Monday Afternoon: The Girl in the Ally

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I made the transfer, got off at the right stop, and was feeling like a pro as I made my way up the stairs at Timeless. Locked, of course. What was I expecting? No prob, I knew what to do. I headed down the ally, confident, but this time there was no Jamie, and I found th door locked up tight. I banged a few times. Nothing. I was about to head back to the front when I heard a commotion around the corner, and a little girl burst through a catwalk at the far end, running for her life. That was the only way to describe it – I had never seen anyone move with such purpose and urgency, and though she seemed to have a limp, she came on fast. As she got closer I realized she wasn’t a little girl, she was a teenager, so gaunt she appeared shrunken. When she was close enough to call out, she gestured to the door.

“In!” she demanded, urgently, slowing but not stopping.

“Hey, are you okay?”

“In! In!” she insisted but she was already bouncing away. She was practically naked, except for a curtain that she’d tied at her shoulder, forming a Flinstone-esque dress. Her feet were bare. She was not okay.

“I’m really sorry, I don’t know how to get in. It’s always just dumb luck. Here.” I started banging heavily on the door, hoping someone would hear.

“No! Shhh! Shhh!” She seemed totally freaked out. Seeing she was about to run, I held her arm to slow her. It felt fragile, like a bird’s wing – I let go in surprise, afraid I’d hurt her or maybe snap her bone. Now that she was close I saw bruises up and down her arms, legs and neck, as if every touch she’d ever felt had left a mark. This girl had been horribly abused. I felt sick and protective. I wanted to be big and strong.

“Did someone hurt you? Do you need help? I’m going to call the police.” I reached for my phone. The girl shook her head, made a grab for the phone, then changed her mind.

“Police, no, no, I go, sorry, sorry, I go.” She bolted. And she was gone.

“No, wait, let me help you?” I called, helplessly. I stood there for a second, stunned. What just happened? I felt dizzy, I could feel my blood pumping from my heart, coursing through my muscles. I wanted to slam something with the adrenaline. A red veil formed over my eyes and I knew red was danger so I stopped, still, and contracted into the moment with my breath, my entire being as small as a bean, as small as a grain of salt, so tight and still that nothing could penetrate. I breathed in light. I breathed out red. I breathed in light, and felt myself beginning to expand. Then suddenly, I got jolted by a strong, angry hand.

“Who owns you?” menaced a big, mean-looking dude, his grip a vise. “You with these music fags? You let that girl in here?”

I managed to pull myself together enough to use my disorientation to my advantage.

“What girl?”

“Naked-ass bitch just run through here, I think you let her in that door.”

“I wish. But I can’t open it.”

I looked up to see that Meanie was not alone. He and another henchman were clearly with Mr.Somebody, the guy in charge, the guy who’s wrist-flick released Meanie’s grip and sent him to check the door. Which was, of course, locked. This felt completely unreal, like I’d stepped into a movie shoot when I rounded the corner. I thought I should feel threatened, but the adrenaline made this all more interesting than scary. Not that scary didn’t hold its own in the emotional mix, just that it didn’t seem to be in charge right then. I felt so out of my depth that I didn’t even know where to start feeling, so I didn’t feel much of anything, just noticed. I even noticed that this is what it must be like to live in the moment, as much as any perfect meditation.

“I think she’s in there, Flank, just ’cause it’s locked now…”

The other sidekick moved in close to me, his breath like the smell of tar in my face.

“Just standin’ here, all lonesome? Feelin’ safe in broad daylight?” he asked in playful threat.

“Leave her,” stated Flank, and both men moved back quickly. Flank turned to me politely. “Did you see where our friend went? We’re concerned for her health. She has a condition.”

“I could see that. Looks like maybe her condition is you.”

The adrenaline-infused blood coursing through me made me feel invincible, or maybe I just wasn’t thinking at all. Meanie turned on me like a pitbull, hand raised to strike.

“Mouthy little bitch!”

Even the adrenaline didn’t keep me from flinching as his fist came hurtling towards my face. Flank moved in fast with a hard block that sent Meanie stumbling backwards. At the same time, Flank turned back to me, still polite but firm.

“Where did she go?” My eyes strayed involuntarily to the edge of the ally, and I pulled them back quickly. He noticed.

“I don’t know,” I bluffed. As I spoke, the door suddenly opened behind me. Lizard poked his head out, saw what was happening, and stood tall, but I could tell it was at least half bravado. I hoped they couldn’t tell.

“Mouse, you okay?” he asked me, holding Flank’s eye,

“I don’t know,” I answered honestly.

“Get in here.” Lizard reached forward to grab my arm and pull me inside.

“Not so fast!” yelled Meanie, grabbing my other arm. I worried they would rip me in half. Flank shook his head impatiently.

“Let her go. This is taking too long. The girl’s not here, these people know better, right, boy? Get after her.” He gestured down the ally in the direction she had run, and I knew it was my fault for looking. The two men took off at speed. Flank continued holding Lizard’s eye through the entire exchange, never wavering, not blinking.

“You tell Trix, I find out my girl’s hiding here, this place burns. You tell her I promise. She knows what that means” He turned and walked after his crew. Lizard grabbed me and forcibly pushed me inside, slamming the door behind us. I turned and squirmed, making it hard for him. I felt wild with the need to do something and not knowing what to do.

“No, wait, they’re after her, she looked bad off. She wanted in, I couldn’t open the door and she took off. We have to…”

“No way, no how. Timeless is a place for boys, not girls, an’ only legal anyhow. Them guys, she’s no sixteen, and she’s not legal. We can’t help her. Best chance she have is runnin’ down a cop.”

“What do you mean? How can you say that?” Lizard shook his head.

“I don’ wanna shock you, but there’s bad people in the world. From what I hear, Flank’s girls, they get shipped here in crates, an’ they don’t get out – not alive, anyways. No one’s looking for them. You think I like that? But what’m I suppossta do? She bangs on our door, there’s trouble and Timeless gets shut, then all the people here get nothin’. I can’t call that. What can we do for her?”

“So we leave her to them?”

Lizard gently peeled my fingers from the door handle and led me down the stairs, towards Jamie’s studio. I followed like a robot, intent on the conversation.

“We hope we distracted ’em enough she made it somewhere. That’s all we can do for anyone – hope the best. You’d be collectin’ lost souls all day out there, trying to save
’em all.”

“So, if I’d gotten her in here, you’d shove her back out to the wolves?”

He looked uncomfortable. We stood just outside the workshop door; by unspoken agreement we were finishing this conversation privately.

“I never said that! But it ain’t mine to decide, an’ anyhow, she’s gone.” I felt a sharp judgement against his attitude.

“That’s so cold.”

He felt my judgement and gave it right back to me.

“Not half near as cold as the world, little sister!” He rounded the corner of the workshop, done with schooling me on the way things are. I followed him into the space, where Jamie and several boys worked on various projects.

“I found this one outside chatting up Flank an’ his crew,” Lizard half-joked. Jamie stood quickly, knocking over his chair, and hurried to us, alarmed.

“Flank? Why?”

“Women, who knows? Look, I’m handin’ her over to you for safe keeping.” Lizard headed to the door, while Jamie moved in protectively beside me.

“Okay, I got her.”

“Later.” Lizard couldn’t get away fast enough, probably off to deliver Flank’s message to Trix like a good soldier.

“Mouse, I thought Trix told you not to come early! Hey, what’s wrong? You look like you’ve seen a ghost!” Jamie looked into my soul and hit the nail on the head, alright.

“I did see a ghost, just, pre-death.”

“What do you mean?”

“This girl, this little girl in the ally, with three guys after her. Lizard says we can’t do anything and she took off anyway…”

“Lots of stuff happens out there. Maybe she’s okay.” I shook my head.

“I don’t think so. Lizard says the guy has them in crates and they never get out, she was wearing a dishrag or something…all bruised…oh, I hate even thinking about this.
What kind of world do we live in? She was right there, I could have…and now she’s out there, or they got her and…”

Jamie patted my shoulder reassuringly. “You’ve got a big heart. I bet you took in lost kittens all the time.” Enraged, I threw off his arm.

“A big heart? A big goddamn heart? Oh my god, there’s a girl being held and raped by three big men, she had a chance to get away and I couldn’t help her. She’s not a fucking kitten!” Jamie looked shocked, and I felt glad, glad, glad to finally break through the apathy this place had for what was happening to that girl.

“Language!” he cried, then softened. “I’m sorry, I know. Hey, I hear you. I do. Look, Mouse, I know more than you do about this, first hand, and it’s worse than you’ve even imagined. But you think she’s the only one in trouble out there? Why exactly do you think we’re all here? We’re all from out there. We’re lucky. She’s not. Okay, she’s no kitten, but she’s one of a million strays. I…I don’t think it’s right, either. You’ve got to trust me that…I do what I can. It’s not enough. It’s never going to be enough. But you – there’s nothing at all you can do. You got to know this isn’t your stuff.”

Nothing was as simple as that.

“I’m the one who failed her, today. If it’s not my stuff, who’s is it?”

“Just hers.”

“Well, I don’t accept that.”

“You want to go looking for her, don’t you?”

Of course I wanted to go looking for her. But was he making fun of me?

“Yeah. So now I’m stupid and naive, right?”

“You won’t find her. But you’re not stupid. You’re completely right.” I almost sobbed with relief, to hear him say that out loud. He looked upset. “Listen, it’s just, I just…I need to be here if Trix…”

“Look, you don’t have to come, but I’m going outside to look around, just in case. How can I get back in?”

“I’ll come with you.” He stated it firmly, but I didn’t want to get him in trouble.

“You don’t have to.”

He smiled to cover his tension. “Without me you might wander the city, lost and alone.”

“I get here by myself every day!” I retorted, mock-indignant.

“Seriously, if bad guys are looking for the girl you’re looking for, you shouldn’t be out there, ’specially not by yourself. This isn’t the best neighbourhood, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

“I hadn’t, thanks for the novel insight. Okay, I admit I’d feel better with you along. Let’s go.” I headed for the door. Jamie hung back, talking quietly with one of the boys at the table while I tapped my foot impatiently from the hall. The boy seemed disapproving.

“Text if there’s even a HINT she’s looking for me, got it, Seth?”

“I won’t lie for you, man,” Seth stated.

“Just don’t rat me out on purpose.”

“You’re gonna get pushups,” warned Seth. “And toilet duty! Or worse.”

Jamie joined me in the hallway. “It’ll be fine,” he called back.

“Hope she’s worth it!” were the last words to follow us down the hall.

Out on the street, looking carefully at my surroundings for what felt like the first time, I realized just how run-down the neighbourhood felt. Where before I’d felt the streets as benign, now they seemed actively unfriendly. Was I just imagining that the two guys in the doorframe were watching me like panthers? Did the old lady scowl at me, or was that just her face? I felt like I’d been skipping blithely through a minefield and now my eyes were open. The city had shifted into a menacing place.

“It’s funny,” I mused aloud, “I wasn’t scared on this street before, and now…”

“It’s the same street. Try not to be scared. Bad guys can smell fear, you know.”

“You’re so supportive.”

“Here,” Jamie said, taking my hand and tucking it into the crook of his arm, old-fashioned, like we were the cover art for Mary Poppins. “That’s how my dad and mom walked when we were going up the path to church. Sometimes Jessie, my twin, would take my hand like that, to make fun of them. But I found it…comforting. To see them so…comfortable. You know?”

“You’re an actual twin? For real?”

“No. Forget I said that.” Something seemed up. I should have remembered that the past might be off-limits with these kids.

“Hey, sorry, I was just curious. I’ve always been fascinated with twins.”

“Nothin’ fascinating, we’re people, brothers, like anyone else. Just born the same day, is all. Fraternal, anyway, we didn’t look alike?”

“Didn’t? So you do now?” I joked, playing on his use of past tense. I immediately regretted it. I could see I’d upset him.

“What? No. Why…?” I wished I could take it back, but I stammered an explanation for what I’d said.

“You said you ‘didn’t’ look alike…”

“Oh, never mind, okay? I don’t want to talk about my brother.”

“You brought it up!”

“Well I’m sorry I did. Can we just leave it?”

What was wrong with me? I should have left it long before now. “Yeah, of course. Sorry.”

“Jamie!” called an excited voice, as Echo bounded up. Everything about her body language and tone conveyed clearly that this girl had a serious crush on my boy, Jamie. When she tore her eyes from his face, her expression for me was anything but welcoming. Something shifted in Jamie, too, but in a different way. He seemed a little older, calmer, an affectionate big brother or young uncle. He didn’t see her the way she saw him. This could be interesting.

“Hey, Lady-Hoo, missed you at practice yesterday.” Jamie’s voice sounded tender; Echo lapped it up, but it made her shy. She looked down, scuffing one toe against the heel of her other foot.

“Yeah, well, you know…”

“We’re out here looking for a girl. Wearing…a dishrag, or something? Running. You see her?”

Echo shook her head. “Nah. What d’you want her for?”

Jamie looked at me for an answer, but I didn’t have one ready.

“Just to make sure she’s okay,” he said.

“Ha!” laughed Echo sarcastically. “How okay’s she’s gonna be in a dishrag? Why’s she running?”

“Flank,” Jamie stated.

At the sound of the name, Echo’s entire bearing changed. She became small and nervous, holding her arms crossed tight over her chest, hunched, turning her head left and right nervously.

“You go home, Jamie!” she practically shouted. Noticing this, she quieted down. “An’ tell Trix…tell her no. And I’m sorry. Wait. Just tell her no.” Echo ran off.

Jamie shook his head. “Funny girl. Amazing voice, though. Too bad her mom banned her from Timeless.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Maybe because we’re all street mutts and she doesn’t want her little girl hooking up with trash? Makes sense.” I didn’t like to hear him talk about himself or anyone else with such disdain.

“I just don’t see you that way,” I told him. He smiled, shaking his head, like I was a cute kid who just didn’t get it.

“You’re not a good example of what people think.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” It came out too strident. I saw Jamie pull back to being the nervous kid I’d first met. Stupid tone! Why couldn’t I ever get it right?

“Sorry, nothing, it’s…” he stammered.

“It’s okay, I’m not going to get mad. Why am I a bad example of what people think?”

“You have, like, X-Ray vision.You look right through, but most people are seeing what’s in front of their eyes. You see a good guy who likes to make stuff, but they know I’m junkie trash, and they want to protect their kids from that. They should.”

“You are a good guy who makes awesome stuff!” I exclaimed. “Respect yourself, right? Echo would be lucky to have a boyfriend like you.”

He guffawed. “Echo? That one just needs to keep away from the dogs ’til she’s grown, and get her ass to college, far away from these streets.”

“Thinking about her ass, are you?” I teased, in an ill-fated attempt to lighten the mood. Jamie’s face showed disbelief.

“No way! She’s a kid!” he cried, slightly outraged.

“You’re a kid,” I reminded him. I felt it was important that Jamie realize he could have a normal life, if he wanted. I found myself wanting him to suddenly discover Echo, like those teen romance books where the crush turns into true love. I wanted that for him, and for Echo – I wanted a happy ending.

“I haven’t been a kid in a long time. And not like her. Echo’s special, she doesn’t have to end up where she’s starting.”

“You care a lot about her.”

“We all look out for each other.”

“Sure,” I teased, then stopped. Enough seed-planting for one day, I didn’t want to piss him off.

After a few more blocks in concentrated silence, looking around and letting Jamie ask all the questions when he came upon people he knew, I started to feel ridiculous.

“I guess it was dumb to think we’d find that girl out here. We don’t even know what way she went, could be any back ally or garbage can if she’s hiding. I just couldn’t…leave it. Without trying to do…something. Thanks for humouring me.”

“It’s not. I’m not…humouring you. Look, when Luca was here, she told me a story. She said there’s this beach where, like, hundreds of starfish wash up on the shore and get stuck so they die, when the tide goes out? So, a woman walks up and down this beach, every day, just throwing starfish back in the ocean. One day, some traveler says, ‘You can’t save them all. Hundreds’ll die no matter how many you throw back. What difference does it make?’ And the woman says, she says, ‘it makes all the difference in the world to the ones I throw.’”

I’d heard a story like that before, but his telling was different and felt more accessible, less preachy and more real. I felt grateful that he had put this story together with my need to save the girl, and my failure to do so. I felt…honoured.

“Wow. Thanks. I mean it.” I took some deep, deliberate breaths to calm my emotions. After a minute I said, “I wish I could be emperor of the world and make all the people be nice to each other.”

“You’d be a great emperor of the world!” He enthused. “I’d vote for you.”

“I don’t think you get to vote for emperors,” I corrected regretfully, as if it mattered. “They just get crowned or something.”

“Okay, I’d crown you!” He jokingly pretended to bonk me on the head. Just at that moment, as we passed Mel’s Music, I froze, arrested by the sight of the most gorgeous guitar I’d ever seen. If she’d had my name inscribed she couldn’t have been more for me.

“Can that be my scepter?” I breathed. I stood, transfixed, unable to tear my eyes from the window display, until they rested on the price tag. It declared this a “Parker DragonFly Tobacco Sunburst” worth $4,300!

Jamie whistled. “Wow, that is totally your guitar! In some alternate universe where I have a fortune to impress you with.”

“I know! Can’t you just see me… ” Excited by the idea, I found myself air-guitaring right there on the street, as though that guitar had jumped out of the window behind me to land in my hands. Jamie snapped a picture with his phone, and I even posed. Then I stood there drooling, until I noticed him still fiddling with the phone.

“Hey, don’t post that!”

“Too late!” he laughed.

“You asshole!”

“Language! Anyway, suck it up, buttercup. That’s what Trix says. You signed the paperwork, right? Better get used to it if you’re planning on hanging with us.”

“I guess,” I shrugged, knowing it was true but not liking it. I felt such longing for that guitar that it seemed wrong to walk away. Like it was my magic wand and it had picked me. But I couldn’t pick it back, not at that price, not ever.

“Dragonfly Sunburst, I so covet thee. Man, I almost wish I’d never seen this guitar. You know? The unattainable is always so… ”

“Frustrating,” finished Jamie, looking me up and down seriously. It dawned on me that I’d better be a little more careful with him. He shook his head once, hard, and shoved his hair out of his eyes. “So, are we still looking for this girl, or what?” he asked.

“You have any ideas?”

Jamie’s phone buzzed and he looked at it quickly.

“Yeah, my idea is, let’s get back.” I suddenly remembered that Jamie was not supposed to be here, and also, that I might be getting close to practice time.

“I hope I’m not getting you in trouble.”

“Maybe the other way. Trix is looking for you.”

I had a sinking feeling. “Uh oh! Alright, I admit this is a fool’s errand. We can go home, now.”

“Wait, I do have an idea. Just one place, it’s on the way back, sorta.”

“Lead on!”

We turned down a side street, and then another, until I wasn’t sure exactly which direction we’d come, anymore. The buildings here looked more industrial, run-down. I couldn’t tell which ones were running some form of business and which sat empty. As we approached the side of one building, Jamie motioned for me to hold still and quiet. He peeked around the corner at the side of a two-story across the street, where a man stood at the bottom of a set of wire stairs, like a guard dog. As we watched, a young guy exited the building and hurried down the stairs, stopping at the bottom while the man frisked him. The two exchanged words, and the young man headed down the street.

“Wait here. Don’t move, ’K?” whispered Jamie, sliding from my side like a ghost. I waited nervously, feeling very uneasy. I watched Guard Dog, but Jamie didn’t approach him. In fact, I couldn’t see my friend anywhere. Time ticked on, probably only a minute or two, but I felt alone, vulnerable and lost in a strange place, no idea where Jamie was, and late for Trix. I felt my heart rate speeding faster, a muffled thump in my skull. I finally caught sight of Jamie around another corner, talking with the boy who’d been frisked, out of sight from Guard Dog. The boy was not a willing participant. He pushed Jamie away and motioned for him to leave, then shuffled through whatever he did have to say. Jamie disappeared again, and soon came jogging up beside me. He took my arm and rushed me back the way we came, to more familiar section of town, before speaking.

“Well, they didn’t find her yet, so we know that at least.” My heart surged, and my hopes must have looked high enough to need dashing. “They will, though,” he warned me. “They’ll smoke her out. Unless we find her first.”

“Are you saying you’ll help?” I could hardly believe it. Maybe if Jamie helped, we might actually be able to do something. At least, I knew I couldn’t do anything alone.

“If she got past the first search, there’s still a chance. But we have to be careful. And Trix won’t like it. ”

“I knew you’d understand!” I threw my arms around him in a spontaneous hug. He seemed embarrassed, uncomfortable and stiff. He patted my back a few times like he was burping me, and pulled away, but I could tell he was pleased anyway. He just wasn’t used to spontaneous hugs, and I got that. We kept walking.

“So who was that guy?”

“Just a guy I used to know.”

“And that place?”

“A den of evil. You’re really nosey, you know that?”

“Yeah, I know.”

He glanced over at me, then seemed to decide something.

“That place is Hell. I come back and look at it sometimes. To…remember what matters to me?”

I couldn’t let him stay so vague. When there was something to know, I needed to know it.

“What happened there?”

“Nothing. I don’t…just, not right now, okay? Maybe…later.”

“Sure. We should probably hurry.”

We walked in awkward silence, a good foot between us. Then, at the same moment, we each stole a glance at the other. Our eyes met. In his eyes I saw a flash of the essence that is the same in all of us, and he saw it in me. I laughed with relief while Jamie smiled uncertainly. I had to go up on my tippy-toes, but I threw my arm over his shoulder like a kid brother, forcing him to bend down to walk that way. He finally laughed with me, and ducked out from under my arm, crooking his own for me to hold. He tucked my hand in close and we walked together just like his parents used to walk the path to church, all the way back to Timeless.

(continued from 30. Timeless, DragonFly Sunburst http://www.hitrecord.org/records/1909067)

As we ran up the front steps, Trix opened the door. She’d clearly been waiting.

“There you are. Jamie, they need you on sound. Get out there now.” She barked it as an order.

“Yes Trix!” he responded, a good soldier, running off without another look at me.

She turned to me. “You keep coming early, Mouse.”

“I wasn’t very early…”

“Only, now you’re late. And Jamie’s late. And I’m late.”

“I’m sorry. It’s just, there was this girl – ” I started to explain. She interrupted impatiently.

“Yes, Flank’s girl, Lizard told me.” I felt shocked that she would call her that, use those words.

“She’s not “Flank’s girl” just because he cages her. God, you should know better!” I stormed.

“Yes, yes.” She dismissed my reaction as yesterday’s news. “Look, I know those girls are bad off. I hate that he exists, but that’s not our fight. You need to stay out of it.”

“Stay out of what?” I asked, eyes narrowed, looking at her in a new way.

“Exactly,” she replied. “Things you don’t understand. We survive down here in a carefully balanced ecosystem. Don’t go poking the balloons, Mouse. You’re here to play guitar.”

“Well, I don’t seem to be very good at that, either.”

“You don’t get to feel sorry for yourself,” she told me. “Look, we’ll work out the kinks in the show, but you need to focus on the music. I can’t worry about you making enemies. I don’t need this right now.”

“Me either! But I saw that girl and you didn’t. She needed my help and I let her down. I don’t give a shit about fucking Flank or your fucking…ecosystem of balloons or whatever.”

Trix stepped back, regarding me like you might a dog that seemed friendly till it growled. “There’s no need to swear,” she stated blandly. “Look, you’re all riled up. I get it. The streets aren’t pretty. All I’m saying is, you aren’t from here, you don’t belong here, and the only reason you’re here is to play. So just…play. Let the streets be what they are.”

I stared at her, not sure what to make of my jumbled thoughts and feelings. She sounded so reasonable, but there was no reason that could talk away the peril I’d witnessed. I didn’t want to show her anything about myself, I wanted to be closed and cool. But I wasn’t going to let her think I agreed with her, just because I couldn’t explain myself as eloquently as she could.

“If I see her again, I’m going to help her.”

“How?” she asked. “Not by bringing her here.”

“Fine. But somehow. I will.”

“That is our truce, then. You will not bring her here. Look, Kiddo, you really need to know this. It’s not just you. We will all be very sorry if you bring Flank down on Timeless. He’s not kidding about burning us. That one’s likely to lock us all in first. You don’t want to be the cause of that.”

I imagined how I would feel and I knew I didn’t want that. If the threat really loomed as large as she said, I was out of my depth. But my encounter had implicated me, and now what happened to that girl was, at least partly, on me. I didn’t know how to put that down.

“I get it. I really don’t want to put this place at risk. But you have to understand — ” Again, she cut me off.

“I think we understand each other. Right now we need to get to practice.” She turned on her heel and expected me to follow. I knew I’d blown my one chance to talk with her about quitting, but at least it was for a good reason.

“Um…right.”

I followed.

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