I turned to Fang and barely opened my mouth.
“No,” he said.
My eyes narrowed…I opened my mouth again.
“Meet me at the northernmost point of Lake Mead,” I said.
“What? What are you talking about?” Nudge asked. “Are we stopping? I’m hungry again.”
“Max wants to go be Supergirl, defender of the weak,” Fang said, sounding irritated.
“Oh.” Nudge looked down, frowning at the ground as if it would all become clear soon.
I had started a wide circle that would take me back toward the girl below. I kept thinking, What if that girl was in trouble, like Angel, and no one stopped to help her?
“Oh! Max, remember when you got that little rabbit away from the fox, and we kept it in a carton in the kitchen, and then when it was well you let it go? That was cool.” Nudge paused. “Did you see another rabbit?”
“Kind of,” I said, my patience starting to wear thin. “It’ll take two seconds.”
I told Fang, “I’ll catch up with you guys before you’ve gone forty miles. Just keep on course, and if anything weird happens, I’ll meet you at Lake Mead.”
Fang stared ahead, the wind whipping through his hair. He hated this, I knew.
Well, you can’t please everybody all the time.
“Okay,” I said briskly. “See you in a few.”
The thing about Iggy was, well, sometimes he could figure stuff out like a real scientist. He was that supersmart, scary smart.
“Do we have any chlorine?” the Gasman asked Iggy. “It seems to be kind of explosive when mixed with other stuff.”
Iggy frowned. “Like what, your socks? No, we don’t have chlorine. No swimming pool. What color is this wire?”
The Gasman leaned over and examined the tangled pile of stereo guts spread out on the kitchen table. “It looks like a robot came in here and threw up,” he observed. “That wire’s yellow.”
“Okay. Keep track of the yellow wire. Very important. Do not confuse it with the red one.”
The Gasman consulted the schematics he had downloaded off the Internet. This morning Iggy had unfrozen the compressor fan inside the CPU, so the computer now worked without shutting down in hysteria every ten minutes. He had just fixed the computer, presto change-o.
“Okey dokey,” Gazzy muttered, flipping through pages. “Next step, we need some kind of timing device.”
Iggy thought for a moment. Then he smiled. Even his eyes seemed to smile.
“Well, that’s an evil grin,” Gasser said uneasily.
“Go get me Max’s alarm clock. The Mickey Mouse one.”
I landed a bit hard and had to run really fast to keep from doing a total face plant. 1 was somewhere in Arizona, trotting through scrubby brush behind a deserted warehouse. I pulled my wings in, feeling them fold, hot from exercise, into a tight accordion on either side of my spine. I tied my windbreaker around my neck. There. Perfectly normal looking.
When I rounded the corner of the warehouse, I saw that there were three guys, maybe fifteen, sixteen years old. The girl looked younger, maybe twelve or so.
“I told you not to tell anybody about my little situation with Ortiz,” one boy was yelling at her. “It was none of your business. I had to teach him a lesson.”
The girl bit her lip, looking angry and scared. “By beating him up? He looks like he got hit by a car. And he didn’t do anything to you,” she said, and I thought, You go, girl.
“He mouthed off to me. He exists. He breathes my air.” said the guy, and his jerk friends laughed meanly. God, what creeps. Armed creeps. One of them was holding a shotgun loosely in the crook of his arm. America, right to bear arms, yada, yada, yada. How old were these yahoos? Did their parents know they had guns?
It gets so tiring, this strong-picking-on-the-weak stuff. It was the story of my life-literally-and it seemed to be a big part of the outside world too. I was sick of it, sick of guys like these, stupid and bullying.
I stepped out from beside the building. The girl saw me, and her eyes flicked in surprise. It was enough. The guys wheeled to look behind them.
Just another stupid girl, they thought, relieved. Their eyes lingered a moment on my scratched face, my black eye, but they didn’t keep watching me. Mistake number one.
“So, Ella, what have you got to say for yourself?” the lead guy taunted. “Is there any reason I shouldn’t teach you a lesson too?”
“Three guys against one girl. That seems about even,” I said, striding up. It was hard to keep the fury off my face. My blood was singing with it.
“Shut up, chick,” one of the boys snapped. “You better get out of here if you know what’s good for you.”
“Can’t,” I said, walking to stand next to the girl named Ella. She looked at me in alarm. “Actually, I think kicking your stupid butts would be good for me.”
They laughed. Mistake number two.
Like the rest of the flock, I’m much stronger than even a grown man-genetic engineering at work. And all of us had been trained in self-defense by Jeb. I had skills. Until yesterday, I’d never had to use them. If I could just get Ella out of here…
“Grab Big Mouth,” said the head guy, and the other two moved to flank me.
Which made mistake number three. Bam, you’re out.
I moved fast, fast, fast. With no warning, I snapped a high kick right into the lead jerk’s chest. A blow that would have only knocked Fang’s breath away actually seemed to snap a rib on this guy. I heard the crack, and the guy choked, looking shocked, and fell backward.
The remaining guys rushed me at once. I whirled and grabbed the shotgun out of one’s hands. Holding its barrel, I swung it in a wide arc against the side of his head. Crack! Stunned, he staggered sideways as a bright red flow of blood streamed from his scalp.
I glanced over and saw Ella still standing there, looking afraid. 1 hoped not of me.
“Run!” I yelled at her. “Get out of here!” After a moment of hesitation, she turned and ran, leaving a little cloud of red dust behind her.
The third grabbed my arm, and I yanked it loose, then swung and punched him, aiming for his chin but hitting his nose. I winced-oops-feeling his nose break, and there was a slow-motion pause of about a second before it started gushing blood. Jeezum-humans were like eggshells.
The bullyboys were a mess. But still they staggered to their feet, rage and humiliation twisting their ugly faces. One of them picked up his gun and cocked it, favoring his right arm.
“You’re gonna be so sorry,” he promised, spitting blood out of his mouth and starting toward me.
“Bet I won’t,” I said. Then I turned tail and raced for the woods as fast as I could.
Of course, if I could have taken off, I’d have been a little speck in the sky by then. But T couldn’t let those yoyos see my wings, and within seconds I was in the woods anyway.
I ran through the underbrush, smacking branches out of my way, glad I was wearing shoes. I had no idea where I was going.
Behind me I could hear a couple of the bozos yelling, swearing, threatening. I wanted to laugh but couldn’t spare the time. I was steadily increasing the distance between us.
Then I heard a loud bang! from the shotgun, and tree bark exploded around my head. That stupid gun.
Are you thinking what I think you’re thinking? Are you wondering if I noticed the similarities between this asinine situation and my dream? Well, yeah. I’m not an idiot. As to what it all meant, well, I’ll work on that later.
In the next second, there was another bang, and almost simultaneously a sudden, searing pain in my left shoulder. I gasped and glanced over to see blood blossoming on my sleeve. That idiot had actually hit me!
Then sheer bad luck made me instantly trip over a tree root, fall on my hurt shoulder, and slide crazily down a steep slope, through bushes, underbrush, vines, and rocks. I tried to grab anything, but my left arm couldn’t move well, and my right hand scrabbled uselessly.
Finally, I tumbled to a stop at the bottom of an overgrown ravine. Looking up, I saw only green: I was covered by vines and shrubs.
I lay very still, trying to catch my breath, trying to think. Far above me, I heard the wild boys yelling and shooting again. They sounded like elephants crashing through the woods, and I tracked them clearly as they ran right past where I fell.
I felt like an ogre had just beaten me all over with a club. I could barely move my left arm, and it hurt like fire. I tried to stretch out my wing, only to suck my breath in hard as I found out it had been hit too. I couldn’t see it well over my shoulder, but my big clue was the screaming pain.
I was scraped all over, had lost my windbreaker, and, if I wasn’t mistaken, I was sitting in a patch of poison ivy.
Slowly, I stood up, smothering gasps of pain. I had to get out of here. I checked the sun and started working my way north. I swallowed a groan as I realized that Nudge and Fang were no doubt wondering where the heck I was.
I had messed up big-time. Angel was waiting for me too-if she was still alive. I had let them all down.
On top of it, I was hurt pretty bad and had gun-toting maniacs after me. Crap.
I scowled. It’s in my nature to fight for the underdog. Jeb had always told me it was my fatal flaw.
Jeb had been right.
“Fang? I’m really hungry, you know?” It had been almost an hour since Max had left them. Nudge still didn’t understand exactly what had happened, where Max had gone.
Fang nodded curtly, then motioned with his head. Nudge banked slightly and followed him.
They were coming up on some cliffs, flat on top and made of striated rock. Fang headed toward a shadowy indentation, and Nudge started backpedaling to slow down for a landing. This close, the indentation turned into a broad, shallow cave, and Nudge ducked a bit as she set down inside.
Fang landed almost silently beside her.
The cave went maybe fifteen feet in and was about twenty feet wide, tapering at both ends. The floor was sandy and dry, and Nudge sat down thankfully.
Fang took off his backpack and started handing her food.
“Oh, yes, yes,” Nudge said, ripping open a bag of dried fruit.
Fang waved a chocolate bar in front of her, and she squealed happily. “Oh, Fang, where did you find this? You must have been hiding it-you didn’t say anything, and all this time you’ve had chocolate, and oh, God, it’s so good…”
Fang gave her a little smile and sat down. He bit into his chocolate and closed his dark eyes for a few moments, chewing slowly.
“So where’s Max?” Nudge asked a few minutes later. “Why’d she go down there? Shouldn’t she be back by now? Aren’t we supposed to go all the way to Lake Mead? What are we gonna do if she doesn’t come back soon-” She stopped when Fang held up his hand.
“Max saw someone in trouble, down below, and went to help,” he said in his quiet, deliberate voice. “We’ll wait here for her; Lake Mead is right below us.”
Nudge worried. Every second counted. So why were they stuck here? What was Max doing that was more important than Angel? She finished her last dried apricot and looked around.
Okay, now that Fang mentioned it, she could see the blue edge of Lake Mead off to her left. Nudge stood up; her head barely touched the ceiling. Their cave had a fairly wide ledge on either side of it, and she walked out on the left ledge to see the lake better.
She froze. “Uh, Fang?”
Fang came out next to Nudge, then stood perfectly still. The ledge curved upward toward the top of the cliff. Thin, scrubby plants dotted the area, and boulders stuck out of hard-packed clay and rock.
In and among the rocks and plants were large nests, each about two feet across. Most of the nests had large fuzzy fledglings in them, and most of the fledglings had larger rust-colored parents, and most of the parents were staring tensely at Nudge and Fang with cold predators’ eyes.
“What are they?” Nudge whispered out the side of her mouth.
“Ferruginous hawks,” Fang said softly. “Largest raptor in the States. Sit down, very slowly. No sudden movements or we’re both bird feed.”
Okaaaay, Nudge thought, gradually sinking to her knees. She wanted to turn and run but guessed if she did, she might be attacked. The few talons she could see looked lethal. Not to mention the severe beaks, sharply curved and mean looking.
“Do you think-” she began softly, but Fang motioned for her to be quiet, very quiet.
He lowered himself next to her, his eyes on the birds. One of the hawks had a partially dismembered gopher in its mouth. Its fledglings were squawking loudly for it.
After several minutes, Nudge felt like she needed to scream. She hated sitting still, had a million things to ask, didn’t know how much longer she could take this inaction.
A small movement caught her eye. Fang was very slowly extending one of his wings.
Every hawk head swiveled in unison, their eyes focusing on the wing like lasers.
“I’m letting them catch my scent.” Fang’s lips barely moved.
What felt like a year later, the hawks seemed to relax a bit. They were huge, with an almost five-foot wingspan, and looked cold and powerful. On top, their wing feathers were mostly brown with russet streaks, and they were streaked with white below. Not unlike Nudge’s own wings, except hers were so much bigger, twice as big.
Some hawks went back to feeding their noisy offspring, others left in search of food, still others returned with dinner.
“Eew,” Nudge couldn’t help whispering when one hawk brought back a still-wriggling snake. The fledglings were excited to see it and practically climbed over one another trying to get the first bite. “Double eew.”
Fang turned his head slowly and grinned at her. Nudge was so surprised that she smiled back.
This was pretty cool. She was itchy to leave, wished Max would show up soon, and she wished they had more food, but all the same, it was pretty awesome to sit here in the sun, surrounded by huge, beautiful birds, her own wings stretched out and resting. She guessed it couldn’t hurt to do this for a little bit longer.
But not that long.
“Angel’s waiting for us,” Nudge said a bit later. “I mean, she’s like a little sister, like everyone’s little sister.”
She brushed some rock dust off her already dusty tan legs and scowled, picking at a scab on her knee. “At night, when we’re supposed to be asleep, me and Angel talk and tell jokes and stuff.” Her large brown eyes met Fang’s. “I mean, am I going to have to sleep in that room alone, whenever we get home? Max has to come back. She wouldn’t let Angel go, right?”