Rowan could not believe her eyes. After so many years and so much sorrow, she had finally found her best friend. Or at least what was left of her.

Jessica sat on a tattered cot and stared at the floor, looking timid. She wore a dingy pair of scrubs, and her feet her bare.

From what Rowan could see, she had a ratty blanket, a toilet, and a small sink in the corner with a dripping faucet. There was another rough-looking cot across the room as well, and the floor was filthy damp concrete.

“Don’t you know who I am?” asked Rowan. She looked around at the dimly lit cell waiting for an answer.

“My name is Violet,” she said in a soft voice. “I don’t know any Jessica.” She shook her head as if to back up the point, but Rowan knew she wasn’t mistaken. Just as she recognized Ava, the resemblance to Jessica’s former self was still as plain as ever.

“I don’t care what you call yourself now or who they say you are. I know you, Jessica. Look at me. I’m Rowan. Don’t you remember me?” Rowan was sure if she just looked at her, she would start to remember. They had been closer than sisters for over half their lives.

Jessica glanced up at her and drew in an audible breath. But she quickly turned away. “You’ve been sent to trick me.”

Rowan wasn’t going to let her look away. She walked over and placed her hand on Jessica’s arm, which was so thin she could feel the bones in her wrist sticking out. “No, I haven’t been sent to trick you. Some men from here smashed into my car. They ran me off the road. They brought me here because they know we’re onto them. They know that we found this place. Jess, it’s me! I’m here. I’m real.”

Jessica shook her head and pulled away. “I’m Violet.”

Rowan closed her eyes and let go of an exhausted sigh. They had not only taken her and kept her, but they had stripped her of her identity, killing any former self she had to hold on to.

It was the saddest thing she had ever heard of. And one of the cruelest, though she knew it would only get worse. “Okay, fine. Violet or whatever you want to be called. It doesn’t matter. Tyler and Logan will realize I’m missing. They will come for me knowing I’m here. They will find us. Trust me on this.”

“No. No. There’s no way.” She turned, her eyes burning a hole through Rowan as she remained adamant. “That’s not possible.”

“Yes, it is. We had already found this place before they took me. We have proof that something’s not right here. That’s why the men from here were pissed enough to come after me. Trust me, Jess. They will get us out of here.”

Rowan understood her being confused. She had been there locked away for God only knew how long. She had probably given up the hope of ever being rescued years ago.

Rowan took her hand. “It’s me. Look at me, Jess. We never gave up on you.”

Jessica turned her face up to look Rowan in the eyes.

“See? It’s me, Jess. No tricks, I promise. I’m in just as much trouble as you are. So we have to stick together. Like always.”

“Rowan?” Her eyes searched Rowan’s face and recognition lit her eyes. “It’s really you?” She was so uncertain, even still. As if her eyes deceived her. But Rowan knew that she had probably never expected to see her again.

“Yes. It’s really me. Ask me anything. Or I can tell you something only we know.” There were a million secrets only they shared. So many memories, too, so many even Jessica’s keepsake box couldn’t hold them.

“Like what?” she asked, looking at Rowan to continue.

Rowan thought of the most memorable thing they had discovered when they were younger. “Well, how about this one? We laughed about it all the time. The fact that Ms. Opal keeps a flask of booze in the top drawer of her bedside table. We found it one day while snooping around. Whatever she had in there, it was so strong neither of us wanted to try it.”

“I remember that,” Jessica said, her eyes lighting a little brighter.

“And she keeps an old pack of her father’s pipe tobacco under her mattress. She takes it out and smells it because it reminds her of him. She said he only smoked it on special occasions.”

“Christmas morning,” said Jessica as a slight smile spread her thin lips. The moment of joy the memory brought was fast fleeting, and the worry returned, this time stronger than it had been before. “Oh no, Rowan. I didn’t want to believe it was true. But they got you too.”

Rowan realized the denial was more about not wanting to accept that she had been brought there. “It’s going to be okay. We have to be strong. But we have each other now.”

“I don’t even know what being strong is like anymore. I can’t tell you how many years I’ve been here. But I know it’s at least a few.” She drew her arms in closer. “The men, the leaders, they will never let us leave. They will never let anyone find us. They own us.”

“I meant what I said. Logan and Tyler know where we are. As soon as they realize I’m missing, they’ll know what happened. They are probably already looking for us. They will come here. They will get the authorities to force their way in.”

“Alden will kill them if they try,” she said, shaking her head as if it were no use. “Alden will just say you choose to be here. He always gets his way. He’s got the police in his pocket. Important people.”

While most of that must be true, Rowan realized she didn’t know the whole story. “They are coming for Ava and for us.”

Jessica’s suspicious look returned. “You know my Ava?”

She held her hand over her heart as if there were a gaping wound there. Rowan couldn’t imagine how hard it had been for her to be away from her child.

“Yes. Gosh, Jess. So much has happened. It’s how we found this place to begin with. I was working at the diner one day when all of a sudden I looked up and there’s the spitting image of you at seven years old standing outside.”

“She was there?” She shook her head. “How? Alden would never let her out of his sight. She is one of his own. He claimed her as his gifted.”

Rowan didn’t even want to know what that meant and figured it wasn’t good. “He didn’t have a choice in it. I think someone named Lilac, who must be Xavier’s mother, helped them to escape. Xavier was found in a shed at the Broussard’s farm. He had been there for days. By then, Ava was already at Ms. Opal’s, naturally. So, he was sent there too.”

“Lilac,” she said, giving another grateful smile. “She was my friend for a while. She knew Tolivar’s Nursery. She met one of the Seekers there and came here. But they tricked her. They trick everyone. It’s all an illusion, this place.” Jessica shook her head and pulled her lips in tightly as if she wanted to be careful about what she said.

“You don’t have to be afraid to tell me things. I’m not going to judge you.”

“Knowledge is dangerous here,” she said, shaking her head.

“She sent them with a man named Wayne Greene. Did you know him?”

She shook her head. “Men come and go. Especially the young ones. They use them up and turn them out to the fields. Some hope to enter the inner ranks, but that doesn’t ever go as they want. He kills them. I tried to tell Lilac, but she didn’t believe me.”

Rowan understood the lengths they would go to. “Well, whatever he had planned, it didn’t go well for him. But eventually, both children ended up with Ms. Opal. I knew Ava was yours the minute I saw her. She was like a little beacon of hope, that one. I convinced Tyler to help. And Logan too. We got a DNA match on Ava, but she wasn’t talking. Xavier either. We finally made a connection to Eden Society Herbals and the mark on the children’s arms.”

Jessica held out her hand, wrist up. In the dimly lit room, there was no way to see the details of the mark, but Rowan knew it was there. “Everyone with the mark is his property.”

“Alden Adams’s?”

Jessica nodded. “We’re labeled like fruit. Products for him to sell whenever he wants. You said they would come for Ava. And you tell me she is out in the world? How can both be true?”

“Well, she was. But not anymore. Some men finally came to get them. They attacked us and shot Tyler, who is thankfully still with us, but they managed to take Ava and bring her back here.”

The light faded a little more from her eyes. “No one ever gets away from this place.” She shook her head. “I’m sorry about Tyler. What Lilac did was careless. She should have known it wouldn’t work.”

“We will get out of here. You have to have some faith. And have some faith in me. I’m not stopping until we’re both free. Now, we have to put our heads together, Jess. We have to come up with a plan.”

Jessica put her hands to her head and pushed back her tangled hair. “A plan? The guards are all armed. And I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but most people he puts here with me, Rowan, don’t last too long. I’ve seen so many come and go. That’s why I didn’t make eye contact with you at first. It’s hard to look upon their faces, knowing their fate. And he puts them in with me just to make me suffer.”

“What does he do to them?” she asked. Rowan wanted to know what to expect.

“You don’t want to know,” she said.

Maybe she was right. “It doesn’t matter. The guys won’t wait. They will be all over this. Trust me.” She didn’t think it was the time to tell Jessica that she was seeing Logan. That was a conversation for a different time. 

Jessica gave her a sideward look. “I don’t doubt that you believe that. But no one came for me. Not in so many years.”

“It’s different now. They were all wrong when you went missing. They locked Logan up, and well, we all just sort of fell apart. By the time they cleared him, the police had closed the case, and you were presumed dead. They thought you fell in the creek and drowned.”

“I wish I would have,” she said.

Rowan couldn’t imagine the hell she had been through if a thought like that came so freely to her mind. She knew of her own struggles, which were minuscule compared to what Jessica had endured.

“You’ll see that I’m right,” she said. “You’ll see.”

“I hope so,” said Jessica. “I’ve never wanted to be wrong about something so much in my life.”

“You have to have something, some ounce of hope that you hold on to. A dream. Anything.”

“I do. I dream about it daily. I’m holding my daughter’s hand, and I walk out of this place. But every single time I look back, this place is burning to the ground behind me. I don’t want that either, Rowan. There are so many people here who deserve better. And seeing those flames? It makes me feel like I’m no better than him. In a perfect world, we’d all walk out together.”

“You will,” said Rowan. “You will.”

“No,” she said, shaking her head. “Because not everyone wants to leave.”

Rowan let that sink in as Jessica turned away to lie on her cot.


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