Grey shouldn’t be a color.  It’s a void.

A grey sky can hide the sun.  It threatens coming storms.  The grey, flat clouds don’t allow the rain to fall or the sun to shine, giving no hope to the weary branches of a tree or the thirsty grass.  The grey is empty, not darkness or light.

I scolded my criticizing thoughts. It couldn’t be that bad.

I pulled out the drawer and looked at the outfit I would wear.  The same grey outfit everyone would wear today.  I glared at the outfit through the dust floating in the lamplight from my dresser.

No.  It was a void.

I heard little feet running, then gliding across the floor outside my door.  A fast knock followed by a giggle made me feel warmth for the first time this morning.  My thoughts wandered out of the grey and strayed into the childlike wonder of the boys who ran past.

They would not have to wear grey.  We wore this color to symbolize sorrow and hope: the light never being able to burn the darkness out.  We mixed enough courage and skill to create a way to save a few lives of the thousands who died.  But the little boys who ran down the stairs didn’t know how powerful the darkness was.  They would wear white, like the other children; oblivious to the fact that while we acted with bravery, we were losing a war.

I changed and sat at my desk to write a few sentences about the growing flowers, how the sunbeam had traveled across my wall at dawn, and the jealousy of innocence.  I sketched a picture of the Arches on the page next to it.  I should have written a few words about today and its significance, but I decided that I would write later.  Today was not about me or my random thoughts, or the children downstairs.

In just a few hours, the Territory would give the twenty-six girls who had trained for five years a different name; a name that would define them forever.

Protector.

We marked this significant event with both somber ceremony and elaborate celebration, a schism of emotions only a few could understand.  For decades, the Territory had gathered all its members to honor the Protectors chosen each year and also acknowledge the scars the Republic gave us.  No one thinks about their scars, but when they look at them, concentrate on their injury, and trace the scar with their fingers, they can feel queasy, as if it was a fresh wound.  That’s how I felt today.

The feet ran by my door again, followed by the louder feet of their older sister.

“Enough,” I said, almost startled by the sound of my voice.

After the ceremony, I told myself, realizing that talking to myself out loud was strange even for me. I attempted to redirect my thoughts.  The ceremony would remain the same: 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 188thgeneration.  The festival began after the feast.  We could never afford the shuttle tickets to and from our local station, five miles down the valley, and the festival lasted too late to make that trek at nighttime, so we wouldn’t attend.

When I was younger, I 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 had finally convinced my parents to attend.  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 attraction or the name of the doll I won at the prize table.  As promised, I walked the entire five miles home without complaining.  My muscles ached the next day, but I didn’t grumble, determined to ensure my trip to the festival the next year.

But the next year, Olivia came.  By the time she was old enough walked the five miles after the long day, Dylan came.  And he came with Richard.  For anyone to have three siblings was rare, but twins were an oddity in our community, even with the Shield Vaccine and Shield Filters working to keep the water clear of the Serum.  People had heard of twins, but they were like fairies or talking animals: a myth.  When the Council learned that my mother was pregnant with twins, they paid a Specialist to come out every week until she delivered.  It had caused a stir in our everyday lives and made our family famous in the Territory.

Today’s events would have the same effect.  Strangers would whisper about us, for very different reasons.

This year, the Outskirts had someone who attended and ranked in the Academy for Prospective Protectors.  The Council based its credibility on the firm foundation that divine intervention helped them choose protectors.  While they could choose anyone, almost every Protector for the last century had trained from age twelve in espionage, combat, medicine, and history at the Academy.  There were about thirty girls accepted into a class each year.

But my mind was only on one member of this year’s class.  Her name was Megan, and although I’d known her in my 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 in the art track.  And because she barely talked to anyone, there was no real reason for it to offend me… except one.

She was my cousin.

Her name would surface after dinner sometimes, while dishes were being scrubbed and little Olivia asked my mother when she lost her first tooth, if she ever fell out of a tree, or if she had any sisters. That question created joy mixed with pain, a smile with eyes glossed but never crying.  My mother had one sister: Megan’s mother, who held Megan for only four minutes before she left this world.  It crushed my mother, but she had to move past her grief to care for me and to help Henry, Megan’s father, with a new baby.

But simple love became complicated by the most erosive sin: jealousy.  Henry asked his mother to move in and care for Megan.  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, who 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 always felt cherished yet tragic: held with open hands, gazed at in silence while doing dishes, dried up on a windowsill, placed in a tiny jar.  It created unspoken grief that 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 they accepted her into the Academy by age eleven.  It tore Henry apart.  Her willingness to accept her place at the Academy ruined his only goal: keeping her safe.  But at some point, he changed his narrative.  It was unhealthy, as he would joke about her taking down Sentries and saving hundreds of pregnant women and Unnecessaries, an over-exaggeration to keep his worst fears at bay.

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 the way down the stairs.

Down the stairs, I sang, “Row, row, row your boat.”

Giggles.  Eggs.  And…

“Is that bacon?”  I asked in shock.

Mom smiled in response, and I figured dad had let her splurge a little; small comforts to keep her worst fears about Megan under control.

“I know!  The only reason why-”

I didn’t hear the reason.  I never would.

My dad burst in the room and there were the usual hugs and screams and kisses that daddy was home.  I turned to my breakfast at the table as they mobbed him, focused on the food in front of me until Richard yelled out a question.

“What are those tickets for?”

Both my mom and I spun around so quickly it must have looked comical.  My dad grinned, getting the reaction he wanted from the six shuttle tickets in his hand.

They were orange.  That meant round-trip.  That meant we could go to the festival.

“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 enough.  I always imagined that she had a storm raging with worries like rain in her mind, with a clap of thunder that cried, “Six mouths to feed.

Dad knew that 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.”

I coughed a snort out of disbelief.  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 screamed and tackled my dad to the floor.  The younger ones squealed like crazy as he tickled them, even though they had no clue we had gotten about twice as much money for that amount of game.  I forgot my age and jumped on the pile.  He kissed me on the cheek in the midst of the chaos.  While our home was happy, this was different.  This was the bliss that made mom ignore us running in the house, left me too excited to finish breakfast- it left books dropped, hands unwashed, chores undone.

We ran upstairs three minutes later, bacon in hand.  I got my pack, my journal, and two extra pencils.  I 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 Christmas 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, and it’s 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.  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 about every toy under the sun about three minutes ago.  We said everyone may get one thing.  And I already knew what you would pick.”

Their feet came running down the stairs again, there were more hugs, kisses, and “thank-you’s,” with running feet to the shuttle station, and then restless legs of twins jumping up on the shuttle platform. 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.

I was invisible, like usual.  There was a time 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 just in writing it down:  An old woman twirling her wrinkled finger through Olivia’s curls, my mom’s smile at the boys’ excitement, a tickle that made Richard lose his breath, a handshake between friends, a whispered comfort from a friend that made my mom fight back tears.

I also saw an indistinguishable expression of one man, an expression that was too many emotions at once.

Fear, worry, a strange pride, joy, loss, fatigue.

He was waiting on the other side of the platform, gazing at us from a distance.

Henry.

I ran up without thinking of what I would say.  I thought with a tinge of worry I might regret saying the wrong thing, but I’d regret silence more.  What would I say?  Congratulations?  No, it wasn’t an accomplishment.  She was being chosen to throw herself into life-threatening situations.  Sorry?  But no one should ever apologize for what she was doing.

He saw me coming as I called, “Henry!” and to my surprise, he opened his arms and I crashed into them.  Today was not any day to be stingy or second-guess any act of love.  As he hugged me, I felt his muscles shake even under the tight grip.

Grasping for something I could never give: anything that would make today and the next year bearable.

He released, and I couldn’t help myself from asking the question.

“So, is it a sure thing?”

“Well,” and some pride leaked from his voice, “she 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.”  He looked off in the distance and nodded.  “Some people found a chance already.  How long has it been since you’ve seen her?  Has it been since she left for the Academy?”

“Yeah, must be,” I said to myself.  “Four years.”

He was beaming as he said, “You should see how much you two look alike now.”

There was a noise behind us: the shuttle had arrived.  It was a small hovercraft, but it didn’t need rails like the transports we were taking.  I had never seen one so close, and it made everything feel more urgent and real.

Henry had seen my parents from a distance and waved.  My mom blew a kiss and waved along with the twins, Olivia yelled hello, and my father held his hand up without moving, almost like a gesture of faith.

I realized I was the only one, maybe the last one to talk to my uncle before he sat under the Arches today to hear his daughter’s name called out.  As he slid back the door to the hovercraft to get inside, I yelled out the only thing I could think to say.

“I think she’s brave.”

He turned around as I continued, trying to keep my voice from cracking so he heard me over the engines.

“She’s really brave.  Much braver than me, brave enough to go anywhere her heart leads her.  And I think that’s beautiful.”

The hovercraft charged up and revved louder.  The door closed, but I saw Henry look at me through teary eyes, creased from the smile on his face.  One copilot yelled they were ready.  The door sealed, and I backed up on the platform.  I felt a warm rush of air, and then it blew past me.  Henry had been crying and smiling, which oddly enough, made me sure I had said the right thing.

I heard an engine rumbling lower and lower, only to turn to see our shuttle and engines coming to the platform.  I clumsily snagged my bag, journal, and pen.  My mom was waving me on as I sprinted to them.  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 and hoping for a chance to go to the festival.  My excitement from this morning seemed misguided and shallow now.  But I dragged back to my 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; it was being pushed away by logic and fear.  But the jealousy remained, unmoved by the wind and steam from the shuttle whipping around me.

And I didn’t know why.