Chapter Twenty-Nine

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There was a bit of confusion when May told the wardens who she was and who she had come to see.

There were hushed whispers and stolen glances from behind bullet-proof glass.

There was a request for her to sit tight for a few minutes, which turned into fifteen minutes, during which May counted her breaths and tried to look relaxed or comfortable or indifferent — anything other than the mess of nerves she actually was.

She tried, and failed, not to think of the things Lety had told her when she asked for more details about the Gallery Women's Penitentiary.

"Places like Gallery are for the worst of the worst," Lety said. "Murders, sex offenders, that kind of thing. The type of criminals the system thinks are beyond rehabilitation. Or who simply don't deserve it."

This hadn't sat well with any of them.

"Surely thievery isn't comparable to taking a life," Welkin balked. "Doesn't this all seem a bit excessive?"

"Well, Dawn was a repeat offender," Lety reasoned, even though she didn't sound like she bought it herself.

A loud buzzing snapped May back to the moment. A guard, probably not much older than her but significantly sturdier in build, stepped into the sparse beige waiting room.

"Follow me," she said, waving for May to come.

The guard's name, according to the embroidery on the front of her uniform, was Foster. Her stride was long and swift, heavy boots echoing down the secured hallway. May had to scurry to keep up. She wondered where they were headed. According to Grant, it would be one of two places.

"You'll either meet her in a supervised room with other inmates and their visitors," he told her. "Every group gets their own table. Or you might have to talk to her from behind glass."

"How would that work?" This was all so new to May.

"You'll sit face to face, the glass between you, and speak through telephone receivers."

May considered the options. The things she needed to talk to Dawn about were sensitive, and she wasn't keen on anyone overhearing. But bulletproof glass would be an extra layer between them, and May didn't really hate that idea.

Wherever Foster was taking her, it was taking a long time. She ushered May through a metal detector and performed a pat-down of her body over her clothes — both of which Grant and Lety had prepared her for. But there were more halls and locked doors en route to their destination than May thought would be necessary. Foster seemed to be leading her straight to the heart of the prison, and May tried to keep track of every turn just in case she needed to find her way back.

At one point, a door opened to a corridor that was open to the outside on one side. Thick, heavy caging separated the corridor from the yard it ran along. There was another fence a few feet from the wall, and on the other side of that, May saw them — the inmates. Women of all sizes and colors, all dressed in the same loose, navy blue prison uniforms, milled around the yard. Most were standing or sitting in small clusters, enjoying what was likely a brief respite in the fresh air. Others played a game of basketball while a relatively substantial contingent were actually doing yoga, led by one of their own.

A few of the inmates standing closest to the open corridor spotted May. She braced herself.

Whistles and yips erupted from a handful of prisoners while others watched on in only mild curiosity.

"Snack time!" shouted one boisterous woman who leaned into the fence. She punctuated her cat call with a lewd flickering of her tongue.

May focused on taking a long, deep breath in.

Another woman followed them along the fence, grinning wide and leering at May. "Aw, Foster! For me? How did you know it was my birthday? You shouldn't have!"

"Mind your manners, inmate," Foster barked.

May stared straight ahead and exhaled slowly.

They were through another door and back in the building before she needed to take her next breath.

Foster didn't say anything — didn't so much as glance back — she just kept marching until they reached a secure room that another guard needed to buzz them into. The room was a large rectangle adorned with only a table and two chairs, one on either side. There were two barred windows on one wall. They let in enough natural light to counteract the fluorescent lights buzzing overhead, but were high enough off the ground that one couldn't actually look out of them. Foster waved May passed her and into the room.

"Inmate Gardener will be with you shortly," she said, and then stepped from the room. She pulled the heavy steel door closed behind her. May's heart thudded almost as loudly as it did as it latched into place.

May, unprepared for this scenario, sat tentatively in one of the chairs. There was no glass, no other inmates; just her, the table, and an empty chair. She swallowed roughly. On the wall directly in front of her was another door, and she watched it with such intensity she thought she might singe a hole through it with the power of her stare.

Then, there was a buzz. There was a face — another guard — in the small window in the door. May heard a click. The door swung open and all May could think about was whether she was supposed to stand.

Not that she could have, even if she wanted to. Her legs had turned to rubber beneath her.

She watched the guard step through, and then aside to make way for the shackled inmate behind her.

May's breath hitched.

In shuffled a woman barely more than a couple inches taller than May. Her grey-streaked red hair was pulled back into a braid that hung just below her shoulders. She had the same dark blue eyes as May, the shade of an angry sea, and they were locked on the floor. Fine lines were etched around them, making her look older than she likely was. And her mouth was pulled down into a deep scowl.

May hadn't been expecting that.

"You two have half an hour," the new guard said. She left the room, closed the door, and the two women were alone.

Only after the door latched shut did Dawn look up. There was a hate-filled fire behind her eyes that made May flinch. But when Dawn saw her — when she really looked at her — she froze. Her frown split into an open-mouthed gawk and her angry eyes softened under a sudden wall of tears.

"My stars," Dawn Gardener croaked. "I know who you are.

You're my daughter."

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