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CHAPTER TWO - Introduces protagonist, antagonist, setting, tone, inciting incident, and primary conflict. CHAPTER TWO _______________________________________ Mallory They say life can change in the blink of an eye. Mine changed in the carpool lane. After I pulled myself out of bed, after the blur of packed lunches, signed permission slips, and kisses, I received an unexpected email while dropping the girls off at school. One I wouldn’t notice or read for another thirty-four minutes. Those thirty-four minutes on that fateful Friday were filled with blissful ignorance of how the life I had built for myself would start crumbling around me. It seemed like just another ordinary day. I drove with the windows down. The California sun hit my face, and the wind blew back the loose strands of my hair. I sipped my coffee and sang along to Train’s Drops of Jupiter album. I swung by the dry cleaners and picked up Ryan’s suits, returned a call to my mother, and waved to Rebecca, my husband’s administrative assistant, who I passed at the intersection of Broadway and Fillmore on the way home. I stopped in our driveway and chatted with our neighbors, who were trimming their annoyingly immaculately maintained hedges. If I had known what was sitting in my inbox waiting for me, I wouldn’t have done any of those things. When I finally was sitting in front of my computer, I didn’t recognize the sender of the email. It was from a generic Yahoo account, firstname.lastname@example.org, but the subject line was two simple words: Read Me. It was the type of email I usually disregarded as spam, but the subject line was so simple it caught my attention and made me pause. It came across as a pleading and urgent request from a friend, not the typical “Bad Babes All Access” junk mail that I deleted upon receipt. I clicked the subject line and staring back at me were two lines of text and an image that changed everything. Mallory, I debated sending this but decided I would want to know if it was me. This isn’t a one- time thing. Ryan has been cheating on you for months. I am so sorry. I froze. My hands shaking. The empty, nauseous feeling in my gut grew. Panic and fear swept over me as I hesitantly scrolled down to view the entire image. A grainy picture loaded on the screen, one that would live on in my head unwelcome for years and be recalled by the smallest of triggers. In it, my husband was in his office standing in front of his desk, not working. He was standing between the legs of his assistant, Rebecca, while she sat atop his desk. Her head was thrown back, mouth open in ecstasy. Even with bad lighting and a poor angle, his eyes appeared to be smiling while he licked up her neck. They thought they were alone. They were wrong. I could feel my face getting hot, the blood pooling in my cheeks as I stared at the screen. I closed my eyes and tried to take a few deep breaths to calm myself down, but it didn’t work. The rhythmic thumping of my heartbeat picked up pace and grew louder in my ears as I scrolled through the email and analyzed all the details of the photo, over and over again. Driving myself crazier with each passing minute. I scrutinized every piece of punctuation, every curve of their bodies, and every conversation I could recall having with Ryan in the weeks leading up to today. I scanned my memory trying to remember every interaction I had with Rebecca. Every time she answered his phone, added something to his calendar, or greeted me as I walked passed her into Ryan’s office. Were there tells I had missed along the way? She had been his assistant for three years. How long had this been going on? I would have been caught off-guard less if someone had driven a semi-truck through our house. After all, car accidents happen every day and are an expected part of life, but this betrayal was earth-shattering. How could he do this to the girls? What are they going to think when they find out? Who else knew? Were they all laughing at me? How long have I been lied to? The pathetic clueless wife. I continued spiraling and obsessing. I counted the number of words in the message and would later realize while lying in bed that night, that it was the same number of minutes it took me to open the email after it had been sent. Thirty-four. It surely couldn’t be a coincidence and must mean something. A sign. A warning from the universe. My mind raced days, weeks, and months into the future as I tried to strategically plan every action and counter-reaction that might happen once I confronted him. After several hours of my crazed examination of anything I could recall or get my hands on, I stopped and called Colleen. Ryan might have been my husband, but Colleen was my person. She answered on the second ring and listened patiently as I spilled all the details, my concerns about the girls, how the situation would play out if I ignored the email versus how it would play out if I confronted him. Then I repeated for the hundredth time, “I’m so embarrassed. This is going to crush them,” and she interrupted me. “Stop! Please stop it. Mallory, breathe and hear yourself. I just listened to you go on about how this would affect the girls, how you couldn’t believe he could do this to them, how you don’t want them to grow up in a split home, and never once did you say how upset you were he did this to you. How hurt you are. How angry you are. How betrayed you are. How you don’t want to think about how he likely has been inside another woman or -” “Stop, Colleen. I don’t want to think about that,” I interrupted, my voice catching in my throat as I tried to clear the image from my head. Seeing it on paper or in my inbox was one thing but having the image of his infidelity live out inside my head was too much to bear. My imagination was a dangerous place where extreme scenarios played out daily. I squeezed my eyes shut and shook my head in frustration. “Of course, you don’t. No one does. But don’t you see, you aren’t jealous or scorned for yourself. You’re reacting for the girls. Mal, be honest with me for a minute. Did you see this coming? Are you even in love with him anymore? Because for someone that just found out her husband has been having an affair, you aren’t nearly as pissed off or hysterical as you should be”. Instinctively, my hand squeezed down on the arm of the chair, and I leaned forward defensively. “Seriously, Colleen? I find out my husband is cheating on me, and this is your response? I’m hanging up now”. “Mal, wait...” But I didn’t wait. I hung up before she could get another word out. I picked up the cold cup of coffee I had been nursing for almost an hour and walked to the back patio, propping myself up in one of the wicker chairs. Knees pulled to my chin, I stared out across the meticulously manicured lawn in a daze. Ryan had paid more attention and care to our grass than our marriage. Not a blade was out of place. Clean, straight, crisscross lines showed where he had pushed the mower the night before. How had I missed this? I braced myself for the tears that were supposed to come, but they never did. I willed them to the surface. Nothing. Instead, anger bubbled. I stood and marched through the house directly to our master bedroom, threw back the door to our walk-in closet, grabbed his overnight bag from the top shelf, and began angrily balling up and stuffing his clothing inside. Shirts, ties, pants, shoes, anything I could grab. Some went in the bag still on the wooden hangers. I couldn’t be bothered to do it neatly. I didn’t want to have to look at anything that reminded me of him. When the bag was full, I grabbed the empty laundry basket from the corner and started stuffing his belongings into that too. Within minutes, his side of the closet was empty except for a row of empty swinging hangers. Throwing the overnight bag on top of the full laundry basket, I made my way back toward the backyard. The corners of my lips crept into a smile as the grass tickled the bottom of my feet. I closed my eyes and began throwing his belongings across the lawn. When the last shirt hit the ground, I marched toward the spicket and turned on the sprinkler before walking back to my chair on the patio to take in my work. I don’t know how long I sat like that, watching the sprinkler go round and round soaking his clothes and shoes and leaving muddy puddles on the lawn. An hour? Two? But when I was able to pull myself back to reality and named my feelings: anger, distrust, and rage, I realized sadness, jealousy, and shock were not among them. Colleen was right. She usually was. I picked up my phone and hit redial. “You don’t need to say it,” Colleen answered. “I’m sorry.” “I know you are. So, we’re going to leave him?” Colleen asked reluctantly. Bracing herself for my honest reply. “Yup,” I spat out, smiling at her use of we instead of you in her question. Even now she had paired us together as a dynamic duo. “I had that unread email in my inbox when I waved at her this morning. She is cheating with my husband, and she fucking waved at me like she wasn’t going straight to the office to slide her hand down his pants. I feel like a fool.” “Oh girlie, I wish I could make it better. Why don’t you drop the kids off at your parents? Give yourself some space and time to think and come stay with me in New York for the week. A change of scenery would do you good.” I sat up straighter in my chair. A flutter of hope filled my chest as I considered her offer. I hadn’t taken time alone in years. “I’ll book you a flight out on Monday morning. You won’t need to do a thing. Just pack and drop the girls off at your parents'.” “Okay,” I answered quickly before I could think my way out of it. “I love you.” “I love you, too,” she responded. I could hear the hug she so desperately wanted to give me in the tone of her voice. I set the phone down and stared out across the lawn strewn with Ryan’s sopping wet clothes. The blood rose in my cheeks again. Each perfectly cut blade of grass that hadn’t been touched by the sprinkler or my temper tantrum seemed to taunt and anger me further. Screw Ryan and his stupid lawn. I’d see to it that he knew the grass wasn’t always greener on the other side.
OPENING SCENE: Introduces Ezra Porter (the protagonist) just after his senator father (the antagonist) made his first move against his son. A disturbance comes in the form of discovering his father’s motives from a reporter who wants Ezra’s help in taking down the senator. When Ezra realizes he can secure the proof for the accusations against his father himself, he decides to beat the New Yorker to print and use this story to cut the strings of his father’s control. Setting, tone, obstacles, and stakes for all parties involved are revealed in this scene taken from the first chapter. I’m distracted again. Not by thoughts of my father, but the movement of some guy down the block. This city always smells of sour milk and decomposing flesh, but suddenly I’m hyper aware of it. The fight or flight instinct has turned on like a light switch. And my senses are firing at peak levels when I realize this creep down the street sneaking glances at me isn’t a crackhead seeing things, it’s that leach of a reporter, Trey Edwards. “Fucking hell, not today,” I say under my breath as I shove my hands in my pockets and try to make fleeing the scene look casual. I round the corner and look to see if he’s following. He is. Ten years ago, this walking byline was entering his early thirties, desperate to break a story. And boy did he fucking do it. An exposé crediting my high school girlfriend and me getting caught fucking outside her mom’s megachurch as the event that ultimately caused the small town of Oak Haven, Texas to lose 500 jobs. I’ve been trying to distance myself from that story—and this fuckhead—ever since. Out of the corner of my eye, I watch him step on and off the curb. Trey is someone with all the ingredients of a great person—investigative journalist, rural small-town family, charitable—but trust me, he’s a certified scumbag. Out for number one. He needs something, and he’ll use me to get it. This isn’t the first time he’s conveniently run into me, usually banking on small talk to somehow confirm his suspicion that my father and I work together. We don’t. But following me like a rat toward the scent of New York sidewalk trash feels downright invasive. I decide to get this over with and say as little as possible. “Why are you here, Trey?” I ask, not bothering to turn to face him. The scumbag answers, talking to my back and matching each of my foot falls along the pavement. “Because I know daddy needs you home. Maybe now you’ll be willing to talk.” Confirmed. He knows I’m a fucking puppet, and Jack Porter is pulling the strings. We’re both aware my father didn’t build his wealth on intellect or ingenuity. No, he’s climbed to the top by being a ruthlessly selfish master of manipulation. I’m not even the slightest bit surprised I’m his latest victim. I find it hard to believe that would surprise Trey either. But the intrigue as to how he already knows is too much to fight off. I stop, whirling around to see him. “How do you know?” Trey’s standing near the curb with an old school briefcase in one hand, a shit eating grin on his face, and taking in the scowl marking my features like the cat that got the fucking milk. He’s noted there will be no pleasantries. He’s right. There won’t be. “Because the only logical choice he has left is to fall back on nepotism,” he says. Not an answer dumb fuck. We’ve debated this already. It seems to be the topic du jour every time we run into each other like this. We both agree nepotism is problematic in the best of situations. It’s terrible for company morale and a breeding ground for corruption. Sure, I’d claim the act of hiring or transitioning power to kin is in and of itself corrupt, but he’d argue I’m too focused on the act and not the motives. It’s almost always an indication that there’s a need to maintain secrecy. But unfortunately for Trey, I know nothing. I haven’t gotten my hands dirty, and I plan on keeping it that way. I wait Trey out, wondering if he knows how fucked I am too. Does he know about the debt? “Why now?” he asks. Come on, man. I’m not that easy. “You’re the reporter. Tell me.” He squints and peers into me like he thinks I’ll cave. Or more likely, calculating whether whatever he’s about to say is worth conceding. If my father taught me anything it’s that everyone is negotiating. Always. And now, I’m interested in what he knows. “It’s an election year,” he spits out. And sure enough, the first bargaining chip hits the table. “Ever stop to wonder why his opponent pushed so hard for that new prop that just passed? Up until this point holding office in Jersey while running the business in Texas was no problem. But now, it will be all but illegal for him to do both. I find it ironic that your father didn’t see that coming.” Anger trips the live wire within my chest with electricity flowing through my extremities, seeking the nearest exit point. My heart is pounding, but I’m playing along. Feigning apathy to keep him talking. “Or he did and just happens to be ready to hand over the company.” “A man like your father doesn’t hand over things that belong to him. I’m starting to wonder if you even know the truth, Ezra?” I can’t stand the fact that I’m dumb enough to be hearing my father’s motives from Trey fucking Edwards. And the worst part is, I need it. But there will likely be blood when I release the tight grip of my nails into my palm because there’s no way I’ll let Trey see a hint of surprise on my face. It’s not a bargaining chip if he thinks I know what he knows. “What do you want?” I say, calm indifference scraping my vocal cords. “We can help each other, Ezra.” I smile. “What, you want to run the Porter House blog?” “No,” he says, matching my cocky attitude. “That would imply that I actually think you’ll accept your father’s offer.” Well, unless Trey’s offering me eight hundred thousand dollars to pay off my newfound debt, there’s no use in continuing this conversation. “We’ll see,” I say, then turn to keep walking. But it’s only a few steps before he doubles down on this negotiation. Hurls a verbal dagger that strikes a nerve I didn’t think existed anymore. “I spoke to Henley the other day.” Below the belt and he knows it. I should fucking leave, but that girl I’d deported from my mind for the last ten years has apparently never left home soil. Just hearing her name, a flicker of a thought snakes its way through me. I’m still in love with her. I’ve done blow and prescription shit I shouldn’t have. But I have self control—not an addictive personality. Yet somehow, that name makes me feel like a junkie waiting the twenty seconds it takes their meth to cook on a spoon over the flame. The air rushes from my lungs in some big release. In perfect detail. In 4 fucking K. I can see her under the bleachers outside her mother’s megachurch. My dick is eighteen all over again. My mouth salivates recalling the way the mixture of foil and latex tasted as it lingered the last time I saw her. I’d brought the square packet to my lips, ripped the condom free with my teeth. Her panties dangled from her left ankle, hips circling against me as I crept her Sunday’s best up to her waist. In my head, I’m already hiding the tip. I want more of her. But I shut that shit down. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Long story short, I’ll also never forget the light that hit her bottom lip. Not because it illuminated the way she was literally chomping at the bit for me to slide myself inside, but because of the source. A perfect angle from the Texas sun off the silver badge proudly strapped to the Oak Haven police chief’s utility belt. And because she wore her preacher’s kid persona like a second skin, the first question asked was “Is this young man forcing himself on you?” And fuck that, like I said, I was in love with her. I didn’t force myself on her. I’m not that guy. But her route to damage control was to fall fucking silent in the face of a national scandal—yes national. The mega in megachurch can mean many things, in this case we’re talking live-national-broadcast mega. But I guess Henley chalked one up for the side of the superficial bullshit personas. Because like my father, it was all about reputation for her, and she used hers as the get out of jail free card. It worked perfectly. I’m past the lustful memories and now fully engulfed in the betrayal. The anger pulls me back to the present. I’m not sure if I’m hardened or dead but whatever it is, I’m nothing but cold now. Trey’s loving whatever he sees on my face. “Did you ever stop to think that maybe Jack didn’t want you close to the Jones family?” He’s rattling me, and now my words come out with a sharpened edge. “Yeah. Because they claimed I forced myself on her. And no contact meant no police report.” I’m reminded of his article. His questions of what constitutes a conflict of interest when church and state mix, but he used our scandal to prove how the lines can become blurred. Never once mentioning the police report. I looked like the guy that used the girl and moved on. “Your lazy reporting failed to mention that part.” “Or that part wasn’t true,” he says. “Believe what you want, Trey.” “Oh no, it’s believable. And Henley seemed believable as well when I saw her last week. And she claimed to have not a clue as to what I was talking about when I asked about the threat of a police report.” “She’s lying to you.” “Oh, someone’s lying but it’s not her. I don’t think you’re lying either. I might look a little closer to home.” Neither of us speak. We’re staring at each other like this can only be settled with fists. But I’m reminded of what this asshole and I have in common. I hate my father as much as he does. But where Trey and I differ? Well, he wants to know what the good senator and Porter House Whiskey are hiding. He wants to reveal it. I’m well aware that the mask my father wears to the public is anything but the shadows that lurk beneath. But I want nothing to do with it. I want out. Which gets me thinking. What’s he onto? How much does Trey Edwards know about the man controlling the line I’m dangling on? Is it sharp enough to cut the strings? This is the pitfall of investigative journalism. You poke your head in too many doors and someone might get smart. I just got smart. Fine, Trey. I’ll play along until I get what I need. I slide my entitled, elitist, rich kid, son of a senator cosplay mask on without a hitch. I’m ready to participate in Trey’s game hoping his excited desperation is enough to let the act slip past him. It works like a charm. “Ezra,” he says, then lowers his voice. “Massive, unaccounted campaign funds have been rolling in from Houston, Texas.” I have no idea how to process the bomb Trey just set in front of me. I’m staring at the red numbers counting down, and wondering which wire do I cut to save myself? Red? Blue? Black? “I’m publishing an exposé. Work with me. What do you know about your father’s ties to the Calvary Megachurch, beyond your little, insignificant scandal?” And with that one question, I pick a wire and cut. The bomb dismantles and clarity floods in to replace the panic. This isn’t about my father. Or Trey’s tireless smears of my dad’s campaigns. It’s not even about the lack of the senator’s ethics. Trey’s trying to connect Calvary Megachurch—Henley’s mother’s church—to my father’s bank accounts. And that’s why he spoke with Henley, too. Everything stops. I dig deeper because memories are just electrical and chemical signals in the brain that connect together in certain patterns called synapses. Simply triggering these synapses should bring about the act of remembering and they do. She knows more.
Hello! Thanks for reading the first scene of The Cleveland Phoenix, a science fiction/adventure manuscript. The chapter below introduces the protagonist, the antagonist, and the primary conflict of the novel, as well as the setting and tone. Chapter 1: Dortollen Licorice Star Year 2722 – Shaula System – Fifteen Years Ago Cassander of Arkan didn’t believe the Vikaanians. The human’s face bunched to one side, skeptical. Watching the time, he raised an eyebrow behind his portable oxygen generator–a black fabric mask cradling a translator insert and a long, clear tube running to a palm-sized box in the pocket of his jacket. The box clicked every few seconds or so, muffled, marking intervals of time as he waited for the Vikaanians to respond. He tapped his forefinger on the communications console. “Moros,” came the Vikaanians through the communications array’s translator, finally. “We told you; we have no such items on board.” Cass sat in the co-captain’s chair of The Cleveland Phoenix, just outside the Shaula system, half a million kilometers from the nearest planet’s outer rings. The Phoenix, a silver, bat-like mishmash of a Dortollen trading vessel, hovered nose-to-nose with the Vikaanians' Illustra, an insectoid, yellow maintenance ship half its size. But there was more to the Illustra than met the eye. And Cass knew it. He inhaled, muting the channel, and turned to the captain’s chair, to the person sitting in it, also human. “What do we think?” he asked through the mask. The mechanical translator insert made his voice gruff, digital. It spilled out a Vikaanian dialect, but his Earth English underneath rang clear. “Do we believe the Vikaanians?” Dangling her legs from the captain’s chair, Cassander’s almost-six-year-old daughter, Iona of Arkan, shook her head. Eyes bright and blue, like sparks of cosmic dust, her response caused a mass of brown curls to bounce around her face--around those eyes. Cass pulled his black mask down, revealing a smirk. It was all for show: The Moros and the mask. A persona. He squinted his deep brown eyes as he leaned towards her and dropped his voice, low. “I don’t believe ‘em either, Baby Blues,” he said, shaking his head in solidarity, then dropping a finger on her nose. She grinned wide, showing off one single new front tooth, and one gap where a tooth was freshly missing. Another oxygen generator rested in the chair next to her. The girl returned to fiddling with a pair of charcoal, grown-up gloves from the seat next to her, smoothing them on. Wiggling her fingers into the oversized lumps of fabric. Cass placed the mask and translator back over his face, then reopened the channel to the Vikaanians, clearing his throat. “The Garton ice mammoth you stole those tusks from would disagree,” Cass said, raising both eyebrows. “Black market price right now is one hundred…one-fifty credits per tusk? Let’s see. And the average Garton ice mammoth has…” He turned to his daughter again, holding up five fingers, waving them in the air. She shook her head, revealing all five gloved fingers on one hand, plus another on the second: Six total. “Six tusks,” Cass said into the communications array. The girl nodded. A Garton ice mammoth wasn’t something he had ever encountered alive; they were endangered, elusive. Not that he shied away from the clandestine. But the credits for their tusks were lucrative. And he knew the Vikaanians knew that. Especially when they’d picked up the contraband a few lightyears back, right under the nose of the Mining Magistrate–his boss, for the moment. “What do you want, pirate?” came the Vikaanians’ lagging response. Cass wagged his head side-to-side, not so much a pirate as a privateer. But he let it slide. “Well, that’s somewhere in the neighborhood of six to nine-hundred credits they’ll fetch,” said Cass, the Moros, leaning back in his chair. “It’s worth at least that to stay off the radar of the Magistrate. You wouldn’t want them to know one of their Vikaanian service ships is dealing in illegal commodities.” Silence followed Cassander’s ask. “Or maybe you would?” He shrugged, folding his hands together. “You hold our vessel hostage to extort us?” the Vikaanian asked. Cass snorted. “That’s…that’s a bit dramatic,” he said, reaching over to a bay of green and yellow switches. “You call it extortion; I call it doing you a favor. But you’re welcome to leave any ti-...oh, but your fuel stores are empty. Huh.” The Phoenix’s magnetic fuel decontainment system had done its job, causing the Illustra’s plasma tanks to hemorrhage precious fuel out into space. “How’d that happen?” He finished turning a few switches off and gave his daughter a wink. She winked back, flashing a tooth and a top row of pink gums. “What do you want, Moros?” the Vikaanian asked, growling. Iona climbed out of the captain’s chair, revealing a copper booster seat underneath her. She skipped over to the co-captain’s chair and pulled at her father’s shirtsleeve. Cass turned his head. The girl stood on her tiptoes against the side of his chair and whispered into his ear. He nodded, mouth curling up as her hair tickled his ear. The Moros lifted her into his lap and opened the manifest of the Vikaanians’ ship he’d been hacking into on a holographic display. Iona scrolled through the lines of orange lights and pointed at an item on the list. “Let’s say seven hundred credits and the three kilograms of Dortollen licorice you have in that cargo hold,” Cass said, looking his daughter in the eye. Iona grinned, nodding. An alarm sounded on the sensor array. Cass jumped to the interface to look at the source. He pulled his mask down, furrowing his brow at the ship’s proximity scanner, blinking an angry red. The human’s eyes grew wide. Another ship approached: The Maelstrom. “No, no, no, no–not again,” Cass breathed from outside his mask. “Sir,” said the Phoenix’s computer, Argos. “I see it, Argos,” he said. Cass pulled his daughter off his lap. “Harness up, kiddo.” The five-year-old trotted back to the captain’s chair, climbed in, and pulled on a pint-sized green cloth harness. “Illustra,” he said, reopening the channel, “better make it fast. We’ve got visitors.” “And if we don’t?” asked the Vikaanian ship’s captain. Cass squinted at the time, running a hand through his chestnut hair. Ten solar minutes. “Up to you,” he said, keying coordinates into the gray navigation console’s concave white buttons. “You can hand over the items and we’ll leave you alone. Or we can stick around a little longer and let our new guests see you hobnobbing with The Cleveland Phoenix. I recommend the first option if you’d like to sleep in your own bed again. Ever.” “Sir, the slipstream signature is Communion,” Argos said. “Gathered that, thanks Argos.” The human inhaled, preparing The Phoenix’s slipstream drive for emergency activation. Then, he used both hands to scratch his head and kept his hands on the back of his neck, frozen. Waiting. Either way, he was ready. Quarry or no quarry. “Stand by for transport, Phoenix,” said the Vikaanian ship, at last. Cass exhaled, checking the distance of the incoming Serpens Communion ship. He figured he had ten solar minutes, tops–plenty of time to grab the licorice, the credits, and run. But still. “Congratulations,” Cass said, initiating the external docking gear, “you made the right choice. But shake a tailfeather, Illustra.” The docking port extensions began groaning into place on the outside of the ship. He entered slipstream coordinates on the console in front of him, just to be ready. “Tail…feather?” the Vikaanians asked. The translator sometimes fumbled with Earth English, especially the figurative. “It means hurry up.” The pirate shook his head. He tapped a finger against the console again and looked at his daughter. She saluted her father with two gloved fingers at her temple. Cass returned the salute with a half-smile, but it faded as he eyed the time again. He re-opened the channel. “By the way, Illustra…The Cleveland Phoenix was never here. For both of our sakes.”