"Say it. Say it out loud."
"Are you afraid?"
"Wow," Nudge whispered breathlessly again. "He's so dreamy."
"You're going to kill my battery. Turn that off!"
Nudge sighed with a defiant attitude. "We're going to be in a safe house, Iggy. That means there will be elec-tri-ci-ty." She sounded out the final word to Iggy like he didn't understand.
They continued to bicker, but I closed my ears, so to speak.
We were on our way to another safe house and had convinced the CSM to let us fly there on our own. There were some conditions we needed to adhere to, but mainly they added up to one general request: don't make yourselves obvious. Granted, everyone with a TV had seen the broadcast of Max's speech a few months ago, but that was no reason to flaunt ourselves in public.
Even though we were taking orders from the CSM, it wasn't so bad. They were giving us a supposedly safe pace to hang for a while and all the food we could eat when we got there.
Best of all, we were traveling during my favorite season.
God, I loved autumn. Especially the end of the season when winter was approaching. All the leaves were brown and the sky was gray. Everything was subdued, unlike summer. Summer was bright and it was too cheerful for my liking.
Summer was naïve. It gave people too much hope.
Hope was overrated. Autumn tells it like it is. Dead leaves crunch under your feet and remind you how easily hopes and dreams and faith are crushed.
To see this sight from above in the wide open sky, it isn't like anything you can imagine from the ground.
Then Total started squirming in my arms and asking for assistance with something utterly absurd.
"Someone write this down for me." He took a moment to put on his best face of despair. "Dearest Love. Since I went away, the days grow long. Soon we will hear old winter's song. But it is now, I miss you most of all, my darling, when autumn leaves begin to fall."
"Total, the leaves have already-"
"Make sure it's signed, Infinitely Yours, Your Black Stallion."
I thanked my lucky stars that I had such control over myself or I would have been clutching my gut from the greatest laughter ever. Maybe I needed a lesson in compassion. Ha.
"Quiet," said Angel to silence the snickers that went around. "Does anyone hear that cap- caphcony- ca-"
"That's the one. Thank you, Iggy."
"Not a problem, little one, but I didn't hear anything."
Then sure enough, we heard the high-pitched peals of laughter distinctive of young children.
"There's a town close by. We're stopping for dinner," said Max.
"Finally," Gazzy muttered.
Nudge would have piped up and given us a detailed speech about how she was parched and starving and oh so glad to be stopping, but she was too enthralled with Iggy's iPod playing that vampire movie. She had only watched it eight and a half times already this week.
As we got closer and could see the town, we touched down in the middle of some trees and walked out like we weren't freakish bird people swinging by for some nibbles.
"Heyyy," said some dirty man squatting on a bench.
"Max, is that a pirate?" Nudge asked quietly in disbelief.
"No, hun. I think it's a hobo. Just keep walking."
We picked up our pace.
We couldn't stop to talk to people like this. It wasn't worth the gamble.
"Do you hear me? I'm talking to you."
"Hey man, we don't want any trouble," I said.
"I just want to tell you your money is back there on the ground," said the dirty hobo as he pointed to where we had come from.
I looked behind me and he was right. There were a few bills scattered on the ground that must have fallen out of Max's pocket.
I looked at him suspiciously and retrieved the cash. My eyes never left him.
"Thanks, mister," said Gazzy because the rest of us seemed to be either too rude or too untrusting.
"Me and all my friends, we're all misunderstood," the hobo sighed as we quickly walked away.
People being genuinely nice felt like a foreign concept sometimes.
We found a deli in no time at all and Max elected to go in to buy food while the rest of us waited in a park across the street. Angel tagged along with her to help with the bags.
After fifteen minutes, I started to wonder what the holdup was.
"Ig, keep an ear open. I'm going to see what's keeping them."
We didn't wait long for Fang to get Max and my sister.
But while we waited, we listened to another one of Total's lovesicken speeches.
"I feel it everyday; it's all the same. The longing. The pain. The eternal love we will forever share since that first night we spent together grooming under the gibbous moon." The dog looked like he was going to weep. "I miss the sound of your voice, dearest Akila, my love."
Angel caught the last part when she came out of the deli and immediately dropped the bags she was carrying to scoop him up and squeeze him in her arms to comfort him.
"You'll see her soon, Total," she told him.
"Wake up, everyone. Scrumptious morsels await you," Max said and tossed a bag to Nudge, who looked tired. It was probably because she doesn't sleep at night anymore. She wanted to be one of those vegetarian vampires.
Angel picked up one of the bags she dropped and personally gave Iggy his food to avoid a rare mishap if she threw it at him Max-style.
My mouth watered as soon as I looked into the bag Fang handed to me.
"Hello, my friend, we meet again," I said to my roast beef sandwich. It looked so great and it reminded me of a sandwich I found in a dumpster once.
I ate it in record time. Then I ate the next two.
Then… I felt a rumble in my abdomen and knew things were about to get interesting.
One after the next, their noses scrunched as my personal musky cologne drifted into the atmosphere around me. It really was something to be proud of.
"Ah, God. Oh. Gazzy." Max feigned death.
I shrugged carelessly. "I'm not a perfect person."
"You're not a person, period. Real people aren't capable of… that. You're," Total paused to conjure up the most fitting description, "the head deity of putrefaction."
After that, most of the flock sat out of range of my gift.
Iggy and I were conspiring with each other in low voices a few feet away from them.
"I will not make the same mistakes that you did," said Iggy.
"But it turned out ok in the end!"
"Had I not fixed the connections, it would have blown up in our faces and it would have been a lot more serious than that time Max made the butterscotch pudding explode all over us!"
"Guys, lay off the bomb talk," Fang intervened. "We're trying to fit in. I suspect plotting explosives during dinner isn't exactly the social norm around here."
My eyes wandered around the park while I sucked down my third pop.
There was a boy younger than my sister playing in sand with no shoes on, but his dad was trying to get him to listen.
"Ok, put your shoes on. We need to get home for supper," his dad said.
The little boy had a big smile on his face when he started to put one of his sneakers on. He was doing it all by himself.
"You're putting them on the wrong feet," the dad laughed gently.
The boy looked up at his father and was confused.
"But these are the only feet I have," he said. The dad laughed again and ruffled his son's hair much Max and Jeb used to do to me.
He helped him put his sneakers on the right way. "We need to go home and see mommy now. She's cooking us something special."
When the man took the boy's hand in his own, the child went limp and flopped to the ground as if to say, "I'll never surrender!"
The dad smiled. He looked delighted and amused by the boy's behavior.
I looked back at my flock. If any of us had done that when we were at the School, we would have been punished…
"Ready, guys?" Max asked, even though she was really telling us to get up off our butts and get moving.
"Hold on just a minute. Nature just gave me a ring," Total announced.
He sniffed along the grass and some shrubs and a pole until finding the perfect bush.
Then he spoke to it.
"Greetings. I am your sprinkler."
I heard Max mutter something about disgust under her breath and then we were out of there.
Max and I sat on the front steps of the safe house while the younger crowd was washing up inside.
As the night washed in, we watched some birds fly south across the autumn sky. One by one they melded with the horizon and disappeared.
"Hey, there goes a silver Volvo," said Max, looking at the somewhat busy street in view. I doubted she would have mentioned it if it hadn't been Nudge's new favorite vehicle of all time; of course, the only reason for that was because a fictional glittery vampire owned one.
"I swear to God, if you start talking about that book…," I warned.
"Ha," she snorted. "No worries. I'd rather be attacked by the next generation of flyboys than talk about that, but you shouldn't swear. You don't even believe in God and that stuff anyway," she said and rolled her eyes. She did a quick 360 just in case there was a cloud of next generation flyboys headed our way. Paranoid and precautious, just as a leader should be.
We quietly kept our thoughts to ourselves as I considered what she said, that I don't believe in anything. I was beginning to think I should. Why was I so damn bitter about the world? It wasn't a bad place, really, I'd witnessed that today. Besides, isn't that why we're trying to protect it?
"I'm starting to," I said aloud. It was more to myself than to Max.
She looked at me and tilted her head a small degree. "Really?"
I replied with a miniscule shrug.
Max kept her eyes on me. She was waiting for me to elaborate.
"I don't know," I began. "We have to have faith in something, don't we?"
"Faith in what?" She shook her head and smiled cynically. "There isn't anything good in this world to have faith in."
Funny the way it is, just 12 hours earlier I had that same outlook.
"If you believe that, what are we trying to save?" I asked with a furrowed brow.
I may not be wholeheartedly convinced there is a big man in the sky watching out for us, but I do know there is something to be fighting for. There is good in this world, be it a dirty but helpful hobo, a man who loves his child enough to embrace his misbehavior, or something bigger than we could ever imagine.
Her lips moved to say something, but she paused.
"Maybe you're right," she said and smiled briefly. She wasn't completely sold on the idea, though.
After an awkward second too long, she told me to get going, it was her watch first.
I abided and quietly went back inside. It had been a good day.
Nights like this, I close my eyes, and I smile, knowing that everything is all right.