Today pulled down what I thought was an empty notebook to collate my notes for a new story. In the back of the book I found a map I’d drawn when I was writing The Courage to Love.
I travelled to the Degilbo (Queensland, Australia) area to visit my cousin, whose family had lived there since the 1920s. They had a wealth of information to share with me, and old maps to pour over. We chose a likely spot to have been selected as late as 1919 and drove around the area. The land we chose as David’s and Bernard’s plots is still owned by the descendants of the original selectors of that land.
Degilbo township was declining by 1920 but there were still shops there in the 1930s. The land around is still farming land today, with an active social community.
I also found some notes I made about the area. Much of the information I gleaned didn’t make it to the book, but it gave me great background of the area and allowed me to visualise what David and Bernard would have been confronted with when they arrived. There's an excerpt below.
David and Bernard’s story:
Bernard is the only one who understands David when he returns home from war. He also needs David to help him face each day. David needs to learn that love is worth any risk, even death. If he ever wants to taste happiness, he must find the courage to love.
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Sequel to Between Love and Honor
In 1915, after his beloved Carl died from a vicious beating, David Harrison enlisted in the Army and went to war. He returns home to find a world seemingly unchanged, while he will never be the same. At Mrs. Gill’s boarding house, he meets Bernard Donnelly, a young man suffering the aftereffects of his own war experiences. David finds himself increasingly attracted to Bernard, but that terrifies him. He blames himself for Carl’s horrific death and fears he isn’t strong enough to lose another love to violence.
Bernard needs David to help him face each day and find a way they can be together without stigma—and without putting them in legal and physical danger—but David clings to his idea that the only way to keep a lover safe is not to have one. His fears threaten to destroy everything, unless he learns that sometimes the risk is worth it and finds the courage to love.
Brisbane, July 1919
THE westerlies began early this year. The icy winter wind cut straight through my clothes. I tugged my collar closer around my face, shoved my gloved hands into the pockets of my overcoat, and stared at the weathered headstone. The words carved into the pale granite were now dark and legible. The southern side of the stone held a slight greenish tinge, the beginnings of moss growth, but someone had been caring for Carl. The grass around the grave was neatly trimmed, and there was a small bowl of fresh camellias beside the headstone.
We could not say good-bye.
My heart is broken.
“It still is, Carl,” I whispered. “Every day.”
Eventually, my shivering became so extreme I had to leave. I looked up at a sky tinged orange and pink and knew if I didn’t run, I’d miss the last tram into the city.
MOTHER’S shrill voice started before I finished unbuttoning my coat. “Where have you been, David? Dinner’s been ready for over an hour. You know what time to be home.” The diminutive woman who ruled my every waking moment when I was at home came into the front hall. She had pulled her graying hair back into her usual severe bun, her thin lips were pinched in disapproval, and her gray eyes glared accusingly as I turned from hanging my coat on the coat stand. “Well?”
“I was just walking around, Mother.”
“Mrs. Edwards and Esther came for afternoon tea. I expected you to be home.”
I stifled the sigh that wanted to escape, but judging by the frown on Mother’s face, I probably didn’t hide my relief very well. The excuses I’d once used dried on my tongue. I would no longer pretend to be someone I wasn’t. After Carl, I’d not get drawn or trapped into marrying a woman my mother chose. Or any woman.
“Did you go to the Post Office and get your job back?”
I couldn’t control the sigh this time. I had gone in there in the morning, and nothing had changed. The checkered tiles still muted footsteps from the doors to the counter. The polished oak counter and stair railings gleamed in the light as they had before. The large room still smelled of old paper, ink, and furniture polish. The only difference was the new faces behind the counter. And me. I was different too, but no one understood that, least of all my mother. I didn’t want to go back to the Post Office, but I wanted to stay in this house even less.
“I begin on Monday.”
Her consideration of me changed, and I suppressed a cringe, standing taller, my back rigid, knowing what she’d say next.
“Good, then you’ll be able to pay more board.” She returned to the living room and sat among the threadbare spotlessness of worn carpets and upholstery. A small fire burned in the grate, lending a homey feel to the one room my mother spent time in. She positioned her feet precisely together, as a lady should, and picked up her mending. “Your dinner is in the oven.”
Dried-out cottage pie and wrinkled, woody carrots, burned on the tips, sat forlornly on an enameled plate in the hot side of the wood-fired oven. I sat at the scarred kitchen table and shoveled the food into my mouth, chewing and swallowing without tasting anything. I didn’t care what my mother served. Everything here tasted better than what I’d eaten the last four years. If I never saw bully beef, tinned peaches, or golden syrup again, it would be too soon.
When I finished, I placed my plate in the tub of water sitting in the sink and stared at the dim reflection of myself in the grubby window. I shuffled my feet against the gritty, sticky floor, then went up the stairs to my room, grateful every day that it was positioned directly over the kitchen and its warmth.
I pulled my suitcase from the top of the wardrobe, sneezed at the dust that came down with it, and packed as many of my clothes and books as would fit. I put the filled suitcase back on top of the wardrobe, hung my pants, coat, and shirt over a chair, crawled into my narrow bed, and stared at the stained ceiling.
I woke in the dark hours before dawn to screams echoing in my room and, from what I knew from her complaints after other nightmares, the thump of my mother’s shoe hitting the other side of the wall above my head. I rose and dressed, then went down the back stairs. Within five minutes, I was free of the house and headed for the river.
OUR glade was unchanged except for the cigarette ends that littered the flattened grass in the middle. The white paper-ends, left by careless smokers, glowed dully in the predawn light. I crawled under the drooping leaves of the willow and leaned against the trunk. I closed my eyes as I remembered the times I’d spent there with Carl, holding his warm body against mine, before the ugliness of our world exploded.
I woke reaching for my rifle, only to have my fingers bump against roots and dew-damp mulch. Murmured voices faded downriver as their unseen owners meandered along the nearby path. I stared through the fractured canopy above me until my breathing settled and my heart rate calmed. When I was sure I was in the glade and not at war, and that no one waited to shoot me, I crawled out of the dimness, brushed myself off, and walked along the riverbank toward Mrs. Gill’s in New Farm.
The house had suffered while I’d been away. The paint looked dull. Sections on the western side had begun to peel and flake away. Dirt clouded the louvered windows that formed the top half of the closed-in wraparound verandas on both the ground floor and the floor above. A small gum tree sprouted in the drooping gutter at the corner of the corrugated iron roof. The front gate needed oiling—the hinges caught and screeched as I pushed it open and closed. The grass beside the path needed cutting, while the flower beds on either side of the short set of stairs to the front door still flourished amid a tangle of weeds, though not much but azaleas were in bloom. The roses, planted in round mounds of mulch leading the way from the gate to the stairs, had been pruned and were beginning to shoot. Over to the side of the front yard, between the house and the fence, a scraggly Geraldton Wax leaned away from the wind, its purple geometrically arranged flowers whipped to a frenzy against the fence dividing this yard from the one next door.
I took the front stairs two at a time, as I always had, only remembering when I reached the landing, there was nothing worth running toward anymore. I took a deep breath and knocked on the door. I hoped Mrs. Gill remembered me and that she had a room to spare.
“Mr. Harrison, you’re back!” Mrs. Gill pulled me into the entry and enveloped me in a lavender-scented hug. Then she pushed me away and fussed with the position of a bowl of camellias on the side table. They were the same color as the flowers at Carl’s grave. “Come on in and tell me when you got back.”
I followed the bustling woman down the long hallway—past the doors to the dining room and parlor, the stairs to the upper level, and the short hallway that led to boarders’ rooms and the downstairs bathroom—to the back of the house and stepped down the single step into the warm kitchen.
There were only good memories in this room. Mrs. Gill’s stove was the same model as my mother’s, but where my mother’s was dull black and smoked from its poorly cleaned flue, Mrs. Gill’s shone from Stove Black and produced a sweet, clean warmth that immediately soothed me. Mrs. Gill tapped the back of one of the wooden chairs as she passed. “Sit, sit, Mr. Harrison.”
She dragged a heavy kettle from the back right corner of the stove to the left, directly above the fire. I looked around the room as I sat. The scrubbed wooden table top was the same, but the large basket that usually contained fruit was gone. The potato sack hanging on the back of the open pantry door was half-full. On the floor in the pantry was a bucket filled with turnips and cabbages. The icebox in the corner of the room didn’t sweat as it usually did when freshly stocked with ice but appeared to be the same temperature as the rest of the room. The stone floor gleamed, clean and smooth in the early morning light that streamed in through the windows over the stove.
Outside, in the backyard, the vegetable patch brought memories of lazy Sunday afternoons in my room, laughing as Carl, naked and flushed from our loving, leaned out the window and tried to scare the crows from the corn. Tall stalks of corn and trellised beans waved in the breeze, but appeared neglected, overgrown with weeds, like a remnant of a better life that would never be seen again. The tall jacaranda tree in the back corner appeared unchanged, and provided shade over nearly half the yard. In front of the vegetable garden, over to the side of the privy, white sheets flapped in the breeze on lines strung across the yard from the small washhouse.
“I’ll make us a nice cup of tea, and you can tell me all that you’ve been doing since you came back and what you have planned now.” Mrs. Gill pulled down cups and saucers from the dresser against the wall facing the sink.
I sat and breathed deeply for the first time in what felt like months. Everyone else wanted to know about the war. They asked if I’d had fun in France and how many French women I’d met. They told me I must be “so proud to have served King and country” and be pleased to have driven the Huns back. I’m glad Mrs. Gill didn’t.
“So how are you settling back in, Mr. Harrison? Several of our young men from here never returned.” She cleared her throat. “But you’d know more about that than I would, I expect.” She placed a cup of steaming tea in front of me and pushed the sugar over. “We lost nearly half our chickens in a storm a few months ago, so it’s going to be difficult to keep eggs on the table until new ones arrive, but I’m sure we’ll manage, dear. We always do.” She sat and, pulling the saucer, drew her teacup toward her.
I flinched at the rattled china-scrape across the table.
Mrs. Gill added milk to her tea, picked up a teaspoon, and stirred it as she stared at the swirling liquid. “I suppose you’ve found better accommodations since you returned?”
“Actually, no, Mrs. Gill. I’ve been staying with my mother, but I was wondering if my old room was available.” My speech was as I had rehearsed, but my throat felt scratchy, like I wanted to cough or vomit. I had no idea what I’d do if Mrs. Gill had rented my room to someone else. The only thing I knew for sure was I couldn’t spend another night under my mother’s roof.
“Oh.” Mrs. Gill looked up at me, her faded blue eyes showing an endearing combination of surprise, pleasure, and dismay. “Actually, it’s not available, Mr. Harrison. I put Mr. Donnelly in your old room, on account of it being at the back of the house and quieter.”
I nodded and tried to smile, but my stomach churned. I twisted my fingers together in my lap, my nerves stretched so tight I thought I would start screaming and never stop.
“I expect you’re looking for a quiet room as well.” She considered me carefully for several seconds. I was relieved that she seemed to instinctively understand. “With so many motor cars around lately, all the front rooms will be too noisy for you. You could have Mr. George’s old room if you wanted.” After making this statement, Mrs. Gill jumped up, grabbed a cloth, and wiped the table down, then refilled my cup, even though I’d barely taken two sips from it.
“It’s not taken?” My heart pounded and I closed my eyes against the image of Carl, in pain, his eyes crying out his love for me even as he breathed his last. I didn’t know if I could go back into that room, yet part of me couldn’t stay away.
“No.” Mrs. Gill hesitated. “Some gentlemen don’t like the thought that someone died there, but you and Mr. George were such close friends, I thought you wouldn’t mind.”
The alternative was my mother’s. I’d rather be somewhere Carl had been. “I start back at the Post Office on Monday. Would I be able to move in today and pay the board after I receive my first wage?”
Mrs. Gill beamed at me. “Of course, dear. You didn’t bring anything with you?” She looked around the kitchen as if expecting to see a suitcase materialize even though we both knew I hadn’t arrived with anything. Mrs. Gill reached over and patted my arm. “It’s good to have you back, Mr. Harrison.”
I smiled at her. “And it’s good to be back, Mrs. Gill.”
For the first time since the ship had landed back in Australia, I meant those words.
I RETURNED to my mother’s house in the afternoon. Today was her library afternoon, in which she met several like-minded matrons at the local library and they discussed in hushed whispers the state of the neighborhood. It was cowardly, but I didn’t want to face her. I’d had enough of people screaming at me, and if I had to listen to one more of her tirades, I would say something irrevocable. As much as I no longer wanted to live with her, she was my mother, and I needed to treat her with as much respect as I was able to. Unfortunately, that meant behaving like the basest coward and running away.
I left a note on the kitchen table, collected my suitcase, and shoved the front door key under the door as I left.
CARL’S room felt like me: it looked the same, but it was empty. The washstand still held the same fluted blue-and-white basin and jug, but his brushes and shaving gear were gone. I laid out my toiletries precisely but on the opposite side of the basin from where he’d always stored his. After hanging my clothes in the single wardrobe, I pushed them to the left, leaving enough room for as many again beside them. Then I positioned the suitcase on its side on top of the wardrobe. I stared at the bed, but didn’t touch it. His bed had always been narrower than mine, so I’d never slept in it. If I closed my eyes, I could see Carl as he was the last time I saw him, belly swollen, bones broken, tears streaming down his face.
I didn’t close my eyes.
Mrs. Gill let me take one of the brocade wing-back chairs from the downstairs sitting room. I positioned it near the window, facing out so I could sit and look at the garden, with the branches of the jacaranda tree gracefully protecting the corner of the vegetable garden from the midday sun. I kept it at an angle so I could also see the door. On the floor beside the chair, I placed a sturdy branch that had fallen from the gum tree in the neighbor’s yard.
At dinner that night, I met the other boarders. I remembered one from my previous time there, but the other two were new. I forgot their names before I’d finished shaking their hands. They took their places at the dining table, leaving one place setting unclaimed. They sat silently and avoided looking at each other, a stark contrast to the noisy conversation that had heralded their arrival. The two other dining tables were bare of place settings. I went to the kitchen.
“Mrs. Gill, is there anything I can help you with?” I asked as I walked into the room.
A crash greeted me, and I looked over to see a tall, thin young man, with a head of unruly mahogany curls, crouched over a smashed plate. He frantically scooped scattered food onto the largest piece of plate. As I watched, blood bloomed on his hand, and I rushed over to him.
“Mr. Harrison, don’t.”
“You’ve cut yourself,” I murmured as I reached for the young man’s hand. “Let me see.”
I wasn’t sure exactly what happened next. One moment I crouched next to the injured man, the next I lay sprawled on the floor with food splattered over me and the young man curled into a whimpering ball, pressed against the wall beside the stove. His trousers rode up his ankles as he curled in on himself, but I could see the fabric gathering under his belt, a testament to recently lost weight.
“Mr. Harrison, come away now.”
I looked up to see Mrs. Gill standing on the far side of the table, concern etching wrinkles into her forehead.
“Come now, Mr. Harrison, I’ll put your dinner in the dining room with the others.” She loaded a large wooden tray with plates of steaming food and left. I glanced at the man on the floor, and I felt torn between doing as Mrs. Gill instructed and helping the man.
The whimpers had stopped, but the man hadn’t moved, his face resolutely hidden from me. I determined to ask Mrs. Gill about him after dinner, then went to eat my meal.
By the time I’d finished eating, I’d decided I would ask Mrs. Gill if I could eat in the kitchen from then on. Anything would be better than the uncomfortable silences alternating with generalized complaints against society that had accompanied my meal in the dining room.
“THAT’S Mr. Donnelly.” Mrs. Gill efficiently dried plates and put them in a stack with a clack. “I mentioned him this morning.”
“He was in the war, Mr. Harrison.” Mrs. Gill turned to stare at me. “I’m sure you know the kinds of things he might have experienced.”
Shell shock. I’d seen it before. Good soldiers, even great soldiers, started to sob and not stop, even when the medics came to carry them out. Others experienced flashbacks so bad they went on rampages and shot everything that moved. Hell, I’d even experienced some of that myself. I still had nightmares.
“How long has he been with you?”
“Only a couple of months. He just needs things quiet for a while, I think.”
Hence giving him the back bedroom. I placed my hand on her shoulder. “You’re a good woman, Mrs. Gill.”
I missed last week's post because I was tied up with my day job all weekend, so this week, you have a bumper issue of the story--double what I've been posting.
Remember, if you've missed any part of the story, you can find it on my website on the Free Stories page.
It wasn’t long before the tingling in Tristan’s hands stopped and he could finally move. He staggered over to help Andrew onto his feet.
“How’s your head?” he asked as he gently probed Andrew’s skull. “You hit it pretty hard when you fell.”
Andrew brushed him off. “I’m fine.” He reeled, tripped over his own feet and made a lucky landing on one of the chairs. “Fuck. What did she hit me with?”
“Petrification spell. It’s a gremlin specialty. They’ve probably been practising it since they learned to walk.” He glanced at Hansel as he spoke but the gremlin was still staring, fuming at the door his sister walked through. He nibbled on gingerbread, each bite cutting into the scowl on his face so that his expression swung comically from anger to ecstasy with each piece. “We got one of them,” he said, although one was as useless as none.
“Does that mean you can break the spells and escape?” Andrew filled a glass with water from the ever-present jug on the table and drank as if he’d been in a desert for years.
Tristan spun his glass around, the rocking of glass on wood loud in the silence. “No. I can’t even weaken it.”
Andrew’s shoulders slumped. “So everything we did was useless.” He glared at the cage. “Can he use his powers?”
“No, that’s holding. He’s as helpless as any human in there.”
“And just as useless.” Andrew’s glass clattered against the table as he slammed it down. “We might as well let him go, then.”
Tristan leaned forward, his elbows on the table, and buried his face in his hands. “We can’t.” He peered at Andrew through his fingers. “Gremlins have terrible tempers. If we release him, he’ll attack and there’s nothing I can do to protect us.”
“Won’t your Mistress’s spells stop him hurting you? Doesn’t she control the house?”
“We broke the rules when we captured him. The house will still provide for us but it won’t protect us from him anymore since we wronged him.”
Andrew stood, his chair clattering to the floor behind him. “So what was the point of all that? You still can’t get out and you’ve lost whatever protection you had. And we have to keep him prisoner.”
A low growl emanated from the cage and Tristan and Andrew swung to find Hansel glaring at them. His arms were shoved through the bars, fingers extended, reaching for them. His chest bumped against the bars and fizzing light arced through the room. Hansel jumped back with a howl.
“You bastard. Just you wait until I get out. You’ll fry!”
“What was that?” Andrew’s voice was filled with awe. Or perhaps that was fear.
“Lightning spell. Gremlins don’t like it.” As he spoke Hansel batted at his shoulders. When he finished, his shirt had two vertical black burns, exactly where he’d touched the bars.
“Holy shit. It burned him.”
“Don’t worry. It won’t hurt either of us: it’s specifically designed for gremlins.”
“I get that they’re nasty buggers but why would anyone design spells that only work on gremlins. Apart from the whole wanting-to-fry-you thing, he seems nice enough.”
As Andrew spoke, Hansel’s face morphed from a bad-tempered scowl to an ingratiating smile. “That’s exactly right,” he simpered. “I know we haven’t always treated Master Tristan well, but Mistress Osborne pinches us dreadfully when we’re kind to him.” The simper turned into a whine.
Tristan rolled his eyes. The gremlins might be as bound to the mistress as he was, but he knew they enjoyed their work. He broke off a large piece of gingerbread and tossed it to Hansel. The gremlin caught it deftly as it sailed between the bars, sat and began eating ravenously.
“Shouldn’t you give him something a bit healthier to eat?” asked Andrew.
“Gingerbread is the best thing for them. It has all the nutrients they need to maintain good health. That’s one of the reasons Mistress Osborne rations them. With every bite, they grow stronger; she doesn’t want either of them in a position to overwhelm her if her hold over them fails.”
“Why feed him so much then? Isn’t he going to be stronger than ever when he finally gets out of the cage.”
“The way I see it is he’s stuck there for the duration. It wouldn’t matter if we starved him, once he left the cage, I still couldn’t fight against his type of magic. The only way to truly control gremlins is through blood magic and I won’t do that. Whatever happens afterwards, the least we can do is make his stay as comfortable as possible.” As he spoke, Tristan gestured. Inside the cage, there appeared a small white bed piled high with fat cushions and fluffy quilts. A matching nightstand popped up beside it, with several books piled on top. In one corner of the cage, a deep enamel bath materialised with a pile of soft towels beside it. In the middle of the cage a small firepit sputtered to life, along with a small table and chair. On the other side of the nightstand, an overstuffed armchair with a fluffy throw appeared with a soft pop.
Hansel looked around the space and cried out with delight. He surged to his feet and took a flying leap at the bed. He bounced once onto the cushions then burrowed his way underneath. The sounds of joy that burst from the moving mound made Tristan smile.
Andrew watched Hansel’s antics with the cushions for a while, a smile growing, then he turned back to Tristan. “What’s going to happen when Gretel gets back with the mistress?”
Tristan waved his hand one last time and the remaining gingerbread in front of them disappeared and reappeared on Hansel’s little table. The gremlin squealed and shot out of the cushions. He landed neatly on his feet, like a master gymnast, and raced to the table.
“Mistress Osborne won’t come here, regardless of any argument Gretel puts forward.” At Andrew’s confused look, he continued. “Her magic is the same type as mine. Once she enters this house, we’ll be on equal footing. She’ll have lost her advantage. She won’t take the chance that I’ve become stronger than her, and she won’t risk the chance that the gremlins will support me and turn against her.”
“Would they do that?”
Tristan shrugged. “Possibly, if I could guarantee that Mistress Osborne’s hold over them would be broken.” He leaned against the table, his hip close to Andrew’s shoulder. He wanted to slide closer, but held his position. If Andrew was interested, he could move.
“Will Gretel return on her own?” asked Andrew, sitting back in his seat, putting more space between them.
Tristan released a tiny sigh of disappointment, then dragged his mind back to the topic. “Of course. Hansel is her brother. Her magic is halved without him. The mistress will insist on it too. She wants access to their full powers.”
Andrew stood and surveyed Hansel who was now lounging against the cushions on his bed, the bowl of gingerbread beside him, reading a book. “If you have both of them, could you break free?” he asked on a whisper.
Did Andrew and Tristan manage to trap Hansel and Gretel in the cage, or are they exposed and helpless? Find out in the next instalment of The Gingerbread House.
Tristan watched in horror as the Hansel and Gretel flung out their spells toward him and Andrew. He’d hoped they wouldn’t notice Andrew at all and be captured in the cage as it fell, but nothing went the way they planned.
Andrew lay motionless on the floor, perhaps alive, perhaps dead, Tristan couldn’t tell from where he stood. His feet were stuck to the floor and every muscle in his body frozen solid. He could breathe, but shallowly, as if there was a vice squeezing his chest. He could blink, but not swallow. A dribbled of saliva trickled and cooled on its way down his chin.
In front of him, securely in the cage, paced Hansel. Gretel, after her one disastrous attempt at freeing her brother, was at the table, stuffing her face with gingerbread. She tore each piece roughly off the slab, dipped it in the icing glaze, then stuffed it into her mouth with the rest of the half-masticated sweet.
“Gretel! Get over here and let me out,” yelled Hansel.
Gretel shook her head. “Can’t.”
“He has no power over us. Of course you can.”
“He’s not doing anything to us,” Gretel said through a mouthful of food. “He’s controlling the cage. Inside this house. His domain, his power.”
Stinging tingles attacked Tristan’s fingertips. About bloody time. The urge to move rippled through him but he contained it. He wanted to be fully in charge of his faculties before he let Gretel see the spell was wearing off. He flicked a look at Andrew, still in his back, his arms raised, hands cupped as thought the rope had just then been let go. As he watched one of Andrew’s fingers twitched. Tristan wanted to yell at him, tell him to stay still, but he still couldn’t even swallow. The movement stopped and Tristan breathed a long, soft sigh of relief.
“You have to do something,” said Hansel, his high voice taking on a whinging quality Tristan only heard in the best houses.
Gretel glanced at Tristan as she shoved more gingerbread into her mouth, then began to fill her pockets. When she could fit no more into the folds of her skirts, she lifted a large slab of gingerbread from the table and took it over to Hansel in the cage. As she slipped the gingerbread between the bars, she said, “I’ll go back and get the mistress. She’ll be able to release you.”
“You’re leaving? What about these two? What about ME?”
“You said yourself they have no power over us.” She gestured at the gingerbread Hansel was already eating. “That’ll keep you from getting hungry before we get back.” Gretel rummaged in her bundled skirt and popped another piece of gingerbread in her mouth, then she waved and sauntered out the door.
Tristan noted that she went around the cage on the opposite side to where Andrew was laying, his arms now by his sides.
E E Montgomery
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