A minute or two passed in silence as Thomas processed the information; they made a couple more turns. He wondered about the Changing, and what it meant. And for some reason, he kept thinking of the girl.
“Weird, though,” Minho finally continued. “We’ve never talked about this before. If he’s still alive, there’s really no reason to think Alby can’t be saved by the Serum. We somehow got it into our klunk heads that once the Doors closed, you were done—end of story. I gotta see this hanging-on-the-wall thing myself—I think you’re shuckin’ me.”
The boys kept walking, Minho almost looking happy, but something was nagging at Thomas. He’d been avoiding it, denying it to himself. “What if another Griever got Alby after I diverted the one chasing me?”
Minho looked over at him, a blank expression on his face.
“Let’s just hurry, is all I’m saying,” Thomas said, hoping all that effort to save Alby hadn’t been wasted.
They tried to pick up the pace, but their bodies hurt too much and they settled back into a slow walk despite the urgency. The next time they rounded a corner, Thomas faltered, his heart skipping a beat when he saw movement up ahead. Relief washed through him an instant later when he realized it was Newt and a group of Gladers. The West Door to the Glade towered over them and it was open. They’d made it back.
At the boys’ appearance, Newt limped over to them. “What happened?” he asked; he sounded almost angry. “How in the bloody—”
“We’ll tell you later,” Thomas interrupted. “We have to save Alby.”
Newt’s face went white. “What do you mean? He’s alive?”
“Just come here.” Thomas headed to the right, craning his neck to look high up at the wall, searching along the thick vines until he found the spot where Alby hung by his arms and legs far above them. Without saying anything, Thomas pointed up, not daring to be relieved yet. He was still there, and in one piece, but there was no sign of movement.
Newt finally saw his friend hanging in the ivy, and looked back at Thomas. If he’d seemed shocked before, now he looked completely bewildered. “Is he … alive?”
Please let him be, Thomas thought. “I don’t know. Was when I left him up there.”
“When you left him …” Newt shook his head. “You and Minho get your butts inside, get yourselves checked by the Med-jacks. You look bloody awful. I want the whole story when they’re done and you’re rested up.”
Thomas wanted to wait and see if Alby was okay. He started to speak but Minho grabbed him by the arm and forced him to walk toward the Glade. “We need sleep. And bandages. Now.”
And Thomas knew he was right. He relented, glancing back up at Alby, then followed Minho out and away from the Maze.
The walk back into the Glade and then to the Homestead seemed endless, a row of Gladers on both sides gawking at them. Their faces showed complete awe, as if they were watching two ghosts strolling through a graveyard. Thomas knew it was because they’d accomplished something never done before, but he was embarrassed by the attention.
He almost stopped walking altogether when he spotted Gally up ahead, arms folded and glaring, but he kept moving. It took every ounce of his willpower, but he looked directly into Gally’s eyes, never breaking contact. When he got to within five feet, the other boy’s stare fell to the ground.
It almost disturbed Thomas how good that felt. Almost.
The next few minutes were a blur. Escorted into the Homestead by a couple of Med-jacks, up the stairs, a glimpse through a barely ajar door of someone feeding the comatose girl in her bed—he felt an incredibly strong urge to go see her, to check on her—into their own rooms, into bed, food, water, bandages. Pain. Finally, he was left alone, his head resting on the softest pillow his limited memory could recall.
But as he fell asleep, two things wouldn’t leave his mind. First, the word he’d seen scrawled across the torso of both beetle blades—WICKED—ran through his thoughts again and again.
The second thing was the girl.
Hours later—days for all he knew—Chuck was there, shaking him awake. It took several seconds for Thomas to get his bearings and see straight. He focused in on Chuck, groaned. “Let me sleep, you shank.”
“I thought you’d want to know.”
Thomas rubbed his eyes and yawned. “Know what?” He looked at Chuck again, confused by his big smile.
“He’s alive,” he said. “Alby’s okay—the Serum worked.”
Thomas’s grogginess instantly washed away, replaced with relief—it surprised him how much joy the information brought. But then Chuck’s next words made him reconsider.
“He just started the Changing.”
As if brought on by the words, a blood-chilling scream erupted from a room down the hall.
Thomas wondered long and hard about Alby. It’d seemed such a victory just to save his life, bring him back from a night in the Maze. But had it been worth it? Now the boy was in intense pain, going through the same things as Ben. And what if he became as psychotic as Ben? Troubling thoughts all around.
Twilight fell upon the Glade and Alby’s screams continued to haunt the air. It was impossible to escape the terrible sound, even after Thomas finally talked the Med-jacks into letting him go—weary, sore, bandaged, but tired of the piercing, agonized wails of their leader. Newt had adamantly refused when Thomas asked to see the person he’d risked his life for. It’ll only make it worse, he’d said, and would not be swayed.
Thomas was too tired to put up a fight. He’d had no idea it was possible to feel so exhausted, despite the few hours of sleep he’d gotten. He’d hurt too much to do anything after that, and had spent most of the day on a bench on the outskirts of the Deadheads, wallowing in despair. The elation of his escape had faded rapidly, leaving him with pain and thoughts of his new life in the Glade. Every muscle ached; cuts and bruises covered him from head to toe. But even that wasn’t as bad as the heavy emotional weight of what he’d been through the previous night. It seemed as if all the realities of living there had finally settled in his mind, like hearing a final diagnosis of terminal cancer.
How could anyone ever be happy in a life like this? he thought. Then, How could anyone be evil enough to do this to us? He understood more than ever the passion the Gladers felt for finding their way out of the Maze. It wasn’t just a matter of escape. For the first time, he felt a hunger to get revenge on the people responsible for sending him there.
But those thoughts just led back to the hopelessness that had filled him so many times already. If Newt and the others hadn’t been able to solve the Maze after two years of searching, it seemed impossible there could actually be a solution. The fact that the Gladers hadn’t given up said more about these people than anything else.
And now he was one of them.
This is my life, he thought. Living in a giant maze, surrounded by hideous beasts. Sadness filled him like a heavy poison. Alby’s screams, now distant but still audible, only made it worse. He had to squeeze his hands to his ears every time he heard them.
Eventually, the day dragged to a close, and the setting of the sun brought the now-familiar grinding of the four Doors closing for the night. Thomas had no memory of his life before the Box, but he was positive he’d finished the worst twenty-four hours of his existence.
Just after dark, Chuck brought him some dinner and a big glass of cold water.
“Thanks,” Thomas said, feeling a burst of warmth for the kid. He scooped the beef and noodles off the plate as fast as his aching arms could move. “I so needed this,” he mumbled through a huge bite. He took a big swig of his drink, then went back to attacking the food. He hadn’t realized how hungry he was until he’d started eating.
“You’re disgusting when you eat,” Chuck said, sitting on the bench next to him. “It’s like watching a starving pig eat his own klunk.”
“That’s funny,” Thomas said, sarcasm lacing his voice. “You should go entertain the Grievers—see if they laugh.”
A quick expression of hurt flashed across Chuck’s face, making Thomas feel bad, but vanished almost as fast as it had appeared. “That reminds me—you’re the talk of the town.”
Thomas sat up straighter, not sure how he felt about the news. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Oh, gee, let me think. First, you go out in the Maze when you’re not supposed to, at night. Then you turn into some kind of freaky jungle dude, climbing vines and tying people up on walls. Next, you become one of the first people ever to survive an entire night outside the Glade, and to top it all off you kill four Grievers. Can’t imagine what those shanks are talking about.”
A surge of pride filled Thomas’s body, then fizzled. Thomas was sickened by the happiness he’d just felt. Alby was still in bed, screaming his head off in pain—probably wishing he were dead. “Tricking them to go over the Cliff was Minho’s idea, not mine.”
“Not according to him. He saw you do the wait-and-dive thingy, then had the idea to do the same thing at the Cliff.”
“The ‘wait-and-dive thingy’?” Thomas asked, rolling his eyes. “Any idiot on the planet would’ve done that.”
“Don’t get all humbly bumbly on us—what you did is freaking unbelievable. You and Minho, both.”
Thomas tossed the empty plate on the ground, suddenly angry. “Then why do I feel so crappy, Chuck? Wanna answer me that?”
Thomas searched Chuck’s face for an answer, but by the looks of it he didn’t have one. The boy just sat clasping his hands as he leaned forward on his knees, head hanging. Finally, half under his breath, he murmured, “Same reason we all feel crappy.”
They sat in silence until, a few minutes later, Newt walked up, looking like death on two feet. He sat on the ground in front of them, as sad and worried as any person could possibly appear. Still, Thomas was glad to have him around.
“I think the worst part’s over,” Newt said. “The bugger should be sleepin’ for a couple of days, then wake up okay. Maybe a little screaming now and then.”
Thomas couldn’t imagine how bad the whole ordeal must be—but the whole process of the Changing was still a mystery to him. He turned to the older boy, trying his best to be casual. “Newt, what’s he going through up there? Seriously, I don’t get what this Changing thing is.”
Newt’s response startled Thomas. “You think we do?” he spat, throwing his arms up, then slapping them back down on his knees. “All we bloody know is if the Grievers sting you with their nasty needles, you inject the Grief Serum or you die. If you do get the Serum, then your body wigs out and shakes and your skin bubbles and turns a freaky green color and you vomit all over yourself. Enough explanation for ya there, Tommy?”
Thomas frowned. He didn’t want to make Newt any more upset than he already was, but he needed answers. “Hey, I know it sucks to see your friend go through that, but I just want to know what’s really happening up there. Why do you call it the Changing?”