Nocturne (Conclusion)

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5

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NOCTURNE
Conclusion

I was still sitting on the patio an hour or so later, watching a harvest moon creep above the surging Atlantic, when I was startled by a rare mechanical noise. The crump of a car door shutting, the sound of the engine turning over, the crunch of tires on packed gravel. I went to the side of the house and saw Sue’s car turn onto the road and head toward town.

The cold had seeped into my bones as I sat motionless. I decided I would try to make a fire tonight. I lived in Maine; it’s what Mainers do when it’s cold. YouTube, as usual, had some good tips. Make a tipi out of small twigs — lots and lots of them — and once that gets going, start adding more.

Well, I had plenty of small stuff from my gardening endeavors, so I gave it a go. Twigs. Tipi. Small sticks. But I couldn’t get anything to catch; even the twigs just smoldered. And the flywheel on the lighter got really warm while I held it sideways to get to the twigs, and I dropped it because my fingers were getting burned. Then I noticed that the smoke from the smoldering twigs wasn’t going up the chimney like it was supposed to; it was curling lazily into the house.

My eyes were stinging, my thumb was sore, and I was still cold. “Fuck this boy scout shit,” I growled. I got a full cup of water from the kitchen and doused the whole stupid thing. Once I was sure it wasn’t going to do anything else to annoy me, I shoveled the mess into a plastic pail and put it outside.

The weather was definitely worsening, and a cold wind sliced through my too-thin shirt. I got myself back inside in a hurry, closed the door tight and cranked the temperature on the thermostat. I’m thrifty by nature, but I needed to warm up.

Hot soup seemed like a good choice for dinner. I had a couple cans left, and chicken noodle called to me. Mom sometimes made chicken noodle soup with leftovers, back when I lived with my parents. Back when I had people I could talk to, who didn’t make me feel awkward or embarrassed. Did the canned soup taste like what Mom used to make?

I couldn’t remember.

The soup did help to warm me up, and the furnace was definitely starting to make its presence felt, but it was slow. There was an old soaker tub in the bathroom; I’d never used it. I had grown up taking showers, and that’s all I’d had in my New York apartment. I didn’t really trust baths, I guess, which was silly. Maybe I’d have better luck with it than I’d had with the stupid fire.

I went upstairs, put the plug in the tub, and started running the water before returning to the bedroom to strip off my clothes. That only took a few seconds, and the tub was a quarter full at best. I felt stupid standing there, bare-assed naked, watching the water inch up the enameled surface of the tub.

The nightgown was still there, on the peg by the door, hanging by those thin shoulder straps. In the soft light, it almost seemed to glow, like . . . like . . . abalone in the surf, on a moonlit night. I shook my head. Where had that image come from?

I was standing in front of the nightgown, though I didn’t recall moving. Remembering how it had felt this morning, when I was wearing it. Remembering how I had felt. I reached up and stroked the silky fabric, feeling that electric charge once again. Knowing, suddenly, that I would most certainly wear it again.

Right now, in fact.

Slowly, carefully, I raised it from the hook. I wasn’t sure how to do it, but pulling it over my head, bottom hem first, seemed right somehow. It settled over my body, and I was overcome by a feeling of peace. How could such a small thing matter so much? I looked in the mirror over the sink, and smiled at what I saw. It was a soft smile . . . a gentle and welcoming smile. I had no difficulty interpreting it. No difficulty at all.

I stood there, looking at myself in the mirror, like I was getting acquainted, until the bath was ready. The smile never left my face. I lowered one delicate shoulder strap, then the other, stepped out of my nightie and hung it back on its peg. Then I sank down into the blissfully warm water, feeling warmth seep into my bones.

Baths, I thought lazily after maybe fifteen minutes had passed, are truly wonderful things. I pulled my right leg from the water, lathered it up, and started to work with the razor. Careless of me, to let the grass grow like that! Long, straight rows, slicing through the foam. I paused when I was finished, checked my work with both eyes and hands, and shaved again where I saw or felt any sign of remaining hair. Then I switched to my left leg.

By the time I’d gotten the hair off of my legs, arms, chest, and pits, I’d had to drain some cool water out and renew it with the hot twice. I felt a thousand times better. Ready to face what the night would bring. Or nearly ready, anyhow.

I got out of the wonderful, beautiful, blessed tub and patted myself dry. The skin moisturizer was in the big drawer under the sink, of course, and I used it liberally all over. After wrapping the towel around my body and tucking it at the chest, I shaved my face extra close, plucked a few wayward eyebrow hairs, and applied my moisturizing cream.

I wandered back to the bedroom, considering carefully what I should wear. Slender as I’d always been, I still needed a corset to give me any real shape. The ivory one would be best, I decided, and pulled it from the upper right-hand drawer of my bureau. After settling it in place, I wrestled with the laces until I was satisfied. My silicone breast forms filled the corsets’ cups perfectly, and I spent some time hiding the seams with makeup.

Stockings were next. Real silk stockings, that attached to the corset with garter straps. I shivered at the feel of the sheer material against my freshly shaved legs. Once that pleasant step was complete, I tucked into a gaff and covered with high-cut panties that matched the corset.

My wig sat proudly on the edge of the vanity. With practiced ease, I put it in place, checked it carefully, then gave it a few strokes with the brush, more because I loved the feeling than from any need. The long, full, black tresses looked as good as the day I had bought it at that delightful shop in Portland, from the woman who had been so very helpful. Once I was confident that it was perfect, I sat and did my makeup. I knew he was coming, and I wanted to look my very best.

Stepping into the closet, I flipped through dress after dress, shaking my head as I considered each. Too summery. Too formal. Too frumpy. The calf-length, long-sleeved wool dress caught my eye, and I considered it carefully. It was warm, certainly, and the tight sleeves and bodice would emphasize my assets — both natural and artificial — while the full skirt would add some flare. Paired with my black leather boots, it would do nicely.

I was all ready, just trying to decide: hat, or no hat. I did love a cute hat. I was still going back and forth on that question when I heard his step on the creaky stair and smiled.

He had dressed more formally today. Gray wool pants, a dark blue dress shirt, his black blazer that just drew attention to his height, to the breadth of his shoulders, the coal black of his hair, and his dark, smoldering eyes. Damn, he looked fine!

We kissed, we embraced, and I was, once again, whole and complete. But we had things to do tonight, I knew, so I made no protest when he led me downstairs and out the back door. Crossing the patio where we had spent so many lovely evenings, we made our way down to the path along the ridge. A cold wind was gathering the storm clouds, herding them like cattle, but the sky around the moon was clear and the path was bathed in silver sheen.

We walked arm-in-arm, my head as always nestled to his shoulder. There were stones, of course. No place on the Maine coast is free of them. But the path was old, old, smoothed by time and the passage of many feet. People lived here when the land belonged to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In the glory days of the Wabanabi, the People of the Dawnland, there were people living here. We walked in their footsteps, safe and silent.

We left the path, and the ridge, the coast and the song of the pounding surf, and made our way across the gentle slope that led up to Bill’s house. The Gallagher place, that had been in his family for three generations before it passed to him. The blink of an eye, really.

We were halfway across the field when I felt it, a stabbing pain, a throbbing, cascading wave of grief. I cried out — the first sound I had made — and almost fell. A patch of barren earth, nearly indistinguishable from any other in the pale silver light. But the grief, the pain, the shocking wrongness, came from there.

He held me upright, and the warmth of his body and the force of his love poured into me, giving me strength to go on. Gently, carefully, he led me forward, up to the back of his house, softly lit by moonlight alone. The night was silent; even the ocean seemed to pause as he pulled a worn keychain from his pocket, unlocked the back door, and led me inside.

The Gallagher house is older and much larger than mine. The farm kitchen with its big old table dominates the rear of the structure, but there is also a formal dining room, a study, and a parlor on the first floor. We passed these to go to the base of the stairs, and there he left me, giving me a kiss and a look of such love and longing that my heart wanted to stop.

I climbed the stairs alone, knowing somehow that this was what I had to do. Strangely, as I ascended, the light began to change. Silver moonlight gave way to watery sun while the temperature dropped, then dropped still more. From the window off the landing at the top of the stairs, I looked out on patchy snow and a cold, gray, heavy ocean. Late afternoon, I thought. Maybe March.

I should have been filled with confusion, and a part of my mind was gibbering at this bizarre turn of events. But I had come here — I had been brought here — for some purpose. I needed to find out what it was.

I knew where the master bedroom was located. How could I not know? I smiled at the memories of waking in that enormous bed, four feet off the floor, a tall canopy framed in curly maple above our heads.

When I opened the door my heartbeat skipped. It was the same room, but it wasn’t Bill’s. The heavy leather chair was gone, and the dark mahogany table and the burnt orange wool rug. They had all been replaced by lighter things, softer things in spring and summer colors. The massive wardrobe still stood against the wall, its doors open, revealing clothes for someone younger, shorter . . . and female. It was her room now.

A sound reached me and I spun around. It was unmistakable, unforgettable once you’ve heard it. The sound of retching.

I was less familiar with the rest of the second floor, but I followed the sound, racing across the landing and down a short hallway. Before I reached the end, a door opened and a man staggered out. Iron-gray hair, long and unkempt, framed a face grown thin, and eyes that were wild with pain.

I tried to move. I tried to cry out. But I couldn’t. Literally couldn’t. It was, I realized, something that had already happened. A different day in a different year. A memory that could not be changed, could not be fixed. I could do nothing but watch, powerless.

Watch as Bill Gallagher died.

He staggered against the door across from the bathroom. Unlatched, the door spun open, leaving him unbalanced. He fell, hitting the wooden floor like a sandbag dropped from a height. The sound was heavy, hard, and very final.

It was, I realized, the exact same sound I had heard earlier in the day. The sound that had caused Sue to turn white. I hadn’t been able to interpret her expression then, but I understood it now: Fear. Terror. The face of someone who has lived too long with ghosts.

Bill lay on the floor, his face frozen in a rictus of pain, dark eyes screwed tightly shut, never to light a room again. His once-large frame was shrunken, diminished, and the room where he had died — the room where he had ended his days — was mean and small. A twin bed on a metal trestle. A folding chair, unpadded, by the narrow window. His half-eaten dinner — his last supper, I suppose — was on a tray on the floorboards; the room had no table to set them on. A chunk of bread, a bowl of stew, barely touched. The remains of a slice of pie.

It’s to die for. Sue’s words came back to me like a thunderclap, and I knew. I didn’t guess, I knew.

I stood there, frozen by horror, and the seasons swirled around me. The room was bare, baking in summer heat, unrelieved by so much as an open window; Bill’s body, and the bed, and the chair, were gone. Long gone. Autumn’s crispness, winter’s cold, day and night, night and day, spun and tumbled, one into another, as I stood still, shaking.

It was night again, and late winter’s chill hung in the air. My breath would frost, I thought, if I could find it in me to breathe. I heard heavy steps on the stairs and found I was able to move again. Retreating into the bedroom where Bill had died, I moved to the window and turned to face the open door, my heart pounding hard in my chest.

The heavy steps continued to approach, and whoever it was must be out of shape. Lots of huffing and puffing.

Sue appeared in the doorway, carrying two enormous plastic bags. I opened my mouth. Maybe to scream . . . or shout . . . or possibly plead. I didn’t know. It didn’t matter. I made no sound.

She ignored me, tossing one bag down, followed by the other. The second bag landed on the first, toppled, and spilled its contents right at my feet. Sue cursed, made a half-hearted move to pick it up, then just shook her head in disgust and left, to all appearances oblivious to my presence in the room.

In the moonlight, the colors appeared subdued, like old photos seen in sepia. With daylight, I’m sure, they would have been positively riotous. Emerald green, royal blue, pale yellow with floral green, pink and rose. Rich wool, the color of claret. Dresses, skirts, tops . . . .

The contents of my closet.

Time spun again. Spring came, and summer. The bags vanished and a fine, almost imperceptible layer of dust lay on the surfaces, the floor and the windowsill. The chill of autumn returned, and the silver sheen of a harvest moon bathed the front yard and the black ribbon of the road beyond.

A pair of headlights slewed and aimed themselves at the house. I was barely able to move before I heard a car door slam, and unsteady feet sound on the walkway outside.

I moved as quickly as I could, but I was only halfway down the stairs when the front door burst open and a figure staggered into the foyer, swaying unsteadily. I stood stock still, hoping I would once again be invisible to her.

But this was no memory. It was here, and now. Sue closed the door behind her and sagged against it, looking a bit green. She shut her eyes for a moment, but when she reopened them, she was looking straight up the staircase. Straight at me. She screamed.

But as soon as the instant of surprise passed, she began to shout. “No! Fucking No!!! Got that, you tranny bitch? You can’t have it! It’s mine!”

She pulled herself erect and began to advance on the foot of the stairs, moving deliberately. It was apparent to me that she was drunk as a skunk, and trying desperately to hold herself together. “I don’t fucking believe in ghosts, and it wouldn’t fucking matter if I did, ‘cuz I’m not scared of you. Hear that, you pervert!”

She put her first foot on the stair, then the other, advancing right into my own long shadow, the full moon shining bright through the window directly behind me at the top of the stairs.

“You can’t hurt me! You’re nothing!” She was panting, her face contorted by exertion and alcohol and fear-fueled rage. “Your sicko body is feeding worms — and it’s probably killing them, too, with all the arsenic I gave you! You’re nothing but moonbeams, bitch!” She got up another step, then another.

I thought of Bill. This was his daughter, this dangerous, crazy woman. She’d shut him up in a room that was little more than a closet, let him waste away to nothing, then poisoned him. That wonderful, magnificent man. A cold fury was building within me, a rage so powerful, so demanding, that it blotted out every other thought, every human feeling, every consideration.

She pulled herself up one more step. “Beat it, you hear me? You got no business here. It’s my house now, all mine, and you’re fucking dead!”

My boot took her hard, right in the solar plexus.

She flew back down the stairs and landed in a heap by the front door. “Maybe you don’t know everything about ghosts after all,” I said cattily as I came down the stairs. “Whoever would have guessed?”

I wondered if I’d killed her, and was relieved — mildly relieved, but relieved — to see that I hadn’t. She was still breathing. I gave it a bit of thought as I stood looking over her, and a plan began to form. Something better than my primal instinct to beat her head in with the nearest blunt instrument.

I went back to the kitchen and grabbed a dish towel from the drying rack. Returning to the front of the house, I wrapped the towel over her left forearm, then dragged her into the parlor. Still using the towel to keep from leaving any prints, I unhooked the long strap from her purse and used it to tie her upper arms together, with a loop going around a leg of one of Bill’s ridiculously heavy chairs.

She was groaning by this point, so I decided to have a seat in the same chair and wait her out.

The groans started to morph into words. “Help . . . help me!”

She had clearly believed I was the ghost of Dick Kelly, which . . . seemed to be both true and not true, since I was also, at the same time, Philip Beauchamp. It was complicated. But her belief was an asset, and she didn’t need to sweat the details, anyway. I was more than willing to work with her existing belief structure. “How could I possibly? I’m dead, remember? Oh, and seeing as how you’re the one who killed me, why would I?”

Her eyes began to flutter open, so I crossed my legs, blocking her view of my face.

“I’m hurt,” she whimpered.

“Cry me a river,” I said drily.

“I’m gonna be sick.”

“Face right, then, or you’ll have to lick your vomit off my boot. I’m fond of it.”

She somehow managed to hold it in. “Go away, you bitch.”

I use the toe of my boot to give a gentle tap to the side of her head. “Manners, Miss Susan. Manners. I'll leave, but I've got things to do first. Like avenge myself . . . and my lover!”

“Don’t call him that, you —”

Another, slightly firmer rap from my boot.

“Stop it! Stop it! You did it! You! Turned my father into some kind of fairy, chasing after a guy in a skirt! My father! Big Bill Gallagher!”

“Whereas you turned him into a wreck, before you turned him into a corpse. Somehow that seems worse, don’t you think?”

“Fuck you! Fuck you!”

“As arguments go, not very persuasive. Besides, you’re not my type.”

She was sobbing now. “I just wanted my daddy back. Someone who was a real man. Everyone respected him. Everyone respected us! We were Gallaghers, and that meant something!”

“Oh I assure you, your father was very much a real man!” I practically purred that sentence, knowing it would burn her diseased soul like battery acid.

“Noooo! Stop it! Stop it!”

“Tell me,” I asked, “Did your father turn you away? Deny you his love?”

“What? No! I don’t want his love! Not once . . . not after . . . .” She shuddered. “Not after you!”

Something wasn’t adding up. “Why kill him, then? You had your life. Why not let him have his?”

“I wouldn't have any life anymore! Not here. Not where I belong. People guessed. I’m sure they guessed. That smarmy handyman, for one, with his sly smiles. Our name would be ruined! And besides . . . .” She stopped, cold, perhaps thinking she’d said too much.

“Oh, don’t stop now, pet. The night’s young. Long as you keep talking, you might see it get older.”

“Fuck! What do you want!”

“I told you. Vengeance, for a preference.” I kept my voice conversational. “I have a bottle of pills that could give you the same quietus you gave me and Bill. You are in no position to resist. Seems only fair, don’t you think?”

She whimpered. It was a piteous enough sound, truth be known, but all I had to do was remember her father’s face, frozen in the extreme pain he suffered at the moment of his death. The rage which had seized me left no room for pity. Not for her. “I’ll give you an alternative, though, if you really want one. I want the truth. All of it. When, where, why, with what. I know it, but I want to hear you say it. All of it.”

She whined, and she pleaded, and she swore, but eventually I got it all. Everything I wanted, and a whole lot I didn’t. I kept her at it for two solid hours, coming back at her with question after question, pushing past each half-truth, each attempted justification. She broke down in the end, babbling details and pleading — pleading just to be allowed to sleep. That mercy, finally, I gave her. Not for her sake, but for mine.

I found her phone in her purse, and she hadn’t even put a passcode on it. I drafted a lengthy email, confessing everything and providing all of the confirmatory details. When she had done it. Which poison she had used, and where she stored it (yep, it was still under the kitchen sink). Most critically, the exact location in the back yard where she had buried her father’s body, that April night an hour after the moon had set.

I wrote out the motive as well; Bill hadn’t been ashamed of his love. Indeed, he’d kind of proclaimed it, when he’d written a superseding will that left the big house to his “tranny bitch,” to use Sue’s charming expression. When she found the copy in his safe and figured out that the house wouldn’t pass to her, she’d decided to pretend Bill was still living.

But of course, I — that part of me that was Dick Kelly — hadn’t forgotten him, and my increasingly strident demands to see him eventually drove her to bake another one of her “special” pies. She knew there would be no inquest. Just an old man, dying alone in his bed as the winter finally began to release its grip. Nothing to see there.

I sent the email off to the police, then carefully wiped the phone of all prints using soap and water before dropping it in the toilet. It’s probably the first thing she’d see when she woke up.

She was snoring loudly, as people do sometimes when they are sleeping it off. I untied her, put the strap back on her purse, then went out the back door, taking my handy dish towel with me and using it to avoid leaving any prints.

The night was getting on, and the moon was gone — either set, or wholly obscured by cloud. I decided to take the longer route, using the winding brick path rather than risk walking on the uneven ground we crossed earlier. I hadn’t gone ten feet when the first heavy raindrop hit, and the wind swirled. The darkness made it harder to stick to the path — but even more essential. More drops fell, a staccato patter on the hard brick.

A gust of wind struck suddenly, viciously, and I lost my footing, stumbling, spinning, and going down on one knee. I was blind — the night was inky, and the rain came fast and furious, pelting me hard. For the first time since the anger had overwhelmed me and I kicked Sue down the stairs, I was frightened.

I had to get up. I had to get home. But . . . I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. The lightning flashed, so close it raised the fine hairs on the back of my neck, and the thunder came just seconds behind, a wall of sound. A sob escaped my throat.

“Kelly.”

I heard his voice. It must have been in my head, for the thunder and screaming wind would have blocked anything but the loudest shout, and his voice had been steady and calm.

He was standing in front of me, hand outstretched, looking as dapper as he had when he picked me up hours earlier, wholly unaffected by the storm that was finally unleashing its wild demons on us. His smile was warm, and there was love in his eyes. “Come on, Kelly. Let me walk you home.”

I seized his hand and stood, buffeted by wind and rain. Then his arm was around my waist, and I felt safe once more.

The lightning came again and I saw the Gallagher house, fifty yards away. I must have gotten turned around when I fell. The flash of light illuminated the kitchen windows, an open door, and a figure on the stoop, a pale, crazed face glaring out into the night. Her shriek made it to us above the storm, or through it. ““Damn you! Damn you both to hell!”

The darkness came again, and Bill took me in hand, guiding me down the path as surely as if it were still broad daylight. The brick path ended at the ridge walk, and we turned left to head for my place. Though the storm raged around us, though the surf came in so hard that splashes of salt water spun all the way up the ridge, in Bill’s arms I was calm and safe.

We had no more words. I guess we didn’t need them. I had seen what had to be seen, and done what had to be done. At my back door, we kissed goodnight like teenagers after their first date. It wasn’t goodbye, not at all. Everything that had ever been between us, the hopes and joys and heartaches and desperate loss, were only prologue, after all. We were bound together by love.

Against that, death itself is only a speed bump.

~o~O~o~

Epilogue

Spring had come early this year. As always, it started tentatively — a few crocuses daring to flash some color; light green buds beginning to show on the maples; new growth appearing on the forsythia — growth that would turn into yellow flame in maybe another week.

I wouldn’t be here to see it. I had been happy to sell the house to the same family that had purchased the Gallagher place. Miguel and Anita Hermosa had a large, sprawling family — six kids, aged twenty-two down to nine — and the eldest, improbably named Washington, would be moving into my house with his new bride, a raven-haired, doe-eyed beauty named Theresa. Miguel and Anita wanted to keep them close.

As I thought of the couple who would be living here in a few days’ time, I smiled to myself. They would bring love back into this house, as Miguel and Anita and their boisterous offspring would restore it to Bill’s place. The strong, deep, wondrous love that would wash away the sins of the past, and heal the old wounds of fear and anger . . . and wrath. Wrath that had, at least in part, been mine.

The police had found Sue the morning after the storm, clammy, cold, and incoherent, sprawled in the middle of the field behind her house. In the fury of the storm, the confusion of rain and wind and lightning, she appeared to have fallen on her father’s unmarked grave. Investigation had confirmed the facts that had been in her email, but she might never go to trial. Unless and until her wits returned, she would be closely held in a mental institution.

It was enough. The rage that had seared my heart that night passed with the coming of the storm, and I was human once again. I had no need to hear a judge or jury proclaim her guilt and render judgment. She had lost her freedom, her good name, and the house of which she had been so sinfully proud. I had the satisfaction of knowing that the proceeds from the sale went to Kelly’s heirs down in Georgia. No doubt they had been stunned at the windfall.

Kelly. That was how I thought of her, now. Bill had said her name in the heart of the storm, and I had known it to be right. I had woken the next morning once again caressed by her beautiful nightgown, but nothing else of hers remained.

Nothing physical, at any rate. My vivid sense of her presence was gone and I hadn’t had any more visitations. Yet the memories we had shared stayed with me, and my intimate experience of her open and passionate heart affected me deeply, in ways I was only just beginning to process. I knew, now, what life could be.

What it should be.

I had sought out this remote place like a rabbit seeking the safety of the deepest burrow. After twelve years completely on my own, I was running from a world that seemed to offer nothing but work, money, and canned soup in a cold apartment at the end of a long day. What I had discovered, instead, was that the solitude I had sought could only provide a respite. Life needs more, demands more, and, ultimately, gives more. Kelly and Bill had understood that.

I had visited both their graves, of course, and felt nothing there but peace. Bill’s remains had been exhumed, and once the Medical Examiner had completed an exhaustive investigation that confirmed the cause of death, his body was reinterred in the family plot. The last of the Gallaghers, save one. But Kelly wasn’t far away, really. It was a small town, after all, and even with the passage of years, the cemetery wasn’t all that large.

A straight path led between their respective resting places, and roughly at the midway point there was a granite bench under a tall, gnarled oak, a hoary veteran of two hundred winters. I liked to think of the two of them sitting there together, sharing their wordless communion. The warmth, the love, the sense of completeness I had felt, when Kelly was within me, and Bill was at my side. I imagined her head resting on his broad shoulder as he bent to kiss the long, dark hair that was, at last, all her own.

It was time to go. The car was packed and the gas tank full. I had brought little with me when I came, and would leave with even less. But I was ready to return to my own world, eager to start life anew. I checked my makeup, grabbed my purse, and walked out the door, shutting it softly behind me.

The end.

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