Black Lab by Ashley Stokes

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The dog was dead. It just didn’t know it yet. Pete ‘The Meat’ Truelove knew it. The vet knew it. When the results of the blood test had appeared on her monitor screen, she’d softly chewed her bottom lip. She would say something soon. He could sense the hard word coming. Crouched on the floor now, she attached a cone to Wincey’s head.

‘Some owners call these the cone of shame,’ she said, ‘but it will stop you scratching it, Wincey.’

Pete managed a smile. He was still embarrassed that he’d forgotten what to call a vet. Already this morning he’d addressed her as Mrs Laghari, then ‘Miss’ when he’d suddenly worried whether she was married or not, then Doctor Laghari before ‘Vet’ when he couldn’t remember if a vet is a doctor or not. By then she’d said he could call her Rani. After all, they had known each other since she was a little girl. She’d reminded him that she used to come into Truelove’s the Butchery with her mother, when his old man—who used to play cards at the legion with her grandfather—was still in charge and Pete would have been a big soft lump having his trade handed down to him. He could call her Rani, she’d told him. We’re all friends here, Pete. How is business? How’s your mum?

Whenever anyone asked after Mum, he didn’t know how to explain that she wasn’t quite herself at the minute. She certainly wouldn’t want all and sundry to know her ins and outs. Mum was full of beans, he told Rani. You know Our Shirley. She’ll outlive us all.

Wincey lowered herself until the rim of the cone clicked against the white-tiled floor. She looked like a vast black slug with a radio telescope for a head. Before the cone, she had only looked like something out of the B-movies Pete used to watch with his old man when they first got a video and you could rent all the fifties and sixties horror films from a shop on Cranmer Street.

‘As expected, the results are not good,’ said Rani. ‘Wincey is very deficient in albumin. Protein made by the liver. Her liver is shutting down. If it has not shut down already. It’s only a matter of time. Her body knows. Her brain doesn’t yet, but it will.’

Pete got the hint. Wincey was suffering. He could do her a kindness. Maybe she knew she was on the way out. That was why she was biting and scratching at her stomach. There was an old scar there that now looked like a swollen ridge. Rani reckoned the dog was scratching and biting itself in its distress.

‘I can make all the arrangements for you,’ Rani said. ‘It would be for the best, you know.’

‘How’s your sister these days?’ Pete said. ‘Still driving that pink car?’

‘Pete, look at the condition of this animal. Massively overfed. She’s a Labrador. She will eat and eat. If I didn’t know better, I’d say there’s a case of animal cruelty here, but I know Shirley. She has always taken good care of her dogs.’

‘I know what you’re saying, but seriously, I come back today without Wincey, Mum…she isn’t going to forgive me, or whoever she thinks I am now.’

‘What on earth does that mean?’

‘It means that if Wincey hasn’t got long, then she needs to be with Mum when she—’

‘Well, I wouldn’t recommend—’

‘It’s not the right thing to do, I know, but it’s the best thing.’

He looked down at the dog. Rani looked down at the dog.

‘Funny, isn’t it?’ said Pete. ‘She was a rescue dog. We rescued her.’

When he was a nipper, the vet’s practice used to be on the green but now it was on an industrial estate miles away. He opened the back doors of the van and urged Wincey to get in the rear. She sat sulking in the rain. She used to be able to hop up no problem. He let the ramp down. With some prodding, she and her cone of shame slithered aboard. He checked her over his shoulder before he pulled off.

‘Well, Wincey, my little star, looks like you’re the last of the dogs of Truelove.’

He swung a left into the estate’s main artery. The last of the dogs. Mum had always owned a dog. Always a Labrador. Always a black Labrador. A black Lab had been part of the family for as long as anyone could remember.

First came Doris, named after Doris Day (Calamity Jane was still Mum’s favourite film). Pete could remember riding around the lounge on Doris’ back when he must have been three or four. There were pictures of him with Doris when he was younger still, little more than a baby plonked on an orange carpet with a black Lab looming over him.

Then there was Pickles, who Mum named after the plucky little dog who found the World Cup after it got nicked. He lasted until…Pete couldn’t remember if it were just before, or just after he’d started working at the butchery. After Pickles had to be put to sleep because his back legs went—and truthfully here, Pickles was in less of a state than Wincey is now but Mum was sounder of mind then—Queenie came along, named after the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, the year Truelove’s the Butchery started its first fumbles into outside catering, and the street parties made the old man enough money to take Mum to Benidorm for the first time, leaving the shop with Pete to look after and the new black lab on top of that.

The next one, Bruno—named after Mum’s favourite not-very-good British heavy-weight boxer—was the first one Pete bought for her because Queenie only outlived the old man by a couple of months. It was all around that time. Mum moved out of the flat above the shop and into the house she lives in now and Pete stayed on in the flat above the shop he’d lived in all his life. If he’d ever got around to getting married, he’d have moved somewhere bigger, but he never did, so that was that.

After Bruno came Goldie, who was sort of Queenie Part 2 because she was named after the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. Even if he racked his brains Pete couldn’t remember anything about the Queen’s Golden Jubilee other than his mum named a dog after it.

Soon after Goldie went the way of all Labs—back legs—Pete just happened to notice a story in the local paper about a black Lab puppy, the only survivor in a fatal car accident, a terrible tragedy in which all five members of the same family had died in a crash on the motorway, along with the recently-married couple in the other vehicle. The dog had been hurt in the crash, a nasty gash on its underside, but it had healed until Wincey had started to bother it recently.

It was supposed to be a good thing, to take in the dog and give it to his old Mum, who had no one but him now that Goldie was chasing squirrels in the sky (sort of: Pete had never actually seen any of Mum’s black Labs chase after anything that wasn’t already in a bowl).

That Mum had called the new dog Wincey after some barefoot madwoman who used to do the keep fit or the weather on breakfast TV yonks ago, that no one could remember now and who was probably dead, this may well have been the start of it, the first sign that something was wrong with Mum’s memory.

Rain rumbled on the roof of the van like the approach of hoof beats in a western. The traffic had slowed to crawl. Snarl-up ahead at the T-junction by the Lidl. Pete looked back over his shoulder at Wincey. The rim of the cone was a pale halo around the dog’s otherwise withdrawn and invisible head, no muzzle glistened, no eyes shone.

‘What on earth did you do to yourself, Wincey old girl, eh?’

As they waited on Mum’s step, unrelenting rain skittered on the cone and splatted the back of Pete’s head. Mum either didn’t hear the doorbell, or she wouldn’t come to the door for whatever reason, so eventually Pete used his own key and let himself in. He shouted a ‘hello’ three times into the grey hall. Day-by-day the house became dustier and dirtier. The sight of it always made him want to get down on his knees and scrub and polish every surface until it looked like it used to look in here. He’d paid for a cleaner, two cleaners, in fact, first Lena and then Zofia, but neither lasted long after Mum confused them with women she’d had a barney with in 1952 or 1968 or in whatever time period she was visiting that day.

She wasn’t in the hallway. Wincey was panting like she’d just had an energetic run around the park instead of sitting still as a slab in the back of the van. Picturing the swollen bump on her stomach the bald patch, the matted hair, the raw redness of it made Pete feel nauseous. He blinked. Mum was standing there now, in her white nightdress and carpet slippers, as if she had been there all along. Wincey squeezed against Pete’s thigh, leaving a cold wet smudge. Flab wriggled and writhed as Wincey shivered raindrops from her back and waddled over to Mum. If it had not always been so, it was now the truth that these two were made for each other. Neither behaved in any way you could expect or predict.

‘Good girl, good girl, Wincey,’ said Mum. ‘‘‘Ave you had your din-dins, eh? ‘Ave you had your din-dins? Come and get your din-dins. C’mon. And you, don’t just stand there making the place look miserable, Arthur.’

He couldn’t remember when this had stopped hurting quite so much, when she talked at him like this, as if he were his own dead father, as if he was married but married to her. Some nights he would lie awake with all the implications of this fizzing in his head until he wished for the alarm, so he could go downstairs to the butchery and lose himself in the cutting and boning and grinding fresh meat. At least with the old man it was sudden. One morning Arthur Truelove had collapsed in the meat locker and never surfaced. Pete hadn’t had to grieve him before he passed.

In Mum’s kitchen, you wouldn’t believe that Pete had done all the washing up and wiped everything down during his first nip round last night, given it was barely past one in the afternoon and how many pots and pans and cups and plates had been used and swam with grease or gravy. If there was one thing Pete ‘The Meat’ Truelove knew how to do it was keep an area used for the preparation or storage of food spotlessly clean. Last night this here would have passed an Environmental Health inspection.

Of course, Mum could still remember where the dogfood was kept. She pulled back the lid of a tin of Chappie and plopped the lot into the dog’s bowl.

‘Mum, we’ve had this out. One tin a day. Three servings from a tin. She’s had a tin already today. I saw you feed her this morning.’

He’d been saying this for months. He’d said it twice last night, once before he’d blitzed the kitchen and once after he’d had to come around in the middle of the night. Mum had rung in a state of screaming panic: Wincey had escaped (oh yes, she remembered Wincey’s name, she remembered Pete’s mobile number).

The dog’s snout nudged the bowl. A sad feeling heavied the pit of Pete’s stomach. Something was coming. He’d seen it in Wincey’s eyes. Last night at 4 am. In Mum’s garden. Looking for that black dog in the black night and the shitty mist and drizzle and his torch catching its eye-shine in the corner by the far wall. Some expression in Wincey’s eyes, like she knew what was coming for her.

It was only when Pete had somehow managed to drag Wincey by the collar back into the kitchen that he’d noticed that swelling on Wincey’s gut.

A matter of days. Then there would be the whole business of her wanting another dog, another faithful companion, another black Lab that all the time she’d forget she’d fed already and stuff with Chappie and lord knows what else until it burst. He had seen her feed the dog her own dinner. He’d seen the dog eat a whole pack of bourbon creams and a lump of cheddar cheese the size of a weightlifter’s fist. That nice bit of brisket he’d brought over once, that went in the dog. A plate of pulled pork: Dog. Lamb shank: Dog. He ought to say something. He ought to prepare her. He ought to tell her what the vet had told him. He didn’t know where to start.

‘You know I’m not about tomorrow until late, Mum? Remember. Big catering job out by the airport. The one I told you about.’

‘None of your cheek, Arthur. If I hear you been in the Saracen’s Head—’

‘Mum, they knocked that place down years ago. Its roof came off in the big wind.’

‘I saw you looking at her in there only yesterday. You know they say she’ll be buried in a Y-shaped coffin.’

The dog had polished off the meat and was now gnawing on the edge of the bowl. The splatter patterns around the bowl, vaguely heart-shaped or the outline of a softened face, and the way the dog’s length spasmed as if possessed by some manic thrill, this was too much. He never wanted to see anything like this ever again.

The next morning, still heavy rain. Flood warnings on the radio. Flash floods in low-lying areas. Pete felt sorry for the Wilsons and the Cornells, the parents of Gene and Katrina, the happy couple who were getting married this afternoon. Their marquee better be a sturdy one. As he nipped out the back of the shop and over to the catering unit, he imagined the wind ripping the marquee free of its moorings and soaring it into the grey skies to the strains of some drunken showband.

In the unit, the kids from the agency, Antoni and Marilena were packing up in batches of eighty, chicken skewers, mini beef wellingtons, slices of Scotch sirloin beef and roast loin of pork, a ton of other meats and pastries, the whole Truelove wedding feast extravaganza that Pete would personally deliver to the world’s wettest wedding reception later this morning. The kids were smashing it. He told them this and slapped a tenner on the side so one of them could nip to Nero’s and get some coffees and a sandwich each. Back in the Butchery, he paused in the doorway and watched Tyler without so much as a spit or grimace take and organise Runaround Ralphie Cocker’s once-monthly, ninety-nine-item (it always seemed like it) meat order. Pete knew that Tyler hadn’t really wanted to be a butcher, hadn’t fancied working with a sinkful of tongues and cold meat hung on ceiling hooks, but over the last eighteen-months he’d really started to inhabit the role. Everyone trusts a butcher, Pete had told him once. It’s the apron.

In his apron pocket, Pete’s mobile phone rang.

‘Arthur … Arthur, glad I caught you, Arthur. Are you going to keep back any of that special sausage for me today, the Cumberland sausage or—’

‘Mum, it’s me.’

‘Oh hello. Nice to hear from you.’

‘Do you know who I am, Mum?

‘You’re the butcher’s boy.’

‘How’s Wincey, Mum?’

‘Why shouldn’t she be?’

‘Mum, I’m in the middle of something here. Got to be off in an hour and we still need to pack the van. I’ll come by on my way back, alright?’

‘You just remember that, Arthur.’

She hung up.

An hour later and the kids from the agency were loading coolers and crates into the back of the van and getting piss-wet in the slashing rain. Yesterday Pete had the van professionally cleaned and disinfected because it’d had almost-dead dog in it (more Wincey bills). Now he was huddled in the doorway, supervising and using the maps app on his phone to double-check his route. He could have got Tyler to drop off and deliver the wedding feast  showing his apron to such people as Gene and Katrina’s parents and their mates on the big day was priceless advertising. The phone rang. It was Mum again.

‘THERE’S A FUCKER IN THE CURTAINS!’

Pete was all sweaty with rush as he pulled up outside Mum’s. The rain drove against the pebble-dash and the stone-cladding of the estate as if it wanted to beat down and dissolve the houses.

Inside, she was already in the hall today, still in her white nightdress but now with her lilac coat over it.

‘He’s still here,’ she said. ‘All night I heard him. Scratching.’

‘Right,’ said Pete. He checked all the rooms, upstairs and down. He pulled back all of the curtains and let in the beige tinge that passed for daylight.

‘There’s no one here, Mum,’ he told her in the kitchen. She was quiet now, vacant, exhausted. He checked the flip-top bin. Four empty Chappie cans. He checked the cupboard. Eleven unopened cans of Chappie. Yesterday, there had only been eight. So, she’d been out to the shops then.

‘Where’s Wincey?’ he said.

‘Out back. With him.’

‘Bloody hell. The weather, Mum. Look at it. That dog really isn’t well.’

He dreaded going outside. He had found at least two of the others dead. He didn’t want to see Wincey lying in the rain like a subsided slag heap.

Outside, Wincey was sitting up, almost bang-smack in the middle of Mum’s backyard, squat and robust, sturdier than Pete had seen her in months, her paws stamped on the paving in half an inch of water, staring out of the cone, her eyes twinkling in the rain.

Somehow without the help of the fire brigade’s tug-of-war team, he heaved Wincey by the collar back towards the kitchen steps.

‘You know, Wince, my old star, some days I really wish I hadn’t come to your rescue. My old mum, she loves you, she does, but since she’s had you, she’s not been the greatest. Before you, she was the kindest dog owner in the world. I’m sorry about that, Wincey.’

In the kitchen, Wincey flowed over to Mum and curled up on the floor.

‘Keep her in,’ said Pete. ‘I’ll be back later.’

‘Oliver,’ said Mum. Her voice sounded different, not only younger but kind of posher, too. ‘Stay home today, Oliver. Don’t leave me alone with him?’

‘Mum, there’s no one here, I checked. I gotta go.’

It was only when he was spraying along the motorway, mentally rehearsing the role of the jolly apron man for the wedding people, trying not to think about Wincey standing there staring out from her cone in the rain that he remembered an Oliver.

Oliver had been the name of the man driving the car that crashed. An Oliver was killed along with his family and the couple in the other car. No one survived that crash, except for Wincey.

Bloody hell, Mum could remember that bloke’s name and she’d never even met him. Pete didn’t remember telling her, so she could only have got the name out of the paper years ago. She could imagine herself as someone babbling at a dead man but not remember she’d fed the dog. Nuts, isn’t it? How could she remember him? She wouldn’t have remembered in a month of Sundays when she was herself. Pete wouldn’t have remembered if she hadn’t reminded him.

An airliner came in low across the traffic ahead and for a second looked like it would plough into a bridge across the motorway. Pete turned the radio on, turned it up, didn’t know who was singing, then turned it off.

When Pete returned, Mum’s was the only house in the street without any lights. It looked empty, abandoned. It let everyone know that while they were tucked up indoors Shirley Truelove was away. Parked up outside, the van was warm, the drive back from the Happy Day of Gene and Katrina had been murder—the cloud-burst, the tailbacks, the winking amber lights in the downpour—and Pete was tired and hungry and sad and wanted his armchair, a scotch—none of that blended rubbish, mind you—and an hour or two of TV before bed. He hadn’t heard from her all afternoon. He had promised, though, to check in on his way home.

He found her in the lounge, sitting in her easy chair, still in her lilac coat and nightdress.

‘Don’t land, Killick,’ she said. ‘There’s one more of the devils. Took Strukel where the palm trees reach the dunes. The musket…useless—’

‘Where’s Wincey, Mum?’

‘Last saw its red eye in the galley, hot as tar, working its way down through the quarters. Killick should never have come back on board, not—’

‘Oh, what on earth are you saying now, Mum?’

‘Velex, vlox-akak.’

‘Who’s she when she’s at home?’ Pete muttered as he swung about and went looking for Wincey. Was this some sort of code, some backhanded way of telling him he was going to have to see it, see it dead, then clear it up and cart it off and pay a small fortune to have it disposed of decently.

The hallway was still dark. He found the light switch. The kitchen door flashed up white ahead of him.

In there.

Clicking, grunting.

He tapped open the door.

In the kitchen, something pale bobbed and floated in the dark at head-height.

When he turned on the light, all the cupboard doors were open, the oven door was open and the fridge door ajar. Wrappers, plastic, paper, foil all ripped to shreds on the floor and the surfaces, crumbs and specks, stains and spillages everywhere, a dozen spent tins of Chappie strewn across the room. Wincey was standing up on her back legs, paws on the work surface. Side on, she looked like a tall fat nun in a white veil. A nun with a vibrating head. Drool and dribble hung in strands from the rim of the cone.

Tyler had the temerity to call in sick the next day, so Pete couldn’t spend the morning sleeping off the late-night cleaning job and the airlift-style operation involved in getting Mum to have a bath that had come on top of the long drive and the long day beforehand. It was still raining, belting down. The butchery would be quiet, he hoped. He could manage. He sat in the side-room where he kept the freezers, one eye on the counter.

Trade was sporadic. Mostly, he played Tetris on his phone. Tyler had shown him other games, but he only liked Tetris. If she rang, he would shut up shop and go over. It didn’t seem that long ago that she and Wincey, and before that Goldie, visited every day. There were advantages to being a butcher’s mother. Mum and her dog would trot off every lunchtime with a meat order and a peck on the cheek. She didn’t ring.

He was too slow for Tetris. Always had been. The shapes soon started to move too quickly. It was all moving too quickly now. Yesterday had been too fast. Seeing the dog ruling the roost like that. Hearing Mum talk gibberish. A matter of days, Rani had said. Soon the dog’s brain would realise its liver had given up. Mum would be alone.

He couldn’t afford a carer. He couldn’t afford a decent care home. He didn’t trust carers or homes, anyway, given what you heard. He’d have to move back in. Maybe he could move back in and rent out the flat and use the income from that to pay for a carer to sit with Mum while he was at work.

No. Any carer or paid companion would get short shrift like the cleaners. She found reasons to hate everybody now. She used to be a laugh, friendly, the butcher’s wife, his mum at the school gates, ironing the aprons, keeping the shirts of the butcher and the butcher’s son as white as lightning. Something was going to give now. Something was going to leave. And he would have to go back and sit with her through the long ending to come.

By half-one he was surprised she hadn’t called him, or called Arthur or Oliver or whoever, especially as last night there had been no food left at all in the house, let alone dog food. By half three he was a little anxious. He knew he’d have to, but he didn’t want to see the dog again. He didn’t want to see it flat out and dead in the rain. It was still raining. She didn’t call. There was no point ringing her. She’d stopped answering the phone some time ago. He would go over later. Maybe afterwards he’d pop by that new pub, The Rum Runner, see if he could find someone still kicking to chat away a few hours.

It was nearly seven by the time he made it to the house. In the hall, he called her name. The house felt empty. He switched on the lights. The kitchen was oddly still clean, tidy. No smell of dog meat. No smell of dog. There was a stiff draught coming from the outside. The backdoor was ajar.

Outside, silvery rain hammered the oblong of Mum’s stone garden. Almost at dead-centre, a black hump shimmered. Pete caught himself about to call the dog’s name. There was no point, though. He couldn’t move towards it at first, didn’t want to. He only did when he felt that standing out in the freezing rain could be the death of him.

Up close, in the light of Mum’s patio lights, the breeze lapped puddle water against Wincey’s arched back. The cone hid her face. He was grateful for this. He didn’t want to see Wincey’s eyes as he edged around her. He’d rather have seen her eyes that the gaping hole in her stomach. Diluted by the rain, it was a mucky brown at the extremity of the splatter pattern but a dense red-black close to the cavity. It stank, too, methane mingled with brimstone and raw liver. A fox would have done this. They were bold around here now, the little monsters. He’d seen a big one several times. It must have had a go at Wincey and she’d been full of pent-up pressure and gas.

Wincey had always been a stupid, lollopy animal, a dopey mutt, though seeing her there like this, the way it had gone in the end, sloped outside to collapse on the concrete the moment its insides outran its brains, to lie here in the freezing rain and explode and Mum not even notice. If he didn’t go back inside and find a sheet or something to cover the dog up, he would weep and not just for Wincey. Not for Wincey at all. Wincey was no longer suffering. Wincey was full.

It was strange to think of her being full. If anything, her fur looked loose around her frame. Pete didn’t want to pat down her sides to investigate. The thought of touching her made him feel sick, him, a man who had handled animal carcasses for forty-five years.

Back in the kitchen, no one had followed or come to look for him because he’d entered their house. He hadn’t realised until now how long he had been out there staring at the dog, which he remembered now as shrivelled, wizened, a husk. It can’t have been like this, but it reminded him of the preserved body of a baby woolly mammoth dug out of a peat bog he’d once seen in a National Geographic in the dentist’s waiting room.

It struck him that he didn’t know where Mum was. He had visions of her having come across Wincey and not understanding what she had seen. She wasn’t in her chair. She must be upstairs, unless of course she’d gone walkabout again, traipsed out in this weather in just her nightdress. If someone had found her, they would have contacted him by now. The Police knew all about Shirley Truelove. They were always bringing her back from her adventures in other people’s houses, from her long marches and squabbles with ghosts, her errands in the backstreets and byways on the afternoons she was the bookie’s little girl again, the times she returned to places knocked down and concreted over a lifetime ago.

Halfway up, he froze after he almost slipped over on a wet patch on one of the stairs, a streak of the same gunk that Wincey had been laying in. Only Mum could have walked this indoors. So Mum had found Wincey. She knew.

At the top of the stairs, the landing was dark. No light from her bedroom. He called her name again. If he ever had to let himself in, he always worried about catching her unawares, finding her undressed, or worse. But it was stupid to just stand here in the dark, as it only made it more likely he would startle her. He turned on the light. He listened. It was odd, shaming even, but for a second, he was more concerned about the dignity of the dead dog, that he should make a beeline for the laundry cupboard in the spare room and grab a sheet.

In her bedroom, at first, he couldn’t see her, only the windowpane fanged with rainwater splashes. A peculiar shadow had fallen across her bed that he found himself staring into for what seemed like a long time before it sank in that his mother was sitting there. Bare legs and feet dangled over the edge. He had a bad feeling that she wasn’t wearing any clothes.

‘Mum,’ he said. ‘Mum? You awake?’

She was naked, but her skin was the not the loose, pale flesh he’d seen when he’d bathed her last night. It was taut and toned, young. Her skin, though, was a brownish yellow. In the middle of her chest, in a line from her sternum to her stomach, was a gash, like she’d had open heart surgery and they hadn’t stitched her up yet. The same red Wincey gunk was on her hands, in her hair.

She opened her eyes.

Where her eyes should have been white they were a hot, blazing red.

A high-pitched, whiney growl. ‘Velex, vlox-akak, din-dins.’

When it moved, it moved fast.

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Ashley Stokes

BIOGRAPHY: Ashley Stokes is a writer based in the East of England. He is the author of The Syllabus of Errors (Unthank Books, 2013) and Voice (TLC Press, 2019), and editor of the Unthology series and The End: Fifteen Endings to Fifteen Paintings (Unthank Books, 2016). His recent short fiction includes Hardrada in Tales from the Shadow Booth, Vol 4 edited by Dan Coxon; Evergreen in BFS Horizons 11; Yellow Haze in Strands Literary Hub and Two Drifters on Unsung Stories Online. His stories have also appeared in Bare Fiction, The Lonely Crowd, the Warwick Review and more. A novel, Gigantic, will be published by Unsung Stories in 2021.

https://ashleystokes.net/

@AshleyJStokes

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https://www.unthankschool.com/

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

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