prologue

Lark

It was a chilly Wednesday morning the day they hauled Lark off to prison. Her hands were chained to her feet as the prisoner transport vehicle wound its way east. It was carrying her to the place where she was meant to be punished, but Lark knew that nobody could punish her as much as she’d punished herself.

The aisle to her left was crowded with shiny black boots, but the bus was silent except for the hum of the engine and the wind whipping against the side of the vehicle.

It wasn’t a peaceful kind of silence. It was a strained sort of monotony that caused Lark’s mind to wander back to that horrible night that had changed everything for good.

She’d re-traumatized herself so many times that she could no longer hold the memory in its entirety. It was as if her brain had shattered it into a million tiny impressions, and now that night came to her in painful, disjointed flashes — the whistle of fireworks, the stench of citrus, and the feeling of a smooth wooden handle in her palm.

For the past three months, Lark had been awaiting sentencing at New Mexico Women’s Correctional Facility. That meant three months crammed inside a cinderblock hellhole with cold-eyed women who would jump an inmate in the showers for the most minor offense. Now she was headed to San Judas Correctional Community — a private prison colony located fifty miles north of Santa Fe in Arroyo Verde, New Mexico.

San Judas was an experimental community that catered to first-time felons. According to the brochure given to Lark’s public defender by one of the facility’s representatives, the primitive community was ninety-five percent self-sustaining and allowed inmates to learn skills like farming, sewing, and animal husbandry. Prisoners grew their own food, maintained community infrastructure, and resolved all disputes internally.

Whether or not San Judas was all that the brochure promised, Lark knew that serving her sentence there was a lucky break. There were no cells, no horrible dormitories, and no correctional officers on site. Instead, inmates lived in a community setting and were given free reign of the 16,000-acre grounds. San Judas only admitted inmates they felt were not a threat to themselves or to others, which made Lark think that the other inmates had to be sane, normal people like herself.

But for all its advantages, accepting a spot in San Judas hadn’t been an easy decision. To be admitted, Lark had been required to plead guilty to her crimes and forgo any chance of parole. And because San Judas operated with minimal oversight, it existed in complete isolation. That meant no visitors, no phone calls, and no television privileges for twenty-five years.

Lark would be forty-five by the time she got out. Every time she thought about it, her stomach seized violently, and a surge of bile rose up in her throat. But if she had to do the time, she reasoned, it would be better to serve it on the banks of the Embudo River, where she could work the land, feel the sun on her face, and pick up some useful skills in the process.

An hour or so after they’d left the prison in Grants, the bus made its first stop at the new supermax facility near Albuquerque. She watched out the window as a dozen surly-looking women disembarked and shuffled toward the stark beige building. It had started to drizzle again, and judging by the column of moisture suspended over the mountains, an even bigger storm was rolling in from the east.

Lark felt simultaneously sick with dread and frantic with impatience. The thought of being trapped someplace for two and a half decades was almost too horrible to bear, but at the same time, she’d developed a manic sort of curiosity about San Judas ever since she’d been accepted.

When the bus turned back toward the road and merged onto the highway, she realized that the three women left had to be headed the same place she was. She couldn’t see their faces over the tall brown seat backs, but every so often the bus would hit a bump, and she’d catch a glimpse of glossy black hair that belonged to the girl a few rows ahead.

As the sky outside turned gunmetal gray and raindrops the size of dimes began to pelt the dirty windows, Lark sank into a pit of misery.

This was it, she thought. This was the last time she’d ride in a car for the next twenty-five years. She’d already cooked her last meal in her apartment, taken her last drive, and slurped down her last Starbucks Frappuccino. Maybe Starbucks wouldn’t even be a thing in a quarter of a century, she thought glumly. Maybe people in the future would only experience their coffee virtually.

The storm seemed to grow in fury as they drove toward Arroyo Verde. But through the blurred view outside her window, Lark noticed the vegetation becoming more lush and wild.

Her heart beat faster. Maybe her time in San Judas wouldn’t be that bad after all. The land there reminded her of the farm where she had lived for several summers with her mother and where she had worked last year from May to July.

Finally, the endless adobe wall outside San Judas came into view. It would have been impossible to miss. Twenty feet tall and at least twelve inches thick, it wound through the patchy field like a giant clay-colored snake.

The bus slowed and came to a halt beside a small outbuilding. Two hundred yards to her left sat three enormous beige buildings, all of which were surrounded by a large rectangle of perfectly manicured grass. At the front of the largest building was a sign that read “GreenSeed Global Research Division” in staid, corporate lettering.

Lark’s stomach did a funny turn, but she didn’t have time to wonder what GreenSeed was or why their facility was located next to the prison.

Lark heard the low rumble of male voices as the driver conversed with the security guard, and another guard inside the bus stood up and began barking orders to Lark and the other inmates.

“STAY SEATED! NO TALKING! DO NOT — MOVE — UNTIL I GIVE YOU SPECIFIC INSTRUCTIONS!”

But Lark could hardly absorb any of it. She was too busy craning her neck to get her first glimpse of San Judas.

She heard the loud thud of boots moving in her direction and nearly gagged at the overpowering stench of aftershave as one of the guards moved down the aisle, counting inmates and checking names off his clipboard.

“INMATE!” he bellowed.

Lark jumped in her seat and turned to look up at the guard glaring down at her. He was black, very clean cut, and had a shiny bald head framed by a ring of short hair.

“Yes sir?” Lark choked. She’d learned very quickly that it was best to keep replies short when talking to a guard and to end each statement with “sir” or “ma’am.”

“NAME!”

“Roland, sir.”

“THEN ANSWER ME NEXT TIME I CALL YOU!”

“Yes, sir.”

The guard let out a few irritated huffs before pivoting on his heel and moving back toward the front.

“LISTEN UP, PEOPLE!” he barked, turning to look at the three frozen inmates sitting before him. “When we get to processing, you will — disembark — in — an — order-ly fa-shion — and follow me down the blue line — to — be — admitted. You will be searched for contraband and given new uniforms. There shall be no PUSHING, no TALKING — absolutely NO funny business. IS THAT UNDERSTOOD?”

“Yessir,” mumbled Lark and the others.

“Ex-cuse me?”

“YES SIR!” they yelled in unison.

The guard sneered and glanced around as if searching for trouble. “Very good.”

Lark watched through the window as he disembarked and handed his clipboard to the man outside. They seemed to come to an agreement, and the guard got back on the bus.

They began to move again toward a heavy-duty metal gate sandwiched between two segments of the adobe wall. Just beyond the gate, Lark could see an electric fence topped with razor wire. Her heart sank.

On the other side of the fence was a place like nothing she’d ever imagined. Instead of lush rolling valleys with a beautiful river running through the middle, all she could see was a huge stretch of dirt with hundreds of tiny adobe structures arranged in a block.

Sweaty, tattooed men in dirty clothing were milling around a much larger building in the center of the square, and she wondered vaguely where they were supposed to grow anything to eat.

Suddenly, the gate began to move, and the bus rolled forward. They came to a halt in a sort of no-man’s land between the adobe wall and the chain-link fence, and the guard herded them outside with their belongings.

Each inmate going into San Judas was allowed one plastic bag full of personal effects, as long as they did not include food, clothing, or anything on the D.O.C.’s list of contraband items.

It had stopped raining, but the sky was still dark and cloudy. Lark was so busy craning her neck to look at the grounds and the squat tan building inside the walls that she walked right into the girl in front of her.

“S —” she began.

But the girl’s back had gone ramrod straight, and she whipped around to glare at Lark with eyes that were cold and murderous. It was the girl that guard had called “Wong.” She looked Asian — maybe Thai or Vietnamese — and she was furious.

“Bitch!” she hissed.

“HEY!” barked the guard, his wary eyes latching onto Lark and the girl at once. “WHAT DID I SAY?”

Lark hesitated. She’d learned that most of the time when a guard asked a rhetorical question, it was almost always followed by some kind of punishment. She stood stock-still, hoping and praying that he would decide simply to brush her off as somebody else’s problem once they entered the building.

“NO TALKING, NO PUSHING, NO SHOVING!”

Lark put her head down and continued to shuffle forward with the other two inmates. It was slow-going with her feet still chained to her wrists. She could feel the anger and hatred pouring off the Wong girl, and she dreaded the sort of welcome she could expect now that she’d already made an enemy.

They shuffled down a narrow concrete path painted with a blue line toward a heavy steel door on the east side of the building. One of the guards swiped them inside, and they found themselves in a long, narrow hallway where the blue line continued.

The girl at the front of the line stumbled, and Lark heard the Wong girl scoff as she rammed into the other girl’s back. Lark swallowed, but the other two continued their slow march forward.

They wound through the building for what felt like miles, passing dozens of locked doors with little brass plaques stuck next to them on the wall. These plaques bore numbers but no descriptions, so Lark had no way of knowing what offices might be housed there.

Finally, they reached the end of the hallway, where they found their path blocked by another locked door. The guard swiped his keycard, and they were ushered into a sterile-looking room lit by a single strip of fluorescent lighting with yellowish-gray tile and puke-green walls. The room reeked of bleach, but it was a welcome alternative to the stench of urine, body odor, and stale corn chips that had permeated the walls of the women’s prison in Grants.

One leering male guard with a patchy beard and thinning brown hair collected their bags to be searched and told them all to wait. Lark stood with the others in silence, shifting her weight from one foot to the other.

She really had to go to the bathroom, but she knew there was no use asking one of the male guards. The bearded guard looked as though it would only add to his enjoyment to see her wriggling in discomfort, so she had no choice but to stand there as the first girl was called behind the steel door for processing.

The whole ordeal took a surprisingly long time. Lark had undergone extensive physical and psychological testing to be considered for San Judas, and she assumed the other inmates had, as well. She’d already been photographed, fingerprinted, examined, and tested for all sorts of infectious diseases. Surely they didn’t need to do all of that again.

Forty minutes later, it was Lark’s turn. The guard ushered her forward along the thick blue line, his beady brown eyes following her every move. The door shut behind her with a loud slam, and Lark found herself standing in a small, cold room with the same hospital-green walls.

In the corner stood an ancient computer operated by a Latina with sharply penciled eyebrows. The name tag pinned to her ugly tan polo just said “M. Ríos,” and she didn’t bother to introduce herself as she began firing off questions.

“Name?” she asked, not taking her eyes off the screen.

“Roland,” said Lark.

“Your full name.”

“Lark Roland.”

M. Ríos asked Lark several more basic questions. She pressed each one of Lark’s fingers onto the electronic fingerprint scanner and photographed her for the prison database.

It all seemed standard and repetitive until the woman removed Lark’s shackles and coaxed a pair of Latex gloves out of a box on the counter. Lark froze.

M. Ríos was fiddling with something green and silver that was sealed in a plastic sleeve the size of a Band-Aid. It looked like an extra-thick safety pin, except there was a sensor where the spring would be on one end and a computer chip on the other.

“Arm,” she barked.

“What is that?”

“Your sensor,” said the woman, annoyed that Lark wanted to know what was about to happen to her.

“Arm!”

“But —”

Lark didn’t have another chance to protest. The woman grabbed her roughly by the wrist and dragged a disinfecting swab along the inside of her forearm.

She fitted the sensor into a silver instrument that looked a lot like a spring-loaded utility knife and slid it along the inside of Lark’s wrist.

Lark yelped as something sharp pierced her skin. She tried to jerk her arm away, but M. Ríos was too strong. Something thin and razor-like slid under her skin, and Lark’s arm burned as if the instrument was squeezing past all the tendons and sinew. Then, just as quickly, M. Ríos withdrew it.

Lark touched the spot where the instrument had been, reeling from shock and nausea. She could actually feel the sensor beneath her skin — two long pieces of metal attached to a mini computer.

A triangular squiggle of blood blossomed from her arm, and the woman slapped her hand away so she could swab the cut with alcohol and tape a piece of cotton over the incision.

Lark sat frozen as M. Ríos held some kind of scanner over her forearm and waited for the sensor inside her body to respond. Then, to Lark’s astonishment, a pale green dot of light appeared beneath her skin.

“What the hell is that thing?” Lark croaked.

“I told you,” said the woman. “It’s the sensor we’ll be using to monitor your health while you’re here. It reads your vital signs every twenty seconds, measures blood sugar every half hour, monitors your activity level, sleep health . . . You name it.”

Lark stared at the blinking green dot on her arm, astonished that no one had ever told her about this part of San Judas.

M. Ríos let out a sigh, and Lark’s stomach flipped over. She knew what was coming next.

“Strip.”

The next few minutes were . . . uncomfortable. Goosebumps sprang up all over Lark’s skin as she bent her body into awkward positions and coughed on the woman’s command. When M. Ríos seemed satisfied that Lark wasn’t concealing drugs, weapons, or a phone anywhere on or in her body, she tossed her a bundle of clothes and told her to get dressed.

Lark’s new outfit wasn’t the typical prison uniform. Instead of scratchy Polyester pants and a boxy shirt that was three sizes too big, the San Judas uniform was a gray scoop-neck T-shirt, a pair of brown ripstop cargo pants, and a canvas jacket that hit her right at the hips. She was also given socks, underwear, a plain white bra, and a pair of brown leather work boots with silver eyelets.

As soon as Lark had changed, the woman shoved her forward into another room with a long laminate counter, a sliding glass window, and a door that seemed to lead outside. It looked just like all the other doors Lark had been ushered through so far, but Lark could see daylight leaking through the crack at the bottom.

As she watched, M. Ríos unlocked the glass window and withdrew a shallow rubber bin like the kind they used for airport security. Inside was the plastic bag containing all of Lark’s belongings: a thin photo album, her mother’s necklace, an embroidered pillowcase that her grandmother had made, two pairs of sunglasses, Classic Hikes of North America by Peter Potterfield, and a field guide to native plants.

She gave the bag to Lark and walked back the way she’d come, leaving Lark alone in the room.

“Hey!” Lark called, feeling a sudden jolt of nerves.

But it was too late. The door leading back to intake had slammed behind M. Ríos.

Lark swallowed. What was she supposed to do now?

Then a low beep sounded somewhere above her head, and she heard a heavy metallic click that sounded like a bolt being thrown back in a lock.

“Exit the building and follow the blue line,” came M. Ríos’s voice.

Glancing up toward the ceiling, Lark’s eyes locked on a domed fisheye camera. She blinked at it for half a second before stepping forward and pulling down on the heavy metal handle.

The door swung open with a gust of wind, and daylight flooded into the room. Lark squinted and stepped outside, searching the ground for the thick blue line. Outside, the line was sun-faded and chipped, but it was definitely there. It led her away from the building along a crumbling concrete path, through an outdoor corridor contained by chain-link fencing.

Lark noticed at once that she was being led around the perimeter of the men’s colony. The corridor wound along a wide field, where neat rows of leeks or onions were sprouting from the soil.

She stopped. A man was standing about twenty yards ahead, and he was looking right at her. He was dressed in brown trousers similar to hers and a wide-brimmed hemp hat. His bare chest was covered in dizzying swirls of ink, and his dark shoulders were speckled from the sun.

Trembling slightly, Lark started to walk again, and several more field workers turned to stare at her. One of the men pushed up the brim of his hat to get a better look, and she heard a distant whistle and several muted catcalls.

Even though there was a tall fence standing between Lark and the men, she felt uneasy as she continued her march toward the women’s colony. The arm holding her bag was sticky with sweat, and she could feel her face and neck burning with nerves.

Finally, her little concrete path dead-ended at another gate, and her eyes located the camera mounted just above her head. Somebody back at intake must have seen Lark, because she heard another beep, and the gate slid open of its own accord.

Taking a deep breath, Lark stepped through the gate into the prison. The gate closed behind her automatically, and the world grew very quiet as Lark drank in the place she’d be living for the next twenty-five years.

The land there was green and wild, shaded by a smattering of deciduous trees leading toward the river. She followed the dirt path to a caged metal gangway some thirty feet long suspended over the rushing water.

The river seemed to denote the boundaries of the women’s colony. The gangway clanged and swayed as she crossed, but she was so fixated on the river and the trees that she almost walked right into another gate. The heavy steel poles were camouflaged by trees, and a hundred yards up the bank, she could make out a window of light leading to the colony.

Lark heard the beep of the gate, and a second later, it unlocked. Her skin tingled as she stepped into the women’s colony, and her throat felt extremely dry.

Lark walked toward the gangway, wondering what sort of reception she could expect, when a sharp, blunt pain shot through the back of her head.

Her knees hit the dirt hard, and the heels of her hands scraped the earth as she collapsed. Lark shook her head, trying to jolt her brain back to normal function, but she was too dizzy and disoriented to stand.

Lark looked up to see what had hit her. She didn’t see the boot slam into her belly until she was lying on the ground, hugging her stomach in pain.

Rough hands flipped her over, and another boot shot out of nowhere and collided with her ribs. Lark sucked in a cry of pain and squinted up at her attacker.

She half expected to see the Wong girl, but to her surprise, four strangers were hovering over her, their heads surrounded in halos of light. Two of the women were black, one was Hispanic, and another was so pale white she looked almost albino.

“Fresh meat,” said the pale girl, bending down to pick something up off the ground. It was Lark’s bag of belongings.

“Give that back,” Lark growled, trying to sit up but failing to lift her head more than a few inches. It was throbbing in pain, and she felt as if she was on the verge of a blackout.

The women fell into a chorus of cruel laughter, and the girl who’d grabbed Lark’s things tore the bag open and began rifling through it.

“Awww, you gonna be in trouble,” said the Hispanic girl, looking concerned for the first time since they’d ambushed Lark. “You know Mercy likes first dibs . . .”

“I know,” said the pale girl. “I’m just lookin’ to see what she’s got.”

“Hand it over, Amber-Lee,” came a cool, commanding voice from behind her.

Several of the women stiffened, and two of them stepped aside and turned to look at the newcomer.

A large, imposing figure in a floor-length skirt was walking toward them, leaning heavily on a cane. Upside down, the woman resembled an angry black lion. She had a wild mane of curly hair, strong, wide-set shoulders, and wide-set, predatory eyes. When her lips parted, Lark could see that she had a small gap between her two front teeth.

“Well?” said the woman, turning to the others expectantly.

“Here you are, Mother,” said Amber-Lee, handing over Lark’s effects with a sheepish expression.

“Don’t be greedy,” said the woman, snatching the bag out of Amber-Lee’s pale hands and sticking her nose inside.

She rifled through Lark’s possessions for several minutes, examining the books she’d brought with disinterest and pocketing the necklace that had belonged to Lark’s mother.

Lark’s insides bubbled with fury.

Finally, the woman who Amber-Lee had called “Mother” turned her attention back to Lark and examined her with a calculating expression.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“Roland,” Lark choked, still trying to steady her head long enough to stand.

“Not your last name,” said Mercy. “We don’t follow those barbaric prison traditions in San Judas. We’re family here.”

“Lark,” she spat.

The woman seemed unfazed by Lark’s tone. “Nice to meet you Lark,” she said. “You may call me Mother Mercy.”

“Give me back my things,” said Lark, pushing herself into a seated position and glaring at Mercy.

“You’ll want to show a little more respect for me and my daughters,” said the woman in a calm but deadly voice. “Otherwise, things could get rough for you in here.”

She flashed a smug gap-toothed smile and then strode away with Lark’s bag under her arm. Lark struggled to stand — screwing up the courage to run after Mercy — when the nasty face of one of her “daughters” appeared in front of her own.

Lark had only a second to take in the girl’s violent flashing eyes and demented smile before a fist flew toward her face.

“Welcome to San Judas, bitch.”

***

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