Minho groaned as he pulled himself up and crossed his legs under him. “Yeah, Greenie, I run out there every day. Let’s just say I got a little excited and ran extra fast to get my bee-hind back here.”
“Why?” Thomas desperately wanted to hear about what happened out in the Maze.
Minho threw his hands up. “Dude. I told you. Patience. Wait for General Alby.”
Something in his voice lessened the blow, and Thomas made his decision. He liked Minho. “Okay, I’ll shut up. Just make sure Alby lets me hear the news, too.”
Minho studied him for a second. “Okay, Greenie. You da boss.”
Alby walked up a moment later with a big plastic cup full of water and handed it to Minho, who gulped down the whole thing without stopping once for breath.
“Okay,” Alby said, “out with it. What happened?”
Minho raised his eyebrows and nodded toward Thomas.
“He’s fine,” Alby replied. “I don’t care what this shank hears. Just talk!”
Thomas sat quietly in anticipation as Minho struggled to stand up, wincing with every move, his whole demeanor just screaming exhaustion. The Runner balanced himself against the wall, gave both of them a cold look. “I found a dead one.”
“Huh?” Alby asked. “A dead what?”
Minho smiled. “A dead Griever.”
Thomas was fascinated at the mention of a Griever. The nasty creature was terrifying to think about, but he wondered why finding a dead one was such a big deal. Had it never happened before?
Alby looked like someone had just told him he could grow wings and fly. “Ain’t a good time for jokes,” he said.
“Look,” Minho answered, “I wouldn’t believe me if I were you, either. But trust me, I did. Big fat nasty one.”
It’s definitely never happened before, Thomas thought.
“You found a dead Griever,” Alby repeated.
“Yes, Alby,” Minho said, his words laced with annoyance. “A couple of miles from here, out near the Cliff.”
Alby looked out at the Maze, then back at Minho. “Well … why didn’t you bring it back with you?”
Minho laughed again, a half-grunt, half-giggle. “You been drinkin’ Frypan’s saucy-sauce? Those things must weigh half a ton, dude. Plus, I wouldn’t touch one if you gave me a free trip out of this place.”
Alby persisted with the questions. “What did it look like? Were the metal spikes in or out of its body? Did it move at all—was its skin still moist?”
Thomas was bursting with questions—Metal spikes? Moist skin? What in the world?—but held his tongue, not wanting to remind them he was there. And that maybe they should talk in private.
“Slim it, man,” Minho said. “You gotta see it for yourself. It’s … weird.”
“Weird?” Alby looked confused.
“Dude, I’m exhausted, starving, and sun-sick. But if you wanna haul it right now, we could probably make it there and back before the walls shut.”
Alby looked at his watch. “Better wait till the wake-up tomorrow.”
“Smartest thing you’ve said in a week.” Minho righted himself from leaning on the wall, hit Alby on the arm, then started walking toward the Homestead with a slight limp. He spoke over his shoulder as he shuffled away—it looked like his whole body was in pain. “I should go back out there, but screw it. I’m gonna go eat some of Frypan’s nasty casserole.”
Thomas felt a wash of disappointment. He had to admit Minho did look like he deserved a rest and a bite to eat, but he wanted to learn more.
Then Alby turned to Thomas, surprising him. “If you know something and ain’t tellin’ me …”
Thomas was sick of being accused of knowing things. Wasn’t that the problem in the first place? He didn’t know anything. He looked at the boy square in the face and asked, simply, “Why do you hate me so much?”
The look that came over Alby’s face was indescribable—part confusion, part anger, part shock. “Hate you? Boy, you ain’t learned nothin’ since showing up in that Box. This ain’t got nothin’ to do with no hate or like or love or friends or anything. All we care about is surviving. Drop your sissy side and start using that shuck brain if you got one.”
Thomas felt like he’d been slapped. “But … why do you keep accusing—”
“Cuz it can’t be a coincidence, slinthead! You pop in here, then we get us a girl Newbie the next day, a crazy note, Ben tryin’ to bite ya, dead Grievers. Something’s goin’ on and I ain’t restin’ till I figure it out.”
“I don’t know anything, Alby.” It felt good to put some heat into his words. “I don’t even know where I was three days ago, much less why this Minho guy would find a dead thing called a Griever. So back off!”
Alby leaned back slightly, stared absently at Thomas for several seconds. Then he said, “Slim it, Greenie. Grow up and start thinkin’. Ain’t got nothin’ to do with accusing nobody of nothin’. But if you remember anything, if something even seems familiar, you better start talking. Promise me.”
Not until I have a solid memory, Thomas thought. Not unless I want to share. “Yeah, I guess, but—”
Thomas paused, sick of Alby and his attitude. “Whatever,” he finally said. “I promise.”
At that Alby turned and walked away, not saying another word.
Thomas found a tree in the Deadheads, one of the nicer ones on the edge of the forest with plenty of shade. He dreaded going back to work with Winston the Butcher and knew he needed to eat lunch, but he didn’t want to be near anybody for as long as he could get away with it. Leaning back against the thick trunk, he wished for a breeze but didn’t get one.
He’d just felt his eyelids droop when Chuck ruined his peace and quiet.
“Thomas! Thomas!” the boy shrieked as he ran toward him, pumping his arms, his face lit up with excitement.
Thomas rubbed his eyes and groaned; he wanted nothing in the world more than a half-hour nap. It wasn’t until Chuck stopped right in front of him, panting to catch his breath, that he finally looked up. “What?”
Words slowly fell from Chuck, in between his gasps for breath. “Ben … Ben … he isn’t … dead.”
All signs of fatigue catapulted out of Thomas’s system. He jumped up to stand nose to nose with Chuck. “What?”
“He … isn’t dead. Baggers went to get him … arrow missed his brain … Med-jacks patched him up.”
Thomas turned away to stare into the forest where the sick boy had attacked him just the night before. “You gotta be kidding. I saw him….” He wasn’t dead? Thomas didn’t know what he felt most strongly: confusion, relief, fear that he’d be attacked again …
“Well, so did I,” Chuck said. “He’s locked up in the Slammer, a huge bandage covering half his head.”
Thomas spun to face Chuck again. “The Slammer? What do you mean?”
“The Slammer. It’s our jail on the north side of the Homestead.” Chuck pointed in that direction. “They threw him in it so fast, the Med-jacks had to patch him up in there.”
Thomas rubbed his eyes. Guilt consumed him when he realized how he truly felt—he’d been relieved that Ben was dead, that he didn’t have to worry about facing him again. “So what are they gonna do with him?”
“Already had a Gathering of the Keepers this morning—made a unanimous decision by the sounds of it. Looks like Ben’ll be wishing that arrow had found a home inside his shuck brain after all.”
Thomas squinted, confused by what Chuck had said. “What are you talking about?”
“He’s being Banished. Tonight, for trying to kill you.”
“Banished? What does that mean?” Thomas had to ask, though he knew it couldn’t be good if Chuck thought it was worse than being dead.
And then Thomas saw perhaps the most disturbing thing he’d seen since he’d arrived at the Glade. Chuck didn’t answer; he only smiled. Smiled, despite it all, despite the sinister sound of what he’d just announced. Then he turned and ran, maybe to tell someone else the exciting news.
That night, Newt and Alby gathered every last Glader at the East Door about a half hour before it closed, the first traces of twilight’s dimness creeping across the sky. The Runners had just returned and entered the mysterious Map Room, clanging the iron door shut; Minho had already gone in earlier. Alby told the Runners to hurry about their business—he wanted them back out in twenty minutes.
It still bothered Thomas how Chuck had smiled when breaking the news about Ben being Banished. Though he didn’t know exactly what it meant, it certainly didn’t sound like a good thing. Especially since they were all standing so close to the Maze. Are they going to put him out there? he wondered. With the Grievers?
The other Gladers murmured their conversations in hushed tones, an intense feeling of dreadful anticipation hanging over them like a patch of thick fog. But Thomas said nothing, standing with arms folded, waiting for the show. He stood quietly until the Runners finally came out of their building, all of them looking exhausted, their faces pinched from deep thinking. Minho had been the first to exit, which made Thomas wonder if he was the Keeper of the Runners.
“Bring him out!” Alby shouted, startling Thomas out of his thoughts.
His arms fell to his sides as he turned, looking around the Glade for a sign of Ben, trepidation building within him as he wondered what the boy would do when he saw him.
From around the far side of the Homestead, three of the bigger boys appeared, literally dragging Ben along the ground. His clothes were tattered, barely hanging on; a bloody, thick bandage covered half his head and face. Refusing to put his feet down or help the progress in any way, he seemed as dead as the last time Thomas had seen him. Except for one thing.
His eyes were open, and they were wide with terror.
“Newt,” Alby said in a much quieter voice; Thomas wouldn’t have heard him if he hadn’t been standing just a few feet away. “Bring out the Pole.”
Newt nodded, already on the move toward a small tool shed used for the Gardens; he’d clearly been waiting for the order.
Thomas turned his focus back to Ben and the guards. The pale, miserable boy still made no effort to resist, letting them drag him across the dusty stone of the courtyard. When they reached the crowd, they pulled Ben to his feet in front of Alby, their leader, where Ben hung his head, refusing to make eye contact with anyone.
“You brought this on yourself, Ben,” Alby said. Then he shook his head and looked toward the shack to which Newt had gone.
Thomas followed his gaze just in time to see Newt walk though the slanted door. He was holding several aluminum poles, connecting the ends to make a shaft maybe twenty feet long. When he was finished, he grabbed something odd-shaped on one of the ends and dragged the whole thing along toward the group. A shiver ran up Thomas’s spine at the metallic scrape of the pole on the stone ground as Newt walked.