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Episode 008
The Fast Farewell

The Fast Farewell


3754 BC

“Careful with those,” said the blacksmith, but it was too late.

“It hurts.” Shay ripped her hand away from the intense heat of the charcoal. The tips of her fingers were charred.

“Are you okay?” asked the blacksmith. “Do you want to come back later?”

“No, this is a special gift. My grandchild will be born any day now, and I want to present this to my daughter after she gives birth.”

“I’m happy to hear that. Soak your fingers in the water. It will help prevent the skin from bubbling.”

Shay stuck her fingers in the wooden bowl of cold spring water. The pain was sharp, but the cold water soothed it.

“Pass me the coppel,” said the blacksmith.

Shay passed over the clay bowl filled with green powder, all the while keeping her right had submerged in the cold water.

“This will not do, Shay. You have to crush the coppel until it is finer than sand. You got tiny chunks everywhere.”

The blacksmith poured the green crumbles onto the large stone, then brushed them into a dent in the center of the slab. With a small stone, he pounded the tiny green pebbles into dust. He never lifted his stone more than a hand’s length but hit each tiny green rock with precision, until there was nothing left on the stone except for a fine powder.

“This is what the coppel should look like,” said the blacksmith, as he picked up a pinch and let it fall through the air.

The blacksmith collected the powder in a small wooden bowl and brought it over to the fire. Large stones stacked on top of each other created a waist-high pyre. He poked the fire with a stick before adding charcoal to the burning twigs.

It looked as though the charcoal would smother the flames, but thick white smoke seeping through the cracks proved otherwise.

“It’s ready,” said the blacksmith.

He sprinkled the green powder over the charcoal. It sizzled on the coals, and thick white smoke hovered over the surface. After blowing on the coals, lighting up the fire from orange and red to yellow and white, the blacksmith covered the green powder with more charcoal then smothered the charcoal with clay and sand.

“I pray that I gave you enough koppel,” said Shay. “This is a very special gift for my daughter.”

The blacksmith pulled out a pair of sticks with a leather cloth sewn around them. The leather bag had a small nozzle at the end, made from the trachea of a cow. He placed this under the clay and sand. As the blacksmith raised and dropped the wooden sticks, the leather bellows pumped air into the depths of the coal fire. White smoke seeped out of the mound, and the wet clay turned white and chalky.

“These bags breathe into the fire and melt the green coppel powder into a red copper metal.”

The blacksmith pulled off the dry clump of earth and scooped away at the charcoal, exposing the melted copper veins covered in soot and ash. He used sticks to pull out the solid veins of metal and shook them in the bowl of water. Steam and ash boiled to the surface before he pulled out shiny red pieces of copper.

“This looks like it will be enough for your daughter’s pendant,” said the blacksmith. “Is your mold ready?”

“Yes,” answered Shay. “I’ve been working on it since Kelli’s belly took child.”

“How is Kelli? Is she ready to bring her child into our world?”

“Kelli is a strong woman,” answered Shay. “Her first three pregnancies were hard, but you couldn’t tell with her.”

“And how are your other daughters?”

“My youngest, Aila, is great. She’s quickly becoming the best weaver in Kurhass. It’s my middle child I worry for.”

“What’s wrong with Breet?” asked the blacksmith.

“She’s getting restless, and I can’t blame her. I remember what it was like to be her age.”

“I honestly thought Breet would grow up to marry Beyor. I was shocked when he took a wife from Hasstan village,” said the blacksmith.

“If Beyor could have held on for two more seasons, my daughter would have been of marriageable age, and they could have had their own family. This pendant would have been for Breet’s first-born child instead of Kelli’s fourth.”

The blacksmith took the shiny veins of red copper and brushed all the dirt from the surface before placing the pieces in a ceramic bowl. He then scooped all the excess clay and dirt from the top of the fire and pushed the bowl deep into the coals. His bare hands were calloused and black with ash and burn marks, but he worked as though heat and fire had no effect on his hands.

“Where did you find this alloy? I’ve never seen anything so pure in all my life.”

“Down the river Kur. My husband was fishing, and I went to bring him food. I stubbed my toe on it, in the shallow water of the river.”

The blacksmith pumped more air into the furnace. He then placed thick leather mitts over his hands and removed the clay lid from the furnace. He then scooped the clay bowl holding the melted ore out of the fire. It was so hot that both his cloves caught fire as he carried the bowl from the furnace to the flat slab of stone.

“Place your mold on the stone.”

Shay placed the wooden mold on the stone, and the blacksmith poured all the contents of the bowl into the wooden mold. The glowing red metal filled the cracks and bubbled as it settled.

“The air is cool today,” said the blacksmith. “Your pendant should settle quickly.”

While they waited for the metal to cool in the mold, a commotion outside caught their attention. Dozens of strange-looking sheep were being herded through their village by several old men wearing strange red paint on their faces. At the back of the group followed a young muscular man with no shirt. He was covered in red and white paint, and he led a strong ox by a rope.

“Are they traders?” asked the blacksmith.

“Maybe they came from Hasstan to trade sheep,” said Shay.

“I didn’t think there was much to trade this time of year. Maybe they came for brew, or fish?”

“What about the young man leading the ox?” asked Shay. “He’s very… tall.”

“Maybe he’s come to Kurhass in search of a wife.”

A knot formed in Shay’s stomach that made it difficult to swallow. Her head felt heavy, and everything went black. Before she collapsed to the ground, the blacksmith took her arm.

“Are you all right?” asked the blacksmith. “You looked like you were about to faint.”

“I’m fine, but I have to go now. Is the pendant ready?”

The blacksmith lifted the top sheet of clay and lowered the mold into the water. The cold cracked the clay, and the blacksmith crumbled it away before handing a piece of red metal to Shay.

“It’s not as shiny as I thought it should be.”

“It needs to be polished if you want it to shine. We can do that here if you like.”

“I’ll polish it at home,” said Shay as she took the medallion and walked out of the blacksmith’s hut. “Thank you for your help.”

She never even looked back at the blacksmith. She had to get home before her daughters came out to see what all the commotion was about. She saw the strangers gathering in the center of Kurhass, in front of the chiefs, and around the communal fire. The elders were already talking with them. The tall young man was standing alone in the center, gripping the reins of the ox with one hand while he watched the villagers around him. It wasn’t until the young man locked eyes with Shay that she saw just how handsome he was. He was tall and strong, and he had scars all over his arms and chest. Some of them were cuts from knives, and others looked like claw marks from wild animals. He was a hunter and a warrior.

When the young man looked away, Shay turned and ran. She bumped into several villagers along the way, but never stopped to apologize. It was only a matter of time before her daughters would come out to see what was going on, and by then it would be too late.

“Mama? What’s going on?”

“Back inside, my child,” said Shay. “I’ll tell you what’s happening in there. Right now we need to stay where no one can see us.”

Her middle daughter Breet stood at the doorway and stared outside. The sound of sheep and people radiated from the center of the village, but from here it was impossible to see who was causing the noise.

“But I want to see what’s going on,” said Breet.

“Soon, my child,” answered Shay. “But first, we need to go inside. The elders don’t want any of us to see what’s going on until they are ready for us.”

Shay didn’t like lying to her daughters, but there was no other way to get them to stay inside and out of sight. Shay hurried Breet into the family hut and dropped the curtain behind her. The hut was filled with her daughters and grandchildren. The fire in the center was burning hot, and the air was nice and dry. Shay removed her fur tunic and placed it on the bench next to the entrance.

“What’s all the noise about, Mama?” asked Shay’s youngest daughter, Aila.

“Traders have come to Kurhass, my child,” answered Shay. “But they are wild men, and the elders don’t want any of the women outside.”

The hut was a big circle, with four main posts in the center to hold up the ceiling. Beds lined the outer walls, where Shay and her husband and all of the children and grandchildren slept. It was a beautiful home that her family had lived in for generations.

She stared at each of her children as though this might be the last time she got to see them all together. Her eldest daughter, Kelli, breastfed her youngest next to the fire, while her two grandchildren weaved baskets. Everyone seemed happy and relaxed—all except Breet.

Breet stayed by the door, listening to the commotion outside.

“It sounds like everyone is gathering outside,” said Breet. “Are you sure I can’t go see what is happening?”

“Not yet, my child,” said Shay. “We must wait for the elders to come get us.”

“Where are they from?” asked Aila.

“I think they are from Hasstu, or maybe Hasstan, but I don’t know for sure. But none of that matters right now. Let’s sit and talk, and wait for the elders to come get us.”

“I wonder if there is a young man out there,” said Breet. “Maybe they came here to find a wife.”

Shay’s heart broke with those words. Breet was eager to take a husband, but Shay was desperate to keep her at home. So she did the only thing she could think of.

“They are all gray-haired men,” said Shay. “Nothing you would be interested in.”

The look of disappointment on Breet’s face was evident.

“Sit around the fire. I will tell you a story I’ve never told anyone before. This is a story I’ve tried to push out of my mind for most of my life.”

Her daughters sat on their seats next to the fire and looked up at her. The family loved hearing her stories, but over the years, she had told them all, again and again, until the girls knew them by heart. But this story she had kept to herself because it was too painful to relive. Now, it seemed, she needed to tell it. For deep down inside, she might never have all of her girls sitting in one place together again.

“This is a story from my childhood, about the time my sister and I wandered off into the plains beyond the river.”

“Do you mean Aunt Sima?” asked Kelli.

“Not Aunt Sima,” said Shay. “My older sister.”

“You have two sisters?” asked Kelli. “Why have we never heard this before?”

“I had two sisters when I was a child. My younger sister was Sima, and my older sister was named Breet.”

The young women in the hut gasped.

“You have a sister named Breet?” asked her daughter with the same name. “Why haven’t we heard of her before?”

“When I was a young girl, my sister and I were quite the farmers. We would spend every day tending to the barley. We cleared weeds and pests, and always made sure the barley had enough water—but not too much.”

Shay took a moment to collect her thoughts. She could already feel the tears swelling in the corners of her eyes. It was painful to remember, but even more so to tell the story out loud.

“It’s okay, Mama,” said Kelli. “You don’t have to tell us now.”

“But I do, my child,” said Shay. “My sister Breet was older than me, and more adventurous. We would go to the edge of the fields to tend to the crops, even when we were warned not to. Our love was for the plants, as they were a gift to us from Mother Earth. You could never be too careful. Mice and squirrels and crickets love to eat barley. One day we wandered too far and were too focused on the plants to see the fox. It came up behind us and attacked Breet. He bit her several times on the arm and wouldn’t let go.”

“Momma,” whispered her daughter Breet.

Shay looked into her daughter’s eyes as she finished the story. “We fought and fought, but the fox would not let go. Finally, someone came to help and speared the fox in the side. It was a wild fox that foamed from the mouth, and even at the end, as it died on the end of the spear, it tried to attack us. We carried Breet back to the village, where the elders took her to the chief’s hut. They said her wounds were bad but that she should recover. But as the days went by, she got worse and worse, until the elders wouldn’t let me see her anymore. I still remember her screams. I hid in the forest and cried, and when the elders finally came for me, they told me I had to say goodbye to my sister before it was too late.”

“What did you do, Mama?” asked Aila.

“I hid,” answered Shay. “I couldn’t face my fears. All I remember is the look of horror and pain on my sister’s face, and I could not face it. The next day I finally worked up the courage to go see her, but she was already gone. Her crooked body lay twisted in the bed. Her mouth was filled with old frothy blood from biting through her own tongue.”

Her daughters stood up and went to hug their mother.

“After that, I did everything I could to block out the pain. I wanted to name Kelli after my sister, but I couldn’t bring myself to say her name out loud. We ended up naming you after your father’s mother.”

“But you had the courage to name me after your sister,” said Breet.

“It was your father’s idea. And once we gave you the name Breet, I pushed my sister’s memory out of my mind forever. But the trauma never went away. It just buried itself deep within my soul.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” asked Breet.

“Once you were born, the only Breet in my life was you. But now I feel like everything is being thrust upon me again.”

“No one is forcing you to tell us this,” said Kelli.

Shay clutched the freshly minted pendant then opened her grasp for the others to see. She was about to present it to Kelli as a gift for her newest child when someone came barging in through the front curtain, letting the cool air seep inside.

“Shay?” said one of the elders. “It’s time to go, girls. The elders want everyone in the village center.”

“They don’t have to go,” said Shay defiantly. “Can’t they stay inside this time?”

“That wouldn’t be fair to your daughters,” said the elder. “Everyone has the right to be fulfilled.”

“What is he talking about, Mama?” asked Breet.

“The elders of Hasstu have brought one of their warriors,” said the elder. “He came seeking marriage.”

Breet stood up from her chair and ran to the doorway. She looked outside and around the corner before turning to her mother. Her smile made Shay sad. Not because Breet wanted to marry a man and possibly leave the village forever, but because Shay had tried to keep such a possibility—such potential fulfillment—away from her daughter.

“Come on, everyone,” said Breet. “Hurry up.”

Breet dashed from the hut, letting the curtain fall back over the entrance. Her other two daughters stayed back and helped Shay off the bench. Once everyone was outside, the girls ran ahead.

But time slowed down for Shay as she walked between the huts. The sound of chatter grew louder as she neared the village center. Terrible thoughts raced through her head. She might never see her daughters together again. Why did the men from Hasstu have to come now? Why couldn’t they have come while her family was out fishing or riding their horses?

“Can’t Breet stay with us in Kurhass?” Shay asked the elder who walked beside her.

“There’s no chance of her finding a suitable husband in Kurhass,” said the elder. “All of the eligible men either have wives of their own or are too closely related.”

“She could be the second wife of one of the men here.”

“That isn’t something Breet would want,” said the elder. “She deserves a husband of her own. Besides, you know the elders frown upon such things; we need to trade with our neighbors to survive.”

“I know,” said Shay. “I just can’t lose Breet. Not again.”

“Again?” said the elder, stopping mid-step. He turned to face Shay. “This isn’t like before. You won’t be losing your daughter. She’ll grow up and have a family of her own: children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Isn’t that what you want for her?”

“I do, but it’s hard.”

“No one said it wasn’t. Choosing day is a happy day for daughters but a sad day for mothers. But think of the alternative. Your daughter would grow up without a husband, without a home, and without a family. By the time a man becomes eligible, she will be too old to have her own children, and when she’s old and alone, she will live every day in sorrow.”

“I know that, Father,” said Shay. “I want Breet to be happy.

The elder wrapped his arm around his daughter and walked with her to the center of Kurhass, where the entire village sat on log benches and the visitors stood in the center. The sheep roamed freely while the ox was held in place by the young warrior from Hasstu village. The communal fire was full of wood but was not alight. The elder women gathered straw and kindling and added it to the pit of logs, while the elder men counted the women sitting around.

“My brothers, sisters, and children of Kurhass,” the chief shouted. “Today our cousins from across the river have come in search of a new member for their family. Our tradition of intermarrying makes the bond between our villages grow stronger. Whoever is chosen by the man of Hasstu will leave here and start a new family in a new home.”

Shay wiped a tear from her cheek as the chief gave his speech. The elders from Hasstu spoke as well, and although they used the same words as the villagers from Kurhass, it was harder to understand them. When the young warrior handed the reins of the ox off to another villager, he stepped in front of the crowd.

“Will all eligible girls who wish to participate please come to the front,” said the chief.

Breet was the first to make her way forward, and she sat down in front of the young warrior. With most of the girls in Kurhass being either too young or already with child, there were only three girls who sat down.

“I can’t watch this,” said Shay. “It’s too hard.”

“I know it’s hard, Shay, but this isn’t like last time. This is different.”

Shay barely heard her father. She was staring at Thea, Beyor’s wife. The young woman clutched her pregnant belly as she sat on the wooden bench. Beyor stood behind her and rested his hands on her shoulders. Shay hated that woman. She’d come into Kurhass and robbed her daughter of her rightful husband. Beyor should have married Breet—not this foreigner.

The more Shay stared at Beyor’s wife, the worse her thoughts became. She dreamed of Beyor’s wife dying in childbirth so her husband would be free to take on a new wife. If Thea died, then Breet could stay and live in Kurhass.

While Shay stared at her, Thea suddenly winced in pain and clutched her belly. In that moment, Shay smiled. The thought of Thea keeling over and bleeding out would not only stop the choosing day, but it would also free up Beyor as a husband, and then Breet could stay here with her.

“Father in heaven,” whispered Shay. “Please make it happen.”

When Thea looked up with a smile, Shay let out a sigh. These thoughts were evil, and she knew it. But she was desperate to keep her daughter home.

The young warrior from Hasstu walked back and forth in front of the women. He was tall and handsome, with a long red beard and brown hair. His dark skin was covered with scars from fighting and hunting. The red paint under his eyes made him look like a fierce warrior. But Shay did not see him as a handsome bachelor; instead, she saw him as a threat to her family.

“He has chosen,” said the chief, as everyone cheered.

Shay couldn’t see through the jubilant crowd. She prayed for it to be one of the other two girls, but when Breet stood up, holding the hand of the warrior, her body trembled.

“Light the fire,” the chief shouted.

Women and men from Kurhass rushed forward with torches and lit the bonfire in the middle of the crowd. Within seconds, it was ablaze. The fire radiated heat so quickly that everyone sitting nearby had to stand up and back away. But Breet and the young warrior stood still, holding hands.

“To officiate this bond, the two will walk apart from each other and circle around the fire.”

The young man walked one way, and Breet walked the other. They circled the flames until they met up on the other side of the fire.

“When you meet,” said the chief, “you will take each other’s hands and continue your journey around the flames together, as husband and wife.”

Breet met the warrior, took his hand, and they completed a full circle around the fire. When they finished their circuit, they stopped and, still holding hands, raised their hands above their head. The crowd erupted into cheering and applause one more time.

“This will be remembered as one of the happiest days in Breet’s life,” said the elder. “And I know, for you, it is hard. Especially since this is the second time you will have to say goodbye to Breet.”

Shay broke down and cried. She did everything in her power to keep herself from running out of the village and hiding in the bushes as she had when her sister was dying. The memory was so vivid that she could hear the river, smell the bushes, and feel the cold mud on her knees. The sound of laughter snapped her back to the present.

“Tonight, we will feast,” said the chief. “We will drink the mare’s milk and eat cheese and tal. But, as is custom, the bride will spend her last night in Kurhass with her family before the long journey to Hasstu in the morning.”

A group of men carrying the gourds of mare’s milk poured cups of the drink for everyone gathered around. Shay took the wooden cup and drank the entire amount in one breath. It burned as it went down, and the drink warmed her tummy. She knew to be careful with the mare’s milk as anyone who drank too much often made a fool of themselves. For those unfortunate enough to drink too much of the mare’s milk were often poisoned by it.

“That’s it,” whispered Shay. “I still have time.”

“Still have time for what?” asked the elder.

“Nothing,” answered Shay. “I just want to say goodbye to my daughter properly.”

Shay left the group and wandered through the village until she made it to the edge of the village, where the trees separated the huts from the edge of the river. She already felt the effects of the mare’s milk and found herself swaying from left to right as she navigated the trail. The sound of laughter was now faint, but it still filled the air. She knew she didn’t have much time.

“Where are you?” she whispered as she scoured the bushes for the right plant. When she found the fern, she plucked it from the ground and found the white roots coming out of the bulb. She took a handful of the roots and dunked them into a puddle, shaking them to remove all the dirt and sand.

In the privacy of her hut, she placed the roots on a flat stone and pulverized them with a rock to produce a white paste. She used a fresh leaf to scoop up the white sap and pour it into a clay cup. When she was done, she washed her hands thoroughly with water. She knew that if any of the substance got in her mouth, she would be sick for days.

“What are you doing in here?” asked Kelli from the doorway.

“Nothing, my child, just getting ready for the feast tonight. If there is going to be a party tonight, I want it to be special.”

“Everyone is looking for you. The elders want to speak with the mother of the bride.”

“I’ll be there in a moment,” said Shay, making sure to stand between her daughter and the crushed roots on the stone.

“Don’t be too long,” said Kelli. “This is Breet’s special night.”

When Kelli left, Shay grabbed the mashed-up roots and threw them into the fire. As the roots burned and turned to ash, she looked at the clay cup containing the white poison. If Thea drank even a sip, she’d miscarry the baby before the end of the night. Then Beyor would need a new wife, and he could take her daughter as his bride. The warrior would have to choose a new bride, but that didn’t seem like a hardship. So long as Shay got to keep her daughter.

Shay walked out of the hut and joined the rest of the village around the fire. Everyone was laughing and sharing stories. The elders of Hasstu sat with the elders of Kurhass. But where was Thea? People came up to try and speak with her, but Shay never gave them a glance. Everything might be a little blurry, but she was focused on finding Thea.

Shay looked around the party, holding the clay cup in her hand.

“Mare’s milk?” asked one of the villagers as he walked by holding a gourd of the fermented drink.

Shay held out the clay cup with poison in it, and the drunk villager added mare’s milk to the cup without noticing a thing. Shay smiled and pretended to take a sip, and the villager stumbled away.

“Mother,” called Breet.

Her daughter ran up and wrapped both arms around her. Shay was so focused on finding Thea that she almost pushed Breet away.

“What’s wrong?” asked Breet.

Shay snapped out of her daze and looked into her daughter’s eyes. For the first time, she saw just how happy she was. Breet had a smile on her face that Shay hadn’t seen in years.

“Nothing’s wrong, my child.”

“Something is wrong,” said Breet. “I know you’re sad, but don’t be. I’ve never been happier. I’ve always wanted to be a mother like you and Kelli. And now I finally get to be one.”

“My child. I’m very happy for you, but now is not the time. I have to find Beyor and Thea.”

“Why? This is my night. Don’t you want to spend it with me?”

Someone behind them was a little too drunk and bumped into Shay, who spilled half of the drink onto the ground. Shay pulled the cup close to her chest. There was still enough in the cup to kill Thea’s baby, but in the stress of the moment, her daughter grabbed Shay’s shoulders and looked into her eyes.

“Mother,” said Breet. “Don’t be sad. And please don’t lose yourself in the drink again. This is the happiest day of my life so far. And it is only the beginning. Won’t you please be happy for me?”

Shay looked at her daughter’s smile, but as she did, she noticed Thea and Beyor standing a few feet behind her. Now was her chance to offer the drink to Thea. But then she focused back on her daughter, and her heart melted. Her grip on the cup loosened.

“I…” Shay was lost for words.

“It’s okay, Mother,” said Breet. “I love you too.”

As Breet wrapped her arms around Shay and squeezed her tight, Shay dumped the contents of the cup onto the ground.

“I don’t want to leave you,” said Breet. “But this isn’t goodbye. The elders said I can come visit every time they make the journey down here to trade. And you can come visit me when Kurhass makes the journey to Hasstu.”

“I know,” said Shay. “It just feels like it is happening all over again.”

“I’m not dying, Mama,” said Breet. “I’m going off to live my life. To start a family. Isn’t this what you wanted for your sister?”

At that moment Shay truly let go, and the sadness of losing her sister faded. She gripped her daughter as tight as she could.

“I love you so much, my child,” said Shay.

Another man with cups and a gourd of mare’s milk stopped beside the mother and daughter and offered them both a drink. This time Shay took the cup with both hands and drank the entire contents. After wiping the mare’s milk from her mouth with her right sleeve, Shay joined her daughter and Breet’s new husband. They sat, drank, laughed, and even shared a few stories.

The next morning, when Shay woke up in the hut, her head pounded from the mare’s milk. An elder came to their hut and woke them up. But before Breet left, Kelli and Aila presented her with parting gifts. Kelli gave her sister a knitted jacket made from the wool of sheep, while Aila gave her sister the finest woven basket she’d ever made.

“Everything is happening so fast,” said Shay. “But I know I want to give you this as a parting gift.”

Shay presented the copper medallion to her daughter Breet. It was bright red, and it glistened in the light of the fire. Shay had sat up all night, polishing the medallion with a cloth.

“It’s beautiful,” said Breet.

Breet held the piece of jewelry and marveled at how shiny it was.

“Thank you, Mother,” said Breet. “I’ll always love you.”

Mother and daughter hugged and cried before the elder insisted that they get going. Shay followed her daughter out of the hut and walked with her through the village in the crisp morning air. The men from Hasstu were in the center of the village, and Breet’s tall and handsome husband was waiting with his right hand extended.

“Kurhass will always be my home, Mother,” said Breet. “Until we meet again.”

Breet hugged her new husband, and together they walked out of the village. Breet brought with her two horses from the village: one for her husband, and one for her. As they walked out of the village and disappeared into the fields, the sun broke golden over the horizon and lit up the skies and the dew on the grass. The last star of night blazed for several moments before disappearing behind the light of the sun.

Shay was one of the last to come back into the village, but before she parted, she whispered one last farewell.

“Goodbye, my Breet,” whispered Shay. “Until we meet again. I love you, my sister.”



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