Suddenly, he changed gears completely. He wasn’t yelling anymore. “Max, you want answers to the secrets of life, and that’s not how it works. Not for anybody, not even you. I’m your friend. Never forget that.”
“I already have!” I yelled, then turned away, leaving Jeb behind.
“Take a right!” I shouted at Angel, and she did, swerving gracefully into a larger tunnel.
Just as I swerved after her, almost crashing into a wall because I banked too late, I heard one last, haunting cry. Jeb had changed his tone again-he was screaming at me, and I pictured his red face, red as a stop sign.
“You killed your own brother!”
Jeb’s horrifying words echoed in my head again and again, the meaning and consequences seeming worse each time. You killed your own brother. Could that be true? How? Or was this just more theater? Part of my test?
Somehow, we made it up to the street, where Fang was waiting. I felt faint, like I’d been hit by a truck, but I forced myself to keep moving. I remembered what was stuffed in my pockets. Names, addresses, pictures-of our parents?
“Where are the other kids? The mutants?” I asked Fang. So much was going on now. It was hard to keep it all straight, but it had to be done, so I did it.
“The girl with wings took them.” He shrugged. “She didn’t want to stay with us. Wouldn’t take no for an answer. Sound like anyone you know?”
I waved him off-I didn’t want to talk about it now, didn’t want to talk about anything.
I could still see Ari’s eyes rolling back, could hear his neck snapping.
“Just walk. Keep walking,” I said, and started to limp forward. “Walk the walk.”
It was almost two minutes later that I realized Angel was carrying something besides Celeste.
“Angel?” I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. “What’s that?”
Something small and black and furry squirmed under her arm.
“It’s my dog,” said Angel, and her chin went stiff, like it always did when she was about to get stubborn.
“Your what?” Fang said, peering at the object in question.
We all gathered around Angel, but then I remembered how conspicuous we were. “Let’s move,” I muttered. “But this discussion isn’t over, Angel.”
In Battery Park, down at the tip of Manhattan, a small, abandoned band shell was almost completely hidden by overgrown rhododendrons and yew bushes. We huddled under its shelter as the rain washed dust off the city. I was wiped. I felt like I had absolutely nothing left.
“Okay,” I said, sitting up straighter, trying to put energy into my voice. “Angel, explain the dog.”
“He’s my dog,” she said firmly, not looking at me. “From the Institute.”
Fang sent me a look that said, If you let her keep this dog, I will kill you.
“Angel, we cannot have a dog with us,” I said sternly.
The dog wiggled out of her arms to sit at her side. It looked pretty normal as far as I could tell. Its bright, black doggy eyes shone at me, and it was grinning in a friendly way. Its short, stumpy tail was wagging. Its nose sniffed the air happily, excited by all the new scents in the world.
Angel gathered the dog to her. The Gasman edged closer to look at it.
“And besides, you have Celeste,” I pointed out.
“I love Celeste,” Angel said loyally. “But I couldn’t leave Total behind.”
“Total?” Iggy asked.
“That’s what his card said,” Angel explained.
“Totally a mutant dog who will probably turn on us and kill us in our sleep,” Fang said.
The dog cocked his head to one side, his grin fading a moment. Then his tail wagged again, insult forgotten.
Fang looked at me: I got to be the bad cop and lay down the law.
“Angel,” I began cajolingly. “We can’t always feed ourselves. We’re on the run. It’s dangerous out here. It’s all we can do to deal with us.”
Angel set her jaw and looked at her sneakers. “He’s the most wonderful dog in the whole wide world,” she said. “So there.”
I looked at Fang helplessly.
“Angel,” he said severely. She looked up at him with wide blue eyes, her face grubby, clothes filthy, cornrows all fuzzy.
“The first time you don’t take care of him, boom, he’s out,” Fang said. “Understood?”
Angel’s face lit up, and she threw herself into Fang’s arms while I gaped at him. He hugged Angel back, then caught my expression. He shrugged and let Angel go.
“She made Bambi eyes at me,” he whispered. “You know I can’t resist it when she does Bambi eyes.”
“Total!” Angel cried. “You can stay!”
She hugged the small wiggling black body, then drew back to beam at him. Total gave a happy yip, then made an excited leap.
And our jaws dropped. We all stared in disbelief. Total almost hit the top of the band shell, about sixteen feet above us.
“Oh,” said Angel, and Total landed, almost bottomed out, then jumped up again and licked her face.
“Yeah, oh,” I said.
That night we made a small camp fire and sat near the water in a part of New York called Staten Island. We were licking our wounds. Especially me. I hurt all over. But I was also unbelievably excited about what I’d found at the Institute.
“Okay, we’re all safe, all together.” I took a deep breath and slowly released it. “We found the Institute and maybe we got exactly what we went there for. Guys, I found names, addresses, even pictures of people who might be our parents.”
I could see surprise, shock, incredible excitement on all of their faces, but also hints of fear and trepidation. Can you imagine what it’s like to meet your parents when you’re somewhere between six and fourteen? I sure couldn’t.
“What are you waiting on?” asked Iggy. “The envelope, please. Open it, already. Then somebody tell me what it says.”
I felt a trembling sense of elation as I started pulling out the pages I’d taken from the Institute. Here were the answers to the mysteries of our lives, right? The others gathered around me, leaning over my shoulders, helping me smooth the printed pages flat without smearing the ink.
“Max, what did Jeb mean-you killed your brother?” Nudge asked out of the blue. The question was so typical of her-off in her own world again. “He didn’t mean that Ari was your brother, did he? You guys weren’t-I mean, triple yuk-”
I held up my hand, trying not to shriek from bottled-up emotion. “I don’t know, Nudge,” I said, forcing myself to sound calm. “I can’t think about it right now. Let’s read these pages. When someone gets to something interesting, yell.” I handed out the wrinkled stacks.
“Who’s your daddy?” crowed the Gasman. “Who’s your mommy?”
Angel started reading slowly, sounding out words. ‘This doesn’t make sense to me,” she said after about ten seconds.
Then the Gasman sat up. “Here I am!” he shouted. “Here I am!”
“Let me see, Gazzy.”
The Gasman handed me his stack and I pored over it. Sure enough, I found his name: “F28246eff (the Gasman).” My heart nearly stopped.
“Here’s an address!” I said, tracing my finger down a page. “It’s in Virginia!”
“I’ve got an address too, and some names,” said Fang. “And my name. And, oh man, there are pictures.”
“Let us see, let us see!”
Everybody gathered around Fang, and even though he’s usually Mr. Calm, Cool, and Collected, he was shaking. We all were. I myself was trembling like the temp had dipped about fifty degrees.
Nudge was pointing at a photocopy in Fang’s hand. It showed a man and woman who seemed to be in their thirties. “He looks just like you, Fang. And so does she. They’ve got to be your mom and dad! No doubt.”
Her voice choked up, and suddenly we were all crying, except Fang, of course, who just muttered, “Maybe, maybe not.”
Then everybody was looking through the pages, searching for their parents. Nobody made a sound. Until-
“Here they are! My mom and dad!” Gazzy shouted. “One sixty-seven Cortlandt Lane in Alexandria, Virginia! Angel, look! This is them. It’s totally amazing. It’s a miracle. They look like me! And you too, Angel!”
Angel stared at the picture silently for a moment, and then her face crumpled and she was sobbing. I instantly reached out and held her small body close, stroking her hair. Angel’s usually no softie, and when I felt her shake with sobs, my chest ached with her pain. Talk about your Kodak moment. Or Fuji. Whatever.
“There’s lots of numbers and nonsense printed all over these pages too,” Fang said, bringing me back to the here and now.
I saw the same thing. “Why scramble just some of the information? It doesn’t make sense.”
“Who cares?” Gazzy yelled happily. “I found my mom and dad! YAA-HOO! I take back being mad at them!”
Fang, Gazzy, and Angel had hit the jackpot, but so far, Iggy and I hadn’t. And Nudge still wasn’t sure if her ‘rents were out west or not.
“Iggy! Iggy! Your mom! Oh, aww-. Says your dad is deceased,” the Gasman reported. “Sorry about your dad. But your mom looks neat.” He started to describe her out loud.
So then there was just one outsider, only one of us without a mom and dad in the files from the Institute. You guessed it: moi. I still belonged to nobody, nowhere.
I’d like to say that I’m such a good person, such a team player, that I didn’t feel totally left out, heartachey, just about ripped apart and destroyed-but I really am trying to get the lying under control. I did feel all those terrible things, and a whole lot more.
But I put on a brave face, and smiled, and oohed and aahed and reread files, being happy for my guys-who, face it, hadn’t had much happiness yet in their hard, short, weird lives.
But my mind-like-a-steel-trap couldn’t let something go. “So why scramble this other information?” I finally asked again. Just to say something else, to put myself somewhere besides the throne of pain.
“Maybe it’s information the whitecoats never wanted anyone to find out,” Fang said in the hollow Twilight Zone-y voice he used sometimes when things got unusually weird-as opposed to regular weird.
“Like-funding,” I said, thinking. “Or hospitals who gave them babies. Other messed-up scientists who help them. Like the keys to the whole Evil Empire.”
“Holy Joe,” said Iggy, sitting up excitedly. “If we had that stuff, we could blow them wide open! We could send it to a newspaper. That fat guy could make a movie-like Bowling for Columbine or something.”
My heart did flip-flops just thinking about it.
“I don’t care about that stuff,” said Nudge. “I just want to find my mom and dad once and for all. Wait, wait! This is me!” Holding her breath, she examined the information surrounding N88034gnh (Monique). “Know what?” Nudge quickly glanced from page to page. “All these addresses are in Virginia and Maryland and Washington, DC. That’s all kind of close together, isn’t it? Plus, DC is where the government is, right?”
“This is the coolest thing ever,” said Iggy, a far-off look coming over his face. “First we meet our parents. Joyful reunion, hugs, kisses. Then we go destroy the School, the Institute, all those sons of b- I mean, all those jerks who messed us up. That would be so great. Like, we could wipe out the Erasers, all of ’em, at once. Way cool!”
“So what are we going to do?” the Gasman asked, suddenly very serious. “For real?”
“I want to do whatever Max does,” said Angel. “And so do Celeste and Total.”
Total wriggled, hearing his name, and licked Angel’s hand. Whatever had been done to him at the Institute, he didn’t seem to be holding any grudges. Now he licked Celeste.
That poor bear needed a bath in a big way. We all did. I looked at the troops. We were safe, for now. We were together. A wave of thankfulness came over me.
“We go to DC,” I said finally. “And take baths. And start tracking your parents down. We have all their addresses, right?”
“Woo-hoo!” the Gasman shouted, slapping Iggy high five, taking him by surprise.
I smiled at them. I loved them all so much and I wanted them to be happy. I could do this for them. But inside, I felt as if black holes were eating through my chest. I had killed someone today. Maybe my own brother. Now we were going to start finding out about our pasts, maybe the meaning of our lives, and I didn’t know if that’s what I wanted. And only partly because I had no idea who my mother and father were.
But none of that mattered, right? These guys were my family. I owed it to them to try to help their dreams come true.
Even if it killed me.
Very late that night, or maybe it was early in the morning, I tried to talk to the Voice. Maybe, just maybe, it would deign to answer me.
I have two questions for you, okay ? Just two questions. No, make that three questions. Okay. Where are my mom and dad? How come I’m the only one with no files at all? Why am I having these terrible headaches? And who are you? Are you an enemy that’s inside me? Or are you my friend?
The Voice came right back to me: That’s more than three questions, Max. And sometimes whether someone is your friend or enemy is all in how you look at it. But if you must know, I consider myself your friend, a good friend who loves you very much. No one loves you more than I do, Maximum. Now listen. I ask the questions, not you. You’re just here, and the Voice actually chuckled,/or the ride. For the incredible, indescribable Maximum Ride.
There’s nothing in the whole wide world like flying in the early morning, say around sixish.
At fifteen thousand feet, I could still make out the colors of cars inching along the New Jersey Turnpike below us. It felt fabulous to be wheeling in the air again, stretching my wings out fully, working out the soreness. We were flying in loose formation, coasting in one another’s air wakes, smiling at nothing. We were happy to be together in the sky, way above the world that held our mysteries and our pain.
Total seemed to like the wind whistling through his fur, and the altitude didn’t seem to be bothering his breathing yet. I knew the others were excited about finding their parents, and I knew that I was going down that road with them, to the end of the line.
Fang glanced over at me, his face smooth and impassive, though I could almost feel the anticipation rolling off his feathers. I smiled at him, and his dark eyes lit.