"I was trying to help you escape." I tell her.
"If I'd known..." she says. I don't think she's seen anyone die slowly and painfully before. Otherwise, she wouldn't be so upset.
I laugh, and then I choke on my own blood. I am bleeding to death, my ribs have punctured my lungs, and I will die. "You know nothing, you are just a child."
There is the fire in her eyes that I admire. She doesn't know what's right or wrong, yet she'll fight for what's right until the end of time. She's an idiot.
I am going to die whilst locked in what amounts to a closet with the stupidest fourteen year old girl I have ever met. I wish I could be in a hospital, surrounded by skilled doctors who try to save me.
I wish I was healthy and whole, at home with my wife and my daughters.
She wordlessly hands back the photo that I've carried with me since it was taken. I don't remember dropping it, but I must have. In the photo I am sitting with my youngest on my knee. My oldest stands next to me with her arm around my middle child. My wife stands on my other side.
We are smiling. We are happy. I tell Max about it. It was Emily's birthday. We went to Disneyland.
She looks surprised. Sad even. Maybe a flicker of guilt.
Did she think that I couldn't possibly have a family?
I slip into unconsciousness. I don't realise until I wake again. Max is still sitting, back against the wall. She hasn't moved.
I can't breathe.
I cough and wheeze, trying to get oxygen into my body. Max's hands are holding my shoulders, helping me sit up.
I can breathe.
I almost cry with relief.
"Tell me about your family, then." I ask hoarsely. "Tell me about their birthdays. Tell me about the times you've been their mother. Patched their scraped knees. Told them bedtime stories."
Stung, she moved back to her patch of wall.
"What's there to say?" She snaps. "You don't care about us."
I want to laugh, but I know better. "You stupid child," I say with some affection. "I've put twenty years of work into you. I care so much more than you know."
The glare she sends me would make concrete crumble. "You sound like Jeb."
"Jeb has kept you alive for fourteen years." I inform her. "Your life might suck, but you are alive, despite your rather aggravating tendency to run into things without thinking."
"I'm not..." she protests hotly.
"You are," I say gently. "You're a huge liability, and everyone here knows that, Max."
We lapse into silence for what seems like hours.
"It's all your fault, you know." She pipes up. She hasn't quite managed the art of not saying anything. She needs to grow up and fast. Batchelder is not here to save her anymore.
"I'm intrigued. Do continue."
"You didn't have to make me! You didn't have to keep me in a cage all my life! You didn't have to beat me and not feed me and...and...and torture me!"
I can do nothing more than blink.
"It's not all about you." I tell her. "We created you, in the beginning, to try and create cures for osteoporosis and other bone diseases, respiratory diseases and eye problems. We figured that we were already adding aves DNA, we could give you wings, and you'd be able to fly. Your predecessor had no wings."
She looks stunned. "I don't..."
"I hadn't finished." I interrupt. "You were a miracle. You were kept in the nursery until you were four – I doubt you remember. You were such a happy child, you were never underfed, never hurt. Then you got sick – you were so sick. You were taken to the infirmary wing. We fought so hard to save your life. But the chemo had made you sick too, and there had been so many needles. You were afraid of them. But we had to, to make sure you were healthy again. You began to fight us. All the time."
"I don't believe you!" She spits.
"Your temper tantrums began to hurt the others. We had to separate you from the others, we were scared you'd kill them. You were six. What's worse, is that they'd always copied everything you did. It's still the same, isn't it. You'll lead them to their deaths."
"If we gave you food, you'd throw it at us. If we tried to take your blood, you'd kick and scream. When we tried to get you in the wind tunnel to fly, to make sure your wings developed, you'd attack us. It became this terrible downwards spiral. By the time you were eight, you were uncontrollable. We had to get the Erasers to handle you, because you'd almost killed humans on no less than three separate occasions."
"We had to keep you in cages, because we couldn't keep you apart, but we couldn't allow you to be near each other. The only thing we could do, was try and win your trust. Batchelder did it. Took him two years to get you lot to the point where he could get you to leave with him. Without trying to kill him, anyway."
She's crying again. Stupid girl.
"Things changed. While you were gone. They got worse. This place, used to be for learning things. All sorts of things. Now it's a soldier factory, because war pays. We covered up everything – where you were and why you were there. Batchelder got recalled, had to leave you. We couldn't bear to bring you back into the hellhole this place had become."
"It was already a hellhole!"
"They thought every one of them would turn out like you," I spit back. "So they beat them all into submission, breaking their spirits, killing every spark of life they had. We used to have children here. Special, beautiful, miracle children. Now they're all..." Words fail me.
"If anything, it's all your fault." I tell her.
"You're nothing but a lying bastard of a whitecoat!" She shrieks. "You're lying." Stupid girl.
"What possible reason could I have to lie, you idiot child? I am dying – you can't kill me anymore than you already have."
"You're...you're screwing with my head!" I am, at that. She has enough moral fibre to know it's wrong to attack a dying man, no matter what the provocation. But I don't need to lie to mess with her.
"I'd suggest you talk to Batchelder, when you get out of this place," I say weakly. "You know this much – there's not much left to hide."
She says nothing, just sits, jaw clenched, staring at the wall.
"You proved them all right, though." I inform her. "You're an uncontrollable menace. You leave a body count, and millions of dollars of damage. They want to terminate you, because you're a murderer. You're a vandal. Once upon a time, Maximum Ride, you had people fighting for you. Fighting to keep you alive. We even set up this bullshit that you're going to save the world. Another bargaining chip." I sigh. "Now you're just not worth it."
Her jaw has hit the floor, and now she's looking at me.
"If they'd never taken Angel!"
"Angel had the same problem you did, just not so bad. Not then."
"You knew something was wrong." I accuse. He face tells me I've hit the mark. "You knew she was sick."
She looks like she wants to cry.
"We could have let her die. But we chose to take her, to fix her. We thought that maybe you'd grown up a little bit. We hoped, oh we hoped. We knew that you'd come for her – but we hoped you'd have the intelligence to drop off the radar after that. You didn't. And so the director had to act. You had to be stopped before you killed again, before you ruined this."
"Maybe it should be!"
"What's worse, ten kids a month dying of what the sadists here do, or a thousand dying of the diseases we could treat. How selfish."
"I hate you." She says.
"Why?" I ask.