Fifteen years before I laid her ghost to rest, an acrobat took flight inside a circus tent in Beattyville, Kentucky. I was a fourteen-year-old kid and she was barely out of her teens but, by God, she was a full-grown woman to me. A vision of white hot beauty in a shimmering swimsuit. Ariana de Noble, they called her, the Southern Queen, though, in time, I knew her by different name.
I was way down below in the darkness, a pimple-faced punk staring up at a goddess in the stars.
Before that night, life was mostly about looking after Ma. She used to party real hard, loading up on whisky and painkillers, and I got left to pick up the pieces. Life had been like that for as long as I could remember. I never met my Pa but I sure didn’t blame him for leaving. The trailer park where we lived was built on top of swampland and cracked asphalt and, some days, the sun would heat up the rotting vegetation so bad I would hitchhike into town just to escape the stench. Thinking back, it was the circus posters that gave me hope. They appeared out of nowhere like pockmarks around town, these incredible collages of wild animals and daredevil performers. And that’s where I saw the beautiful silver-suited girl on the high trapeze, looking like an angel on a cathedral wall.
By the time the circus arrived a few weeks later, Ma was barely leaving the house. Some quack doctor was cutting her fake prescriptions and she was binging like crazy. I could see the flicker of the television screen reflecting in her eyes but not much else, so I said goodbye and left her drifting. I was desperate to see Ariana in the flesh. It was a stinking August night and the air was so hot and dank you could taste it on the back of your tongue. Gina Rodriguez had agreed to take me with her twin boys, Rufus and Donny, a pair of dark haired and devil-eyed twins a few years older than me. Gina lived a few trailers down and she got on with everybody. She was pretty and kind in a beaten down kind of way, like a flattened flower in some dusty old book. The boys, on the other hand, were crazy sons of bitches. Some said their daddy was a convict on the run. Others, that Gina got raped and kept the babies. They had been kicked out of school the summer before, first for beating on each other then savaging the teacher who tried to break them up. Rufus even bit a chunk out of the guy’s ear. They were the craziest bastards I ever met and, even though they liked me, I didn’t dare hold their stare for too long.
We sat for almost an hour in traffic getting into the site. The car park was packed out with rust stained pickups, all huddled together beneath harsh floodlights like some industrial graveyard. We made it to our seats just as the acrobat was beginning her ascent up the ladder. Man, I could barely breathe. She was everything I wanted her to be and more. And I suddenly felt real anxious as she took the steel trapeze bar in her hands. There was no safety net below, no second chances for her, and all of us were humbled into silence except for one jackass sat directly behind me. I could hear every goddamn word he was saying. I wheeled round real quick and glared at him.
‘Mister?’ I said.
He was a chunky son of a bitch with an unkempt beard, his Rolling Stones t-shirt wrapped around his enormous gut like cellophane. ‘What is it, son?’ he said.
‘Shut your goddamn mouth.’
The twins looked at each other and burst out laughing. Sadly, Gina was less amused. She slapped me so quick and hard across the top of my thighs, it made my balls shrink up into my body.
‘What in the world has gotten into you?’ she said. ‘Apologise right now.’
I turned back and looked at the guy. He seemed tearful, like he wasn’t sure what to do.
‘I didn’t mean to upset you, son,’ he said.
That just riled me up even more. ‘I’m not your son.’
My temper was about to blow when some kid in uniform began tapping out a drumbeat. I looked up towards the acrobat. She was staring at the space in front of her, her legs and arms twitching. There was just enough time for one deep breath before she stepped off the platform and then she was gone, hurtling downwards then straight up towards the sky like a shooting star, blurring into a single sparkling mass of light and speed and majesty. And then she let go of the trapeze.
It felt like the whole tent had flipped upside down and I was falling downwards, watching her plummet away from me. It was the strangest thing. And then the moment was gone. I hadn’t even noticed the guy opposite make his leap. It was only when he reached for her, upside down and arms outstretched on his own bar, that I felt suddenly cheated. Not because I wanted her to fall. She just had so much further to fly.
We headed home about an hour later but not before the twins and I took care of some business. The guy with the Stones t-shirt looked kind of surprised when we followed him into the toilets.
‘Have I upset you?’ he said, tiny beads of sweat littered across his piggy face.
He tried to posture up. ‘You after getting yourself hurt, son?’
‘Then why you here?’
‘I got to feed the dogs,’ I told him and pointed to the shadows.
The twins set upon him like a pair of jackals, punching and stomping on his head like it was a made of foam. It got so bad I even asked them to stop but they wouldn’t. The guy kept trying to scream but all that came out were these weird gurgling noises. In the end, I just walked away and left them to it. And when they were done, we walked back to their mother’s car like nothing had happened at all.
‘You boys okay,’ said Gina.
‘Absolutely,’ I said, my heart still thumping in my chest.
I couldn’t sleep that night. My mind was lit up with all kinds of crazy thoughts about the acrobat. As dumb as it sounds, I figured she might let me run away with her, that we’d start a new life on the road somewhere. Any place but home. And so I set off on my piece of shit bike and didn’t look back. I guess I knew deep down there was too much distance to cover. I kept on having to stop and tighten up the rusted chain until, eventually, it just snapped off its rails. I threw the bike in a ditch and ran the last few miles but, by the time I arrived, it was late morning and the site was empty. All that was left was a trampled mush of mud and garbage. The acrobat was gone like she’d never even been there.
There were some difficult years after that. Ma lost her mind completely. She would go missing for days then come home covered in mud and dirt, her arms bloody with needle marks. She didn’t even recognise me after a while. I was always somebody she hated: her father, my father, whoever helped her shoot up or stole from her purse. And then, one day, she walked out the door and never came back.
I moved in with Gina not long after. She’d kicked the twins out for all the hell they were causing and I guess it suited both of us to share a house for a while. On paper, it was a dream: a surrogate mum for a surrogate son. But, after a while, things changed for the worse. I was staying up too late, drinking too much and skipping school. And then I got depressed. It sat on my chest some days like a black dog, the stench of its breath so bad I had to close my eyes and dream of somewhere else. All that kept me going was the acrobat. I never stopped believing I would see her again.
Eventually, I got my head right enough to move to Louisville. I worked a whole bunch of different jobs over the years, ended up at an upholsters on Springhurst Boulevard for a long while. Turns out I had a knack for fixing things up. I drank too much of course, but found some joy, and life went pretty easy on me for a while. I should have known it wouldn’t last. And so it was, opening up the store one day, I picked up the newspaper and damn near lost my mind.
The front page was a photograph of a crippled marine called Jonny Rhodes. He was sat in his wheelchair outside Louisville airport, strips of medals across his chest and well-wishers by his side. Help Our Hero, was the headline. But it was the woman standing behind him that gave me chills. For years, I’d dreamt of that face. She was older, of course, a long grey streak at the front of her dark hair, but so much was familiar. Her chin was held high, proud and ready to leap, her hands clasped around the handles of his wheelchair like the bar of a trapeze.
Ariana de Noble.
The acrobat was Jonny Rhodes’s wife.
My heart was thumping as I read the rest of the story. Turns out Jonny broke his spine in Iraq on some daredevil mission and had just arrived back home. He was the only son of some local family but they were all dead and gone. So, it seemed, was their money. His inheritance was a dilapidated mansion out in Ballard County. The picture of it was grim, a slime stained shithouse overgrown with vines and creepers.
‘Restore as Before. Help give Jonny and Kristen Rhodes the home they deserve. Trade volunteers required asap. Expenses paid.’
I looked around the store at all the things I had made right then picked up the phone.
As it was, ten volunteers went to site on day one but, by the end of the week, when the press lost interest and the real work began, only six of us remained. Four of them were hardcore Christians – Michael, David, Eli and Bruce – all second cousins or some such bullshit to Jonny Rhodes. Nothing was too much trouble for them and nothing brought them down. ‘All as he has planned,’ Michael used to say as he swept up condoms, blood-stained needles and crusted tourniquets from the moss-covered floorboards.
The other guy on site was a twenty-something street kid called Ash Chalmers. Stick-boned and shaven-haired, he was working community service for some dumb ass bar fight that got out a hand.
‘I didn’t mean to hit him that hard, man,’ he told me. ‘And then kicking him on the ground. Jesus. Stupid, man. Real stupid.’
His arms were covered in cheap tattoos which stretched up around his neck in diamonds and flames. We got along just fine I guess, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee, talking shit about the Christians. It wasn’t much of a friendship but it was enough.
A few days later, a beaten up old transit van pulled onto the estate. Ash and I stopped digging our holes and watched as it stopped in front of the house. The driver’s door swung open and the acrobat stepped out of the van. I didn’t know what to say or do.
‘Goddamn,’ said Ash. ‘She’s some piece of ass, man. For an old girl.’
I rubbed at my eyes. ‘Show some respect,’ I said.
Ash smirked at me. ‘You like that, homie?’
‘You want to poke it around in the cobwebs?’
I leaned against my shovel, cheeks burning crimson. ‘Fuck you, man.’
‘I think you got a chance here, man. I bet the cripple gets a kick out of watching her with other guys. Hell, we could make a party of it. Get the Christians involved and everything. Bet we could iron the creases right out of that ragged pussy.’
I bit my tongue, could see my knuckles turning white around the handle of the shovel.
‘Saggy old ass to boot,’ he said.
I shook my head and turned away. The acrobat was helping her husband out of the van into his wheelchair. I could see the dark rings around her eyes, the weariness in her routine. All I wanted to do was help.
‘Are you okay?’ I shouted.
It felt like everyone on site stopped to listen.
‘What?’ said Jonny Rhodes, glaring at me real hard.
Ash burst out laughing.
‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘Nothing at all.’
I made eye contact with the acrobat, just long enough to register the contempt on her face. She turned and pushed her husband towards the house.
‘Well,’ said Ash. ‘That went well.’
The next few weeks were a blur. Rhodes and his wife came and went as they pleased, lording over us like we were plantation slaves. The more she ignored me, the worse I felt. Me and Ash got to fixing up a new conservatory but my head just wasn’t in it. Even worse, we started getting loaded on site, smoking reefer and drinking whisky out in the swamplands beyond the house. My concentration went to hell. A headful of bong smoke didn’t lend itself to welding steel and, before I knew it, the whole frame was spiking out at weird angles. It didn’t take long for Rhodes to notice.
‘What in the hell are you playing at?’ he said.
‘We’re building stuff,’ said Ash.
‘It’s a goddamn calamity,’ said the acrobat.
I stared at her in a haze. ‘Don’t blame him. He’s just doing what he’s told’
The acrobat turned to me, her face sneering and hard. ‘I wasn’t talking to you.’
About a million different fires lit up inside me, so many emotions that I thought I might burn the whole estate to the ground.
‘It needs some work – ‘
‘It needs for you to pay attention,’ she said. ‘You think we can’t get somebody else to do this?’
Not for the first time, I let my temper steer my course. ‘No ma’am. I don’t believe you can.’
And with that, I got back to mixing up concrete for the steel. It was all I could do to keep my mind from racing. The silence behind me was ominous but I didn’t think nothing more of it, not until something rammed into the backs of my calves, damn near crushed my heels.
‘Jesus Christ,’ I said.
I spun around, could feel my flesh tingling where it was torn up on both ankles.
Rhodes was sat there staring at me.
He wheeled his chair forward again, only this time I stuck my boot out and pushed him back, sent him sprawling into the dirt. I clenched my fists up and moved towards him.
‘Don’t,’ said the acrobat. ‘Please.’
I stopped and looked over at her. The arrogance was all gone and she was staring back at me with these big blue eyes, a look I had dreamt about for so many years. I bowed my head to the floor and stepped away.
‘You think I don’t know,’ said Rhodes.
‘Just quit it, man,’ said Ash. ‘Quit jabbering.’
‘Don’t play dumb with me, you sons of a bitches.’ He was in a real state, spraying white flecks of spit, his eyes all red with tears. ‘I’ve seen him. I know what he’s thinking. About her.’
I took a deep breath, raised my palms out in front of me. ‘Hold it right there – ‘
He pointed straight at me. ‘I know.’
I could feel the shame rising up inside me like filthy swamp water. How goddamn obvious had I been? I took my gloves off and dropped them to the floor. ‘Think what you want, man. I didn’t sign up for this shit.’
I walked away, head swirling and hands shaking, then looked over at the acrobat. God knows where the words came from but they came. ‘There’s nothing I wouldn’t have done for you,’ I said. ‘Nothing.’
Somewhere behind me, I could hear Rhodes ranting and hurling abuse. Not that it mattered. My time working at the house was over.
The spiral began soon afterwards. I hid in my motel room and got me to drinking like it was the fall of Rome. A few times, I remember the phone ringing but I was too messed up to care, too busy spitting and cursing and dreaming out loud. At some point though, I answered. Maybe I was still dumb enough to think it was her.
‘I been worried, man,’ said Ash.
As messed up as I was, it felt good to hear his voice. ‘Don’t be.’
‘When are you coming back?’
‘Don’t talk like that, man.’
‘I can’t go back. Not after that.’
‘You don’t need to lift another goddamn shovel. But you deserve to get what’s yours’
I thought, as always, about her.
‘Get your hotel bills paid for, man. They owe you that much.’
‘Have they paid you?’
‘Damn straight, homie. Paid up better than I was hoping for too. You spooked them pretty good walking out. They don’t want to lose anyone else. And that son of a bitch has still got cash. I’m sure of it.’
‘It isn’t about the money,’ I said.
‘Goddamn it. Don’t tell me this is about her.’
I felt my face rush hot with blood. ‘Of course not – ‘
‘You’re acting like a fucking teenage girl – ‘
‘Fuck you – ‘
‘No, fuck you, man. She’s poisonous. You’re so pussy struck you don’t even see it. The way she flirts with other people, man. You cannot trust that bitch. Let it go.’
I sat on the floor with head in my hands. ‘Can you get me my money?’ I said.
‘Abso-goddamn-lutely,’ said Ash.
He agreed to come over that evening with the cash. So, when the knock came on the door at just before eight, I was ready to open it.
‘Can I come in?’ said Kristen Rhodes.
She was wearing a sleeveless t-shirt and cut-off jeans, a freezer bag filled with banknotes clutched tight against her chest. ‘We’ve missed you on site,’ she said. It was the first time I’d ever seen her wearing make-up.
I stepped to one side and let her in, pushed the door shut tight behind her.
‘This place is disgusting,’ she said. She opened the bag. ‘What you’ve done for us. What you’ve done for me. I appreciate it.’
She held out the cash.
‘You’ve earned this,’ she said. ‘Take it.’
I held my hands up, was about to speak when the acrobat moved forward, putting her hands against my chest. I could barely breathe, couldn’t believe what was happening, until I noticed her eyes rolling upwards beneath heavy lids. She was surfing a bigger buzz than just the brandy and coke on her breath.
‘Did your husband tell you to pay me?’
She threw the money bag on the bed and slipped her arms around my shoulders. ‘Forget about him.’
And so, I did.
I forgot about him and all of the world. Everything in it but her.
For three weeks, she came over every afternoon, back to that same filthy hotel room, so we could scratch and tear at each other like street dogs. We would carry on at it until we made each other sick.
It was glorious.
And, in the aftermath of each encounter, as we lay on our backs trembling, we would smoke and talk as if we had known each other our whole lives. It took me about a week to tell her we had met before. ‘I saw you when I was a kid,’ I said. ‘When you were still an acrobat.’
She looked at me like I had completely lost my mind. ‘No,’ she smiled. ‘You didn’t.’
‘A hundred feet high. Like some kind of angel.’
‘Angels don’t live in Ballard County.’
‘Sure they do.’
‘Please – ‘
‘I been dreaming about you for so long – ‘
‘Enough. You make it sound like you know me.’
I smiled. ‘I do. I’ve known you forever.’
She put her head against my chest. ‘No. You don’t.’
And then, the end began. .
‘He’s not a good man,’ she said.
And so she did. She managed to get the words out between sobs, bleeding saltwater tears over alabaster cheeks. Turns out Jonny Rhodes had beaten her when healthy then trampled her with ridicule when he could no longer raise a boot. The way she told it, every day was a humiliation.
‘Some war hero,’ I said.
‘He’s a fraud. The biggest phoney of them all.’
‘How many war heroes hurt themselves to get home?’
‘You think I’m lying?’
‘No – ‘
‘He told me all about it. How he jumped down a fox hole trying to break his leg but got it wrong. Landed on a set of metal steps and snapped his back. He did it to himself.’
‘Crazy son of a bitch – ’
‘Can I trust you?’
‘Can I trust you?’
Kristen hesitated. ‘Do you care about me?’
I held her tight, felt her breasts heavy and warm against my chest. ‘Yes. More than anything.’
‘Good,’ she said. Her voice was cold and harsh. ‘I wish he was dead,’ she said. ‘My god, I wish he was dead.’
For a while, things kept on getting better. We started talking about a future. I quit boozing mostly, spent my days outside in parks and cafes. All of it was funded by the crisp bank notes Kristen Rhodes drip fed me. Both of us seemed happy.
But then, on a rain soaked afternoon at the hotel, something changed. Whatever magic she was giving me just vanished. Every time I tried to touch her, she pulled away. .
She stared at the floor, the ceiling, everywhere but me.
And so, we just sat there on the bed, fully clothed, bathed in the pale light of the television, as the rain hammered against the metal walkway outside.
I didn’t know what to say or do.
That she could me make me feel so alone when I was only a few feet away terrified me. I was scared to speak in case I said the wrong thing. The person I’d become, all the happiness I’d felt of late, it was all down to her and, the more she pulled away, the more I felt myself spiralling again. ‘Please tell me what’s wrong,’ I said. My voice was so weak I felt embarrassed.
‘It doesn’t matter.’
‘Of course it does.’
The acrobat closed her eyes and clamped her mouth shut. It looked like she was ducking her head under some unseen waves and, when she finally spoke again, I understood why. ‘He used to rape me,’ she said. ‘Him and his friends, they used to take turns on me. And I just let it happen – ‘
‘Don’t – ‘
‘I deserved it – ‘
‘No. Kristen, please. Stop. That son of a bitch – ‘
‘He is – ‘
‘To do that to you – ‘
She kissed me hard on the lips, pressed her forehead against mine. ‘Would you?’ she asked.
‘Do that to me?’
‘No. Never. He needs a goddamn bullet in his skull.’
As soon I said it, I knew I was done for.
Something shifted in the room, this huge sweep of crazy energy, and Kristen looked at me, smiling, like she had just found God. It felt like I was channelling some weird spirit, some part of me I didn’t even know existed. And then we were both hearing me speak with a new voice.
‘I’ll take care of it,’ I said.
And I already knew how.
Gina Rodriguez wouldn’t give me Donny’s number at first. I guess she knew no good would come from it. Rufus had been incarcerated for years for all manner of heinous acts. Donny, on the other hand, was running a supermarket and selling drugs out the back. He was an absolute menace but still drove out to see me as soon as I said I needed help.
We sat in a roughneck bar for hours, talking about all the madness which had come to pass. Dark roads and poor choices had come to define us both. His face was busted up pretty good, masses of scar tissue and thick cuts like train tracks all across his skin. The strangest thing was he didn’t stop smiling, from the second he saw me to the second he left.
‘Beattyville boys,’ he kept on saying.
I should’ve been glad he liked me so much but, the truth was, it put the fear of God in me. Donny was not a man to fall out with and, when we finally got down to business and I asked him to kill Jonny Rhodes, he didn’t miss a beat. ‘Of course I’ll do it,’ he said.
‘De nada. That’s what friends are for.’
Donny and I moved quickly after that. Kristen went to stay with her sister out in Memphis, left Rhodes with a day nurse to check up on him. Other than when the construction team were on site, he was alone.
Donny wanted me to leave five thousand dollars for him behind a vending machine in a hotel car park. He called when he was ready. ‘Make sure you stay visible.’
‘Keep busy. Get your face known in the bars. Be places.’
I dropped off the cash then got me straight to drinking with Ash. He’d walked off the Rhodes’ job a few weeks before. Kristen told me he got caught shooting up heroin in the greenhouse, the very one we’d been building together.
‘He’s not right in the head,’ she said.
He was real thin when he showed up, a distant look in his eyes. I never pushed too hard to find out why. I just made damn sure we were out on the town, every single night for a week. Even when they found Rhodes’s body, a metre of cable wrapped tight around his throat, we kept on drinking, harder and harder. I could see the strain in Ash’s eyes, that the drug sickness had him by the balls. Eventually, he stopped returning my calls.
After another week or so, living at the hotel became a problem. The money was gone and there was still no word from Kristen. She’d been in the goddamn papers a lot – the grieving widow – but not seeing her in the flesh was killing me. All the mayhem had taken its toll. I was broken and completely alone.
Finally, I cracked.
It took me hours to walk out to Rhodes house and, by then, I was completely out of my mind. I could hear whispers in the treetops, see shadows dancing all around me like wicked devils. Something terrible was happening.
Eventually, I saw the house lit up in the darkness like some ancient temple.
Kristen’s van was parked outside and there was washing on the line, the same blue jeans and red chequered dress I had seen crumpled on my hotel room floor so many times. I walked up to the living room window and peeked inside, saw her beautiful and smiling.
It took a moment to process that Ash Chalmers was crouching next to her. He was holding a needle in his hand, about to ease it into her arm, both of them grinning like a pair of wacked out children.
It was then I saw the photos of Kristen all around the room. A young girl brushing a horse’s main, a smiling youngster in her graduation cloak, a young bride on her wedding day. My whole body began to shake. There wasn’t one sign of a circus career, not a goddamn trapeze in sight. I slid straight down the wall and laughed until I cried.
She cried later.
Swore blind that Ash was holding her prisoner, that he’d been raping her too.
‘Him and his friends?’
She nodded, her fingers gripped tightly around my wrists. The truth was I wanted to believe in her. There was such desperation in those pin-prick eyes. But it was too late.
I loaded up the needle with more heroin than she would ever need.
‘You meant everything,’ I said.
And it was true.
By the time Donny arrived, I was sat outside on Kristen’s porch. The swamplands were alive with insect songs and the treetops filled with critters. Donny parked up and took some thick rolls of tarpaulin from the back of his truck, the blue sheets crunching beneath his arms like grinding teeth.
He paused by Ash’s body.
‘Good job,’ he said.
Ash had heard me outside, sobbing and grizzling, and, when he came to investigate, I caved his skull in like a piñata.
Donny and I drove out east for an hour, past towns and buildings which sat quiet as dolls houses, beneath harsh strip lights which bleached the world of truth and colour. Eventually, Donny turned off onto a dirt track towards one of the reservations.
‘You picking fights with Indians?’ I said.
He glared at me. ‘You trying to be funny?’
‘No – ‘
‘We got two dead bodies in the back of this truck and you’re cracking jokes – ‘
‘I didn’t mean – ‘
‘This is deep shit, man. You understand that? I went back there for you. I ain’t ever gone back to a crime scene for no-one.’
The car fell silent. I could feel my legs shaking, the terrible truth of that night’s events rattling through my bones.
‘You need to vanish,’ he said.
‘What about you?’
‘They ain’t looking for me, man.’
Donny looked over at me like a viper about to sinks its fangs. ‘I’m not going back to jail, man.’
Eventually, the engine eased up as mud gave way to sand and I realised we were driving around the edge of a lake. We carried on for a quarter of a mile then Donny pulled over. He killed the headlights as we rolled to a stop.
‘Look,’ he said.
I leaned forward against the dashboard. The moon was a clear and bright, a perfect circle, and I could see the calm waters of the lake below. Most beautiful of all were the stars. There were thousands of them, all around us, more than I had ever dreamed existed.
‘We got to be quick,’ said Donny. ‘And careful.’
He smiled and flicked on the full beam. ‘Because of them.’
At first, all I could make out was wet earth and a dozen or so timber logs. Only when the logs started crawling towards us, each one with two bright amber eyes, did I realise what they were.
‘Exactly,’ said Donny.
‘God damn us straight to hell, man.’
Donny reached for the door handle and got out. ‘He already has.’
Before I knew it, I was stood outside as well. I watched as Donny dragged Ash out into the dark waters and knew there was no going back. And so I followed him out into the lake, cradling Kristen in my arms like a sleeping child. Even when Donny started screaming at me to go back, when I heard thrashing in the waters close by, I kept on marching until the cold water was all the way up to my chest. I took one last look at Kristin then sank our heads beneath the surface, felt as weightless as that acrobat just hanging in mid-air.
The SHALLOW CREEK Short Story Competition
Mallum Colt, proprietor of Colt’s Curiosity Shop, invites authors to explore the sinister shadows and crooked streets of his once splendid town of Shallow Creek.
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Over the next few months, Mallum Colt will guide writers through Shallow Creek as he attempts to compile a tome of nerve jangling stories to encourage foreign folk back to Shallow Creek.
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