She snuck a look at Fang. Fang was good, if not very warm or huggy. He was strong and handsome and capable. But would he stick around to take care of everyone if there were no Max? Or would he take off and go live by himself somewhere and not be bothered with them? Nudge didn’t know what Fang was really thinking.
Suddenly, Nudge was brushing tears out of her eyes, swallowing down the lump in her throat, feeling her nose clog up. Oh, God. She couldn’t bear it without Max. Blinking, she tried to clear her vision, tried to think about something else. She saw a white truck down below and focused on it, forcing herself to wonder what it was carrying, where it was coming from. Like any of it mattered. She drew in deep breaths and held them, refusing to cry in front of Fang. She might have to start being very strong, very soon. She might as well practice now.
The truck headed toward an intersection that had signs marking a junction. Nudge blinked and looked as the signs became clear and she could read them. One said, California Welcome Center, 18 miles. One said, Las Vegas, North, 98 miles. One said, Tipisco, 3 miles.
Tipisco! Tipisco, Arizona! Where Nudge was from! Where her parents had been! Oh, God-could she still find her parents? Would they want her back? Had they missed her so much all these years?
“Fang!” she shouted, already beginning the descent. “It’s Tipisco, down below! I’m going there!”
“No way, Nudge,” Fang said, flying closer to her. “Don’t get sidetracked now. Stay with me.”
“No!” said Nudge, feeling daring and desperate and brave. She hunched her shoulders and tucked her head down, feeling herself lose altitude. “I have to go find my parents! If Max is gone, I’m going to need someone.”
Fang’s dark eyes widened in surprise. “What? Nudge, you’re crazy. Come on, let’s talk about it. Let’s find a place, take a break.”
“No!” said Nudge, tears coming to her eyes again. “I’m going down-and you can’t stop me!”
“We’re pretty safe, unless the Erasers catch our scent,” the Gasman whispered to Iggy. The two of them were tucked inside a narrow fissure in the side of a cliff, up high. Scraggly bushes obscured the opening. The Erasers would have to rock climb to get them, or use the chopper.
Iggy kicked back and rested his hands on his knees. “Well, this is a total suckfest,” he said grumpily. “I thought with those two Erasers taking dirt naps, we’d be free and clear, at least for a while. They must have sent for backup even before they attacked the cabin.”
The Gasman ground dust between his fingertips. “At least we took two of them out.” He wondered if Iggy felt as weird and bad about it as he did. He couldn’t tell.
“Yeah, but what now? We’re kinda all dressed up with no place to go,” Iggy said. “There’s no way we can go home-they’re probably everywhere. What are we supposed to do with ourselves? And what if Max and the others come back just to fly into an ambush?”
“I don’t know,” the Gasman said in frustration. “I hadn’t thought beyond just blowing them the heck up. Maybe you should come up with a plan.”
The two boys sat in the semidarkness of the fissure, breathing the stale air. The Gasman’s stomach rumbled.
“Tell me about it,” Iggy said, resting his head on his knees.
“Okay, okay,” the Gasman said suddenly. “I have an idea. It’s risky, and Max will kill us when she finds out.”
Iggy raised his head. “Sounds like my kind of idea.”
Never in my fourteen looong years have I felt the slightest bit normal-except for my day with Ella and her mom, Dr. Martinez.
First, we ate a real breakfast together, around the kitchen table. On plates, with forks and knives and napkins. Instead of, like, a hot dog stuck on a barbecue fork, burned black over an open flame, then eaten right off the fork. Or cereal with no milk. Or peanut butter off a knife. Beanie weenies from the can.
Then Ella had to go to school. I was worried about the jerks from before, but she said her teacher was good at keeping kids in line, and so was the school bus driver. A real school bus! Like on TV shows.
So it was me and Dr. Martinez. “So, Max,” she said as she unloaded the dishwasher.
“Do you want to talk about… anything?”
I looked at her. Her face was tan and kind, her eyes warm and understanding. But I knew if I started talking, I would never stop. I would break down and start crying. I would freak out. Then I wouldn’t be Max anymore, wouldn’t be able to function, take care of the others, be the alpha girl. To save Angel. If it wasn’t already too late.
“Not really,” I said.
She nodded and started stacking clean plates. I fantasized about actually being friends with Ella and her mom long after I left here and went home. I could come back and visit sometimes… Yeah, and we could have picnics, exchange Christmas cards… I’m so sure. I was totally losing my grip on reality. I had to get out of here.
Dr. Martinez put away the clean plates and loaded the dirty ones into the dishwasher. “Do you have a last name?”
I thought. Since I didn’t have an “official” identity, there wasn’t anything she could do with the information. I rubbed my temples-a headache had been creeping up on me since breakfast.
“Yeah,” I said finally. I shrugged. “I gave it to myself.”
On my eleventh birthday (which was also a day I picked for myself), I had asked Jeb about a last name. I guess I was hoping he would say, “Your name is Batchelder, like me.” But he hadn’t. He’d said, “You should choose one yourself.”
So I’d thought about it, thought about how I could fly and who I was.
“My last name is Ride,” I told Ella’s mom. “Like Sally Ride, the astronaut. Maximum Ride.”
She nodded. “That’s a good name. Are there others like you?” she asked.
I pressed my lips together and looked away. My head was throbbing. I wanted to tell her-that was the awful part. Something inside me wanted to blurt out everything. But I couldn’t. Not after years of Jeb telling me I couldn’t trust anybody, ever.
“Do you need help?” My eyes flicked back to her face. “Max-with your wings-can you actually fly?”
“Well, yeah” I was startled into saying. That’s me: mouth-like-a-steel-trap Maximum. Yep, you have to use all your tricks to get me to talk. Jeez. That’s what I get for sleeping on a soft bed and eating homey food.
“Really? You can really fly?” She looked fascinated, alarmed, and a little envious.
I nodded. “My bones are… thin,” I began, hating myself. Shut up, Max! “Thin and light. I have extra muscles. My lungs are bigger. And my heart. More efficient. But I need to eat a lot. It’s hard.” Abruptly, I clammed up, a furious blush heating my cheeks. That, folks, was the most I had ever said to a non-flock member. But when I spill the beans, I spill big! I might as well have hired a skywriting plane to scrawl, “I’m a mutant freak!” in huge letters across the sky.
“How did this happen?” Ella’s mom asked softly. My eyes shut of their own volition. If I’d been alone I would have put my hands over my ears and hunkered down into a little ball on the floor. Fractured images, memories, fear, pain, all came crashing together inside my brain. You think being a regular teenager with growing pains is hard? Try doing it with DNA that’s not your own, not even from a mammal.
“I don’t remember,” I told her. It was a lie.
Dr. Martinez looked distressed. “Max, are you sure I can’t help in some way?”
I shook my head, irritated at myself, irritated at her for bringing all this up. “Nah. It’s all over, anyway. Done. But-I have to get out of here. Some friends are waiting for me. It’s really important.”
“How will you get to them? Can I give you a ride?”
“No,” I said, frowning and rubbing my hurt shoulder. “I need to, um, fly there. But I don’t think I can fly yet.”
Dr. Martinez creased her forehead, thinking. “It would be dangerous for you to strain your injury before it’s healed. I couldn’t tell the extent of it. But I could give you a better idea if we had an X-ray.”
I looked at her solemnly. “Do you have X-ray vision?”
She laughed, startled, and I couldn’t help grinning too. God, Ella had this all the time. A real mom.
“No. Not all of us have superhuman powers,” she said teasingly. “But some of us have access to X-ray machines.”
Dr. Martinez shared a vet practice with another doctor. Today was her day off, but she was sure no one would think it was weird for us to show up at the office. She gave me a windbreaker to wear, but I was still pretty freaked about seeing other people up close.
“Hi, guys,” Dr. Martinez said as we walked into the office. “This is a friend of Ella’s. She’s doing a report on being a vet, and I told her I’d give her a quick tour.”
The three people behind the counter smiled and nodded as if this was totally believable. Maybe it was. How would I know?
Two seconds after I walked in, I froze in the doorway, feeling the blood rush out of my face and a wash of terror sweep over me,
There was a man there.
In a white coat.
Dr. Martinez glanced back. “Max?”
I stared at her mutely. She gently took my arm and led me off into an exam room. “Yes, in here is where we see our patients,” she said cheerfully as she shut the door behind us. Then she turned and lowered her voice. “Max, what’s wrong? What’s the matter?”
I forced myself to take several slow, deep breaths, to uncoil the fists at my sides. “It’s the smell,” I whispered, embarrassed. “The chemical smell, like a lab. The guy in the white coat. I have to get out of here, okay? Can we just go now, really fast?” I looked for an exit, a window.
Her hand rubbed my back. “I can promise that you’re safe here. Can you stay just long enough for me to get a quick X ray, and then we’ll leave right away?”
I tried to swallow, but my mouth was dry. My heart was pounding so hard it made a rushing sound in my ears.
I forced myself to nod. Dr. Martinez checked to make sure I wasn’t wearing jewelry-as if-then carefully positioned me on a table. A machine hovered over me. I felt like my nerves were about to snap.
She stepped out of the room, I heard a tiny buzz, and it was all over.
Two minutes later she showed me a large dark sheet with my shoulder bones, arm, and part of my wing showing in shades of white. She stuck it up on a glass box on the wall and turned on its light. The picture jumped out brightly.
“Look,” she said, tracing my shoulder blade with her finger. “This bone is fine. It’s all muscle damage-you can see the torn tissue here and here.”
“And your wing bones,” she said, unconsciously lowering her voice, “all seem fine. Which is good. Unfortunately, muscle damage usually takes longer to heal than bones do. Though your rate of regeneration seems weirdly fast, I must say.”
She frowned at the X-ray, tapping it with her finger. “Your bones are so fine and light,” she murmured, as if talking to herself. “They’re beautiful. And then… huh. What’s this thing?”
She was pointing to a bright white square, maybe half an inch wide, that sat smack-dab in the middle of my forearm. “That’s not jewelry, is it?” She glanced down at me. “Is it the zipper of the windbreaker?”
“No-I took it off.”
Dr. Martinez leaned closer to the picture, squinting her eyes. “It’s a-it looks like a…” Her voice trailed off.
“What?” I said, unnerved by the expression on her face.
“It’s a microchip,” she said hesitantly. “We put something similar into animals. To identify them in case they’re lost. Yours looks like a, like ones we use on really expensive pets, show dogs and such. They have a tracer in them in case they’re stolen. They can be tracked, wherever they are.”
The look of comprehending horror that rose in my face alarmed Dr. Martinez.
“I’m not saying that’s what it is,” she said quickly. “It’s just what it looks like.”
“Take it out,” I said hoarsely. I held out my arm and pushed up my sleeve. “Please. Take it out right now.”
She looked at the X-ray again, studying it for several minutes while I tried not to jump out of my skin.
“I’m sorry, Max,” she said at last. “I don’t think it can be surgically removed. It looks like it was implanted a long time ago, when your arm was much smaller. Now your muscles and nerves, blood vessels, have grown around it so completely that I think if we tried to take it out, you could possibly lose the use of your hand.”
You’d think I’d get used to the ongoing nightmare that was my life, but I was actually pathetically surprised that those demonoids from the School could continue to wreak havoc on me from so far away, so long ago.
But why was I surprised? I asked myself bitterly. They had done just that two days ago, when they’d kidnapped Angel. An image of her popped into my mind, her sweet, small face smiling up at me, love shining out. I swallowed hard and took a deep breath.
Right then, we became aware of voices in the waiting room, men’s voices, smooth and charming, asking questions.
I froze again, doing my deer-in-the-headlights imitation.
Dr. Martinez looked at me and listened to the voices. “I’m sure this is nothing, Max,” she said calmly. “But why don’t you step in here for a minute?”
In the hall was a small door that led to their medicine storage closet. Several long white coats hung inside, and I slid in behind them, flattening myself against the wall.
And yes, I get the irony, thanks.
Dr. Martinez turned off the light and closed the door. Barely twenty seconds later, I heard the voices in the examining room where I had been.
“What’s going on here?” Dr. Martinez said sharply, sounding outraged. “This is a doctor’s office!”
“Sorry, ma’am,” one voice said, sounding as if it were made of honey. My heart began to pound.
“Doctor!” she snapped.
“Sorry, Doctor,” another voice said. It was soothing, calming, placating. “Forgive us for interrupting. There’s nothing to be concerned about. We’re with local law enforcement.”