A Keeper

23-05-2019 18:05

Inspired by an assignment in Stephen King’s book, On Writing

 

Even though it is broad daylight, every light in the house is flipped on.

As her eyes train on the television set, her fingers automatically reach for the jewelry that had once hung about her neck. It has been two years since she last clasped the thin gold chain. It has been two years since she fingered the ring that had been looped through the chain. It’s an automatic reaction. It happens when she is out at a restaurant, catches a whiff of savory bacon and the sweet cinnamon of French toast. That reaching for something that is no longer there.

She wants to switch the television set off. She wants to turn up the volume to full blast. With the shaking hands of someone in withdrawal, she stretches for the remote. She clicks and clicks and clicks.

“Damn battery!” She chucks the useless device onto the hardwood where it clatters as if it were the subject of attention and not the newscast.

The time is 7:30 am and she is scheduled to work the 12-9 pm shift. She wonders if she should call out. They’d understand, wouldn’t they? Well, they could easily find someone to replace her. It isn’t like her position is an unexcavated cave or anything.

She cannot take it anymore; she has to get away from the television. Like a beetle, he scurries out of the living room and fights the urge to look back. It didn’t work out too well for Orpheus, so a quick look over her shoulder surely won’t work out for Clio.

 

~~~

 

Lilith’s Rapunzel-like hair formed a canopy around their faces as they made love to the yawn of Sunday morning. It was slow and steady, like the way Lilith blended the French toast mixture—delicious. “A dash of paprika, that’s the trick.” Fingers like feathers fluttered over their nakedness, lingering on a shoulder, a rib, a breast. Usually Lilith was wild like a forest fire, nails scraping and hands clutching for dear life, onto Clio’s thighs or ass as she shoved her tongue deep into her vagina. It’d be so rushed, like a passing thunderstorm. But not this morning. Today, they were a light drizzle that lasted for hours. The kind where an umbrella seemed excessive. The kind where you could dance in the rain, play in the puddles. Stick out your tongue and say, ahhh.

When they had both finished, Lilith collapsed beside Clio, breathing heavily.

“Wow.”

“Wow,” Clio agreed.

She was beautiful. That’s what caught Clio’s eye in the first place. If Portia de Rossi had a doppelgänger, if a crane morphed into a human being, it was the woman laying spent beside Clio at that very moment.

But then, always the energetic, Lilith popped up and hopped off the bed like a frog from a lily pad. “C’mon, it’s our special day!” Lilith spouted. Her voice was like melted honey.

“Ten more minutes, babe,” Clio whined.

In a flash, Lilith’s porcelain complexion reddened. She whipped herself back onto the bed and shot a hand knowingly through the convoluted folds of the sheets. She had one of Clio’s nipples pinched between not her fingers but the nails of thumb and pointer. Clio cried out; Lilith twisted her wrist forty-five degrees.

“Now,” she said through clenched teeth of the clichéd pearly white.

Clio gave a short nod and her nipple was freed. She gasped.

With a smile that somehow reached her eyes, Lilith laced her fingers, the very pincers, through Clio’s, and led her from the bed.

In their nakedness, they walked to their kitchen, where they had spent the last three years cooking and eating, making love and conversing.

“It’s our special day,” Lilith said again, wrapping her arms around the small of Clio’s back. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. I just wanted to show you this.” Lilith unwound her arms, but on the way down, she squeezed Clio’s still pulsing clit, but only for a heartbeat. She opened the fridge and withdrew a pitcher in which floated an orange-persimmon liquid, along with chunks of various fruits. She set the pitcher on the counter and then opened a cabinet––unlike Clio, Lilith did not have to stretch onto her tippy-toes––and pulled out two wine glasses.

“Our mimosas!”

Clio scrunched her face. “Isn’t it a little early for that?”

Lilith’s face dropped like the mouth of a mailbox. “Of course it’s not too early. Not today. The first time we met…”

Clio shook her head and then pressed her lips into Lilith’s shoulder blade. “You’re right.”

Lilith smirked and poured the drinks. “Let’s not forget the ice!” She extracted the tray from the freezer and plopped precisely two cubes into each glass. “Cheers!”

As Clio took her first sip, she nearly choked. There was a bug in her drink! She sputtered and set the glass down precariously. She pointed without words and Lilith laughed.

“What, honey-bunny?”

“Babe, a bug.”

“Look again.”

Clio clutched at her heart, fearing the bug would make its way down her throat and set up residence in her stomach.

Lilith rolled her eyes. “You scaredy-cat. Here.” She lifted the glass to Clio’s face, grabbing Clio’s wrist with her free hand with the strength of a handcuff.

In the ice cube was…

 

~~~

 

After transiently escaping the horrors of the news, she rushes upstairs to the bedroom. She pulls open a drawer in which lies an envelope. With jittering bones, she opens the envelope and empties its innards onto the dresser.

The ring. It’s still there.

She lets out a long exhalation in alleviation. What, did she think someone had broken in and stolen it?

She tucks the ring back into its paper sepulcher and decides that while work may not need her, she needs work.

A staticy noise resounds, followed by tiny cries. The baby monitor’s green light shines like Daisy’s––a signal.

“Coming, sweetheart,” Clio calls, and heads into the second bedroom. “Guess what today is?” she says to the toddler. The tiny child holds up a hand and pinches together his thumb and pinky.

“Tree!” he crows.

Clio’s whole face lights up like Christmas morning. “Yes! That’s right. You’re three today!”

Maybe she should stay home after all.

But the nanny is already expecting today’s pay and she really should stop worrying. Work would be good for her. There’s just no way… There’s no way. The story on the news was so ambiguous and there were too many plot holes. She was just working herself up.

She kisses the child’s forehead.

 

~~~

 

When Lilith and Clio decided to have a child, they pondered adoption; they pondered artificial insemination. They settled on the latter, and Clio was the one to get pregnant. That was a whole six months before Lilith proposed over mimosas on that sleepy Sunday morning. The Friday before the proposal was when they found out that Clio was with child.

That was not the last time that Lilith had struck Clio.

After four months of trying without success, they left the hospital and sat dejected in the car. Lilith gripped the steering wheel so that she left half-moons all over the leathery material.

“What the fuck is wrong with you? It should’ve been me!” She hit the wheel repeatedly, honking a few times.

“Babe, it’ll happen. The doctor said––”

“I don’t give a fuck what that crackpot said! He’s, like, ninety. He doesn’t know shit!” Lilith started to wail.

Clio attempted to rub Lilith’s right shoulder, but Lilith shrugged her off.

“Want me to drive?”

“Fuck you.” Lilith started the engine.

The car ride home was silent other than the screeching music coming from the stereo and the loud sound of a thousand thoughts that chased themselves around inside Clio’s mind.

When they entered their rental condominium, Clio collapsed onto the couch. “We’ll try again.”

“This wouldn’t be so hard if we were hetero,” Lilith sneered, folding her arms across her chest. One sleeve got pushed up, revealing raised white lines in her otherwise smooth skin.

Clio began to cry, and, just like that, Lilith softened. “I’m sorry, my honey-bun.” She sat beside Clio and cradled her head in her hands. “This is not your fault.”

Lilith kissed Clio’s head and rubbed her back. She pushed her onto her back and began to rub vigorously between her thighs. “Shhhh,” Lilith urged. She unbuttoned and removed Clio’s jeans. “I love you,” she said, breathing hot air onto Clio’s underwear. “We’ll do this together, like we always planned.”

“Get the toy box,” Clio said heavily.

 

~~~

 

At work, Clio keeps busy. Filing, filing, filing. Getting coffee. Making coffee. Sometimes spilling coffee. Despite her love of breakfast, Lilith never drank coffee. She preferred juice or water in the morning. “Coffee makes you fat,” she would say. Clio subconsciously glances at her stomach that has seen flatter days.

It is almost seven hours into her shift when she takes her break. In the breakroom, the television is on. It is, naturally, set to a news station. Something about the war on drugs and illegal immigrants. Nothing new. She sighs in relief.

Once she finishes her dinner, she phones the nanny so that she can Facetime with her son on his birthday. He’ll never remember this, her son, but she will.

“It’s almost his bedtime, Clio!”

“I know,” she groans.

“Fine. Two minutes.”

Those two minutes were heaven sent. “Now get to bed. I’ll see you when you wake up in the morning and you’re––”

“Tree!”

Break time is almost over, so Clio cleans up her area. She is the only one in the breakroom, so she goes to shut off the television, which is too loud anyway.

Breaking news, the man on the screen states stoically. Clio’s finger hesitates on the controller. We are following up from earlier this morning. It has been confirmed that at least two inmates have gone missing from the South Middlesex Correctional Center. They are declared to be dangerous. The Framingham police encourage everyone near the area to stay locked and indoors. To report any suspicious activity of possible knowledge of the situation, please…

The man rattles off a series of numbers. Western Ave in Framingham is eighty miles away, but still… Clio’s heart races like it’s on cocaine. She silently prays.

The identities of the inmates, a different news anchor continues, this one standing in front of the correctional center, undetermined, according to sources here at the facility.

She has to go home right now; she just has that feeling in her gut. Mothers know the one. Women know the one. Since she was a little girl, she learned to trust that belly-deep feeling. Her boss would either understand or she wouldn’t. That no longer matters to Clio. Like a courser, she hastily left the breakroom, the news story imprinted in her mind.

Through the darkening streets, she speeds. Treating every yellow light like a competition, and she has to take first place. She drives with the beets of her cheetah-fast heart. She doesn’t even have the time to be thankful that the snow hasn’t started its descent as predicted by the meteorologists. Nine more minutes, she calculates. Three plus three plus three. Her son is now three.

She’d do everything humanly possible to be sure he makes it to four.

 

~~~

“Let’s have a baby,” Lilith crooned, her speech only slightly slurred. The music spun by the DJ was loud, but Lilith was louder. She gripped Clio’s bicep, nails carving cheshire-cat grins into skin. Clio resisted the urge to wince. That would only make Lilith, like a snake coiling around its hyperventilating prey, squeeze harder.

“A baby?” Clio questioned. This was the first she had heard of this. It’s not like they were married. Not that they had to be married. They had only been renting the condo for, what, approaching a year?

Lilith nodded. “Uh-huh. A baby. We’d be great moms. The best!”

Both Clio and Lily grew up with unsupportive mothers. Lilith had been a foster child––in and out of a baker’s dozen of homes until she reached legal adulthood. Clio’s mother was a devout Christian and piously shunned her only daughter’s sexuality. Together, Lilith and Clio certainly knew what not to do as parents. But did they know what to do? Would they adopt? So many orphans––of course they’d adopt. That’s what Lilith would want.

A new song began. “And I want it to be ours, made from you and me.”

Clio’s face curdled in confusion. “But, babe––”

Lilith tugged her in close and fast, like a leased dog who tries to snap at passersby. “What? Is there something wrong with me? D’ya think my genes are too fucked up to pass on?” Lilith snarled like Cujo. “I’m the pretty one.”

Clio shook her off and bolted toward the labyrinthine crowd of bumping bodies, grinding and groaning. Like the swell of an angry sea, packed bodies swayed this way and that. Colorful lights streamed down from above like a melting rainbow.

Lilith won’t cause a scene here––it’ll have to wait until we get home, Clio thought. I’m just gonna go home then. She reached the far-side of the bar and ordered a Jack and ginger. “Two limes, please.”

She found two of their friends, Riley and Ryan, and the three young women made their way back into the undulating ocean of drunken dancers. They asked to where Lilith had disappeared, and Clio replied, “Who gives a fuck?” Clio was now known for her profanity unless she was, well, pissed. Riley and Ryan knew this. Their eyes widened like startled does in the dark. “Let’s not talk about it now.”

They danced and danced. Drank and drank. Close to two hours slipped by before Clio felt a warm touch tickle the back of her neck. Into her ear came a sibilant whisper: “I’m sorry. I just always wanted a baby of my own, one who wouldn’t end up in foster care to get ridiculed and raped. Like me.” Clio didn’t say anything. “We can look at all our options tomorrow.” Lilith’s voice was its usual mellifluous-self––not at all slurred––but her breath gave away her inebriation. As if a wallowing willow in wild winds, she swayed, and she was not dancing.

Riley and Ryan were all, “There you are!” but they discreetly gave Clio a look, letting her know that they had her back.

“I’m going to the bathroom,” Clio announced.

Lilith followed, as Clio knew she would.

When a stall opened, Clio went in and tried to shut and lock the door. But Lilith was too fast. She’d always been faster. They were cramped in the tiny stall. Lilith locked it.

Her slender fingers curled around Clio’s throat––but gingerly. She did not squeeze. Clio did not flinch. Flinching would bring on the pressure.

“You left me. You abandoned me.” Lilith’s breath reeked of vodka. Clio’s probably did of whiskey. “And all I want is to make a life with you ’cause I l-love you. Love you.”

“I love you, too,” Clio replied automatically.

Lilith’s lips pressed into hers, her tongue darting with insatiable desire.

When they took a moment to breathe, Lilith––her mouth still against Clio’s in that amazing way you can talk so close to another human being––asked, “So, you’ll do it then? ’Ficial ’semination?”

“Really?”

Suddenly, Clio’s cheek burned, the stink of a bee messing up summertime fun.

“Those system kids can be real fucked up, Clio. We can’t trust it.”

It.

She shoved Clio so that her knees buckled and she nearly toppled onto the lid of the toilet.

“Hurry up in there!” someone yelled, banging on the stall door.

“I can find someone else to make a beautiful baby with me, you bitch.” Lilith ripped open the door and, like a tempest, whirled away.

“Yo, you okay, girl?” someone asked Clio.

That night––3 a.m., to be precise––when Clio careened into bed, she wrapped her arms around the sleeping Lilith and kissed her repeatedly, wherever she could. “I’ll have this baby with you. Want to…”

They made sloppy love that was good enough as a facsimile-like apology. They fell into a stupor.

In the morning, an orchestra made up of just drummers practicing in her head, Clio awoke.

To the sweet scent of French toast and the smokey notes of bacon.

 

~~~

 

8 o’clock chimes as she pulls into the drive. The sky is squid-ink and the windows of her condo are alley-cat eyes. When she reaches the front door, she gets another of those gut feelings. This sends her around back. Swift but soft, she tiptoes. The snow is crunchy, having fallen a few days ago. Each step sounds like a gunshot in the stagnant night.    

The backdoor that leads into the livingroom and out onto the porch is ajar. Just enough for someone to squeeze through, like a doggy-door. Clio fiddles around in her pust for the gifts her father gave her when turned twenty on. Would it even still work? She clutches the can of pepper spray in her hands for dear life. She tries to make her way into the house with Mission Impossible stealth, but she sounds more like a Slinky going down uncarpeted stairs. The wrong block pulled in a game of Jenga.

Clio is inside her own home, but she feels as if she is trespassing. Like there is some giant German shepherd that’ll attack her at her next breath. She doesn’t even own a pet.

The television is on, but not turned to the news. Sickeningly vivid colors dance across the screen as some silly cartoon plays. The captions are on, the volume off.

The screen suddenly changes. Stephen King’s IT––2017 adaptation––plays. Georgie’s cute face leans closer to the drain. Pennywise’s smile is both welcoming and insidious.

Clio whips around, readying the pepper spray. But she faces only furniture.  

“Hello?” she tentatively calls. “Jay?” The nanny’s name.

She walks into the kitchen, but her walk is like that of an actor in a horror flick, in a haunted house. Or in Scream. Her foot comes into contact with an obstruction. She tilts her gaze down, the pepper spray shaking in her hands.

It’s Jay. His unseeing eyes looking up at her. A thick scarlet smile severing his neck. A puddle of his life surrounding him like a mishaped halo.

Her free hand goes to her mouth. A gag threatens to bring up vomit, more disgustingness to join the mess on the linoleum roses floor.

She’s killed again, Clio thinks, just before she gets her shit together and races to the stairs. To her son’s bedroom on the second floor.

 

~~~

 

Of course Clio visited her wife in jail. The first time was, in retrospect, the easiest. Everyone gets this idea in their mind of jail.

It’s much worse.

After time, Clio visited less. After time, Clio stopped visiting altogether.

She could remember the arrest and what led up to it with such clarity that it was like she re-lived it every single day.

They had went to their appointment at Planned Parenthood, excited to get another step closer to the creation of their non-nuclear family. The protesters were out, of course. It was rainy, and they didn’t even care. They were still out there with their soaked signs and stolid white faces. Clio was incredulous: Women did this to other women. They did. “Sin, sin, sin! Hell!” they chanted. Clio tried ignore them, which was––this deserved a curse word––fucking hard.

Lilith spat at the horde of hagglers. “Why don’t you adopt all the babies whose mothers couldn’t keep them? How many orphan children have you adopted?”

The women with signs sputtered. Speechless. But one came forward. “You’re a slut. A blemish to society. You whore. Shut your legs next time! It’s a sin!”

These women had no idea of Clio’s and Lilith’s situation. They were so out of context. And out of line.

Clio tried to pull Lilith away and into the building, but it was no use. She was skinny, but strong. Lilith broke free and stood before the indignant woman, towering over like a sentinel on duty. Like the trees of Mirkwood.

“You fucking bitch! You don’t even know why we’re here.”

“You’re killing a child!” Her finger wagged.

Lilith grasped the woman’s lapels. “Even if we were, so what? It’s better the child never born than a life in the system!”

“God will judge you!”

“I hope he judges this.”

Like some derelict hockey player, Lilith headbutted the woman. Once. Twice. Thrice. She crumpled to the ground like an old accordion. Lilith stomped and kicked. Clio tried to pull her back, but got a shove that sent her sprawling backwards. Her elbow scraped on the pavement, sending searing fire into her joint. She cried out, but it was no use.

“We. Are. Try. Ing. To. Have. A. Ba. By.” With each syllable came a kick. The other sign holders scattered, screaming. Someone must’ve dialed 911 because sirens wailed like… a newborn.

 

~~~

 

Flashes of their nanny invades her thinking as she creeps up the top steps of the stairs. She she has to emulate the slinking tomcat, the sandshark. The upstairs is shrouded in darkness, unlike down below. The pepper spray can is cutting into her palms. How anyone could break out of a prison was dumbfounding. She should’ve read more. If she had read more, maybe she’d know what to do in this unfathomable situation.

“Momma!”

She fights the instinct to call back. He tries again, but is cut off, his words muffled like a Grandfather clock overstuffed with cotton.

Quickening her pace, she reaches her son’s room. Like the sliding door to the porch, it’s ajar. She gingerly pushes it open. The light is off, but the Minnie Mouse nightlight blazes.

Standing by the window, more beams shooting through, Lilith is illuminated. Like some sort of angel sent. Her hair just as fair as the moon’s light, accentuated by the shadow-lurking room.

She smiles.

“Hi, honey-bunny.”

She’s holding Clio’s son. Their son. His hands are clenched in tiny fists. Even he has that womanly gut sense––DANGER, screaming in violent red. Pulsing. The balloon that was no doubt floating across the livingroom TV screen as Pennywise plays his tricks.

“Miss me?”

Holding out the pepper spray, Clio scopes her surroundings. How to… How to… If only she had been a reader. Or watched shows like Sherlock and not Cupcake Wars. “You’re wasting your time,” Lilith used to say.

“I missed him,” Lilith adds, stroking their son’s straw-blonde hair. You only met him separated by prison-thick glass.

He looks so much like her.

His cries cease, as if succumbing to the reality, that one of his mothers was a goddamn psychopath.

“But his eyes,” Lilith ventures, “they’re yours. You’re not going to use that.”

And she’s doubly right. Clio cannot risk getting the pepper spray in her son’s eyes. Her eyes. The blue of Clio’s. Lilith’s are copper.

She pretends to drop him––Clio’s whole body convulses as she lunges forward, arms outstretched, dropping the pepper spray. “Don’t!

“He’s safe.”

The can rolls towards Lilith, who puts her foot on it to stop its getaway.

“He’s not safe.” Clio’s teeth grind. She reaches in her back pocket––what she should’ve done in the first place––only… her phone is not there.  

“I’m his mother. Of course he’s safe.”

Lilith begins rocking to and fro, as if this is all part of her everyday ebb and flow.

“You killed Jay.”

Lilith’s response is nonchalant: “He got in the way.”

 

~~~


“Why’d you do it?” the police asked.

“She got in the way,” Lilith replied with insouciance.

 

~~~

 

“Lilith, please. Baby.” The old pet name coming easily. “Can we talk about this first?”

“You deprived me of a child! My child. My idea. For years! Look at him, honey, look. He’s ME. He’s mine.”

“Ours.”

“You were useless. Took so fucking long. Shoulda been me getting pregnant.”

An angry well of tears threatens to leak from the dam created by her pride. The amount of times saline slid down her reddening face… The amount of times she had fought to appear stone-stolid…

“Where’s your ring?” Lilith’s question materializes like a demon in the depths of night: spectral and sinister, something you shoo away until gooseflesh prickles the nape of your neck. Until it’s too late.

As if of their own volition, Clio’s trembling fingers reach for the spot where once dangled the symbol of their union.

“Please, just put him down. Then we can talk about this. You and me,” Clio pleads. Lilith always liked to make her beg.

She should’ve come upstairs armed with… with what? She lost the spray. Would a knife had been easier to hang onto? Would she even be able to brandish one? To actually use it? She’d be too scared to injure her son. But if she didn’t do something…

“How’d you do it?” Clio asks, curious but using the distraction to think.

Lilith’s face lights up like Waterfire. In a baby-talk voice, she intones, “Oh, it’s a good story. Yes it is, yet it is!”

Clio eyes the closet––the hangers are all felt––and then the changing table. The faux fish tank that acts as an additional nightlight to Minnie, set atop the dresser.

“You see,” Lilith continues, making goo-goo eyes at Clio’s child. “I made good, good friends with one of the female guards. Yes, I did.” And then her voice returns to… not normal… her own, but an octave lower. “I had it all planned out with some of the other inmates. When the guard, who had stupidly fallen for me, and I were at it one overnight shift––we liked to role play––I stole––” she makes air quotes with one hand, still cradling Clio’s heart in the other–– “her gun. Only, this time I wasn’t playing.”

Clio steps closer, but before Lilith can protest, she purrs, “I’d like to role play with you again. I miss––” she traces her fingers pruriently on one side of the changing table, closer now–– “when I was the troubled student and you the headmistress.”

For a second or two, Lilith’s face softens. Before it hardens. In that moment of vulnerability, Clio lunges for the baby oil, twists, and squeezes. Lilith bellows, swatting one hand. Clio’s focus is trained on her son, some oil spattering his precious face, as she lets go of the bottle of oil and grabs a white bottle. She uncaps it and crushes it like a spider spinning strong gossamer strands about its suffering prey. The puff of scented white sticks to the oil coating Lilith’s face. Some gets onto Clio’s baby, and he cries naturally. Lilith’s moans are louder, her face unrecognizable now. Instinctively, Lilith rubs her eyes with both hands, releasing Clio’s child. She dives, arms outstretched and ready, like an outfielder.

 

~~~

 

Lilith was sick with the flu. Clio called out of work despite Lilith’s protests that she was fine, that she could take care of herself. All day Clio patted Lilith’s forehead with a damp cloth, spoon-fed her chicken noodle soup, held her long hair back as she vomited into the toilet. In her delirious state of malaise, Lilith said, “I knew you were a good on. A keeper.”

That night, Lilith fell asleep in Clio’s arms, cuddled up on a makeshift bed in front of the fireplace.

 

~~~

 

Only his bum touches the floor. She doesn’t even hesitate; she scrambles backwards like a crab running from the pull of the sea at eveningtide. Just as Lilith, eyes still covered in gunk, springs, Clio uses her non-dominant hand to shove the heavy changing table into her estranged-wife. It comes as a shock to Clio when this works––she had heard of mothers lifting vehicles off of their trapped children. It must be that. Lilith stumbles backwards. Unable to catch her balance, she falls. The back of her head smashes into the window, generating of web of vein-like cracks.

Clio doesn’t wait a heartbeat longer. Her son is bawling, but he’ll be okay. She has to believe.

Something tells her to get out of the condo. She spots her phone on the floor by Jay, snatches it and exits the front door instead of the back, thankful that her condo begins on ground level. The moon’s children play brightly in the sky, twinkling like laughter.

When the operator picks up, Clio hastily tells her the situation.

“Slow down, ma’am.”

“There’s no time!”

“Stay on the line until the authorities arrive. Breathe.”

“Where are my car keys!” Her fingers are freezing now.

She runs across the yard to the neighbor’s. Her child wails. Her fists pound the door.

Just as her savior answers her fusillade of knocks, just as light from a cozy home spills into the cimmerian-like night, the face in the doorway drops.

Clio turns around and sees a wraith-like figure, ruby rivers running down the once beautiful face.

A different kind of red lights up the snowflake-packed lawn, accompanied by flashing blues.

“I did love you.”

“You were always a keeper.”

____________________________________

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