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This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.

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"Are you going to miss it? Being a hero?"

I heard snickers and groans, pretty typical for a crowded classroom full of nine-year-olds. I've been in enough of them over the years to know. These days the desks are all molded plastic, clean-lined, ergonomic, not the knee-scraping wood and metal-framed contraptions I grew up with. The cafeteria smell's gone, too; now it's the smell of too many bodies crowded together in too small a space. Everything's more crowded these days.

The girl who'd asked me the question, a pretty thing with braids in her auburn hair and shaved patches the size of my thumb on the sides of her skull—the newest thing in fashion, my granddaughter tells me—blushed a bit but managed to keep looking at me.

"Children!" That was the teacher, a harried woman whose face—lined around her mouth, weary shadows underneath her eyes—looked every one of her middle-aged sixty or so years.

"That's okay, that's okay," I said. I held my hands up in a shushing gesture and the room quieted down. I smiled at the girl with the braids and naked strips of pink scalp. "It's a legitimate question. Not the first time I've been asked, so don't go getting embarrassed, no matter what these guys think." I winked at her and she smiled back. I still had some of my old charm. At least it still seemed to work on nervous nine-year-old girls.

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