“This isn’t half bad,” the Gasman said, eating a curled piece of roasted bologna off his stick.
“Don’t do bananas,” Nudge warned glumly, shaking some warm mush off into the bushes.
“S’mores,” I cooed, mashing a graham cracker on top of the chocolate-and-marshmallow sandwich I had balanced on my knee. I took a bite, and pure pleasure overwhelmed my mouth.
“This is nice,” the Gasman said happily. “It’s like summer camp.”
“Yeah, Camp Bummer,” said Fang. “For wayward mutants.”
I nudged his leg with my sneaker. “It’s better than that. This is cool.”
Fang gave me an “if you say so” look, and turned his bacon over the fire.
I stretched out with my head against my balled-up sweatshirt. Time to relax. I had no idea what that pain had been, but I was fine now, so I wasn’t going to worry about it.
What a lie. My knees were practically knocking together. The thing is, the “scientists” back at the School had been playing with risky stuff, combining human and nonhuman DNA. Basically, the spliced genes started to unravel after a while, and the organisms tended to, well, self-destruct. The flock and I had seen it happen a million times: The rabbit-dog combo had been such bad news. Same with the sheep-macaque monkey splice. The mouse-cat experiment had produced a huge, hostile mouse with great balance and an inability to digest either grain or meat. So it starved to death.
Even the Erasers, as successful as they were, had a huge downside: life span. They went from embryo to infant in five weeks, and from infant to young adult in about four years. They fell apart and died at around six years, give or take. But they were being improved all the time.
How about us? How long would we last? Well, as far as I knew, we were the oldest recombinant beings the School had ever produced.
And we could devolve and expire at any time.
And maybe it had started happening to me today.
‘Max, wake up,” said Angel, tapping my knee.
“I’m awake.” I pulled myself up, and Angel crawled over and climbed into my lap. I put my arms around her and stroked her tangled blond curls away from her face. “What’s up, Angel?”
Her large blue eyes looked solemnly into mine. “I’ve got a secret. From when I was at the School. It’s about us. Where we came from?”
“What do you mean, sweetie?” I asked softly. What fresh hell is this?
Angel twisted the hem of her shirt in her fingers, not looking at me. I clamped down on any thoughts I had, so Angel couldn’t pick up on my alarm.
“I heard stuff,” she said, almost whispering.
I gathered her closer. When the Erasers had taken her, it felt like someone had chopped my arm off. Getting her back had made me whole again.
“Stuff people said or stuff people thought?” I asked.
“Stuff people thought,” she said. I noticed how tired she looked. Maybe this should wait till tomorrow.
“No, I want to tell you now,” she said, obviously reading my thoughts. “I mean, it’s just stuff I sort of heard. I didn’t understand all of it-chunks were missing. And it was from a couple different people.”
“From Jeb?” I asked, my throat tight.
Angel’s eyes met mine. “No. I didn’t get anything from him at all. Nothing. It was like he was dead.”
Angel went on. “They kept doing tests, you know, and they were all thinking about me, about the flock, like, wondering where you were and if you would try to come get me.”
“Which we did,” I said proudly.
“Yeah,” she agreed. “Anyway, I found out that another place has information about us-like where we came from.”
My brain snapped awake. “Whaat?” I said. “Like our life span? Or where they got our DNA?” Did I even want to know our life span? I wasn’t sure.
“Well, spill it!” Iggy, who must have been awake and listening to us, demanded in that sensitive way of his. I shot him a look-which was useless, of course. And now everyone was awake.
“They have files on us,” Angel said. “Like, the main files. They’re in New York. At a place called the Institute.”
“The Institute?” I asked. “In New York City or upstate New York?”
“I don’t know,” Angel said. “I think it was called the Institute. The Living Institute or something.”
Fang was looking at me, still and intent. I knew he had already decided to go check it out, and I nodded briefly.
“There’s more,” Angel said. Her small voice wavered, and she pressed her face into my shoulder.
“You know how we always talk about our parents but didn’t really know if we were made in test tubes?” Angel said. I nodded.
“I saw my name in Jeb’s old files,” Nudge insisted. “I really did.”
“I know, Nudge,” I said. “Listen to Angel for a minute.”
“Nudgeisright,” Angelblurted.”Wedidhave parents-real parents. We weren’t made in test tubes. We were born, like real babies. We were born from human mothers.”
I think if a twig had snapped right then, we all would have leaped ten feet into the air.
“You’ve sat on this since yesterday?” Iggy sounded outraged. “What’s the matter with you? Just because you’re the youngest doesn’t mean you have to be the dumbest.”
“Look,” I said, taking a breath, “let’s all calm down and let Angel talk.” I brushed her curls out of her face. “Can you tell us everything you heard?”
“I only got bits and pieces,” she said uncomfortably. “I’m sorry, everybody. I’ve just felt yucky… and it all makes me really, really sad too. I don’t wanna cry again. Awhh, I’m crying again.”
“It’s okay, Angel,” Fang said in his low, quiet voice. “We understand. You’re safe now, here with us.”
Nudge looked as if she was about to explode, and I sent her a glance that said, Okay, just hang on. The Gasman edged closer to me and took hold of my belt loop for comfort. I put one arm around him and held on to Angel with the other.
“It sounded like,” Angel began slowly, “we came from different places, different hospitals. But they got us after we were born. We weren’t test-tube babies.”
“How did they get us?” Fang asked. “And how did they get the bird genes into us?”
“I didn’t really understand,” said Angel. “It sounded like-like they got the genes into us before we were born somehow.” She rubbed her forehead. “With a test? An amino… ammo…”
“Amniocentesis?” I asked, cold outrage creeping down my spine.
“Yeah,” said Angel. “That’s it. And somehow they got the bird genes into us with it.”
“It’s okay, just keep going,” I said. I could explain it to them later.
“So we got born, and the doctors gave us to the School,” Angel went on. “I heard-I heard that they told Nudge’s mom and dad that she had died. But she hadn’t.”
Nudge made a gulping sound, her large brown eyes full of tears. “I did have a mom and dad,” she whispered. “I did!”
“And Iggy’s mom-”
I saw Iggy tense, his acute hearing focused on Angel’s small voice.
“Died,” Angel said, and took in a shuddering breath. “She died when he was born.”
The look of stunned grief on Iggy’s expressive face was awful to see. I didn’t know what to do, what to say. I just wanted to take away everyone’s pain.
“What about us?” the Gasman asked. “How could they get both of us, two years apart?”
Angel wiped her eyes. “Our parents gave us to the School themselves,” she said, and started crying again, her thin shoulders shaking.
The Gasman’s mouth dropped open, his eyes as round as wheels. “What?”
“They wanted to help the School,” Angel said, gasping out the words through her sobs. “They let them put bird genes in us. And gave us away for money.”
My heart was breaking. The Gasman tried so hard to be brave, but he was just a little kid. He leaned against me, burying his face in my shirt, and burst into tears.
“Did you hear anything about me? Or Max?” Fang was stripping the bark off a stick. His tone was casual, but his shoulders were tight, his face stiff.
“Your mom thought you died, like Nudge,” Angel said. “She was a teenager. They don’t know who your dad was. But they told your mom you died.”
The stick Fang was holding snapped in two, his knuckles white in the darkness. I saw pain in his dark eyes. Pain and sadness, and the reflection of our fire.
I cleared my throat. “What about me?” I’d always dreamed of having a mom. Even-and this is so awesomely embarrassing that I’ll never admit I said it-hoping that someday she would show up and be so wonderful and marry Jeb. And take care of all of us. I know. Pathetic, isn’t it?
Angel blinked up at me. “I didn’t hear anything about you, Max. Nothing. I’m real sorry.”
“I can’t believe it,” the Gasman said for the thirtieth time. “They gave us away. They must be sick. Sick jerks. I’m glad I don’t know them.”
“I’m sorry, Gazzy,” I said for the thirtieth time, digging down deep for my last shred of patience. I totally, totally felt for him, but I had reached my limit about thirteen times ago.
Anyway, I ruffled his fine, light hair and hugged his shoulders. His face was dirty and streaked with tears. I wished we could just go back to our mountain house. The Erasers knew where it was, had swarmed all over it. We could never go back. But right now, I so wished I could just stick Gazzy under a hot shower, then tuck him into bed.
Those days were gone, baby.
“Angel? It’s late, sweetie. Why don’t you try to get some sleep? Actually, we could all use an early night.”
“I’m going to sleep too,” said Nudge, her voice still thick from crying. “I just want this day to end.”
I blinked. That was the shortest sentence I’d ever heard her utter.
The six of us gathered around. I held out my left fist, and Fang put his on top of it, and everyone else did too. When we had a stack, we tapped the backs of one another’s fists with our right hands.
We always do it, wherever we are. Habit. Angel curled up in her spot, and I covered her with my sweatshirt. The Gasman lay down next to her, and then Nudge settled down too. I knelt next to her and tucked her collar around her neck.
I almost always go to sleep last-like I have to make sure everyone else is down. I started to bank the fire, and Fang came and helped me.
“So maybe you were hatched after all,” Fang said. The six of us had always teased one another, saying we’d hatched out of eggs.
I laughed drily. “Yeah. Maybe so. Maybe they found me in a cabbage patch.”
“In a way, you’re lucky,” he said quietly. “Not knowing is better.”
I hate the way he can read my mind, since he doesn’t even have mind-reading abilities.
“It leaves all the possibilities open,” he went on. “Your story could be worse, but it could also be a hell of a lot better.”
He sat back on his heels, watching the fire, and then extended his wings a bit to warm them. “A teenager, jeez,” he said in disgust. “She was probably a crack addict or something.”
He never would have said that if the others were awake. Some things we trusted only each other to understand.
“Maybe not,” I said, covering the fire with ashes. “Maybe she was a nice kid who just made a mistake. At least she wanted to actually wait the nine months and have you. Maybe she would have kept you or let a really nice family adopt you.”
Fang snorted in disbelief. “On the one hand, we have a mythical nice family that wants to adopt me. On the other, we have a gang of insane scientists desperate to do genetic experiments on innocent children. Guess which hand I get dealt?”
Tiredly, he lay down next to Gazzy and closed his eyes, one arm over his forehead.
“I’m sorry, Fang,” I mouthed silently.
I lay down myself, reaching out my foot to touch Nudge, putting an arm around Angel. I was too tired to worry about my brain attack earlier. Too tired to wonder how we would find the Institute in New York. Too tired to care about saving the world.
“Yo!” I said loudly. “Up and at ’em!”
You’ll be relieved to hear that my brief descent into weary lack of caring was totally gone by the time the sun fried my eyelids the next morning.
I got up, started the fire going again-because that’s the kind of selfless, wonderful leader I am-then started affectionately kicking the flock awake.
There was much grumbling and groaning, which I ignored, instead carefully balancing a pan of Jiffy Pop popcorn over a branch on the fire. Popcorn for breakfast! Why not? It’s a grain. It’s like, like, grits, but with high self-esteem.
Plus, no one can sleep through the machine-gun sound of popcorn popping. Soon the rest of the flock was gathering glumly around the fire, rubbing sleep out of their eyes.
“We’re headed for the Big Apple, guys. The city that never sleeps. I think we’re maybe six, seven hours away.”
Twenty minutes later, we were taking off, one by one. I was last, after Angel, and I ran about twenty feet, then leaped into the air, beating my wings hard. I was maybe ten feet off the ground when it happened again: Some unseen force shoved an unseen railroad spike through my skull.
I cried out, falling, then smacked into the ground hard enough to knock my breath away.
I curled up in a fragile ball of pain, holding my head, feeling tears dripping down my cheeks, trying not to scream.
“Max?” Fang’s gentle fingers touched my shoulder. “Is it like before?”
I couldn’t even nod. It was all I could do to hold my head together so my brains wouldn’t splatter all over my friends. A high, keening sound reached my ears. It was me.
Behind my eyes, bursts of red and orange flooded my brain, as if fireworks were exploding inside me. Then it was as though someone had jacked a movie screen directly into my retinas: Lightning-fast images shot through me so fast it made me feel sick. I could hardly make any of them out: blurred buildings, fuzzy landscapes, unrecognizable people’s faces, food, headlines from papers, old stuff in black-and-white, psychedelic stuff, swirly patterns…