Iggy nodded. “I’m bummed we couldn’t use Big Boy,” he said. “But I don’t want to waste it. We have to actually see them first. I mean, you do.”
“Maybe tomorrow,” the Gasman said encouragingly. “We’ll go out and see what havoc we’ve wreaked.”
“Wrought,” said Iggy.
“Whatever,” said the Gasman, breathing deeply in the cool night air. Wait till Max found out how cool they had been.
A dark-haired woman with worried eyes opened the door wider. “What is it, Ella? What’s wrong?”
“Mom, this is-” Ella stopped, her hand in midair.
“Max,” I said. Why didn’t I give a fake name? Because I didn’t think of it.
“My friend Max. She’s the girl I told you about, the one who saved me from Jose and Dwayne and them. She saved me. But they shot her.”
“Oh, no!” exclaimed Ella’s mother. “Please, Max, come in. Do you want me to call your parents?”
I stood on the doormat, reluctant to drip rain, and blood, on their floor. “Um…”
Then Ella’s mom saw my bloodstained sweatshirt, and her eyes flew to my face. My cheek was scratched, one eye was black. The whole situation changed in that instant.
“Let me get my stuff,” she said gently. “Take off your shoes and go with Ella to the bathroom.”
I sloshed down the hallway in my wet socks. “What stuff is she going to get?” I whispered.
Ella turned on a light and ushered me into an old-fashioned bathroom with green tiles and a rust ring around the sink drain.
“Her doctor stuff,” Ella whispered back. “She’s a vet, so she’s good with injuries. Even on people.”
A vet! I started laughing weakly and had to sit down on the edge of the tub. A vet. Wait till they found out how appropriate that was.
Ella’s mom came in with a plastic box of first aid supplies. “Ella, maybe you could get Max some juice or something. She probably needs some sugar and fluids.”
“Juice would be great,” I said with feeling.
Ella nodded and hurried down the hall.
“I take it you don’t want me to call your parents?” Ella’s mom said softly, starting to cut away the neck of my sweatshirt.
“Uh, no.” Hello, lab? May I speak to a test tube, please?
“Or the police, either, right?”
“No need to get them involved,” I agreed, then I sucked in my breath as her gentle fingers found the wound on my upper arm. “I think the bullet only grazed me.”
“Yes, I think you’re right, but it’s pretty deep and messy. And over here-” I sat frozen, staring straight ahead, as all my senses tensed. I was taking a huge risk here. You have no idea how huge. I had never, ever let someone outside the flock see my wings. But this was one situation I couldn’t fix by myself. I hated that.
Ella’s mom frowned slightly. She finished cutting the neck and then stretched the shirt off, leaving me in my tank top. I sat there like a statue, feeling a chilled coldness inside that had nothing to do with being wet.
“Here.” Ella handed me a big glass of orange juice. I practically choked, trying to drink it down as fast as possible. Oh, my God, it was so good.
“What’s-” Ella’s mom said, her fingers skimming along the edge of my wing where it folded and tucked into an indentation next to my spine, between my shoulder and my waist. She leaned over to see better.
I stared at my wet socks, my toes clenching.
She turned me slightly, and I let her.
“Max.” Her dark brown eyes were concerned, tired, and upset, all at once. “Max, what is this?” she asked gently, touching the feathers that were just barely visible.
I swallowed hard, knowing that I had just lost any hope for a normal connection with Ella and her mom. In my mind I reviewed the house layout: a right down the hall, a quick left, and through the front door. It would take only a few seconds. I could do it. I could probably grab my boots on the way out too.
“It’s a… wing,” I whispered. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Ella frown. “My, um, wing.” Silence. “It got hurt too.”
I took a deep breath, feeling like I was going to hurl, then slowly and painfully extended my wing just a bit, so Ella’s mom could see where I’d been shot.
Their eyes widened. And widened. And widened. Until I began to expect them to just pop out and land on the floor.
“Wha’…” Ella began wonderingly.
Her mom leaned over and examined it more closely. Amazingly, she was trying to act casual, like, oh, okay, you have a wing. No biggie.
I was practically hyperventilating, feeling lightheaded and kind of tunnel-visiony.
“Yeah, your wing got hit too,” Ella’s mom murmured, extending it ever so gently. “I think the shot nicked a bit of bone.” She sat back and looked at me.
I stared at the floor, feeling the weight of her gaze. I could not believe I was in this situation. Fang was going to kill me. And after I was dead, he would kill me again.
And I deserved it.
Ella’s mom took a deep breath and let it out. “Okay, Max,” she said in a calm, controlled voice. “First, we have to clean the wounds and stop the bleeding. When’s the last time you had a tetanus shot?”
I stared up into her eyes. Ella’s mom seemed no-nonsense and… incredibly caring. About me. I had become a huge crybaby in the last couple days, so I wasn’t surprised to feel tears haze my vision.
“Okay. I can take care of that too.”
“Come on, come on,” the Gasman breathed. He was holding on to the pine branch so hard that he could barely feel his fingers anymore.
“What’s happening?” Iggy demanded impatiently. “Tell me everything.”
It was early morning, and the two of them were perched near the top of an old-growth pine overlooking one of the abandoned logging roads. They had cased the situation, and the Gasman had been right: At least two Erasers, maybe more, had set up a rough camp not far from where the helicopter had landed. It seemed clear they were looking for the rest of the flock. It didn’t matter whether they wanted to kill them or only kidnap them: Capture was unthinkable.
The Gasman still had nightmares in which he found himself back at the School. He dreamed that whitecoats took blood, injected him with various drugs to see how he reacted, made him run and jump and then swallow radioactive dye so they could study his circulation. Days and endless weeks and years of feeling sick, hurting, vomiting, being exhausted, being stuck in a cage. The Gasman would die before he went back there. Angel would rather have died too, he knew-but she hadn’t had a choice.
“The Hummer’s coming,” the Gasman said under his breath.
“On the right road?”
“Uh-huh. And they’re driving too fast.” The Gasman gave a tight, worried smile.
“They’re not practicing safe driving habits. Tsk. What a shame.”
“Okay, they’re coming up,” the Gasman muttered. “Another quarter mile.”
“Can you see the tarp?”
The Gasman watched tensely as the muddied black Humvee sped down the unpaved logging road. “Any second now,” he whispered to Iggy, who was practically vibrating with excitement.
“Hope they’re wearing their seat belts. Not!”
Then it happened.
It was like watching a movie. One second, the boxy black vehicle was tearing along the road, and the next second, it swerved violently to the left with an audible squealing of brakes. It began a slow, graceless series of jerky spins down the road, then gave an unexpected jump toward the trees on one side. It hit the trees at an angle and went airborne, sailing upside down about fifteen feet before landing with a heavy crunching sound.
“Whoa,” the Gasman said softly. “That was incredible.”
“You have two seconds to give me the picture,” Iggy said irritably.
“It hit the oil, all right. It spun, hit the trees, and did a flip,” the Gasman told him. “Now it’s on its back, like a big, ugly, dead beetle.”
“Yes!” Iggy punched the air, making their branch sway. “Signs of life?”
“Uh… oh, yeah. Yeah, one of them just punched out a window. Now they’re climbing out. They look pretty dang mad. They’re walking, so they’re not that hurt.” The Gasman wanted the Erasers out of the picture, so he wouldn’t have to worry about them anymore. At the same time, he wasn’t sure how he would feel if they had actually died.
Then he remembered that they had taken Angel.
He decided he was probably okay with them suffering a life-threatening accident.
“Shoot.” Iggy sounded disappointed. “Any point in dropping Big Boy on them right now?”
The Gasman shook his head, remembered Iggy couldn’t see it, and said, “I don’t think so. They’re talking on walkie-talkies. Now they’re heading straight into the woods. We’d probably cause a huge forest fire or something.”
“Hmm.” Iggy frowned. “Okay. We need to regroup, come up with Phase Two. How about we hang at the old cabin for a minute?”
“Cool,” said the Gasman. “Let’s go. We’ve done enough good for one day.”
Eighty years ago, loggers had used a makeshift cabin nearby as a base during logging season. Abandoned for the last thirty years, it was practically in ruins. Which made it an especially good clubhouse for the flock.
“So Phase One is complete,” said Iggy, sitting in a broken plastic lawn chair. He sniffed the air. “We haven’t been here in ages.”
“Uh-uh,” said the Gasman, glancing around. “In case you’re wondering, it’s still a dump.”
“It’s always been a dump,” Iggy said. “That’s why we like it.”
“Man, I can’t get over it-that tarp full of oil so totally wiped the Hummer out,” the Gasman said. “It was kind of-scary. To really do it.”
Iggy opened the backpack and took out Big Boy, running his sensitive fingers over the clock duct-taped to the explosive package.
“We have to eliminate the Erasers,” he murmured. “So they can’t ever hurt us again.”
“So they can’t ever take Angel again,” the Gasman said, his eyes narrowing. “I say we bomb the chopper.”
Iggy nodded and stood up. “Yeah. Listen, let’s get out of here, get back home, make more plans.”
In the next instant, the faintest vibration of the floorboards made Iggy freeze. The Gasman quickly looked at him, saw Iggy’s sightless eyes flick to and fro.
“Did you hear?” the Gasman whispered, and Iggy nodded, holding up his hand. “Maybe a raccoon-”
“Not in the daytime,” Iggy barely mouthed back.
A slight scratching on the door made the Gasman’s blood turn to ice in his veins. Surely it was just an animal, a squirrel or somethi-
“Little pigs, little pigs, let me come in.” The whispered voice, serene and angelic, seemed to float through the cracks in the door like poisonous smoke. It was an Eraser’s voice, a voice that could ask you to jump off a cliff and you’d do it.
Heart pounding, the Gasman quickly scanned the room. The door. Two windows, one in the main room and a tiny one in the bathroom. He doubted he could fit through the one in the bathroom, much less Iggy.
The Eraser scratched at the door again, and the hairs on the back of the Gasman’s neck stood up. Okay, the window in here, then. He began to edge his way over to it, knowing that Iggy would be able to follow the almost imperceptible sound.
Crash! The door burst open, splintered wood flying through the air like darts.
“Eight o’clock!” the Gasman whispered, telling Iggy where the window was as his brain registered the hulking Eraser filling the doorway. His muscles tensed for the leap through the window-but its light was suddenly blocked by a huge, grinning head.
“Hey, piggy, piggy, piggy,” a second Eraser taunted through the dirt-clouded glass.
Years of Max-enforced training kicked in as adrenaline sped through the Gasman’s body. Door blocked. Window blocked. They were surrounded, with no clean escape available. It was going to be a tight, he realized, already preparing himself.
More than likely a fight to the death.
Nudge woke up four times before she finally rolled over and pried her eyes open.
It was barely dawn. Fang was gone. First Angel, then Max-now Fang.
Gone! Nudge looked around, crawling to the opening of the cave on her hands and knees. There’s nothing like panic to really wake you up, get all your senses going. Nudge felt keenly alert, frightened, too many thoughts starting to rush in her brain.
Movement caught her eye, and her head swiveled in line with a loose formation of hawks wheeling through the crisp, white blue sky. They were so beautiful, powerful, graceful, completely one with the sky and the earth and the rough cliffs.
One of them was Fang.
Nudge stood quickly, almost bumping her head on the low ceiling of the cave. Without hesitation, she leaped off the cliff edge, out into the sky. Her wings unfolded and caught the wind like sails, and suddenly she was a small brown boat soaring across an endless blue sea.
She approached the hawks, and after hard, glinting glances at her, they moved so she could join them. Fang was watching her, and Nudge was surprised by his face-how alive he looked, how… untight. Fang always looked very tight, somehow, taut, like the string on a bow. Now he looked loose and free and alive.
“Morning,” he said.
“I’m hungry,” said Nudge.
He nodded. “Town about three minutes away. Follow me.” He tilted his body in a new way that led him up and away without moving his wings. It was cool, like a plane. Nudge tried it, but it didn’t work as well for her. She would practice.
Below them was a thin two-lane highway, clotted with a last few shops and businesses before the road wound away into the desert. Fang dipped his head: A fast-food place had a large Dumpster out back. Even from up this high, Nudge could see a worker tossing cardboard boxes of stuff into it, getting ready for a new day.
They circled a couple times till they were sure the worker wasn’t coming out again, then dropped quickly, like bombs, tucking their wings in tight with just the feather tips guiding their descent. Thirty feet above the Dumpster, they blew their wings out again, braking sharply, then they landed, almost silently, on the metal edge of the Dumpster.