The ticking of the clock was the only noise in the room. It was shaped like a cat with eyes and a tail that swished back and forth as the pendulum inside of it moved. Like some kind of recurring nightmare, Jeb sat in a single armchair across from the rest of the flock, who sat patiently in a row on the couch before him, waiting for their conviction…one that would never come.
"That's it," he said, nearly whispering the words. Max and Fang, who sat next to each other, met each other's eyes but said nothing. "I can't do this anymore. I'm too old for this. I mean, when I first started out, I thought it'd be all cool, you know?"
Now everyone was staring at each other, trying to figure out what he was talking about.
"I mean, hell, we'd mixed pigs with goats and rabbits with dogs, which I really found hilarious. Ever seen a hopping dog? Man, the dog shows we won with that one! Or even the liger was a nice twist…nearly were exposed for what we truly were when National Geographic found out about it, but that was quickly swept under the carpet. But you guys? Oh, didn't I get more than I bargained for!"
"'Just take them home with you for a few days,' Alex had said," Jeb went on with his one sided rant. "'Just to see how they react outside of their cages.' Well I took you guys home. I figured it'd be something like how Dave has to deal with Alvin and the chipmunks. A few trouble spots here and there, but in the end, we'd stick together like family. Ha, well now I see to hell with that idea!" Jeb shook his head bitterly. "Is what I did so horrible that you have to do this to an old man?" He pleaded with them.
Angel opened her mouth to say something but Nudge elbowed her in her ribs and she shut her mouth. The rest of the flock remained silent. Jeb gave a harsh chuckle. "The old silent treatment, eh? That's fine. You'll have plenty of time to be silent…in your cages."
The words hadn't passed his lips in over a second before they took action. Max charged him and knocked him out the way. Fang used his strength to keep him against the wall, letting the younger ones run out of the room. When everyone had left, he gave him a hard punch to the stomach and watched him curl up on the floor. "Oh, and FYI, your spinach lasagna tasted like cow vomit!" he yelled. He didn't stay long enough to watch Jeb's eyes fill with tears at his comment.
My mother taught me that recipe, you ungrateful bastard!
And for the umpteenth time that week, they were off in the sky. It was a beautiful day, the sun shining, the birds singing, the smell of sewage in their nose…wait, what?
The scenery dissolved like the last image at the end of a movie and what materialized before Max was a dark tunnel with dripping pipes and the sound of rats scurrying in the distance.
"Where am I?" she wondered out loud. Someone near her mumbled in the darkness and touched her arm.
"What?" they asked.
"Where am I?" Max said again, louder. Now several forms shifted, many warm bodies touching her.
"Chicago," she heard Iggy say irritably. "Don't you remember telling us that was our next destination?" He shifted away and she could no longer feel his heat. Someone else took his place.
"Max, are you okay?" Fang asked, reaching out a hand for hers, but instead brushing her face.
"I thought we were in Colorado?" she said, fear creeping in her voice despite her efforts to control it. She could barely make out the raised eyebrow the boy gave her.
"We haven't been in Colorado for over eight months. Are you sure you're okay?"
"She's probably hearing that Voice again," Iggy snickered from a safe distance away.
The two youngest members started up a chant, saying "Max is going crazy! Max is going crazy!" Nudge even joined in and together, they started doing a war chant around her, dances and all.
Max was trying to arrange her thoughts, but strange images kept interrupting them. What happened to school? What happened to blowing up the house? What happened to…Jeb?
"Max is going crazy! Max is going crazy!" the chant continued.
Her head started to throb. "Fang, what happened to the house?" she managed.
"Gone to bits. Iggy blew it up, remember?" She did remember…but then…?
"Where's Jeb?" she asked again, raising her voice over the chant that was growing louder.
She made out a shrug in the darkness. "Who knows, who gives a damn? The guy was against our existence from the start." She pressed her fingers to her temples to try and concentrate.
"Max is going crazy! Max is going crazy! Max is going crazy! Max is going-"
"Shut the hell up!" Max finally shouted at them. The war chants and the Indian dances stopped.
"Gol-ly! Just trying to lighten up the mood a little," Gazzy said under his breath.
"There's other ways you can do it rather than shouting out for the whole world to hear that I'm losing my marbles," Max said heatedly. She stood up and paced around for a moment. "So, the house is gone, no one knows where Jeb is, and somehow we've reached Chicago, is that right?"
She stopped and gave a short laugh. "Then I guess I've just had the craziest dream ever. I dreamed we had to go to school—"
"But we did!" Angel said.
Max went on. "And we kept getting in trouble and so the authorities kept punishing us—"
"But all that really happened!" Gazzy interrupted, but Max was paying him no attention.
"And then the idiot gave us detention and we had to wash tables and lockers and scrub toilets and—" This time, Fang interrupted.
"Enough!" he said. He pulled her arm and took her off to the side. "Are you sure you're okay? I mean, you did have a tuna fish sandwich last night from that gas station, after I told you that it wasn't wise to eat it. But you just had to since it was so cheap. Now tell me, was it worth it?"
Max blinked at him. "What the hell does having a tuna fish sandwich have to do with dreams?! Please link those two together because it's not making sense to me."
He only shook his head and walked back to the others, who all were now chanting, "Max is going crazy." And then joined them!
She sat down where she stood. The house was gone, like she expected it to be, Jeb was out of their lives…but going to school…Was it all a dream? Amid the chants, Fang met her eyes. They had an expression about them that she could almost read like a book. Regardless to what he had said to her, they clearly read, "You are not alone."
You're not going crazy, the Voice told her. Getting a bit eccentric, perhaps. Fang warned you about that tuna fish sandwich, you know, but other than that your mental stability is fine. He knows what you're going through, for he too experienced this déjà vu with a situation involving Total. But let go of the past, for it cannot be corrected. Just know that you are NOT going crazy!
"Yeah, that's real easy advice to follow when it's a strange voice that's telling it," Max muttered, but shrugged it off. Okay, so maybe she couldn't put all of the pieces of this puzzle together. Maybe it was another test she was being put through. Regardless, it was in the past and there was nothing she could do about it.
She walked over to the others to restore her title and her dignity.