“No,” said Fang. “She won’t let Angel go. Look-you see how that big hawk, the one with the dark stripe on its shoulders-you see how he seems to move one wing faster than the other when he banks? It makes his bank really tight and smooth. We should try it.”
Nudge looked at him. That was probably the longest speech she’d ever heard Fang make.
She turned to watch the hawk he’d pointed out. “Yeah, I see what you mean.” But she’d barely finished before Fang had stood up, run lightly toward the edge of the cliff, and leaped off. His large, powerful dark wings caught the air and swooped him up. Fang flew closer to where the other hawks were circling in a kind of hawk ballet.
Nudge sighed. She really, really wished Max were here. Was Max hurt? Should they go back? She would ask Fang when he returned.
Just then he swept past her, level with their cave. “Come on!” he called. “Try it! You’ll fly better.”
Nudge sighed again and brushed some chocolate crumbs off her shirt. Wasn’t he worried about Angel? If he was, he probably wouldn’t show it, she guessed. But she knew Fang loved Angel-he’d read to her before she learned how to read, and even now he still held her when she was upset about something.
Well, I might as well practice too. Better than sitting around doing nothing. She flung herself off the cliff, unable to keep a bittersweet happiness from flooding her chest. It just felt so-beautiful, to float in the air, to move her wings strongly and feel herself glide freely through space.
She flew alongside Fang, and he demonstrated the move for her. She watched him and imitated it. It worked great.
She flew in huge circles, practicing the move and flying closer to the hawks, who seemed to be tolerating her. As long as she didn’t think about Max or Angel, she would be okay.
That evening Nudge lay on her stomach, her wings flat out around her, and watched the parent hawks grooming their young. They were so gentle, so attentive. These fierce, strong birds were carefully smoothing their fledglings’ mottled white feathers, feeding them, helping them get out of the nest to practice flying.
A lump came to her throat. She sniffled.
“What?” said Fang.
“These birds,” said Nudge, wiping her eyes and feeling stupid. “Like, these dumb hawks have more of a mom than I ever had. The parents are taking care of the little ones. No one ever did that for me. Well, besides Max. But she’s not a mom.”
“Yeah. I get it.” Fang didn’t look at her. His voice almost sounded sad.
The sun set, and the hawks settled down in their nests. Finally, the raucous fledglings quieted. When it had been dark for an hour, Fang edged closer to Nudge and held out his left hand in a fist. Nudge looked up at him, then stacked her left fist on top of his. It was something the flock always did together before bedtime.
Except they hadn’t done it when they’d fallen asleep in that cabin last night. And now it was just the two of them.
Nudge tapped his fist with her right hand, and he tapped hers.
“Night,” she whispered, feeling as if everything she cared about had been ripped away from her. Silently, she curled up against the wall of the cave.
“Night, Nudge,” whispered Fang.
Oh, man. This was not the best day I’d ever had. My shoulder was still bleeding a bit, even though I’d been pressing on it for hours. Every time I jostled it, warm blood oozed through my fingers.
I hadn’t run into the gun-carrying clowns again, but I’d heard them off and on. I’d been working my way north in a big arc, trying to weave a confusing trail for whoever might be following me. Every time I heard them, I froze for endless minutes, trying to blend in with the brush.
Then, cramped and stiffening, I would painstakingly start again. In case they brought dogs, I’d splashed through streams at least four times, and let me tell you, trying to keep your balance on moss-covered rocks in icy water with a hurt shoulder is no picnic.
I’d felt around on my shoulder and wing, and as far as I could tell, the shot had just scooped out a trail of flesh and wing but hadn’t actually lodged inside. Whatever-my arm and wing felt useless and they hurt awfully.
It was getting late. Angel was somewhere hours away, being subjected to God knows what horror, wondering where I was. I pressed my lips together, trying not to cry. I couldn’t fly, couldn’t catch up to Fang and Nudge, who were probably furious by now. It wasn’t like I could call their cell phones or anything.
This situation totally sucked, and it was 100 percent my own stupid fault, which made it suck even worse.
Then, of course, it started pouring rain.
So now I was slogging my way through wet woods, wet brush, red clay mud, wiping water out of my eyes, getting more chilled and more miserable and more hungry and more insanely furious at myself.
I hadn’t heard the guys in a long time-they had probably gone home to get out of the rain.
A minute later I blinked and wiped my eyes. I squinted. There were lights ahead.
If it was a store or shed, I could wait till everyone left and then hole up for the night. Soon I was only ten yards away, hunching down in the darkness, peering through the wet trees. It was a house.
A figure passed a window, and my eyebrows raised. It was that girl, Ella. This must be her house.
I bit my lip. She probably lived here with her two doting parents and her 1.6 siblings. How nice for her. Anyway, I was glad she had gotten home safe. Despite everything, if I had let those horrible guys beat her up, I never would have forgiven myself.
I shivered hard, feeling the icy rain run down my back. I was about to fall over. What to do here, get a plan…
I was still waiting for a brilliant inspiration when the side door of the house opened. Ella came out holding a huge umbrella. A shadow moved at her feet. It was a dog, a low-to-the-ground, fat dog.
“Come on, Magnolia,” Ella called. “Make it fast. You don’t want to get too wet.”
The dog started sniffing around the edge of their yard, snuffling in the weeds, oblivious to the rain. Ella turned and walked up and down, twirling her umbrella, scanning her yard. Her back was to me.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. I don’t know who first said that, but they were right on the money. I took a deep breath, then very, very quietly, began to move toward Ella.
Okay, two more blood samples and the glucose assay will be done. Then we can do the EEGs.
Why isn’t this over? Where are you, Max? Angel thought sadly as the whitecoat approached. The front of Angel’s dog crate opened, and a guy knelt down and peered in at her. She pressed herself against the back as hard as she could.
He reached in to grab her hand, where the shunt was, and noticed her face. He turned back to his fellow white-coats. “What happened to it?”
“It bit Reilly earlier,” someone said. “He hit it.”
Angel tried to pull herself into a tight little ball. The whole left side of her face throbbed. But she was glad she’d bitten him. She hated him. Hated all of them.
Stupid Reilly. Guy should work in a car wash. If he wrecks this specimen, I’ll kill him.
“Doesn’t he realize how unique this subject is?” the whitecoat said angrily. “I mean, this is Subject Eleven. Does he know how long we’ve been looking for it? You tell Reilly not to damage the merchandise.”
He reached in and tried to take Angel’s hand again.
Angel didn’t know what she should do. The plastic shunt on the back of her hand hurt, and she’d cradled it against her chest. All day she’d had nothing to eat or drink, and then they’d made her drink some horrible, sickly sweet orange stuff. They’d taken blood from her arm, but she’d fought them and bit that one guy. So they’d put a shunt in the back of her hand to make taking blood easier. They’d drawn her blood three times already.
Angel felt near tears but clenched her jaw.
Slowly, she uncoiled herself a tiny bit and edged closer to the opening. She stretched her hand toward the lab guy.
“That’s it,” he said soothingly, and pulled out a needle with a test tube attached. He undipped the stop on the shunt and pushed the needle in. “This won’t hurt. Honest.”
Angel turned away, keeping her back to him, that one hand stretched away from her.
It didn’t take long, and it didn’t hurt. Maybe he was a good whitecoat-like Jeb. And maybe the moon was made out of cream cheese.
“Okay,” said Iggy. “We’re being very careful. Hello? Gazzy? We’re being very careful?”
“Check,” said the Gasman, patting the explosive package they called Big Boy.
The Gasman rattled the jar. “Check.”
“Tarp? Cooking oil?”
“Check, check.” The Gasman nodded. “We are geniuses. Those Erasers’ll never know what hit ’em. If only we had time to dig a pit.”
“Yeah, and put poison stakes at the bottom,” Iggy agreed. “But I think what we’ve got is good. Now we need to fly out, stay out of sight, and check on how the roads run, and whether the Erasers have made camp anywhere.”
“Okay. Then we can seed the roads with the nails and set up the tarp and oil.” The Gasman grinned. “We just have to make sure not to get caught.”
“Yes. That would be bad,” Iggy said with a straight face. “Now, is it night yet?”
“Pretty much. I found you some dark clothes.” The Gasman pressed a shirt and pants into Iggy’s hands. “And I’ve got some too. So, you ready to roll?” He hoped Iggy couldn’t hear how nervous he was. This was a great plan; they had to do it-but failure would be disastrous. And probably deadly.
“Yeah. I’m bringing Big Boy in case an opportunity arises.” Iggy changed his clothes, then put their homemade bomb into a backpack and slung it onto his shoulders. “Don’t worry,” he said, as if he could see the Gasman’s expression. “It can’t go off till I set the timer. It’s, like, a safety bomb.”
The Gasman tried to smile. He cranked open the hall window as wide as it would go and perched on the ledge. His palms were sweating, and his stomach was all flut-tery. But he had no choice-this was for Angel. This was to show people what would happen if they messed with his family.
He swallowed hard and launched himself out into the night air. It was amazing, to be able to spread his wings and fly. It was great. As he felt the night wind against his face, the Gasman’s spirits rose. He felt strong, powerful, and dangerous. Not at all like an eight-year-old mutant freak.
The girl stiffened and jumped back.
I stepped forward a bit, out of the underbrush, so she could see my face. “It’s me,” I said, feeling even stupider. “The girl from before.”
It was getting dark and still raining, and I hoped she could recognize me. The dog trotted over, saw me, and gave a halfhearted woof of warning.
“Oh, yeah. Hey, thanks-for helping me,” said Ella, squinting at me through the rain. “Are you okay? What are you doing?” She sounded wary and glanced around, like maybe in the time since she’d last seen me I had gone over to the side of evil.
“I’m okay,” I said lamely. “Well, actually, I guess I need help.” Those words had never left my lips before. Thank God Jeb wasn’t here to see me doing something so incredibly boneheaded and weak.
“Oh,” said Ella. “Gosh. Okay. Did those guys…”
“One of them managed to clip me with some shot, if you can believe that,” I said, inching closer.
Ella gasped and put her hand over her mouth. “Oh, no! Why didn’t you tell me? You’re hurt? Why didn’t you go to the hospital? Oh, my gosh, come on in!”
She stepped back to give me room and urged Magnolia, who had lumbered over and started sniffing my wet clothes with interest, away from me.
Guess what. I hesitated. Here was the moment of decision. Until I stepped into that house, I could still turn and run, escape. Once I was in that house, it would be much harder. Call it a little quirk of my personality, but I tend to freak out if I feel trapped anywhere. We all do-the flock, I mean. Living in a cage during your formative years can do that.
But I was honest enough with myself to know that I really couldn’t go on like this-wet, cold, starving, and a little wonky from loss of blood. I had to suck it up and accept help. From strangers.
“Are your parents home?” I asked.
“There’s just my mom,” said Ella. “No dad. Come on, let’s get you inside. My mom can help. Magnolia, here, girl.” Ella turned and strode toward the house. She clomped up wooden steps, then turned and looked for me. “Can you walk okay?”
“Uh-huh.” Slowly, I headed toward Ella’s small house, which was glowing with warmth and light. I felt light-headed and panicky. This could be the last huge mistake in a long line of huge mistakes I had already made today.
I cradled my hurt arm with my good one.
“Oh, my God-is that blood?” Ella said, staring at my pale blue sweatshirt. “Oh, no, come on, we have to get you inside quick!” She shoved the door open with her shoulder, almost tripping on Magnolia, who trotted in quickly. “Mom! Mom! This girl needs help!”
I felt frozen. Stay or run. Stay or run. Stay?
“You think that wire will hold?” the Gasman whispered.
Iggy nodded, frowning as he twisted the two cable ends together with pliers. He leaned against a pine tree for leverage, and when the wire was tight, he snapped on a cable clamp and pinched it shut. “That’ll hold a bit,” he whispered back. “Until a certain Hummer hits it at top speed.”
The Gasman nodded grimly. What a night. They had gotten so much done-Max couldn’t have done better herself. He hoped Max had already rescued Angel by now. He hoped nothing had gone wrong. If the whitecoats had gotten hold of Angel… For just an instant he saw her, white and lifeless, laid on a cold steel slab while whitecoats lectured about her unusual bone structure. He swallowed and shook the dreadful image off. Once more, he glanced around, listening.
“Back home?” Iggy whispered.
“Yeah.” Standing up, the Gasman pushed off from the ground, staying close to the trees. He followed Iggy’s dark shadow as he braked and headed back west, toward home. From up here, the Gasman couldn’t see any of their handiwork-which was a good thing. They didn’t want the Erasers’ chopper to be able to pick out the tarp or the trip wire until it was too late.
“We covered the ways in and out,” he said to Iggy once they were at cruising height. “Oil slick, nails in the road, trip wire. That should do it.”