When I caught up with Eva, she turned to face me, and said, “So, any burning questions before you get to your Circle?”
“Um…where are we? Underground? What about Central?”
“There’s only one stairway and one elevator that goes up to the Circles from where we are. Central is far larger than most people in the Territory realize. There are five floors underground, wide as all the Circles – even larger if you include some places I can’t tell you about. The stairway comes up into the garden in the center of the Circles and that one- and only- stairway also leads straight to the Central Hub if you go one floor down. You’ll catch on.”
We turned to walk down a wide hall that curved around long sets of doors and offices with open windows.
On the other side were doors with numbers and names that were much larger. At first, I wasn’t sure what they could be, but the second door read “Avery.”
“Are these the trainers’ rooms or their workspaces?” I whispered to Eva.
She looked mildly impressed at my guesswork. As the rest of the Protectors marched forward through the hall, she walked backward, trying to read my reactions as she explained.
“The left side are sleeping quarters. Their offices are embedded in the inner circle on the right.”
“So,” I asked, staring at the rooms, “their sleeping quarters are right next to their offices? It sounds a little intense. Do they want to make them obsessed with their job?”
“No. And by no, I mean yes. They do the legwork while you’re on missions. Trainers run all the EEs and Tech Handlers run station maintenance. Your handler will monitor you in the Republic if they can. You call your handler if you need an EE.”
“An EE… that’s an emergency evacuation, right?”
“Yes,” Eva said matter-of-factly, “and don’t think an EE means they get you out of the Republic or even Zone 3. It’s just Zone 2 or Zone 1 evac if you have a problem. They sometimes have to tell you to hold tight if there have been drones in the area. They also give you a pep talk now and again.”
“Isn’t that what your trainer is for?”
“Ha! No, your trainer is there to hate you and make you a better Protector by placing insane amounts of mental and physical pressure on you.”
“Why?” I slowed down almost to a stop. She grabbed my arm and pulled me toward her so I would stay close as we walked. She spoke quietly, almost whispering.
“It used to be, when they first built those Circles up there, that Protectors were trained differently, which is what the Council was arguing about. With the Republic’s kill order for any suspected Protector, and the public more suspicious than ever, a trainer’s only job is keeping you alive. The only thing is—”
She turned around, even as she looked like she was about to continue. I was following so close to Eva that when the line stopped, I almost ran into her. I wondered how much I would stare at her brown, flipped-up hair in the next few weeks.
Patterson explained the procedures to get around Central and our classes, then proceeded to explain the biometric security.
“You will need to place your hand on this pad to go up to your Circles now, but then the hallway cameras will scan and give you priority access to every location. Stare ahead at the camera. The scanners will record everything we need before you go up to your assigned Circle. You will watch the mandatory simulcast when you arrive.”
Each girl placed their hand on the pad and stared at the strange robotic arm scanning them as if it were normal. Patterson would say the girl’s name and Protector number. When he got to Eva, his smile disappeared. The computer was already responding.
The biometric robot said, “Scan complete. No I.D. needed. This is Evangeline McKinney, juvenile, daughter of Hannah—”
“Stop.” Patterson’s voice was short, as if his throat was tight. He let out a breath. “I’m still in shock you’re here, kid. Just yesterday I was yelling at you for running down the hall, stealing my comm, or climbing the challenge course. You’re too—” He paused, looking at the floor. “You’re not supposed to be here.”
“Don’t give me the ‘you’re too young’ speech, Patterson. It won’t end well.” She smiled, but then looked unfocused and phased. “None of us are supposed to be here.”
Patterson looked at her, and in a more official sounding voice, said, “Director override. Change Evangeline’s profile name to the 26th Protector of the 188th Generation.”
The computer arm blinked green. Eva nodded, then bounded up the stairs two at a time.
He nodded for me to move to the sensor. I stepped onto the blue pad. It responded by lighting up with my every footfall. I could see my breath in the blue light as if it were freezing outside. With one quick laser swipe, the readout displayed all my information, from my blood type to my heart rate to every inch of my body.
“Register Aislyn Williams as the 27th Protector of the 188th Generation,” Patterson said while typing something in his MCU.
The computer answered in a digitized, yet polite tone. “No previous information is recorded for this student. Are you certain this is not an error?”
For the first time, I really stared at Patterson. His entire demeanor and physical appearance was athletic and sharp, like a soldier mixed with a scholar. The moment I’d seen with Eva might have been the only time he hesitated to do anything all day. But he was hesitating again. His brown eyes seemed to be evaluating me, looking darker as he squinted.
“This is not an error,” he said loudly, almost as if he was trying to convince himself. “Add file. Title, 27th Protector.”
He nodded upstairs as the light turned green. I followed without saying a word. We walked up the four stories in silence. He paused and looked at me again at the top. The door opened to a near-blinding light. I looked out at the stone, enough to see the trees and the famous garden on the edge of the Circles.
I could hear my voice ringing inside my head. This is your chance; tell him you can’t do this!
I wished I were one of those people inspired by courage, passion, or a voice in their head. It would make the moment more meaningful.
There was no voice from the heavens. Only silence.
Then, within seconds, there was a surge through my heart—a burn in my hands that made me close my fists in determination. There was a push on my heel. I heard the echo of Patterson’s voice as if was speaking again:“This is not an error.”
I looked out over the garden. The walkway was lined with vines twenty feet high, climbing what appeared to be air— most likely invisible twine attached to the top of the wooden posts above. There was a small willow tree leaning over a pond. The air smelled of roses and lavender. There was more green than I had seen since summer in every field in just one hundred yards.
“It’s beautiful,” I breathed out, then realized it was an uncharacteristic thing for a Protector to say. “Sorry.”
Patterson said, “Never apologize for seeing beauty in this place. We remember it here. Or we’d lose our minds in sorrow.”
I gazed at the rock in one bed of the garden as we walked again. I noticed the names written and etched on them.
“Names of Vessels that died in childbirth,” Patterson explained. “There’s Protectors’ torches over there.”
I turned to him and nodded, finding I no longer wanted to look at how many rocks there were.
“There has to be over three-hundred… why are there—?”
“So many?” Patterson said. “Remember that many Vessels can’t carry a child to term. The rocks are meant for you to remember them, but also for you to remember your first lesson. You can’t always win, and you won’t. Don’t let failure play games with your head. Your head needs to be clear.”
In about half a minute’s walk, we stepped out of the garden onto the grey brick patio. The Circles were larger than they seemed to be from a speeding shuttle. I could only see six cylinders from where I stood because they blocked the others, each of them as wide as my house. What I also never saw from my shuttle seat were the vine and floral carvings that went up the fifty feet of the grey stone.
“The outdoor training forests are on the other side of the Courtyard. The Training Circles are all centered on the garden, where we are standing now.” He paused. “Which makes this a great time to tell you where we are. Well, where you stand with me,” he sighed, moving his fingers against his forehead, then stood unnaturally straight and still, his brown eyes now looking a little kinder than his demeanor. “I realize the disadvantage you have and how much you may have calculated your chances for survival. I don’t know your character, your skills, or anything about you. But I trust Eldridge. So, for now, I’ll trust you. My gift to you is that you don’t have to earn it; it’s yours. Figure out a way to do this, Aislyn, and don’t break that trust.”
“Thank you.” I added a quick, “Sir.”
“Your Circle is there. I walked you up because you don’t know the numbers yet,” he said matter-of-factly and pointed to the cylinder to the right, tucked behind the one closest to the garden. “You are the only Protector allowed in your Circle unless you invite another Protector in. You must give them permission, or else they can’t enter. You decide if you want the glass roof open or closed. It’s your arena, but it has only one rule. You follow your trainer’s orders, no matter what, every time. Most of your training will happen in the rooms of your Circle. Your trainer will walk you through the five areas in your Training Circle. These rooms are inside against the wall of your Circle. One is for sleep. Each of the other areas is for teaching specific subjects: medicine, history, tech, and physical endurance. The center is the largest space and for additional training. Oh, and don’t listen to anyone say that you’re taking up space. We sometimes use the 27th Circle to spar, because it’s usually empty.” He paused. “Just waiting.”
Where’s—?” I almost asked about Collin but remembered I wasn’t supposed to know his name yet.
“Waiting.” Patterson nodded. He looked impatient and very still again. The pep talk was over.
I nodded, as I had seen everyone else done. “Sir.”
“27,” he said, turning on his heel. I began walking to my Circle, listening to his footsteps run away from me. I heard him speak sternly, I assumed to someone in Central. “Coming down now, you better have audio online in ten minutes, Joel.”
My feet slowed as I approached my Circle. I stood as still as the stone in front of me, staring at the open arch with no door. I couldn’t resist placing my hand on the curves and bumps of the carvings in the grey rock. I saw the names carved in the leaves.
A breeze crashed against the unmoving stone and brushed my hair against my face. I stood in the archway, gazing into the structure, my brown hair and the sun clashing against the white and grey mats in the middle. I stepped toward the only other figure in the room. He was lingering, staring at the opposite wall and rocking back and forth on his heels, no doubt questioning his own right or ability to be there.
Collin must have heard me because he froze completely with my third step.
“So…” I started a sentence I couldn’t finish, not even sure if I was supposed to speak first. I stood, staring at his dark blond hair, wondering what he must be thinking.
He turned, the anxiety in his eyes disappearing only moments after they met mine. My fear lifted like a fog, disappearing to show the blue calm of a cloudless sky—the same color as his eyes. His face seemed chiseled like the stone surrounding him, but softer somehow. The last part of his hair curled up slightly. His brow rose a little as a slight smile curved his lips. He sighed.
“You don’t know what to say. Thank goodness I memorized my speech, or I wouldn’t know what to say either.”
I breathed out, and my lips smiled before I bit the bottom one. I wasn’t expecting for him to be so normal, and yet he was—how did Eva say the trainers looked? —perfectly toned. Collin went to step toward me, hesitating for a second, and then took a few determined strides to reach me. I relaxed enough to let my hands move to my sides from behind my back. He reached out his hand to take mine, and I tried not to shudder from his touch: the first touch my hand had felt since they named me a Protector.
“My name is Collin, and I solemnly swear I will do anything and everything I can to prepare you, to help you protect those who you choose to save, and”— he paused his oath with a shuddered breath— “to help you survive any obstacle that may be in your way so you may return. The world will begin again for you and whoever you rescue. But for now, this is your world.”
He awaited a response I feared I couldn’t give. Instead of trying to think of an eloquent sentence, I told him the truth.
“I should say something just as beautiful, but I can’t shake the thought that—that I’m not going to be able to do this, no matter how hard I try.”
“I understand,” he said, more sympathetic than I’d expected. His rough hand squeezed mine. “Can you try? Try to make this your world, and see if you can make a new one for someone else?”
“Yes,” I said, focusing on his blue eyes again as his creased brow relaxed.
He squeezed again. “That’s all I need. You want the tour?”
He released my hand, leaving me with a temporary confusion I pushed to the back of my mind. A part of me knew we had a schedule to keep and I remembered trainers were harsh. I was certain that this was to calm my nerves.
Each room in the Circle was how Patterson had described it. The rooms were shaped like an arc, built to be a seamless part of the Circle’s wall so that the middle area remained open. Every door was glass—even the room with the bed, although there was a privacy screen that covered half. The Tech room was full of wires, several tables with open comms, and four computing units.
“Tech is not as complicated as it looks, most of the time. You don’t have to rewire comms, boost signals on your mobile computing unit—or MCU—or show off like some other girls can. Your basic training will include recognizing which wires to disconnect should you need to use darkness as a cover, like cutting power to a building, for example. You will learn some basic maintenance for your MCU and how to communicate with us while you are in the Republic. We will focus on essentials, especially using commonplace tech in the Republic. Next.”
We entered the next room, which was the physical training space. He placed his hand on the doorway and nodded for me to go into the room first. His tone hardened as we entered, sounding more urgent.
“This is for your lifting. There’s a treadmill, though no one uses it much. I will not flinch on your running schedule. I will never budge. You will hate me, and I know it, but these girls can run ten miles in the woods in the morning and run another five later that day. I need you to get up to that level or you won’t survive. You also need to work on upper-arm strength so you can climb and walk long distances while helping a Vessel or holding a baby. Most Unnecessaries are children with flaws that have been identified at five years old while in schools. You need to be able to carry them. If you don’t train hard in this area, you risk their lives as well as your own.”
The room felt colder than the air in the center of the Circle, with several soft blue lights on the equipment. They shifted every so often and faded. I must have let my confusion show, because Collin continued in a conversational tone.
“The lights change to represent different times of the day. We can also alter the temperature and humidity. I can even make it rain in here.” He looked at his wrist unit, which I assumed was a small MCU. His voice sounded forced again. “Gotta keep moving. Next room.”
The next room only had downloads, books, a monitor, and a couch. “This is the history and culture room, or as everyone calls it, HistCulture. The desk is a workspace for you to plot out scenarios and stories based on what you have learned, which will be a good deal of the homework you will receive. The couch doesn’t come standard, just in case you go in another Protector’s Circle and wonder why you got special treatment.”
“I’ll have to spend a lot of time catching up in here, won’t I?”
“Yes,” he said. “At the Academy, they watch one video lesson a week over an academic year, aside from survival camp months. So, they have watched 150 hours of footage you have not. Obviously, that’s a lot to take in. It’s my job to prioritize what you watch, read, and are tested on so you have what’s most essential. You’ve still seen some videos from the Republic in school, so it’s not like it’s foreign to you. There are also listening tapes with language idiosyncrasies and different vocabulary they use. We call it Common Phrases. You must listen to one tape a day, at least, and then repeat it.”
“I could always listen to those tapes while I do laps, right?”
“No! Remember the quadrants! You must focus to excel in the task in that quadrant. That’s what every instructor will tell you. Understand?”
I stood still. I remembered that after this tour, I might only see anger for the next six weeks. But I had hoped, however briefly, that maybe Eva and the other girls were wrong.
“Do you understand?” he asked again, not angry, but urgently.
“Good. You can’t ignore that rule,” he said, looking down at the floor instead of at me. He looked lost in thought, temporarily confused, but maybe I just imagined it. He set his jaw and looked up again. “Since all the other girls have had some time together, I asked if one of them could view the HistCulture videos with you. I have your reports to complete in the evenings, along with mission prep and my training.”
He moved us into the last room. This room was white, sterile, and had two computing units (one an MCU) surgical tools poking out of a flap on an open backpack, and 3D models for fetus sizes inside a stomach.
“Medical. This is where you learn everything about pregnancy and birth we can teach you: what stage the mother could be in, any complications that could affect a mother’s ability to make the journey, and how to use everything in the pack to deliver a baby. In this area… well, to be honest, I am hoping you will be at an advantage. You’ve seen three babies born, right?”
“Well, yes, but I got sick at the C-section with the twins.”
His voice contained a controlled disappointment. “Okay then.”
An alarm beeped on his watch. He hit a button, still looking at me as if waiting for the punchline.
“Is it time?” he asked, lifting the watch up from his wrist.
“Yep,” a voice said, “We’re all a little stressed, but still running on time despite all the crazy new decisions, including new Head Trainers, new Protectors, and… you know… you.”
“Yeah, thanks for that,” he said, turning away. “What’s up, Sam? Simulcast still on?”
“Yeah, but you have to move rooms,” Sam said. “I had to set up that Circle in twelve hours, all secret and silent after Eldridge banged on my door at midnight, dude. I’m not getting a return signal from the Med monitor. Is it on?”
“Yes.” Collin sounded irritated as he moved toward it. It was on, but all that appeared were different colors of static.
“Well, I’ll send it to the HistCulture room instead, since it’s receiving a signal,” Sam said. “And no worries. Let’s all pretend none of us are messing anything up today, especially you. But especially me. And I need that paperwork. It’s twenty pages, so drink coffee and get it done. Sam, out.”
I was smiling at Sam’s last comment, until I noticed that Collin was still staring at his wrist. I thought about my day so far. His day wasn’t going much better. Since I couldn’t tell him it would be okay (I had to remember to respect him, fear him, or hate him), I decided on a different approach.
“Thank you for explaining everything. And thank Sam for getting the room ready. It couldn’t have been easy.” I paused before saying, “It couldn’t have been easy for… anyone who had to change everything last minute. I’m sorry.”
“You don’t have to apologize, 27,” he said, though I saw his jaw twitch and relax. “But thank you, Aislyn.”
He nodded, and we walked to HistCulture. I took a chance to keep the conversation going. “Is Sam Tech? Or is he… my Tech?” I asked, hoping he would understand.
“Sam is Tech, and yes¬, he is your Handler,” he answered. “Any time you call into Central, it will go to Sam or Liam, his assistant, who makes sure Sam sleeps once in a while. You’ll get to see them tomorrow.”
By the time we entered the room, the monitor was on, displaying the Territory’s flag with a timer in the corner counting down from five seconds until Patterson appeared on the screen. “Hello, Protectors, trainers, Council members, Hand, and support team members. Today, we announced the twenty-seven Protectors of the 188th Generation. Now, as many of you know, we expect many more trials this year, as well as the unique trials that come with a Jubilee year.”
I shuddered as I remembered detailed stories and horrible news reports reviewed in school history classes. Jubilee Years had horrible new laws and standards from the Republic, especially for Protectors. The statistics Patterson reported in the first few minutes made me feel defeated. More Protectors had been killed. More Vessels hadn’t made it home. More Unnecessaries were entrapping Protectors. More death.
Then, Patterson shifted, trying to share more of the success stories. He spoke for ten minutes, with a hundred images of children that had been saved in previous years. But I barely saw the images or heard the words. I felt numb with fear.
Until I saw Olivia in a picture.
She was in her school dress, standing next to her friend McKayla, an Unnecessary who was saved five years ago. He was mentioning the details of her escape, but I ignored him—though not because of fear this time. Because of Olivia. She played with McKayla almost every day, and loved her, even though she was bullied sometimes because of it.
I struggled to see past Olivia’s face, but couldn’t.
Olivia was already more of a hero than I was, because she had loved someone and would do anything to help her.
The next image was a Vessel holding her baby. And then, all I saw was Olivia, in every other face Patterson placed on a screen in the minutes that followed.
They were all sentenced to death for daring to be alive.
And something else replaced the fear. Anger burned it out.
I regretted ever being afraid of anything and scolded myself for my selfishness and uncertainty.
“You okay?” Collin asked. I saw him smile a little as I whispered my response.
“No. But I don’t need to be okay. Not anymore.”
Hours later, at the banquet, I was still thinking about my declaration—along with all my regrets.
I regretted not asking who had created the beautiful white dress I wore when I found it hung in my closet. I regretted only getting a wave from Megan instead of a hug as we lined up for the feast. I regretted not having the curiosity or courage to ask my mother if she ever foresaw this fate. I regretted not hearing Eldridge’s speech because the twins swapping food under the table had mesmerized me.
But I didn’t regret the kisses, or bouncing her on my knee, or hearing the words “don’t be afraid” from Olivia, or twirling in my dress a few times. I didn’t regret writing my name under the table in ink, wondering if it would be the last time I would ever write it.
From then on, I was 27. Even Collin was calling me that.
The beauty and regret met and danced around my head all night long.
The media stayed away from our table thanks to Patterson, who assured me I would have privacy. All the other Protectors sat at a large table, with thirteen on either side of Eldridge, who sat in the center with Patterson and Hannah beside him. So, most of the attention was diverted to more willing participants, like Tessa and Abby, who did several interviews and posed for pictures more than a dozen times. At one point, Collin walked over to the table and introduced himself. He asked my mother to pack a bag for me with some personal items and said Liam would pick it up in the morning.
Everyone ate the food, applauded the speeches, and left the tables for the festival. The Protectors began to return to their Circles. I choked out a breath thinking the goodbyes would start, then I noticed Eldridge walking closer to our table. He gestured for me to come over to him, which I did.
“You can have an extra few minutes, 27,” he said with a smile. “I need to talk to Collin, apparently.”
My eyes searched for Collin. When I found him, I could tell something was wrong. His expression was tense as he argued with a very expressive Avery. Hannah interjected, then stopped to glare at Eldridge and me. She didn’t need to say a word for me to know that she blamed me for all the words being spoken. Collin’s tone sounded defensive, but I couldn’t make out any words.
“I’m not supposed to ask what’s going on, am I?”
“Well, my dear,” Eldridge sighed, “I suppose asking is okay, but expecting an answer would be less likely.”
“I thought you wanted me to be curious,” I said sarcastically.
“And so I do,” Eldridge smiled. “To that end, I have one gift that will make up for tonight’s forbidden question and for a year away from your underestimated, beautiful, ordinary life—which was apparently more interesting than my speech.”
I swallowed, feeling a little more nervous. “What is that?”
“An answer. An answer to many other questions. To feed your curiosity whenever you may find yourself either bored or in need of life-altering wisdom.”
Even as I heard his words, I was still a little unsure of what he was offering.
“So, when I have a question, I can just come to you?”
He laughed, which he stifled as he spoke. “My dear, I am slightly important, I’m told. I’m technically running a country and an undercover operation to steal hundreds of lives from their oppressors. But being in charge also gives one some clout to do things like choosing a 27th Protector and talk to them whenever I want. So yes, I’d pause all of it to answer one question. Your brothers inspired me, I guess, to do as much as I can and get away with it. Maybe they were more inspiring than my speech after all.”
With a solemn look that then turned into a playful wink, he left the now-empty room.
Collin and Avery must have taken their argument elsewhere.
I didn’t know what to say as I came back to the table. Would there be a teary goodbye, a lot of runny noses, questions I couldn’t answer? But there were just giggles to a joke I missed, and a smile from my mother when I told her I had twenty more minutes. Dad resolved my silent debate with a question.
“What if you weren’t afraid? What if it was just another twenty minutes?” he asked, but my mother’s face looked weary and scared now. The three of us knew that this still might be the last twenty minutes with them I’d ever have.
“But you’re not afraid, are you?” Richard said, looking at me like he had all night, as if I were a hero from one of his comic books. He was then hit with another grape Dylan threw from under the table.
“Yes, but someone who is very wise once told me that I should take the next step, even if I’m scared.”
My father’s lip quivered, but he bit it.
Richard shrugged. “That sounds like a Dad sentence. I thought you said it was someone wise.”
Olivia spit out her water she was drinking. I laughed so hard that I missed a few moments of Dad chasing them, tackling and tickling as he ran around the table. I asked Olivia to repeat her lists of jokes from school. We played our game; I sat under the table and Olivia knocked rhythmically on the tabletop instead of my bedroom door. I played hide and seek in a dress made of the white silk, which I dirtied by climbing under the hundreds of tables in the room. More beauty and regret crashed into each other until all I could hear was the echo of laughter that hid the silent tears.
And before I knew it, I was in front of my Circle again.
With every step toward the back of the room, there was an empty echo through the ceilings out into the stars. I could hear the laughter, screams, and excitement from the carnival.
I wasn’t going.
I wasn’t getting another notebook.
I wouldn’t write tomorrow.
I wouldn’t be watering my daisy.
I wouldn’t be packing up for the spring semester.
I wouldn’t taste wood as I chewed my pencil.
“Get some sleep, 27.”
While Collin was the only other one allowed in the Circle, his voice still startled me.
I swallowed. “I can’t.”
“I figured. I have something that might help.” His eyes softened as he pulled out a strange, worn book with ink on the edge of the pages. “After the first seventy years of the Protectors’ missions, they put together a book of advice. Everyone gets a digital copy, of the Protector’s journal on their MCU, but there’s one copy—just one—that’s still paper and ink.”
My fingers grazed the worn leather book—though not very worn for something a hundred years old. I opened it up, and there were words: handwritten, some meticulous, some messy and yet all perfect. I flipped through ivory pages until I got to the first. There was a note written in the margin with a pencil, fading but still readable. I stared in disbelief and noted the signature.
“The first 27th Protector, and the second, and…”
“This journal,” he said without moving, “was passed on to every 27th Protector. And it is the only one allowed to be altered, added to, or written in. The rest are all digitized now. Only those named as 27th have ever looked inside. It is your link to them and a part of your legacy now.”
He walked away, saying nothing more. I changed out of my outfit into what I was guessing were my night clothes. They were smooth linen and felt amazing on my skin. It was white. As I looked through my whole wardrobe, I noticed all of it was white. No more grey; no more in-between.
I sat on the bed and opened the journal. My head was full of random thoughts—some accusing, some full of fear, some making excuses. I read the words scribbled an age ago by someone like me, chosen instead of resolute. I read the note in the margins again.
You are asked so many times in life to help. Voices whispered or screamed or silent: “Will you help me?” You say, “I would love to,” and you move on, leaving an awkward silence. Hope deferred. Today, someone asked me for help. It was more complicated, but not really. Someone named me the 27th Protector. They asked me to help. And I found myself responding with the words I usually say. “I would love to.” There was a reason not to, so I would usually say that. But in the silence, I spoke three more words that changed everything. “I would love to. So, I will.”
Those last three words echoed through my exhausted mind. I closed the book and lay down, eager for the bliss of sleep. But those three words escaped from my lips to fill the horrible void she talked about, fighting all my worst fears with hope.
They asked me to help.
I would love to.
“So, I will.”