Thomas sighed in frustration and leaned back against the tree. “Looks like you barely know more than I do,” he said, but he knew it wasn’t true. His memory loss was strange. He mostly remembered the workings of the world—but emptied of specifics, faces, names. Like a book completely intact but missing one word in every dozen, making it a miserable and confusing read. He didn’t even know his age.
“Chuck, how … old do you think I am?”
The boy scanned him up and down. “I’d say you’re sixteen. And in case you were wondering, five foot nine … brown hair. Oh, and ugly as fried liver on a stick.” He snorted a laugh.
Thomas was so stunned he’d barely heard the last part. Sixteen? He was sixteen? He felt much older than that.
“Are you serious?” He paused, searching for words. “How …” He didn’t even know what to ask.
“Don’t worry. You’ll be all whacked for a few days, but then you’ll get used to this place. I have. We live here, this is it. Better than living in a pile of klunk.” He squinted, maybe anticipating Thomas’s question. “Klunk’s another word for poo. Poo makes a klunk sound when it falls in our pee pots.”
Thomas looked at Chuck, unable to believe he was having this conversation. “That’s nice” was all he could manage. He stood up and walked past Chuck toward the old building; shack was a better word for the place. It looked three or four stories high and about to fall down at any minute—a crazy assortment of logs and boards and thick twine and windows seemingly thrown together at random, the massive, ivy-strewn stone walls rising up behind it. As he moved across the courtyard, the distinct smell of firewood and some kind of meat cooking made his stomach grumble. Knowing now that it was just a sick kid doing the screaming made Thomas feel better. Until he thought about what had caused it …
“What’s your name?” Chuck asked from behind, running to catch up.
“Your name? You still haven’t told us—and I know you remember that much.”
“Thomas.” He barely heard himself say it—his thoughts had spun in a new direction. If Chuck was right, he’d just discovered a link to the rest of the boys. A common pattern to their memory losses. They all remembered their names. Why not their parents’ names? Why not a friend’s name? Why not their last names?
“Nice to meet you, Thomas,” Chuck said. “Don’t you worry, I’ll take care of you. I’ve been here a whole month, and I know the place inside and out. You can count on Chuck, okay?”
Thomas had almost reached the front door of the shack and the small group of boys congregating there when he was hit by a sudden and surprise rush of anger. He turned to face Chuck. “You can’t even tell me anything. I wouldn’t call that taking care of me.” He turned back toward the door, intent on going inside to find some answers. Where this sudden courage and resolve came from, he had no idea.
Chuck shrugged. “Nothin’ I say’ll do you any good,” he said. “I’m basically still a Newbie, too. But I can be your friend—”
“I don’t need friends,” Thomas interrupted.
He’d reached the door, an ugly slab of sun-faded wood, and he pulled it open to see several stoic-faced boys standing at the foot of a crooked staircase, the steps and railings twisted and angled in all directions. Dark wallpaper covered the walls of the foyer and hallway, half of it peeling off. The only decorations in sight were a dusty vase on a three-legged table and a black-and-white picture of an ancient woman dressed in an old-fashioned white dress. It reminded Thomas of a haunted house from a movie or something. There were even planks of wood missing from the floor.
The place reeked of dust and mildew—a big contrast to the pleasant smells outside. Flickering fluorescent lights shone from the ceiling. He hadn’t thought of it yet, but he had to wonder where the electricity came from in a place like the Glade. He stared at the old woman in the picture. Had she lived here once? Taken care of these people?
“Hey, look, it’s the Greenbean,” one of the older boys called out. With a start, Thomas realized it was the black-haired guy who’d given him the look of death earlier. He looked like he was fifteen or so, tall and skinny. His nose was the size of a small fist and resembled a deformed potato. “This shank probably klunked his pants when he heard old Benny baby scream like a girl. Need a new diaper, shuck-face?”
“My name’s Thomas.” He had to get away from this guy. Without another word, he made for the stairs, only because they were close, only because he had no idea what to do or say. But the bully stepped in front of him, holding a hand up.
“Hold on there, Greenie.” He jerked a thumb in the direction of the upper floor. “Newbies aren’t allowed to see someone who’s been … taken. Newt and Alby won’t allow it.”
“What’s your problem?” Thomas asked, trying to keep the fear out of his voice, trying not to think what the kid had meant by taken. “I don’t even know where I am. All I want is some help.”
“Listen to me, Greenbean.” The boy wrinkled up his face, folded his arms. “I’ve seen you before. Something’s fishy about you showing up here, and I’m gonna find out what.”
A surge of heat pulsed through Thomas’s veins. “I’ve never seen you before in my life. I have no idea who you are, and I couldn’t care less,” he spat. But really, how would he know? And how could this kid remember him?
The bully snickered, a short burst of laughter mixed with a phlegm-filled snort. Then his face grew serious, his eyebrows slanting inward. “I’ve … seen you, shank. Not too many in these parts can say they’ve been stung.” He pointed up the stairs. “I have. I know what old Benny baby’s going through. I’ve been there. And I saw you during the Changing.”
He reached out and poked Thomas in the chest. “And I bet your first meal from Frypan that Benny’ll say he’s seen ya, too.”
Thomas refused to break eye contact but decided to say nothing. Panic ate at him once again. Would things ever stop getting worse?
“Griever got ya wettin’ yourself?” the boy said through a sneer. “A little scared now? Don’t wanna get stung, do ya?”
There was that word again. Stung. Thomas tried not to think about it and pointed up the stairs, from where the moans of the sick kid echoed through the building. “If Newt went up there, then I wanna talk to him.”
The boy said nothing, stared at Thomas for several seconds. Then he shook his head. “You know what? You’re right, Tommy—I shouldn’t be so mean to Newbies. Go on upstairs and I’m sure Alby and Newt’ll fill you in. Seriously, go on. I’m sorry.”
He lightly slapped Thomas’s shoulder, then stepped back, gesturing up the stairs. But Thomas knew the kid was up to something. Losing parts of your memory didn’t make you an idiot.
“What’s your name?” Thomas asked, stalling for time while he tried to decide if he should go up after all.
“Gally. And don’t let anyone fool you. I’m the real leader here, not the two geezer shanks upstairs. Me. You can call me Captain Gally if you want.” He smiled for the first time; his teeth matched his disgusting nose. Two or three were missing, and not a single one approached anything close to the color white. His breath escaped just enough for Thomas to get a whiff, reminding him of some horrible memory that was just out of reach. It made his stomach turn.
“Okay,” he said, so sick of the guy he wanted to scream, punch him in the face. “Captain Gally it is.” He exaggerated a salute, feeling a rush of adrenaline, as he knew he’d just crossed a line.
A few snickers escaped the crowd, and Gally looked around, his face bright red. He peered back at Thomas, hatred furrowing his brow and crinkling his monstrous nose.
“Just go up the stairs,” Gally said. “And stay away from me, you little slinthead.” He pointed up again but didn’t take his eyes off Thomas.
“Fine.” Thomas looked around one more time, embarrassed, confused, angry. He felt the heat of blood in his face. No one made a move to stop him from doing as Gally asked, except for Chuck, who stood at the front door, shaking his head.
“You’re not supposed to,” the younger boy said. “You’re a Newbie—you can’t go up there.”
“Go,” said Gally with a sneer. “Go on up.”
Thomas regretted having come inside in the first place—but he did want to talk to that Newt guy.
He started up the stairs. Each step groaned and creaked under his weight; he might’ve stopped for fear of falling through the old wood if he weren’t leaving such an awkward situation below. Up he went, wincing at every splintered sound. The stairs reached a landing, turned left, then came upon a railed hallway leading to several rooms. Only one door had a light coming through the crack at the bottom.
“The Changing!” Gally shouted from below. “Look forward to it, shuck-face!”
As if the taunting gave Thomas a sudden burst of courage, he walked over to the lit door, ignoring the creaking floorboards and laughter downstairs—ignoring the onslaught of words he didn’t understand, suppressing the dreadful feelings they induced. He reached down, turned the brass handle, and opened the door.
Inside the room, Newt and Alby crouched over someone lying on a bed.
Thomas leaned in closer to see what the fuss was all about, but when he got a clear look at the condition of the patient, his heart went cold. He had to fight the bile that surged up his throat.
The look was fast—only a few seconds—but it was enough to haunt him forever. A twisted, pale figure writhing in agony, chest bare and hideous. Tight, rigid cords of sickly green veins webbed across the boy’s body and limbs, like ropes under his skin. Purplish bruises covered the kid, red hives, bloody scratches. His bloodshot eyes bulged, darting back and forth. The image had already burned into Thomas’s mind before Alby jumped up, blocking the view but not the moans and screams, pushing Thomas out of the room, then slamming the door shut behind them.
“What’re you doing up here, Greenie!” Alby yelled, his lips taut with anger, eyes on fire.
Thomas felt weak. “I … uh … want some answers,” he murmured, but he couldn’t put any strength in his words—felt himself give up inside. What was wrong with that kid? Thomas slouched against the railing in the hallway and stared at the floor, not sure what to do next.
“Get your runtcheeks down those stairs, right now,” Alby ordered. “Chuck’ll help you. If I see you again before tomorrow morning, you ain’t reachin’ another one alive. I’ll throw you off the Cliff myself, you get me?”
Thomas was humiliated and scared. He felt like he’d shrunk to the size of a small rat. Without saying a word, he pushed past Alby and headed down the creaky steps, going as fast as he dared. Ignoring the gaping stares of everyone at the bottom—especially Gally—he walked out the door, pulling Chuck by the arm as he did so.