I don’t know how long it went on-years? Gradually, gradually, I realized I could move, and as soon as I could, I crawled over to some bushes and barfed my guts up.
Then I lay gasping, feeling like death. It was a while before I could open my eyes and see blue sky, puffy white clouds-and five worried faces.
“Max, what is the matter with you?” Angel said, sounding as scared as she looked.
“Think you should see a doctor?” Fang asked mildly, but his eyes were piercing.
“Oh, yes, that’s a good idea,” I said weakly. “We need to let more people in authority know about us.”
“Look,” Fang began, but I cut him off.
“I’m okay now,” I said, lying through my teeth. “Maybe it’s a stomach bug or something.” Yeah, the kind of stomach bug that causes brain cancer. The kind of bug you get when your whole genetic makeup is about to unravel. The bug you get before you die.
“Let’s just go to New York,” I said.
After giving me a long, level look, Fang shrugged and motioned to the Gasman to take off. Reluctantly, he did, and the others followed. “After you,” Fang said, jerking his thumb toward the sky.
Gritting my teeth, I got to my feet and ran shakily, opening my wings and leaping into the air again, half braced for another explosion of pain. But it was okay. I still felt like I might hurl, and I thought about how awful that would be in midair.
“Are you okay?” Nudge asked once we were airborne. I nodded.
“I’ve been thinking about my mom and dad,” she said. Her tawny wings beat in unison with mine, so we just barely missed each other on the downstrokes. “I bet-if they’ve been thinking I died eleven years ago, then I bet they would be pretty happy to see me again, right? I mean, if all this time they wished I had gone home with them and grown up-then they would be pretty happy to see me, wouldn’t they?” I didn’t say anything.
“Unless…” She frowned. “I mean-I guess I’m not what they would be expecting, huh? It’s not my fault or anything, but I mean, I’ve got wings.” Yep, I thought.
“They might not want me if I have wings and am so weird and all,” Nudge said, her voice dropping. “Maybe they just want a normal daughter, and if I’m weird, they wouldn’t want me back anyway. What do you think, Max?”
“I don’t know, Nudge,” I said. “It seems like if they’re your parents, then they should love you no matter what, even if you’re different.”
I thought about how Ella had accepted me just the way I was, wings, weirdness, and all. And Dr. Martinez was always going to be my perfect image of a mom. She’d accepted me too.
Now I was gulping, trying not to cry. Because I hadn’t experienced enough emotion already this morning. I muttered a swear word to myself. After I’d heard Angel cussing like a sailor when she stubbed her toe, my new resolution was to watch my language. All I needed was a six-year-old mutant with a potty mouth.
I thought about how Ella and her mom and I had made chocolate-chip cookies. From scratch. From, like, a bag of flour and real eggs. Not store-bought, not even slice ‘n’ bake. The way they’d smelled when they were baking was in-cred-i-ble. It had smelled like-home. Like what a real home should smell like.
They’d been the best dang cookies I’d ever had.
“Oh, my God,” I muttered, staring at the lights below us. Most of New York City is at the bottom part of a long, thin island-Manhattan Island, actually. You could tell exactly where it began and ended, because suddenly the dark landscape was ablaze with lights. Streaming pearls of headlights moved slowly through the arteries of the city. It looked like every window in every building had a light burning.
“That’s a lot of people,” Fang said, coming up beside me.
I knew what he was thinking: We all tend to get a little claustrophobic, a little paranoid when we’re around lots of people. Not only had Jeb constantly warned us about interacting with anyone for any reason, but there was always the possibility that one of those strangers could suddenly morph into an Eraser.
“Oh, my gosh, oh, my gosh,” Nudge was saying excitedly. “I want to go down there! I want to walk on Fifth Avenue! I want to go to museums!” She turned to me, her face alight with anticipation. “Do we have any money left? Can we get something to eat? Can we, like, go shopping?”
“We have some money,” I told her. “We can get something to eat. But remember, we’re here to find the Institute.”
Nudge nodded, but I could tell half of my words had gone right out her other ear.
“What’s that sound?” Iggy asked, concentrating. “It’s music. Is there music below us? How could we hear it, way up here?”
Central Park was a big, relatively dark rectangle below us. At one end, in a clearing, I could see an enormous crowd of people. Huge floodlights were shining over them.
“I think it must be a concert,” I told Iggy. “In the park. An outdoor concert.”
“Oh, so cool!” Nudge said. “Can we go? Please, Max, please? A real concert!” If it’s possible for someone to bounce up and down with excitement while flying, Nudge was doing it.
The park was pretty dark. There were hundreds of thousands of people down there. Even Erasers would have a hard time finding us in that crowd.
I made an executive decision. “Yes. Try to come down right behind a floodlight’s beam, so we won’t be seen.”
We landed silently among a group of thick-trunked oaks. We took a moment to shake out our legs, and fold in our wings and cover them with windbreakers. After a quick head count, I led the way toward the crowd, trying to look casual, like, Fly? Me? Nah.
The music was unbelievably loud: Speakers taller than Iggy were stacked on top of one another, three high. To me it felt as if the actual ground was vibrating.
“What concert is this?” Iggy asked, yelling in my ear.
I peered over tens of thousands of heads to see the raised stage. Thanks to my raptorlike vision, I had no trouble making out the musicians. And a banner that said Natalie and Trent Taylor. “It’s the Taylor Twins,” I reported, and most of the flock whooped and whistled. They loved the Taylor Twins.
Angel kept close to me, her small hand in mine, as we stood among the crowd. We were enough on the edge that we avoided the sardine effect of the people closer to the stage. I think we all would have freaked out if we’d been that hemmed in, that unable to move. Iggy put the Gasman on his shoulders and gave him his lighter to burn, like thousands of other people. The Gasman swayed in time to the music, holding the lighter high.
Once he looked down at me, and his face was so full of happiness I almost started crying. How often had I seen him look like that? Like, twice? In eight years?
We listened to Natalie and Trent until the concert ended. As soon as the rivers of people began to flow past us, we melted into the shadows of the trees. The branches above us were thick and welcoming. We flew up into them, settling comfortably.
“That was awesome,” Nudge said happily. “I can’t believe how many people there are, all crowded into one place. I mean, listen… There’s no silence, ever. I can hear people and traffic and sirens and dogs barking. I mean, it was always so quiet back at home.”
‘Too quiet,” said the Gasman.
“Well, I hate it,” Iggy said flatly. “When it’s quiet, I can tell where the heck things are, people are, where echoes are bouncing off. Here I’m just surrounded with a thick, smothering wall of sound. I want to get out of here.”
“Oh, Iggy, no!” Nudge cried. “This place is so cool. You’ll get used to it.”
“We’re here to find out what we can about the Institute,” I reminded both of them. “I’m sorry, Iggy, but maybe you’ll get a little more used to it soon. And Nudge, this isn’t a pleasure trip. Our goal is to find the Institute.”
“How are we gonna do that?” Angel asked.
“I have a plan,” I said firmly. God, I was really going to have to get all this lying under control.
Basically, if you put a fence around New York City, you’d have the world’s biggest nontraveling circus.
When we woke up at dawn the next morning, there were already joggers, bicyclers, even horseback riders weaving their way along the miles and miles of trails in Central Park. We slipped down out of the trees and casually wandered the paths.
Within an hour, speed skaters were rushing by, street performers were setting up their props, and the paths were almost crowded with dog walkers and moms pushing jogging strollers.
“That lady has six white poodles!” Nudge hissed behind her hand. “Who needs six white poodles?”
“Maybe she sells them,” I suggested, “to kids with big wide eyes.”
“Something smells awesome,” Iggy said, swiveling his head to detect the source. “What is that? It’s over there.” He pointed off to my left.
“There’s a guy selling food,” I said. “It says honey-roasted peanuts.”
“I am so there,” said Iggy. “Can I have some money?”
Iggy, Angel, and I went to buy six small bags of honey-roasted peanuts (they really did smell like heaven), and Fang, Nudge, and the Gasman went to look at a clown selling balloons.
We were walking over to join them when something about the clown caught my eye. She was watching a sleek, dark-haired guy strolling down a path. Their gazes met.
A chill went down my back. Just like that, my enjoyment of the day burst. I was swept into fear, anger, and an intense self-preservation reflex.
“Iggy, heads up,” I whispered. “Get the others.”
Beside me, Angel was wound tight, her hand clenching mine hard. We walked fast toward the others. Fang, doing an automatic sweep of the area, saw my urgent expression. In the next moment he had clamped a hand on Nudge’s and the Gasman’s shoulders and spun them around to walk quickly away.
We met on the path and sped up our pace. One glance behind me showed the dark-haired guy following us. He was joined by a woman who looked just as intent and powerful as he did.
A flow of heroically suppressed swear words ran through my brain. I scanned the scenery for escape routes, a place where we could take off, a place to duck and cover.
They were gaining on us.
“Run!” I said. The six of us can run faster than most grown men, but the Erasers had also been genetically enhanced. If we couldn’t find an out, we were done for.
Now there were three of them-they’d been joined by another male-model type. They had broken into an easy trot and were closing the space between us.
Paths merged into other paths, sometimes narrowing, sometimes widening. Again and again, we almost crashed into bikers or skaters going too fast to swerve.
“Four of them,” Fang said. “Pour it on, guys!”
We sped up. They were maybe twenty yards behind us. Hungry grins marred their good-looking faces.
“Six of them!” I said.
“They’re too fast,” Fang informed me unnecessarily. “Maybe we should fly.”
I bit my lip, keeping a tight grip on Angel’s hand. What to do, what to do. They were closer, and even closer-
“Eight of them!” said Fang.
“Left!” Iggy said, and without question we all hung a sudden left. How he knew it was there, I have no idea.
Our path suddenly opened into a wider plaza surrounded by vendors selling all kinds of stuff. Some brick buildings were on the left, and a big crowd of kids was passing through a metal gate.
I caught a glimpse of a sign: Central Park Zoo.
“Merge!” I whispered, and just like that, we melted smoothly into the horde of schoolkids. Fang, Iggy, Nudge, and I ducked down to be shorter, and we all wormed our way into the middle of the group, so we were surrounded by other kids. None of them seemed to think it was weird we were there-there must have been more than two hundred of them being herded through the gate.
I repressed an urge to moo and peeped over a girl’s shoulder. The Erasers had spread out and were searching for us, looking frustrated.
One of the big creeps tried to push past the policeman at the zoo gate, but the cop blocked his way. “School day only,” I heard him say. “No unauthorized adults. Oh, you’re a chaperone? Yeah? Show me your pass.”
With a low snarl, the Eraser backed away and rejoined his companions. I grinned: stopped in his tracks by a New York cop. Go, boys in blue!
We reached the entry gate: the moment of truth.
We got waved in!
“Pass, pass, pass,” the gate person muttered, motioning us through without looking at us.
Inside the zoo, we scrambled off to one side, then paused for a moment and slapped high fives.
“Yes!” the Gasman said. “School day only! Yes! I love this place!”
The zoo!” Nudge said, practically quivering with excitement. “I’ve always wanted to see a zoo! I’ve read about ’em-I’ve seen them on TV. This is so great! Thanks, Max.”
I hadn’t had anything to do with it, but I smiled and nodded: magnanimous Max.
“Come on, let’s get farther in,” said Iggy, sounding nervous. “Put some distance between us and them. Jeez, was that a lion? Please tell me it’s behind bars.”
“It’s a zoo, Iggy,” Nudge said, taking his arm and leading him. “Everything is behind bars.”
Like we used to be.
“Oh, man, look at the polar bear!” The Gasman pressed his face against the glass of the enclosure, watching as the huge white bear swam gracefully in its big pool. The bear had an empty steel beer keg to play with, which it was batting through the water.
I’ll just tell you flat out: We’d never seen any of these animals before, not in real life. We didn’t grow up going on field trips, having Sunday outings with the ‘rents. This was a completely different, foreign world, where kids swarmed freely through a zoo, animals were in habitats and weren’t undergoing genetic grafting, and we were strolling along, not hooked up to EEG monitors and blood pressure cuffs.
It was wild.
Like this bear. Two bears, actually. A big main bear and a smaller backup bear. They had a pretty large habitat, with huge rocks, an enormous swimming pool, toys to play with.
“Man,” said Gazzy wistfully. “I’d love to have a pool.”
Or, hey! How about a house? Safety? Plenty of food?
Those were about as impossible as a swimming pool. I reached out and rubbed Gazzy’s shoulder. “That would be really cool,” I agreed.