“And now,” the announcer said, his voice booming over the speakers, “our class speaker: Anna Halstead Porter.” The crowd erupted into applause, but none louder than the large group that spanned the entirety of the eighth row. Sawyer’s hands were practically blistering by the time she sat back in her seat, one arm wrapped securely around Jonathan, her youngest nephew, who sat in her lap, sucking on his fist.

Anna stepped up to the podium, a large, dimpled grin on her face, and her feathery blonde hair mostly obscured by the black graduation cap. Her eyes scanned the audience and gave her family a surreptitious wave, before she started her speech.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the class of…”

She’s so grown, Sawyer thought, remembering how her youngest sister had followed her through the house like a puppy, helping her with chores and getting underfoot far too often for young Sawyer’s liking. She couldn’t really complain, though. Their parents had passed away from sickness less than a month apart, leaving her to care for her four younger siblings, acting as their mother. James, her eldest brother, was sixteen at the time and had helped as much as he could, but Sawyer didn’t want to be responsible for taking away his childhood.

“When I lost my parents, I was only four years old,” Anna was saying. She glanced at Sawyer and gave her a sad smile. “I was the youngest, but my siblings weren’t exactly adults, either. I had four of them, the youngest of which was only seven. The eldest was nineteen and she took care of all of us like it was her life’s purpose. She should have been in college, should have spent her weeknights studying for her courses; her weekends, partying. Instead, she dropped out and took three jobs to keep up with the mortgage payments so that my brothers and I could do what she couldn’t.” Anna took a deep, shuddering breath and Sawyer could see the tears swimming in her eyes. “My sister raised two doctors,” she continued, smiling proudly. “My brothers own their own practice in Riverdale now.” There was a smattering of applause and Sawyer looked at her younger brothers, who seemed to be holding back their own tears, holding their spouses’ hands. “She raised a writer, who has already published three bestselling novels, and a series.” More applause. “And, today, she has added a lawyer to that list. And, because of her, none of us have any debts. Not a single penny owed to anybody but our big sister, who sacrificed everything for us. Thank you, Sawyer, for everything you’ve done for each and every one of us.” She bless a kiss and Sawyer pretended to catch it, then sent one back.

Anna took a deep breath. “So, today, while you sit here and eagerly wait for the Dean to call your name, remember why you are here. Remember the people that supported you; maybe your parents, or your siblings, or your friends, or whomever. Remember the people that made sure you were fed, that you were healthy and happy and sleeping well. Remember the Sawyers in your life. Remember the people who are here for you today, in this crowd. When you leave here today, remember to thank them and give them a kiss on the cheek. Remember that they’ll always be there for you. Remember that you’re never alone.” Anna took a deep breath and grinned. “And then go out and celebrate because you’re finally free!” A loud roar of applause as people got to their feet, their hands coming together so fast and hard that Sawyer thought they might fall off.

She stood, as well, propping her nephew on her hip as she clapped as well, blowing kisses to her baby sister. She looked down the row at her brothers; James and his wife and Taylor and his husband. Gabe and his daughters, who hung off of him like little monkeys, his arms around his pregnant fiancée, their stepmother. Then she looked down at the boy in her arms, who was staring up at his mother on the stage, his blue eyes wide and awed.

Pride swelled her chest as she held the boy to her, smiling up at her youngest child. Anna had called her Mommy once and Sawyer had been quick to correct her. Too quick, she realized now, as she eyed her blushing sister on the stage.

Because there could be no other way to explain this feeling, no other way to describe it other than the pride of a mother. It was the same pride that she’d felt when James and Taylor and Gabe had graced their own stages. It was the same pride she’d felt each time she held a new niece or nephew in her arms for the first time. She was a mother, despite never giving birth.

She was their mother.

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