Thomas is so, so bored.
There is absolutely nothing to do in Glade Springs; the nearest mall or movie theater is an hour away. Get a job, his parents had said, or join a club at school, or play a sport or something.
It’s the end of September, and Thomas still hasn’t made any friends. He sits by himself at lunch, watching the crowds eat and laugh and snicker at each other. Sports are out of the question; all the teams-- especially the track and field team, which is the darling of the school, having gone to State three years in a row-- are already set, and even though they’re not in season, Thomas knows well enough not to try out for any team.
He’s been in eight different high schools since freshman year, GSHS isn’t going to be any different. Transferring to a small town like this as a junior ensures that everyone is already set in their cliques and friendships. Especially a school like this that just worships the jocks; there’s a fervent pride that’s contagious, even Thomas got swept up a little when the track team was walking down the corridor and the hallway erupted into applause.
It had only been the second day of school, and Thomas was fumbling with his locker combination when the team walked past, and he accidentally banged his head with the locker door. Looking up through the pain of the headache, it was like in slow motion, watching the guys and girls striding past in their letterman jackets, students whooping and cheering as they went. At the lead was this unfairly gorgeous guy, tanned and smiling, accepting a high-five from a student in the hall. “Yeah, Minho!” someone is shouting, and the guy-- Minho-- points at him with cheesy finger-guns, throws his head back, and laughs.
It’s a beautiful laugh.
Thomas shrinks into the wall of lockers; it would be really unfortunate if he started to crush on apparently the most popular guy at school.
So here he is, avoiding the after-school clubs and the sport teams, driven by boredom after finishing all his homework, about to start a job.
His parents apparently heard from their neighbor that the “Maze,” whatever that is, has an opening and apparently hires teenagers.
Thomas gets dropped off at the edge of town and eyes the field of corn suspiciously.
“Have fun, sweetie!” his mom calls out, triumphant that she could get Thomas out of the house. Apparently one of her new work friends runs this thing and told her about it. “I’ll see you after your shift is over!”
“Yeah, yeah,” Thomas grumbles, walking into the field.
The corn looms above him, rustling in the wind. He stands there, unsure of what to do, staring at the expanse of green in front of him.
“Hey, greenie, stop starin’ at the Maze!” a voice calls out sharply, and Thomas turns around.
He recognizes this guy from school.
“Um, Gally, right?” Thomas asks hesitantly. “I’m here to start--”
“Yeah, yeah, we all know you’re new, shuckface,” Gally says.
“What--” Thomas blinks at the term. It’s clearly meant to be insulting.
“Miss Paige ain’t here, but I know what we need more of. You can start on the hay bales,” he says, shoving Thomas towards a trailer sitting off to the side of the corn field. He looks towards the ominous entrance to the-- the maze, right--- and then back at Gally.
“Come on, first shift’s always the hardest,” Gally says roughly.
“What am I supposed to do? What even-- is the maze?”
“The Maze,” Gally says, with a deep breath, and he says it like it’s capitalized too, in his speech, giving the cornfield a breathy look of awe.
“That’s not an answer,” Thomas says, annoyed. They get to the front of the trailer, and he can read the chalkboard sign clearly:
September 15- November 2nd
Hours: 7pm to 1am
No children under the age of 12 are allowed in the Maze without an accompanying parent or guardian.
“This still doesn’t tell me what this is,” Thomas says crossly.
The door swings open and a skinny blonde boy stares out at them. This one Thomas recalls clearly: English class, second row, offered Thomas a pencil on the first day of class.
“Tommy, right,” he says, extending a friendly hand. “I’m Newt.”
“Thomas,” Thomas corrects. No one’s ever called him ‘Tommy’ before.
“Nice to meet you, Tommy,” Newt says. “Don’t listen to Gally, for your first day we can find you something better to do than stack hale bales.” Newt jerks his head and Thomas follows him into the trailer.
Thomas sneezes at the dusty interior and then nearly trips over himself when he sees what looks like a bunch of decapitated heads on the floor.
“What’s going on?” Thomas shrieks.
“Here, you can repaint this one’s nose,” Newt says, grabbing a head and tossing it at Thomas.
Thomas flails but catches the thing, and at second glance realizes it’s just plastic and paint. “Um, so you want me to--”
Newt hands him a paintbrush.
The Maze, as it turns out, is Glade Springs’ haunted Halloween attraction, a massive sprawl of cornfield filled with twists and turns, mechanical automated monsters that Newt refuses to elaborate on, and the costumed performers who chase the patrons throughout the maze, or as Newt calls them, the Runners.
“That sounds cool,” Thomas says, absentmindedly dabbling fake blood around the head’s lips.
After painting heads for an hour, Thomas meets Alby, who gives him a calculating look. Alby turns out to be the general manager of the place, and Thomas wonders if he’s ever going to see an adult around here. Apparently not; it looks like this Miss Paige leaves her place to run--rather efficiently-- at the hands of this group of teenagers.
Alby gives him a brief tour; the trailer where all the costumes are kept, the tech trailer where they work on the mechanics, props department, and then they finish at the entrance of the Maze, the stalks of corn fluttering in the slight breeze. Thomas can’t tell how far it goes, the green, but it seems to deepen somehow. It’s already unnerving; he can only imagine what it’s like after dark.
Suddenly the green is broken by the appearance of two boys, running furiously (a race?) out of the maze. In the lead is that guy again--Minho-- the popular jock, running towards the entrance, shouting, “Hey, Alby!”
Alby whips out a stopwatch from his pocket as Minho and the other boy dash out of the entrance. The other boy keeps going and eventually skids to a halt in the parking lot, but Minho just falls over in the grass right in front of the Maze entrance, breathing heavily.
“Eight minutes, twenty two seconds!” Alby calls out. He high fives Minho, who’s still on the ground. “And eight minutes, twenty-four seconds for you, Ben!”
Ben gives them the finger.
“Are you okay?” Thomas asks Minho. He fishes the water bottle he brought with him out of his pocket and hands it to him.
“You’re a lifesaver,” Minho says gratefully, taking the water and gulping greedily at it. Thomas holds out his hand to help him off the ground, and then pretends not to watch Minho take his shirt off and dump the rest of the water bottle on his sweaty, bare torso. “New kid at school, right?”
“Yeah,” Thomas says, looking at his feet at not at the abs on display.
“Minho is the manager of all the Runners here,” Alby says, clapping Minho on the back.
“Oh. Cool. Were you and uh, Ben, racing?”
Minho snorts. “Yeah, the entire route of the Maze is about a mile, but with the turns and stuff it’s way better conditioning for me than just doing straight runs on the track.”
Thomas nods, impressed.
“Plus I’m not that good at keeping straight anyways,” he adds with a wink.
Thomas blushes, and Alby knocks Minho in the shoulder. “Don’t scare the newbie,” he says.
Thomas watches Minho, Ben, Gally and a few others start carrying hay bales into the maze. “Setting up the course for tonight,” Alby says. “We get a lot of returning customers, and the Maze is really popular for having a different route every night. It’s the biggest attraction in town this time of year.”
“You mean the only attraction,” Thomas adds.
Alby chuckles. “Where you from again? Big city boy, right? Never ran out of things to do?”
“Los Angeles,” Thomas says reluctantly.
“Right, movie stars and palm trees. This place must be a real dump to you, then.”
“Eh, no, I like it here. It’s nice. And LA’s really not all movie stars and palm trees, like the smog can get really gross, and the traffic is awful all the time,” Thomas says.
“Good to hear, you’re gonna like working here. We’re glad to have you,” Alby says, patting Thomas on the back.
And Thomas… does like working here. As the week goes on, he finds himself enjoying the calm tedium of doing the prop upkeep, the heavy task of standing in the “fire line” passing down haybales to all the workers taking them to new locations in the Maze, and standing on end for the long afternoon hours selling at the ticket booth.
Suddenly Thomas also has friends; Newt and Minho plop down next to him at his usually empty table at lunch, and eventually Thomas is sitting with a great mixture of people he knows from the Maze and people on the track team, too. People wave to him as he walks down the hallways now, and Chuck lets him copy the Algebra homework when Thomas forgot his.
The only thing that’s a little frustrating about working at the Maze is how Minho seems to take his shirt off every afternoon. He runs the maze everyday before nightfall, just to practice for track, somehow always catching the glowing rays of the afternoon sun on his glistening, sweaty skin.
Newt seems to have figured out early on that Thomas has a crush on Minho and instead of just listening compassionately when Thomas rambles on about how smart Minho was in Econ today and how dare he not ever wear a shirt and then letting it go, Newt instead assigns Thomas to pumpkin carving duty. Right outside the Maze entrance, where Minho will indubitably exit from his daily jog and take off his shirt.
“All right there, greenie?” Minho asks, raising an eyebrow when Thomas accidentally carves right through the mouth he’s working on for his pumpkin.
“Sure, I’m good, just making this one into the Joker,” Thomas says quickly, holding out the pumpkin.
“Nice,” Minho says appreciatively. “Hey, you should stick around tonight, I know you only have the early shift, but the Maze looks really cool at night, you’re missing out.”
“Sure, okay,” Thomas says, and Minho just smiles brightly back at him, and Thomas feels a little lightheaded and warm, even though he’s been sitting in the shade for the last hour.
It only takes a bit of explaining on the phone to his mom that he has to work the late shift tonight, and Thomas is free to hang around. He clocks out after his shift ends at six p.m, finishes selling tickets and leaves the booth. Thomas heads to the “break” trailer and promptly runs into something--someone-- and shrieks.
“Hey, it’s just me,” says a familiar voice.
“Right, hi, hello,” Thomas says. “You look great. Scary, but great.”
“Thanks,” Minho says, grinning. He’s dressed like… a track star zombie. It’s pretty clever, now that Thomas thinks about it, but the fake blood cascading down his face is really startling. The ripped track uniform shows a lot more thigh than Thomas is prepared for, though.
“Hey, I’m gonna do a round, but after I have time for a break or something if you wanna go to the apple cider booth with me?” Minho asks. “I mean, I’d really like to take you out on a date but I’m gonna be working nights and weekends through this whole season, so--um, unless you don’t want to. Or the zombie makeup is weird...” Minho says, all very quickly.
“I do! It’s cool, I’d love to,” Thomas says, blushing. “Um, I’ll hang out and wait till you’re done?”
“Just come by the exit in like twenty minutes or so?”
Thomas nods, too excited to think of a reply. Minho waves at him as he heads into the Maze, and Thomas giddily walks into the break room. Minho wants to hang out. With him.
Newt is in the break trailer, which doubles as the photo lab where all the reaction shots are being printed for the customers. He’s chuckling at some photos when Thomas walks in in a daze.
Newt takes one look at his face and snorts. “Finally caved in and asked you out, didn’t he? Only took him a week.”
“What?” Thomas blinks in surprise.
“He totally had a thing for you even when you were the mysterious transfer kid who was too cool for everyone,” Newt says. “And then you started working here and hanging out with us and then I had to hear about both of you from each other, and that was ridiculous.”
“Too cool-- I wasn’t cool at all! I was a loser! I was new!” Thomas insists.
“Uh huh, Mr. I-Refuse-To-Socialize-With-Anyone,” Newt says, raising an eyebrow.
“I didn’t know anyone, everyone at school was already friends with each other,” Thomas mumbles sheepishly.
“Yeah well, when I got to know you I found out you were a huge dork, so it’s all good,” Newt says, grinning. “So what are you guys doing?”
“Just getting cider on his break,” Thomas mumbles, picking up an idle photo of a family screaming and holding onto each other. The father looks the most terrified; what looks like the ten year old daughter is holding onto him, a bored expression on her face.
“Nice start,” Newt says. “Hey, help me sort these chronologically, would you?”
They pass a bit of time companionably, with minimal teasing from Newt, and then Thomas is walking around the back to the Maze exit. There are sounds of screams and people giggling from inside, cornstalks shaking as people fumble through the Maze.
Thomas watches a terrified couple holding hands run out of the exit, and in path he can see Minho chasing down another guy.
The guy suddenly advances on Minho, and swings his fist back like he’s going for a punch, and Thomas sees red.
He’s launched himself into the Maze before he knows what he’s doing, sprinting forward and launching himself at Minho’s attacker.
“Did you read the signs, asshole? You’re not supposed to touch any of the actors!” Thomas shouts, tackling the guy to the ground.
They topple right into one of the Grievers whirring behind them, and it crunches into pieces underneath them.
“He scared me! Get off me!” The man says as Thomas shakes him.
“He’s supposed to scare you-- you literally paid for him to scare you!” Thomas says indignantly.
The man has the decency to look a little embarrassed and squirms off the broken machinery and out from under Thomas, promptly gets to his feet and runs away without looking back.
Minho is laughing.
“Nothing, just-- thank you. You’re really something,” Minho says. “C’mon, lets go get some apple cider.”
They only have about ten minutes before Minho has to get back into the Maze, but all ten of those minutes are spent in a delightful haze of them sitting next to each other on a hay bale, clutching the cups of warm sweet cider in their hands, watching the steam rise, sipping slowly.
Thomas wonders if it would be too forward to sling an arm around Minho; he’s shivering slightly in his zombie costume. He’s still contemplating it when Minho just drops his head onto Thomas’ shoulder and says, “Just cuddle me already, I know you want to.”
Thomas grins and pulls him close, and they drink their cider and watch the maze-goers shriek in delight, exiting the Maze.