Grey shouldn’t be a color. It’s a void.
A grey sky hides the sun. The low clouds threaten storms, without the promise of rain or sun. There is no hope to weary leaves or thirsty grass. It is not darkness or light.
I shook my head, as if to release my restless thoughts. Grey couldn’t be that bad. I pulled my dresser drawer open and saw the grey pants and shirt I would wear: the same outfit everyone would wear today. I stared at the grey cloth through the dust floating in the lamplight.
No. It was a void.
I heard footsteps running across the floor right outside. The sound of a little hand knocked on the door. My brother’s laughing made me smile, helping my mind wander out of the grey and into childlike wonder.
They would not wear grey today. We wore this color to symbolize sorrow and hope; the light is never able to burn the darkness out. The Territory had found a way to save a few lives, stealing them from the death sentence of being labeled an Unnecessary. But the little boys who ran down the stairs didn’t know how powerful the darkness was and didn’t know that thousands still died. The boys would wear white, like the other seven-year-olds; oblivious to the fact that despite all our bravery, we were losing a war.
I changed quickly and sat at my desk, squeezed my pencil between my fingers and scratched out a few sentences. I wanted the thoughts to leave me and stay on the paper, not haunt me. I also wrote a few sentences about the growing flowers, how the sunbeam had traveled across my wall at dawn, and the jealousy of innocence. But then I kept thinking about the ceremony. I sketched a picture of the Arches on the next page.
In just a few hours, the leader of the Territory would announce the twenty-six girls who had trained for five years so that they could have a different name: a name that would define them forever.
Someone who was brave enough to fight a losing war to save one person.
We marked this significant event with both somber ceremony and elaborate celebration, a mixture of pride, mourning, and hope. For decades, the Territory had gathered all its members to honor the Protectors chosen each year and remember our history. But over the years, our scars had healed, so instead, it had become more like a party. The festivals and feasts marked the joy we felt in the only hope we had.
But today, all I felt was the scar. No one thinks about their scars or usually looks at them with more than a glance. But when they focus on it and remember the moment of injury and the pain, when they trace the scar with their fingers and remember the blood and fear, they feel queasy as if it were fresh wound.
That’s how I felt today.
The feet ran by my door again, followed by the louder feet of their older sister. They would be wearing white. I would be wearing grey. Megan would be wearing black.
“Enough,” I said, almost startled by the sound of my voice.
But then, I whispered to myself, “This was always going to happen.” I realized that talking to myself out loud was strange, even for me, and tried to calm myself calm by listing everything that would remain the same. The ceremony would be the same twenty minutes: someone would share our nation’s history with cheap and fast words and then summarize the reason for the Protectors. Then the Head Trainer would name the Protectors of the 188th generation. The festival would begin after the feast, and I would feel sad because we’d miss most of it. We could never afford the individual shuttle tickets to and from our local transport station and the festival lasted too late to make that trek at nighttime.
When I was younger, I had begged and pleaded and promised I would run home after the festival and wouldn’t whine about being tired. I still had crystal-clear memories of the one night I finally convinced my parents to stay until the fireworks. My father had laughed at each of my over-excited reactions. I recalled the strange details that only a child would, like how many lights were on each carousel or the name of the doll I won at the prize table. As promised, I had walked the entire five miles home without complaining. My muscles ached the next day, but I did all my chores and extra washing just to ensure our trip to the festival the following year.
But the next year, Olivia came.
By the time she was old enough to walk the five miles after the long day, Dylan came. And he came with Richard. In five years, we had become a family of six— a miracle, as some people proclaimed. Even with the Shield Vaccine, twins were so rare that people doubted they existed. Sometimes people looked at my brothers as if they were fairies or talking animals: a myth from before the Republic ever put the Serum in our water. When the Council had learned that my mother was pregnant with twins, they paid a specialist to come out every week until she delivered. It made our family famous in the Territory.
Today’s events would have the same effect. Strangers would whisper about us, but for very different reasons. This year, the Outskirts had someone who attended and ranked in the Academy, of which only prospective Protectors and trainers were allowed to attend. The Council would choose from them today. While they could pick anyone from the Territory, almost every Protector for the last century had trained in espionage, combat, medicine, and history at the Academy, staring from age twelve. There were about thirty girls accepted into a class each year.
But my mind was only on one member of this year’s class: Megan. Although she’d been a classmate at grammar school for a long time, she rarely talked to me. I tried to justify it. She lived far away from me. She liked different things. She was athletic, and I was one of the few into the arts and writing. She barely talked to anyone, there was no real reason for it to offend me – except one.
She was my cousin.
Megan’s name would be spoken after dinner sometimes, while dishes were being scrubbed. My little sister, Olivia, would ask my mother questions about my mother’s childhood: when she had lost her first tooth, if she ever fell out of a tree, or if she had any sisters. That last question created joy mixed with pain- a smile with eyes glossed but never crying. My mother had one sister: Megan’s mother, who’d held Megan for only four minutes before she left this world. It had crushed my mother, but she’d moved past her grief to care for me and to help Henry, Megan’s father, with a new baby.
My mother helped caring for Megan for weeks. But then, simple acts of love became complicated, eroded away by jealousy. Henry asked his own mother to move in and care for the baby as well. His mother resented my mother for living through childbirth. After Olivia and the twins, his mother retreated even more from our family. What should have been an opportunity to become a stronger family turned into scenes with awkward strangers with shared grief.
So, Megan and I were just that: awkward friends. There were a few times a year I remembered we were family. On Rosemary Day, when we would all give a flower or herb to someone who has lost a loved one, I would pay half my allowance for the perfect flower for Megan: a pink rose for someone who had lost their mother. Megan always picked a dozen violets for me, because I had lost my aunt, and she always wrapped the lavender in lace for my mother, who had lost her sister. She gave it to me at school, where her grandma couldn’t see her. I would spend the rest of Rosemary Day searching for more lavender for my mother.
The lavender from Rosemary Day still laid in a tiny jar from last year, dried up on a windowsill. My mother would stare at it while doing dishes. The unspoken grief haunted us all, for a person I never met but never stopped missing.
After her grandmother passed away, Megan was alone most of the time. Her strength, solitude, and determination ensured her spot in the Academy by age eleven. It tore Henry apart. She had ruined his only goal, to keep her safe, with her willingness to be a warrior. But at some point, he changed his narrative. It was unhealthy, even. He would joke about her taking down Sentries and officers and saving hundreds of pregnant women and Unnecessaries: an over-exaggeration to keep his worst fears at bay. Now, nothing could hold back the fear that Megan wouldn’t survive, and we’d get more flowers every Rosemary Day.
There was a rhythmic knock at the door. It was Olivia’s way of playing a game to tell me breakfast was ready. Her knock always sounded like a song, and I had to guess what it was and sing it as I went downstairs.
As I descended, I sang, “Row, row, row your boat.”
Giggles. Eggs. And…
“Is that bacon?” I asked in shock. Mom smiled in response.
“Aislyn, your father is usually not one to surprise me or spoil me, that’s for sure,” she sighed, taking a bite of the waffle with bacon on top, “But when he does, he has good timing.”
I took a bite and sank down into my seat, my own worry evaporating for a moment.
“Speaking of timing…” my mother continued.
“Not this again,” I sighed. “I told you, I’m not ready to make a decision.”
“Every test and every teacher says you are, and there might only be an opening at the University for a month. It’s a miracle there’s any at all,” she answered in a rehearsed tone. “What are you afraid of? Failure? Embarrassment? Being challenged?”
“Not in that order—” I said, without much emotion, but also not arguing.
“But you said you wanted to be a writer,” Olivia interrupted. “What’s wrong?”
I looked back at my mother. “Don’t look at me, Aislyn,” she said. “If a ten-year-old can realize you’re scared, you’re in trouble.”
“There’s a lot of public speaking and I’d have to enroll in a sport and there’s a ton of things I would never want to do—”
“To become who you are?” my mom cut me off. “You can’t run away from who you’re supposed to be. It’s scary, and it’s a lot of work, but if you don’t do it, I fear you’ll regret it.”
“That sounds poetic.”
“Because your father said it first,” she said, winking. “Heaven help me, I could never say anything like that, but he has better timing and far more—”
Almost on cue, my dad burst into the room and set off the usual hugs and kisses and screams that daddy was home. As they mobbed him, I turned to my breakfast, focused on the bacon in front of me and thankful that my mother’s lecturing would end for the day. I froze when I heard Richard yell out a question.
“What are those tickets for?”
Both my mom and I spun around so quickly it must have seemed comical. My dad grinned, getting the reaction he wanted from the six shuttle tickets in his hand.
They were orange.
That meant round-trip.
“We can go to the festival?” I blurted, making Olivia scream in shock.
“How in the world…?” Mom started.
“Sweetie, you wouldn’t believe it!” he started, ignoring Dylan who was straining to see the tickets. “Last night, the prep team from the Council came by the shop to get food for the feast tonight. They wanted venison because they wanted food unique to each region this year as part of the feast. They bought ten bucks and two does!”
Mom’s eyes widened, both surprised and suspicious. We always had enough money, but only just enough. I always imagined that she had a storm of worries raging, with rain made of grocery and clothes lists and claps of thunder that cried, “We should have saved it.”
Dad knew the whirlwind had started, too, because he got back on his knees and said, “It’s not just what they bought, sweetie. Instead of paying me the price on the tags, they gave me the two thousand they had budgeted.”
Mom let out the smallest laugh before she put her hand up to her mouth, forgetting she had no real reason to stop it. Olivia hugged my dad and tackled him to the floor. The younger ones squealed like crazy as he tickled them, even though they had no clue that in a single day, we had gotten about twice as much money as Dad usually made in a month. I forgot my age and jumped on the pile. He kissed me on the cheek amid the chaos.
Our home was always generally happy, but this was different. This was the bliss that made mom ignore us running in the house and left me too excited to finish breakfast. This happiness left books dropped, hands unwashed, chores undone, and me running upstairs chewing on the last piece of bacon. This wasn’t just home; it was bliss.
I could hear more talking downstairs, but I didn’t care. I quickly got my phone out and messaged my friends that I would be on the shuttle. I got my pack, journal, and pencils, then turned to the last page I had written on and realized I only had about ten pages left. A thought fluttered, and I silenced it out of habit. I only got a journal for my birthday and wrote in every inch. Each year, I ran out of space earlier despite writing smaller, but today was different. Maybe today I would get a different response. I ran downstairs and put on the most charming voice I could manage.
“Daddy, you know I noticed my journal- is really, really full, which is good because I’ve been writing so much lately. But there are only ten pages left, and since we’re headed to town…”
He laughed, then taking a sip of his coffee. Mom shook her head.
I stood still, already scared that my request would go nowhere.
“Well,” Mom said, “at least you waited five minutes.”
“What?” I asked.
Dad said, “Your brothers and sister had much less self-control and asked for every toy under the sun about three minutes ago. We said everyone can get one thing. And I already knew what you would pick. Aislyn, whether you want to finish in University or not, you’ll always be a writer. And we’ll always love you for it.”
His brown eyes were warm, in the way I knew he was always proud of me, and even my mom’s usually critical and challenging tone was soft when she spoke, “Still, timing. You only have a week.”
My dad winked and whispered, “She had to sneak that in.”
I whispered back, “I know.”
“Just don’t stop because you’re afraid,” my dad whispered. “Always take the step that makes you scared.”
I nodded, hearing the running of everyone coming back downstairs, with water bottles, bags, and coats. Those restless legs, now full of anticipation, ran to the shuttle station and jumped on the shuttle platform, not even still when they were only standing. Many people were coming to look at the twins, to say how cute they were, and to marvel at Olivia’s curls and her cute smile. Even at ten, her features were angelic.
I was invisible, as usual. There was a time when I would have felt jealous, upset just to be the wallflower. Over time, I realized I enjoyed being unnoticed. I saw the tiny details that my obscurity afforded me. I saw so much beauty in writing it down: An old woman twirling her wrinkled finger through Olivia’s curls, my mom’s smile at the boys’ excitement, Richard quickly eating the pieces of breakfast he had hidden in his pocket, a handshake between friends, a whisper that made my mom fight back tears. I only heard one sentence. “Your sister would be proud.”
I turned away for a moment, long enough to notice an indistinguishable expression of one man feeling too many emotions at once.
Fear, worry, pride, joy, loss, fatigue.
He was waiting on the other side of the platform, gazing at us from a distance.
I ran to him without hesitation, not thinking of what I would say. I would regret saying the wrong thing, but I’d regret silence more. What would I say?
Congratulations? No, it wasn’t an accomplishment. Megan was being chosen to throw herself into life-threatening situations.
Sorry? But no one should ever apologize for her bravery.
He saw me coming as I called, “Uncle Henry!” and to my surprise, he opened his arms and I crashed into them. Decades of awkwardness faded in moments.
As he hugged me, I felt his muscles shake even under the tight grip. He was grasping for something I could never give: anything that would make the next year bearable.
He released, and I couldn’t stop myself from asking the question, though I could see that his usually friendly features were tired, and his blue eyes were bloodshot.
“So, all the rumors are true? Is it a sure thing?”
Even though he seemed nervous, some pride leaked from his voice. “Well, Megan ranked twelfth out of the thirty this year. And they are sending a private shuttle for me, so…”
“Yeah, that sounds about right,” I said as casually as I could. But my stomach swirled, even though it was my heart that ached.
Casual wasn’t working, so I chose the most obvious truth. “Well, a private shuttle is nice. I guess you won’t have to deal with a bunch of people saying awkward things.”
“Yeah, I think that’s the idea. Some people found a chance already. They want her to succeed or be safe. To save lives in the Republic but not leave the Territory. But she can’t do both.” He looked off into the distance and nodded, deciding to change the subject. “How long has it been since you’ve seen her, Aislyn? Has it been since she left for the Academy?”
“Yeah, must be,” I said. “Four years.”
He was beaming as he said, “You should see how much you two look alike now. So much alike.”
There was a noise behind us; his shuttle had arrived. It was a small hovercraft, but it didn’t need rails like the transports we were taking. It was the specific shuttle Central Command used on missions. I had never seen one so close, and it made everything feel more urgent and real. A young man popped out of the shuttle.
“I’m Parker, sir,” he said, then looked curiously at me.
“See?” Henry reached out to push my shoulder playfully. “I told you that you look alike. She’s my niece,” Henry said, pointing to me, out of an unfamiliar gesture of introducing me. The co-pilot nodded to me, then looked behind me.
Henry had now seen my parents from a distance. My mom blew a kiss and waved along with the twins, Olivia yelled out a good luck, and my father held his hand up without moving, almost like a gesture of faith.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Parker said, genuinely. “But we’re on a schedule.”
Henry nodded and grabbed a small bag, heading to the shuttle.
I realized I was the last – maybe the only one – to talk to my uncle before he would sit under the Arches today to hear his daughter’s name called out. As he slid the door to the hovercraft closed, I yelled out the only thing I could think to say over the engines.
“I think she’s brave.”
He turned around slowly as I continued, trying to keep my voice from cracking so he could still hear me. The co-pilot froze, not sure if he should continue or let me speak.
“She’s really brave. Much braver than me, brave enough to go anywhere her heart leads her. And I think that means she’s exactly where she needs to be. Her bravery won’t fail her. It won’t fail you.”
The hovercraft charged up and revved louder, Parker hit the button to close the door. As it began to close, I saw Henry look at me through teary eyes, creased from the smile on his face.
Parker nodded to me, and then warned, “You should back up a bit, miss.” The door sealed. The co-pilot checked the front corner of the shuttle, sealed his door, and Parker strapped in within a few seconds in one fluid motion he had practiced a hundred times. I felt a warm rush of air, and then the shuttle blew past me. Henry had been crying and smiling, which oddly enough, made me sure I had said the right thing.
A much larger engine rumbled lower and lower, and I turned to see our transport arriving at the platform. I clumsily snagged my bag, journal, and pen. My mom was waving me on as I sprinted to her. But I slowed down and turned back to where Henry had just departed.
My daydreaming mind wandered to thoughts of the Academy, of running, breathing, and living for a purpose beyond this small community, hoping for a chance to go to the festival, or wondering how many more years to stay in school. My excitement from this morning seemed shallow now. But I dragged myself back to reality, where these simple amusements would always be the highlight of my year.
Being a Protector was out of my scope; it always had been. I was never good enough— not brave enough, fast enough, strong enough, smart enough to be a Protector. They never picked girls like me. I had never cared, except for this one moment.
I knew it wouldn’t last long; I would push it away.
But I couldn’t. The anger stayed. It froze me in time, ignoring the urgency of my mother’s voice calling me. I remained unmoved, surrounded by the grey steam from the shuttle whipping around me.
And I was angry that I wasn’t brave enough to be chosen. I was angry they never gave me a second thought. I was angry that Megan could go save the world and I couldn’t.
And I didn’t know why.