“There’s a little park up here,” Fang said, pointing.
I nodded. It would be darker than the street, and we’d have enough room to take off. Five minutes later, we were rising above the city, leaving the lights and noise and energy behind. It felt fabulous to stretch my wings out, stroking hard, feeling so much faster and smoother and cooler than I did on the ground.
Just for fun I flew in huge, banking arcs, taking deep breaths, enjoying the feel of my newly weightless hair. The stylist had called it “wind-tossed.”
If only she knew.
Up this high, I could clearly see the outline of Manhattan. Right across the East River was Long Island, which was much, much bigger than New York City. We flew above its coast as the sun went down, barely able to see the curly ridges of white-capped waves breaking along the shore.
After an hour and a half, we saw a long stretch of black beach with few lights, which meant few people. Fang nodded at me, and we aimed downward, enjoying the heady rush of losing altitude. Roller coasters had nothing on us.
“Looks good,” Fang said, scoping out the beach after we landed on the soft sand. It was undeveloped, with no attached parking lots. Huge boulders sealed off both ends, so it seemed even safer. Plus, other large boulders formed a natural outcropping that created a bit of shelter maybe thirty yards inland.
“Home, sweet home,” I said drily, taking off my new backpack.
I rummaged in it for food, passed out what we had, and sank down on a large chunk of driftwood. Twenty minutes later, we stacked fists, tapped, and then curled up in the sand beneath the outcropping.
I winced slightly as the Voice drifted into my head. Time to learn, it said.
Then I was pulled into unconsciousness as if getting dragged beneath a wave. Dimly, I heard bits of foreign languages that I didn’t understand, and the Voice said, This is on a need-to-know basis, Max. You need to know.
The ocean. Another new and incredible experience. We’d grown up in lab cages until four years ago, when Jeb had stolen us. Then we’d been in hiding, avoiding new experiences at all costs.
Now we were doing something different every day. It was a trip.
“A crab!” the Gasman yelled, pointing at the surf by his feet. Angel ran over to see, holding Celeste so her back paws barely touched the water.
“Cookie?” Iggy asked, holding out a bag.
“Don’t mind if I do,” I said. This morning I had toned down my appearance a tad, then Nudge and I had hit the closest town. We’d stocked up on supplies at a mom-and-pop store that sold their own fresh homemade cookies.
My mission, and I chose to accept it, was to find chocolate-chip cookies as good as the ones I’d made with Ella and her mom. So I’d brought back a couple dozen.
I took a bite of cookie and chewed. “Hmm,” I said, trying not to spit crumbs. “Clear vanilla notes, too-sweet chocolate chips, distinct flavor of brown sugar. A decent cookie, not spectacular. Still, a good-hearted cookie, not pretentious.” I turned to Fang. “What say you?”
Some people just don’t have what it takes to appreciate a cookie.
“I give them a seven out of ten,” I pressed on dutifully. “Though warm from the oven, they lack a certain je ne sais quoi. My mission will continue.”
Iggy laughed and rummaged in a bag for an apple.
Nudge ran up, her clothes wet past her knees. “This place is so cool,” she said. “I love the ocean! I want to be a scientist who studies the ocean when I grow up. I would go out to sea, and scuba dive, and find new things, and National Geographic will hire me.”
Sure, Nudge. Probably around the same time I become president.
Nudge ran back to the water, and Iggy got up and ambled after her.
“They’re happy here,” Fang said, looking at them.
I nodded. “What’s not to like? Fresh air, peace and quiet, the ocean. Too bad we can’t stay here.”
Fang was quiet for a moment. “What if we were safe here?” he asked. “Like, we just knew no one would come hassle us. Would you want to stay?”
I was surprised. “We have to find the Institute,” I said. “And if we find out anything, the others will want to track down their parents. And then, do we find Jeb and confront him? And who’s the Director? Why did they do this to us? Why do they keep telling me I’m supposed to save the world?”
Fang held up his hand, and I realized my voice had been rising.
“What if,” Fang said slowly, not looking at me, “what if we just forgot about all that?”
My jaw dropped open. You live with someone your whole life, you think you know them, and then they go and drop a bomb like this. “What are you-” I started to say, but then the Gasman ran up with a live hermit crab, which he plopped in my lap, and then Angel wanted lunch. I didn’t have a chance to grab Fang’s shoulders and yell, “Who are you and what have you done with the real Fang?”
The next morning, Fang came back from town and placed the New York Post at my feet with a little bow. I flipped through the paper. On page six, I saw “Mysterious Bird-Children Nowhere to Be Found.”
“Well, good for us,” I said. “We’ve gone two days without causing a huge commotion in a public place and getting our pictures splashed all over the news.”
“We’re going swimming!” Nudge said, tapping Iggy’s hand twice. He got up and followed her, Angel, and Gazzy down to the water.
The sun was shining, and though the ocean was still pretty cold, it didn’t bother them. I was glad they were having this little vacation, where they could just have fun and eat and swim without stressing out about everything.
I was still stressing, of course.
Next to me, Fang read the paper, absently working his way through a can of peanuts. I watched the younger kids playing in the water. Iggy started a sand castle, built by touch, just out of reach of the waves.
How come the Erasers hadn’t found us yet? Sometimes they tracked us so easily, and other times, like now, we seemed to be truly hidden. Did I have a homing signal in my implanted chip or not? If I did, why weren’t the Erasers here by now? It was like they were just toying with us, keeping us on our toes, like a game…
Like a game. Like a freaking game.
Just like Jeb had said back at the School. Just like the Voice kept telling me, that everything was a game, that you learn through playing, that everything, every single thing, was a test.
I felt like a neon sign had just lit up right in front of my face. For the first time, I finally, finally understood that this all might be a huge, twisted, sick, important game.
And I had been cast as a major player.
I sifted coarse sand through my fingers, thinking hard. Okay. If this was a game, were there only two sides? Were there any double agents?
I opened my mouth to blurt my thoughts out to Fang but stopped. He glanced at me, his dark eyes curious, and suddenly I felt a cold dread. I dropped my gaze, feeling my cheeks heat.
What if we weren’t all on the same team?
Part of me felt ashamed for even having that thought, and part of me remembered how many times my adorable paranoia had saved our butts.
I glanced out at the water, where Angel was splashing the Gasman and laughing. She dove beneath the surface, and Gazzy started chasing her.
Had Angel been different since we’d gotten her back from the School? I groaned and dropped my head into my hands. It was all too much. If I couldn’t trust these five people, then my life wasn’t worth living.
“Your head hurt?” Fang asked with quiet alertness.
Sighing, I shook my head no, then looked back at the ocean. I depended on Fang. I needed him. I had to be able to trust him.
Gazzy was staring at the surface of the water, turning this way and that, seeming confused. Then he looked up at me, panic on his face.
Angel hadn’t come back up. She was still under water.
I started running.
“Angel!” I yelled, plunging into the water. I reached Gazzy and grabbed his shoulder. “Where did she go down?”
“Right here!” he said. “She dove that way! I saw her go under.”
Fang splashed in behind me, and Nudge and Iggy made their way over. The five of us peered into the cold gray blue water, able to see only a few inches down. A wave broke over us.
“This would be an excellent time for one of us to develop X-ray vision,” I muttered, a cold hand closing around my heart. I felt the strong tug of an underwater current pulling at my legs, saw how the wind was rippling the water out to sea.
“Angel!” Nudge yelled, cupping her hands around her mouth.
“Angel!” I shouted, wading through the water, taking big strides, praying I would brush against her.
Fang was sweeping his arms through the water, his face close to the surface. We fanned out, squinting from the sun’s glare, taking turns diving into the surf.
My throat closed, and I felt like I would choke. My voice was a strangled rasp; my eyes stung from the glare and the salt.
We had covered a big circle, maybe thirty yards out, and still there was no sign of her. My Angel. I glanced back at the shore, as if I would see her walking out onto the sand toward Celeste, who waited for her by a piece of driftwood.
Endless minutes ticked by.
I could feel the undertow pulling at my whole body. I couldn’t stop picturing Angel’s body being pulled out to sea, her eyes wide with terror. Had we come so far only to lose her now?
“Do you see anything?” I cried to Fang. He shook his head, keeping his eyes on the water, sweeping his arms back and forth.
Once again, we swept the whole area, taking in every detail of the water, the beach, the open sea. And did it again. And again.
I saw something and blinked, then looked harder. What was-was it-oh, God! Hundreds of yards away, a small, wet cornrowed head popped out of the water. I stared. Angel stood up in waist-high water and waved at us.
My knees almost buckled. I had to catch myself before I did a face-plant in the water.
Angel and I surged toward each other, the others catching up.
“Angel,” I could barely whisper, unbelieving, when I was finally close enough. “Angel, where were you?”
“Guess what?” she said happily. “I can breathe under water!”
I grabbed Angel into my arms, hugging her wet, chilly body against me. “Angel,” I murmured, trying not to cry, “I thought you had drowned! What were you doing?”
She wriggled closer, and I steered her to shore. We collapsed on the wet sand, and I saw the Gasman fighting back tears too.
“I was just swimming,” Angel said, “and I accidentally swallowed some water and started to choke. But I didn’t want Gazzy to find me. We were playing hide-and-seek,” she explained. “Under water. So I just stayed under, and then I realized that I could sort of swallow water and stay under and not choke.”
“What do you mean, swallow water?” I asked.
“I just swallow it and then go like this.” Angel blew air out of her nose, and I almost laughed at the face she made.
“It comes out your nose?” Fang asked.
“No,” Angel said. “I don’t know where the water goes. But air comes out my nose.”
I looked at Fang. “She’s extracting oxygen from the water.”
“Can you show us?” Fang asked. Angel got up and trotted to the shore. She plunged in when the water was waist high. I was inches away from her, determined she wasn’t going to get lost again, even for a second.
She knelt down, took a big mouthful of water, and stood up. She seemed to swallow it, then blew air out of her nose. My eyes bulged until I thought they’d just fall out: Rivulets of seawater were seeping out of invisible pores on each side of Angel’s neck.
“Holy moly,” the Gasman breathed.
Nudge explained to Iggy what was happening, and he whistled, impressed.
“And I can do it and stay under and just keep swimming,” Angel said. She wiggled her shoulders, unfolding her wings so they could dry in the bright sunlight.
“I bet I can do it too!” the Gasman said. ” ‘Cause we’re siblings.”
He dropped down into the water and scooped up a big mouthful. Then he swallowed it, trying to blow out air.
He gagged, then choked and started coughing violently. Seawater streamed out his nose, and he gagged again and almost barfed.
“You okay?” I asked when he had finally shuddered to a halt.
He nodded, looking wet, miserable, nauseated.
“Iggy,” I said, “touch Angel’s neck and see if you can feel anything, those pores that water comes through.”
Like a feather, Iggy skimmed his fingertips over her fair skin, all around her neck. “I can’t feel a thing,” he said, which surprised me.
So we all had to try it, just in case. No one except Angel could do it. I’ll spare you the revolting details, but let me just say that’s one stretch of ocean you won’t catch me swimming in for a while.
So Angel could breathe under water. Our abilities kept unfolding, as if certain things had been programmed to come out at different times, like when we reached certain ages. In a way it felt like being kinged in checkers-all of a sudden you had more strength, more power than you had before. How weird.
Not weird, Max, my Voice suddenly chimed in. Divine. And brilliant. You six are works of art. Enjoy it.
Well, I would, I thought bitterly, If I wasn’t so busy running for my life all the time. Jeez. Works of art or freaks? Glass half empty, glass half full. Like I wouldn’t give up my wings in a second to have a regular life with regular parents and regular friends.
A tinkling laugh sounded in my head. Come on, Max, said the Voice. You and I both know that isn’t true. A regular family and a regular life would bore you to tears. “Who asked you?” I said angrily. “Asked me what?” said Nudge, looking up in surprise. “Nothing,” I muttered. And there you have it. Some people get cool abilities like reading minds and breathing under water, and some people get annoying voices locked inside their head. Lucky me.
What do you wish you could do, Max? asked the Voice. If you could do anything?
Hmm. I hadn’t thought about it. I mean, I could already fly. Maybe I would want to be able to read minds, like Angel. But then I would know what everyone thought, like if someone really didn’t like me but acted like they did. But if I could do anything?
Maybe you would want to be able to save the world, the Voice said. Did you ever think of that?
No. I frowned. Leave that to the grown-ups.