Estimated reading time — 19 minutes
“Yo. You reached Richie. Leave a message. I’ll get back to you eventually.”
Rose grimaced, disconnecting the line before it rolled over to voicemail. She tossed her iPhone onto the passenger’s seat. Rose squinted out her windshield, the reflection of her still lit iPhone obscuring the already difficult view. The wipers flailed back and forth but they only seemed to push the rain around. Rose could just barely see the two-lane street stretched out before her and the forest lining it at either side. The great limbs of the oaks stretched over the road, seemingly reaching out for Rose’s Trailblazer. Though she had traveled down this road many times as a child, the darkness and the rain transformed the area into a foreign domain.
“Goddamn it, Richie,” Rose grunted not for the first time that night.
It had all begun five hours ago. Rose was home in Pensacola, showered and dressed for bed when her phone rang on her bedside table. When she had answered it, Rose’s mother’s frantic voice issued from the receiver. Rose’s head pounded against her chest. Tonight was the night, she had thought. It was that night she dreaded since she was a child. She was on her way out and calling her daughter to say goodbye. Though the more Rose listened, the more her expression turned from wide-eyed horror to sneering disgust.
“Rosie, baby, I need your help. I just got a call from Richie just now. He sounded really scared. Something about how they were coming for him. I couldn’t hear the full message. Everything was all static. I hope he isn’t in trouble.”
Even now, driving in the middle of the night through this torrential rain, she rolled her eyes. I hope he’s sitting in a jail cell, Rose thought. It would serve him right. How many times had he called mom with the same sad story–I need money or some guys are gonna beat me up. Come get me, I was drinking and crashed the car. I can’t go back to jail. And who was it who their ailing mother called to come to the rescue?
And why was it always Rose’s responsibility? Because I’m the dependable one, she thought, the reason that her mother would never put into words. Because how could she say something negative about her precious boy. Rose snorted and her face felt hot. He wasn’t the one who worked his ass off to get a degree. He didn’t have to fight through high school because he was gay. He was just this perfect little shit that got what we wanted because he was pretty and straight and fucked half the female population before he was sixteen. Stop, Rose told herself. She tried to clear her mind and take a deep breath. Richard wasn’t worth this much strife.
Rose turned the knob of the radio. The only thing that greeted her ear was static. Nothing particularly out of the ordinary. Irvine, Florida was (as Rose often put it as a teenager) the land that time forgot, so finding anything worthy of note–let alone a radio station–was a chore. It was its own little burg nestled between a nature preserve and the Gulf. The nearest chain store besides Walmart was a good hour away in Ocala and if you wanted something more gourmet than Chief Ronald McDonald or Colonel Sanders, you were shit out of luck. When she first left for college in North Florida, she swore she would never return. Talk about irony.
She turned the knob to 95.3 FM, Irvine’s best hits. Sure, it was probably nothing but country songs, but at the moment Rose would rather listen to Keith Urban sing about how he lost his girlfriend than the endless drone of falling rain. Yet, as the dial came to rest on the radio station, nothing but static escaped her speakers. Rose waited, part of her unable to grasp the fact that the station wasn’t coming through. She used to turn it on during a hurricane and the broadcast came in so clearly it was as though the reporter was right next to her. Things can’t have changed that much. Sure, she had been away from Irvine for a few years, but how much could a small town change over the course of a decade?
Rose shut off the radio and let the silence consume the car once again. A faded white sign passed by. Rose didn’t have to see it to know what it said–”Welcome to Irvine! Home of Lover’s Lake. Population 7,390.” It was one of those things that become ingrained in your memory when you grow up in a small town. Like how the way the grain from McGibbin’s farm smells or how the fish bite out on the lake. It was the same monotony, the same provincial stasis, that Rose had longed to get away from.
The rain lessened and the trees faded as she turned onto 7th avenue. Squad brick shops with dark windows lined the road. Streetlamps dotted the sidewalks, casting ghostly yellow light over the night. Looming over the town, at the end of the road, was the old Irvine Courthouse–a three-story, perfectly square structure. A clock tower rose from the heart of the courthouse, giving the whole street an antiquated feel.
A heavy silence hung over the deserted avenue like a blanket. Figures, Rose thought. The only things open at this hour were probably Jack’s Bar and the 7 Eleven at the corner of 7th and 10th. Granted, Rose already suspected which one Richie was at.
Rose pulled over in front of Tot’s Toys, her trailblazer nearly perfect in the show window’s wet reflection. The purr of the engine was almost comforting in the near silence of the night. She snatched her iPhone and redialed her brother’s phone number. She pressed it to her ear and almost immediately got the same automatic message as before.
“Yo. You reached Richie. Leave a message. I’ll get back to you eventually.”
Rose sighed. At least there was a ringtone before. Prick probably has his phone off…or it’s broken. She sighed, throwing the phone on her lap. The preluding ache of a migraine tightened her forehead and Rose raised a hand to rub out the pressure. Jack’s bar was probably the first place she should check. Yet, as she searched her memory, she couldn’t remember where it was. It had been just another building when she was a child–one that just swept by as the family went to school or that special meal at Pizza Hut. When she was old enough to recognize the bar for what it was, she didn’t much care to go in. If she were to drink, it was preferably alone or with a few friends. Drinking with more than a handful of people was a surefire way to make an idiot of yourself.
For the third time in the past forty-five minutes, she snatched her iPhone and opened the Maps app. She typed in the name of the location. No more had she pressed enter had a message appeared at the bottom of her screen–A route can’t be shown because your iPhone is not connected to the internet.
Rose checked her connection to find she had two bars. She tried it again.
A route can’t be shown because your iPhone is not connected to the internet.
“Give me a break,” she muttered. Rose took a deep breath and tried to center her thoughts for her next move, though the growing ache between her eyes was making that difficult.
The street was eerily quiet. A low mist rolled in, nearly obscuring the road in a ghostly white veil. The sky was nearly black and the clouds parted only long enough for stray beams of moonlight to touch the world below. Every window was dark except, showing nothing within except a foggy reflection. An aura of yellow light came from the end of the street, practically right across from the courthouse.
The 7-Eleven. Rose sighed and crept the Jeep up 7th street. As she drew nearer, the old convenience store with its repurposed 1930’s brick architecture came into view. There were no gas pumps out front–if you wanted gas you’d have to go a couple of streets over to the Shell station.
I should just go to Shell, Rose thought, feeling her stomach tighten at the thought of entering this particular 7-Eleven. She remembered the building briefly before its repurposing in the early 2000’s–an old funeral home called Murdock’s. The only time she had been in the building when it was a funeral home was at her grandfather’s funeral. She had been nine. On the way to the bathroom, she had made a wrong turn and somehow had found herself locked in the morgue. By the time her mother found her thirty minutes later, she was in a corner shivering in fright. Waiting for any one of the corpses to rise. Then she spotted Richie–sixteen at the time–glancing from behind Mom and mockingly quivering.
“Watch out Rosie, all those guys from the funeral home are going to follow you home,” he had said for nearly a year after. “They’re going to come get you. They want to be your boyfriend.”
At the time, Rose cried hysterically while Richie howled in laughter. It was that short time in the morgue and Richie’s continuous mocking that made Rose weary of the building, even when it had been converted into the 7-Eleven. It was the reason why she had only been in the convenience store once since it opened. She had been in high school and her friends wanted to grab snacks before heading back home. Rose only lasted a minute before she found an excuse to wait outside.
Now, thinking of the incident made Rose’s face hot. Any trepidation burned away. She snatched the phone from the passenger seat and parked in front of the 7-Eleven. The scent of rain lingered in the night and the surrounding vapor made the air thick. Rose rounded on the storefront, her Nike’s too loud on the quiet street. She caught a glimpse of her reflection and sighed. She hadn’t had time to properly assemble a presentable outfit, so she wore a pair of old sweat pants and a large shirt she only reserved for exercising. Her auburn hair was matted and frizzy. Rose ran a quick hand through her unruly hair before placing a hand on the handle of the store’s glass door.
Trepidation flared within her once again, giving her pause. Her knuckles tensed against the door as though some force held her in place. What’s the matter, Rosie? You’re boyfriend’s waiting, Richie’s voice echoed in her head. Rose grunted, pulled open the door, and walked in.
She squinted at the assaulting fluorescent light. The interior had changed drastically from its bygone days as a funeral home. The building had once been divided into several, smaller rooms and viewing areas. Now, it looked as though a majority of the walls had been torn down to create an open space. Several shelves of snacks and candy lined the store to her right and a wall of refrigerators containing cold drinks lined the walls. To her right was a vacant counter and register. Rose took a few steps in, her wet shoes squeaking against the yellow linoleum. “Hello?” she called into the store, her own voice sharp against her ears. The store was eerily silent, not even the usual radio played in the background. It was almost as if someone had left and forgot to lock up. “He-hello?” she called again, taking a few more tentative steps inward.
A rustling came from one of the shelves toward the rear of the store. A can of dog food rolled out from behind that particular shelf, where it came to rest several feet in front of Rose. Rose stared at it for a moment, as though it were a viper preparing to attack. The clerk must be in trouble, she thought, blaring in her mind like a neon sign. Rose darted forward, knocking the can aside with a stride of her hurried foot.
She rounded the corner to find a man with his back to her, swaying slightly too and fro with arms dangling at his sides. He wore the green shirt and tan pants typical of the 7-Eleven staff, and his bald head was oddly pasty in the lighting. At first, it looked as though some kind of distortion stood between her and the man, a blurriness. She blinked several times and the blurriness was gone.
“Excuse me,” Rose said. The cashier didn’t turn. Rose took a step closer. Is he hard of hearing? “Do you need help?” she asked a little louder.
The man raised his head. Rose took a breath of relief. At the very least, he was responding. He turned slowly, revealing a gaunt, pallor face. The man’s eyes were so sunken that, in the right light, it appeared as though they were missing. A deep gash became visible across his bald head, plastered with trails of dried blood across his face. The wound glistened in the fluorescent light and Rose could have sworn she detected the white of bone.
Rose’s heart felt like a lump of meat in her chest. It’s one of the corpses from the basement, she frantically thought as his body tensed to dash back toward the door. Before that primitive, childish line of thinking took root, she forced herself to remain rooted. Oh my God, he is hurt, the more sensible part of her brain realized.
“Don’t move,” she said, reaching for the phone in her pocket. “I’m going to get help.”
It took her a couple of seconds for her trembling fingers to correctly punch in ‘911.’. She pressed the phone against her ear. Nothing.
“Shit,” she muttered. Rose glanced up just as she caught the man disappearing around the corner at the opposite end of the shelf. “Sir,” she called out, her feet carrying her forward. Just as she rounded the shelf, a crashing noise made her jump. The man stood before one of the refrigerator doors and pounded his head against the glass. Upon the first strike, the gash upon his head split open, releasing a new barrage of blood across his face and the door. Fissures marred the glass with each strike and crimson seeped within the cracks to form some macabre web within the door.
“Stop,” Rose said, though all that came out was a faint squeak. Her joints froze in place. The man took no notice. It was amazing, Rose commented on some distant part of her mind, how the man’s face didn’t cave in. Granted, it was nearly there. His nose bent unnaturally to the side and several teeth littered the ground around his feet. Yet, he kept pounding, pounding, pounding until–
His head smashed through the glass. The man hung in the opening while blood and snot coated the interior of the door. Shards of glass, some as long as Rose’s forearm, glistened upon the linoleum. Rose’s head felt light and she forced herself to take a deep breath. The lightness abated but it did nothing to quell her racing heart.
Call 911, she thought even though she knew that the signal would still be nonexistent. Maybe there was a landline…yet, she couldn’t help stand transfixed upon the man whose head lulled within the broken opening of a refrigerator door. She was back in that basement again, surrounded by corpses draped in white cloth.
The man slid his head out of the opening, making Rose jump. His momentum carried him away so far that he nearly fell backward. The 7-Eleven employee hung there for a moment, their back bent in an unnatural curve. Then, as though he were a puppet being pulled up by the strings, he jumped to an upright position.
Run! Not even the memory of Richie’s childhood jests could overcome this singular demand. Everything that night, from the call to Richie’s answering machine to the man’s erratic behavior, had the hallmarks of a bad horror movie. And guess who the scream queen is, Richie’s voice taunted her. The hairs on her arms and her neck stood on end.
The man bent over, his body hanging so low he should have fallen on his face. His fingers searched the ground clumsily until it found purchase on a particularly long shard of glass. Blood seeped from the man’s hand as his grip tightened, tenting the glass in thick crimson. With a jerk violent enough to make every bone in his spine crack, the man stood upright and made a long, exaggerated step toward Rose. His upper half lulled as if every bit of strength were in his legs. Rose felt his eyes lock onto her but there was nothing in those eyes. They were dark and cloudy.
The eyes of a dead man.
Rose’s legs finally unlocked and that thought replayed with renewed force–
She staggered for a moment when her feet tangled. Rose righted herself and made for the door. She expected to hear hurried footfalls behind but all she heard were her own frantic steps toward the entrance. Pain radiated through Rose’s shoulder as she shoved through the door with enough force to make it slam against the wall outside. The glass shuddered but didn’t break.
Rose cried out but ambled to her silver Trailblazer. She pulled on the handle only to find the mechanism unrelenting. Panic blurred her vision. Rose pulled feverishly once and twice more to the same result. The whole time Richie was whispering in her ear the old line from a Romero movie.
“They’re coming to get you, Rosemary.”
It wasn’t until felt the shifting weight in her pocket that she realized that she had locked it. Rose dug her hand into her pants, her frantic fingers playing around the cold metallic of her key ring. Something banged behind her. Rose glanced over her shoulder. The man stood before the door, his figure slightly humped and silhouetted in the fluorescent light of the shop. His head was bowed as though he couldn’t summon the strength to lift it. Yet, in a brief flailing motion, the man raised the shard and struck the glass of the door. Tink.
“They’re coming to get you…”
Rose wrenched the keys out of her pocket. Her fingers felt stiff as she cycled through the keys.
She shoved the key at the lock. It recoiled off, leaving a healthy groove in the paint. Something moved in her peripheral vision. Rose didn’t look up, only focusing on the key and getting it into the lock…
The key slid in.
Rose tried the handle and the door popped open. She had just crawled in and shut and locked the door behind her when the 7-Eleven’s door burst open. The man tumbled into the misty night. Rose jammed the key into the ignition and turned. The engine turned over once before dying. Cold sweat dotted Rose’s brow. She turned the key again. A half-hearted revving came from beneath the hood but stopped just as quickly as it had begun.
A shadow fell over her, followed by a TAP TAP against the driver’s-side window. Almost as if by instinct, Rose turned toward the disturbance. The man in the 7-Eleven stood outside, the tip of the glass shard in his hand lazily gliding across her window. His head lolled as though his neck were broken. The blood from his forehead wound looked black in the dim light and Rose could barely see his eyes within his sockets. Though, Rose was sure that he wasn’t looking at her. Because he’s dead, her frantic mind protested. It was the thought that made her gasp and scramble across the seats so she could spill out the passenger door.
Her shoulder struck the concrete, causing a spasm of pain radiating up her right side. As she stood, Rose noticed several other figures stumbling out of storefronts and alleys. Some wore torn clothing while others looked pressed and unblemished. Most possessed some kind of trauma. Stab wounds or head wounds were the most common, though Rose’s stomach twisted when she noticed a woman in her twenties ambling toward her with a slit throat.
Rose opened her mouth, though she wasn’t sure what sound spilled out. She wasn’t sure where she was going, giving her feet control to zigzag around the people–zombies, she told herself. They’re fucking zombies–and sprinted down backstreets and avenues long since etched into her subconscious. Some animal instinct pressed her on without any comprehension of her surroundings. Buildings and street lights became blurs.
Regardless of how fast she ran, it was as though the undead were always just a step or two behind. The night was dead silent, only amplifying their dragged steps across the road. Rose didn’t dare look over her shoulder. Didn’t dare see how many were following. Ten? Twenty? Hell, maybe even an army. Maybe they were swarming out of the graveyards and morgues just to chase her. Yet, she didn’t look back. She couldn’t make that nightmare a reality or else her knees just might give out and then what?
When Rose came back to her senses enough to comprehend her surroundings, she found herself looking down a familiar-looking street. Even in the nonexistent moonlight, she recognized the nearly identical one-story houses and the neatly trimmed lawns. This was a street that she had ridden her bike down, had played out in the neighbor’s lawn all day on a Saturday afternoon, or almost ran over a mailbox the first time she tried her hand at her mom’s Malibu. As though to punctuate the point, Rose turned to come face to face with the same house she had lived in throughout her childhood.
The house was blue, its windows dark and its driveway vacant. Had her mother sold it already? She said that she was going to, as her mother had long since moved into an assisted-living community nearly across the state, but there was no ‘for sale’ sign. Rose pushed the thought away and darted toward the front door. Her steps felt heavy and it sounded as though the shuffling of the zombies were growing louder and louder, closer and closer. Rose wrenched open the screen door, turned the handle–
“Fuck,” Rose muttered. She tried it again as though it would somehow, magically unlock itself. Rose shoved her hand in her pants once again, hoping that she still had the key to this place. Her face drained of color as she realized her pockets were empty.
“Help!” she screamed, pounding on the door. The strikes sounded hollow against the wood. A shiver ran through her. Maybe that was the whole town–hollow. Just one big corpse pretending to still be alive. Waiting to attack.
A shadow fell over her as the shuffling footsteps–what sounded like an army of footsteps–sounded as though they were directly behind her.
The door opened, revealing a shadowy figure. Rose’s breath caught in her throat as she reeled back. The figure grabbed her arm and pulled her inside. A scent of mildew and must assault her senses as soon as she crossed the threshold. Rose tumbled forward, expecting to feel that sliver of glass pierce her back. Instead, there was only the slamming of the door and then silence.
“Rose?” a masculine voice asked in the darkness.
Rose squinted at the figure, her eyes slowly adjusting to the near darkness of the living room. A man nearing his forties hovered her. His brown hair was kept at a messy, short crop and the stubble on his face gave him a slightly haggard look. The man wore a white tank top and jeans, revealing the numerous cuts and bruises on his arms.
“Richie?” Rose asked, her brow furrowing. Richie barely acknowledged her, instead running to the window and peering out the curtains. A low rumble of thunder made Rose shudder. Get it together, she told herself. Yet, that logical part of her brain couldn’t quiet her own hysteria. They were dead! They had no color in their eyes. Just white like those bodies in the basement of Murdock’s. They came back to finish the job. “Your boyfriends are coming for you…”
“Rose!” Richie shouted, shaking her arms roughly. Rose winced. She opened and closed her mouth several times, yet all the questions she wanted to ask wanted to come out all at once. Then, Richie did something that made the words retreat even farther–he drew her into a tight embrace. In all of her thirty-four years he had never done that. Smelling his musky aftershave made her want to vomit and pass out at once. “Jesus Christ, I can’t believe you came.”
Rose finally wrenched away, eyeing Richie carefully. Something about him was off, though she couldn’t tell what exactly.
“What happened?” she finally whispered.
Richie sighed as he released her and wandered back toward the living room’s window. It wasn’t until then that she noticed how bare the room was. The old couch she and mom used to watch movies on, the old grandfather clock passed down from Rose’s great aunt, the antique coffee table that her brother had bought for their mother’s birthday (the only real nice thing that Richie ever did for her, Rose thought)–they were all gone, leaving a shaggy gray carpet with intentions where the furniture was supposed to be. It was as though it wasn’t her house anymore. In all seriousness, it wasn’t. It hadn’t been Rose’s home for a long time, or so she had thought. The memory of the home that was gone lingered in the back of her mind like a ghost. Sitting here, in this hollowed-out husk, left her with an empty feeling within her chest.
“What happened?” Richie asked, grabbing a pack of cigarettes from his back pocket. He plucked one out, put it between his lips, and drew from it. Rose watched the ember glow as she waited for him to continue. After what felt like half an hour, Richie exhaled a cloud of gray smoke. “It was…a few nights ago. I was down at Jack’s, having a beer. It was slow that night for some reason. I know you never cared for bars–always prissy Rosie–but on Friday nights, it’s usually rockin’. But something was off that night. I’m not sure what it was. Like the air was heavy. Thick. It must have been what put people off. I just thought rain was on the way.
‘About half-past nine, Jimmy Mann comes running in, nearly scaring the shit out of us. “They’re coming,” was the only thing he’d say. “They’re coming out of the lake!”
‘Mann was really losing his shit. Lou, the bartender over there, finally got a drink down him and after a few minutes, got him calmed down enough to talk right.”
Richie took another long drag from his cigarette, the ember running down the length of it nearly to the filter. He let out a long jet of gray smoke that seemed to linger there in the dark. Rose suppressed a cough. Jesus, she thought as she watched the feat. How can do that and not hack up a lung? Richie placed the butt on the window still before turning back to his sister.
“He said he had been night fishing out on Lover’s Lake when there was this big bang and a flash of light. He couldn’t see what it was–as the light was coming from the middle of the lake and he was on the pier–though he thought he saw some big metal thing where the flash came from. Said it sank too quick for him to get a picture. Then, he said they came out of the lake.”
The room momentarily brightened as a bolt of lightning struck across the sky. Moments after, the pitter-patter of rain struck the roof.
“You mean…the zombies?” Rose asked, her voice small and shaking. “Is that what he meant? The zombies?”
Richie’s eyes furrowed. He bowed his head so the shadows played across his face. For a moment, his eyes were hidden in the darkness, reminding Rose of the man in the convenience store. Her chest tightened and the tingling sensation of an oncoming panic attack numbed her fingertips. Richie stepped forward and the image was broken, leaving Rose cold and trembling.
“They’re not zombies,” Richie replied, his voice low. A similar voice he used when he was trying to scare her. Was he trying to do that now? However, the usual smirk that played across his face when he tried to do that was absent. Instead, he stepped forward, grabbed Rose by the arm, and pulled her up. Rose’s body hung limp at first–from exhaustion or a mental break, she wasn’t sure–and it took what little willpower she had left to remain upright. He led her, if a bit rough, to the window.
“Look behind them,” Richie whispered in her ear. “Watch the rain.”
Rose refused to look out. She couldn’t bear to look out at those pale faces, their stiff movements, the way their heads lulled on their shoulders. Richie brought his hand under her chin and forced Rose’s gaze to the window.
A thin veil of rain distorted everything, reducing the walking corpses to blurry figures. The air behind them shimmered, as though the rain hit and slid down something that couldn’t be seen. The more Rose stared out into the rain, the clearer their forms became–or at least, what the placement of the rain revealed.
The outlines of humanoid creatures stood behind each corpse. They stood at least ten feet tall with bulbous, featureless heads bent down over the corpse they followed. If they did had any distinguishing features, Rose couldn’t see. It was like looking at glass–the area where the creatures stood was distorted but only betrayed an outline. Rose watched as the corpse of a young man stumbled forward a few steps and the invisible creature held its long, thin arms over him. With every movement the young man took, the creature followed. As though it were a puppeteer and the corpse was the puppet.
“Do you see them now?” Richie asked.
“Yes,” Rose replied, her voice nearly a squeak. “What are they?”
“I don’t know,” Richie replied. ”We thought Jimmy had lost it when he told us. That was before corpses started getting back up in the morgues. Then the killing started. Bullets didn’t stop them. Phones, cars, computers won’t work right around them. We couldn’t call for help. By the time everything was said and done, the streets were red with blood. Had it not been for the rain, they probably still would be.”
Rose chanced another look out the window. The rain slowed to a drizzle, so the giant’s outlines became less defined.
“Why do they need corpses?” she asked.
Richie walked to her side, parting the curtain to look onto the street with her. He looked paler than she remembered. Probably from everything that’s happened, Rose thought. I bet I look like a ghost myself. For the first time in forever, Rose felt sorry for him.
“They can’t touch anything that’s not dead,” Richie said. “They can’t interact with most things on their own. I think they want to populate the world, but most of them can’t get humans right…most can’t walk right, can’t speak, can’t emote…not yet, anyway…”
Richie turned abruptly toward Rose, embracing her once again. The movement was so sudden that it nearly drove what little breath she still had in her lungs out.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” he said. “We need to get out of here. Let people know.”
“We will,” Rose found herself saying. She raised her arms where they hovered a moment before she wrapped them around him. It was a stiff hug, this being the first time she hugged him–really hugged him and meant it. It wouldn’t be so bad if his skin didn’t feel like ice against hers.
As Rose pulled away, her hands grazed the back of Richie’s head. Something wet and sticky clung to her fingers. She brought her hand to the light to find a thick layer of blood coating her hand.
“Richie?” Rose started, her eyes tight with confusion.
When she looked into his eyes, she felt her skin grow cold. They were milky in the dim light. Dead. Rose opened her mouth, but what came out was barely audible.
Richie smirked, his pale skin stiff and cracked.
“Are you scared, Rosemary?”
Credit : Steven Winters
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