THE SKY IS FALLING
I KNOW HE’LL come for me. He has to come for me. Fang wouldn’t let me die here.
I’d been in the cage for days. I couldn’t remember eating. I couldn’t remember sleeping. I was disoriented from all the tests and the needles and the acrid disinfectant smell that had permeated my entire childhood… growing up in a lab, as an experiment. And here I was again, disoriented but still capable of a blinding rage.
Fang hadn’t come for me. I would have to save myself this time.
“You! Get back!” The lab assistant’s wooden billy club smashed against the door of the Great Dane–sized dog crate I was being held in every time I peered out through the front. With each strike, the door’s hinges sustained more damage. Right according to plan.
Steeling my nerves, I again carefully pushed my fingers out through the bars of the crate and pressed my face against it. Timing was key: if I didn’t pull back fast enough, the gorilla-like lab tech could easily crush my fingers or break my nose.
“I said, get back!” he repeated. Smash! A split-second after the club hit the weakened hinges, I kicked the door with every ounce of strength I had left.
“Hey!” The lab tech’s startled yell was cut short as I shot out of the crate, a rush of seriously ticked-off mutant freak, and launched a roundhouse kick to his head. I spun again, leaping onto a table to assess my adversary.
Already a piercing klaxon was splitting the air. Shouts and pounding footsteps from the hallway added to the chaos.
I grabbed on to a pipe on a low section of the ceiling, swung forward, and slammed my feet into a white-lab-coated chest. The bully sank to his knees, unable to draw breath. This was the perfect time for me to run to the end of the table, jump off, and spread my wings.
That’s where the “mutant freak” part comes in.
As hands reached for my bare feet, I shot upward, flying toward a small window high in the wall, then veered off path when a familiar dark shadow suddenly loomed.
He was on the roof outside, watching through the window. My right-wing man! I knew he’d come. He had my back, like a thousand times before. He would always have my back, and I would always have his. With relief, I readied myself to crash through the glass.
The room below me was now filled with shouting people. So long, suckers, I thought, as I aimed and got a flying start. I’d burst through quite a few windows in my fifteen-year life, and I knew it would hurt, but I also knew pain didn’t matter. Escaping mattered.
Wham! My right shoulder smashed against the glass, but it didn’t break. I bounced off it and dropped hard, like a brick. Time slowed. I heard the pop of a tranquilizer gun and felt a dart pinch my leg as I crashed to the ground.
Above me, Fang watched, expressionless.
In disbelief, I realized that he wasn’t here to help me after all; he wasn’t going to break through the window to save me. I writhed on the shiny linoleum floor, losing consciousness.
Fang didn’t have my back. Not this time.
I felt like I was I falling again. Instinct made me scramble to grab on to something, anything.
My fingers latched on to a small, hard branch. As I gasped for air, my eyes popped open, and I realized I was near the top of a tall pine tree—not in a dog crate, not back at the School. The late-morning sun bathed the Arizona mountains in rosy light. It had been a nightmare. Or, rather, a daymare.
I inhaled deeply, feeling the icy claws of adrenaline still in my veins. Cold sweat tickled my forehead and back as I tried to calm down.
It had just been a bad dream. I was free. I was safe.
Except for the worst part of the dream, the one thing that had made everything else a thousand times worse, the one thing that truly terrified and paralyzed me…
Fang really was gone. He didn’t have my back. Not in the dream, not now, never again.
I HAD BEEN in Arizona a week. A week of being with my mom and my half sister, Ella. A week of having everyone in my flock of winged kids injury free, all at the same time. We had plenty of food, nice beds, and Gazzy had managed to win almost forty dollars from my mom in poker before she wised up. Even now, the tantalizing aroma of chocolate chip cookies (homemade, from scratch, not slice ’n’ bake wannabes) wafted out an open window and drifted up to me, perched here atop a huge Apache pine, some ninety feet off the ground.
Everyone was happy and healthy—except me. I mean, I was healthy. No bullet wounds, black eyes, or cracked ribs, for once. But happy? Not in this lifetime, baby.
A mere eight days ago, I’d been about as happy as a fifteen-year-old girl with wings could be. And then Fang, my best friend, my soul mate, my first love—I mean, my only love—took off without a word. He left me a freaking note. Might as well have cut off my wings while he was at it.
I mean, he decided we’d be better apart, you know? It wasn’t a joint decision. Like, if you’re gonna make a decision about me and my life for my own good without consulting me, I’d better be dying and unconscious, and you’d better be following carefully written instructions.
Anyway. After I had been lying in a fetal position on my bed for twenty-four hours, Nudge called my mom. So embarrassing. I’ve been shot and needed less help than I did now. So the flock I’ve taken care of since forever—Iggy (also fifteen), Nudge (twelve), Gazzy (nine, also called the Gasman, for unfortunate reasons I won’t go into here), and seven-year-old Angel—and I (my name is Maximum Ride, aka Max) had flown out here to Arizona. And now they were chillaxing—playing Cranium and baking cookies—and I was up a tree by myself, in too much pain to even cry.
Sorry to dump all this on you. You probably popped open this tome hoping to find some kick-butt battles, some pithy wisecracks, some unlikely but oh-so-possible end-of-the-world scenario, only to find me up a tree, wallowing in self-pity. I’m not good at self-pity. I have not done a lot of it. It’s not pretty, I know.
You gotta believe I wouldn’t be doing this if I could help it. The truth is, I’m hardly even myself anymore. Who is Max, if not part of “Max and Fang”? Every once in a while, I glanced down at the beautiful, old-fashioned promise ring that Fang had given me not long ago. I threw it away after Fang left, then pawed frantically through the trash until I found it again. Gazzy, watching me, had said, “Good thing you didn’t flush it.”
This week should have been one of the best weeks of my life. Instead, I would always remember it as a time of bleakne—
With no warning, a voice came from close behind me. “Boo!”
Oh, thank you, I thought, as I jumped and stifled a scream. Someone to hit.
I WHIRLED AROUND on my branch, muscles coiled to launch myself at my attacker. That’s what I’m good at: Fighting. Evading capture. Outwitting bad guys ’n’ gals. I am not good at being heartbroken. But then you already knew that.
And what saw I, upon whirling? The Bane of My Existence, Part Deux. (Fang is Part Un.) Part Deux’s name is Dylan.
Instantly my eyes narrowed and my fists clenched. The hot, dry Arizona wind lifted my hair and rustled the pine needles all around us.
Dylan, on a branch not two feet from mine, gave me a mischievous grin. He’d sneaked up on me, and my hearing is exceptionally good. The only other person who could do that was Fa—
“What do you want?” I scowled at him.
“What’s the matter?” he asked. “Don’t know who you are without him?”
“I’m so sure!” My eyes glowered, and faster than he could say “Uh-oh,” I shot out a hard side kick and knocked him off his branch. I wouldn’t have done that a week ago, but a week ago he’d been sweet and lovesick and not a great flyer. When Fang had left and I still wanted nothing to do with Dylan, Dylan had taken a new tack: toughening up, sharpening his sarcastic edge, and honing his flying skills till they were kick-butt.
Dylan is not part of my flock, no matter what he thinks or what he might tell you. He’s another recombinant-DNA life-form, a birdkid somewhat like us, except that he was cloned from some original Dylan person, who died somehow. We, the flock, were created in test tubes from mostly human genetic material. And each of us had a little festive dash of avian DNA stirred in, which explains the wings and other amusing physical attributes.
Dylan caught himself before he went splat, shooting out his fifteen-foot wings like sails, letting them fill with wind. With strong strokes, he rocketed upward, determination on his perfect, male-model face, his dark blond hair glistening, and before I could think “Oh no, he wouldn’t,” he came at me with everything he had, barreling right into me, knocking me off my branch.
My arms windmilled as I fell back, my wings extending. I was dropping fast, fury building, then suddenly Dylan was below me, grabbing me under my arms.
“Get your hands off m—” I started to say, but in the next second, he pulled me close and kissed me—hard.
I gasped and my brain just—froze. I couldn’t think or feel a single thing.
He let go of me unexpectedly and swooped off. I forgot to flap my wings, and the ground rushed up to me at nauseating speed.
My obituary would read “Killed by love.”
IF I ACTUALLY DIED, that is, and if I had such a smarmy obit. Which, please. Spare me. I beg you.
I caught myself, of course, my wings thrusting with power. My sneakered feet barely grazed the dusty, red clay ground before I surged upward, deciding that killing Dylan was an appropriate response.
He had flown quickly to about a thousand feet, and I shot up to him like an arrow. As soon as I was near, he said, “Admit it! Your heart is pounding!”
“That was the free fall,” I yelled, circling him in the sky, trying to find the best angle to take him out.
“Look at you!” he taunted. “Moping in a tree! Feeling all sorry for yourself!” He faced me as we circled each other, our wings rising and falling in unison. “Oh, my boyfriend’s gone,” he said in a high, squeaky voice, which was, I promise you, nothing like my voice. “Oh, what should I do? Oh, I can’t live without him! Ohhh!”
A red bloodlust blurred my vision as I darted in to punch him. He blocked my arm and pushed me back. No one ever talked to me like that. No one would ever dare throw such drivel at me.
“Shut up!” was the best my adrenaline-lit brain could come up with on such short notice. “You don’t know what I’m thinking or feeling!”
“Yeah, you’re sitting in a tree because you’re fine,” he said, his handsome face flushed, his turquoise eyes glittering. “That’s easy to see. I can’t believe this is Maximum Ride, destroyer of despots, warrior hottie, leader of the flock! All you need now to make yourself more pathetic is a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream!”
Okay, I’ve been called everything from arrogant to zippy, but no one’s ever called me pathetic. Had I really sunk so low?
“Me, pathetic?” I snapped back. “Look in a mirror lately, loser? I can’t stand you, but every time I look up, you’re making cow eyes at me!” I swung my feet forward and smashed him in the chest—just as I had done to that whitecoat in my daymare. He let out an “Oof” and couldn’t catch his breath for a moment, falling about twenty feet.
Then he rushed back at me, nothing like the thoughtful, eager-to-please guy he’d been when we’d first met. Where was he learning how to fight like this?
He whapped me on my side with a powerful wing, making me spin. I’d actually never been hit by a wing before. It’s feathery but packs a surprising punch.
“Oh, you can stand me,” Dylan said as I righted myself. “You’re just afraid to!”
“You’re a delusional freak!” I shrieked, trying to drop down to him so I could kick the side of his head. But he feinted and swung to the left, then he grabbed my ankle and yanked hard. My wings bent up painfully. I went horizontal so I could box his ears. He sucked in a breath and let go of me, then I managed a weak kick to his arm.
I got it now. That’s where he was learning to fight: from me!
“Why can’t you just get out of here and leave me alone?” I bellowed.
“I can’t!” Dylan shouted back, his face twisted with an anger I’d never seen from him.
“You can,” I said through gritted teeth. “Just point your wings that way and flap!”
“No, I mean, I really can’t!” A look of confusion crossed his too-good-looking face. Suddenly, he lost all bitterness and just hovered in the air near me, his wings working smoothly and steadily. He rubbed one hand across his chin. “I actually can’t,” he said, calmer now, looking at the ground far below us. “And you know why, Max. Don’t make me say it.” He sounded vulnerable, frustrated.
I’d been told that he had been created—literally created—just for me, as my “perfect other half.” Let me tell you—if Dylan was my perfect other half, then I needed to give my first half a serious look-see. It all just seemed like total sciencey bullcrap right now.
“I know why, Dylan. It’s because I’m the only available teenage winged female you’ve ever met. You might want to wait until they start mass-producing them. Better selection. They’ve still gotta work all the bugs out.” I frowned, thinking of Fang finding a bug-free Max.
“Never, Max,” Dylan said. “I’m programmed to imprint on you. You know it. I can’t fight the urge to be with you, no matter what.”
“That’s why you’ve been stuck to me like glue?” I said. “Because you have to?!”
Dylan frowned at me. “Yeah. I think.”
Suddenly his gaze was piercing, haunted. “I think I’d want to be with you even if I were programmed to do the exact opposite.”
There was nothing I could say to that. Instead, I folded back my wings and dropped fast to the ground.
AH, THE GOOD OLD DAYS, when we were running for our lives, eating out of Dumpsters, getting into life-and-death battles on a regular basis, unable to trust anyone…
That was before I’d found my mom, the woman who had supplied my second X chromosome. I don’t usually live with her. I’ll always be part of the flock first, and Valencia Martinez’s daughter second. Amazingly, she understands that. I love the fact that she exists and cares about me. But as I stepped into her house, I felt a burst of nostalgia for the days when life was hard and dirty and dangerous.
“Taste,” Nudge said, shoving a still-warm cookie at me.