Long Drive Home
On my second day driving to London, my mind was ready to explode. I’d been smoking and thinking too much, and heading straight into my past. I would have been better off taking a plane so I’d get there faster and spare myself some emotional baggage, but I couldn’t turn back now. Soon, I’d be back at my old house, where my parents were grieving my sister’s death.
When I finally arrived at the house, I felt out of it from driving through three time zones and being alone for five days. I kind of missed my girlfriend, but not really. Being apart would give Elise a break—and once again postpone our inevitable breakup. I easily could have ended it all as soon as things began fading out, but then I loved her more than she loved me.
Elise had grown sick of me when I hadn’t felt the same. In fact, I enjoyed the benefits of being in a long-term relationship. It wasn’t about marriage and ultimatums; it was more about that void she couldn’t fill. Maybe she thought other guys might help her out in a way I couldn’t, or maybe I’d just expired.
At least I’d made it to London without car problems or whatever. Despite the grim circumstances, it was a dazzling June day. Driving 3,000 miles had given me a sense of pride, as if I could accomplish anything if I put my mind to it. When I stepped out of my beat car, I felt faint, as though parts of me had scattered along the way.
With the bright sun and all, it was a suburban paradise. I’d grown up here. Once I graduated, I took off to Vancouver with my best friend, Emery. Living on the Pacific Coast had always been a dream of mine, and Emery’s too. Nearly three years later I was back in London again, almost feeling as if I’d never even left. But then it couldn’t be, not when I was happy living in Vancouver.
Anyway, the house looked dead yet alive. The lawn was neatly trimmed because my parents always made sure to keep up appearances. The wild rosebush looked bigger and brighter than ever. My footsteps felt heavy on the porch, as if I were a stranger. Everything seemed so in place, which probably wouldn’t be if Julia hadn’t died.
I set down my suitcase and waited for someone to answer the door. Slowly my dad trudged into view, looking older and fatter than ever. His eyes were bleary and his horn-rimmed glasses didn’t sit properly on his nose, as if his face was beginning to go awry.
He gave a smile but only a small, automatic one that gave him no comfort. Since Julia was pretty close to my parents, her sudden death was a major blow to them. My sister died five days ago, so I’d missed the wake and funeral. Part of me didn’t want to see her corpse anyway—how the mortician tried his best to keep the colors when they were gone.
I guess I’d come to comfort my parents, pay my respects, to show my family I still cared even though I lived so damn far away.
My father’s red-rimmed eyes glinted with tears and he kept adjusting his glasses.
“Hi, son,” he muttered dismally.
“Hey, Dad,” I said, giving him the briefest hug.
As burly as he was, he felt empty; the only thing running through him was sadness and a little faith.
“How was the drive?”
“Long, but worth it,” I said, recalling the stretch of prairie land. Now that I thought of it, the drive had been a trip in itself.
He clapped my back. “I’m glad you made it.”
I wish he could be in higher spirits, but Julia’s death had permanently crushed him. I kept glancing at the house, looking for new changes while scrolling through the past. After Julia had moved in with her boyfriend a couple of years ago, there wasn’t a trace of youth left except for pictures of us.
“I’m so sorry, Dad,” I told him.
He was about to lose it, but was probably too tired to cry. After talking a little more, he led me to the back porch, where my mom was smoking a cigarette. She too looked dismal, not to mention scrawny, her skin barely clinging to her bones. Though she quit smoking 15 years ago, she was making an exception now.
“I really wanted to be there for the funeral,” I said to her. “But I was caught up with this project.”
My mother turned her hollow face toward me. “It’s fine, Sam, don’t worry. You had work to do.”
There wasn’t much to talk about and I felt stiff and awkward. First off, leaving Ontario had put a wedge between us, and we’d never been close in the first place. There’d been a time when I was close to my dad, but that moment never settled. With Julia gone, I felt as if I was all they had.
“Are you hungry? There’s food in the fridge.”
“I’ll have something small, like an apple or something.”
Again she looked at me with sunken eyes, the light from them gone.
“I’m happy you came, Sam,” she then said. “Make yourself at home.”
It wasn’t easy sleeping on my first night. I tossed and turned like I was 12 again and scared of ghosts. My old room no longer carried my presence, just memories. Looking up at the shadowed ceiling, I realized that this was where I’d done all my homework, where I’d jerked off for the first time, where I’d filled out my college applications – basically, where I’d grown up.
I thought I saw Julia’s ghost, but my mind was playing tricks on me. Of all the hair colors she tried out, she looked best with long, blonde hair, as I imagined her now. In Julia’s grad picture in the hallway, her lips and hazel eyes were smiling, brimming with the promise of the future. She hadn’t met Jake then, but he’d become part of that future.
My sister looked so alive, I couldn’t believe she was rotting in a coffin. Hopefully her soul was in good hands, somewhere better than this crappy place. One thing Elise taught me was that the soul can never be destroyed or taken away.
The most frustrating thing was knowing that Julia’s accident could have been prevented. When she found out Jake was cheating on her with some waitress, she got really drunk and stoned. Her old Bonneville swerved off the road and crashed into a utility post that bashed her face and chest. If the impact hadn’t been so bad, she might have survived, but apparently she died on the spot. I couldn’t bear thinking of Jake without gritting my teeth, even though it was cheating he was guilty of, not causing the accident.
Since I’d forgotten to draw the blinds, I woke up the following day with the sun in my face. For a fleeting moment I’d awoken to another morning with Elise sleeping next to me, her body an empty shell.
I could smell coffee and hear the newsman muttering the highlights of the day. After getting dressed and wandering down the narrow hall, I stopped to look at family pictures. Julia’s pictures looked even brighter than yesterday.
My parents were like zombies going about life. I knew my mom had started popping valiums since the night of the accident. My dad was in the living room eating an orange and perusing the Bible with a frown, as though determined to understand everything inside.
I took my Toronto Maple Leafs mug and joined him on the sofa. He stopped to look at me; despite getting sleep, his eyes didn’t seem rested at all. Meanwhile I sat there in a slump, wishing I could bring back my sister. I could just imagine my parents springing back to life at the sight of Julia by the door.
We talked for a while, attempting to act normal. Then I wondered about that fucker Jake, thinking how guilty he must be feeling now—or maybe not.
“Have you been reading the Bible?” my father asked, looking up from the page.
“It’s been a while.”
“This book holds the eternal truth. ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but not my words.’ Jesus said he would return as a thief in the night,” he said fiercely. “God is calling people to repent before it’s too late.”
He rambled on about Jesus’s return and the kingdom of God, and I listened without ignoring him. I wasn’t really religious, but despite my pride, a big part of me was desperate for something true. Though I’d made something out of my life, I wasn’t done with longing for deeper things. Anyway, Julia’s death had thrown my father into a spiritual rampage that he hoped would save him from his depression.
I decided to visit my sister at the cemetery later on that day. It felt strange to have so much time to kill. I invited my parents to come along, but they seemed too brittle and jaded. I stopped by a florist shop in town and bought a bunch of yellow and peach roses with white baby’s breath. Holding the bouquet, I wished they were for a happier occasion.
Clouds were slowly moving in and sadness crept over me. A few tears slipped from my eyes and I stood motionless, as though my brain had jammed on me. The sorrow was so overwhelming that it actually numbed me, like I’d taken one too many painkillers.
Her grave was freshly dug, with a mound of lumpy earth over it. I stared down at the tractor grooves and footsteps of people who’d come to pay their respects. Peering at Jules’s tombstone, I felt like half of me was down there with her, asleep yet alive in a way only the dead know. I laid down the flowers and squatted, waving off flies and heat.
I could hear a fairy-like voice whispering, “Sam, Sam.”
Noticing that her picture hadn’t been glued on yet, I realized that the only thing left of her was her memory. If it weren’t for that, it would be as if she’d never existed.
Besides the voices of people nearby, the cemetery was dead quiet. The sound of rustling leaves and breezes was lulling me to sleep.
“It’s too bad we didn’t spend enough time together,” I said aloud, making sure no one was around. “But tell me: Why did you drink and drive?”
My voice was growing passionate, like an actor getting too into his role. “If only you’d stayed home, or didn’t get in the car. I mean, what you did wasn’t smart.”
I couldn’t help feeling angry at the world, but I was disappointed more than anything. Whenever someone dies under preventable circumstances, you always think “what if?” Like what if she’d driven at a slower speed or taken a cab? These questions could drive anybody crazy.
“You really loved that guy, didn’t you?” I continued.
Soon after, I got back in my car, feeling low. All of a sudden it seemed as if there was nothing left to do, let alone drive back to Vancouver. People are so fragile; one minute you’re there, the next you’re out of the game. One minute you’re in love, the next you wish you were dead.
Just a month ago Julia had called me to wish me a happy birthday, and now this. I lit a cigarette and turned on the radio, slowly winding my way out of the cemetery, making sure not to hit anybody. Though my motivation level was low, the force of routine kept me driving in a straight line.
The next day I went over to my Aunt Susan’s house in Flanders Hill, which I hadn’t been to in so long. She and my uncle were throwing their annual “family and friends” barbecue. My parents were invited, but they weren’t up to it. Besides, some parish people had come over to offer them their support.
Unlike my parents, my aunt and uncle greeted me with smiles. I saw a glint of mourning in their eyes, but it didn’t seem as if something had been ripped out of them. They still had their three kids, one of whom was apparently engaged. Glancing around at the mingling guests, I started feeling depressed again. Everything seems so pointless, I thought, but then again why not go on living? Why should people stop eating, drinking, and swapping stories?
I grabbed a can of Budweiser from the table and made the rounds. Some people looked the same, others changed. My mind was multitasking, shuffling between the present and the past. Soon after giving me his condolences, my cousin Dan started rambling on about the real estate boom in Vancouver and the “Asian invasion.”
My aunt kept plying me with barbecued sausages, chicken, and potatoes.
“No thanks, I’m stuffed,” I kept telling her, motioning with my hands.
“Oh gosh, I forgot to ask about Emery. How is he?” she said.
“He’s doing all right. He owns a roofing business with his girlfriend,” I said. “She’s pregnant.”
“That’s wonderful news. Are they married?”
“Uh, no, they might make it official next year.”
Suddenly her eyes narrowed with regret, as though this were a shame. Her reaction reeked of a conservatism I disliked, not because I didn’t respect other people’s opinions, but because they were too quick to judge.
I took a swig of beer and went out to smoke. I felt too stuffed with memories, regret, and maybe guilt.
I wondered what Elise might be doing, if she had her hair up or down, or whether she was surfing the Net in desperation. Then, out of the blue, it dawned on me that we’d broken up a long time ago, that I could no longer idealize what wasn’t there. I knew for sure that I’d loved her at one point, but she kept the charade going out of fear of being alone. Now our relationship kept dragging on like a story past its end.
Out on the front porch was my cousin Beth’s friend, drawing on a cigarette.
“Hi,” she said. “You’re Sam, right?”
“Yeah, we’ve met,” I answered, remembering how I’d once singled her out of a crowd.
“Nancy,” she filled in, taking a pull.
I remember Julia having had the same honey-blonde hair color when she was around 21.
“I’m sorry about your sister. The news of the accident was so sad.” Her greenish eyes gazed at me with sincerity.
I glanced at the maple-lined street, thinking how safe each house looked in its place. Downing my third beer, I felt myself slowly getting drunk and entering the threshold of oblivion, but Nancy kept me grounded somehow.
“You live in Vancouver, right?” she asked.
“Yeah. I moved nearly four years ago.”
“I vaguely remember you,” she said pensively, nodding. “Anyway, you’re so lucky to be living there.”
“Ever been there?”
“Once, last year. I saved up money and took the train. Actually, now that I’ve completed my degree, I’m pretty sure I want to move there. I hear it’s so expensive though.”
“It’s getting expensive. I thought about moving to Prince George, but I don’t think so. I need to stay in one place.”
She took another drag and exhaled smoke in a straight line. In a matter-of-fact tone, she asked, “What do you do?”
“I’m a programmer-analyst. I also teach computer courses on the side.”
“That’s cool,” she said rather indifferently.
I couldn’t help finding her pretty, especially her smile, which reminded me of a blooming flower.
“As long as you like your job.”
“It pays the bills. I used to want to be a rock star, with my own tour bus and legions of fans and everything. I still think about it sometimes.”
“Oh really,” she beamed.
We kept talking like two friends who’d just clicked right away. We went for a stroll along the road, speaking about music and how TV’s not how it used to be. During our walk I learned she was going to turn 25 in August and that she had recently completed her BA in communications.
These suburbs were laid out like a tempting buffet that reminded me I could have my old life back. Most of my family was here and London was, after all, my first home. I could catch up with old friends, but most importantly, I’d be there for my parents. Maybe we’d get close and I’d feel settled and complete. But then I’d built myself a decent life in Vancouver, and I’d miss the misty mornings and rainy seasons and the whiff of Pacific Ocean that gave me a high every morning.
“How long are you here for?”
“Five more days,” I said glumly, realizing the sky was almost black.
“Cool. Maybe we could hang out sometime, maybe tomorrow?” she offered.
I stopped to look at her big green eyes, which sort of drew me in. Then I realized that I honestly wanted to see her again.
Back at the house my aunt looked worried and even offended. “I worried sick about you. Where have you been?”
“I went for a walk with Nancy,” I said.
She nodded her head in disappointment. “Well, don’t make people worry like that.”
I lost Nancy in the crowd, but soon after she appeared with a scrap of paper. “Call me. I don’t have any plans tomorrow.”
I started feeling jaded again, put out by the scene. I took the paper and stared at her name and phone number, wondering if I wasn’t better off keeping this a sexless one-night stand. But she seemed eager to see me again, and I kept thinking about her smile.
“Okay, so take care,” she said before leaving.
The sight of food was suddenly making me nauseous and I was glad to be leaving. I tucked the paper into my wallet and said good-bye to everybody; it seemed as if life was about good-byes and hellos.
I lit my last cigarette of the day and got in my car. The air had cooled off and I could even catch a whiff of early autumn.
Back at the house I found my dad sleeping on the couch. The living room was dim and an open bible heaved along with his gut. A dessert plate with a few anemic-looking pastries from earlier rested on the coffee table. I wanted to wake him up so I could tell him everything would be okay, that Julia was watching over us, but I decided I’d rather see him sleep in peace. He needed a break from his pain, to surface from the hole he was in. Hopefully, he was dreaming about something nice.
Before going to bed, I stared at the old computer by the window, realizing that technology’s progress was useless in some ways. If only I could communicate with my sister somehow, tell her how lost I felt tonight.
The next day, after having lunch with my parents in town, I went out on my own. I had lots of time to kill before meeting Nancy later. So far, only one old friend had come to visit me, and he barely stayed an hour. His visit felt like a long interview, where I had to make sure to give my best performance by editing out all the superfluous remarks and details, so as to leave him with my best impression.
I used to have too many friends anyway, most of whom had dispersed all over the country. I guess we’d all branched out. With little time before my return, I decided to visit Derek, one of my best friends for about two years. After he joined the football team we kind of just fell out. Last I’d heard he was a soccer coach and high school gym teacher at Centennial High. I would have called him in advance, but I didn’t have his number and I didn’t come to London very often.
Derek’s house was a small bungalow on Avalon Street. I figured he was doing all right, maybe not living up to his full potential, but doing okay. I rang the doorbell and waited. Derek showed up a few minutes later in track pants and a dark gray Adidas T-shirt. He basically looked like he’d walked out of bed.
He studied me closely, and then said, “Hey! Long time no see!”
At first I thought he was genuinely happy to see me, but his phoniness quickly shone through. We hadn’t seen each other in years, so what did I expect? A slim girl of about 24 or 25 was sitting on the couch looking impatient. Something told me I’d come at the wrong time, that she might have been giving him head.
Derek offered me a drink and we bullshitted for a while, but we didn’t catch up as I’d hoped, since things were too different now. And then it dawned on me how a situation can go from one extreme to the other—from good pal to ex-friend, I guess. Just like that. Anyway, I felt so unwelcome that I had to lie my way out of his house.
Waiting by the door with his fake smile, he said, “Come back again. It was nice seeing you.”
This visit had only brought me down—not that I really cared. For the remainder of the afternoon I decided to drive around town, smoke cigarettes, and stop for a drink at a bar for old time’s sake. The place was just as I’d last seen it, which again made my brain go fuzzy. I thought of going back home, but it was way too depressing there. All I wanted was to make my parents smile a little. So I hung around, talked to some locals, including the bartender, who’d gone to the same college as me but had dropped out. We talked about Vancouver once again, whether I was married, and other things. Then finally I called Nancy from a payphone to see what was up and if she still wanted to meet.
Her voice sounded distraught. “My car won’t start. I knew this would happen.”
At first I thought she might be lying, that maybe she’d changed her mind about seeing me. “I guess it’s the price I pay for neglecting my car,” she went on.
“I can come pick you up,” I offered.
“That would be great,” she said. When she said that, I knew she was probably telling the truth.
And so I wrote down Nancy’s address and went over to the house she rented with two roommates. The sun began to set and suddenly I was reminded of Julia, how regardless of her decaying body, she might be more alive than ever before. Perhaps all the answers were found in heaven, and she’d realized she was so much better off without Jake.
Nancy briefly showed me around her house and fed her goldfish before we left. Despite the rut I was in, I felt drawn to her character as much as her face. It wasn’t really lust, but more fascination. Though Elise was still on my mind, the intensity of my feelings for her had faded. As a matter of fact, I hardly cared about her anymore.
Nancy proposed a few things we could do, but I wanted nothing more than to just hang out. Going somewhere would be extra, like background for the action. Action meant talking to her, staring into her eyes, and hearing whatever she had to say. We ended up eating chicken wings and beer downtown, and then smoked and listened to music in my car.
Her green eyes went soft on me, like she’d known me for so long, yet not.
“Where can we go now?” she said.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m happy just sitting here.”
Nancy gave a smile and averted her face. The sky was dark purple and blue with silvery streaks. I wondered if there was night in heaven, if souls ever took a rest from the day or whether they were in a permanent state.
I reclined my seat, listening to U2. “Would you like ice cream?” I offered. “There’s a Dairy Queen right at the corner.”
“No, thanks, I’m still full,” she said. When I thought about kissing her, Nancy said, “Do you have a girlfriend?”
The thought of Elise disturbed my peace. “I’m not going to lie,” I began. “We’re still together, but it’s over.”
Her expression was inquisitive, like she was trying to solve a riddle. “So you didn’t break up, but you feel like you did?”
“Exactly,” I said glumly. “I was willing to marry her, but things didn’t go as I’d hoped.”
“I’m sorry,” she replied, keeping it brief.
“When I get back, I’m going to have to set the record straight.”
“Postponing only makes matters worse.”
“Yeah,” I muttered. “It really does. So what about you? Got a boyfriend?”
She fidgeted with the matchbook with downcast eyes. “I used to. He moved to Toronto and we eventually lost contact. I was stupid to think it would work out, but love is blind sometimes. He was too unstable anyway. No matter where he went, he could never be happy. I can’t be with someone who doesn’t take things day by day. It’s good to imagine the future, but not to the point of obsessing over it,” she said fervently.
“Elise seemed okay at first. Then she just went downhill,” I said.
“People change, but a good relationship is worth saving.”
I took a drag and blew smoke out the window, looking out at the park land nearby. “She’s got deep issues. There’s no place for me anymore.”
“I didn’t know your sister very well, but the few times I did see her, I sensed she was a good person,” Nancy revealed.
“Yeah, she was. Ever since I moved out West we obviously didn’t see much of each other, which I regret. She came to visit me twice, and we had a good time. She even considered moving there, but she was in love, so …” I explained.
“It’s always like that. You sacrifice one thing, and lose another,” she said in a stern tone.
“It’s ironic, because she rarely drank alcohol. She never liked the taste of booze, but when she found out about her son-of-a-bitch boyfriend, she totally lost it. Had nothing else to turn to.”
“It’s too bad.”
“I wish I was here for her wedding or something,” I admitted.
“It’s part of life though. We’re born to die. And come back again,” she added.
“I see my parents now—they’re like zombies. The fact that I can’t cheer them up is killing me. I can’t stand feeling helpless.”
“They’re still in mourning. It’s barely a week since she died. Even if the pain never really goes away, they’ll get better in a few months.”
“I won’t be here then,” I mused. “I was never here for anything.”
I got a memory of myself sitting in an empty locker room in the middle of a basketball game my team had won. I’d scored some points and was given high fives by my teammates, but I remember feeling so alone, how ultimately, life is really between you and God or something. After tossing back a few beers with my friends and feeling on top, I remember just wanting to play guitar somewhere quiet, singing my heart out to nothing but the wind. And now here I was, haunted by Julia’s accident, her bloodied face immortalized in my mind.
“Don’t be hard on yourself.” Nancy was about to reach out and stroke my arm, but instead stayed firmly in place.
Feeling a little restless, I asked her if we could go somewhere else. She didn’t seem bored with me or ready to call it a night. In fact, she seemed willing to follow me anywhere.
“So about BC. You said you’re thinking of moving there, right?” I said.
Looking out the window, she said, “I’m seriously considering it. I figure if it’s not now, it’ll never happen.”
“I’ve been through that,” I said with a sigh, “feeling confused about where I want to live and everything. It’s good to feel settled now.”
“Did you think about moving back here?” she then asked.
“I did, but it’s just too complicated. Vancouver’s my home now.”
“It’s beautiful there,” she said in a whisper, as if to herself. “Anyway, I started emailing CVs, but I think it’s better if I find a temporary place until I get a job. You know, rough it out for a while.”
The thought of Nancy moving to Vancouver gave me a thrill, pumped me with anticipation I hadn’t felt in a while. Before meeting Elise, I usually met overly ambitious girls who ended up moving out of the city.
“I can help you find a place,” I suggested. “Once you’re ready to move and all.”
“Yeah, that would be great.” Again she smiled and glanced away, looking a tad wistful.
Regardless of the actual outcome, I felt something building up between us. There’s nothing better than feeling like everything will fall into place naturally.
My heartbeat was picking up again, as though it had been on standby mode. I was driving feeling more at peace, my head an open road.
Before I knew it, my time here was up and I had to brace myself for the long drive home. It seemed possible to have two homes: the one you’re born into and the one you make for yourself. I had spent the rest of my time in London with Nancy and my parents. On one day Nancy had invited me to her sick uncle’s cabin up Hillock Road about an hour away.
Though we didn’t spend the night at the cabin, we made a small fire by the river’s edge and huddled there, trying to take things slow. Elise often popped into my mind, but the fact that she’d only called me once said a lot about our stale relationship. Despite the many opportunities for me to make a move on Nancy, I didn’t dare to. Besides, she understood my situation with Elise.
“Finalize things first,” she’d said by the murky, moonlit river.
If all went well, things would happen between us later. Before we parted, she gave me a big hug and said, “Email me. Better yet, give me a call.”
I spent my last day with my parents. We were sitting silently on the front porch at night, where the crickets helped break the awkward silence. My mother lit a citronella candle and rocked in the wicker chair. My father was slightly more talkative, but all he spoke about was the gospels and Christ’s imminent return. Even if this world no longer seemed to interest him, maybe in a few months he’d set one foot back on the ground.
Regardless of the fact that I was their son, I felt like dead wood there. If I’d stayed in London, then maybe I wouldn’t be feeling like such a ghost. All I wanted was to end this resentment, if any, to make them see how nothing’s set in stone.
“Listen, why don’t you come out West one of these days?” I offered. “You can stay with me, and I’ll show you around.”
To my relief, the suggestion seemed to stir interest in both of them. “We’ll think about it,” my father said hoarsely.
“You’re always welcome, you know. I didn’t leave with hard feelings. I left because I had to make a choice. In a perfect world, I would have taken you with me if I could, but your life’s here.”
I waited for a response, something concrete to sign off with. I was disappointed at the lack of feedback and acknowledgment of my existence, but my mother finally looked me straight in the eye.
“I don’t love you any less,” she stated.
The next day I took my parents out to breakfast, said good-bye, and took off. As tempted as I was to take the plane, I felt ready to drive back home. At a gas station where I filled up my tank, I decided to read an unsent letter from Julia.
“We found this. I thought you should have it,” my mother had said.
How’s it going? I’m fine I guess. I’m planning to come to Vancouver again, but I don’t know when. Money issues among other things. I miss you lots, but I gave up dreaming that you might come back. It doesn’t matter in the end, as long as you’re happy there. Who knows, maybe I might retire out West someday. We should never take anything for granted. More and more, I realize how short life is. Anyway, give me a call one of these days. Just keep living.
All the best,
I tucked the letter in the glove compartment and pulled out of the station. There was still so much I had to do and see in my life. It’s true that you’re alone now until the end, but then not really—not with God, your friends, the good memories you have, and the promise of tomorrow.
Copyright 2006, Vanessa Telaro
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