Nevermore The Final Maximum Ride Adventure
By James Patterson
Little, Brown and Company Copyright © 2012 James Patterson
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780316101844
IT WAS NIGHT, and Angel was perched on the hot surface of the scorched rock cliff. Her wings were spread out behind her, her ravaged legs swinging into nothingness, her ears straining in the strange new silence.
It seemed wrong, this silence. Shouldn’t there be the din of destruction thundering around her? The crash of buildings sinking into rubble? Inconsolable wails mourning all that was lost? That the world as they’d known it had gone so quietly, slipping into the ether like an old, beaten dog, was disconcerting, to say the least. Wasn’t noise what the apocalypse was supposed to be about?
Where was the chaos?
But there had been chaos, Angel reminded herself. Before. There had been plenty of screaming, fire and brimstone, and panic. She had endured enough panic to last her a lifetime.
Angel hugged her knees to her chest and folded her dingy white wings around herself, cocoon-like. She traced her fingers along her scars and fought back the memories.
Despite the warnings from nature—the earthquakes, the floods—despite all the efforts of science—Angel winced, remembering the scalpels and fluorescent lightbulbs and blindingly white sheets—despite everything, in the end, the earth had been savagely claimed back for nature.
And despite Max’s missions and the flock’s preparations over the years, they still hadn’t been ready.
But then, who could ever really be ready for the end of the world?
You, Angel whispered to herself. You were ready.
Angel squinted into the darkness. She couldn’t see anything from her night perch on the cliff, but even in the light of day, the horizon didn’t look like anything familiar or natural. You didn’t see what was there—you saw the spaces between.
Watching Max fall had felt like that. Angel had imagined her grief as a blackness stretching out before her, the crushing weight of Max’s death a night without stars, without hope, without end. It had terrified her so much more than the idea of Armageddon.
The power inside her was the only thing that scared Angel now. That she had seen how it would happen. That she had known. That she hadn’t told anyone.
Angel tilted her head back to feel the chill of wind rustling her blond curls, now stringy and dirty. She listened in the silence. No whitecoats probing her, taunting her. No voices at all.
It almost felt like she was completely and totally alone. Almost.
Angel thought of the flock. Flying, diving together in one strong V, with Max at its center. She thought of Max holding her hand, calling Angel her baby. She wasn’t a baby anymore.
How many seven-year-olds had seen the world go up in flames?
Angel shut her eyes tight. She waited for the visions she had fought for so many years before coming to accept and even depend on them. But no future appeared before her.
For the first time in her young life, Angel had no idea what would happen next.
“IN WORLDVIEW THIS morning, whole villages in the Philippines have been demolished, and hundreds are missing as typhoons triggering massive mudslides continue to wreak havoc.”
I sat at the kitchen counter, staring at the small TV. The news anchor peered out at me with grave accusation. Yep, felt like a Monday.
“On the home front, officials rush to quell pockets of unrest as a subversive new movement takes hold in the cities.” The camera zoomed in on a glassy-eyed fanatic raving about an advanced society and how we must act now to preserve the purity of the planet. He carried a sign that read 99% IS THE FUTURE. I shivered involuntarily. The newscaster raised one perfectly groomed eyebrow and leaned forward. “Just who—or what—is ninety-nine percent?”
The newscaster’s face, frozen in practiced concern, dissolved into static as fuzzy black lines hiccupped across the screen. I frowned and smashed a fist down on top of the set, which only resulted in setting off a series of loud, plaintive beeps. Not that it was a quiet morning to start with.
Behind me in the kitchen, the usual chaos was unraveling. Iggy was slinging waffles at Gazzy and Total, who were trying to catch them in their wide-open mouths, like baby birds. How perfect.
“I can’t find the socks that match this skirt!” Nudge said, holding up some floaty, layer-y clothing situation. A waffle whapped her in the head, and with turbo-charged reflexes, she snatched it out of midair and hurled it back at Iggy as hard as she could. It exploded against his forehead. “Don’t throw waffles at me!” she screeched. “I’m trying to get dressed!”
Gazzy shot a fist into the air, his face twisted into that maniacally guilty grin that only nine-year-old angelic-looking boys seem to be able to master. “Food fi—” he began happily, only to stop at the look in my eyes.
“Try it,” I said with deadly calm. He sat down. “Quit throwing waffles!” I yelled, snatching the syrup bottle away from Iggy, who was aiming it at his open mouth. “Use plates! Use forks!”
“But I don’t have thumbs!” Total said indignantly. “Just because I can talk doesn’t mean I’m human,” he complained. For a small, Scotty-like dog, he had a lot of presence.
“Neither are we. At least not completely.” I unfolded my wings partway. Yes, folks—wings. In case this is your first dip into the deep end of the ol’ freak-of-nature pool, I’ll just put it out there: We fly.
Total rolled his eyes. “Yes, Max, I am aware.” He fluttered his own miniature pair of flappers. Unfortunately, his mate for life, Akila, didn’t have wings, so the non-mutant Samoyed spent most of the year with her one-hundred-percent-human owner. She had a hard time keeping up with us.
I shrugged. “So use a dog bowl, then.” His nose twitched in distaste.
“I can’t find—” Nudge started again, but I held up my hand. She knew I couldn’t answer complicated fashion questions. She whirled and stalked off to the bathroom to begin her twelve-step daily beauty regimen—involving many potions, lotions, and certain buffing techniques. The whole thing made my head hurt, and since Nudge was a naturally gorgeous twelve-year-old, I had no idea why she bothered.
Iggy, who can’t even see the TV anyway due to that tiny hitch of being blind and all, expertly manipulated the complicated wire system inside the set with one hand while the other continued to stir waffle batter. When the image was crystal clear and the monotonous beeping had ceased, he cocked his head, listening to the talking head deliver the morning doom with unbeatable pep.
“A new report has stated that steadily increasing levels of pollution in China have caused the extinction of a record number of plants this year. And could the growing number of meteor showers we’re experiencing require the implementation of asteroid deflection strategies? Dr. Emily Elert has some answers.”
“Lemme guess. The end of the world?” Iggy asked.
I smiled. “Yeah, same old, same old.”
“Next on In the Know, Sharon Shattuck uncovers the truth behind the growing number of enhanced humans among us. Created for the greater good, are these genetic anomalies an advanced race or an unpredictable risk? Heroes of science or botched experiments? And what do we have to fear? Stay tuned to find out!”
My mouth twisted in annoyance. I leaned over and snapped off the TV. It was time to get going, anyway. Why had I agreed to this again?
A lot had changed for us in the past year, but one thing had remained constant, and that was my unyielding loathing for a certain activity that all “normal” kids—those with homes, parents, and a distinct lack of genetic mutations—seemed to engage in.
“Okay, guys, are we ready for school?” I rubbed my hands together, trying to at least give the impression of being mildly enthusiastic.
I studied the faces before me. Nudge’s: excited. Iggy’s: bored. Gazzy’s: mischievous. Total’s: furry.
Someone was missing. Someone whose stupid idea this whole thing was in the first place.
“Present,” a voice said from behind me.
I whirled around and found myself face-to-face with Dylan. Actually, I had to look up slightly, since he was almost six-one to my five-nine. He gave me a slow smile and I wondered, not for the first time, how anyone could manage to look so flawless in general, let alone at buttcrack-of-dawn o’clock in the morning.
“Oh, good, you’re up,” I said, inappropriate thoughts running around my head like squirrels on speed. “About time.” I coughed. “Everyone else is ready. We were about to leave without you.”
“Um, Max?” Dylan said, dipping a waffle into a bowl of syrup. I looked into his Caribbean Sea–colored eyes, trying to ignore the little thrill that went through my body when I thought of the time I woke up next to those bright blues.
“What?” I asked, a little too defensively.
“You’re in your pajamas.”
“WHY ARE WE walking?” Gazzy’s voice was plaintive.
“We’re walking because other kids walk to school,” I said, again, as I’d said every morning that week. “It’s part of the whole being-normal experience.”
Next to me, Dylan smiled. “And I appreciate your sacrifice,” he said.
I tried to ignore his movie-star looks, with approximately zero success. Every once in a while his arm brushed mine, and each time it was like a tiny electric shock. Maybe it was a new trait he was developing, like an electric eel. (Don’t laugh—stranger things have happened. Like when we bird kids developed the ability to breathe underwater.)
“I’m glad we’re going to school,” Nudge said, as she had every morning that week. Was this normalcy—predictable patterns, the certainty of doing the same thing every day? Because if so, normalcy was about to make me freak out and start screaming.
“Me, too,” said Dylan. “Only for me, it’s the first time, of course.”
Dylan’s had a lot of firsts since he joined the flock, but school was something he actually wanted to try. He was kind of weirdly obsessed with learning—especially anything about science. (Which I, of course, thought was totally repulsive. Science = Wackjob Whitecoats in my sad and tragic life story.)
“If it’s your first time in school, it might as well be a schmancy joint like Newton,” Gazzy said, and Dylan smiled.
I had to admit, so far our school week hadn’t been a complete suckfest. Would I rather be home, doing almost anything else? Yes. Of course. I’m not nuts. But when our mysterious billionaire BFF Nino Pierpont, who some might call our “benefactor,” had offered to pay for Newton, here in mountain-licious Oregon, Dylan had made Bambi eyes at me and I had caved.
Beyond the regular guilt trips from Nudge about wanting to lead a “normal” life, I felt kind of… responsible for Dylan. There was so much he didn’t know about surviving. He might’ve looked like the original teenager he was cloned from, and it was true he was a kick-butt fighter, but I had to keep reminding myself that this version had been alive only about two years.
Plus, there was that whole issue of him supposedly being created especially for me. To be my “perfect other half.”
No pressure or anything.
I thought maybe he liked me more than I liked him, but still—once someone has kissed you in the rain on top of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris at sunset, you’re kind of toast.
Anyway, agreeing to go to school with him—just for a while—didn’t seem like that much of a big deal for me. The ratio of my discomfort to his happiness was acceptable. And because he’s, you know, perfect, he fit right in at school and was already super popular. Because I’m, you know, me, I wasn’t exactly super popular. Or popular. Or even noticed that much. Which was the whole point, right? Normalcy.
“Thank you for doing this.” Dylan’s voice was quiet, meant just for me.
I looked up at him, feeling the inevitable flush warming my cheeks. “Let’s see how long I can stomach it.”
He grinned. He didn’t seem to mind that I wasn’t all girly-girl and didn’t have the smoothest of social skills. True, I was trying to brush my hair more these days, but I was still predictably clueless about clothes and how regular girls acted. Dylan seemed to accept me for me.
But why was I even thinking about that? Sooner or later, his crush on me would end, right? And we’d go back to being—there’s that word again—normal.
And just like that, my thin facade of agreeableness shattered.
“You know, life’s not about being normal,” I snapped.
Dylan glanced at me, one eyebrow raised.
“It’s about being happy. And right now, what would make me happy is not walking!” And just like that, I took off at a run, then threw myself into the air, snapping my wings out.
I stroked downward powerfully and pushed upward, the familiar rush of exhilaration at taking flight filling me. I knew the other five bird kids—no, four—would be close behind.
I kept forgetting we were only five. There’d always been six of us (plus Total), but my flock had changed a lot recently. First Dylan showed up, then Fang left—don’t get me started about that—and then, not too long ago… something happened. And we were down to five.
But I’m not going to talk about that. I can’t. Not yet.
“Tag!” I felt a rush of wind and Dylan’s hand tapped my foot as he rose strongly above me, his fifteen-foot wings shining in the morning sun.
I blinked at him, breathing in deeply, and the trees shrank below me, along with all those painful memories.
“Come on, slowpoke. You’re it!” Dylan said, surging ahead.
Laughing, I soared after him, feeling a dash of pride. I’d been the one to teach him how to fly, even if he was a wicked-fast learner. The two of us rose and swooped and chased each other until we were a block away from school. At one point I looked over at him, still smiling wide, and something seemed to light up his eyes.
“Normal’s overrated,” he said.
FANG OPENED ONE alert eye to see the early-morning sky lightening on the desert horizon. The slow, even breathing around him told him his gang was still asleep, and Fang felt the familiar weight of anxiety closing in on him snugger than his sleeping bag. They had to get going. He could feel it—the new threat was developing exponentially with every minute.
Get up, his instincts hissed. Go. Now.
But Fang felt the warm body in the sleeping bag next to his stir slightly in her sleep and knew there was something else entirely that was making it difficult to breathe. It was this whole situation. It was her.
He studied her relaxed features: the familiar cheekbones; the strong arch of the brow, making her look surprised in sleep like she never would in daylight; the full mouth he knew so well, the mouth he wanted to kiss, but wouldn’t, not now… She still looked so heart-stoppingly like Max that it made Fang wince.
Fang wriggled up out of the cocoon of his sleeping bag and leaned over her. He reached one tentative hand out and ran his fingers through her short hair. She sighed.
“Time to get up,” he whispered into her ear. “We have to get going.”
“Stay,” the girl murmured dreamily, pulling him back down next to her. She nuzzled into his neck and stretched one smooth arm over him. Fang swallowed. Even through the sleeping bag he could feel the heat coming off her body, sense the outline of her shape. It felt so natural, so familiar.
He felt so guilty.
Fang had never imagined he’d be sleeping next to a different girl, ever, in his life. And here he was, with Maya, of all people—Max’s clone. The cute, short pixie cut she’d gotten two days ago helped. No ratty mane to get tangled when I’m flying, she’d said. But Fang knew she needed it for other reasons, too. She wanted to look different. To distinguish herself from Max.
And she was different. She was tough, but she seemed less angry than Max did, more accepting of her Gen 54 status. She smiled more often, and more easily. It made him feel way disloyal, but in some ways, Maya was just easier to be around than Max was.
Very carefully, with Fanglike stealth, he eased out from under Maya’s arm, lifting it and placing it back on his sleeping bag without waking her. He needed to… not be lying there anymore. He wasn’t comfortable with where his mind—or his heart—was taking him.
One glance showed Fang that the members of his small gang—Maya, Ratchet, Star, and Kate—were all still asleep. He poked at the sleeping bags and shook some shoulders but got little more in response than annoyed grunts and thick snores. These kids were definitely not the light sleepers the flock had been. Fang sighed. First, some fuel.
The previous night’s fire had been banked, and now Fang stirred the embers and added more tinder. Five minutes later he had a nice blaze, and he opened his wings, letting them bask in the heat. On the horizon, the sun was just starting to spill its pink glaze over the mountaintops. He tried to swallow the sense of urgency building within him. They weren’t actually being chased, he reminded himself. He was in charge.
Years on the run had taught Fang how to make almost anything edible, including desert rats, pigeons, cacti, dandelions, and stuff reclaimed from restaurant Dumpsters. But this morning he had better raw materials to work with. He set the collapsible grill over the fire and pulled out a lightweight bowl and the one small frying pan he had in his pack.
Max was… Max. She wasn’t easy, she wasn’t restful, she wasn’t a little dollop of sunshine. But since when did he need a little dollop of sunshine? It wasn’t exactly what a life on the run tended to create. Max was… his soul mate. Wasn’t she? She knew him better than anyone.
He cracked some eggs open a little more forcefully than he needed to and started whisking them in the bowl. He and Max had been through so much together—losses, betrayals, joyous reunions. Life-threatening injuries, gunshots, broken bones. Christmases and birthdays and Max Appreciation Days and Angel’s—
A pain almost physical made Fang pause as he chopped the supermarket ham. Don’t think about that, he told himself.
Anyway. Max. She was so familiar to him. So familiar. Maybe even… too familiar?
No! He couldn’t believe he was thinking that way. She still surprised him, after all. It was just that he hardly knew Maya. He couldn’t predict what she would say or how she would say it. It was all really… new.
He’d thought leaving the flock would simplify things, make things easier. Instead his life was just more complicated, more confusing.
He blinked when Maya’s arms came around his waist. Only years of pseudo-military training had kept him from jumping a foot in the air. How had she snuck up behind him?
“Mmm,” Maya said sleepily, leaning her head against his back. “That smells like heaven. Where’d you learn to cook like that? You’re amazing.”
Fang swallowed again and shrugged. “Just picked it up.”
Maya came to stand next to him, one arm still around his waist. Her hair was just so… cute. He blinked again in surprise. When had he ever thought someone’s hair was cute? Not since… never.
Frowning, he looked down at Maya, who met his frown with a slow smile. She reached up on her tiptoes as he stood, frozen, and kissed his cheek. Her lips were cool and soft.
“Thanks for… breakfast,” she said, and Fang got the feeling that he was caught in an undertow. And he didn’t know if he wanted to get out of it.
AS A RULE, I like to remain an international girl of mystery. I err on the side of caution, to put it mildly, and we used to go to extreme lengths to not let regular people see us fly. But we’d been outed ages ago, and now we bother with non-winged-person camouflage only when we absolutely have to.
All of which explains why we landed right on top of the school buses in the parking lot, then jumped to the ground, where we were greeted with much wide-eyed amazement and murmurs of surprise from kids who’d been milling around, waiting for the bell.
I gave my shirt a little tug and unzipped my ever-present windbreaker. I felt stares and started to get that zoo-exhibit feeling. I bristled and put my shoulders back—I’m all too used to dealing with people’s curiosity, fear, and even, I dare say, a little awe.
Then I realized they weren’t staring at me.
“Dylan!” A girl separated from her clowder (look it up—you’ll learn something) and practically knocked me down to get to him.
“That was—” she began.
“So awesome!” another girl interrupted.
Right about then I noticed that these girls were wearing short skirts and spaghetti-strap tank tops, and had long, shiny hair. Trendy flip-flops emphasized dainty toenails painted blue and green and pink. It would be shallow to mention what I was wearing, so I won’t.
If I’d been with Fang, he would have stiffened and then slipped away into the shadows before they even realized what had happened.
But I was with Dylan.
“Hello, ladies,” he said, and his smile visibly took their breath away. I had no idea eyelashes could flutter that fast. Or why they would.
“I haven’t seen anything that cool since Andi’s couch caught on fire at our last party,” said one girl, expertly flipping her hair over one shoulder.
“It was totally an accident!” the girl I guessed was Andi said, giving the first girl a little shove. Dylan’s smile widened, and I waited for the girls to bow down and chant We are not worthy!
Except they clearly thought they were so worthy. Completely secure in their worthiness.
The first girl tapped Dylan on the chest with one painted fingernail. I stuck my hands in my pockets and fell back to walk with the rest of the flock.
“You’re eating with me at lunchtime!” possibly-Andi said, smiling up at Dylan.
“And me!” said the other girl.
“And us!” Three more girls crowded around him and I had a sudden mental image of a bunch of hyenas circling their prey.
“I’m gonna have to get some wings,” I heard a guy mutter as they watched the girls move with Dylan toward the school.
“Retrofitted wings are a disaster!” I informed him wryly, remembering my sometimes-evil, now-deceased half brother Ari’s horrible grafted-on pair. The guy’s eyes widened, and I got too late that he didn’t actually mean he was going to get himself wings. In my science-gone-wrong world, it was only too possible, and I’d seen enough botched experiments to prove it.
Nudge’s excited greeting made me look over to where a boy was loping toward us. He had smooth brown skin and a million thin dreadlocks pulled back in a loose ponytail. He was male-model cute, and I could practically hear the squeal Nudge was repressing.
“Hey, girl,” Sloan called back with an easy smile.
“How old is he?” I hissed under my breath. Sure, Nudge is five-six, but she’s only twelve years old, and in way too much of a hurry to get older, IMHO.
“I don’t know,” Nudge said blithely, heading off to meet him. I gave him a once-over—he was wearing a varsity jersey, which meant he was in at least tenth grade, probably eleventh. So, like, fifteen? Sixteen? Crap. What was she doing?
A light touch grazed my arm and I snapped my head sideways to see Dylan turning his full wattage to me.
“Catch you later,” he said, and his sea-colored eyes seemed to look right into my soul. Again I remembered kissing him on top of the Arc de Triomphe. And a couple other places. Now he was throwing himself into the group of girls like chum into shark-infested waters.
Well, they can have him, I thought, touching my arm where his fingers had left a warm trail.
I didn’t want him.
“WE NEED TO hit the road,” Fang said to his small gang. “San Francisco’s next up.”
Maya squeezed his leg and flashed a smile that instantly eased his anxiety. “Ready when you are,” she said, her eyes meeting his.
“Go, go, go,” Star complained with characteristic attitude. “We just got here. At least let me finish breakfast.” She tied back her silky blond hair and proceeded to house her entire omelet in one enormous bite. It reminded Fang of Gazzy gnawing every bit of meat off the hind leg of a roasted rabbit, and contrasted so sharply with Star’s spotless Catholic-schoolgirl image that he had to smirk.
“What?” Star challenged Holden Squibb, who was also openly staring from behind his huge glasses. “You know my heart’s beating like five times as fast as yours. Speed needs fuel.”
Holden was the youngest, most awkward member of the gang, and his main skill seemed to be annoying Star. Well, that and being an incredibly fast healer. Came in handy, since he’d been horribly bullied in school.
“What’s in San Fran that’s got your panties in a bunch, anyway?” Ratchet was eyeing Fang cautiously. Regardless of his extraordinarily perceptive senses, after living on the streets, he could always smell trouble.
“Yeah, what’s up?” Kate brushed her glossy black hair back from her face and followed Ratchet’s gaze, looking worried. For someone with the kind of superhuman strength Kate had, she tended to look worried way more often than Fang was comfortable with.
“I’ll show you.” Fang flipped open his laptop and the others crowded around. “I’ve been tracking world news reports. A new threat is developing faster than anything I’ve seen so far. Three days ago there were five mentions of it. Two days ago there were five thousand. Yesterday, a hundred thousand different sources were talking about this movement. And today my Web counter shows more than a million mentions.”
“You going to tell us what it is, or what?” Holden asked, showering the keyboard with toast crumbs.
“They call themselves the Apocalypticas,” Fang said, flipping through tabs until he found their home page. “More commonly known as the 99 Percenters. I’ve done some hunting, and I think one of their bases is around San Francisco.”
“99 Percenters?” Star leaned closer to read. “Please. That sounds so lame. At least the Apocalypticas sounds kind of like a rock band.”
“I wouldn’t dismiss them so lightly.” Fang leveled his gaze at Star, and then at the rest of the gang. “You all remember the Doomsday Group.”
Solemn nods all around.
“This is, like, the next level,” Fang said. “The Apocalypticas make the Doomsday Group look like a glee club. They call themselves that because they want to start where the Doomsday Group left off—they want to reduce the world’s population by ninety-nine percent, to obliterate all non-enhanced people.”
Enhanced people. Fang and the flock had always called them mutant freaks, like themselves. Now it was enhanced people.
“Man, that is so messed up.” Ratchet shook his head, the aviator glasses he wore even in darkness reflecting the screen.
“I mean, we’re safe, though, right?” Kate said uneasily. “We’re enhanced. It’s not us they’re after. Maybe we should… I don’t know… stay out of the line of fire this time. We don’t have to seek them out. Let’s not forget what happened in Paris.”
Once again Fang felt a stab of pain so sharp that it almost took his breath away. As if he could forget. He bristled, frowning at Kate.
“Aren’t you the vegan?” he asked. “The one who’s always talking about the plight of other creatures and how we have to work together to make a difference? So now that things are getting a bit heavy, you just want to walk away?”
“It’s not that, it’s just…” Kate trailed off, looking sheepish.
“It’s just that it’s none of our business and we have ourselves to worry about,” Star continued for her. Kate and Star stuck together because they’d been the only two freaks in their private school, but it was Star who had the mouth on her.
“What exactly are you saying?” Fang’s words were low, measured. “We’re talking about the human apocalypse.”
“Come on, Fang,” Star said harshly. “Don’t tell me you’ve never thought that the world might be better if everyone was a bit more evolved.” Fang gaped at her, but Star took it a step further. “Just look at Maya. She’s like the next generation of your old girlfriend, isn’t she?”
“Ouch.” Holden gave a low whistle.
Maya’s eyes narrowed. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Star shrugged. “I’m just saying, looks like Fang went for the upgrade. Shouldn’t the rest of the world? Anyway, like Kate said, it’s not us they’re after.”
“Look, you’re welcome to leave at any time,” Fang said, his eyes dark and furious. “You wanted the protection of the group, and I gave you that. I totally understand if, now that you’re safe, you just want to slink away like a coward and let everyone else take the fall. I couldn’t live with myself, but that’s just me.”
“Can you all just stop for a sec?” Rachet said, pushing his oversized hoodie back and tilting his head to the side.
“I can take care of myself,” Star snapped at Fang, ignoring Ratchet. “I didn’t realize being a part of ‘Fang’s gang’ meant following you like lemmings over a cliff.”
“Fang, Star doesn’t mean that,” Kate said, trying to defuse the situation. “You know we believe in stopping these maniacs as much as you do. We’re just… we’re nervous after Paris. We’re still not used to being targets and all.”
“Yeah, it must be really tough, being away from the cushy comforts of your private-school McMansions,” Maya said icily, and Kate’s face fell.
“Don’t even—” Star started.
“You guys, shut up!” Ratchet yelled. He took in a deep, slow breath, his hypersensitive ears listening intently. “Something’s coming this way.”
Immediately Fang went on alert, jumping to his feet, putting the argument—as screwed up as it was—behind him for now. “Stow the gear in the van,” he directed. “Maya and I will scout it out from above.”
He glanced at the sky, cursing. It was maybe seven AM. They should have been on the road an hour ago.
“You guys, we’re in the middle of the desert,” Kate said. “Maybe we shouldn’t freak out yet. There are tons of wild animals around here—coyotes and big lizards and turkey buzzards—and that might be what Ratchet’s hearing. I really think we should keep talking this out, try to find some middle ground, and—”
Ratchet shook his head. “Yo. I can tell the difference between a fox or a lizard and… this thing. This mofo is big—bigger than a wolf, or even a bear. And I smell blood. Lots of it.”
“I SMELL BLOOOOD,” Star intoned in a deep voice an hour later. “Lots of it.”
Ratchet scowled. “Say it again, girl, and see what happens to you. Go on—say it one more time. I’m telling you, something was out there.”
“At least it wasn’t worse,” Kate said, her easy smile returning.
Fang nodded, glancing quickly in the rearview mirror. All he and Maya had found was a bunch of buzzards having a prairie-dog party.
“Yeah,” said Star solemnly, “it could’ve been a small lizard, bent on destroying us all. Or a mutant desert bat, prone to feasting on the hearts of ‘enhanced humans’. Right, Ratch?”
Holden and Kate couldn’t help giggling, and Fang was reminded of the flock. How many times had they joked with one another just like this, teasing and arguing? And here he was with a whole new gang. But the teasing felt harsher, the arguments more real. No flock in sight.
No flock, but there was Maya, next to him. She sighed unconsciously, like she felt as separate from the group as he did. It made sense. As the only two flyers, they could’ve made it to San Francisco in about forty-five minutes, but instead they had six hours of driving ahead of them.
Maya leaned her head on his shoulder. The bench seat in the front of their “borrowed” van meant she could sit really close, and she was.
He breathed her in, ignoring the squabbling in the backseat, and an understanding seemed to pass between them. It was more than just having wings that separated them from the gang. They felt weird with the others because they felt good alone. Together.
Like he had with Max.
Just as Fang’s thoughts started to spiral, Maya straightened up and frowned, leaning forward. “Do you see that? Like a dust cloud, way ahead, on the road?”
Fang squinted and saw what she was talking about: a growing haze, blocking the road ahead of them. “Ratchet?”
Ratchet looked smug. “I thought you guys didn’t trust my senses.”
Fang sighed. After the theatrics with Star and Kate, his gang was exhausting him. “Please?”
Ratchet sighed and lowered his sunglasses, peering through the windshield. When he spoke his voice was gruff, all business. “We got company. Looks like a convoy of vehicles, hogging both lanes and about to pay us a visit.”
In seconds Fang had slammed on the brakes and made a tight, fast U-turn that sent the van up on two wheels. He stomped on the gas and shot them down the road in the direction they’d just come from.
“Sorry, but I’m not into sticking around for the welcoming committee,” Fang said tersely, scanning the road ahead for the turnoff he’d seen a while back.
There was a slim chance that he was overreacting, that these were trucks taking vegetables somewhere or something. Fang estimated the chance of that to be approximately point-zero-one percent.
He accelerated more. He could feel the engine straining—and the van definitely wasn’t up to off-roading. Fang watched the dust cloud advancing in the rearview mirror and felt Maya’s tension next to him, her wings brushing his. It was tempting to break loose and fly… but no. They couldn’t leave the others.
Fang breathed a sigh of relief as he saw the thin outline of the gravel road ahead. After the turnoff, they could ditch the van, flee to forest cover, and take whoever it was hand to hand. If necessary.
“Almost there,” Fang muttered under his breath.
Half a mile… a few more seconds…
THE IMPACT ROCKED the van sideways, and there was a deafening screech as it skidded across the asphalt. The doors on the left side were crunched shut. Windows shattered, Kate shrieked, and Ratchet started swearing—they’d been T-boned by a truck shooting out from the dirt road that Fang had planned to turn down.
Fang looked to his right and felt a tightening in his chest as he saw the gash, the slack jaw, the unfocused eyes. “Maya?” Fang said sharply, shaking her arm.
“I’m fine.” Maya blinked, touching the blood at her temple. She smiled. “Just a bump.”
Fang gave a brief nod and started climbing out through the broken windshield, reaching behind him for Maya’s hand. Why was he worried? Maya could take care of herself.
“Out and scatter!” he ordered, and the gang started to scramble out the right side of the van. Fang leaped to the roof and did a 360. Two monster trucks blocked the dirt road, and four others had screamed into place in front of the van. The other convoy was maybe a quarter of a mile away and speeding toward them.
They were boxed in.
He surveyed the gang. Ratchet was holding a tire iron, and Holden had already assumed a battle stance. Star’s speed and Kate’s strength made them a fierce pair. And Maya… he had complete confidence in Maya. He’d seen her fight before, and knew what she was capable of.
In seconds, the other convoy was screeching to a halt behind the van.
Here we go, Fang thought, and felt his muscles tighten in readiness for whatever craziness was about to explode in the next thirty seconds.
For several moments, it was dead silent.
“What is this?” Fang heard Ratchet mutter. “I want to bust some heads.”
Then, slowly, a door on one of the trucks opened. Fang tensed, ready to dodge bullets. But what emerged from the truck was a much more effective weapon, one that left Fang speechless, with his eyes bugging out of his head.
“Hello, Fang,” said Ari.
Ari, Max’s usually evil half brother, who was enhanced, like the rest of the Erasers, with wolf DNA. Ari, who Fang had seen die, twice. He’d helped bury him! But… here Ari was. With a missile launcher balanced on one hulking shoulder. Pointed at Fang.
“Ari,” Fang managed to say.
“I heard you were going to be the first to die,” Ari said, his amused tone in sharp contrast to the crazy, feral gleam in his eyes. Fang shifted, remembering Angel’s creepy doomsday prediction. “I wanted to make sure I got to do the honors.” Ari pointed the heavy launcher on his huge, unnaturally muscled body at Fang. He smiled, baring long yellow teeth. “How about it, sport? You ready to die?” He tilted his head and looked through the gunsight.
For maybe the first time in his life, Fang felt… absolutely frozen.
“GUYS! OVER HERE!”
Dylan waved to me, Gazzy, Iggy, and Nudge from where he sat sandwiched between Eager Girl #1 and Eager Girl #2 at the popular-crowd lunch table.
I’d been headed toward the dweeb and misfit section, but when Dylan called out to us, Nudge squealed and hurried over. She confidently squeezed herself between some girls who looked less than thrilled at her arrival.
That decided it.
“Cover me,” I said, sighing. “I’m going in.”
“Got your back,” said Iggy.
“Later, bye,” Gazzy said, making a U-turn to go eat with some kids his own age.
I couldn’t blame him. I, too, would rather eat with a bunch of nine-year-olds than have to bear witness to the popular girls slavering over Dylan.
“Max!” Dylan beckoned. “Sarah, could you scoot over a little, please?”
Sarah looked like she would rather eat a slug than make room for me, but then Dylan turned his Pied Piper smile on her and she melted. She even patted the bench next to her.
It was almost scary, the effect he had. Thank God I was completely immune to it.
I sat down and a sudden silence fell as the girls looked at my heavily laden lunch tray. Dylan seemed oblivious, and kept up his easy conversation with Nudge.
“You must be… hungry,” said one girl, whose name I think was Bethany.
I wasn’t about to go into bird-kid caloric requirements, so I just smiled and said, “I don’t have to watch my weight, thank goodness.” So bite me.
Nudge popped open her juice. “Last night on Project Makeover, did you guys see where Tabitha was wearing those capris that looked like fruit salad?” she asked, her eyes wide.
Eyes quickly turned to her and heads nodded.
“Those were the ugliest pants I’ve ever seen,” Sarah said solemnly.
I busied myself with my huge chunk of cafeteria meat loaf. Of that last exchange, I had understood the words “pants” and “fruit,” but I couldn’t see how they would go together. Then it hit me: Nudge really did fit into this world. I mean, okay, she’d told me that a thousand times. But seeing her like this, chatting with these other girls, normal girls—the only thing that didn’t fit here was… her wings.
“How’s your morning going?” Dylan asked me, ignoring the pop-culture bonanza surrounding us.
I swallowed, savoring the availability of lots o’ food. To those of you who may sneer at cafeteria fare, I say: Try Dumpster-diving for a month, and then let’s see how happy you are with Monday Meatball Medley or whatever.
“I’m at school,” I said pointedly, and got that smile again, the one that seemed to suck the air out of my lungs. “You seem to be doing well, though.” I slanted my eyes at the girls and then looked back at him.
He grinned. “Same old, same old.”
“Uh-huh. Being God’s gift to girls everywhere is just your cross to bear.”
Dylan nudged my knee with his. “You think I’m God’s gift?” He sounded horribly pleased, and I wanted to smack myself.
“No, but at least you do.” I smiled and took a sip of juice. Dylan smiled wider and I felt a tiny thrill run down my spine. I knew I was courting danger, but this kind of easy almost flirtation was rapidly becoming addictive.
“I couldn’t believe it when Terry said that orange was the new black,” Nudge chattered on next to me.
“I know!” said maybe-Melinda. “I mean, black is the new black, you know?”
Nudge stabbed the air with a french fry. “Exactly! Nothing needs to be the new black, because black will always, always be the new black!”
There was fervent agreement around the table. I had no idea what they were talking about. Black what?
“Actually, it seems to me that blind is the new black,” Iggy said, apparently deciding to shake things up.
“What?” a girl named Madison said.
“I mean, I can’t believe there are so many blind students! A whole school of them!”
Silence. Nudge pressed her lips together; it had been going so well.
I started working intently on my square of spice cake.
“Um…” said Bethany.
“I know why I’m blind. Let’s hear your stories!” Iggy waved his hand, “accidentally” flinging peas all over the people sitting closest to him. Nudge’s cheeks flushed, and she stared at me, like, Stop him.
Oh, yeah, that could happen. No prob.
He turned to Madison. “What about you? Were you born this way, or did something happen to you?”
The people around the table looked at one another in uncomfortable silence.
“I’m not blind,” said Madison.
Iggy pretended to look confused, then shook his head, the soul of compassionate understanding. “You’ve got to face up to it. You can’t let it hold you back,” he said gently. “Denial is not just a river in Egypt.”
“I’m really not blind,” Madison said, looking confused.
Nudge gritted her teeth and stared down at her food, mortified.
Yep, we spread joy and sunshine wherever we go. Continues...
Excerpted from Nevermore by James Patterson Copyright © 2012 by James Patterson. Excerpted by permission.
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