Thomas refused. Some instinct took over his actions and without saying anything he turned away from Alby and walked to a nearby tree, where he plopped down to sit with his back against the rough bark. Panic swelled inside him once again, almost too much to bear. But he took a deep breath and forced himself to try to accept the situation. Just go with it, he thought. You won’t figure out anything if you give in to fear.
“Then tell me,” Thomas called out, struggling to keep his voice even. “Tell me the long story.”
Alby glanced at the friends closest to him, rolling his eyes, and Thomas studied the crowd again. His original estimate had been close—there were probably fifty to sixty of them, ranging from boys in their midteens to young adults like Alby, who seemed to be one of the oldest. At that moment, Thomas realized with a sickening lurch that he had no idea how old he was. His heart sank at the thought—he was so lost he didn’t even know his own age.
“Seriously,” he said, giving up on the show of courage. “Where am I?”
Alby walked over to him and sat down cross-legged; the crowd of boys followed and packed in behind. Heads popped up here and there, kids leaning in every direction to get a better look.
“If you ain’t scared,” Alby said, “you ain’t human. Act any different and I’d throw you off the Cliff because it’d mean you’re a psycho.”
“The Cliff?” Thomas asked, blood draining from his face.
“Shuck it,” Alby said, rubbing his eyes. “Ain’t no way to start these conversations, you get me? We don’t kill shanks like you here, I promise. Just try and avoid being killed, survive, whatever.”
He paused, and Thomas realized his face must’ve whitened even more when he heard that last part.
“Man,” Alby said, then ran his hands over his short hair as he let out a long sigh. “I ain’t good at this—you’re the first Greenbean since Nick was killed.”
Thomas’s eyes widened, and another boy stepped up and playfully slapped Alby across the head. “Wait for the bloody Tour, Alby,” he said, his voice thick with an odd accent. “Kid’s gonna have a buggin’ heart attack, nothin’ even been heard yet.” He bent down and extended his hand toward Thomas. “Name’s Newt, Greenie, and we’d all be right cheery if ya’d forgive our klunk-for-brains new leader, here.”
Thomas reached out and shook the boy’s hand—he seemed a lot nicer than Alby. Newt was taller than Alby too, but looked to be a year or so younger. His hair was blond and cut long, cascading over his T-shirt. Veins stuck out of his muscled arms.
“Pipe it, shuck-face,” Alby grunted, pulling Newt down to sit next to him. “At least he can understand half my words.” There were a few scattered laughs, and then everyone gathered behind Alby and Newt, packing in even tighter, waiting to hear what they said.
Alby spread his arms out, palms up. “This place is called the Glade, all right? It’s where we live, where we eat, where we sleep—we call ourselves the Gladers. That’s all you—”
“Who sent me here?” Thomas demanded, fear finally giving way to anger. “How’d—”
But Alby’s hand shot out before he could finish, grabbing Thomas by the shirt as he leaned forward on his knees. “Get up, shank, get up!” Alby stood, pulling Thomas with him.
Thomas finally got his feet under him, scared all over again. He backed against the tree, trying to get away from Alby, who stayed right in his face.
“No interruptions, boy!” Alby shouted. “Whacker, if we told you everything, you’d die on the spot, right after you klunked your pants. Baggers’d drag you off, and you ain’t no good to us then, are ya?”
“I don’t even know what you’re talking about,” Thomas said slowly, shocked at how steady his voice sounded.
Newt reached out and grabbed Alby by the shoulders. “Alby, lay off a bit. You’re hurtin’ more than helpin’, ya know?”
Alby let go of Thomas’s shirt and stepped back, his chest heaving with breaths. “Ain’t got time to be nice, Greenbean. Old life’s over, new life’s begun. Learn the rules quick, listen, don’t talk. You get me?”
Thomas looked over at Newt, hoping for help. Everything inside him churned and hurt; the tears that had yet to come burned his eyes.
Newt nodded. “Greenie, you get him, right?” He nodded again.
Thomas fumed, wanted to punch somebody. But he simply said, “Yeah.”
“Good that,” Alby said. “First Day. That’s what today is for you, shank. Night’s comin’, Runners’ll be back soon. The Box came late today, ain’t got time for the Tour. Tomorrow morning, right after the wake-up.” He turned toward Newt. “Get him a bed, get him to sleep.”
“Good that,” Newt said.
Alby’s eyes returned to Thomas, narrowing. “A few weeks, you’ll be happy, shank. You’ll be happy and helpin’. None of us knew jack on First Day, you neither. New life begins tomorrow.”
Alby turned and pushed his way through the crowd, then headed for the slanted wooden building in the corner. Most of the kids wandered away then, each one giving Thomas a lingering look before they walked off.
Thomas folded his arms, closed his eyes, took a deep breath. Emptiness ate away at his insides, quickly replaced by a sadness that hurt his heart. It was all too much—where was he? What was this place? Was it some kind of prison? If so, why had he been sent here, and for how long? The language was odd, and none of the boys seemed to care whether he lived or died. Tears threatened again to fill his eyes, but he refused to let them come.
“What did I do?” he whispered, not really meaning for anyone to hear him. “What did I do—why’d they send me here?”
Newt clapped him on the shoulder. “Greenie, what you’re feelin’, we’ve all felt it. We’ve all had First Day, come out of that dark box. Things are bad, they are, and they’ll get much worse for ya soon, that’s the truth. But down the road a piece, you’ll be fightin’ true and good. I can tell you’re not a bloody sissy.”
“Is this a prison?” Thomas asked; he dug in the darkness of his thoughts, trying to find a crack to his past.
“Done asked four questions, haven’t ya?” Newt replied. “No good answers for ya, not yet, anyway. Best be quiet now, accept the change—morn comes tomorrow.”
Thomas said nothing, his head sunk, his eyes staring at the cracked, rocky ground. A line of small-leafed weeds ran along the edge of one of the stone blocks, tiny yellow flowers peeping through as if searching for the sun, long disappeared behind the enormous walls of the Glade.
“Chuck’ll be a good fit for ya,” Newt said. “Wee little fat shank, but nice sap when all’s said and done. Stay here, I’ll be back.”
Newt had barely finished his sentence when a sudden, piercing scream ripped through the air. High and shrill, the barely human shriek echoed across the stone courtyard; every kid in sight turned to look toward the source. Thomas felt his blood turn to icy slush as he realized that the horrible sound came from the wooden building.
Even Newt had jumped as if startled, his forehead creasing in concern.
“Shuck it,” he said. “Can’t the bloody Med-jacks handle that boy for ten minutes without needin’ my help?” He shook his head and lightly kicked Thomas on the foot. “Find Chuckie, tell him he’s in charge of your sleepin’ arrangements.” And then he turned and headed in the direction of the building, running.
Thomas slid down the rough face of the tree until he sat on the ground again; he shrank back against the bark and closed his eyes, wishing he could wake up from this terrible, terrible dream.
Thomas sat there for several moments, too overwhelmed to move. He finally forced himself to look over at the haggard building. A group of boys milled around outside, glancing anxiously at the upper windows as if expecting a hideous beast to leap out in an explosion of glass and wood.
A metallic clicking sound from the branches above grabbed his attention, made him look up; a flash of silver and red light caught his eyes just before disappearing around the trunk to the other side. He scrambled to his feet and walked around the tree, craning his neck for a sign of whatever he’d heard, but he saw only bare branches, gray and brown, forking out like skeleton fingers—and looking just as alive.
“That was one of them beetle blades,” someone said.
Thomas turned to his right to see a kid standing nearby, short and pudgy, staring at him. He was young—probably the youngest of any in the group he’d seen so far, maybe twelve or thirteen years old. His brown hair hung down over his ears and neck, scraping the tops of his shoulders. Blue eyes shone through an otherwise pitiful face, flabby and flushed.
Thomas nodded at him. “A beetle what?”
“Beetle blade,” the boy said, pointing to the top of the tree. “Won’t hurt ya unless you’re stupid enough to touch one of them.” He paused. “Shank.” He didn’t sound comfortable saying the last word, as if he hadn’t quite grasped the slang of the Glade.
Another scream, this one long and nerve-grinding, tore through the air and Thomas’s heart lurched. The fear was like icy dew on his skin. “What’s going on over there?” he asked, pointing at the building.
“Don’t know,” the chubby boy replied; his voice still carried the high pitch of childhood. “Ben’s in there, sicker than a dog. They got him.”
“They?” Thomas didn’t like the malicious way the boy had said the word.
“Who are They?”
“Better hope you never find out,” the kid answered, looking far too comfortable for the situation. He held out his hand. “My name’s Chuck. I was the Greenbean until you showed up.”
This is my guide for the night? Thomas thought. He couldn’t shake his extreme discomfort, and now annoyance crept in as well. Nothing made sense; his head hurt.
“Why is everyone calling me Greenbean?” he asked, shaking Chuck’s hand quickly, then letting go.
“Cuz you’re the newest Newbie.” Chuck pointed at Thomas and laughed. Another scream came from the house, a sound like a starving animal being tortured.
“How can you be laughing?” Thomas asked, horrified by the noise. “It sounds like someone’s dying in there.”
“He’ll be okay. No one dies if they make it back in time to get the Serum. It’s all or nothing. Dead or not dead. Just hurts a lot.”
This gave Thomas pause. “What hurts a lot?”
Chuck’s eyes wandered as if he wasn’t sure what to say. “Um, gettin’ stung by the Grievers.”
“Grievers?” Thomas was only getting more and more confused. Stung. Grievers. The words had a heavy weight of dread to them, and he suddenly wasn’t so sure he wanted to know what Chuck was talking about.
Chuck shrugged, then looked away, eyes rolling.