On the street, we hit the ground running.
My lungs were burning. Know the feeling? About six blocks later, we slowed to a walk. No one seemed to be following us, no cop cars had emerged from the traffic, no sign of Erasers. My head was pounding and it hurt like crazy. I felt like I needed a time-out from life.
With no warning, the Gasman turned and punched a mailbox. “This sucks!” he yelled. “Nothing ever goes right! We get hassled everywhere! Max’s head is busted, Angel lost Celeste, we’re all hungry-I hate this! I hate everything!”
Stunned, I shut my gaping jaw and went over to him. When I put my hand on his shoulder, he pushed it away. The others crowded around-it was so unusual for Gazzy to break down like this. He was always my little trouper.
The flock was watching me, waiting for me to tell the Gasman to snap out of it, get it together. Stepping forward, I wrapped my arms around Gazzy, surrounding him. I rested my head against his and just held him tight. I smoothed his light hair with my fingers and felt his narrow back shaking.
“I’m sorry, Gazzy,” I murmured. “You’re right. This has really sucked. I know it’s hard sometimes. Listen, what would make you feel better right now?” I swear, if he’d said, Check into the Ritz, I would have done it.
He sniffled and straightened a bit, wiping his face on his grubby sleeve. I resolved to get us new clothes soon. ‘Cause I was Ms. Bank Card.
“Really?” he said, sounding very small and young.
“Well, I just want-I just want to, like, sit down somewhere and eat a lot of food. Not just get food while we’re walking. I want to sit down and rest and eat.”
I looked solemnly into his eyes. “I think that can be arranged.”
We ended up back near Central Park, searching for a place to eat. A diner on Fifty-seventh Street looked good, but there was a half-hour wait. Then, off the street inside the park, we saw a restaurant. Millions of tiny blue lights covered the oak trees that surrounded it. The sign said, Parking for Garden Tavern, This Way. Plunked among the trees was a huge building with tons of plate glass windows overlooking the park.
Gazzy said excitedly. “This looks great!”
It was also the last place on earth I wanted us to go. Too big, too flashy, too expensive, and no doubt full of trendy grown-ups. We were not going to blend. We would not be inconspicuous.
And yet, the Gasman wanted to eat here. And I had promised him pretty much anything he wanted.
“Uh, okay,” I said, already feeling dread and anxiety seeping from my pores. Fang pulled open the heavy glass door, and we stepped inside.
“Whoa,” Nudge said, her eyes wide.
From the reception area, we could see three different dining rooms. There was the Prism Room, which was dripping with crystals, basically: chandeliers, candelabras, faceted windows. Door number two led to the Garden Room, which was like a lush, overgrown rainforest, but with tables, chairs, and waiters. The third one was the Castle Room, for those of us who needed to feel regal while we chowed. They all had soaring ceilings with rafters. The Castle Room had an open fireplace big enough to roast a steer.
I was glad to see we weren’t the only kids-though we were the only ones without a grown-up.
“May I help you?” A tall, blond, modelly woman glanced at us, then looked to see who we were with. “Are you waiting for your parents?”
“No,” I said. “There’s just us.” I smiled. “Can we have a table for six, please? I’m treating everybody with my birthday money.” Another lie, another smile.
“Um, okay,” said the hostess. She led us to a table in the Castle Room, way back by the kitchen. Since the kitchen would be a useful escape route, if necessary, I didn’t quibble.
She passed out large, very fancy menus as we scrambled into our seats. “Jason will be your server today.” With one last, uncertain glance, she left us.
“Max, this is so, so great,” Nudge said excitedly, clutching her enormous menu. “This is the nicest place we’ve ever eaten!”
Since we’ve Dumpster-dived for lunch on many occasions, this was an understatement. Fang, Iggy, and I were miserable. Nudge, Gazzy, and Angel were ecstatic.
Actually, the Castle Room would have been neat, if I didn’t hate crowds, sticking out, grown-ups, feeling paranoid, and spending money.
On to the menu. I was relieved to see that they had a kids’ section.
“Are you waiting for your parents?” A short, stocky waiter with slicked-back red hair-Jason-was standing next to Iggy.
“No, there’s just us,” I said.
He frowned slightly and gave us a once-over. “Ah. Are you ready to order?”
“Anyone know what they want?” I asked.
The Gasman looked up. “How many chicken tenders are on a plate?”
Jason looked almost pained. “I believe there are four.”
“I better have two orders, then,” said the Gasman. “And this fruit cocktail. And two glasses of milk.”
“Two orders for yourself?” Jason clarified.
The Gasman nodded. “With fries. To start.”
“I want a hot-fudge sundae,” said Angel.
“Real food first,” I said. “You need fuel.”
“Okay,” Angel said agreeably, then blinked and looked up at Jason. “We’re not spoiled rich brats,” she said. “We’re just hungry.”
Jason started, then his face flushed and he shifted his feet.
“I want this prime rib thing,” Angel said, looking at the adult side of the menu. “And all this stuff that goes with it. And a soda. And lemonade.”
“The prime rib is sixteen ounces,” our waiter said. “It’s a pound of meat.”
“Uh-huh,” Angel said, wondering what he was getting at.
“She can handle it,” I said. “She’s a big eater. Nudge? What do you want?”
“This lasagna primavera,” Nudge decided. “I might need two. It comes with salad, right? And bread? Some milk. Okay?” She looked at me, and I nodded.
Jason just stood there-he thought we were pulling his leg. “Two lasagnas?”
“You might want to start writing this stuff down,” I suggested. I waited till he had noted their orders, then said, “I’ll start with the shrimp cocktail. Then the maple-glazed roast pork loin, with the cabbage and potatoes and everything. The house salad with bleu cheese dressing. And a lemonade and an iced tea.”
Jason wrote it all down, as if he were enduring an hour-long eye-poke.
“The lobster bisque,” Fang said. “Then the prime rib. A big bottle of water.”
“The spaghetti and meatballs,” Iggy said.
“That’s on the children’s menu,” our waiter said, sounding tense. “For our patrons twelve and under.”
Iggy looked ticked off.
“How about the rack of lamb?” I said quickly. “It comes with potatoes and spinach, and a merlot-rosemary sauce.”
“Fine, okay,” Iggy said, irritated. “Plus a couple glasses of milk and some bread.”
Jason lowered his pad and looked at us. “This is a great deal of food for just the six of you,” he said. “Maybe you’ve overordered.”
“I understand your concern,” I said, my tension starting to get the better of me. “But it’s okay. Just bring it, please.”
“You’ll have to pay for all of it, whether you eat it or not.”
“Yeah, that’s usually how a restaurant works,” I said slowly, with exaggerated patience.
“This is going to really add up,” he persisted unwisely.
“I get it,” I said, trying unsuccessfully to keep my cool. “I get the concept. Food costs money. Lots of food costs lots of money. Just bring us what we ordered. Please.”
Jason looked at me stiffly and stalked away toward the kitchen.
“I love this place,” Fang said with a straight face.
“Did we order too much?” Angel asked.
“No,” I said. “It’s fine. I guess they’re not used to hearty eaters.”
An underling brought us two baskets of bread and set out small dishes of olive oil. Even she seemed skeptical.
My fingers curled into claws on the white tablecloth. And it all kind of went downhill from there.
“Good afternoon.” A man in a suit and tie had materialized at my elbow. Jason was with him.
“Hello,” I said warily.
“I am the manager. Is there something I can help you with?” he asked.
Was this a trick question? “Well, I don’t think so,” I said. “Unless the kitchen is out of something we ordered.”
“Yes, well,” said the manager. “You seem to have ordered an unusual quantity of food. We wouldn’t want to be wasteful with it, or present you with a shocking bill because your eyes were bigger than your stomachs.” He gave a small artificial laugh.
“Well, that is just so sweet of you,” I said, close to my breaking point. “But we’re pretty hungry. It seems like we should just order and get what we ordered, you know?”
This didn’t go over as well as you would think.
The manager took on a look of forced patience.
“Perhaps you would be happier in some other restaurant,” he said. “Broadway is nearby.”
I couldn’t believe this. “No freaking duh,” I snapped, finally losing it. “But we’re in this one and we’re hungry. Now, I have the money, we brought our appetites with us; are you going to give us what we ordered or not?”
The manager looked like he had just sucked on a lemon. “Not, I believe,” he said, signaling to a burly guy loitering by the doors.
Great, just great. I rubbed my forehead.
“This is stupid,” Iggy said angrily. “Let’s just split. Gasser, we’ll go someplace that isn’t run by Nazis, okay?”
“Okay,” said the Gasman uncertainly.
Angel looked up at the manager. “Jason thinks you’re full of hot air and that you smell like a sissy,” she said. “And what’s a bimbo?”
Jason stifled a choking sound and turned red. The manager turned to glare at him.
“Fine,” I said, standing up and throwing my napkin down. “We’re going. The food’s probably lousy here, anyway.”
That was when the cops showed up.
Who called the cops?
Were they real cops?
I wasn’t planning to stay around and ask them.
Remember how the kitchen was going to provide a useful escape route? That would have worked great if the cops hadn’t split up, two coming in the front, two more coming in through the-you guessed it-kitchen.
All around us, tables of people were staring open-mouthed. This was probably the most exciting thing that had happened to them all week.
“Up and away,” Fang said, and I nodded reluctantly.
Nudge and Iggy looked surprised, Gazzy grinned, and Angel got that determined look on her face.
“Right, kids,” said a female cop, weaving her way through the tables. “You have to come with us. We’ll call your folks down at the station.”
Jason shot me a superior smile, and suddenly I was furious. How hard would it be for someone to cut us just one break? Without stopping to think, I snatched up the bowl of olive oil and upturned it on his head. His mouth opened in an O as pale green oil streaked down his face.
If that surprised him, what happened next would rock his world.
Moving fast, as only a mutant bird kid could, I jumped up on a chair, stepped onto our table, then threw myself into the air, snapping my wings open and pushing down hard. I dropped alarmingly toward the ground-hadn’t had a running takeoff, which is always best-but surged upward again with the next stroke and rose toward the high raftered ceiling.
Angel joined me, then Iggy, the Gasman, Nudge, and Fang.
Looking down, I couldn’t help laughing at everyone’s faces. “Astonished” doesn’t cover it. They were stunned, dumbstruck, completely freaked out.
“Jerk!” the Gasman yelled, and pelted the manager with pieces of bread.
Fang was circling the ceiling, looking for a way out. I saw that the cops had started to recover and were fanning out.
I won’t lie to you-it was hilarious. Yes, we were in trouble, yes, this was a disaster, and so on and so forth, but I have to say, seeing all those upturned faces, the looks, was about the best thing that had happened to us since we’d come to New York.
“Up here!” Fang shouted, and pointed to one of the stained-glass skylights.
“Come on, guys!” I yelled, just as I realized that flashes from cameras were going off-seriously bad news. “Let’s go!”
Fang ducked his head, covered it with his arms, and flew straight up through the window. It burst with a rainbow-colored crash, and bits of glass sprinkled down.
Iggy was right behind Nudge, his fingers brushing her ankle, and they flew through next, tucking their wings in at the last second to fit.
“Angel, go!” I ordered, and she shot through, her small white wings looking just like Celeste’s. “Gasser! Move it!” I saw him swoop down one last time to grab someone’s abandoned dessert. Shoving an entire eclair into his mouth, he nodded and aimed himself through the window. I went last, and then I was in the open air, stretching my wings, filling my lungs. I knew we had just made a crucial, devastating mistake and that we’d have to pay for it.
But you know what? It was almost worth it.
The looks on all those faces…
“To the trees,” I told Fang, and he nodded, making a big circle to head north. It was a hazy day, but we weren’t high enough to be out of sight. I hoped no one was looking up. Yeah, right.
We dropped down into a tall maple, breathing hard.
“That went well,” said Fang, brushing glass dust off his shoulders.
“It was my fault,” said the Gasman. He had chocolate on his face. “I’m the one who wanted to go there.”
“It was their fault, Gazzy,” I said. “I bet those weren’t even real cops. They had an eau de School air about them.”
“You didn’t think before you dumped the olive oil on the waiter, did you?” Fang asked.
I scowled at him.
“I’m still…” Nudge began, then let her voice trail off. I’m guessing she was about to say “hungry,” but then realized it wasn’t a good time.