“Come on, Naila! Dad is gonna kill us if we’re late again!” Her little brother’s puberty-struck voice fails to take Naila’s eyes off of the mesmerizing moon. 

“Is she okay?” Aea, Naila’s little sister asks.

“I have no idea. She’s paid more attention to the damn sky than playing with us,” he scoffs. 

“Let’s leave her alone for now. She’s probably deep in thought, yeah?”

“Yeah, but Dad doesn’t like it when we don’t all come home together,” Aea whines.

“Well, then you try to convince her!” he snaps.

“Naila, you lunk, you’re gonna get us in trouble!”

“Hm?” Naila rolls her eyes over to the two quacking ducks she calls her younger brother and sister.

“Well, don’t just look back at us like we’re stupid. Let’s go, dammit!” The little tyrant demands.

Naila hates when her younger brother acts like the oldest. “Hey, watch who you’re talking to.” 

Imari rubs his hands through his dirty, bloodstained hair and yells, “I’m not covering for you.”

“That’s fine. You can both leave. Tell Dad I’ll be back later.”

“He’s gonna kill you,” he snarls. “Let’s go, Aea.”

Aea’s big eyes swell up with tears. “But what about dinner?” She nudges his arm with her elbow. 

“Ask her that.” Imari storms off. Aea runs to catch up after sharing an angry glance with Naila.

The gate opens, leaving Naila in The Woodlands, outside of the city’s gate—the lost civilization—nothing but a giant forest of hidden, evil creatures.

Clarenhye is a police district with the world’s harshest laws. Everyone is guilty until proven innocent and police are allowed to use torture as a communication device. All degenerates are removed from the district and sent to waste away in The Woodlands. No one goes to prison anymore, death row no longer exists, and there are no public executions—none of that civilized action. Now, criminals have to survive without the privileges of four walls and guaranteed meals, and there are no second chances. In Clarenhye’s judicial system, a jury of your peers is whomever you meet in the Woodlands—no retrial, no mistrial, only convicting evidence.

The patchy grass before the forest is as safe as it gets. Beyond that, murderers, thieves, gang members, and the rest of Clarenhye’s trash flourish. Wishing to let loose and express themselves in the most devious ways possible, some Clarenhye citizens frequent outside the gate. Those who aren’t banished can come and go as they please, but if someone doesn’t come back, no one will search for them, and if they happen to lose their identification while out, they belong to The Woodlands forever. 

Naila stands in the dirt with her head in the clouds. It has been a while since she looked at the moon from outside, instead of her window. She can’t explain it. Naila could never convince anyone that her reason for risking her life was just, but today, she awoke drenched in sweat with a vicious growl in her belly and an unshakable feeling in her gut that something awful is on its way. The evening breeze and the pale moon put her at ease. For the first time today, her nerves are at peace. 

Her beautiful braids sway back and forth in the warm wind.

Once the stars peek through the black sky, Naila decides to head home. “I’m surprised the cavalry hasn’t been sent for me.” She smirks. 

Naila heads toward the ajar, giant, metal gate. “Did Imari leave it open? That dunce.” She signals the drowsy security guard in the watchtower by throwing a rock at the window. Still, he is unresponsive, so she proceeds through the gate.

The city of Clarenhye is cluttered with towers too tall and glass skyscrapers topped with alarm sirens. Bright lights consume the town, and the citizens appear to be happy. The lack of criminals has made this place safe and a complete bore. People need to enjoy a break from being themselves. The local bank teller could have murdered someone an hour ago, outside of the gate, and no one will have any idea. In fact, it’s none of anyone’s business. What happens outside of the gate is legal, no matter what. Any act, from infidelity to murder, is approved outside the city walls.

As Naila walks with her hands clutched on the straps of her backpack, she smiles, thinking of her father’s reaction to her coming home a little after the street lights turn on. She knows it was wrong to let her thirteen-year-old brother and seven-year-old sister go home alone—a guard could easily detain them and put Naila in a world of trouble—but sometimes her teenage mind can’t decide what’s best. 

Her father is a noble man, an honest architect. He only wishes his three young children remain safe and stick close together. Thus, curfew, bedtime, defense training, and manners are enforced. A rebellious child is sure to see that as an abuse of power.

“If you can’t survive here, how will you survive outside of Clarenhye?” he beats into Naila, Imari, and Aea during lectures.

“I’m sixteen and he still treats me like a kid, like Aea and Imari! Hell, I’ll probably have to fight him when I get back. Oh well, nothing I can’t handle.” It’s a twenty-minute walk back home. Fear of the dark is gone since Clarenhye has replaced the night sky with big fluorescent screens and huge, blinking signs. The stars and clouds are almost impossible to see with the number of skyscrapers that make up the district.

The naive girl hums a sweet song she thinks she heard. Nearing her house, she picks up the pace and stops when she notices a broken window on the first floor. A few more glances around, she sees the other houses have broken or absent doors, shattered windows, and no one’s lights are on. She tries to breathe slow. Her hands tremble as they remain clutched to the straps of her backpack. Her knees tremble, and her legs refuse to walk.

“No, no! Imari… Mom…” She manages to regain control of her senses and catches her breath. She listens to the wind and cars driving on the road to drown out the thumping of her heartbeat.

“Move it, coward!” she urges herself.

The knob falls to the ground before she can twist it. The loud thud shoots through her ears and frightens her. She scurries inside her home and hides in a dark corner to the right of the broken window. Nothing. No footsteps, no voices. Nothing. A pungent odor sours her stomach. She covers her mouth and nose, but the scent is overwhelming. She leans over the dining table chair and regurgitates over the tile floor.

Wiping her mouth, she notices an arm covered in her waste. “Is that… Dad’s watch?” She kicks it and watches it roll out of the kitchen and into the living room. “What the hell is going on? What is happening?” Her mind races. Afraid, yet piping hot with adrenaline, she searches the house for signs of life. In the living room, her father’s head hangs by a skin fragment. He sits, dead, on the couch, his blood painted over the walls and the television. He has only one arm, and both of his legs are cooking in the fireplace. Naila’s fragile mind has seen enough, but she will not run away until she knows the others are not in the house. She places her backpack down then proceeds to the blood stained staircase.  

“Please… please be alive. Tell me you stopped at a friend’s house or to get candy… anything,” Naila whispers to herself as she clings to every step on her way to the second floor. She stops at his door. Tears burst from her eyes, her lip quivers, her hand trembles reaching for the knob to Imari’s room. 

He is slouched on his bed, facing the window. 

He must have been waiting for me. 

Naila grabs his shoulder, “Hey…” If her skin could turn white, this would be the perfect moment. Her brother falls flat on the bed. His face is devoid of eyes and tongue, there are multiple stab wounds and cuts on his torso, and all of his fingers are missing. “Oh my God, what the hell is this?” She covers her mouth to keep from vomiting again. 

Naila plummets to the floor. She ignores the pain of her nails bending backward. She becomes hysterical, laughs to stop the tears. Her eyes wander to the door; there’s still more to see. She hopes it can’t get much worse than this. If something were to happen to Aea, her little sister who looks up to her, Naila might not ever be the same. 

She wipes her face clean, stumbles to her feet, and heads for the door. Her head turns so her eyes can see him, but stops due to her pounding heart. “Just breathe,” she tells herself. She leaves the room, still sulking and legs brittle. Her mind is flooded with thoughts of fear and confusion. She begs for this to be a sick prank by one of the cruel kids in her school. 

At the end of the hall, is a bathroom floor covered in blood from an overflowing tub. Her eyes can’t escape it and her knees weaken the closer she gets to knowing what’s inside. “No, please no…” she mutters while staring at the arms and legs and one tiny foot that floats at the top. Naila puts her hand in the chunky blood and water to grab one of the long arms. Her mother’s wedding ring is on its finger. A scream forces its way out of her dry throat, and when she presses the arm to her face, the cold skin leaves her yearning for her mother’s warmth. 

Screaming in anger and fear, she drops the arm and pulls out body parts until there are none left. No matter how much her hands inspect the murky water, their heads don’t magically appear. 

Naila, drenched in the blood of her mother and baby sister, leans against the sink and stares blankly at the wall. The blare of police sirens interrupts her desensitized state. The multiple stomping feet remind her of the time a boy in her class was taken by the police because his parents died in a car accident on their way back to the district. No one ever saw him again, and the rumor was one of the other kids saw him out in The Woodlands, terrified and begging for food like a stray animal. 

A man with an intimidating deep voice interrupts her thoughts. “Search the house. Don’t get caught by any surprises.” She presses an ear to the bathroom door and listens to the commotion.

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