“So?” As Thomas looked more closely at Newt, he realized that what he’d mistaken for calm was actually disbelief—maybe even excitement.
“So?” Newt replied, his jaw dropping slightly. “Greenie, we’ve never had two Newbies show up in the same month, much less two days in a row.”
And with that, he ran off toward the Homestead.
The alarm finally stopped after blaring for a full two minutes. A crowd was gathered in the middle of the courtyard around the steel doors through which Thomas was startled to realize he’d arrived just yesterday. Yesterday? he thought. Was that really just yesterday?
Someone tapped him on the elbow; he looked over to see Chuck by his side again.
“How goes it, Greenbean?” Chuck asked.
“Fine,” he replied, even though nothing could’ve been further from the truth. He pointed toward the doors of the Box. “Why is everyone freaking out? Isn’t this how you all got here?”
Chuck shrugged. “I don’t know—guess it’s always been real regular-like. One a month, every month, same day. Maybe whoever’s in charge realized you were nothing but a big mistake, sent someone to replace you.” He giggled as he elbowed Thomas in the ribs, a high-pitched snicker that inexplicably made Thomas like him more.
Thomas shot his new friend a fake glare. “You’re annoying. Seriously.”
“Yeah, but we’re buddies, now, right?” Chuck fully laughed this time, a squeaky sort of snort.
“Looks like you’re not giving me much choice on that one.” But truth was, he needed a friend, and Chuck would do just fine.
The kid folded his arms, looking very satisfied. “Glad that’s settled, Greenie. Everyone needs a buddy in this place.”
Thomas grabbed Chuck by the collar, joking around. “Okay, buddy, then call me by my name. Thomas. Or I’ll throw you down the hole after the Box leaves.” That triggered a thought in his head as he released Chuck. “Wait a minute, have you guys ever—”
“Tried it,” Chuck interrupted before Thomas could finish.
“Going down in the Box after it makes a delivery,” Chuck answered. “It won’t do it. Won’t go down until it’s completely empty.”
Thomas remembered Alby telling him that very thing. “I already knew that, but what about—”
Thomas had to suppress a groan—this was getting irritating. “Man you’re hard to talk to. Tried what?”
“Going through the hole after the Box goes down. Can’t. Doors will open, but there’s just emptiness, blackness, nothing. No ropes, nada. Can’t do it.”
How could that be possible? “Did you—”
Thomas did groan this time. “Okay, what?”
“We threw some things into the hole. Never heard them land. It goes on for a long time.”
Thomas paused before he replied, not wanting to be cut off again. “What are you, a mind reader or something?” He threw as much sarcasm as he could into the comment.
“Just brilliant, that’s all.” Chuck winked.
“Chuck, never wink at me again.” Thomas said it with a smile. Chuck was a little annoying, but there was something about him that made things seem less terrible. Thomas took a deep breath and looked back toward the crowd around the hole. “So, how long until the delivery gets here?”
“Usually takes about half an hour after the alarm.”
Thomas thought for a second. There had to be something they hadn’t tried. “You’re sure about the hole? Have you ever …” He paused, waiting for the interruption, but none came. “Have you ever tried making a rope?”
“Yeah, they did. With the ivy. Longest one they could possibly make. Let’s just say that little experiment didn’t go so well.”
“What do you mean?” What now? Thomas thought.
“I wasn’t here, but I heard the kid who volunteered to do it had only gone down about ten feet when something swooshed through the air and cut him clean in half.”
“What?” Thomas laughed. “I don’t believe that for a second.”
“Oh, yeah, smart guy? I’ve seen the sucker’s bones. Cut in half like a knife through whipped cream. They keep him in a box to remind future kids not to be so stupid.”
Thomas waited for Chuck to laugh or smile, thinking it had to be a joke—who ever heard of someone being cut in half? But it never came. “You’re serious?”
Chuck just stared back at him. “I don’t lie, Gree—uh, Thomas. Come on, let’s go over and see who’s coming up. I can’t believe you only have to be the Greenbean for one day. Klunkhead.”
As they walked over, Thomas asked the one question he hadn’t posed yet. “How do you know it’s not just supplies or whatever?”
“The alarm doesn’t go off when that happens,” Chuck answered, simply. “The supplies come up at the same time every week. Hey, look.” Chuck stopped and pointed to someone in the crowd. It was Gally, staring dead at them.
“Shuck it,” Chuck said. “He does not like you, man.”
“Yeah,” Thomas muttered. “Figured that out already.” And the feeling was mutual.
Chuck nudged Thomas with his elbow and the boys resumed their walk to the edge of the crowd, then waited in silence; any questions Thomas had were forgotten. He’d lost the urge to talk after seeing Gally.
Chuck apparently hadn’t. “Why don’t you go ask him what his problem is?” he asked, trying to sound tough.
Thomas wanted to think he was brave enough, but that currently sounded like the worst idea in history. “Well, for one, he has a lot more allies than I do. Not a good person to pick a fight with.”
“Yeah, but you’re smarter. And I bet you’re quicker. You could take him and all his buddies.”
One of the boys standing in front of them looked back over his shoulder, annoyance crossing his face.
Must be a friend of Gally’s, Thomas thought. “Would you shut it?” he hissed at Chuck.
A door closed behind them; Thomas turned to see Alby and Newt heading over from the Homestead. They both looked exhausted.
Seeing them brought Ben back to his mind—along with the horrific image of him writhing in bed. “Chuck, man, you gotta tell me what this whole Changing business is. What have they been doing in there with that poor Ben kid?”
Chuck shrugged. “Don’t know the details. The Grievers do bad things to you, make your whole body go through something awful. When it’s over, you’re … different.”
Thomas sensed a chance to finally have a solid answer. “Different? What do you mean? And what does it have to do with the Grievers? Is that what Gally meant by ‘being stung’?”
“Shh.” Chuck held a finger to his mouth.
Thomas almost screamed in frustration, but he kept quiet. He resolved to make Chuck tell him later, whether the guy wanted to or not.
Alby and Newt had reached the crowd and pushed themselves to the front, standing right over the doors that led to the Box. Everyone quieted, and for the first time, Thomas noted the grinds and rattles of the rising lift, reminding him of his own nightmarish trip the day before. Sadness washed over him, almost as if he were reliving those few terrible minutes of awakening in darkness to the memory loss. He felt sorry for whoever this new kid was, going through the same things.
A muffled boom announced that the bizarre elevator had arrived.
Thomas watched in anticipation as Newt and Alby took positions on opposite sides of the shaft doors—a crack split the metal square right down the middle. Simple hook-handles were attached on both sides, and together they yanked them apart. With a metallic scrape the doors were opened, and a puff of dust from the surrounding stone rose into the air.
Complete silence settled over the Gladers. As Newt leaned over to get a better look into the Box, the faint bleating of a goat in the distance echoed across the courtyard. Thomas leaned forward as far as he possibly could, hoping to get a glance at the newcomer.
With a sudden jerk, Newt pushed himself back into an upright position, his face scrunched up in confusion. “Holy …,” he breathed, looking around at nothing in particular.
By this time, Alby had gotten a good look as well, with a similar reaction. “No way,” he murmured, almost in a trance.
A chorus of questions filled the air as everyone began pushing forward to get a look into the small opening. What do they see down there? Thomas wondered. What do they see! He felt a sliver of muted fear, similar to what he’d experienced that morning when he stepped toward the window to see the Griever.
“Hold on!” Alby yelled, silencing everyone. “Just hold on!”
“Well, what’s wrong?” someone yelled back.
Alby stood up. “Two Newbies in two days,” he said, almost in a whisper. “Now this. Two years, nothing different, now this.” Then, for some reason, he looked straight at Thomas. “What’s goin’ on here, Greenie?”
Thomas stared back, confused, his face turning bright red, his gut clenching. “How am I supposed to know?”
“Why don’t you just tell us what the shuck is down there, Alby?” Gally called out. There were more murmurs and another surge forward.
“You shanks shut up!” Alby yelled. “Tell ’em, Newt.”
Newt looked down in the Box one more time, then faced the crowd, gravely.
“It’s a girl,” he said.
Everyone started talking at once; Thomas only caught pieces here and there.
“I got dibs!”
“What’s she look like?”
“How old is she?”
Thomas was drowning in a sea of confusion. A girl? He hadn’t even thought about why the Glade only had boys, no girls. Hadn’t even had the chance to notice, really. Who is she? he wondered. Why—
Newt shushed them again. “That’s not bloody half of it,” he said, then pointed down into the Box. “I think she’s dead.”
A couple of boys grabbed some ropes made from ivy vines and lowered Alby and Newt into the Box so they could retrieve the girl’s body. A mood of reserved shock had come over most of the Gladers, who were milling about with solemn faces, kicking loose rocks and not saying much at all. No one dared admit they couldn’t wait to see the girl, but Thomas assumed they were all just as curious as he was.
Gally was one of the boys holding on to the ropes, ready to hoist her, Alby, and Newt out of the Box. Thomas watched him closely. His eyes were laced with something dark—almost a sick fascination. A gleam that made Thomas suddenly more scared of him than he’d been minutes earlier.
From deep in the shaft came Alby’s voice shouting that they were ready, and Gally and a couple of others started pulling up on the rope. A few grunts later and the girl’s lifeless body was dragged out, across the edge of the door and onto one of the stone blocks making up the ground of the Glade. Everyone immediately ran forward, forming a packed crowd around her, a palpable excitement hovering in the air. But Thomas stayed back. The eerie silence gave him the creeps, as if they’d just opened up a recently laid tomb.