In the next second, Ari grabbed my crate and swung me up next to her on the cart, letting me drop with a crash that made me bite my lip hard. Like I needed another head wound. He grinned through the bars, letting me see his long yellow fangs. “Strong, like bull,” he bragged.
“Your dad must be so proud,” I said snidely, and he angered instantly, punching my cage so hard I almost toppled over.
“Easy,” murmured a whitecoat, earning herself a murderous snarl from Ari.
Then two more Erasers loaded Nudge and Fang on next to us. With Ari trailing behind, looking angry, they pushed us through wide double doors. The hall outside was painfully bright and overlaid with the smells of floor cleaner and office machines.
Clutching the bars of my crate, I peered out, trying to recognize a doorway, an office-anything that would tell me what section of the School we were in. The Erasers poked their fingers through our bars, trying to scratch us, taunting, literally rattling our cages. I wondered how much strength it would take to grab an Eraser finger and snap it.
We took a sharp left turn and got pushed through more double swinging doors, and then we were outside. I inhaled eagerly, but even outdoors at the School the air was tainted and foul.
Squinting, I shifted from side to side in my cage, looking for landmarks. Behind us was the lab building. Ahead of us, maybe a hundred yards away, was a low redbrick building. We were in the yard in back of the School.
The yard I used to look out at, in the dead of night, from our lab window.
The yard where Erasers were trained to bring down prey and tear it limb from limb.
Which was probably why they were laughing.
The funny thing about facing imminent death is that it really snaps everything else into perspective.
Like right now. My choices were to either give in and let them kill all of us or fight back with everything I had.
I chose the second one, ’cause I’m just funny that way.
In the split second I had to ponder what form my “fighting to the death” would take, a shadow blotted out the sun.
“Got your running shoes on, piggy?” Ari asked, pushing his hairy fingers through the bars of my cage and wiggling them. “Feeling like a little exercise? Wanna race? Wanna play food fight? You’re the food!”
I grinned evilly. Then I leaned over and chomped hard on Ari’s fingers. He sucked in a deep breath, then yelled in awful pain. I gathered my strength and bit down harder, until I actually felt my teeth break his skin, tasted his horrible blood. But you know what? I didn’t care. Seeing Ari hurt was worth it.
After the car wreck, biting anything hurt majorly, but I shut out the pain and put every ounce of my fury into my aching jaws. Ari was shaking my cage, slamming it with his other hand, and my head was getting snapped around like a paddleball.
But I hung on, thinking pit bull thoughts.
The whitecoats were yelling at me now. Still screaming, Ari began savagely kicking my cage. Suddenly, I unclenched my teeth and let go. His next kick smashed my crate sideways. It rolled over a couple of times.
I landed upside down, right next to Angel’s crate door. Being smarter than the average bear, it took me only a few seconds to unlatch it.
“Go!” I ordered. “Go! Don’t argue!”
She edged her door open and scrambled out just as Ari slammed down on top of my crate in a murderous rage. I braced myself as best I could, but he was tearing into the crate, roaring with pain. The crate tumbled sideways on the grass, and for just a split second, I caught a glimpse of the sky. It was streaked with dark, fast-moving storm clouds. Then I was batted upside down again, making me feel like laundry in a dryer.
Ari was screaming furiously, calling me awful names and shaking his bleeding fingers so that flecks of gore spattered me through the bars.
But I was smiling now. My first really good smile in days.
I knew what the storm clouds were.
They were hawks-led by Iggy and the Gasman, who else? And they were storming the School to save us.
Call me crazy, but there’s just something cheering about seeing huge raptors tear into Eraser flesh.
Just as Ari, ignoring the latch in his murderous rage, finally succeeded in ripping it open, he was dive-bombed by a hawk with razor-sharp talons and a huge grudge against wolves. As I popped out, I saw him swatting at it, screaming like a big weenie as the bird sliced into the back of his neck.
“Angel! Get out of here!” I yelled, racing to her.
Two whitecoats were chasing her, but I got there first. I elbowed one out of the way, grabbed Angel’s waist, and threw her up into the sky.
Then I managed to unlatch Fang’s crate. The whitecoats fell on me, but a regular grown-up versus an angry Max doesn’t stand a chance. I backhanded one across the jaw, feeling teeth knock loose. The other I kicked right under his double chin. His head jerked back, and he dropped like a brick.
Fang burst out of his cage, then grabbed a whitecoat and slammed him against the cart. He drew back a fist and punched, looking cold and determined. The white-coat’s eyes rolled back, and he crumpled.
Getting to Nudge took no time. She tumbled out of her crate just as Iggy and the Gasman led their hawk swarm in for round two.
Close by, one of the female whitecoats was struggling to her feet. I darted toward her, then jumped into the air, my right leg already swinging out in a huge roundhouse kick. I hit her in the chest, wham! She sank to her knees, unable to breathe, a stunned look on her face.
“Think of this as an occupational hazard, you witch!” I snarled, then spun to check on the rest of the flock.
Fang was venting his hostility on Ari, who crouched defensively on the ground, his arms wrapped around his head. Fang smashed him sideways with a kick, then punched the side of Ari’s head. For good measure, Fang hoisted a crate and crashed it down on the wicked Eraser. Now it looked as though Ari had been caught in a cage.
I shot into the air, feeling exhilarated as fierce hawks rushed past me. I counted four whitecoats, Ari, and three other Erasers on the ground, two Erasers still standing. One of them pulled out a gun, but promptly had his wrist muscles slashed by an unforgiving beak. Ooh. That had to hurt.
“Fang!” I bellowed. “Iggy! Gazzy! Let’s go! Go, go, go!”
Almost reluctantly, they pulled high into the air. Iggy moved through the hawks. By some unspoken message, he communicated that our battle was over. Those beautiful birds swerved gracefully and rocketed upward, making my ears ring with their wild calls.
“One, two, three, four, five,” I counted, rounding up my own flock and urging them higher. “Fang! Get Angel!” Angel had managed to stay airborne all this time, but she was sagging and losing altitude. Immediately, the Gasman flew to one side, Fang to the other, and they held her as they rose.
More whitecoats and Erasers streamed out of the building, but we were too high and moving too fast for them to hurt us. So long, cretins, I thought. School is out-forever.
That voice tugged my gaze downward.
Jeb stood there. He must have gotten caught in the hawk attack, because his white coat was torn, his shoulder red with blood. “Maximum!” he yelled again. The expression on his face wasn’t anger-it was something that I didn’t recognize.
“Max! Please! This was all a test! Don’t you get it? You were safe here! This was only a test! You have to trust me-I’m the only one you can trust! Please! Come back-let me explain!”
I looked at him, the man who had saved my life four years ago, taught me practically everything I knew, comforted me when I cried, cheered me on when I fought, held my hair back when I was heaving my Wheaties, the closest thing I ever had to a dad.
“I don’t think so,” I said tiredly. Then I pushed down hard and let my wings carry me far away, up to where my family was waiting.
Two hours later, Lake Mead came into view, along with the cliff top covered with the huge hawks who had rescued us. The six of us, together again, landed gratefully on the scraped-out ledge.
Angel collapsed onto the cool, dust-covered floor of the cave. I sank down next to her, stroking her hair.
“I thought I would never see you again,” she said, and a single tear rolled down her face. “They did all kinds of stuff to me, Max. Terrible. Terrible. Terrible.”
“I would never quit trying to get you back,” I told her, feeling like my heart was going to overflow. “There’s no way I would ever let them keep you. They would have to kill me first.”
“They almost did,” she said, her voice breaking. I gathered her to me and held her for a long time.
“This is how it should be forever,” Iggy said. “All of us together.”
I looked up to where Fang was leaning against a wall, facing the canyon. He felt my gaze and turned. I held out my left fist. Almost smiling, he came and stacked his left fist on top of it. One by one, the others joined us, and I disentangled my right hand from Angel’s hair and tapped the backs of theirs.
“I’m just… so thankful,” I said. Nudge looked at me with faint surprise. Okay, so I’m not the most mushy person ever. I mean, I love my family and I try to be nice to them, but I don’t go around telling them how much I love them all the time.
Maybe I should fix that.
“I mean,” I said, feeling really self-conscious, “this made me realize how much we all need one another. I need all of you. I love you all. But five of us, or three of us, or two of us isn’t us. Us is all six.”
Fang was examining his sneakers with great interest. Iggy was nervously tapping long white fingers against his leg. But my little guys got what I was saying.
Nudge threw her arms around my neck. “I love you too, Max! I love all of us too.”
“Yeah, me too,” said the Gasman. “I don’t care if we have our house, or a cliff ledge, or a cardboard box. Home is wherever we all are, together.” I hugged him, and he nestled against me, looking happy.
Later on, we all slept, and awoke in the night to heavy rain, a miracle in the desert. We scrambled up to the ledge and let the rain pour down on us, washing off blood, dirt, and memories. Even raindrops hitting my nose hurt, but I held my arms open to the sky and felt clean and cold and shivery.
I shivered, and Fang briskly rubbed my shoulders. I looked at him, his eyes as dark as the desert sky. “Jeb knows our house,” I said very softly.
Fang nodded. “Can’t ever go back. Guess we need a new home.”
“Yes,” I said, thinking. I closed my eyes and opened my mouth slightly, inhaling the chill, rain-washed air. I opened my eyes. “East,” I said, feeling the Tightness of it. “We’ll go east.”
PART 4 NEW YAWK, NEW YAWK
Blue, blue sky, above the clouds. The air is colder, but the sun is warmer up this high. The air is thin and light, like champagne. You ought to try it sometime.
I felt happy. The six of us were homeless, aimless, on the run-and might be for the rest of our lives, however long or short they might be. But…
Yesterday we’d escaped the hounds of hell at the School, after all. We’d had the pleasure of seeing our friends the hawks do some slice ‘n’ dice on the white-coats and the Erasers.
We had Angel back.
I glanced over at her-she was still a mess. It would take her a while to heal after what they had done to her. Every time I thought about it, chains of anger tightened around me, till I felt like I couldn’t breathe. Sensing me looking at her, she turned and smiled. One whole side of her face was green and yellow-a healing bruise.
“God!” Nudge said, speeding up a bit to catch my slipstream. “It’s just so, so… you know?” She swooped down gracefully, then rose again and pulled alongside.
“Yeah, I know,” I said, grinning at her.
“I mean, the air, and we’re up so high, and no one’s after us, and we’re all together, and we hit IHOP for breakfast.” She looked over at me, her brown eyes bright and untroubled. “I mean, God, we’re just up here, and it’s so cool, and down below kids are stuck in school or, like, cleaning their rooms. I used to hate cleaning my room.”
Back when she had a room. I sighed. Don’t think about it.
Then, in the next second, I choked. I think I made some kind of sound, then a blinding, stunning pain exploded behind my eyes.
“Max?” Nudge screamed.
I couldn’t think, couldn’t speak, couldn’t do a thing. My wings folded like paper, and I started to drop like a hailstone.
Something was incredibly wrong.
Tears streamed from my eyes, and my hands clutched my head to keep the pain from splitting my skull wide open. The only semicoherent thought I had was Please let me go splat soon, so this freaking pain will stopstopSTOP.
Then Fang’s arms, ropy and hard, scooped me up, and I felt myself rising again. My wings were mushed between us, but nothing mattered except that my brain had been replaced by a bursting nova of raw agony. I had just enough consciousness to be embarrassed at hearing myself moan pitifully.
Death would have been so great just then.
I don’t know how long Fang carried me. Slowly, slowly, the pain leached away. I could almost open my eyes a slit. I could swallow. Cautiously, wincing, I let go of my head, half expecting huge shards of skull to come away in my hands.
I blinked up at Fang, his dark eyes looking down at me. He was still flying and carrying me.
“Man, you weigh a freaking ton,” he told me. “What’ve you been eating, rocks?”
“Why, is your head missing some?” I croaked. His mouth almost quirked in a smile, and that’s when I knew how upset he’d been.
“Max, are you okay?” Nudge’s face was scared, making her look really young.
“Uh-huh,” I managed. I just had a stroke or something.
“Find a place to land,” I told Fang. “Please.”
An hour or so later, I thought that I had recovered-but from what? We were making camp for the night.
“Yo, watch it!” I said. “Clear more of that brush away- we don’t want the whole forest to burn down.”
“Guess you’re feeling like your old self,” Fang murmured, kicking some dead branches away from where Iggy Was lighting a fire.
I shot him a look, then helped Nudge and Angel surround the pile of kindling with big stones. Why was the blind guy playing with matches, you ask? Because he’s good at it. Anything to do with fire, igniting things, exploding things, things with fuses, wicks, accelerants… Iggy’s your man. It’s one of those good/bad things.
Twenty minutes later, we were exploring the limits of what could be cooked on sticks over an open fire.