But we were still hungry. We did have to have food. As soon as my adrenaline calmed down, I would go find a grocery store or something.
“People were taking pictures,” Iggy said.
“Yeah,” I said miserably. “As an unqualified disaster, this ranks right up there.”
“And it’s getting worse,” said a smooth voice.
I jumped about a foot in the air, then clutched my branch and looked down.
Our tree was surrounded by Erasers.
Without meaning to, I shot a stricken glance at Iggy: He was usually our early-warning system. If he hadn’t heard these guys coming, then they’d materialized out of nowhere.
One Eraser stepped forward, and I caught my breath. It was Ari.
“You keep showing up like a bad penny,” I said.
“I was about to say the same thing to you,” he replied with a feral smile.
“I remember back when you were three years old,” I went on conversationally. “You were so cute-before you got huge and wolfy.”
“Like you ever paid attention to me,” he said, and I was surprised to hear sincere bitterness in his voice. “I was trapped in that place too, but you shut me out.”
My mouth dropped open. “But you were normal,” I blurted. “And Jeb’s son.”
“Yeah, Jeb’s son,” he snarled. “Like he even knows I’m alive. What did you think happened to me while you were off playing house with my father? Did you think I just disappeared?”
“Okay, there’s one knot unraveled,” Fang muttered under his breath.
“Ari, I was ten years old,” I said slowly. “Is all this back history why you’re tracking us now? Why you’re trying to kill us?”
“Of course not.” Ari spit on the ground. “I’m tracking you ’cause that’s my job. The back history is helping me enjoy it.” He smirked.
I shot him the bird. (Get it? I shot him the-never mind.)
He was morphing, and when he smiled, his muzzle seemed to split in half, like a dog’s. From behind his back he pulled something small, with brown fur and two white-
“Celeste!” Angel cried, and started to scramble down.
“Angel, no! ” I shouted, and Fang yelled, “Stay put! ”
But my baby jumped, landing lightly on the ground a few feet from Ari.
The other Erasers surged forward, but Ari snapped up his hand to hold them back. They stopped, coiled tightly, their cold, wolfish eyes locked on Angel.
Ari shook Celeste playfully, and Angel stepped forward.
I dropped down to the ground, adrenaline pouring into my veins. Again the Eraser team lunged, and again Ari held them back.
“Touch her and I’ll kill you,” I promised, my hands curled into fists.
Ari smirked, his dark curly hair catching the last bit of afternoon sun. He shook Celeste again, and Angel quivered by my side.
“Give me the bear,” Angel said, low and intense.
Angel took a half step forward, but I grabbed her collar.
“Give. Me. The. Bear.” Angel sounded odd, not like herself, and she was staring intently into Ari’s eyes. His smile faded, and a look of confusion crossed his face. I remembered how Angel had influenced the woman to buy Celeste for her.
“You’re-” Ari began, then seemed to choke slightly, coughing, putting his hand to his throat. “You’re-”
“Drop the bear now,” Angel said, hard as concrete.
Seemingly against his will, Ari’s clawed, powerful hand unclenched, and Celeste fell to the ground.
Almost faster than my eyes could follow, Angel snatched Celeste and leaped back up into the tree.
I blinked and wondered if I looked as surprised as Ari did.
The other Erasers sprang into motion, as if it had taken them a few seconds to realize Angel was gone. Ari’s arm shot out, and an Eraser crashed into it.
“You have your orders!” he barked at the team. “Don’t ever question them!” He turned back to look at me thoughtfully. “You can’t question them,” he said in a normal tone, speaking directly to me. “Even if they seem stupid. Even if you’d rather just rip the flock apart.”
An Eraser made an eager, hungry sound, and it was all I could do not to shudder.
Ari leaned closer to me, as if catching my scent, like prey. “Your day is coming, bird girl,” he whispered. “And I’m going to finish you off myself.”
“Don’t sharpen your fangs just yet, dog boy.”
He opened his mouth to say something but then cocked his head and pressed a finger against his ear, as if hearing something.
“The Director wants to see us,” he barked at his team “Now!”
After one last lingering look at me, he turned and followed the other Erasers. They melted into the twilight shadows like smoke.
Up in the tree, Angel was clutching Celeste tightly, murmuring softly to her.
“I heard them mention the Director at the School,” Nudge said. “Who is it?”
I shrugged. “Some big, very bad person.” One of many who were after us. I wondered if it was Jeb, our fake father. Our savior and then our betrayer.
“You okay?” Iggy asked. I saw his white-knuckled hold on his branch and gave him a gentle tap with my boot.
“Hunky-dory,” I said. “But I want to get out of here right now.”
In the end, we settled in the top floor of a ninety-story apartment building that was being built on the Upper East Side. The first seventy or so floors had been windowed in, but up here it was just an empty shell with piles of dry wall and insulation. Huge gaping holes gave us a great view of the East River and Central Park.
Nudge and I went to a local grocery store, then schlepped three heavy bags of groceries back to the others. It was breezy up in our aerie, but private and safe. We watched the last of the sun go down and ate. My head was aching, but not too badly.
“I’m tired,” Angel said. “I want to go to bed.”
“Yeah, let’s try to get some sleep,” I said. “It’s been a long, relatively yucky day.” I held out my left fist, and we all stacked up. Tapping our hands seemed so familiar, so comforting, connecting us.
The Gasman and I cleared construction debris away, and Iggy and Fang moved stacks of drywall to make windbreaks. In the end we had a cozy space, and the flock was asleep within ten minutes.
How were the Erasers tracking us so easily? I looked hard at my left wrist, as if staring at it would make my chip float to the surface of my skin. I myself could be a beacon without knowing it, without being able to do a thing about it-except leave the flock and strike out on my own. The Erasers were tracking us but not killing us. Why had Ari stopped them today?
And what in the world was happening with Angel? Her telepathic powers seemed to be growing. I groaned to myself, picturing a strong-willed Angel demanding birthday presents; junk food before dinner; stupid, trendy clothes.
Don’t borrow trouble, Max, said my Voice.
Long time no hear, I thought.
Worry is unproductive. You can’t control what happens to Angel. You can save the world, but the only thing you can control is you. Go to sleep, Max. It’s time to learn.
Learn what? I started to ask, but then, as if someone had flicked a switch, I sank into unconsciousness.
When I blinked awake the next morning, I was greeted by newspapers and breakfast in bed.
“Wha’?” I mumbled.
“We got breakfast,” Fang said, taking a bite of muffin. “You were out for the count.”
As I took my first bite of muffin, I became aware of the quivering tension around me. “What else?”
Fang nodded toward the newspapers.
“I figured you got ’em for the comics,” I said, pulling the pile closer.
Up to now, our main survival strategy had been to stay inconspicuous, to hide as much as possible. I guess having our pictures plastered on the front page of the New York Post under the huge, screaming headline “Miracle or Illusion? Superhumans or Genetic Freaks?” blew that strategy out of the water.
Fang had gotten four different papers, and fuzzy pictures of us swooping gaily around the Garden Tavern were on every front page.
“Saw them when we were out,” Fang explained, draining his juice. “Guess we better lie low for a while.”
“Yes, thank you, Tonto,” I said irritably. I mean, would it kill him to speak in full sentences? I checked out the New York Times. Under a blurry photo, it said, “No one has taken credit for what may be this year’s most unusual stunt…”
Finally, I sighed and picked up my muffin again. ‘The upshot is, we might as well glow in the dark in terms of staying inconspicuous. So it looks like it’s ix-nay on the Institute, at least for a while.” I felt so frustrated I could have screamed.
“Maybe we could wear disguises,” the Gasman suggested.
“Yeah, like glasses and funny noses,” Angel agreed.
I smiled at them. “You think?”
That afternoon, we had to venture out to get food again. Six pairs of glasses with funny noses hadn’t materialized, so we went as is.
At the nearest deli, we stocked up on sandwiches, drinks, chips, cookies, anything we could carry and eat at the same time.
“So I’m thinking we should leave the city as soon as it gets dark,” I said to Fang.
He nodded. “Where to?”
“Not too far,” I said. “I’m still bent on getting to the bottom of the Institute, so to speak. Maybe upstate a bit? Or somewhere by the ocean?”
I recoiled and dropped my soda as a young guy with a mohawk haircut jumped in front of us. Nudge bumped into my back, and Fang went very still.
“You guys are perfect!” he said excitedly.
How nice that someone thought so. But who was this wing nut?
“Perfect for what?” Fang asked with deadly calm.
The guy waved a skinny tattooed arm at a storefront. Its sign said, U ‘Do: Tomorrow’s styles today.
“We’re having a makeover fest!” the guy explained, sounding like we had just won a million dollars. “You guys can have total makeovers for free-as long as your stylist gets to do whatever he or she wants.”
“Like what?” Nudge asked with interest.
“Makeup, hairstyle, everything!” the guy promised ecstatically. “Except tattoos. We’d need a note from your parents.”
“So that’s out,” I said under my breath.
“I want to do it!” Nudge said. “It sounds so fun! Can we do it, Max? I want a makeover!”
“Uh…” I saw a couple teenage girls emerging from U ‘Do. They looked wild. I bet their own friends wouldn’t have recognized them.
“I’m up for it,” I said briskly, as Fang’s eyes widened a fraction of an inch. I gave him a meaningful look. “We’d love to be made over. Make us look completely different.”
PART 6 WHO’SYOURDADDY, WHO’SYOURMOMMA ?
“That is so cool,” Nudge said approvingly as I turned to let her see the back of my new jean jacket. Of course, I would have to cut huge slits in it to let my wings out, but other than that, it was great.
I looked at her and grinned. She looked so not Nudge, I was still startled every time I saw her. Her dark brown supercurly hair had been blow-dried perfectly straight and cut in layers. Then they’d streaked it with blond highlights. The difference was incredible-she’d gone from scruffy adolescent to slightly short fashion model in under an hour. I’d never noticed that she had the potential to be gorgeous when she grew up. If she grew up.
“Check this out!” The Gasman had outfitted himself in camouflage, down to his sneakers.
“Okay by me,” I said, giving him a thumbs-up.
In this barnlike secondhand shop, we were in the process of completing our total physical transformation. Some of Gazzy’s pale blond hair had been bleached white. They’d spiked it with gel and colored just the spiky tips bright blue. The sides were supershort.
“I still wish you’d let me get ‘Bite Me’ shaved into the back of my head,” he complained.
“No,” I said, straightening his collar.
“Iggy got his ear pierced.”
“Nein,” I said.
“But everyone does it!” he said in a perfect imitation of his stylist.
He made an exasperated sound and went over by Fang, whose hair had been cut short also, except for one long chunk that flopped over in front of his eyes. It had been highlighted with several mottled tan shades and now it looked exactly like a hawk’s plumage. Quelle coinky-dink. In this store, he’d exchanged his basic black ensemble for a slightly different basic black ensemble.
“I like this,” said Angel, holding up something froufrou. I’d already outfitted her in new cargo pants and a T-shirt, and she’d picked out a fluffy blue fleece jacket.
“Um,” I said, looking at it.
“It’s so pretty, Max,” she coaxed. “Please?”
I wondered if I would be able to tell if she was putting thoughts into my head. Her eyes were wide and innocent looking.
“And Celeste really likes it too,” Angel added.
“The thing is, Angel,” I said, “I’m not sure how practical tutus are-given how much we’re on the run and all.”
She looked at the tutu and frowned. “I guess.”
“We ready?” Iggy asked with a touch of impatience. “Not that I don’t adore shopping.”
“You look like you stuck your finger in a light socket,” the Gasman said.
Iggy’s strawberry-blond hair was spiked like Gazzy’s and tipped with black on the ends.
“Really?” Iggy asked. “Cool!” He’d gotten his ear pierced before I’d noticed: His thin gold wire loop was the only thing I’d had to pay for.
We walked out into the late afternoon. I felt free and happy, even though the Institute was on hold at the moment. I bet not even Jeb would recognize me.
My stylist had picked up my long braid and simply whacked it off. Now my hair floated in feathery layers. No more hair getting in my eyes when I flew. No spitting wisps out of my mouth in the middle of an escape.
Not only that, but they’d streaked it with chunky strands of hot pink and, despite my protest, gone to town with makeup. So now I looked both totally different and about twenty years old. Being five-eight helped.