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Read by Chloe Cannon
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In this dark dystopian tale, 17-year-old Hawk is growing up hard and fast in post-apocalyptic New York City—until a perilous destiny forces her to take flight and protect her home.
Where is Maximum Ride?
Ten years ago a girl with wings fought to save the world. But then she disappeared.
Now she’s just a fading legend, remembered only in stories.
Hawk doesn’t know her real name. She doesn’t know who her family was, or where they went. The only thing she remembers is that she was told to wait on a specific street corner, at a specific time, until her parents came back for her.
She stays under the radar to survive . . . until a destiny that’s perilously close to Maximum Ride’s forces her to take flight. Someone is coming for her.
But it’s not a rescue mission. It’s an execution.
I solemnly promise this one thing to myself: I swear that this is the last day, absolutely the very last day, I will ever wait for those heartless bastards: my parents.
I leaned back against the corner of this building, the fading gray stucco chipped and pitted and slowly coming off. Five years ago it had been a bank; now there were no banks anywhere. I don’t know why. Now the only things this building is good for are squatters, who’d broken in through the heavy glass door; looters, who’d taken anything of value from it; and me. I used it to prop myself up during my daily pointless wait. Today I was extra mad at myself for being the gullible smack that I am. We’re talking way gullible. Why else would I be here?
“Hawk.” The ragged homeless woman shot me a quick worried glance as she hobbled down the street with surprising speed.
I nodded at her. “Smiley.” So-called because she’d lost a lot of her teeth. You hang out on a street corner long enough, you get to know the natives. I’d been hanging out here every day—we’re talking every single fricking day—for ten years.
Every day at five o’clock, whether it’s raining, blistering hot, freezing, snowing, wind blowing, whatever. Every day from five to five thirty. I was here.
And, like, why? Such a good question. One that I ask myself a hundred times every day, when I pretend not to notice what time it is, when really, it’s ticking in my head, down to the minute. Like a bomb I keep playing with, every day, one that I actually want to explode. Because if it did, maybe this time, I really wouldn’t go.
So why do I keep doing it?
The answer’s always the same: because they asked me to. My parents.
And you know, I can remember just about every face I’ve ever seen. I’m like a super recognizer. I should work for the government, I’m not kidding. Not this government, obvs. But some government, somewhere. Anyhow, a million faces, good, bad, and ugly locked away in my mind-vault, and yet…
Yet I don’t remember them. Mom and Dad. I remember my father’s hands, standing me on this street corner. For some reason I feel like we were afraid. I could feel a tremor in his fingers, tight in mine. I think I remember this so clearly because my hands were clean and haven’t been since then. One of them said, “It’s five o’clock now. Stay here for half an hour, till your watch says five thirty. A friend of ours will come get you—or we’ll be back. Promise.”
I don’t remember the voice, whether it was soft and warm, or harsh, or desperate, or whispered. I don’t even know if it was my mom or dad that said it.
I lost my watch years ago. Actually, it got broken in a fight. Along with my nose, that time. Other things have been broken and bruised since then, and I’ve got the scars to prove it. The one thing that hasn’t broken yet is my spirit. But a few more days of keeping this lonely watch on this crap corner might do it.
My parents’ muted voices, the fogged-out faces—that was ten years ago. No friend ever came. My parents never came back. Remembering that makes me laugh at myself.
What kind of a pathetic idiot waits on the same corner every day from five to five thirty for their whole life? Or at least ten years of it? The biggest idiot in the world.
This was the last, very, very last time.
5:12. Splat! I winced and jerked as something wet and gushy exploded on the wall right next to my head. Ick! I wiped rotten… onion? off my forehead, its sharp, rancid odor making my nostrils twitch and my eyes tear up.
Oh, goddamnit, not today…
Instinctively I dropped into a crouch just as a bullet ricocheted off the wall where my head had been.
I immediately straightened, eyes easily finding Tony Two-Toes and Racelli.
“This is our corner, bitch,” Racelli said. “You keep trespassing.”
“Yeah, girls are annoying like that, right?” I asked, sounding bored.
Whoosh! Tony Two-Toes swung his gun butt right at my head with enough force to crack my skull, if he’d managed to make contact. Instead, I leaned way to my right and the gun smashed into the building wall, cracking old plaster and stone and sending chips flying.
“The thing about you,” I said, “is you’re so goddamn slow.” With that I jumped straight up into the air, nine, ten feet, then pivoted and pushed my feet off the building, sending me out into the middle of the street. From there I took a run at Racelli, landing with a big leap, my worn-out boots almost touching his extremely expensive sneakers—stolen, no doubt. I chopped the back of his knee with the flat of my hand and his muscles gave out under the pressure. He buckled, and I grabbed the gun from him. Backing up quickly, I flicked the safety off and waved the gun at each of them.
“Careful, shit-heels. Do not piss me off today,” I snarled. “And if you’re going to throw food at me, make it something fresh. I prefer apples.”
Racelli lunged for me. Moving as fast as only I can, I chucked him under the chin with the gun butt, knocking him on his ass again. Tony raised his gun to shoot, so I aimed and blew his hat off. He yelped and looked back for it, giving me time to adjust my aim.
“Sorry, Tony,” I said, right before I shot his gun out of his hand. “I don’t think you can be trusted with that.” This time he screamed, looking at his hand, which was running red. The gun lay on the concrete, surrounded by bright red drops that almost looked like rain… except they weren’t.
Charging him, I kicked his gun off the pavement and down a sewer grate while he held his hand and screamed at me.
“I didn’t make you Tony One-Finger, did I?” I asked. Then—too soon—I tossed Racelli’s gun down the sewer grate also, feeling like I was a fecking boss. Tony took advantage of that to roar and punch me in the jaw, snapping my head sideways. Tendons in my neck cracked, and there were black spots in my vision. I didn’t have time to get out of the way when he pulled his arm back to hit me again, but Ridley had seen what was happening and she swooped down.
Her wings beat the air as she dropped onto Tony’s head, her long, razor-sharp talons raking his skin. Twin rivers of blood flowed into his eyes, blocking his view as he shrieked and tried to punch her. She flitted gracefully out of reach, her cold black eyes now focused on Racelli, who had run over to us. He retreated a few steps as Tony doubled over, wailing and holding his scalp as more of his blood fell onto the concrete to pool with the earlier drops.
“You’re gonna regret tossing my gun,” Racelli said meanly.
My eyebrows rose. “I doubt it.”
He made a quick move at me, but Ridley hunched her shoulders as if preparing to strike.
Racelli looked at Tony, then at Ridley, then at me. Without even telling Tony good-bye, he turned and walked away. Walked, not ran. But walked fast. Tony, swearing to rain hell down on Ridley and me, hobbled after him, leaving a trail of red as he cradled his injured hand to his chest.
Ridley floated down and landed on my shoulder, careful not to grip me too hard. She brushed her hard beak gently against my hair, trying to smooth away the endless tangles. I put my hand up and stroked her warm brown wing, crooning to her.
“That silly Tony,” I told her in a baby voice. “Doesn’t he know we’re already in hell? We live here, man.” It was 5:18.
5:20. When I was sure those two berks were gone, I leaned against the building again. I was sure this wall had a Hawk-shaped indentation in it from ten years of me keeping a stupid promise. I tried to settle in just right, find the position that dug into the familiar ache of my back, maybe bring a little relief while I put in the last ten minutes of my watch. My tongue probed at my teeth to see if Tony’s punch had knocked anything loose. One molar might be a little wiggly, and there’s an ache in my jaw, but I totally came out of that tangle on top.
Ridley perched on my shoulder, preening herself and my hair at the same time. Absently I stroked her breast feathers, enjoying her warm, five-pound weight, the quick, gentle movements of her beak. The same beak that could rip a rat or a person to shreds was also precise enough to pick ticks off her feathers and dirt out of my mohawk.
With no warning, as usual, the Voxvoce suddenly blared throughout the city. People stopped in their tracks, some sinking to the ground, holding their ears. Ridley gave a high-pitched whine, and I clamped one hand around her silky head, shielding her ear holes as best I could. Then I closed my eyes and escaped within myself, away from the Voxvoce and the twisted, corrupt government who used it to control its people.
It ricocheted off buildings, filling the air and making my teeth ring. Even my eyeballs felt like they were vibrating in my skull as Ridley curled closer to me, looking for shelter from an enemy she couldn’t see and didn’t understand.
5:24. Finally, it ended—it had been about a minute and a half this time. Sometimes it was longer, sometimes shorter, but the sound always had the ability to make kids cry, terrify animals and make birds drop from the sky, make grown men sink to their knees and women cringe against buildings, silent tears streaking their cheeks.
It was super-effective. I pictured catching the bastards who’d come up with the idea of the Voxvoce, and the bastards who had created it, and locking them all in a room with it playing 24/7. They’d be writhing like worms within minutes, vomiting and crying and screaming for mercy. I would have no mercy.
They always killed it right when you thought you were about to lose your mind, go totally insane and shove something sharp into your ear just to make it stop. The bastards were smarter than that, though; they turned the noise off before you hit that point, and instead you were just thankful that it ended. I’d actually seen people thank them for stopping, like they forgot it’s the bastards that started it in the first place.
5:25. Everyone knew this was my corner—which was why so many thugs tried to take it from me. For a half hour every day, I people watched, usually with Ridley on my shoulder, which kept some of the rougher elements away. The smarter ones, anyway. There were certainly some dumb ones walking around with Ridley-induced scars on their faces. This city was a nightmare. What kind of parents would leave a little kid on her own in a nightmare place like this with only a raptor to protect her? I looked around. Every person here was packing, the outlines of their guns plain against their clothes. I’d seen kids as young as six with their own handguns, scaled down to fit their smaller hands and weaker grips.
5:27. Besides all the freaking gun-carriers, there were the Opes. Opes were scary, even to me, almost. Every once in a while you saw one who was a relatively cheerful addict, maybe someone with money and a sure supply. Much more often Opes were ragged, desperate, dirty, and lost. At a certain point they forgot to eat, forgot to do anything except find drugs. They were bony, with sharp cheekbones and elbows, scarred skin, rotted teeth, and hair that looked like it had been stapled to their heads in sad clumps.
An Ope was lurching toward me now, singing under her breath, dragging one foot, sticklike fingers twirling in hair dirtier and more tangled than mine, which is saying something. I carefully looked away, just another drug-free kid with a large hawk on her shoulder. She paused when she saw me, but I refused to meet her eyes, and finally she loped past, almost stumbling at the curb.
When she was gone, I grinned a little and rubbed Ridley’s head. The Ope had been wearing a Max T-shirt—filthy and full of holes, but still. I loved Maximum Ride, though I didn’t really know who or what she was. Maybe a comic book character? Maybe a movie star or something, I don’t know. Just every now and then I saw her picture on a T-shirt or a book cover or a billboard, and I liked the way she looked: god-awful fierce and determined as hell. No one to mess with. I’d named my bird after her: Ridley is like Ride, with an ly.
And it was 6:00. I was out.
“Attention, citizens!” The familiar, oily voice boomed all around me. The huge vidscreens designed to reach every last corner of this city glowed with the image of the governor, McCallum. If he had a first name, I’d never heard it. All I knew was that he’d been yelling his word salad at us for as long as I could remember. The Voxvoce had been his idea, I was sure of it.
“Citizens!” he shouted again, his wide, fleshy face forming the words as if a puppeteer were controlling him. Hell, maybe one was. I’d believe anything about McCallum. “Remember that here you are free!!! Free to get jobs, free to take care of your own stuff, free to quit sponging off the government! Act like the adults you pretend to be! And, Opes—there’s nothing wrong with you! You’re just seeing the world a different way! But you gotta support yourselves, you know? Everyone has to mind their own garden, their own weeds! You don’t want crabgrass in your garden, do you?”
Several Opes pawing through garbage across the street looked up, then hunched their shoulders again, pushing trash aside.
God. McCallum was such a fecking shit-heel. Who in this city has a damn garden? I mean, I can’t stand the Opes—nobody can. But he didn’t have to yell at them like that in public. I mean, he yelled at everybody. But he seemed to single out the Opes.
“He’s such a dick,” I told Ridley, and she shook out her feathers, obvs totally agreeing with me. I smiled as I remembered the Ope wearing a Max T-shirt. I had three of them myself, swiped from someone’s street table. Sure, the seller had yelled at me, said she’d sic her brothers on me, that she had a gun and would take me out the next time she saw me.
Really, lady? You’re gonna get upset about losing a couple shirts that you got off the back of a truck? Yeah? C’mon. And you got a gun? Hell, I figured. Babies around here come out of their moms dragging a pistol after them.
I used to have a gun myself, a Barracuda. I’d gotten it years ago, and in my fifteen years I’d only ever killed one person. At that thought, I stuck my tongue hard against the tooth Tony had knocked loose, letting the pain distract me. I didn’t need to think about that person now, and I didn’t want to carry a gun anymore. I had bigger concerns.
Now I needed to get home to my kids.
I take different routes home through the City of the Dead. They call it that because, a couple years before I was dumped here like trash, everyone who lived within like a mile all got sick and died. A couple of the Oldies told me about it—it was horrible, and to this day no one knows what happened. But they all just up and died. Over the years, other people moved into the empty apartments, like a free move-in day. All you’ve got to do is carry out the dead, and it’s yours.
So everyone here is from somewhere else, and the City of the Dead has filled up with Opes, Oldies, Rebs, Freaks, and Tourists. I like the Rebs. They’ve never messed with me. They plastered colorful posters around, advertising their particular gangs: Smothered, SlavesNoMore, Freedom… there were a couple others. Of course it was pointless, rebelling against McCallum
. I didn’t know how they’d managed to string two thoughts together to make these posters, what with the Voxvoce and the Proclamations and the Emergencies. But they had, and I liked looking at the posters stuck to the walls of burned-out buildings. A little bit of color never hurt anybody, and sometimes I tore them down, took them home to help teach my kids how to read.
It was the Tourists who were the worst. There weren’t many—fewer every year. They came here from non–Cities of the Dead and looked at us like we were slime molds. Like, Look, honey, there’s an Ope getting beat up! Take a picture! Once I saw Smiley actually posing for someone, showing off her empty gums in exchange for a handful of coins. It pissed me off—not at her—a girl’s gotta do what she’s got to do. But if I ever saw that Tourist again, I’d show them what a mouth with teeth in it is for.
Sometimes if I’m standing at my corner they’ll offer me money, like I was begging. I’d love to make them swallow it. Instead I grit my teeth and take it, shoving it deep in my pocket. Because money is money. Money means food, medicine, favors. I couldn’t afford to throw it back at them.
A couple years ago this shiny clean Tourist came up to me and I waited for him to hold out some onesie coins. He didn’t.
“You’re what they call an Ope, aren’t you?” he’d whispered, pulling a baggie of blue powder out of his jacket pocket. “Tell you what—we go into this alley over here and you let me do anything I want, and I’ll give you… half this bag. You’d like that, wouldn’t you? Half a bag of dope? Just for you?” He smiled encouragingly, trying to screw a thirteen-year-old kid.
I’d broken his jaw.
While he was writhing on the ground, some Opes had run up and mugged him, taking everything, including his car keys. I’d almost laughed myself sick.
Maybe Tourists shouldn’t come here. Or maybe I should leave. But I can’t. I promised.
Night was falling. In the City of the Dead it was more like heavy, greasy clouds looming down from the sky, wiping out the stars, dulling the moon. I was tired and wanted to go home, but I knew that voice.
“Pietro,” I said as he came up to me.
Ridley gave a huff and took off into the night. I’m pretty much the only person she likes.
“How ya been?” He looked like he really cared. Some people asked just because they wanted you to ask back, and are too busy answering with a long sob story that they never notice you didn’t actually ask.
“I’m always fine, Pietro,” I said. We’d been pals when we were like seven, eight years old, but then his father had forbidden him to play with the riffraff and told him to stick to his own kind. His own kind being from the Six.
In our city, only that barking, false-fronted rager McCallum was more important than the Six. The Six were the gangs who ran this city, and not in a kindly, thoughtful way, either. They’d carved out their territories and set up their own leaders. Pietro was a prince; his father was Giacomo Pater. Their gang was One of Six, and I lived in their territory.
Two of Six were the McLeods. Three of Six were the Harrises. Four of Six were the Stolks, Five of Six were the Diazes, and Six of Six were the Chungs. They made life fun around here, and by fun I meant violent and scary.
“What brings you down to the dirt, Pietro?” I asked.
His handsome face suddenly hardened, and he gestured behind me with one hand.
“That piece of trash over there,” he said. I turned to see another prince, tall and pale with thick, shiny, red-brown hair and a face that was all angles. He came out of an alley like he’d been waiting on somebody. I could only hope it was Pietro he was looking for, and not me.
“Chung?” I guessed.
“Yep,” he bit out and spit on the sidewalk.
“Okay, what about him?” I asked.
Pietro frowned. “They tried to open a business two blocks into our territory. The Chungs are trying to muscle in, and my father wants to send a clear message. So he called for a duel.”
Duels happened pretty often, but not all in the same territory. They were exciting as hell—if you didn’t care that one of your friends might be about to die.
“Do you have to?” I asked.
He nodded, looking unhappy. Suddenly he looked into my eyes and took my hand. “Hawk, I wish—”
“Duel!” someone shouted, and instantly the crowd picked up the chant, making it impossible for either Pietro or the Chung prince to back down now. I saw one of Giacomo’s henchmen edging out of the crowd, standing in the street with his arms folded. Likewise, one of the Chung henchmen stood on the opposite side of the street, the gold symbol of the Chung clan embroidered on his blue silk jogging suit.
Pietro dropped my hand and walked to the middle of the street.
There were rules about duels, even if there weren’t many rules about anything else. 1) Whoever called the duel shot second. 2) They had to use single-fire handguns. 3) They had to bring a second, someone who would carry their body home if they died. 4) It had to be a public place, with plenty of witnesses.
So here they were. I was one of the plenty of witnesses. My stomach twisted and my mouth was suddenly dry. I was about to watch Pietro get a bullet in the head.
We hadn’t been close in years, but he’d been my best friend for a while. We’d played “hide from the plague people” together. We’d played “behind enemy lines” and “lava floor.” We’d practiced stealing from street markets together. Together we had collected trash and sorted it and sold it to the trash peddlers. And here I was about to watch him catch a bullet just because that’s how things were done in the City of the Dead when you were a prince of the Paters, a One.
I wanted to tell him it didn’t have to be this way, but there were too many people and the chant had begun to die down, the crowd aware that they were going to get what they wanted. If I stood in the way of that, I’d risk being hurt myself. I stepped to the side, giving Pietro a nod for good luck.
“Begin!” shouted Pietro’s second.
Pietro and the Chung prince stood back-to-back. Pietro was trembling slightly, so slightly that probably no one saw it but me. His face was set, his mouth pressed into a firm line.
“Count off!” the Chung second yelled.
“One!” “Two!” “Three!” The boys counted their paces as they walked away from each other, taking big steps.
The streetlamps came on, casting a sickening orange glow over all of us. Pietro looked even worse in the light, his skin a harsh color as he paced off with the shouts. I was starting to get mad. This was so freaking stupid! This was just gangs flexing their muscles! Was Giacomo really willing to sacrifice his son over a couple blocks of territory? There was no way a Chung would deliberately miss a Pater! I pictured myself storming up to Pietro’s big house and yelling at Giacomo.
Then I pictured one of their soldiers throwing my body over the wall into the city dump, Ridley soaring over my body for days as she waited for me to get up. I swallowed hard, my fists clenched.
The two princes pivoted and faced each other.
“I’m glad they pick each other off every so often,” a woman next to me said. In general I agreed with her—the fewer gangsters, the better. But this was Pietro, and whatever he was destined to become in his family, there’d been a time when he was a fun, good-natured kid.
The Chung prince raised his gun, pointing it directly at Pietro. Pietro wasn’t that far away; it was a shot I could make easily. Laser aimers weren’t allowed, of course. Maybe the Chung prince had bad eyesight? No—he would have had it fixed by now. They had that kind of money, and as much as the princes were used to settle their fathers’ scores, they’d want to make sure they had every possible edge.
Pietro stood without flinching, even as the Chung prince fired. Then he jerked to one side, his hand clapped against his head. I almost screamed his name but covered my mouth.
He was still standing. Dark red blood ran through his fingers and splattered on the street. Slowly he straightened, shook the blood off his hand, and wiped it on his maroon Pater uniform.
Please don’t kill him, I thought, as if my thoughts could influence Pietro. Please don’t kill the Chung dude. Don’t become the killer your dad wants you to be. Just injure him a little, like he did you, and you’ll both save face. Please.
Pietro raised his gun. I held my breath. The Chung prince’s chest heaved as he tried to control his breathing. His arm hung limply at his side, the gun shaking in his grip as he waited for a bullet. Running would be a disgrace, and so he stood, waiting to die.
Please, I thought.
Pietro fired. The Chung prince whipped backward as the bullet struck his arm. The crowd was so still that we could all heard the clink of the bullet as it hit the wall behind him. Someone cheered, and then we all cheered. Pietro had shot the Chung prince in the arm; the bullet had gone cleanly through. It would be an easy recovery.
Beaming, I yelled Pietro’s name. I saw the Pater henchman spit on the ground in disgust. I guessed Giacomo wouldn’t be too happy, but I was proud of Pietro for making his own decision. The Chung henchman was walking toward his prince. The Pater henchman left Pietro’s side and also walked toward the Chung prince. Before anyone could react, he grabbed the Chung prince with big, meaty hands, and snapped his head around. We all heard the loud crack of bones breaking, saw the light leave his dark eyes, saw him crumple to the ground, dead. He was still smiling from relief at living through the duel. Several of the Chung footmen started toward the Pater goon, but the Chung henchman stopped them.
“It is over!” he said, but he was obviously furious at the Pater killer.
I stopped in my tracks, my own smile disappearing. The crowd cheered even louder. A duel was one thing; a flat-out murder another. This was enough excitement for days.
Pietro looked at me, saw my expression. “I didn’t do that! I didn’t want that to happen!” he yelled.
I turned and walked away, disgusted with all of the Six. He might not have wanted the prince dead, but he had still been a part of this. Everyone in the Six families was as bad as the rest, including Pietro. He was a full-blooded Pater now.
Raves for the blockbuster MAXIMUM RIDE series:
#1 New York Times Bestseller
Publishers Weekly Bestseller
An ALA Quick Pick for Young Adults
An ALA/VOYA "Teens' Top Ten" Pick
A VOYA Review Editor's Choice
A New York Public Library "Books for the Teen Age" Selection
A Book Sense Summer Children's Pick
A KLIATT Editors' Choice
A Children's Choice Book Awards Author of the Year for MAX
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- Jul 14, 2020
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