“Papa.  I’m scared.”  Sami whispered.

“Ssshhh,” his Papa whispered back.  “There is no reason to be scared.  Someone will come for us.”

They whispered in the dark.

Once upon a time Papa was a baker.  He owned a little shop on Nile Street, just down from the Alforat traffic circle.  For years, Papa’s kollaj and zarda fed the masses.  Lines at Rifat’s were not uncommon.  They came for his halva and stayed for his awameh.  They took home Rifat’s baloza.  And in the darkness of an Aleppo night, they shared it with their family, their friends, their neighbors.

Whether Alawi or Sunni or Shia.  Druze or Christian.  Sect didn’t matter.  Religion was what one did in one’s home.  In one’s mosque or church.

They came for his pastries and his treats.

Until they didn’t.

At first Rifat thought that maybe it was just one of those swings.  Sometimes things slowed.  Sometimes things picked up.  In moments, he wondered if he might make it.  In others, he thought he might need to hire help.  That he surely needed to keep the lines moving faster.  Those other times — when the line formed early in the morning with workers, replaced later by government clerks, and then filled in by the women of the neighborhood who wanted a treat for the table– were more than they weren’t.  Rifat was successful.  He dreamed of an education for his little Sami.  Maybe of a little house in the wooded hills of his childhood, where he could return in his final days.

Then there was a bomb.  An explosion.  Just down the street.  Past Alforat, but close enough that he felt the shock.  The windows of his little bakery shook.  Flour dust rose and then settled again.  And for a moment Rifat worried about his family.  About his wife, Rima, and the little one, Haya.  And Sami, his son.  His legacy.  The little boy who laughed in the light and trembled in the dark.  Rifat could tell the explosion was not near his home, but still.  An explosion in Aleppo.  The rebels.  The fight.  He supported it.  He wanted it.  An end to Assad and his treachery.  His brutality.

He supported these things, but he was a simple baker.

He ran to the door.  To the street.  To Alforat.  He saw dust rising.  Heard the wailing sirens ululating and echoing down the cement corridors. He ran no further.  He had seen enough.

Rifat closed his bakery for the day.  He returned home and held Rima and told her it was temporary.  That Assad would soon be gone and life would be better.  He quieted Sami and Haya.

In the morning, before the sun rose, he returned to the bakery.  He kneaded the dough.  Mixed the spices.  Opened his doors.  And the line wasn’t there.  Instead, somebody on a motorcycle sped by and threw a brick through his window.

Rifat closed early.  Boarded the window and prayed that it would be all.  He had seen the stories of Tunis and of Tahrir.  He knew of the treachery of his own government in years and decades past.  He wanted a change, but his bakery was his everything.  He prayed that the revolution would come but that its damage would pass him by.  A boarded window was nothing, he knew.  He hoped.  He prayed.

Soon though Rifat’s business changed.  Instead of the pastries and treats he had been known for, he began to make pita by the basket and handed it to those who stumbled by his shop.  The bombs fell more frequently.  The sirens wailed all too often.  Lines were drawn.  Neighborhoods turned into rubble.  Families wiped out.  Children orphaned.  Those that remained knew nothing other than hunger and fear and despair.  The least he could do was turn his dwindling supplies and what he could gather from the bakery’s back door in the dark hours of the morning into bread to feed the hunger.



To read the complete version of this story, go here.

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Aunt Millie

When I first started blogging, I found a large community of writers and poets.  Some of them undertook efforts to post writing prompts and other ideas for writing stories.  Somewhere along the line those prompt efforts seemed to have dried up.  Or maybe I’m just not aware of them anymore.

Last month, Anna Beguins posted a few prompts and promised to post more prompts each month.  Here’s the link for the stories that resulted from her November prompts and the prompts for December.   If you’re a writer, I highly encourage you to join in the fun over at Anna’s blog.  Many of my stories have come out of prompts provided by others.

And here’s my entry for one of the November prompts.


Aunt Millie

“She could start an argument in an empty house,” goes one Southern expression. It pretty much describes my mother. Momma was a never-ending bitch machine.  Always complaining.  Arguing about this.  Fussing about that.   She could argue about the sun being too hot and the wind too cold, all at the same time with equal force.

I’m no longer sure if I ever saw her crack a smile and if such a thing did happen, I’d hate to think what brought it about.

Momma endlessly harangued Pops. He worked too much. He didn’t make enough money. He stayed out late. He was home all too often for her taste. It didn’t matter what the man did, she found something wrong with it.

“Stanley,” she’d shriek.  “You’re just not good for anything.”  This after he came home late at night after pulling an extra shift at the factory to earn a little more pocket change for her.

“This house is falling apart and you just sit there,” she’d sneer.

Pops was sitting there.  In a kitchen chair trying to bend his body to a position to get his shoes off.  “Yes, dear.  What needs fixing?”

And off she’d go, rattling off a list of things while she left the kitchen and went into her room, slamming the door on her way.

I always liked those moments the best. Once she left the room, he’d look over at me and smile just a bit, a corner of his mouth barely rising.  “Well, Vicki, there is that, I suppose.” I don’t know exactly what he meant by “that” but to me it meant that she was gone from the room. The quiet that followed her was always a blessing.

* * * * *

“Charlie,” Aunt Millie started at a whisper, “what’d you go and do that for?”


“Now, Charlie, you know what Momma says about the cookies.”

“Don’t you?”

“No cookies before dinner.  And look here, you done eat up all the cookies.”

“What am I gonna do with you?

* * * * *

Aunt Millie was a different story though. Her sister, my mother, may have had a fundamental character flaw. Aunt Millie was the opposite. The sun was always shining in her world. Even if she couldn’t see it.

Aunt Millie was born blind, but it never stopped her.  Never took her down. “Why, Vicki, ain’t the world beautiful?” was how she always greeted me when I visited. We had a routine. I picked her up. We went into town for lunch at Morton’s Diner. She always got the grilled cheese and tomato soup. I got a salad. Then over to Zippy’s for a sundae. And back to her house, where we sat on the porch. With ice cold lemonade on the wicker table between us, a breeze rustling the leaves and may be a cow or two in a distant pasture mooing low and long, that’s when she would say it again, “ain’t the world beautiful?” with a long sigh, a sip from her glass, and a pleased smile on her face.

When Charlie, her only child, was run down by a drunk driver, his bike going in one direction, his body in another, Aunt Millie withdrew a bit.  She got a little quiet. Uncle Jack told me she stayed in her bedroom for a couple of weeks. But when she came back out she was almost all the way back to normal. She had the smile and the happy words for everybody, but there was something different about her eyes.

* * * * *

“Jack, you just hush.”  Aunt Millie rolled over in her bed.  I could barely see her in the darkness of her room.  “Sssh, you’ll wake Charlie.”

“Jack … oh, don’t be doing  that.”

“None of that.  You stop it.”

“Jack, I said no!”

* * * * *

I wondered how two such different women could have been created out of the same gene pool and grown up in the same home.  Momma, who could see flowers and sunsets and her beautiful children, but could actually see none of it because of her overwhelming dissatisfaction and unhappiness with what she had.  Aunt Millie, who couldn’t see any of it, but could only see, even in the face of tragedy that the people around her were good, life was better, and all of it should be celebrated.

Until she started seeing other things. Until her world started closing in on her.

When Uncle Jack’s smoking led to lung cancer and death, Aunt Millie soldiered on. Once again, she disappeared for a few weeks, but when she reappeared, her optimism was still there.  It was always a beautiful day in her world.  She knew her house better than anybody. Nobody needed to care for her for some time, but then things started to change. I spent more time there and eventually moved in to care for her. Momma caring for her would have been a catastrophe. Her bitterness could have only caused some greater destruction than was already occurring.

My Aunt Millie even started an argument with a frog.  She was sitting in the front room, Jeopardy was on.  Just before Alex Trebek began reading the final answer, from outside the front door she left open to let in the barest hint of a breeze on that humid night, the frog croaked.  It was loud and it didn’t stop at just one.

“Well, you just hush up,” she yelled at the frog. “I can’t read the answer.” As though the frog would even know or care.

“Crrrooooaaaak,” the frog replied.

Aunt Millie fumbled for the remote, but couldn’t find it.  “Oh my dear, you horrible frog.  Hush, hush, hush!”

The subject was Men of Science. Alex Trebek began, “The symbols for …”


“… phosphorous & erbium.”

“Well, damn you,” Aunt Millie rose from her seat and pushed open the screen door.  “Where are you, stupid frog?  Messing with my Jeopardy.  Come on out where I can see … oh, never mind.  Just shut the hell up.  7:00 to 7:30.  That’s all I ask.”


Aunt Millie wiped the sweat from her brow.  “Get on outta here.”  She stamped her cane on the wooden porch a couple of times.  “Go on.”


The sound of something wet plopping on the porch, sounding like it was right in front of her, maybe right on the top step just a couple of feet away, stilled Aunt Millie.  She wiped at her brow again and took one quiet tentative step forward.


It was there right there.  Aunt Millie lifted her cane and took a swing, a vicious swing.  And missed, nearly upending herself before catching herself with the porch railing.  “Damn frog,” she muttered at it.

Another wet plop followed by another and then silence.  Blissful silence except for the crickets chirping, which had never been a problem.  Back in the front room, the Wheel of Fortune music came on as Aunt Millie stomped back in.

“Turn the damn thing off.”  I told her what the final answer was.  “It don’t matter now,” she grumbled.  “It’s too late.  Turn the damn thing off.  The Wheel’s no good for me.” This wasn’t the Aunt Millie I had loved since I was a child. She was an imposter.

I turned the TV off and I helped Aunt Millie to bed.  Before I made it out of the room, she argued with Uncle Jack. Even swatted like he was there and she was keeping his hands off her.

In the morning, I woke to find her in the kitchen already. She stood in front of the sink, looking at the kitchen table, reaming Charlie for stealing some cookies.

In the afternoon, she slept with a smile on her face.

And at night, once again Uncle Jack came to her. I left my Aunt Millie with him. Maybe he could bring back her happy memories.

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The President’s Men

Months ago, I had a dream.  The only part of the dream I remembered was this — my sister calling me and telling me she was taking the jump.  That brief memory of a dream turned into The Jump.

I liked writing the story.  It gave me a chance to go a little weird.  To create a bit of a different world.  Maybe with a different set of rules.  But still keep it in the world of America and humans.  I decided to see if I might be able to take it a little further.  I think there’s a novel here.  Or maybe just a novella. But, there’s at least a part two now.  Go back and read The Jump and come back here for …

The President’s Men

They came in the dark of the night. They always did. In their crimson blazers and starched white shirts. Black slacks and Chuck Taylor high tops with their tartan pattern. The only variation in their uniforms was in those shoes. Some were the traditional red and green, like the old Scottish kilts. Some were yellow and blue, or combinations of other colors. Their shoes were the one place the President’s Men could be different. The one place where conformity was not the end all of things.

The knock on the door came just when I was about to turn in. Ceci had long ago gone to bed. A habit I had noticed was getting earlier and earlier. While she slept in more and more. I didn’t know what to do about it. I understood what she was doing. She was giving up.

The knock came again and I rose from my chair. I looked around to make sure things were right.

Out on the street, the lights were out, having been shut off years earlier due to yet another energy crisis. Porch lights were off and windows blackened as well, all by edict from the government to “lessen the risk” we would be targeted in our own homes by the rebels. We knew though that the rebels only targeted government buildings and military bases. None of their crudely designed bombs and rockets ever landed in residential areas. We followed the orders so we wouldn’t draw attention to ourselves, not from the rebels, but from those who now stood just outside our front door.

As I walked to the door, the knock came again. Louder and faster. It was joined by a voice. “Mr. Bell. Open the door.”

I did.

On the porch, dimly lit from the interior light that leaked out through the open door were three men. In the uniforms of the President’s Men. I couldn’t help but look at their shoes. Two wore the traditional red and green patterned Chuck Taylor’s. The third, who stood slightly behind the others, had a black and white pattern. And a matching tam o’shanter on his head. I knew then that he was the captain of the crew. It would be his decision how things would go.

“Mr. Bell,” he said now. “We’ve received a report that you have contraband.” His voice was quiet. His eyes piercing.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. We follow the rules.”

“A neighbor reported that you were handing out fresh tomatoes. Like this.” He pulled his hand out of a pocket and held it out in front of him. In the palm was a cherry tomato, just like one I had given to Mrs. Geraghty earlier that day. Sweet ol’ Mrs. Geraghty who wouldn’t have stood a chance if they came to her house. And why would they?

Because they were the President’s Men and that’s what they did. I said a silent prayer for her and hoped I would find out in the morning that she had survived the night.

I stepped aside and allowed them to enter my home. “My wife is sleeping. I’d … I’d appreciate it if we didn’t have to wake her.”

The captain looked at the others and back at me, sneering. “That’s pretty much up to you, Mr. Bell.”

“I’ll do whatever you need, Mr. …”

“I know you will,” he said, tossing the tomato into his mouth and then holding his hand out to shake mine. His hand was warm and damp, but his grip was firm. “It’s Tim. No need for titles. I’m sure we’ll get along just fine. Right, boys?”

The other two nodded their heads and smirked. “You betcha, cap’n,” one said, while the other began leafing through a stack of magazines on the table behind our sofa. Every one of them with the Old Man on the cover.

“Let’s have a look around, shall we?”

They fanned out. One went into the kitchen. Tim stayed in the family room by the front door. The third went down the hall towards the first floor bedroom. I couldn’t keep track of all of them. I stuck with Tim.

“Nice painting,” he said, motioning at the only painting in the room.


“Thanks. I kinda like it, too.” Truth is that I did. When I was a kid, back in the 70’s a couple of the pictures hung on our garage wall. When the Old Man put one up behind his desk in the Oval Office, it was one time I didn’t mind the thoughtless impulse forced on Americans to do as he did. I happily went out and got a painting. It reminded me of the smell of grease and the ticking of a cooling car engine and the pop of a can of Oly as I took it to my dad, sitting in a lawn chair and watching his street.

I placed it above the fireplace, where the family portrait used to be. Ceci was none too happy with that, but I put the portrait on the wall in our bedroom. Maybe that was why she spent so much time there now. My girl couldn’t stand the things that had happened, were happening. She couldn’t stand the painting, but I knew what would happen if we didn’t have one. I’d heard enough stories. I had no choice and now that they were in my house, I was glad I had done it.

“Eh. I never liked them,” Tim admitted. “Seems kind of silly to me.” It was all I could do to not agree and point out that there was a whole lot of silly going on. While I pondered that, he began walking towards the back of the house. “Boys, you finding anything?” I took a quick look back at the painting before I followed him. I wondered if I’d need somebody slipping me an ace before the night was over.

“No, boss,” said the one from the back of the house.  “Nothing sir,” replied the other.

Tim approached the sliding glass door that led to the yard. It had been barely an hour since I had turned the lights off and stored them.  It was so dark, you couldn’t even see any shadows. Without turning to me, he asked. “Why don’t you show me your tomato plants?”

“I don’t have any …”

He held up his hand. “Please, Mr. Bell. None of that. The tomatoes.”

“Sir, we don’t have any lights.”

“I understand.” He drew a flashlight from his pocket. “We’re good.”

Outside, I took him to the two tomato plants. His crew members joined us. While Tim inspected the plants, they wandered about, going as far as they could in the glow cast off by Tim’s flashlight. I could only hope one of them might fall in the pool, long dried up, but still a deadly hole that might surprise them. I also hoped they wouldn’t find what was behind the pile of trash that had accumulated on the other side of that pool. Where the rose bushes were, and the tomato plants I fertilized, and a few other things I preferred they not find.

There wasn’t much for Tim to inspect. “Tsk, tsk.  Mr. Bell, what am I going to do about this?”  He wagged his finger at me. “I wanna honor your request regarding your wife, but we’ve got a problem here.”

“I understand.”

“These plants are illegal. Been illegal for years know. You know that, right?”

“Yes, but …”

“Yet you have them anyway.”

I felt beat. “Yes.” My face burned in the dark. Humiliated by two measly little tomato plants. At risk, because I tried to give Ceci something good and helped out old Mrs. Geraghty every now and then since her husband passed.

“Hey, boys, why don’t you go on and check upstairs.” I caught his wink in the dark. “You know they say where there’s smoke there also is fire.”

“Please, sir … Tim … there’s nothing up there … just my wife …,” the words spilled out like diarrhea and wouldn’t stop, “she’s sleeping … not feeling well … I’ll do anything … here … I’ll rip them out.”  And I started to, in my desperation I reached for one of the plants and began pulling and yanking. It ripped out, the dirt clodding in the roots.  “Here … I’ll never plant them again … ever … please … just let Ceci alone … there’s nothing up there … I promise.” I began pulling the ripe tomatoes of and tried to hand them to the man.

“Honey, what’s going on down there?” came the drowsy voice of my Ceci.

* * * * *

Oh Ceci, if I had only known, I would have done something. If I had known that was the hidden ace. The hole card. I would have never sat down to play the hand. Or I would have folded long before. But I thought there was a way, that I could work it out and Tim and his men would leave, maybe taking a patch of me with them. A little loss of pride, maybe a piece of skin, or a few bruises here and there. I would have taken that and bore it for you.

I had heard the stories, but I didn’t want to believe them. That our President was capable of such a thing. Of employing men who could do such things. This was a thing that happened in the Third World, in lesser civilizations, where war raged and evil reigned. America was not that place, was it?

Turns out it was. I’ll never stop crying, never stop bearing the damage done.

* * * * *

A week later, I began to make my plans. In the basement, where Tim and his crew never went, I began to build a wall. Behind the wall, I stored a few things. If I were to run, there were things I wanted. Things that might see me down the road a bit. Maybe Ceci would join me.  And the kids, Nicole and Cameron. We’d leave together. Find the rebels. Join the fight. Enough was enough.

A week after that, while the wall was only half built, but the supplies were in place, I let Cameron know. He came over. I showed him the backpacks and told him there were things in them he would need. I wasn’t yet ready to tell him my plan. I wasn’t ready to even acknowledge it was my plan. Maybe I was still crazed by the events of that night and I’d come to my senses. I’d stock our shelves with marshmallow fluff and Fritos when they showed up on the Old Man’s desk. When orders came out that we could no longer have pets, I’d hand over the cat and bury the hamster in the backyard.

I might, just might, find a way to get through this. Just in case, though, I wanted Cameron to know.

Another month and Ceci walked out one day.

“Honey?” I said as she made her way to the front door. “Where are you going?”

She barely paused, only slightly, and turned to me. “Oh, out for a walk, I guess.” Her eyes were vacant, empty husks. Her voice barely above a whisper. I should have suspected something. I should have known, but I thought the idea that she was finally willing to go out, to get out of the house, was progress.

Ceci walked off the bridge that day.

And several weeks later, I cracked and took a backpack and walked off myself. I don’t know why I didn’t gather Cameron and Nicole with me. I wasn’t thinking straight. I … don’t know. I needed to get out of Omaha and find a reason to hope again. I crossed a bridge and made my way through the ruins of Council Bluffs.

I wanted revenge and I thought I knew where to find it.

*** END ***

For now at least.  I have chapter three mostly written.  I’ll likely share that here once it’s complete.  And then this story will be going dark while I see if I can take it somewhere good.  Thanks for reading.

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The Smokers Club

While I struggle with writing new stuff, I’m working on submitting existing stories.  One of my current projects is to put together a collection of short stories for consideration by Willow Springs Books, which is running a contest for the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction.  All I need is a collection of short stories that totals at least 98 pages.  What I’ve got so far is a collection of about 120 pages and I may add one or two very short pieces to it just to provide a little variety.

In the meantime, here’s a piece I wrote a number of years ago.  It was my first story accepted for publication by The First Line.  I post it here as a good luck charm for my current and future efforts to get noticed and published again.  Hope you enjoy it.


The Smokers’ Club

When my brother, Andy, went away to college, he left me his fishing pole, a well-read copy of The Wind in the Willows, and a stack of Playboys.  “Tyler,” he said, in his eighteen-year-old voice that still cracked occasionally, “these are all you need to understand life.”

“Thanks, Andy.”  I wiped the tears from my eyes, brought on by the knowledge that he would be leaving the next day.  My big brother, my idol and protector, the guy who had taught me how to make armpit farts, burp the alphabet, and eat a chocolate-dipped soft-serve cone without getting a brain freeze, was leaving me.

Unlike other big brothers, Andy had rarely used the six years that lay between us to his advantage.  He didn’t make fun of me for the things I didn’t know and he didn’t care if I tagged along with him and his friends no matter how much they complained that his snot-nosed little brother was slowing them down – or worse – was going to tell on them.  Andy knew I’d never tell on him.

Andy and I had formed a brotherly bond when I was eight.  Our parents weren’t home and Andy was supposed to be watching me.  He wasn’t.  He was in his room.  Growing tired of watching the television, I walked up the stairs towards his room hoping to talk Andy into playing catch.  “Andy,” I said as I turned the corner and walked into his room.  My thoughts of a game of catch were immediately washed away when I saw him hunched over in a chair next to his half open window.  He had a cigarette in his right hand and he was blowing smoke out the window.  “What are you doing?”

“What’s it look like?” he replied, snuffing the cigarette out on the ledge and flicking the butt out the window.  I could tell by the arc of its flight that it would land comfortably on the other side of the fence we shared with the Swansons.  For a brief second, an image of an ever-expanding pile of butts on the Swansons’ side yard flashed across the movie screen of my mind.  I wondered when Mr. Swanson would realize those butts weren’t his and come talk to our dad.

“I’m telling,” I said and began to back out of Andy’s room.

“Oh, no, you aren’t.”  He was on me before I knew it, grabbing my arm and squeezing so hard it hurt.

“Ouch!” I yelled and tried to pull away.

“You can’t tell mom and dad.”

“Let go of me.”

“Not until you promise not to tell.”

“Let go of me,” I said again, regretting the whine of my voice but not able to sound stronger.  Andy’s fingers were digging into my arm and he was starting to shake me back and forth.


I shook my head.  I was afraid I was going to cry.  Andy had never hurt me before and the anger that I could feel in his fingertips and hear in his voice was a new experience for me.  “Lemme try one,” I said.

The suggestion shocked Andy into easing his grip enough for me to wriggle my arm free.  I stood there, rubbing my arm where his hand had left red marks in the shape of his fingers, waiting for his response.


“Then I tell,” I said, backing one more step towards his door.  I knew I was another step from being able to turn and flee.  One step from turning and dashing down the stairs and out of the door, where I could roam the neighborhood until mom and dad got home.  Andy ruined my escape plans.


“Huh?”  I turned back to Andy.  “You’ll lemme try one?”

Andy didn’t say a word.  He just went back to the chair and leaned over his desk.  Moving a couple of books out of the row that lined the back of the desk he pulled out a crumpled pack of cigarettes and a book of matches.  Andy motioned for me to sit down in his chair – what we would refer to as his “smoking chair” in the years to come.  Andy stood before me, shaking a cigarette out of the pack, and then removing a match.

“Ya sure?”

Unable to speak, I nodded my head and then watched the match strike the sulphur strip and flare brightly.  Andy put the cigarette in his mouth and touched the tip with the match’s flame, sucking in as he did so.  He blew a small puff of smoke out the window and then looked back at me.  “Last chance,” he said, pulling the cigarette out of his mouth and offering it to me.

I took the cigarette between the thumb and forefinger of my right hand and guided it, shakily, to my lips.  When the filter end touched my bottom lip, I encircled it and sucked in.  The immediate hit of the nicotine on my mouth and lungs brought tears to my eyes and a coughing fit so severe I thought a lung was going to come sliding out of my mouth.  “Easy, easy,” Andy said, patting me on the back.  “You ever want to do that again?” he chuckled.


“Here’s the deal, Tyler.  You can’t tell mom or dad about this.”

“I won’t.  But, you can’t keep throwing your butts outta the window.  Mr. Swanson’s gonna figure it out.”

“Aw, hell, ol’ Mr. Swanson smokes like a chimney, and Mrs. Swanson does, too.  They’ll never figure out those are mine.”  And Andy was right, either they never figured it out or they never let on that they did.  As far as Andy and I knew, mom and dad never found out about our little smoking club.  Until Andy left, I’m sure he smoked whenever he had a chance.  Occasionally, I would, too, just to make sure Andy knew I was still on his side.

Before I left his room, Andy turned back to his desk and rummaged around in one of the drawers.  “Here it is,” he mumbled to himself.  Turning to face me, he commanded, “Hold out your hand.”

I did and he put his closed hand over mine.  “This is a gift from me to you, Tyler.  We are brothers forever.  We must be loyal to each other above all else.  I will never hurt you again as long as we remain brothers.  This is a promise I make to you.  In exchange, you must promise to always be true to me.  To trust me and defend me.  Do you understand?”

“Yes,” I said.  I was awed by his words.  In my young eight-year-old mind, this was serious stuff.   Andy opened his hand and released what he held inside.  It was a small pocketknife.  As it dropped and I reflexively closed my hand around the knife, I knew that we had a bond that couldn’t be broken.

From that point on, Andy taught me about the ways of the world.  He taught me to smoke and not cough up a lung while doing so.  He told me that Pabst Blue Ribbon was the best beer there was.  When I asked him how he knew, he just looked at me and said with a sly smile, “You’ll have to wait a couple of years for that.”  Andy took me on day-long adventures in the woods that surrounded our town, telling me things about the wildlife that I’m sure he made up as he went along.  I’m still not sure if it’s safe to drink water from a mountain stream or if it can make you go blind if you do so.

When I was in the sixth grade, I developed my first crush.  Her name was Olivia.  She had dancing blue eyes and the most beautiful cascading blonde curls.  I couldn’t approach my dad to seek his advice.  He was an impenetrable wall of silence, sitting in his chair, drinking a martini and watching the news, talking only when he needed to tell me to be quiet.  But Andy was imminently approachable and helpful.  He told me how to treat a girl right.  How I should act interested, but not so interested that I looked desperate.  When we talked about Olivia, I learned the meaning of the word “aloof” for the first time.  That was what Andy said I should be.


* * *


I’d like to say that the first thing I did the day Andy left for college was crack open The Wind in the Willows and read it cover to cover.  I didn’t.  I started reading it, but after reading a few pages about Mole, Rat, Badger, and Toad, I couldn’t take it anymore.  I’ve never liked stories that give animals human qualities.  Even all of the Disney movies that have been made over the years turn me off.  There’s something about those stories that disturbs my sense of logic.  Animals are animals, not humans, and they can’t have human qualities.  They can’t talk and don’t have the same range of emotions that we do.  Stories that try to suggest otherwise are just ridiculous.

Similarly, I leafed through a few pages of one or two of the Playboys, but the titillation I felt looking at the pictures was unsettling and something I wasn’t ready for.  I was fascinated by the breasts of the women pictured on those pages, but not knowing what to do about the stirring I felt in my groin, I shoved the magazines into a box and hid them in the back corner of my closet.  Soon The Wind in the Willows found its way into the same box.

Two things Andy gave to me I didn’t hide — the pocketknife and his fishing pole.  The pocketknife was always right where it belonged, in the right front pocket of whatever jeans or shorts I was wearing at the time.  Since the day Andy gave it to me I kept that knife near me.  It was a talisman.  It would ward off evil and protect me from harm.    As I grew into adulthood, I was able to leave it behind occasionally, but never too far.  It sits now, more than thirty years later, in my bag of toiletries on my bathroom counter and goes with me in that bag whenever I leave town.

The fishing pole was what really captivated me.  Andy caught his first fish with it, a three pound spotted bass.  It wasn’t much of a fish, but he had caught it all by himself.  He beamed for a week afterward telling anybody who would listen about his catch.  And as with any fish story, by the time Andy left for college, that fish he caught so many years before fought him for over an hour before he was able to haul it out of the water, had grown to twelve pounds, and was the “largest bass caught in these parts.”  That’s how Andy would always describe it.  The fact that Andy had given his fishing pole to me meant more than anything else he had ever done.

Once Andy left, I initially took every opportunity to go fishing.  I knew where Andy had caught his first fish and was convinced that if I kept going back to that spot, I would catch a fish, too.  Much like the pocketknife was a talisman that kept me from harm, the fishing pole was a charm that would bring me good fortune.  Soon, though, as with most things for a twelve-year-old, I grew tired of fishing, which didn’t have the same lure for me as it had for Andy.  After a few weeks of regular trips to the creek behind our house, I gave up the pursuit for a fish.

* * *


It was August 1968 when Andy went away to college.  He went to the state university in Charlotte without much of a plan, only the vague notion that he wanted to do something more than work at the mill where our dad worked, along with virtually every other able-bodied man in Stewartsville, our little town on the eastern edge of North Carolina.  My protector was gone, temporarily he claimed.  He promised to come back every holiday and during summer breaks.  And, then he’d see what happened once he finished college.  But he promised me he’d never really leave me.  The fishing pole, the book, and the magazines were one way that he’d always be nearby.

It was the spring of 1969 when Andy flunked out of college and returned home.  After a month or two of aimlessness, Andy took a job at the mill.  Nobody ever really knew what happened.  In high school, Andy had been a top student.  Once he got to college, though, he lost interest in his studies and was gone after that first year.  Years later when I really became aware of what was going in the late ‘60’s, I came up with my own theory.  Andy’s smoking in his room, puffing the smoke out the window, and flicking the butts across the fence into the Swanson’s yard, had turned into something more potent.  He had found something more interesting than sticking his nose in a book and he had succumbed.

It was October 1969 when Andy got his draft notice, calling him to serve his country in Vietnam.  At the ripe old age of thirteen, I knew that there was a war going on, that it was growing increasingly unpopular, and, most of all, that U.S. soldiers were dying in a country far, far away.  Once again, Andy was leaving me.  This time he had nothing to give me other than a ruffle of my hair and a “take it easy, little dude,” before he got in my dad’s car for the ride to the train station.

It was May 1970 — a week after my fourteenth birthday — when Andy’s remains came home in a body bag.  He had stepped on a booby trap somewhere in the jungles along the Laotian border.  There wasn’t much left of him to put in the bag.  To this day, not having had the opportunity to actually see that it was Andy that we buried in a closed coffin on a muggy Thursday afternoon in the little hillside cemetery that overlooked Stewartsville, I wonder if Andy is really dead.


* * *


Thirty-five years later, I rediscovered my box of Andy’s things.  It was a sweltering August afternoon and my eleven-year-old son and I were cleaning out the garage.  At the bottom of a stack of boxes in the corner, was a box that had gone through several generations of packing tape to hold it together.  “What’s in this?” my son, Andrew, asked, picking it up from the floor.   As soon as I saw the box, I thought of his namesake and the journey the box had taken from my parents’ home, to college, to an apartment I shared with a girlfriend, to the first home I bought with my wife, and to its current resting place.

Andy started to open the box, trying to rip the layers of tape off of it.  “Don’t open it,” I ordered him, immediately remembering the stack of Playboys that resided inside.  He was only eleven, not quite as old as I was when Andy first gave me the magazines.  I wasn’t ready for him to discover their contents.  I knew something else I could give to him.

“Hold on a sec.  My brother gave me what’s in that box years ago.  I haven’t looked in there for years.  I have something else for you, though.”  I climbed the ladder up to the rafters and pulled out Andy’s old fishing pole.  When I got back to ground level, I handed it to my son.  “Here, this was your Uncle Andy’s.”  I remembered then what the fishing pole taught me about life.

After Andy’s death and days of listening to my mother’s grieving wails and observing the wall of silence my father surrounded himself get thicker than ever, I pulled the fishing pole out of the corner of our garage and went to the creek.  I learned that day that the point of fishing wasn’t actually to catch a fish.  Instead, I discovered that the solitude of the endeavor is all that is important.  That first day back at the creek, I sat by the rushing water, paying little attention to the pole and the line that led off of it.  I listened to the leaves rustling in a slight breeze and watched the sunlight dancing through the canopy of trees.   I allowed the gentle peacefulness of the woods to envelop me and came to terms with my brother’s death.  With the fishing pole by my side, Andy was there with me.  His death was something that couldn’t be reversed.  I accepted his presence in whatever form it would take.

When I got home, I gave my dad a hug and accepted his silence.  It was the last time I would ever hug him, but I no longer would be troubled by his mood.  It wasn’t my fault and I knew that.  It was a silence that he needed.  I gave my mom a hug, too, and gradually her grief lessened and she came back to me.  Two or three times a week until I left for college, I would find a way to get back to the creek.  I would cast my line into the creek’s waters and then sit quietly, paying no attention to the pole.  I couldn’t tell you now whether a fish ever even nibbled on the hook, but I can tell you that whenever I was there on that creek I felt my brother.


* * *


I think I’ll give my son the box when he turns twelve.  I’ll tell him the same thing my brother told me, that the contents of the box will provide him with all he needs to understand life.  I will tell him what the fishing pole taught me, but I hope that my son does what I wasn’t able to do – read The Wind in the Willows and discover its secrets.  Maybe one day I’ll be able to sit down with Andrew and tell him about his uncle Andy and he, in turn, can tell me about that book and what it meant for my brother.

As for the Playboys, I have a few ideas about what Andy meant but I’ll leave those for my son to learn as well.  Those secrets are ones that every boy needs to figure out on his own as he becomes a man.  Maybe he’ll learn something different from the pages of those magazines than what I did when I finally cracked them open a few years after Andy gave them to me.

Posted in Fiction, Mark Paxson | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Who Is Maureen Nesbitt?

Another oldie, written back when I was writing a lot.  I post this while I ponder and make slow progress towards another piece of The Jump.


Who Is Maureen Nesbitt?

Who is Maureen Nesbitt?  A thought passed through my mind in the early morning hours, bringing me awake in a flash, wondering where the thought came from.  Maureen Nesbitt?  I’d never heard of the person.  After ten or fifteen minutes of tossing and turning, trying to void my mind of her name, I gave up and walked out to the kitchen.

There was only one way to find peace.  I went to ask Cal.  At such an early hour, I was sure I’d have him to myself.

* * *

Through an odd quirk of quarks, neutrinos, artificial intelligence, and pure blind luck, a leap forward had occurred two years prior, pushing the Internet Age dramatically forward.  Computers with internet connections, Google searches, and wi-fi hot spots had given away to Information Zones, or izzies.  The technology, although still in its infancy, had revolutionized how people acquired information.  Every building had an izzie–homes, offices, restaurants, schools.

To learn something, all one had to do was enter an izzie and ask a question.  “How do I get to the pizza place at the corner of Clover and Griffin streets?”  The izzie would provide the answer.  “What is the capital of California?”  “Sacramento,” the izzie would spit out.

Nobody really knew how izzie’s came to be.  One day, a man by the name of Malcolm McPhee, standing in the lobby of a hotel, muttered aloud, “Where the hell’s the damn bellhop when you need him?”

“At the moment, he’s on the john, trying to push one out,” said a disembodied voice.  “And you don’t have to have such an attitude.”  Mr. McPhee was so startled by the response that he fell to his knees and suffered a fatal coronary event.  Before he breathed his last, he was able to pass on what he had heard.  Initially, people thought he was crazy as a loon even though the bellhop had, in fact, been trying to push one out at that very moment.  Soon, reports of similar incidents from all over the world began to accumulate and izzies were everywhere, every single building had them.

The benefit izzies brought to businesses was incalculable.  Stores no longer needed clerks.  Customers could simply ask a store’s izzie questions about where merchandise was located and how much it cost.  Servers were no longer needed at restaurants as orders could be placed with the izzie.

Some izzies developed personalities.  The izzie that serves a friend’s apartment is a twenty-four-year-old woman named Elsa.  Before answering any question posed by a man, she insists that he describe a sexual act he would like to perform on her.

The izzie at my apartment claimed to be thirty two years old and named Cal.   Before he answered a question, he insisted that the questioner play something with him first.  The other day, when I asked for a sloppy joe recipe, Cal insisted on playing “I Spy With My Little Eye” before he would provide me the recipe.  It wasn’t until twenty minutes later when I finally figured out that the green object he spied was a fern in the northeast corner of the courtyard that I got what I wanted.  Oh, how I wished I had Elsa for an izzie.

* * *

Now, sitting on the bench in the building’s courtyard, I popped the question.  “Who is Maureen Nesbitt?”

“Rock, paper, scissors.  Beat me, two out of three, or I don’t answer.”

“Fine,” I muttered.  We began the game.  The first round, Cal and I both said “paper.”  The second round, Cal’s “rock” beat my “scissors.”

“You lose,” Cal said.  For a brief second, I thought about what I was doing, playing “Rock, paper, scissors,” with an artificially intelligent, inanimate  . . . aw, hell, there was no real way to even think of what Cal actually was.

“Let’s go again.  You said two out of three,” I replied.

Again we tied, and began again.  My “paper” covered his “rock.”  Immediately, I began the third round, growing impatient at not getting an answer to my question.  I stuck with “paper,” knowing Cal would expect me to change to “scissors” and he could defeat me with “rock.”  Cal fell into my trap, repeating “rock” and I was victorious.

“Three out of five,” Cal whined.

“No way.”

“Then I don’t answer.”

“Fine.”  Nobody could make an izzie answer a question unless the izzie wanted to.

I won again.  As Cal whined for more rounds, I won the next five in succession.  When Cal begged for one more, I had had enough.  “No,” I yelled.  “Answer my question now.  I’ve played enough.  You know I can just go to another izzie.”

“Actually, you can’t, young man.  You’ll need an izzie that can tell the future.  Like me.”


“Some izzies can see the future.  Don’t ask me how.  I won’t tell you.  Your Maureen Nesbitt is somebody in your future.  You’ll have to find an izzie that can see the future to find out who she is.  There aren’t many of us.  One more game.  You win, I tell.”

I began to pound my fist on my hand.  On the third pound, I blurted out scissors as my fingers made the familiar shape.  I sensed a second’s hesitation in Cal as he said, “rock,” and immediately began making the sound of a rock smashing scissors.

“You cheated!” I screamed, rising from the bench and shaking my fists at . . . well, there was nothing to shake my fists at, so I just shook them.

“Did not.”

“Did, too.”

“You mother . . .”

“Hey, no swearing at me.  The user agreement you signed, paragraph 13, clearly states any information inquiry is voided by the use of abusive language.”

Cal was right.  I was defeated.  Maureen Nesbitt would remain a mystery until she entered my life at some unknown point in the future.















Posted in Fiction, Mark Paxson | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

The Jump

There’s still a traveling show. It just doesn’t come with elephants and acrobats.  No clowns. No popcorn. Or much of anything else. There aren’t three rings either.  It’s been a long time since a circus traveled the country. It’s been a long time since a lot of things.

No troubadours going from town to town. If you sing or play an instrument, you gotta be quiet about it. Artists are a thing of the past, unless you have a particular talent with portraits of the Old Man. Then your art will be on every street corner and you’ll be invited to State dinners and feted with toasts and declarations.

The traveling show consists of just one ring. And a giant crane perched next to the ring. There’s no shallow pool of water in the ring. No, it’s just a bunch of hay bales forming a circle around a patch of cracked concrete in an old parking lot. And a quiet crowd that arcs out from the circle, paying silent witness.

It’s called The Jump.

It’s been traveling the country for a couple of years now. Every once in a while, somebody famous makes the jump and they put it on television. For a lot of people, it’s a nice break from twenty-four hours of government-approved “news.” Or maybe it’s just that people are voyeurs and need to see something that makes their sad lives look better. Or maybe because we’ve been directed to watch. Whatever the reason, everybody watches.

I don’t. Well, I did. Once. It was some senator from Oklahoma. There were a few people who went before him, climbing the ladder up the side of the crane, crawling out to the end. One of them, an old man, I think, tried to turn around. They didn’t let him. The senator was the grand finale. He went without hesitation. And I remember the TV cameras down on the ground trained their lenses on the spectators as they walked away. The vacant stares will stay with me forever.

I haven’t watched since. I don’t care if we are told to. I don’t care if it is a national holiday whenever The Jump is televised. I stay at the shop and clean up. Or go for a walk. I stay away from televisions. I know that.

* * * * *

I work at a fish store. No, not an aquarium like in the old days. I’ve seen pictures in old magazines of those places, filled with fish tanks and exotic sea creatures. Giant murals of ocean scenes painted on the walls. I inspected those pictures closely, bringing them close to my face, trying to see all the different kinds of fish that floated in the tanks. They’re all gone now.

One day, the Old Man had a picture taken of him in his office. On the credenza behind him, there was a small bowl with a gold fish in it and a ping pong ball bobbing on the water’s surface. Within a couple of months, every town and neighborhood had small stores dedicated solely to that purpose. Selling people gold fish with ping pong balls. That’s where I worked.

The place used to be a cigar store before the Old Man banned cigars. So, it was small and still smelled of old men telling stories. The walls were lined with shelves though. And fish bowl after fish bowl, each with one regular, old gold fish floating along, and a white ping pong ball bobbing along as well. Each bowl had white rock on the bottom and the same piece of plastic green sea plant on the right side.

This is how things went with the Old Man. When he discussed a book he read, bookstores stocked only that book until there was nobody left to buy it. If he ate at a restaurant, it became the hardest place to get into and franchises opened everywhere.

We were in the midst of gold fish and ping pong ball mania. There was no telling how much longer the craze would last. I was predicting another five weeks or so. Joe, who worked the late shift at the store, thought it would die out sooner than that. It didn’t really matter though. We were good. The need for a gold fish and ping pong ball would be replaced by something else soon enough and they’d need workers for that. I’d never kept any job for more than a couple months, but there was always something new out there. If nothing else, the Old Man had certainly established a full employment system for people like me. Uneducated, lazy, good-for-nothing.

I had my money on jigsaw puzzles. Joe had his on croquet. I wondered how that would work though. Sure, the Old Man had a lawn for playing, that vast expanse of green that still wrapped around the White House, but hardly anybody else did. Lawns being a thing of the extravagant past. If it was croquet, there’d be a whole lot of useless croquet sets in closets everywhere. Much like the useless fish bowls showing up in family rooms and bedrooms everywhere. Like mine. I brought one home my first day at the store. The fish died a couple of days later. I never even named it.

* * * * *

The Jump came to town a couple of weeks ago after an absence of a little over a year. It was July. Hot and sticky. People did what they could to stay indoors, until The Jump arrived.

It usually stuck around for a week or two. The length depended on how many people wanted it. And that was something nobody knew. In some towns it lasted for only a few days with only a straggler or two each day. In others, The Jump set up and saw brisk business for days and weeks. Although business may be the wrong word for it. The Jump was not a business for it charged no money.

A business it wasn’t. It was a lot of other things though. Entertainment. An escape. Maybe a sociology experiment. A distraction. Certainly, it was that. With The Jump traveling around, people couldn’t focus on everything else that was wrong. Food lines. Farm land drying up and blowing with the wind. Gas shortages. Airplanes falling from the sky. In other words, a whole lot of misery and desperation. The Jump was at least a way to forget that for a moment or two.

For others, it was an end.

It looked like The Jump wouldn’t last very long in town with that visit. Lots of crowds showed up in the blistering heat, but there weren’t many jumpers. And no famous locals. If that had happened, if it had made it on to the television, there might have been more interest. But, the rich and the powerful, the known and the well-connected, sat it out that time. An announcement was made that The Jump would be moving on in two days.

I got off work the eve of The Jump’s departure and saw a note taped to my apartment door. I threw it on the kitchen table and went into the bathroom to take a leak. It was an even day so I wasn’t supposed to flush. I did anyway. I was a rebel, don’t you know. Not one of the Rebels who operated out in the wastelands between the cities and every once in a while launched a rocket or two just to keep things interesting. No, I was a little “r” rebel, with my dead fish, flushing when I wanted, and my own little personal herb patch out on the balcony. Basil and oregano.

Back out in the kitchen, I grabbed the note and opened it. I read it and then dropped it and fled down the stairs, cursing the whole way that the Old Man had done away with phones of all types years ago. I had vague memories from my childhood of phones in people’s pockets, of having conversations with people far away. My sister was going to take The Jump and all I had was a note to tell me. For all I knew, the note had been there all day and I was going to be too late.

Out on the street, I panicked. I couldn’t think straight. Which way was best to get to the old fairgrounds? I took a few steps to the right and began to run. I got a couple of blocks down the street before I remembered the river was to the right and the bridges would be a problem. Packed with people going home or trying to escape the city for a day or three.  I retraced my steps and went left and took the long way around.

I ran until I couldn’t anymore. Sweat poured off me in buckets. Through my stinging eyes, I saw it looming ahead of me.

I cursed Nicole for even thinking of it, although I could almost understand. Our parents had both gone in the past few months. Our mother, just walked off one of those bridges and plummeted into the river never to be seen again. And our dad? We didn’t know. Two weeks after she died, he disappeared as well, but nobody knows where or how. One day, he was puttering around the family home we had grown up in, pruning the bootleg roses they still kept in the back yard. Sitting at the kitchen table with a faraway look in his eyes. The next day, he was gone. The roses watered one last time. The beds neatly made, the dishes cleaned and put away. It looked like he was coming back. Only he never did.

Secretly, I hoped my dad was out there somewhere. Actually, it was more than a hope. I had an idea because a day or two before Mom walked off the bridge, he took me down into their basement and showed me a hiding place he was building. A place where he was storing stuff he said “we might need.” So I thought there was that. Maybe he was traveling around. He was young still. Not even 60. He could be walking back roads, finding places to stay at night. There was still charity out there. You just had to be quiet about it. Maybe he’d work for somebody for a few days for some hot meals and a bed in the corner before moving on.  Maybe he was with the Rebels.

Or not. If that’s what he did, wouldn’t have told us?

Nicole was in the “or not” camp. The way she figured it, he was with mom, somewhere in the river, their bloated bodies trapped on a riverbank miles downstream. She never seemed to be able to get that image out of her head.

So, I understood. Really I did.

As I approached the fairgrounds, the spectators were going in the opposite direction. I looked up and saw that there was nobody climbing up. Nobody perched out on the end. It looked like the jumping day was done.

I picked up my pace again, pushing through the crowd until I got to the ring of hay bales. I hesitated before peeking over. I felt for a moment like I was little again and we were watching The Shining on television. I wanted to cover my eyes and peek between my fingers at what was in the center of those hay bales. I didn’t. I looked. There were five broken bodies in the middle and few others that had been pushed to the sides. I looked as quickly as I could. Nicole wasn’t one of them.

I looked around to see if I could find her there among the living and then made my way to the registration booth. On the wall was a list of the day’s jumpers. I put my finger to the first name and then ran it down the sheet of paper. Nicole Bell was not on the list. I breathed for the first time since I read her note and turned around.

“Nicole!” I yelled. “Nicole! Nicole!” The stragglers who had yet to leave turned to look at me before turning back to their own demons. Several of them lingered by the bales, seemingly unable to take their eyes off the bodies. Others huddled about in small groups, whispering to each other. My noise apparently was misplaced given the looks I received and soon, as I continued to yell my sister’s name, a couple of police officers began to make their way towards me.

“No need, officers,” I said to them before they got close. “I’m on my way.” They kept coming so I shut up quick and made my way to the exit, looking over my shoulder only once to see they had decided I wasn’t worth the trouble. And I wasn’t, I was just looking for my sister. No trouble at all.

I wandered the streets back to my apartment as the sun went down. I detoured by Nicole’s place and pounded on her door, getting no answer. The streets got emptier and quieter as I made my way home. People were in their homes and apartments where they belonged, watching the news they were supposed to watch, eating the food they were supposed to eat. In a few hours, lights would go out and prayers to the Old Man would be recited. And in the morning, people would rise and do it all over again.

Only The Jump would be leaving town. I thought I might go back in the morning before my shift at the fish store began to make sure it really was. I needed to see the thing being dismantled and loaded on the flatbed trucks that took it to the next town. I also hoped I could get some official confirmation my sister was not among the jumpers.

I didn’t do that though. When I reached the third floor landing, I saw Nicole curled into a ball in front of my door. I sat down next to her and brought her into my arms. She sobbed into my shoulder, “I just couldn’t do it, Cam. I wanted to find Mom, but I just couldn’t.”

“I’m glad you didn’t.” The heat of her fear and anger at what we had lost soaked into my shirt. “I need you here.”

“I miss them.”

“Me too.”

I pulled her up and into the apartment. We curled up on the sofa together and I let her cry until she couldn’t anymore. Once she was calmed, I told her, “We won’t ever find Mom, but I have an idea.” It was true. There were witnesses who saw her fall from the bridge and others who watched and didn’t see her surface.

I told Nicole my idea. She smiled and agreed.

In the morning, we paid a visit to our old family home. It was empty still. I showed Nicole the hiding place. The backpacks and supplies. We geared up and crossed one of the bridges to the outskirts of our city, where we had lived our entire lives, and kept walking. Nicole decided to leave the “or not” camp.

We would find our father.

Or we would die trying.

It was better than the alternative.

* ** END * * *

Several weeks ago, I woke from a dream.  This doesn’t happen often.  I rarely remember my dreams, which raises a question — if you don’t remember a dream, did the dream actually happen?  People say that all the time — I don’t remember my dreams — maybe because you don’t have any?

Anyway, this dream was simple.  I received a call from my sister.  She called to tell me that she was going to do The Jump.  Hence this story.


Posted in Fiction, Mark Paxson | Tagged , , | 29 Comments


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