I walk past Raymond Gold’s sons, keeping my eyes low to the ground. The brothers roar with maniacal laughter because they have found a brand new target. But they aren't laughing at me. They laugh at Marie-Lisa, a girl with cancer. All the townspeople know that her parents couldn't afford to take care of her any longer, so they kicked her out and she was forced to scavenge for food. She was successful up until Raymond’s sons, Hail, Simon, and Levey caught her. They curse and throw rocks towards her, trying to steer her away from their grimy property. She yells in terror, trying to stumble away from them.
“You know better than to steal our stock!” Hail growls at the girl. From across the street, Levey spots me, sending chills through my spine. I'm usually careful to avoid the brothers, but Marie-Lisa had distracted me.
“Oh, look boys, it’s Hunter’s daughter!” Levey barks. His voice is terrifying. All of them are terrifying. I know that I don't have the best reputation either, but I would never hurt anyone. The brothers turn their attention on me, and just like that, I've become a new target for them to hurt.
I try to withdraw the scene, but their fierce faces and large bodies are almost caught up to me. I wish they hadn't seen me. But it's too late now.
Hail, the eldest son, chants for Levey to throw me into the safe. The safe is a large wooden box with a lock that was thrown into the dumpsite years ago. Only the Golds have the key to this safe, which is incredibly dangerous for everyone in this town. The Gold family should not have any access to anything remotely life- threatening, but it's just how life is here.
I scurry out of their sight, quickening my pace, but since they have longer legs and are undoubtedly faster, I know they'd catch up soon. I turn away from the direction of the dumpsite, opposite the safe, straight into the woods. I don't look back, but I know Levey is the closest to me. He's the one who saw me first.
Levey calls out to me several times. They're not running on purpose, which means they know that I'm easy to catch. Levey yells that he's going to "deal with me" when he catches me, but really, I am only terrified of Hail. Hail is the oldest and strongest of the brothers. For all I know, he could kick me, and I would be finished. I'm also frightened because he carries a machete with him. I saw him once, beating up an eleven-year-old with his bare hands, a cry of “mercy” not being enough for Hail to stop. Levey and Simon had to get him to stop, meaning that he had crossed a line that even they would not cross. Injuring someone was not punishable by death in our town of Burla, but murder was. Garold had been the kid’s name, and he has not been seen outside of his house in months. He hadn't even come to school since the incident. But I can understand why. I start to run. Maybe I could outrun them and get a head start.
My house is still blocks away, and Levey is getting closer. I can hear his voice. I'm growing tired, but I keep on sprinting as adrenaline pumps through my body. I tuck a loose hair hanging out of my ponytail behind my ear and keep running forward.
I can't hear their voices or the sounds of leaves crunching under their boots anymore, so I turn around, slowing to a stop. Fortunately for me, the brothers are nowhere to be seen. I look around, trying to see anything through the trees and thick moss enveloping the earth. Nothing. Birds are pecking at tree bark and a squirrel runs back and forth on dried autumn leaves.
Did I really outrun them? I don't want to make another sound because I know they're listening for me. Or maybe they can see me and I'm trapped.
A loud voice yells something that I can't make out. I'm knocked forward and pinned down. Levey is suddenly on top of me, subduing my arms at my sides. Levey is pale, with dark hair and dark eyes, just like his brothers. They are ugly, inside and out. I struggle to get loose from his hold. He fights to keep me down. It doesn't take much because I'm tired. I don't want to run anymore.
“We had enough of your father takin’ our meat and selling it for more than it's worth,” He growls in my face. I shake my head repeatedly.
“It’s true and you can’t even admit it. Probably going to end up a gold digger like him!” I groan as I tried to pull my arms free. He's heavy and his knee is hurting me leg. I can't let him win.
"Never,” I mumble hoarsely. He pushes me down when I lift my head, his hold on me growing tighter, nails scratching into my wrists. I look to my right, staring at the muddy ground. I try to hold my head up as much as I can. I try to kick him, the air, anything, but it's difficult because he's bigger than me and kneeling on my legs.
“I can’t bare your attitude, but your bravery impresses me,” he spits. For a twelve-year-old, Levey is huge, with broad shoulders and muscles. At least it isn't Hail holding me down. I can hear him and Simon laughing from behind, but I can't see them.
“Let go!” I shout in desperation. It's showing in my voice that I'm scared, and I know they love to hear it.
“Give up,” he torments. I can tell he's getting impatient that I'm not staying still. If it was Hail, I wouldn't be trying to fight; he wouldn't have given me the chance. I know they don't want to injure me fatally, but they definitely want me to surrender. But if I don't keep fighting for my life, I would not live through the day without bruises. There would be no way to explain this to my parents.
I try to push him off me with my knees, but Levey just laughs.
“You’re quite small, might want to gain some meat on those bones, huh?” He snarls with his yellow teeth.
“Oh jeez, Levey, even I can make her cry for mercy,” cries Simon. I can tell that Levey is getting anxious that I am not admitting surrender. He cares about what his brothers think more than anything. While wondering my cause of death, something pounces on Levey, grabbing his shirt collar, flipping him backward on the ground. I'm left on the ground, paralyzed in fear and shock. Levey yells to Hail for help, but I see Hail standing frozen, gaping. Levey tries to escape, but he has no chance. Another boy is fighting him. Levey is quick to spring back up again, but once more, Levey is thrown onto his back and punched hard in the face. Levey yells in pain as the mysterious person attacks him once more. The other boy, seems to be in his teens, and is twice the size of Hail. He has short, thick hair, the colour of rust and small eyes. He even has bigger biceps than Hail. He looked to be around seventeen, two years older than Hail. I crawl into the bushes but don't leave. I have no idea what to do. No one in Burla stands up for anyone and especially doesn't fight Raymond’s sons. People like that do not exist anymore. The safest thing would be to run off, but I don't want to leave wondering what will happen to this boy and where he came from. I notice four other boys around the rusty boy’s age, hanging out near a tree watching Rusty beating the life out of Levey like it was normal. They look like they know him, and their eyes glimmer in intense focus.
“Are you givin’ this girl trouble?” Rusty asks Levey. Levey shakes his head and looks like he's about to break down into tears. He tries to back away, but Rusty grabs him by his shirt collar.
“If I ever see you here again, I will beat you into nothing.” Levey nods and sprinted away when the boy lets him go. I look around for his brothers, But Hail and Simon are nowhere to be seen. Rusty turns to me as I scramble out of the bushes and stand up.
“You got yourself in quite some trouble there,” he states. I don't say anything.
“I’m Muzzo, this is Oliver, Kori, Mittel, and Byrne, he says, pointing to the other boys. They don't move a muscle. Instead, they look like statues. The late afternoon sun peaks through the opening of the trees, making the boys' pale skin shine.
“They don’t really talk much,” Muzzo says flippantly, explaining their silence.
“What’s your name?” He extends his hand carefully, as a peaceful gesture.
“Paisley,” I reply, taking his hand.
“You must’ve been in big trouble if Raymond Gold’s sons were after you,” he tells me. I just nod.
“You’ve got a little scrape there,” he says, touching my forehead. I don't even remember getting hurt. I back away a little in surprise.
"Oh, it’s nothing, thank you for helping me, but-"
Then I realize I'm still holding his hand. I pull away, but he gently pulls me back.
“At least let me give you a bandage?”
“Um,” I mutter. I don't know what to say.
“It will only take a minute.” But it only takes longer and longer.
“Let me know more about you. Where I'm from, everyone's scared of each other," he laughs, shaking his head.
I sigh. I have no friends, and no one was nice here either, so I didn't have anyone to talk to, but I never thought about it until now.
“I'm pretty simple. I'm actually an orphan. I do have a family, but they are not my real family,” I blurt out.
“Really? We don’t have parents either; we just stick together and keep to ourselves. What’s your unreal family like?” I don't really feel comfortable talking to a stranger about my private life, so I just say, “harsh.” He looks at me like he understands everything that I'm saying.
“Yeah, we know how it feels like, we get abused by town folk every day, but nothing we can’t deal with.” He lets out a genuine laugh, which is not often heard in our town. The other boys who are still standing there don't laugh or smile; they remain silent.
“Are you hungry?” It sounds like a silly question. You can't find anyone who isn't hungry here. He pulls out a wrinkled brown bag from a backpack and takes out some freshly sliced cooked meat that smells heavenly. I realize that I'm grabbing for it, so I stopped myself because it's rude.
“No, I can’t,” I say, guilty for being so greedy. My parents would have been furious if I'd done something like that in their house.
“No, it’s alright. We have plenty to feed ourselves.” Before I can refuse, he puts the slices into my hands. I can not believe that a stranger is be so selfless to me. I take a big bite into the juicy meat that I probably have never tasted before. My usual dinner usually consists of dry bread and brown beans if I'm lucky. Muzzo must have noticed me rapidly eating because he keeps giving me side-glances.
“Sorry, I just don’t get food like this often.” I expect Muzzo to berate me for eating like a farm animal, but he just smiles at me instead.
“You can’t eat good meat without eating good bread,” he explains while pulling out a small loaf of bread from the backpack.
“Do you have a whole feast in there?” I exclaim with wide eyes, while Muzzo chuckles. I take the bread from him and bit into it. It's not dry. I give him the rest and he also bites into it.
“Mm. It's hard to get this kind of bread here. I’ve tasted some in the past and none were as good as this.” Muzzo looks at me in understanding, once again.
“Exactly. That’s why my friends and I get it from where we grew up, in Preston.” He seems really embarrassed, because he's waiting to see my reaction, watching me. I nearly choke on my food. The city of Preston is the most unsafe and violent place in the country. It is a few hours away from Burla. I had seen some of the bad areas of Preston when leaving the orphanage and it was not a very pleasant memory.
“That’s terrible! It is the worst place to grow up!” I shout in shock.
“I know, I know, but it’s where I was born, it’s where the boys and I lived as kids,” he says, almost sadly.
“I was born there too, I lived in an orphanage there, and when I was leaving, I was just so glad to get out of that town.” Muzzo stares at me, his eyes narrowing.
“So you can’t judge me now, because you’re a Preston-native too.” I swipe some breadcrumbs away from my face.
“Yeah, I guess I can’t.” He laughs.
“Yeah, but I wouldn’t say this place is beauty land either.” I look around at my surroundings. Burla is known for its large and spacious woods with unique species of owls.
“Anything is better than Preston. But why’d you come here?” I ask in curiosity. I understand why Muzzo and his friends would leave Preston, but why come here? There are several other towns safer than this one.
“We came to get ourselves some good cow meat, now that is something that Preston does not have.” Preston had lost many of its native animals because of the disasters that had happened there. I only knew this from the radio that my adoptive parents sometimes turned on.
“Do you and your friends travel a lot?” I ask.
“Yes, sometimes by walking, mostly by train.” I nod. Travelling by train is always safer since they provide you with food and water. On foot, you have to carefully watch out for yourself. Since I'm having a good time, laughing it off with Muzzo, I barely notice that a scary amount of time has gone by. I can see the orange and pink sky peeking beneath the trees behind Muzzo’s head. I yelp and jump up, causing Muzzo to jump up as well.
“What’s wrong?” He asks in confusion. I point at the sky.
“I have to get home. The sun is almost down!” Clearly, Muzzo doesn't see the problem. He pulls me back, trying to steady my shaking shoulders.
“You don’t understand, my adoptive father will kill me if I don’t get home before curfew,” I tell him.
“Calm down, why don’t you come along with us?” He asks in a very casual manner. My face freezes.
What is Muzzo thinking? Why did I ever decide to talk to a stranger in the woods? Even if I go along with him, they’d probably find him and throw him in a jail cell. Kidnapping children is taken very seriously, especially by the wealthy people living in Burla.
“Sure, why not? We can provide for you and you don't have to go back to your adoptive parents,” he says like he's come up with an amazing plan.
“No, I’m not leaving with you. The Hunters are the closest people I have to a family. Goodbye.” I sprint off into the darkness.
I can't sleep. I keep thinking about Muzzo’s offer. Would it have been better if I had left with him? Or worse? Possibly things could not get worse. Muzzo treated me as a person, rather than an stupid child. I think about Muzzo and his friends, and how they just stared, but didn't talk. I feel a little guilty for leaving Muzzo there when he had saved me and given me probably what was the best meal in my life. There's an aching part of me that is refusing to let myself be free and run with the person who was the only one who had ever cared if I was hungry. Eventually, I snooze off with roaming thoughts of regret.
Same as usual, John Hunter’s wife, Beth, pours me some sloppy water in a cup for my breakfast. This is a usual morning routine, and Beth knows I never drink it. It's dirty and unfiltered. I know this because Beth and John joke about its dirtiness behind my back and because the water has a strange smell. I pinch my nose to rid the smell out of my nostrils.
“Fine, but don’t say I didn’t try to help you when you turn all raggedy and boney and then die." With that, Beth pours the water out of the window. She grabs a plate and fills it with slushy brown stuff. She places it down in front of me. I almost throw up just looking at it. Beth sees my expression, so she yanks the plate off the table, and dumps the whole thing on my head. I'm not surprised, or even angry, because she does this to me almost every day. She always rambles on and on about how she and John work very hard to get this food for me, and to provide for me. I do underestimate them sometimes, but I don’t think that they work very hard to be good parents. They couldn’t get into a conversation with any of the townsfolk without getting into an argument, John is a greedy thief, which I hate to admit, and they can't cook simple meals. I’m pretty sure they just gather leaves from our backyard to add into the stew. I don’t know where they got the idea that dirty leaves were a tasty ingredient, but they were wrong. But at the end of the day, I'm happy to have a roof over my head.
“I would eat something, if I were you, for your big road trip,” Beth yaps with her scratchy voice. Her voice does not match her thin frame of a woman.
“Road trip? What do you mean?” I asks, suddenly beginning to worry. Beth starts to work on the dishes, not that we eat much to use them anyway.
“John and I have talked about this for days now, and we have decided to send you back to the orphanage.” My face falls. I actually did not see this coming. John and Beth have never complained about me much less threaten to take me back to the orphanage, so I always thought I’d finally be safe here. The upside is that the caretakers at the orphanage were actually kind to me. The downside is that I have to go back to Preston. This terrifies me. My heart starts beating fast. I survived living there once, but I did not want to do it again.
“When do I leave?” I ask in a shaky voice.
“Tomorrow morning. It’s a relief because now we don’t have to feed you or pay for your education no more.” I roll my eyes without thinking. There goes another ooey gooey stew on my head.
I barely have anything to take with me, so I don't have to worry about leaving something behind. I can't sleep, mostly because I'm excited to leave the Hunters and to see my friends back at the orphanage if they were still there. The girls were the only people who understood what I was going through. We were all abandoned at childbirth, so none of us knew where we were born. As I was packing my favourite book into my backpack, a loud gunshot rings out in the air.
This rarely means that someone was shot; this means that the soldiers from Curdy's crew had arrived. I clutch my backpack close to me in horror. I peer out the window just as several soldiers with guns march up to my doorstep. They are closer than I expected. Only a few soldiers from the army are here. Usually, there are hundreds. I don't dare leave my room. Why are they here? And why in my house? I can already hear the Captain speaking to Beth and John inside the house. His voice is loud, confident, and unpleasant to hear.
“I am Captain Curdy, and my men and I have searched long and hard to find out where-"
There is a brief pause.
“Paisley Greenwell came from,” finishes Captain Curdy. My face stiffens. Greenwell. My real last name. I haven’t heard that name since I was living in the orphanage. When the Hunters adopted me, my last name was changed to Hunter. Since Captain Curdy was talking about me, I am more than scared. Why was he looking for me?
“She’s an orphan, of course, no one knows where she came from. Would you like some tea?” Beth’s shaking voice sounds guilty and frightened. I don't blame her. The Captain is no delight, and everyone is scared of him.
“Paisley Greenwell is the birth daughter of Kaussif Lo Greenwell, a man who betrayed his duties and disobeyed all laws. He was then killed a day after his daughter was birthed,” Curdy continues. I shudder. It was like a sad story, except the person who was telling it wasn’t one bit sad.
“Paisley’s mother was Daisy Mae Greenwell, who also rebelled so many times that we had to enslave her. She followed into her husband’s direction like they had made a pact from obeying government rules. She was later put to death after she hid her child.” There is another pause as I hold in a deep breath.
“Yes, so what does this mean?” John answers impatiently.
“This means that Paisley will follow in her parents’ footprints.” Another pause.
“She’s twelve years old, what can she possibly do to hurt you?” Beth’s shaken voice asks.
“We can’t tell the future, but we want to be prepared.” What have I ever done? And to the government?
“She has her father’s blood, and it is full of evil,” Curdy finishes. “That is why we have to end the Greenwell family line.” I gasp to myself.
“I don’t understand,” John Hunter rasps in frustration.
I understand enough.
Then Curdy finishes,
“Paisley Greenwell must be put to death.”