The Death Cure by James Dashner

Page 21

 

  “Yeah, almost half our workers have disappeared over the last couple months. No sign of ’em, no explanations. Which only makes my job a thousand times harder. ”

  Thomas groaned. “Just keep us away from the crowds and put us somewhere safe until you find Newt. ”

  “That’s more like it,” Minho added.

  The guard merely shrugged. “Okay. As long as I get my money. ”

  The guards finally stopped two rings away from the Central Zone and told the group to wait. Thomas and the others huddled in some shade behind one of the shacks. The cacophony had grown louder by the minute, and now, so close to most of the Palace’s population, it sounded as if a massive brawl was taking place just around the corner. Thomas hated every second he sat there, waiting, listening to those awful noises, wondering the whole time whether the guard would come back at all, much less with Newt in tow.

  About ten minutes after he’d left, two people came out of a little hut across the narrow pathway from them. Thomas’s pulse quickened, and he almost got up and ran before he realized they didn’t look threatening in the least. They were a couple, holding hands, and other than being a little dirty and wearing wrinkled and worn clothes, they seemed sane enough.

  The two approached the little group and stopped in front of them. “When did you get here?” the woman asked.

  Thomas fumbled for words, but Brenda spoke up.

  “We came in with the last group. We’re actually looking for our friend who was with us. His name is Newt—blond hair, has a limp. Have you seen him?”

  The man answered as if he’d just heard the dumbest question of his life. “Lots of people with blond hair around here—how’re we supposed to tell who’s who? What kind of name is Newt anyway?”

  Minho opened his mouth to respond, but the noise coming from the center of town picked up and everyone turned to look. The couple gave each other concerned looks. Then, without a word, they scurried back inside their home. They closed the door and Thomas heard the click of a lock engaging. A few seconds later a wooden board appeared in their window, covering it up; a small shard of glass fell to the ground outside.

  “They look about as happy to be here as we are,” Thomas said.

  Jorge grunted. “Real friendly. I think I’ll come back to visit. ”

  “They obviously haven’t been here long,” Brenda said. “I can’t imagine what that must feel like. Finding out you’re infected, being sent to live with Cranks, seeing what you’re about to become right in front of you. ”

  Thomas just shook his head slowly. It’d be misery in its purest form.

  “Where are those guards?” Minho asked, impatience clear in his tone. “How long does it take to find someone and tell ’em their friends are here?”

  Ten minutes later, the two guards reappeared around a corner. Thomas and his friends jumped to their feet.

  “What’d you find out?” Minho asked in a rush.

  The short one seemed fidgety, his eyes darting, as if he’d lost his brazenness from before, and Thomas wondered if a trip to what they’d called the Central Zone always did that to a person.

  His partner answered. “Took some asking around, but I think we found your guy. Looks just like you described, and he turned toward us when we called his name. But …” The guards exchanged an uncomfortable glance.

  “But what?” Minho pushed.

  “He said—very pointedly, I might add—to tell you guys to get lost. ”

  CHAPTER 37

  The words stabbed Thomas, and he could only imagine how Minho felt.

  “Show us where he is,” his friend ordered curtly.

  The guard held up his hands. “Did you not hear what I just said?”

  “Your job’s not done,” Thomas insisted. He was with Minho one hundred percent. It didn’t matter what Newt had said—if they were this close, they were going to talk to him.

  The shorter guard shook his head adamantly. “No way. You asked us to find your friend and we did. Give us our money. ”

  “Does it look like we’re with him yet?” Jorge asked. “No one makes a dollar until you get us all together. ”

  Brenda didn’t say anything, but she stood next to Jorge and nodded to show her support. Thomas was relieved that everyone was on board to go to Newt despite the message he’d sent.

  The two guards didn’t look happy at all, and they whispered back and forth, arguing.

  “Hey!” Minho barked. “If you want that money, let’s go!”

  “Fine,” the guard with the mustache finally said. His partner gave him an exasperated glare. “Follow us. ”

  They turned and headed back in the direction they’d come. Minho was right on their heels, and then everyone else.

  As they made their way deeper into the compound, Thomas kept thinking things couldn’t get worse, but they did. The buildings were shabbier, the streets dirtier. He saw several people lying on the sidewalks, their heads resting on filthy bags or wadded-up pieces of clothing. Each one of them stared at the sky with a glazed expression, a look of oblivious glee. The Bliss was aptly named, Thomas thought.

  The guards marched ahead, sweeping their Launchers left and right at anyone who got within a dozen feet of them. At one point they passed a ravaged-looking man—his clothes torn, his hair matted with some kind of black goo, skin covered in rashes—as he fell on a drugged-out teenager and started beating him.

  Thomas stopped, wondering if they should help.

  “Don’t even think about it,” the short guard said before Thomas could get a word out. “Keep moving. ”

  “But isn’t it your job to—”

  The other guard cut him off. “Shut up and let us handle things. If we meddled in every squabble and catfight we saw, we’d never be done. We’d probably be dead. Those two can sort out their own problems. ”

  “Just get us to Newt,” Minho said evenly.

  They continued, and Thomas tried to ignore the gargled scream that suddenly rose behind them.

  Finally, they reached a high wall with a big archway that led to an open area full of people. A sign at the top of the arch proclaimed in bright letters that this was the Central Zone. Thomas couldn’t quite make out what was going on inside, but everyone seemed busy.

  The guards stopped, and the one with the mustache addressed the group. “I’m only going to ask once. Are you sure you want to go in there?”

  “Yes,” Minho answered quickly.

  “Okay, then. Your friend is at the bowling alley. As soon as we point him out, I want our money. ”

  “Let’s just get moving,” Jorge growled.

  They followed the guards through the arch and entered the Central Zone. Then they stopped to take it all in.

  The first word that popped into Thomas’s mind was madhouse, and he realized that it was almost literally true.

  Cranks were everywhere.

  They milled about in a circular area several hundred feet across that was bordered by what had apparently once been shops and restaurants and entertainment venues. Most of them were run-down and closed. The majority of the infected didn’t seem quite as gone as the matted-hair fellow they’d seen out in the streets, but there was a frenzied air about the groups of people. To Thomas, everyone’s actions and mannerisms seemed … exaggerated. Some people were laughing hysterically, a wildness in their eyes, as they slapped each other’s backs roughly. Others cried uncontrollably, sobbing all alone on the ground or walking in circles, faces in their hands. Small fights had broken out everywhere, and here and there you’d find a man or woman standing still and screaming at the top of their lungs, faces red and necks corded.

  There were also those who huddled in groups, arms folded and heads snapping left and right as if they expected to be attacked at any second. And just as Thomas had seen in the outer rings, some of the Cranks were lost in the haze of the Bliss, smiling as they sat or lay on the
ground and ignored the chaos. A few guards walked around, weapons held at the ready, but they were vastly outnumbered.

  “Remind me not to buy any real estate here,” Minho quipped.

  Thomas couldn’t bring himself to laugh. He was filled with anxiety, and he desperately wanted to get this over with.

  “Where’s the bowling alley?” he asked.

  “Over this way,” the shorter guard said.

  He headed to the left, sticking close to the wall as Thomas and the others followed. Brenda walked beside Thomas, their arms brushing with every step. He wanted to take her hand, but he didn’t want to make any move that would call attention to himself. Everything about this place was so unpredictable he didn’t want to do anything he didn’t absolutely have to.

  Most of the Cranks stopped their feverish activities and stared at the small group of newcomers as they approached and walked past. Thomas kept his gaze lowered, scared that if he made eye contact with anyone, they might get hostile or try to talk to him. There were catcalls and whistles, lots of crude jokes or insults thrown their way as they kept moving. They passed a dilapidated convenience store, and Thomas could see through the open windows—the glass was long gone—that almost all the shelves were empty. There was a doctor’s office and a sandwich shop, but no lights shone in either one.

  Someone grabbed Thomas’s shirt at the shoulder. He spun to see who it was as he swatted the hand away. A woman stood there, her dark hair messy and a scratch on her chin, but otherwise she seemed somewhat normal. Her face was drooping in a frown, and she stared at him for a moment before opening her mouth as wide as it would go, revealing teeth that were in good shape other than looking as if they hadn’t been brushed in a while, and a tongue that was swollen and discolored. Then she closed her mouth again.

  “I want to kiss you,” the woman said. “What do you say, Munie?” She laughed, a manic cackle that was full of snorts, and ran her hand lightly down Thomas’s chest.

  Thomas jerked away and continued walking—he noticed that the guards hadn’t even stopped to make sure nothing bad happened.

  Brenda leaned closer and whispered to him. “That might’ve been the creepiest thing yet. ”

  Thomas just nodded and kept going.

  CHAPTER 38

  The bowling alley didn’t have any doors—based on the thick rust that covered the exposed hinges, they’d been taken off and disposed of a long time ago. A large wooden sign hung above the entrance, but any words it had once displayed were gone, leaving only faded scratches of color.

  “He’s in there,” the guard with the mustache said. “Now pay up. ”

  Minho stepped past him to the empty doorway and leaned through the opening, craning his neck to see inside. Then he turned around and looked at Thomas.

  “I can see him in the back,” Minho said, his face pinched with worry. “It’s dark in there, but it’s definitely him. ”

  Thomas had been so worried about finding their old friend, he realized he didn’t have any clue what they’d actually say to him. Why had he told them to get lost?

  “We want our money,” the guard repeated.

  Jorge appeared completely unfazed. “You’ll get double if you make sure we get back to our Berg safely. ”

  The two guards consulted; then the shorter one took a turn speaking. “Triple. And we want half of it now to make sure you’re not blowing smoke out your butts. ”

  “That’s a deal, muchacho. ”

  As Jorge pulled out his card and touched it to the guard’s, transferring the money, Thomas felt a grim satisfaction that they were stealing money from WICKED.

  “We’ll wait right here,” the guard said when they were done.

  “Come on,” Minho said. He went inside the building without waiting for a response.

  Thomas looked at Brenda, who was frowning.

  “What’s wrong?” he asked. As if there were just one thing.

  “I don’t know,” she responded. “I just have a bad feeling. ”

  “Yeah, you and me both. ”

  She gave him a half smile and took his hand, which now he gladly accepted; then they went into the bowling alley with Jorge right behind them.

  As with many things since his memory had been wiped, Thomas had images in his mind of what a bowling alley should have looked like and how it functioned, but he couldn’t recall having ever bowled. The room they stepped into was far from what he’d expected.

  The lanes where people had once bowled were now completely torn up, most of the wood panels ripped out or broken. Sleeping bags and blankets filled the spaces now, with people either napping or lying in a daze as they stared at the ceiling. Brenda had told Thomas that only the rich could afford the Bliss, so he wondered how people would dare reveal to others that they were using it in a place like this. He imagined it wouldn’t be long before someone decided to do whatever it took to get the drug from them.

  In the niches where the bowling pins used to stand, several fires burned, which couldn’t have been very safe. But at least one person sat at each fire, tending it. The smell of burning wood wafted through the air, and a smoky haze choked the darkness.

  Minho pointed to the far left lane, about a hundred feet away. Not many people were over there—most seemed to congregate in the middle lanes—but Thomas spotted Newt immediately despite the poor lighting. It was the flash of his long blond hair in the firelight and the familiar shape of his slumping body. His back was to them.

  “Here goes nothing,” Thomas whispered to Brenda.

  No one bothered them as they carefully made their way to Newt, picking through the maze of people dozing in blankets until they reached the far lane. Thomas watched where he walked—the last thing he wanted was to step on some Crank and get bitten in the leg.
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