed for letting the Erasers catch us, ashamed for being a failure, even as a freak.
“It’s not your fault,” she said, reading my thoughts. She looked just terrible. Her eyes were hollow and smudged with huge purple shadows. One whole side of her face was a bruise going yellow and green at the edges. Angel looked thin and dry, like a leaf, her bones as delicate as stems. Her feathers were limp and dirty.
Across the aisle from us, Nudge and Fang were in crates of their own. Nudge looked really shaky, trying to get her fear under control but losing the fight. Fang sat with his hands clasped around his knees, not moving. He’d smiled at Angel when he’d first seen her, but mostly he looked cool, removed, distant. He was retreating into himself, the only place left to retreat to.
“I’m sorry, Max,” Angel whispered, her eyes troubled. “This is all my fault.”
“Don’t be dumb,” I told her, sounding Elmer Fuddish because of my clogged and broken nose. “It could happen to any of us. And it’s my fault that Fang, Nudge, and I got caught.”
All around me, the smells of cold metal and antiseptic were awakening horrible memories I had buried deep a long time ago. Flashes of light, pain, and fear kept popping inside my head, making me feel a little crazy. My nose had finally stopped bleeding, but it hurt. My headache was back-big-time-and I was seeing flashes of the strangest images. What was that all about?
“Max, there’s something I have to tell you.” Angel started to cry.
“Shh,” I said soothingly. “It can wait. Just rest. Try to feel better.”
“No, Max, it’s really important-”
A door opened, and loud footsteps sounded on the linoleum tile. Angel’s eyes were panicked in her bruised little face. Fury ignited in me that anything, anyone, could make a little girl so afraid.
I coiled my muscles, narrowing my eyes and putting on my fiercest look. They were going to be sorry they ever picked Angel to mess with. They were going to be sorry they’d ever been born.
My hands clenched into fists. I crouched in my crate, ready to spring at whoever opened it so I could rip their lungs out. I’d start with Ari, the creep of creeps.
Angel was hunched over now, crying silently, and inside I started freaking, wondering what on earth they had done to her. I felt totally wired on adrenaline, just nuts.
A pair of legs stopped right in front of my crate. I could see the edges of a white lab coat brushing the knees.
He bent down and looked into my crate with a gentle, rueful expression.
My heart almost stopped, and I fell backward off my heels.
“Maximum Ride,” said Jeb Batchelder. “Oh, I’ve missed you so much.”
I’m hallucinating, I thought dazedly. I’m having an out-of-body experience.
Everything else in my vision faded away. I could see only Jeb, smiling at me through the bars of my dog crate.
Jeb had been the only parentlike person I’d ever had. He had kidnapped the six of us four years ago, stolen us away from this freak show and hidden us in the mountains in our house. He’d helped us learn how to fly- none of us had ever been allowed enough space to try before. He’d fed us, clothed us, and taught us survival skills, how to fight, how to read. He’d told jokes and read stories and let us play video games. He’d made us dinner and tucked us in at night. Whenever I’d felt afraid, I’d remind myself that Jeb was there and that he would protect us, and then I’d always feel better.
Two years ago, he’d disappeared.
We’d always known he’d been killed. We’d known that he would have died rather than disclose our location. That he died trying to protect us. That kind of thing.
For the last two years, we’d all missed Jeb so much, with a horrible, aching, wailing pain that just wouldn’t stop. You know-like if your dad or mom died. It had been so awful in the beginning, when he hadn’t come home, and then when we’d had to accept that he never would.
Dead or alive, he’d been my hero. Every day. For the last four years.
Now my eyes were telling me that he was one of them. That maybe he’d been one of them all along. That everything I’d ever known or felt about him had been a rotten, stinking lie.
Now Angel’s words, her fear, her tears, made horrible sense. She’d known.
I was dying to look at her, at Fang or Nudge, to see their reactions.
I just wouldn’t give him that satisfaction.
Like a door slamming shut, everything in me that had loved and trusted Jeb closed down. In its place rose new feelings that were so powerful and full of hate that they scared me.
Which is saying something.
“I know you’re surprised,” he said with a smile. “Come on. I need to talk to you.”
He unlatched my dog door and held it open. In a nanosecond, I had a plan of action: not to act. Just to listen and watch. To absorb everything and give out nothing.
Okay, as a plan, it wasn’t the blueprint of Westminster Abbey, but it was a start.
Slowly, I climbed out of my crate. My muscles groaned when I stood up. I didn’t look at any of the flock when I passed, but I put my right hand behind my back, two fingers together.
It was our sign that said “Wait.”
Jeb had taught it to us.
Jeb and I walked past a bank of computers, out of sight of the others. A door in the far wall led into a smaller, less lablike room furnished with couches, a table and chairs, a sink, microwave.
“Sit down, Max, please,” he said, gesturing to a chair. “I’ll get us some hot chocolate.” He said it casually, knowing it was my favorite, as if we were in the kitchen back home.
“Max, I have to tell you-I’m so proud of you,” he said, putting mugs in the microwave. “I just can’t believe how well you’ve done. No, I can believe it-I knew you could do it. But seeing you so healthy, so powerful, such a good leader, well, it just makes me so proud.”
The microwave beeped, and he set a steaming mug on the table in front of me. We were in a top-secret facility in the middle of Death Valley, officially called “freaking nowhere” on any map, and yet he managed to produce marshmallows, plopping two into my cup.
I looked at him steadily, ignoring the hot chocolate, which was making my stomach growl.
He paused as if to give me time to reply, then sat down across from me at the table. It was Jeb-my brain finally accepted the inescapable truth. I recognized the fine pink scar on his jawline, the slight bend to his nose, the tiny freckle on his right ear. This was not his evil twin. It was him. He was evil.
“You must have so many questions,” he said. “I don’t even know where to start. I just-I’m just so sorry about this. I wish I could explain-wish I could have explained two years ago, to you, if no one else. I wish I could explain what I’d give just to see you smile again.”
How about your head on a stick?
“But in time, Max, it will all come out, and you’ll understand what’s happening. That’s what I told Angel. I told her that everything is a test, even when you don’t know it. That sometimes you just have to do what you have to do and know it will all be clearer later. All of this has been a test.” He waved his hand vaguely, as if to encompass my entire experience.
I sat there, conscious that my sweatshirt was crusted with blood, that my face hurt, that I was hungry again- quelle surprise-and that I had never, ever wanted to kill anyone more, not even last summer when Iggy had shredded my only, favorite pair of non-Goodwill pants to make a fuse long enough to detonate something from fifty feet away.
I said nothing, had no expression on my face.
He glanced at me, then at the closed door. “Max,” he said, with a new tone of urgency in his voice. “Max, soon some people will come in to talk to you. But I need to tell you something first.”
That you are the devil incarnate?
“Something I couldn’t tell you before, something I thought I’d have time to prepare you for later.”
He looked around, as if to make sure no one else could hear. Guess he was forgetting all our surveillance lessons, about hidden mikes and heat sensors that can see through walls, and long-distance listening devices that could pick up a rat sneeze from a half mile away.
“The thing is, Max,” he said, tons of heart-wringing emotion in his eyes, “you’re even more special than I always told you. You see, you were created for a reason. Kept alive for a purpose, a special purpose.”
You mean besides seeing how well insane scientists could graft avion DNA into a human egg?
He took a breath, looking deep into my eyes. I coldly shut down every good memory I had of him, every laugh we’d shared, every happy moment, every thought that he was like a dad to me.
“Max, that reason, that purpose is: You are supposed to save the world.”
Okay, I couldn’t help it. My jaw dropped open. I shut it again quickly. Well. This would certainly give weight to my ongoing struggle to have the bathroom first in the morning.
“I can’t tell you much more than that right now,” Jeb said, looking over his shoulder again. “But I had to let you know the size of what we’re dealing with, the enormity, the importance. You are more than special, Max. You’re preordained. You have a destiny that you can’t imagine.”
Maybe I can’t imagine it because I’m not a complete nutcase.
“Max, everything you’ve done, everything you are, everything you can be, is tied into your destiny. Your life is worth the lives of thousands. The fact that you are alive is the most important thing anyone has ever accomplished.”
If he was expecting a gushing response, he was gonna wait a long time.
He sighed heavily, not taking his eyes off me, disappointed at my lack of excitement over hearing that I was the messiah.
“It’s okay,” he said with sad understanding. “I can barely imagine what you must be feeling or thinking. It’s okay. I just wanted to tell you myself. Later, others will come to talk to you. After you’ve had a chance to think about this, to realize what it could mean for you and the others. But for now, don’t say anything to the rest of the flock. It’s our secret, Maximum. Soon the whole world will know. But not just yet.”
I was getting very good at saying nothing.
He stood up and helped me from my chair, a solicitous hand under my elbow that made my flesh crawl.
We walked in silence back to the row of crates, and he unlatched mine and waited patiently for me to crawl inside. Such a gentleman.
Latching it behind me, he leaned down to give me one last meaningful look. “Remember,” he whispered. “Trust me. That’s all I ask. Just trust me. Listen to your gut.”
Well, how many times had I heard him say that? I wondered contemptuously as he walked away. Right now my gut was telling me I wanted to take his lungs out with a pair of pliers.
“You okay?” Angel asked anxiously, pressing her little face to the side of her cage.
I nodded, and met Fang’s and Nudge’s eyes across the way.
“I’m okay. Everyone hang tough, all right?” Nudge and Angel nodded, concerned, and Fang kept staring at me. I had no idea what he was thinking. Was he wondering if I was a traitor? Was he wondering if Jeb had managed to turn me-or if I had been in league with Jeb from the beginning?
He would find out soon enough.
Hours went by. In the dictionary, next to the word stress, there is a picture of a midsize mutant stuck inside a dog crate, wondering if her destiny is to be killed or to save the world.
Okay, not really. But there should be.
If you can think of anything more nerve-racking, more guaranteed to whip every fiber in your body up in a knot, you let me know.
I couldn’t tell the others anything-not even in a whisper. If it amused Jeb to pretend that closed doors and lowered voices protected one against surveillance, that was fine. But I knew better. There could be cameras and mikes hidden anywhere, built into our crates. So I couldn’t go over a plan, offer reassurance, or even freak out and say, “Oh, my God! Jeb is alive!”
When Angel whispered, “Where are Gazzy and Iggy?” I just shrugged. Her face fell, and I looked hard at her. They got away. They’re okay.
She read my thoughts, gave a tiny nod, then gradually slumped against the side of her crate, worn out.
After that, all I could do was send meaningful glances.
My headache was back, and when I shut my eyes all these images danced on the backs of my eyelids.
At one point a whitecoat came in and dumped another “experiment” into the crate next to mine. I glanced over, curious, then quickly turned away, my heart aching. It looked enough like a kid to make me feel sick, but more like a horrible fungus. Huge pebbly growths covered most of its body. It had few fingers and only one toe, stuck onto the end of a foot like a pod. Senseless blue eyes looked out at me, blinked.
Sometime in the next half hour, I realized the “experiment” was no longer breathing. It had died, right next to me.
Horror-struck, I looked across at Angel. She was crying. She knew.
Finally, much later, the door to the lab opened. A crowd came in, and I heard human voices and Eraserlike croons and laughs. They wheeled a big flatbed cart to our aisle.
“I count only four,” a man said in a prissy, concerned voice.
‘Two bought it,” Ari said, sounding triumphant. “Back in Colorado. This is what’s left.” He kicked my cage, making the bars rattle. “Hi, Max. Miss me?”
“Is the Director quite sure about this?” a woman asked. “It seems a shame-there’s so much more we can learn from them.”
“Yes,” said a third whitecoat. “It’s just too risky. Given how uncooperative the little one has been.”
I caught Angel’s eye and gave her a thumbs-up, proud of her resistance. She sent a weak grin back at me.
Then her cage was grabbed roughly and swung onto the cart like luggage. She winced as her bruised cheek hit the side, and fury flamed in me again.