“Have fun,” Newt said before closing the door. Thomas turned back to his new home and heard the latch close and the lock click behind him. Newt’s head appeared at the little glassless window, looking through the bars, a smirk on his face. “Nice reward for breakin’ the rules. You saved some lives, Tommy, but ya still need to learn—”
“Yeah, I know. Order.”
Newt smiled. “You’re not half bad, shank. But friends or no, gotta run things properly, keep us buggers alive. Think about that while ya sit here and stare at the bloody walls.”
And then he was gone.
* * *
The first hour passed, and Thomas felt boredom creep in like rats under the door. By hour number two, he wanted to bang his head against the wall. Two hours after that he started to think having dinner with Gally and the Grievers would beat sitting inside that stupid Slammer. He sat and tried to bring back memories, but every effort evaporated into oblivious mist before anything formed.
Thankfully, Chuck arrived with lunch at noon, relieving Thomas from his thoughts.
After passing some pieces of chicken and a glass of water through the window, he took up his usual role of talking Thomas’s ear off.
“Everything’s getting back to normal,” the boy announced. “The Runners are out in the Maze, everyone’s working—maybe we’ll survive after all. Still no sign of Gally—Newt told the Runners to come back lickety-splickety if they found his body. And, oh, yeah—Alby’s up and around. Seems fine—and Newt’s glad he doesn’t have to be the big boss anymore.”
The mention of Alby pulled Thomas’s attention from his food. He pictured the older boy thrashing around, choking himself the day before. Then he remembered that no one else knew what Alby had said after Newt left the room—before the seizure. But that didn’t mean Alby would keep it between them now that he was up and walking around.
Chuck continued talking, taking a completely unexpected turn. “Thomas, I’m kinda messed up, man. It’s weird to feel sad and homesick, but have no idea what it is you wish you could go back to, ya know? All I know is I don’t want to be here. I want to go back to my family. Whatever’s there, whatever I was taken from. I wanna remember.”
Thomas was a little surprised. He’d never heard Chuck say something so deep and so true. “I know what you mean,” he murmured.
Chuck was too short for his eyes to reach where Thomas could see them as he spoke, but from his next statement, Thomas imagined them filling with a bleak sadness, maybe even tears. “I used to cry. Every night.”
This made thoughts of Alby leave Thomas’s mind. “Yeah?”
“Like a pants-wettin’ baby. Almost till the day you got here. Then I just got used to it, I guess. This became home, even though we spend every day hoping to get out.”
“I’ve only cried once since showing up, but that was after almost getting eaten alive. I’m probably just a shallow shuck-face.” Thomas might not have admitted it if Chuck hadn’t opened up.
“You cried?” he heard Chuck say through the window. “Then?”
“Yeah. When the last one finally fell over the Cliff, I broke down and sobbed till my throat and chest hurt.” Thomas remembered all too well. “Everything crushed in on me at once. Sure made me feel better—don’t feel bad about crying. Ever.”
“Kinda does make ya feel better, huh? Weird how that works.”
A few minutes passed in silence. Thomas found himself hoping Chuck wouldn’t leave.
“Hey, Thomas?” Chuck asked.
“Do you think I have parents? Real parents?”
Thomas laughed, mostly to push away the sudden surge of sadness the statement caused. “Of course you do, shank. You need me to explain the birds and bees?” Thomas’s heart hurt—he could remember getting that lecture but not who’d given it to him.
“That’s not what I meant,” Chuck said, his voice completely devoid of cheer. It was low and bleak, almost a mumble. “Most of the guys who’ve gone through the Changing remember terrible things they won’t even talk about, which makes me doubt I have anything good back home. So, I mean, you think it’s really possible I have a mom and a dad out in the world somewhere, missing me? Do you think they cry at night?”
Thomas was completely shocked to realize his eyes had filled with tears. Life had been so crazy since he’d arrived, he’d never really thought of the Gladers as real people with real families, missing them. It was strange, but he hadn’t even really thought of himself that way. Only about what it all meant, who’d sent them there, how they’d ever get out.
For the first time, he felt something for Chuck that made him so angry he wanted to kill somebody. The boy should be in school, in a home, playing with neighborhood kids. He deserved to go home at night to a family who loved him, worried about him. A mom who made him take a shower every day and a dad who helped him with homework.
Thomas hated the people who’d taken this poor, innocent kid from his family. He hated them with a passion he didn’t know a human could feel. He wanted them dead, tortured, even. He wanted Chuck to be happy.
But happiness had been ripped from their lives. Love had been ripped from their lives.
“Listen to me, Chuck.” Thomas paused, calming down as much as he could, making sure his voice didn’t crack. “I’m sure you have parents. I know it. Sounds terrible, but I bet your mom is sitting in your room right now, holding your pillow, looking out at the world that stole you from her. And yeah, I bet she’s crying. Hard. Puffy-eyed, snotty-nosed crying. The real deal.”
Chuck didn’t say anything, but Thomas thought he heard the slightest of sniffles.
“Don’t give up, Chuck. We’re gonna solve this thing, get out of here. I’m a Runner now—I promise on my life I’ll get you back to that room of yours. Make your mom quit crying.” And Thomas meant it. He felt it burn in his heart.
“Hope you’re right,” Chuck said with a shaky voice. He showed a thumbs-up sign in the window, then walked away.
Thomas stood up to pace around the little room, fuming with an intense desire to keep his promise. “I swear, Chuck,” he whispered to no one. “I swear I’ll get you back home.”
Just after Thomas heard the grind and rumble of stone against stone announce the closing of the Doors for the day, Alby showed up to release him, which was a huge surprise. The metal of key and lock jingled; then the door to the cell swung wide open.
“Ain’t dead, are ya, shank?” Alby asked. He looked so much better than the day before, Thomas couldn’t help staring at him. His skin was back to full color, his eyes no longer crisscrossed with red veins; he seemed to have gained fifteen pounds in twenty-four hours.
Alby noticed him goggling. “Shuck it, boy, what you lookin’ at?”
Thomas shook his head slightly, feeling like he’d been in a trance. His mind was racing, wondering what Alby remembered, what he knew, what he might say about him. “Wha—Nothing. Just seems crazy you healed so quickly. You’re fine now?”
Alby flexed his right bicep. “Ain’t never been better—come on out.”
Thomas did, hoping his eyes weren’t flickering, making his concern obvious.
Alby closed the Slammer door and locked it, then turned to face him. “Actually, nothin’ but a lie. I feel like a piece of klunk twice crapped by a Griever.”
“Yeah, you looked it yesterday.” When Alby glared, Thomas hoped it was in jest and quickly clarified. “But today you look brand-new. I swear.”
Alby put the keys in his pocket and leaned back against the Slammer’s door. “So, quite the little talk we had yesterday.”
Thomas’s heart pounded. He had no idea what to expect from Alby at that point. “Uh … yeah, I remember.”
“I saw what I saw, Greenie. It’s kinda fadin’, but I ain’t never gonna forget. It was terrible. Tried to talk about it, somethin’ starts choking me. Now the images are gettin’ up and gone, like that same somethin’ don’t like me remembering.”
The scene from the day before flashed in Thomas’s mind. Alby thrashing, trying to strangle himself—Thomas wouldn’t have believed it had happened if he hadn’t seen it himself. Despite fearing an answer, he knew he had to ask the next question. “What was it about me—you kept saying you saw me. What was I doing?”
Alby stared at an empty space in the distance for a while before answering. “You were with the … Creators. Helping them. But that ain’t what got me shook up.”
Thomas felt like someone had just rammed their fist in his abdomen. Helping them? He couldn’t form the words to ask what that meant.
Alby continued. “I hope the Changing doesn’t give us real memories—just plants fake ones. Some suspect it—I can only hope. If the world’s the way I saw it …” He trailed off, leaving an ominous silence.
Thomas was confused, but pressed on. “Can’t you tell me what you saw about me?”
Alby shook his head. “No way, shank. Ain’t gonna risk stranglin’ myself again. Might be something they got in our brains to control us—just like the memory wipe.”
“Well, if I’m evil, maybe you should leave me locked up.” Thomas half meant it.
“Greenie, you ain’t evil. You might be a shuck-faced slinthead, but you ain’t evil.” Alby showed the slightest hint of a smile, a bare crack in his usually hard face. “What you did—riskin’ your butt to save me and Minho—that ain’t no evil I’ve ever heard of. Nah, just makes me think the Grief Serum and the Changing got somethin’ fishy about ’em. For your sake and mine, I hope so.”
Thomas was so relieved that Alby thought he was okay, he only heard about half of what the older boy had just said. “How bad was it? Your memories that came back.”
“I remembered things from growin’ up, where I lived, that sort of stuff. And if God himself came down right now and told me I could go back home …” Alby looked to the ground and shook his head again. “If it was real, Greenie, I swear I’d go shack up with the Grievers before goin’ back.”
Thomas was surprised to hear it was so bad—he wished Alby would give details, describe something, anything. But he knew the choking was still too fresh in Alby’s mind for him to budge. “Well, maybe they’re not real, Alby. Maybe the Grief Serum is some kind of psycho drug that gives you hallucinations.” Thomas knew he was grasping at straws.
Alby thought for a minute. “A drug … hallucinations …” Then he shook his head. “Doubt it.”
It had been worth a try. “We still have to escape this place.”
“Yeah, thanks, Greenie,” Alby said sarcastically. “Don’t know what we’d do without your pep talks.” Again, the almost-smile.
Alby’s change of mood broke Thomas out of his gloom. “Quit calling me Greenie. The girl’s the Greenie now.”