“This place is awesome,” breathed the Gasman, and I nodded. I felt good in here, safe, even though Erasers or cops could just stroll through the doors like anybody else. But it was enormous inside, and crowded, and yet there was good visibility. Not a bad place at all. A good place.
“What are those people doing?” Angel whispered.
“I think they’re praying,” I whispered back.
“Let’s pray too,” Angel said.
“Uh-” But she had already headed toward an empty pew. She eased her way to the middle, then reached down and pulled out the little kneeler thing. I saw her examine the other people for the proper form, then she knelt and bowed her head onto her clasped hands.
I bet she was praying for Celeste.
We filed into the pew after her, kneeling awkwardly and self-consciously. Iggy brushed his hand along Gazzy, light as a feather, then mimicked his position.
“What are we praying for?” he asked softly.
“Urn-anything you want?” I guessed.
“We’re praying to God, right?” Nudge checked to make sure.
“I think that’s the general idea,” I said, not really having much of a clue. And yet, an odd sensation came over me, like, if you were ever going to ask for anything, this would be the place to do it. With the high, sweeping ceiling, all the marble and glory and religion and passion surrounding us, it felt like this was a place where six homeless kids just might be heard.
“Dear God,” said Nudge under her breath, “I want real parents. But I want them to want me too. I want them to love me. I already love them. Please see what you can do. Thanks very much. Love, Nudge.”
Okay, so I’m not saying we were pros at this or anything.
“Please get Celeste back to me,” Angel whispered, her eyes squeezed tightly shut. “And help me grow up to be like Max. And keep everyone safe. And do something bad to the bad guys. They should not be able to hurt us anymore.”
Amen, I thought.
With surprise, I saw that Fang’s eyes were shut. But his lips weren’t moving, and I couldn’t hear anything. Maybe he was just resting.
“I want to be able to see stuff,” Iggy said. “Like I used to, when I was little. And I want to be able to totally kick Jeb’s butt. Thank you.”
“God, I want to be big and strong,” the Gasman whispered, and I felt my throat close up, looking at his flyaway pale hair, his eyes shut in concentration. He was only eight, but who knew when his expiration date was? “So I can help Max, and other people too.”
I swallowed hard, blinking fast to keep any tears at bay. I breathed in heavily and breathed out, then did a surreptitious 360. The whole cathedral was calm, peaceful, Eraser-free.
Had that been Jeb I saw, back with the cops? Were the cops really cops or were they goons from the School-or from the Institute? What a bummer that Angel had dropped Celeste. Jeez, the kid finally gets to have one thing she cares about, and then fate rips it from her hands.
“Please help Angel about Celeste,” I found myself muttering, and realized I had closed my eyes. I had no idea who I was talking to-I’d never really thought about if I believed in God. Would God have let the white-coats at the School do what they had done to us? How did it work, exactly?
But I was on a roll now, so I went with it. “And help me be a better leader, a better person,” I said, moving my lips with no sound. “Make me braver, stronger, smarter. Help me take care of the flock. Help me find some answers. Uh, thanks.” I cleared my throat.
I don’t know how long we were there-till my kneecaps started to go numb.
It was like a beautiful peace stole over us, the way a soft breeze would smooth our feathers.
We liked this house. We didn’t want to leave.
I gave serious thought to staying in that cathedral, hiding, sleeping there. There were choir lofts way up high, and the place was huge. Maybe we could do it. I turned to Fang.
“Should we-” I winced as a sharp pain burst in my head. The pain wasn’t as bad as before, but I shut my eyes and couldn’t speak for a minute.
The images came, sliding across my brain like a movie. There were architectural drawings, blueprints, what looked like subway lines. Double helixes of DNA twisted and spiraled across my screen, then were overlaid with faded, unreadable newspaper clippings, staccato chunks of sound, colored postcards of New York. One image of a building stayed for a few seconds, a tall, greenish building. I saw its address: Thirty-first Street. Then a stream of numbers floated past me. Man, oh, man, oh, man-what did it mean?
I took a couple deep breaths, feeling the pain ease away. My eyes opened in the dim light of the cathedral. Five very concerned faces were watching me. “Can you walk?” Fang asked tersely. I nodded. We went out through the tall doors behind a group of Japanese tourists. It was too bright outside, and I shaded my eyes, feeling headachy and kind of sick.
As soon as we were away from the crowd, I stopped. “I saw Thirty-first Street, in my head,” I said. “And a bunch of numbers.”
“Which means…” Iggy prompted.
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “Maybe the Institute is on Thirty-first Street?”
“That would be nice,” said Fang. “East or west?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you see anything else?” he asked patiently.
“Well, a bunch of numbers,” I said again. “And a tall, kind of greenish building.”
“We should just walk all the way down Thirty-first Street,” said Nudge. “The whole way, looking for that building. Right? I mean, if that’s the building you saw, maybe it was for a good reason. Or did you see a whole lot of buildings, or a whole city, or what?”
“Just that building,” I said.
Nudge’s brown eyes widened. Angel looked solemn. We all felt the same: twitchy with nervous anticipation and also overwhelmed with dread. On the one hand, the Institute might very well hold the key to everything-the answer to every question we’d ever had about ourselves, our past, our parents. We might even find out about the mysterious director the whitecoats had mentioned.
On the other hand, it felt like we were voluntarily going up to the School and ringing the doorbell. Like we were delivering ourselves to evil. And those two feelings were pulling us all in half. You never know until you know, my Voice chimed in.
“So do we have money? I hope?” the Gasman asked as we passed a street vendor selling Polish sausage.
“Maybe,” I said, pulling out the bank card. What do you think?” I asked Fang. “Should we try this?”
“Well, we need money, for sure,” he said. “But it might be a trap, a way for them to track where we are and what we’re doing.”
“Yeah.” I frowned.
It’s okay, Max. You can use it, said my Voice. Once you get the password.
Thank you, Voice, I thought sourly. Any hopes of you just telling me the freaking password? Of course not. God forbid anything should come easily to us.
We had to have money. We could try begging, but we’d probably get the cops called on us ASAP. Runaways and all that. Getting jobs was out of the question also. Stealing? It was a last resort. We weren’t to that point yet.
This bank card would work at any number of different banks. Taking a deep breath, I swerved over to an ATM. I swiped the card and punched in “maxride.”
Next I tried our ages: 14, 11, 8, 6.
I tried typing in “password.”
Wrong. The machine shut down and told me to call customer service.
We kept walking. In a way, it was like we were deliberately slowing ourselves down, to give us time to buck up for the Institute. Or at least, that’s what my inner Dr. Laura thought.
“What about, like, the first initial of all of our names?” the Gasman suggested.
“Maybe it’s something like ‘givememoney,’ ” Nudge said.
I smiled at her. “It has to be shorter than that.”
Beside me, Angel was walking with her head down, her little feet dragging.
If I had money, I could get her another Celeste.
In the next block, at a different ATM, I tried the first initials of all our names: “MFINGA.” Nope.
I tried “School” and “Maximum.”
It told me to call customer service.
Farther on, I keyed in “Fang.”
“Iggy,” and “Gasman.”
In the next block, I tried “Nudge” and “Angel,” then on a lark I tried today’s date.
They really wanted me to call customer service.
I know what you’re thinking: Did I try our birthdays or our Social Security numbers?
No. None of us knew our actual birth dates, though we had each picked a day we liked and called it our birthday. And the nut jobs at the School had mysteriously neglected to register any of us with the Social Security Administration. So none of us could retire any time soon.
I stopped in front of the next ATM but shook my head in frustration. “I don’t know what to do,” I admitted, and it was maybe the second time those words had ever left my lips.
Angel looked up tiredly, her blue eyes sad. “Why don’t you try ‘mother’?” she asked, and started tracing a crack on the sidewalk with the toe of her sneaker.
“Why do you think that?” I asked, surprised.
She shrugged, her arm moving to hold Celeste tighter and then falling emptily to her side.
Fang and I exchanged glances, then I slowly swiped the bank card and punched in the numbers that would spell out “mother.”
What kind of transaction do you want to make? the screen asked.
Speechless, I withdrew two hundred dollars and zipped it into my inside pocket.
“How did you know that?” Fang asked Angel. His tone was neutral, but tension showed in his walk.
Angel shrugged again, her small shoulders drooping. Even her curls looked limp and sad. “It just came to me,” she said.
“In a voice?” I asked, wondering if my Voice was hopping around.
She shook her head no. “The word was just in my head. I don’t know why.”
Once again, Fang and I looked at each other but didn’t say anything. I didn’t know what was on his mind, but I was thinking again about how Angel had been at the School for a few days before we rescued her. Who knows what happened there? What kind of foul, disgusting experiments? Maybe they’d planted a chip in her too.
A few more blocks, and we turned left, walking toward the East River. Inside me, the tension mounted. My breath was coming in short huffs. Every step was bringing us closer to what could be the Institute: the place where the secrets of our lives might be revealed, all our questions answered.
And here’s the thing: I wasn’t even sure I wanted my questions answered. What if my mom had given me away on purpose, like Gasman and Angel’s? What if my parents were horrible people? Or what if they were wonderful, fabulous people who didn’t want a freak mutant daughter with thirteen-foot wings? I mean, not knowing almost seemed easier.
But we walked along, examining each building. Again and again the others looked at me, only to see me shake my head no. We walked down several looong blocks, and with each step, I was getting more and more uptight, and so was everyone else.
“I wonder what the Institute is like,” Nudge said nervously. “I guess it’s like the School. Will we have to break in? How do they hide the Erasers from all the normal people? What kind of files on us do you think they have? Like actual parent names, you think?”
“For God’s sake, Nudge, my ears are bleeding!” Iggy said with his usual tact.
Her sweet face shut down, and I put my arm around her shoulders briefly. “I know you’re worried,” I said softly. “I am too.”
She smiled at me, and then I saw it: 433 East Thirty-first Street.
It was the building from the drawing in my brain.
And if you don’t think that’s a weird sentence, maybe you should reread it.
The building rose tall, maybe forty-five stories, and had a greenish facade, kind of old-fashioned looking.
“Is this it?” Iggy asked.
“Yep,” I said. “Are we ready?”
“Aye, Captain!” Iggy said firmly, and saluted.
I so wished he could see me roll my eyes at him.
We marched up the steps and pushed through revolving doors. Inside, the lobby was all polished wood, brass, and big tropical plants. The floor was smooth granite tiles.
“Here,” said Fang softly, pointing to a large display board behind glass. It listed all the offices and companies in the building, and their floors and room numbers.
There was no Institute for Higher Living. There was no institute of any kind.
Because that would have been too easy, right?
I rubbed my forehead, holding back bitter words of disappointment. Inside, I felt like crying and yelling and stomping around, and then getting into a hot shower and crying some more.
Instead, I took a deep breath and tried to think. I looked around. No other office lists anywhere.
At the reception desk, a woman sat behind a laptop computer. A security guard had another desk across the lobby.
“Excuse me,” I said politely. “Are there any other companies in this building that aren’t on the board?”
“No.” The receptionist looked us over, then went back to typing something incredibly urgent-like her resume for another job. We turned away just as the receptionist made a sound of surprise. Glancing back, I saw that her computer screen had cleared. The pit of my stomach started to hurt.
There’s a pot of gold beneath every rainbow, filled her laptop screen in big red letters. The message broke up into smaller letters that then scrolled across the screen over and over, filling it.
Pot of gold beneath every rainbow… Okay, did leprechauns work here? Was Judy Garland going to burst into song? Why couldn’t I just get some straight information? Because it was a puzzle, a test. I literally gnashed my teeth. Beneath every… Hmm.
“Does this building have a basement?” I asked.
The receptionist frowned at me and looked us over again with a harder gaze.
“Who are you?” she asked. “What do you want?” She lifted her chin and caught the eye of the security guard. Were they Erasers? They definitely could be Erasers. This whole building might be full of despicable wolf men.
“Never mind,” I muttered, pushing the others toward the revolving doors. The security guard was already on our tails, and just as we all got through, I jammed a ballpoint pen into the door channel. The guard was trapped inside one section and started throwing his weight against the glass.