Iggy bumped into him, saying, “What? What is it?”
“Is that you?” the Gasman asked me. “How do they know you?”
Playing is learning, Max, said the Voice inside my head. It was the same one as last night, and I realized I couldn’t tell if it was adult or child, male or female, friend or foe. Great.
Games test your abilities. Fun is crucial to human development. Go have fun, Max.
I halted, oblivious to the gobs of people streaming around us on the street. “I don’t want to have fun! I want some answers!” I blurted without meaning to-the crazy girl talking back to her little Voice.
Get on the Madison Avenue bus, said the Voice. Get off when it looks fun.
I don’t know about the rest of you who have little voices, but something about mine made me feel completely compelled to listen to it.
I blinked and discovered the flock gazing at me solemnly, watching me sink further into total insanity right before their eyes.
“Max, are you okay?” Nudge asked.
I nodded. “I think we should get on the Madison Avenue bus,” I said, looking for a street sign.
Fang looked at me thoughtfully. “Why?”
I turned slightly so the others couldn’t see me and mouthed, “The Voice.”
He nodded. “But Max,” he whispered, barely audible, “what if this is all a trap?”
“I don’t know!” I said. “But maybe we should do what it says for a while-to see.”
“Do what what says?” the Gasman demanded.
I had started walking toward the corner. I heard Fang say, “Max has been hearing a voice, inside her. We don’t know what it is.” So much for not worrying the others.
“Like her conscience?” Nudge asked. “Do the TVs have anything to do with it?”
“We don’t know,” said Fang. “Right now it wants us to get on the Madison Avenue bus, apparently.”
The bus stop was fourteen blocks away. We got on, and I pushed our fares into the machine. The driver waved us through, saying, “Pass, pass, pass” in a bored voice.
I hoped the Voice didn’t want me to keep spending money-we were dangerously low.
For people who get nervous in small, confined spaces or surrounded by other people, riding a bus is pretty much a living nightmare. It was so crowded we had to stand in the aisle with people pressed up against us. I figured we could always kick a window out and jump, but the whole thing frayed my few remaining nerves. My head was swiveling constantly, scanning for Erasers suddenly morphing out of our fellow passengers.
Well, Voice? I thought. What now?
I’m sure this will surprise you, but the Voice did not answer.
Next to me, Angel trustingly held my hand, watching the city go past the bus windows. It was up to me. I had to keep everyone safe. I had to find the Institute. If my brain attacks killed me, Fang would take over. But until then, I was numero uno. I couldn’t let the flock down. Do you hear that, Voice? If you’re going to make me let everyone down, you’re going to be sorry you ever… entered my brain.
Oh, my God, I was so freaking nuts.
“Okay, people,” the bus driver said over the PA system. “Fifty-eighth Street! This is where the fun is!”
Startled, I looked at Fang, then started hustling everyone out the back door of the bus. We stepped into the sunlight. The bus pulled noisily away, leaving us choking on its exhaust. We were at the bottom of Central Park.
“What-” I began, then my eyes widened as I saw a large glass-fronted building across the street. Behind its glass were an enormous teddy bear, a huge wooden soldier, and a fifteen-foot-tall ballerina up on one pointed toe.
The sign said AFO Schmidt.
The world’s most amazing toy store.
We poor, underprivileged, pathetic bird kids had never been in a toy store.
And AFO Schmidt is where kids think they’ve died and gone to heaven. Right inside the front door was a huge two-story clock covered with moving figures. The song “It’s a Small World” was playing loudly, but I figured that was to keep out the riffraff.
I had no idea why we were here. It seemed too much to hope for that somehow this little romp was getting us closer to finding the Institute, but I made the executive decision to see where it took us.
A life-size stuffed giraffe surrounded by other life-size stuffed animals led the way to the whole stuffed-animal area, which was practically as big as our old house.
I looked down at Gazzy and Angel to see them staring, wide-eyed and slack-jawed, at too many fabulous toys to even comprehend.
“Iggy,” the Gasman said, “there’s a whole room of Lego and Bionicle.”
“Go with them,” I told Fang. “And let’s keep an eye out for each other, okay?”
He nodded and followed the boys into the Lego room, while I trailed after Angel and Nudge, who were picking up one stuffed animal after another.
“Oh, my gosh,” Nudge was saying, holding a small stuffed tiger. “Oh, Max, isn’t he the cutest thing? Oh, his name is Samson.”
I dutifully agreed that he was in fact the cutest thing and kept glancing around for either an Eraser or some kind of clue my Voice might point me to.
“Max?” Angel tugged on my sleeve. I turned to her, and she held up a small stuffed bear. It was dressed as an angel, with a white gown and little wings on its back. A tiny gold wire halo floated above its head.
Angel’s eyes were pleading with me. I checked its price tag. The pleasure of owning this small stuffed bear could be hers for only forty-nine dollars.
“I’m so sorry, Angel,” I said, bending down to her eye level. “But this bear is forty-nine dollars. We’re almost out of money-I don’t have anywhere near that. I’m really sorry. I wish I could get it for you. I know it’s an angel, just like you.” I stroked her hair and handed her the bear back.
“But I want it,” Angel snapped at me, which was completely out of character for her.
“I said no. That’s it, kiddo.”
I wandered a few feet away, still within eyeshot of the girls, to look at a “‘mystical” display. There were Magic 8 Balls, and when you shook them, an answer would float to the surface of a little window. I shook one. “Very likely” was its prediction. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to ask it a question.
There was a game called Cabalah!, a Gypsy Fortuneteller game, and the old favorite: a Ouija board. I breathed out, my hands in my pockets, and looked around the store. Maybe we should sleep here tonight.
Out of the corner of my eye, I detected a slight movement, and my raptor gaze locked on it. It was the little Ouija doohickey, the thing that “spirits” are supposed to guide across the board, pointing to certain letters, but everyone knows it’s really the kids doing it.
This one was moving with nothing touching it.
I looked around: No one was near. Angel was almost twenty feet away, not looking at it, still holding the angel bear. I waved my hand over it-there were no wires. It had touched the 5 and then the A. I lifted the game board and held it up, in case it was being moved by a magnet underneath. The pointer reached the V and headed toward the E.
I put the board back down as if it were red-hot.
The small black triangle paused on the T, then moved to the H. Then the E.
It slid very slowly toward the W, and I frowned. It moved up and over to the O, and my jaw clenched. By the time it reached the R, I was ready to throw the board across the store. Grimly, I watched as it finished. The L The D. The M, the A, the X.
Save the world, Max.
He whirled, saw my face, and instantly tapped Iggy’s and the Gasman’s hands. They joined me and Nudge under the huge clock.
“Let’s get out of here,” I muttered. “A Ouija board just told me to save the world.”
“Gosh, you’re, like, famous,” said the Gasman, clearly not feeling the ominous dread that I was.
“Where’s Angel?” Fang asked.
I reached out for her and grabbed air. My head whipped around, and I rushed back to the stuffed-animal section. Already, panic was flooding my senses-it had been barely more than a week since she’d been kidnapped…
I skidded to a stop by a life-size chimpanzee hanging from a display. In front of me, Angel was talking to an older woman. I’d never seen an Eraser that old, so my heartbeat ticked down a couple notches.
Angel looked sad, and she held up the angel bear to show the woman.
“What’s she up…” Fang began.
The woman hesitated, then said something I couldn’t hear. Angel’s face lit up, and she nodded eagerly.
“Someone’s buying something for Angel,” Iggy said quietly.
Angel knew we were watching her, but she was refusing to meet our eyes. The five of us followed them to the checkout counter, and I watched in disbelief as the woman, seeming a bit bemused, took out her wallet and paid for Angel’s bear. Angel was practically jumping up and down with happiness. She bounced on her heels, clutching the bear to her chest, and I heard her say “Thank you” about a thousand times.
Then, still looking slightly confused, the woman smiled, nodded, and left the store.
We swarmed around our youngest family member.
“What was that about?” I asked. “Why did that woman buy you that bear? That thing cost forty-nine dollars!”
“What did you say to her?” Iggy demanded. “No one’s buying us stuff.”
“Nothing,” Angel said, holding her bear tightly. “I just asked that lady if she would buy me this bear, ’cause I really, really wanted it and I didn’t have enough money.”
I started shepherding everyone out the front door before Angel asked someone to buy her the life-size giraffe.
Outside, the sun was bright overhead, and it was time for lunch. Time to get us back on track.
“So you just asked a stranger to buy you an expensive toy, and she did?” I asked Angel.
Angel nodded, smoothing her bear’s fur down around its ears. “Yeah. I just asked her to buy it for me. You know, with my mind.”
Fang and I exchanged a look. This was a little scary. Actually, a lot scary.
“Um, what do you mean, exactly?” I asked Angel. Okay, so she can pick up on most people’s thoughts and feelings. But this was the first I’d heard of her sending a thought.
“I just asked her, in my mind,” Angel said absently, straightening the bears’ small white wings. “And she said okay. And she bought it for me. I’m going to call it Celeste.”
“Angel, are you saying that you influenced that woman so she would buy you the bear?” I asked carefully.
“Celeste,” Angel said. “What’s influenced?”
“To have an effect on something or someone,” I said. “It sounds like you sort of made that woman buy you the bear-”
“Celeste, whether she wanted to or not. Do you see what I’m saying?”
Angel frowned and shrugged, looking uncomfortable. Then her brow cleared. “Well, I really wanted Celeste. More than anything in the whole wide world.”
Like that made it okay.
I opened my mouth to explain the life lesson that was screaming to be learned here, but Fang caught my eye. His expression said, Save it, and I shut up and nodded, waiting to hear his thoughts later.
And now, back to our mission. If only I had one freaking clue as to how to find the Institute.
We stopped and bought falafel for lunch, keeping an eye out for danger as we walked along eating. Angel tucked her bear-Celeste-into the waistband of her pants so she’d have both hands free.
Angel is only six, and God knows her upbringing hasn’t exactly been normal. Still, I thought she was old enough to know the difference between right and wrong. I thought she knew that influencing that woman to buy her Celeste was wrong. But she had done it anyway.
Which I found disturbing.
I winced and grabbed my temple just as the silky Voice said, It’s just a toy, Max. Kids deserve toys. Don’t you think you deserve a toy too?
“I’m too old for toys,” I muttered angrily, and Fang glanced at me in surprise.
“Did you want a toy?” the Gasman asked, confused.
I shook my head. Don’t mind me, folks. Just talking to my little Voice again. But at least my head didn’t hurt nearly as bad this time.
I’m sorry it hurts sometimes, Max. I don’t want to hurt you. I want to help you.
I clamped my lips together so I wouldn’t answer it. When I wanted information, it was silent; when I didn’t want to hear from it, it got chatty.
It was almost as irritating as Fang.
I was starting to seriously freak out. Everywhere we went, something from the Other Side got to me. If it wasn’t a voice in my head, it was a TV screen in a window. It was a hacker kid in a subway tunnel, the contents of my brain displayed on his computer. Bus drivers telling us where the fun was. The Erasers. What’s that saying-you’re not paranoid if somebody really is chasing you?
“We’re surrounded,” I muttered, staring at the toes of my boots as we walked along.
I felt Fang do a 360 next to me.
“We’re wasting time,” I finally said in frustration. “We need to find the Institute. Discover our histories and destinies. We don’t need to go to toy stores. We’ve got to get serious about this.”
All in good time, Max.
Fang started to answer me, but I held up a finger- one sec.
You need to learn how to relax. Relaxation facilitates learning and communication. Studies have shown it. But you’re not relaxing.
“Of course I’m not relaxing!” I hissed under my breath. “We need to find the Institute! We’re running out of money! We’re constantly in danger!”
The others had stopped and were watching me with alarm. Fang was probably ready to drag me to the funny farm.
I was totally losing my mind, right? Something had damaged my brain-I’d had a stroke or something, and now I was hearing voices. It made me different from the rest of the flock. Too different. I felt alone.
Just one voice, Max. Not voices. Calm down.
“What’s wrong, Max?” asked the Gasman.
I took a deep breath and tried to get a grip. “I feel like I’m about to explode,” I said honestly. “Three days ago, Angel said she’d heard there was more into about us in a place called the Institute, in New York. More info. This could be what we’ve always wanted to know”.