Short Story — “Relics”

We learn early on in The Eye-Dancers that Mitchell Brant is a comic book collector.  The old, vintage issues transport him to a different place, one filled with magic, wonder, and gold-glittered avenues that lead to a world of endless possibilities.  As it turns out, these qualities will become essential to his survival.  As the novel progresses and things seem more and more hopeless, Mitchell must tap into that sense of magic and wonder.  He must believe in those possibilities, and keep the faith that everything will work out in the end.

I wrote the short story “Relics” while I was still writing the first draft of The Eye-Dancers.  The main character in “Relics” must, like Mitchell, believe in the unbelievable, and hold on to faith when all reason, all logic dictates that hope is lost.  And, surely, Mitchell would appreciate the role that vintage comic books play in this story.

I hope you enjoy “Relics” . . .

superman117

magic

seamonkeys

journey36

 

“Relics”

Copyright 2013 by Michael S. Fedison

*************

Looking at his wife from across the room, it was easy for John to pretend that things were normal, the way they should be, the way they used to be.  She was sitting on the couch, her light blonde hair in a ponytail.  Everything seemed in place, as if their life, her life, hadn’t taken a sudden, irreversible turn four months ago.

But then his eyes shifted, just a little, to the right, and he saw the wheelchair.  He swallowed hard at the sight of it, took a deep breath, and crossed the room.

She smiled at him when he sat beside her on the couch, and he reached for her hand.

At least she can move her arms, can breathe unaided, he thought.  At least the damage was only from the waist down.  The doctor had told him, hours after Lori had been rushed into the ICU, when his world felt like it was spinning and reeling, out of control, that his wife was fortunate.  The collision had been head-on.  It could have been much worse.  She was lucky to be alive.  And, after assessing her injuries, the doctor assured him that she would live, recover enough to lead a productive life.  There was only one catch.

She’d never walk again.

“Never?” John had asked.  Nothing seemed real.  Lori was fortunate?  Fortunate?  Is that what this guy had just told him?

The doctor looked away for a moment.  “Well, I suppose I shouldn’t say never.  But, in all honesty, it would take a miracle.”

A miracle.  He had read very little on paralysis—he’d never had reason to.  It hadn’t touched his life or that of anyone he knew.  But now, now, it loomed before him, a towering monolith, tottering, toppling, about to land on him and crush him to dust.

He scoured the Web for hours, days, gleaning information, searching for guidance, stories of recovery, of hope.  He read about the latest research, the new and exciting discoveries that were being made every day.  Of course there were differences of opinion among the experts, but nearly all of them agreed on one thing:  a cure was still a long way off—years, decades, even.  Someday, catastrophic injuries to the spinal cord would be healed.  There was little doubt about that.  But that day was but a speck on a distant horizon, ten thousand tomorrows hence.  What good would it do Lori?

“I think I have a little more feeling in my right leg,” she said.  Sitting next to her on the couch, as he had so many times before the accident, the questions came in a torrent.  Why couldn’t he turn back the clock?  Why did she have to be driving on that road, at that moment?  Why did the other driver, intoxicated beyond all reason, have to pick that night to lose control, why did he have to swerve into the wrong lane just as Lori was approaching . . .?

He rubbed his temples, his forehead.  A raging headache was coming on.  Ever since the accident, he’d been getting headaches regularly.  Thinking too much.  Brooding too hard, too often.

She loved to run.  She had been training for a marathon.  He tried to join her a couple of times when she went out for a run, but he couldn’t keep up.  Lori was like that with everything—a dynamo, always in motion, full of energy and life.  Now what was she?

A cripple.

“I just have to believe, that’s what I tell myself,” she said.  He saw her veins bulge out on the side of her neck, felt her hand squeeze his, hard.  She was trying to move her legs.  Pearls of perspiration beaded on her forehead.

He felt like telling her not to strain herself.  It wasn’t worth it.  It wasn’t worth the frustration, the effort, the heartache.  And yet, every day, multiple times per day, she kept trying. . . .

“Unnnh,” she said, and finally relaxed again.  She let her head fall back, against the couch cushion.  Immediately he noticed moisture forming in her eyes.

“Damnit!” she said, lifting her head, looking at him.  “Why won’t they move?  Why can’t I make them move?”  She cried then, and he reached out to hold her.

“Ssh,” he said, stroking her hair.  He wanted to follow this up by saying everything would be all right, things would get better.  But he didn’t.  He had no right to say such a thing.  He wasn’t the one who could no longer walk.  He wasn’t the one who now owned a broken and battered body, full of pain and unending, unrelenting frustration.

He again thought of what the doctor had said.  It would take a miracle for her to walk again.  The therapists at the rehabilitation center—where Lori had learned how to compensate for a crippled lower body, where she learned the skills she would need to lead a reasonably independent life, where she learned how to cope—all of them had said the same thing.  It was better, more productive, to work hard at rehab, focus on today, on realities, on tangible goals and graspable plans.  For the most part, Lori was adjusting remarkably well—better than he would have, he was sure.  She even intended to go back to work at some point.  But she had not been willing to believe that her paralysis was permanent.  Not when she first heard the news, and not now.

“I’m sorry,” she said, sniffling.  “I didn’t mean to cry like that.”  He could tell by the determined expression on her face that she was readying herself for another try.

He didn’t want to watch her strain and strain, to no avail.  Not again.  He got up, feeling guilty, as he often did these days, at the easy functionality of his legs.

“I’ll go back to making supper,” he said.  The fact was, he hadn’t even started supper yet.

She looked at him.  There was a hurt in her eyes, and it had nothing to do with her now useless legs.  She had asked him before to believe with her, pray with her, dare to hope.

“Miracles are like flowers,” she had said just yesterday.  “They need watering.  They need care.”  Perhaps.  But he couldn’t raise up his hopes, only to have them dashed every time he saw her struggle to move her legs.  Maybe she was simply stronger than him.  Or more naïve.  Then again, it was her legs, not his, that were paralyzed.  He wondered, had their situations been reversed, how he would be coping.  He guessed that he, too, would be hoping, working, for a miracle, just as she was.  The difference was—if she were in his place, she would, undoubtedly, be believing, too, right alongside him.

“I’m making spaghetti and meatballs,” he said, feeling like a jerk, as he walked away, “with lots of garlic in the sauce, the way you like it.”

He hoped she’d smile at this, but she didn’t.  She just stared, straight ahead, concentrating, getting ready for another round of exertion.

He cleared his throat, wishing he could find the words she needed to hear, the words he needed to say, whatever they were.  But all he did was walk out of the room, into the kitchen.  He made supper, burning the sauce and boiling way too much spaghetti.  He didn’t have much of an appetite.

That night, after she had maneuvered out of the wheelchair into the bed without assistance, she was thumbing through a photo album.  In the pictures, Lori was usually smiling, moving, the camera catching her in full stride, or with a tennis racquet, about to strike the ball, or playing Frisbee, reaching out to make a one-handed grab of an errant toss.  There was one picture of the two of them, taken with a self-timer, on the summit of a mountain they climbed five years ago, a lifetime ago, on a trip they had taken to the Pacific Northwest.

Beside her in bed, his gaze, inevitably, continued to fix itself on her legs—how healthy they looked in the photographs, how ready to scale and run and conquer the land.  Why did she look at these relics?  These reminders of a life that used to be, but could never be again?  What good did it do?

He turned away.

Beside him, he heard the photo album snap shut.

“You know, it would really be nice to have you support me, John,” she said.  “It’s hard enough trying to deal with all of this.  I didn’t think I’d need to do it by myself.”

That stung.  It made him feel like a failure, a pathetic excuse of a man.  On the other hand, what was he supposed to do?  What was he supposed to say?  They didn’t exactly write instruction manuals on how to adjust to life after your wife becomes paralyzed.

“I need you to believe in me,” she said then.  “In what I’m trying to do.”

“Why?  So I can watch you cry and be disappointed day after day after day, when you can’t move your legs?”  The words shot out of him, too quickly, before he’d had a chance to think them over.  But now that they were out, he needed to go on, needed to explain the way he felt.  “Why do you look at those pictures, Lori?  Do you like torturing yourself?  Is that it?  I don’t understand it!”

“No,” she said.  “You don’t.”

“Why can’t you accept the truth?” he went on.  “We both need to accept it.  I have.  But you . . .”

“You must really think I’m stupid,” she said.  There was a quiver in her voice.  I put that there, he thought.  I hurt her, again.

“I’m sorry,” he said.  The anger was gone, replaced by a heavy, massive blanket of regret.  Why had he lost his composure?  Didn’t she have enough to overcome, without his outbursts?  “I didn’t mean that.”

He thought she would turn away from him, stonewall him for the rest of the night.  Instead, she took hold of his hand.  “I know this is hell for you, too,” she said.  “And I’m sorry for saying you haven’t supported me.  You have.  You’ve been by my side throughout all of this.  Don’t think I’m not aware of that, John.  And grateful for it.  It’s just . . . Look, I know you don’t want me to get hurt, to believe I’ll be able to walk again, and then . . .”

He started to say something, but she stopped him.  “I have accepted this,” she said.  “I know it probably doesn’t seem like it, but I have.  Well . . . I’m working on it, anyway.  I know I might not walk again.  I know what the doctors said.  But that doesn’t mean I’m just going to lie down and tell myself it’s impossible.  I won’t stop trying, John, and I won’t stop believing.  And what I really need, more than anything, is for you to believe, too.  I need you on my side for this.  Can you do that for me?”

The logic-oriented part of his brain wanted to argue with her.  If she had accepted her situation, why would she still be trying to accomplish the impossible, or, at the least, the highly improbable?  Why put herself through that?  But he didn’t argue with her.  He just nodded, and said, in a whisper, “I’ll try.”

“Hi, John, glad you could make it,” Seth said, smiling, the creases in his face multiplying like randomly expanding spider webs.

John smiled back.  He liked Seth.  He’d worked for him at his previous job, and the two became friends.  When John quit, moving to a higher-paying position at a company across town, they remained in touch; though, since Lori’s accident, he rarely got out to see anyone.  He hadn’t seen Seth since the older man had visited him in the ICU, when the nightmare was still fresh and new.  He’d barely heard what Seth had said that day.

“Been wanting to stop in for a visit,” Seth said.  “But I figured it was still too soon, you know.”

John nodded, and an awkward silence hung in the air.  It was Seth who broke it.

“Come on inside,” he said.  Another smile, more multiplying spider webs.

Seth’s house was a spacious ranch, overlooking a two-acre backyard, complete with a trout pond, lilac bushes, a well-kept flower garden, and a vegetable garden that was his pride and joy.  He had boasted about his garden dozens of times at work, before the start of a meeting, as employees shuffled in to the conference room.  But the boasts were true, and now, at the height of its midsummer lushness, the garden looked to John like an oasis, a rich, green world just waiting to lure him in with its charms.

Seth led him to the back den, with its wall of windows and glass-sliding door that opened out onto the green expanse of the yard.  There was a birdfeeder just beyond the windows.  Blue jays and grackles scuffled for control, while a cardinal and two grosbeaks looked down from a nearby perch, waiting for a chance.

But what really caught his eye were the comic books.  There were two stacks of them, side by side.  One stack piled at least three feet high, the other much less substantial—only a dozen or so comics.  Beside this smaller stack, a pair of scissors, a collection of envelopes and stamps, and several clipped-out old advertisements lie scattered on the floor.

Seth sat down in a cream-colored, comfortable-looking oval chair.

“Plant yourself,” he said, motioning to the sofa across from him.  “Make yourself at home, John.”

He did as instructed, sat down, let out a breath that felt as though it had been building for months.  It actually felt good to be here, away from the house, for a little while.  He wasn’t sure if he should leave Lori alone, but she had all but pushed him out the door, assuring him that she’d be fine.  Besides, his extended leave of absence from work was coming to an end; he would be going back next week.  So this would be good practice for both of them.  She wouldn’t be a burden to him, she said.  They needed to get on with their lives.

“What you must think of me,” Seth said.  “I didn’t even offer you a drink.  Maybe that’s what being a department manager does to a fella after a while—gives him a big head.”  He jumped up, spry as a man decades younger, and walked swiftly into the kitchen.  He returned a moment later, with two glasses of lemonade.

“Thanks,” John said, reaching for one of the glasses, taking a drink.  Very tart, just the way he liked it.  But he felt shy being here.  Usually, when he saw Seth, they met for lunch or coffee in one of the cafes downtown.  Sometimes they golfed together.  Rarely did he come here, to his ex-boss’s house.

He eyed the stack of comic books, looking for a diversion.

“Yeah, I just found those the other night,” Seth said, sitting back down in his oval chair, the glass of lemonade already beginning to sweat, in his hands.  “Ever since I returned from my trip back home, I’ve been puttering around the attic lately.”

“You went back home?” John asked.  He’d been so out of touch with Seth, with everyone.  This was the first he’d heard of it.

Seth nodded.  “My nephew got married a couple weeks ago.  I went back for the wedding.  It was nice.”  He paused, brought his finger to his lips.  It was what John had always thought of as his thinking pose.  He sometimes used to do that at meetings, too, before saying something.  “Going back was odd, though,” he went on.  “Hadn’t been there in years.  I saw some old friends, talked about the old days.”  He shook his head.  “When I got back, I started looking for any junk I might find, lying around.  Stuff I’d maybe forgotten about.  I found my high school yearbook, flipped through that.  Looked at some old pictures.  And I came across those comics I bought way back when.  Most of them are more than fifty years old, you know.  Fifty years!”  He let out a whistle.  “Where’s the time go?”

John couldn’t relate.  Time, to him, had nearly stood still these past few months.  The vigil in the ICU, the long, tedious, torturous days at the rehab center, and now the days spent at home, with Lori, as she struggled to readjust her life, to master what had once been the simplest of tasks but now, thanks to the recklessness of one drunk driver, had become grueling tests of grit and patience.

“Why do you have them in two piles?” he asked.  He didn’t want to talk about time.  And he sure didn’t want to talk about Lori.  He needed to steer things in a direction of his choosing.  “What are the scissors for?”

Seth glanced at the scissors, then at him.  John could almost hear the cogs and circuits spinning in the older man’s head, could almost hear his thoughts.  Didn’t he come here to talk about his wife, about what happened?  Isn’t that what he needs?  To talk about it?  But, to his relief, Seth didn’t push or prod.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Seth said.  His mouth hinted at a smile, but didn’t consummate it.  “Going back home, seeing how so much has changed . . . I guess it made me feel kind of old.  I guess it . . .”  He waved his hand dismissively, set his lemonade aside.  “Ah, never mind.  I’m just rambling.”

But the clipped advertisements, the stacks of old comic books—these weren’t merely ramblings. . . .

Outside a blue jay hollered at a bold grackle, and there was a flutter of wings as they both flew away.  Eager to pounce, the grosbeaks descended on the feeder.

“Besides,” Seth went on, “you’re still young, John.  I don’t expect that you’d really want to hear any of this, or that you’d even understand if you did.”

Young?  Lori was young, too—in her midthirties, a lifetime ahead of her.  But what did it matter?  What kind of life would she be able to lead?  Yes, she would reenter society, return to work, read, think, dream, imagine.  But would she be able to run again, to train for marathons, to hike up hills and mountains?  Young.  What was youth to her now?  What was it to him?

He took a sip of the lemonade, hopped off the sofa, knelt on the floor, beside the comic books.  The top one on the taller stack was a Superman, with a cover story titled “The Man with the Zero Eyes.”  He examined the cover, admiring the artwork, then looked at the ads, scattered on the floor.  There was one for sea monkeys, another for a Daisy Air Rifle, another for free passes at an amusement park—valued at twenty-five cents, the ad boasted.  The advertisements themselves were brittle, the paper yellowing.  Relics.

“Did you just cut these out?” he asked then, as he picked up the Daisy Air Rifle ad, examining it.  Grinning boys, guns in hand, smiled back at him from across the chasm of fifty years.

Seth smiled, but there was no joy in it.  “Yeah, I did.  Stupid, I guess.”

John didn’t know very much about comic books, but he did know that old collectable comics were worth a great deal of money—sometimes astronomical sums.  He also knew that if you clipped out the ads, said value would plummet like a failing stock.  What was Seth up to?

“I used to cut out the ads that interested me back when I was a kid,” Seth said.  “Then I’d mail ‘em off, and wait.  And believe me, the waiting wasn’t easy.  I’d run home from school and ask my mom right off if anything for me had come in the mail.  Probably drove her crazy sometimes.”  He paused, looked away.  “It’s funny.  Back then, I remember wanting to grow up, you know?  Finish up with school, move away, make a lot of money.  Guess I did all those things.  But now, it’s just the opposite.  Now, I wish I could go back to those days, maybe try out for the high school baseball team, maybe appreciate my folks more, while they were still here, you know?  Maybe ask Gloria Cooper out on that date, like I always wanted to but never did.  I wonder whatever became of her. . . .”

John knew that Seth had never been married.  He rarely talked about his past, but he had mentioned once how lucky John was to have found Lori, to have found love.  And John knew he was right.  He hadn’t met Lori until he was twenty-eight, and he often wished he had gone to school with her, had a chance to meet her sooner in life.  But then he’d stop himself.  He was fortunate to have met her at all.  They’d planned on having children, but hadn’t yet.  They thought maybe next year would be the right time to start a family.  But that had been before the accident . . .

“Why’d you just cut these out now, though?” he asked.  His train of thought was moving too much toward his own life, his own loss.  He didn’t want to deal with that, not now.  Hadn’t he come over Seth’s to get away from himself, even if only temporarily?

The older man just sat there.  John thought about repeating his question, but he didn’t.  Surely Seth had heard him.

Seth glanced at the stack of comic books, the scattered pile of snipped-out ads.  “You know, most people would say I’ve had a good life, and I guess they’d be right.  I can’t complain.  I’m still healthy, successful.  I mean, look at all this.”  He swept his hands in a wide arc.  “This is what I always wanted, what I strived for.  But maybe, all this time, I was striving for the wrong things.  Because now, I . . .”  He smiled.  “It’s kind of hard to explain, I’m afraid.  Guess I’m just having my midlife crisis a little late.  Because looking at these comic books now . . . there are lots of ads in them that look good, you know?  They remind me of a time, a place, I had almost forgotten.  But now I wish I could go back to that time, to that place, and do things over.  Some of them anyway.”

John just looked at the older man.  None of this was making sense.

“Guess you’re still wondering why I cut out the ads,” Seth said.  “Well . . . I suppose you could say I’m looking for a miracle.”

“A miracle?”

“Yeah.  I used to believe in miracles, once.  I think we all did.”

John swallowed.  “What do you mean?”

“Guess it’s like I said.”  Seth reached for his lemonade, took another sip.  Outside the jays and grackles had returned to the feeder, squawking and pecking at each other.  “I wish I could go back—someway, somehow, at least for a little while.  So I’m clipping out those old ads.  And you know what?  I’m gonna send for them, just like I used to.  Oh I know they’ll probably just get returned, I know the addresses can’t possibly be good anymore.  But then, who knows?  Maybe one of them will get a response.  Maybe I’ll even get the product I sent for, at a price half a century old.  It doesn’t hurt to believe, does it?  To hope.  Sometimes, I think, believing is what we need the most.  Sometimes, that’s what carries us through.”

“But . . .”  All of a sudden, it seemed like there was so much to say, and yet nothing to say.

“Why don’t you take a comic or two, John?  I don’t mind.  As you can see, I got plenty to spare.”

He was ready to tell Seth that this was all crazy, a childish scheme, ridiculous.  A waste of time.  But he found his fingers rifling through the stack of comic books.  He felt them pull out an issue of Journey Into Unknown Worlds, number 36.  The cover featured a species of giants, preparing to menace the ill-prepared human race.

What am I doing? he thought.  Why am I taking this?

As if reading his mind, Seth said, “Maybe you can clip an old ad out of that, too.  Send it off.  And hope.”

He was in the living room, flipping through the comic book, actually enjoying the stories.  It was published in 1955, but the material held up surprisingly well.  Whenever he saw an ad, he examined the merchandise, considering whether or not to clip it.  He had a pair of scissors at the ready, on the seat beside him. . . .

“C’mon,” he said.  “Don’t be stupid.”

But one ad in particular caught his eye.

“Mystery!  Science!  Fun!  Magic!” it read.  “Magic wand to amuse and amaze your friends!”  It was fourteen inches long, with a black center and white tips.  It enabled the amateur magician to perform dozens of tricks.  It—

“Unnnh!”  It was Lori.  She was in the bedroom, supposedly taking a nap.  Apparently, she hadn’t felt like sleeping.  “Unnh!”  Every few seconds, he would hear her grunting.  He didn’t need to go to the bedroom to know what she was up to.  He formed a mental picture of her—sitting on the edge of the bed, arms pressed firmly down on the mattress, supporting her weight, as she struggled to move her legs.  He could easily visualize the sweat forming on her forehead, her face scrunching up, her eyes tightly shut as she pushed, focused, threw everything she had into the effort.

“Unnh!” she said again.

He looked at the ad of the magic wand, and suddenly he felt a firm conviction.  With his wife straining in the other room to move her legs, her feet, just a little, just a twitch, a spasm, anything—he picked up the scissors, lined them up just so. . . .

“I love you, Lori,” he said, and began to cut.

****************

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

27 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Charron's Chatter
    Apr 12, 2013 @ 15:02:48

    great full circle, Mike. It is so important to have faith…in oneself and in a greater ideal. Brilliant accomplishment in a very short span of words. Great descriptions, too.

    operative word: great..:)

    Reply

  2. kaytisweetlandrasmussen83
    Apr 12, 2013 @ 16:54:14

    Another fine story Mike. I love the thought: “Miracles are like flowers, they need watering”. Thanks again.

    Reply

  3. Christy Birmingham
    Apr 12, 2013 @ 19:00:56

    Wow, I had goosebumps at the end. Keep hope, no matter how ‘stupid’ it may seem xx

    Reply

  4. Bonnie Marshall
    Apr 12, 2013 @ 19:37:06

    So effective, Mike. Now I’m thinking…”cast your bread upon the waters”…the importance of planting idea seeds…and the Mr. Peanut automatic pencil I sent away for when I was ten and never received. I suppose some disappointments are hard to shake. Wonder if the offer…nah… (smile)

    Reply

  5. Lyn
    Apr 12, 2013 @ 22:02:17

    Great story, Mike. We all need faith and hope because faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen 🙂

    Reply

  6. honeydidyouseethat?
    Apr 13, 2013 @ 04:04:32

    Awwww. Like this line, “the creases in his face multiplying like randomly expanding spider webs.”

    Reply

  7. 2embracethelight
    Apr 13, 2013 @ 07:33:06

    Oh that was wonderful. It was so emotionally moving and sad and yet hopeful. What an awesome story. It was easy to read and made me want to read more. Excellent writing.
    Really it took my heart and made me choke
    Yisraela

    Reply

  8. lolarugula
    Apr 13, 2013 @ 13:17:05

    Wow – fantastic story Mike!

    Reply

  9. WordsFallFromMyEyes
    Apr 14, 2013 @ 05:31:13

    You’re prolific! Really good writing.

    Reply

  10. eemoxam
    Apr 14, 2013 @ 23:15:10

    I really enjoy the short stories you post on here. Have you ever had any of them published? They seem publishable to me!

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Apr 15, 2013 @ 12:16:31

      Thanks.:) I wish more editors out there shared your view.:) I have had five stories published in magazines. But have also received countless rejection slips as well! But . . . rejection slips are just as much a part of the writer’s life as adjectives and adverbs, I suppose! Thanks again for your comments! And I’m very glad you enjoy these short stories.

      Reply

  11. mummyshymz
    Apr 15, 2013 @ 10:39:37

    I really enjoyed this story. While reading, I was half-expecting a supernatural encounter of sorts like “The Hitch-hiker”. An unexpected yet satisfying ending 🙂

    Reply

  12. fashionassist
    Apr 15, 2013 @ 18:20:34

    A very compelling story and one most can relate to at some level…
    broken dreams, dashed hopes and regrets…
    experiences that force us to be + do things we never thought we’d be or do…
    and yet in this unwanted + complicated state of “new” being or doing…
    we often do find enormous relief + hope in the simple + unexpected—like mailing in coupons or picking up scissors to cut.
    Excellent story Mike, thank you~

    Reply

  13. jalal michael sabbagh.http://gravatar.com/jmsabbagh86@gmail.com
    Jun 10, 2014 @ 17:42:03

    Nice story ,miracles do happen if a person heartily believe.Thank you for visiting my blog.Best regards.jalal

    Reply

  14. The Eye-Dancers
    Jun 10, 2014 @ 18:18:35

    Thanks so much for reading this! Glad you enjoyed it!

    Reply

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