• Chapter one

    “Everyone has scars from their life.”
    -Wren Tigarian

    It was seven in the morning when Annabel Lincoln discovered her friend missing. She couldn't believe that her companion since she was seven was gone, yet there she was, on their large flat screen TV screen with the words "Call if seen" under her school picture from the year before. Brown hair, brown eyes, tiny face, Naomi hadn't looked her age at all back then and still didn't. If she hadn't known her for all those years she would have thought her no more than fourteen and not the seventeen that she was.
    Annabel's watched her mother gasped and put a hand to her mouth. Naomi Adkins had practically grown up at their house. Not once had they ever thought that abduction could occur in their quiet town where everyone knew everyone. Someone had to know who had taken her best friend. Annabel had a few suspicions of her own. A truth that no one seemed to know was that ten years ago Annabel’s father had discovered the remains of a burned down building. There were signs of some sort of experimentation left behind in the rubble. In the middle of the building, trapped in a small cell with a few other children was Naomi. She was a test tube baby or so it was thought. Naomi had never confirmed or denied it. Annabel’s father had never been able to track them down but there were suspicions that the other kidnapped children had been a part of the lab and that one of the nearby town churches were involved.
    "Mama, do you think that Papa and the police will find her soon?" Asked Annabel, interrupting her mother’s train of thought.
    Her mother turned her back and couldn't say for sure. Annabel’s father worked on the county police department. He had told her just the night before that Naomi was not the first disappearance. The surrounding areas had children missing, and they were never found. So far no connection had been made between them other then they all were orphans. The first child had been missing for five years today. He had mentioned a pattern but she hadn't been listening nor had she probably been able to understand. Naomi was out there somewhere alone and afraid. Although she was not her birth sister, Naomi was very much a part of their family.
    Annabel looked up at her mother with tear filled eyes as her mom simply stated. "Let's have breakfast." It was pancakes and hash browns that sat in the middle of the moderately sized oak table. Her mom had pulled out all the stops. A ceramic container held syrup and there were roses in the middle of the table. The vase was one Naomi had made for their family at Christmas as a gift. It was lopsided and the people painted on it were stick figures. The breakfast was Annie's favorite but she didn't feel hungry, not without knowing how her friend was doing out there. Did Naomi get breakfast? Where was she now?
    Annabel had picked at her food until it was time to leave. She wasn't sure she had done anything with it but push it around. Heading down the hall, she paused in front of a mirror. Something about the way she looked always reminded her of Naomi although they didn’t look much alike. Annabel was tall with long strawberry blond hair and green eyes. She had high cheekbones and long artistic fingers. Naomi was short with a layered look to her multicolored brown hair. She also had deep chocolate brown eyes. Her fingers, like everything else on her looked childlike and delicate. Perhaps it was their personalities that made everyone believe them to be sisters. Or it could be that they shared a wardrobe. She honestly didn’t know.
    Down the hall sitting by a window was a grandfather clock that ticked away the seconds of her freedom before she would have to leave. Only ten minutes left to dress and leave. She would do it in record time and maybe have a moment to stop by the church to ask about Naomi. By the time she had her coat on and was pushing open the door it was five minutes till she had to leave. When she opened the door and set foot outside, it had begun to snow and there was at least four inches of snow covering everything. Watching the soft flakes hit the ground brought tears to her eyes. The snow was so beautiful and reminded her of innocence. Something no doubt a scary kidnapper had taken from so many children in her area. Suddenly the snow took on a cruel note as she trudged through it, on her way to class.
    She swore every footstep she took was being echoed behind her but she couldn’t see a thing. No one was following her, and there were no other footprints in the snow but hers. It didn’t stop the fear and chills that crept down her spine. She tried quickening her steps and for just a brief moment, the echo didn’t match the crunch of her boots. In fear she ran the rest of the way to the park where Naomi and she had played for so many years. The swing set she passed was covered in snow and Annabel allowed herself to run a gloved hand over the snowy seat. So many times they had both sat on the seat, trying to reach the sky. She wondered when they both had allowed the bulling to get to them because she knew that they both hadn’t dreamed of touching the sky in a long time. The crunching of snow behind caused her to turn her head rapidly, and her hair landed in front of her face.
    “You shouldn’t sneak up on people like that with all the disappearances around here. Someone could hurt you.” She reprimanded. Her green gaze took in the sight of the young man before her. He was tall, taller than her even, with strong wide shoulders and what she imagined to be muscles underneath that dark trench coat. His hair was black and his skin a deep olive. What caused her to stare were his startling light green eyes. It was like staring into a grassy field.
    He seemed amused by her words as if he perceived her as no threat at all. “My apologies. I did not realize that you were so deep inside your own mind. What is it about that swing that draws you so?”
    Annabel didn’t say anything for a long moment. “Why should I tell you? I don’t even know your name.”
    “My name is Phoenix.” He hedged. His real name he wasn’t sure of but he didn’t want to lie to her when he needed her help.
    Annabel knew that was a strange name but she too was a stranger so why would he share a full or even real name with her. “I’m Annabel.” She paused as she gathered her thoughts, unsure how much was safe to tell him. No one knew how the kids went missing only that they did. It was possible that he helped steal them but she didn’t get that feeling from him so she decided to tell her tale. “My friend just went missing. We used to play a lot in this playground and I miss her dearly. She has brown hair and brown eyes. She’s really short and looks sort of like a child expect for her, you know.” She gestured to her chest shyly.
    She was glad when Phoenix didn’t look down. In the distance a bell could be heard echoing and she knew that she was going to be late for first period which was prayer. Something she didn’t find much fun in. “I must be going.” She called behind her as she ran.
    She had indeed been late to class and in doing so had spent the remainder of the morning in the church being forced to pray for forgiveness at being late for church. Inside of her mind she had rolled her eyes the entire time. Not once had they asked her to pray for the missing or for the hungry. The church had been so obsessed with making sure that she not miss one lecture on voting for the church so that it gained more funding. That was all they cared about, money. She honestly thought that the town would be better off without religion and it’s stupid church.
    About halfway through the day Annabel was finally set free from the churches lecture and was being driven insane by all the whispers about her friend. So many lies, and what made it all worse to her was that people believed it. Naomi had her secrets that she wouldn’t even share with her, but none of it was the dribble pouring out of the other kid’s mouths. Naomi had not run away even with all the bullies in school picking on her. They were wrong, Annie knew it. Out of irritation she slammed her locker shut and headed to her next class. She thought they wouldn't say such mean things if Naomi hadn't been deaf.
    "Annabel, are you listening?" Interrupted the teacher, he then proceeded to say something else though she had tuned him out so it sounded "blah blah blah."
    "Hmmm?" She had too much on her mind to think of the calculus on the board right then. She was startled out of her drifting when someone elbowed her in the side and whispered the number "Five." Without thinking about it she repeated the answer and was rewarded with a smile. "Glad to see you paying attention."
    Turning to the person sitting next to her, she was shocked to see that it was one of the guys from the football team. Normally Naomi sat where he was. They had always sat in the middle of the class so as to try and blend in. Why one of the jocks was not sitting in the back of the class and throwing paper balls at her she wasn’t sure. Jaxon, she thought his name was. She had deliberately ignored the jocks because some of them had said and done the cruelest things. She couldn’t recall if Jaxon had been one of them or not. Grudgingly, she admitted that he had saved her from detention so she should thank him. She wasn’t going to risk the wrath of the teacher again so it would have to wait. Hopefully he would leave with the class with the rest of the jocks so she wouldn’t have to thank him at all.
    The end of the class came much too slow in her opinion and it was made worse when Jaxon had been waiting for her outside the door even when she had deliberately waited for him to leave. She sighed and gathered her books to her chest while walking through the door, looking around to see if Jaxon was still indeed waiting for her. Yup! There he was, lounging against the door waiting for her.
    Annie turned his way and ignored her impulse to be ungrateful. “Thanks for the answer in math.” She was rewarded with a small smile and a look of surprise lit his face. He was rather handsome, she silently acknowledged to herself. But not nearly enough for her to forgive him for being part of the jock team.
    “We need to talk. I know you must have an idea of where Naomi went. She may have been kidnapped but we both know it started out with her skipping class and wandering off where she shouldn’t have been.” Jaxon turned his unyielding gaze on hers.
    Annabel’s heart stuttered and died as his blue eyes seemed to search her for answers. He knew. Somehow he knew that Naomi had a secret path. He knew that she knew the general location of it. Perhaps he even knew of her plan later that day to search the path in hopes of finding something of her beloved friend. “I don’t know what you’re talking about and even if I did I wouldn’t tell you. Why would you care about where Naomi went? You all picked on her like she was freak! She was just deaf!” Toward the end a tear rolled down her face as her eyes grew watery and her voice rose even as it cracked.
    Jaxon felt a wave of annoyance as Annabel included him in those who picked on Naomi. He had never once said anything against her! He had enjoyed having classes with her as he understood sign language and their conversations were always hilarious. Naomi had a sense of humor that he could appreciate. “Don’t include me in those who pick on the weak. I happen to only be on the sports team because it was my way into this school. I am not one of them.”
    “Naomi isn’t weak! She’s strong. So terribly strong for going to this dreadful school and having those horrible things done to her! She stayed for me! So that they would s-stop.” Annabel was full out crying in the hallway as kids passed her and laughed, no doubt thinking that this was humiliation by the schools jocks. It was embarrassing but no amount of wiping away her tears would make them stop. Annie refused to just stand there as kids gathered to laugh at her obvious pain. She bolted from the hall and out the nearest door to the school courtyard, voices of laughter echoing in her head.
    Crouching down just out of sight from the door, she finally allowed herself to grieve for the friend who was no doubt not coming back to her alive. For the friend who had stayed in a school that held her back to save her friend. Naomi had stayed to and defended her so that the jocks would stop picking on her. The jocks who were chosen by the church she hated to play on some stupid team. The jocks who used to grab her in places where she didn’t want to be touched. The jocks who had taken it too far one day under the orders of the church. The Jocks who had beaten her because her parents had the nerve to vote against the church having more power. The jocks who threatened to do worse once Naomi was gone and now she was. Who would protect her now?
    Sometime during her crying she had begun to rock back and forth as her tears froze trails on her face. Wiping the remainder of her tears on her sleeve, Annie stood and realized that it was beyond cold. The wind was shifting the snow making it hard to see. Turning to her left, she yanked at the door to the school only to hear a loud click as someone locked her outside!
    ‘Oh, god! I’ll freeze.’ She thought, her mind filled with terror. Her soft tan skin was suddenly pink from the cold and she could feel the bite of the wind. She had to move or she would freeze standing there. A thought struck her as she started to run down the freshly shoveled path slipping more than once. Naomi used to hide clothes in an old tree truck so that she had something to wear when the kids destroyed hers. She trudged through the storm losing one of her shoes in the first ten feet and luckily she had stopped in front of the tree with the hole she prayed still had Naomi’s spare clothes.
    Hair whipping about her face, she reached blindly inside the hole and silently wanted to dance when she found a small cold, but dry bundle of clothes in a garbage bag. With shaking hands, she pulled out; a brown leather trench coat, matching boots and gloves, a white hat and scarf as well as new thermal socks as hers were soaked. She left the rest in the bag and began to dress.
    Annie paused at her favorite pair of shoes. They were ruined and when she found out who locked her out she would- she couldn’t think of anything mean enough to do to them! Tucking her strawberry blond hair into the hat and wrapping the scarf around her neck, she felt ready to brave the path only Naomi knew by heart.
    Time seemed to have stopped as she just walked blindly around the area. Naomi had headed this way and she knew that she was on the right path, somehow she just knew it. The snow filled wind made small marks on the trees stand out. Trudging closer as the snow made it to knee level around the trees, Annie recognized the symbols. Someone had carved Japanese onto the bark! The carving were done in a way that made them almost blend in as if they were only meant to be found by someone looking for them. Just as she ran a gloved hand along the tree to read them, someone called her name.
    “Annie!” A voice called out from the direction where she thought the school was. Had someone actually noticed her missing? When she didn't hear anything after that, she resumed looking at the sentence before her. Murmuring the words aloud seemed to spark them in her mind. “Beware the Congregation!” Right below the kanji was a single word written in braille. It read “Run.” Suddenly a hand landed on her shoulder as she heard a sharp snap and she screamed!