He leaned closer to the first cross. It looked fresh and bore the name Stephen—the n extra small and right at the edge because the carver hadn’t estimated well how much room he’d need.
Stephen, Thomas thought, feeling an unexpected but detached sorrow. What’s your story? Chuck annoy you to death?
He stood and walked over to another cross, this one almost completely overgrown with weeds, the ground firm at its base. Whoever it was, he must’ve been one of the first to die, because his grave looked the oldest. The name was George.
Thomas looked around and saw there were a dozen or so other graves. A couple of them appeared to be just as fresh as the first one he’d examined. A silvery glint caught his attention. It was different from the scuttling beetle that had led him to the forest, but just as odd. He moved through the markers until he got to a grave covered with a sheet of grimy plastic or glass, its edges slimed with filth. He squinted, trying to make out what was on the other side, then gasped when it came into focus. It was a window into another grave—one that had the dusty remnants of a rotting body.
Completely creeped out, Thomas leaned closer to get a better look anyway, curious. The tomb was smaller than usual—only the top half of the deceased person lay inside. He remembered Chuck’s story about the boy who’d tried to rappel down the dark hole of the Box after it had descended, only to be cut in two by something slicing through the air. Words were etched on the glass; Thomas could barely read them:
Let this half-shank be a warning to all:
You can’t escape through the Box Hole.
Thomas felt the odd urge to snicker—it seemed too ridiculous to be true. But he was also disgusted with himself for being so shallow and glib. Shaking his head, he had stepped aside to read more names of the dead when another twig broke, this time straight in front of him, right behind the trees on the other side of the graveyard.
Then another snap. Then another. Coming closer. And the darkness was thick.
“Who’s out there?” he called, his voice shaky and hollow—it sounded as if he were speaking inside an insulated tunnel. “Seriously, this is stupid.” He hated to admit to himself just how terrified he was.
Instead of answering, the person gave up all pretense of stealth and started running, crashing through the forest line around the clearing of the graveyard, circling toward the spot where Thomas stood. He froze, panic overtaking him. Now only a few feet away, the visitor grew louder and louder until Thomas caught a shadowed glimpse of a skinny boy limping along in a strange, lilting run.
“Who the he—”
The boy burst through the trees before Thomas could finish. He saw only a flash of pale skin and enormous eyes—the haunted image of an apparition—and cried out, tried to run, but it was too late. The figure leaped into the air and was on top of him, slamming into his shoulders, gripping him with strong hands. Thomas crashed to the ground; he felt a grave marker dig into his back before it snapped in two, burning a deep scratch along his flesh.
He pushed and swatted at his attacker, a relentless jumble of skin and bones cavorting on top of him as he tried to gain purchase. It seemed like a monster, a horror from a nightmare, but Thomas knew it had to be a Glader, someone who’d completely lost his mind. He heard teeth snapping open and closed, a horrific clack, clack, clack. Then he felt the jarring dagger of pain as the boy’s mouth found a home, bit deeply into Thomas’s shoulder.
Thomas screamed, the pain like a burst of adrenaline through his blood. He planted the palms of his hands against his attacker’s chest and pushed, straightening his arms until his muscles strained against the struggling figure above him. Finally the kid fell back; a sharp crack filled the air as another grave marker met its demise.
Thomas squirmed away on his hands and feet, sucking in breaths of air, and got his first good look at the crazed attacker.
It was the sick boy.
It was Ben.
It looked as if Ben had recovered only slightly since Thomas had seen him in the Homestead. He wore nothing but shorts, his whiter-than-white skin stretched across his bones like a sheet wrapped tightly around a bundle of sticks. Ropelike veins ran along his body, pulsing and green—but less pronounced than the day before. His bloodshot eyes fell upon Thomas as if he were seeing his next meal.
Ben crouched, ready to spring for another attack. At some point a knife had made an appearance, gripped in his right hand. Thomas was filled with a queasy fear, disbelief that this was happening at all.
Thomas looked toward the voice, surprised to see Alby standing at the edge of the graveyard, a mere phantom in the fading light. Relief flooded Thomas’s body—Alby held a large bow, an arrow cocked for the kill, pointed straight at Ben.
“Ben,” Alby repeated. “Stop right now, or you ain’t gonna see tomorrow.”
Thomas looked back at Ben, who stared viciously at Alby, his tongue darting between his lips to wet them. What could possibly be wrong with that kid? Thomas thought. The boy had turned into a monster. Why?
“If you kill me,” Ben shrieked, spittle flying from his mouth, far enough to hit Thomas in the face, “you’ll get the wrong guy.” He snapped his gaze back to Thomas. “He’s the shank you wanna kill.” His voice was full of madness.
“Don’t be stupid, Ben,” Alby said, his voice calm as he continued to aim the arrow. “Thomas just got here—ain’t nothing to worry about. You’re still buggin’ from the Changing. You should’ve never left your bed.”
“He’s not one of us!” Ben shouted. “I saw him—he’s … he’s bad. We have to kill him! Let me gut him!”
Thomas took an involuntary step backward, horrified by what Ben had said. What did he mean, he’d seen him? Why did he think Thomas was bad?
Alby hadn’t moved his weapon an inch, still aiming for Ben. “You leave that to me and the Keepers to figure out, shuck-face.” His hands were perfectly steady as he held the bow, almost as if he had propped it against a branch for support. “Right now, back your scrawny butt down and get to the Homestead.”
“He’ll wanna take us home,” Ben said. “He’ll wanna get us out of the Maze. Better we all jumped off the Cliff! Better we tore each other’s guts out!”
“What are you talking—” Thomas began.
“Shut your face!” Ben screamed. “Shut your ugly, traitorous face!”
“Ben,” Alby said calmly. “I’m gonna count to three.”
“He’s bad, he’s bad, he’s bad …,” Ben was whispering now, almost chanting. He swayed back and forth, switching the knife from hand to hand, eyes glued on Thomas.
“Bad, bad, bad, bad, bad …” Ben smiled; his teeth seemed to glow, greenish in the pale light.
Thomas wanted to look away, get out of there. But he couldn’t move; he was too mesmerized, too scared.
“Two.” Alby’s voice was louder, filled with warning.
“Ben,” Thomas said, trying to make sense of it all. “I’m not … I don’t even know what—”
Ben screamed, a strangled gurgle of madness, and leaped into the air, slashing out with his blade.
“Three!” Alby shouted.
There was the sound of snapping wire. The whoosh of an object slicing through the air. The sickening, wet thunk of it finding a home.
Ben’s head snapped violently to the left, twisting his body until he landed on his stomach, his feet pointed toward Thomas. He made no sound.
Thomas jumped to his feet and stumbled forward. The long shaft of the arrow stuck from Ben’s cheek, the blood surprisingly less than Thomas had expected, but seeping out all the same. Black in the darkness, like oil. The only movement was Ben’s right pinky finger, twitching. Thomas fought the urge to puke. Was Ben dead because of him? Was it his fault?
“Come on,” Alby said. “Baggers’ll take care of him tomorrow.”
What just happened here? Thomas thought, the world tilting around him as he stared at the lifeless body. What did I ever do to this kid?
He looked up, wanting answers, but Alby was already gone, a trembling branch the only sign he’d ever stood there in the first place.
Thomas squeezed his eyes against the blinding light of the sun as he emerged from the woods. He was limping, his ankle screaming in pain, though he had no memory of hurting it. He held one hand carefully over the area where he’d been bitten; the other clutched his stomach as if that would prevent what Thomas now felt was an inevitable barf. The image of Ben’s head popped into his mind, cocked at an unnatural angle, blood running down the shaft of the arrow until it collected, dripped, splattered on the ground….
The image of it was the last straw.
He fell to his knees by one of the scraggly trees on the outskirts of the forest and threw up, retching as he coughed and spat out every last morsel of the acidic, nasty bile from his stomach. His whole body shook, and it seemed like the vomiting would never end.
And then, as if his brain were mocking him, trying to make it worse, he had a thought.
He’d now been at the Glade for roughly twenty-four hours. One full day. That was it. And look at all the things that had happened. All the terrible things.
Surely it could only get better.
That night, Thomas lay staring at the sparkling sky, wondering if he’d ever sleep again. Every time he closed his eyes, the monstrous image of Ben leaping at him, the boy’s face set in lunacy, filled his mind. Eyes opened or not, he could swear he kept hearing the moist thunk of the arrow slamming into Ben’s cheek.
Thomas knew he’d never forget those few terrible minutes in the graveyard.
“Say something,” Chuck said for the fifth time since they’d set out their sleeping bags.
“No,” Thomas replied, just as he had before.
“Everyone knows what happened. It’s happened once or twice—some Griever-stung shank flipped out and attacked somebody. Don’t think you’re special.”
For the first time, Thomas thought Chuck’s personality had gone from mildly irritating to intolerable. “Chuck, be glad I’m not holding Alby’s bow right about now.”
“I’m just play—”
“Shut up, Chuck. Go to sleep.” Thomas just couldn’t handle it right then.
Eventually, his “buddy” did doze off, and based on the rumble of snores across the Glade, so did everyone else. Hours later, deep in the night, Thomas was still the only one awake. He wanted to cry, but didn’t. He wanted to find Alby and punch him, for no reason whatsoever, but didn’t. He wanted to scream and kick and spit and open up the Box and jump into the blackness below. But he didn’t.
He closed his eyes and forced the thoughts and dark images away and at some point he fell asleep.
Chuck had to drag Thomas out of his sleeping bag in the morning, drag him to the showers, and drag him to the dressing rooms. The whole time, Thomas felt mopey and indifferent, his head aching, his body wanting more sleep. Breakfast was a blur, and an hour after it was over, Thomas couldn’t remember what he’d eaten. He was so tired, his brain felt like someone had gone in and stapled it to his skull in a dozen places. Heartburn ravaged his chest.