Out of the Woods By David Mills

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It’s strange how very good or bad news hits you from out of nowhere. So thought Michael Vogt as he lay down, drowsy after a simple yet full lunch. He had woken today futureless and unemployed. Then the phone rang.

The call had vitalized him, setting his mind abuzz all morning with his changed fortunes. Only food at lunchtime had ebbed his edge, allowing him to slip into sleep and a dream in colour.

He was close to adolescence, attending that summer camp his woken self rarely recalled. It was a sunny day. He was walking a dirt path between tall spruce trees, their branches, needles and cones filtering sunlight into slices and squares as it fell on bushes and forest floor. Though dreaming, he knew his clumsy self was in this strange wood to avoid participating in a ball game back at camp.

The path forked around the ageless grey bark of a tree. Though asleep, he felt an anxiety – one that would only grow in adolescence. Which path to take? He chose the one to the right: narrow but straighter. After several minutes, small forest noises about, he saw the path contract to veer further right. Continuing might get him lost. Should he backtrack? He still had time to kill before the game ended. He kept on as the sun stared into the forest, a small dark bird flying forward.

He exited the woods, to scrub ending abruptly at an extensive cropped dark green lawn leading to a swimming pool and a modern house with white slanting roof and long glass doors. The pool’s water looked light blue, sparkling under the sun.

This must be someone’s property, though there were no fences or signs around. He advanced shyly toward the pool. A woman in shades occupied a deck chair beside it. Her hair was blonde, her face away from him.

“Hello.” He started at the sympathetic voice. A youth, likely seventeen, stood there, his shirtless lightly muscled torso bronzed deep brown. He had thick smooth glossy black hair and a tanned attractive face that put Michael, who always felt judged by others, at instant ease.

“Like some lemonade?” The youth asked.

“Yes.” Michael answered shyly. The youth sauntered to the pool; Michael followed.

He saw the blonde woman fully now: thirty-plus, tanned, trim in her one-piece apple-green bathing suit, half her face covered by shades. A small pillow cushioned her head, an open glossy magazine lay on the short grass beside her. There was a small table with fold-out legs by the small pool’s concrete border. The table held a full jug of grey lemonade and large frosted glasses. Seen closer, the pool’s water looked pristine; a small smooth white ladder descended into it.

“We have a visitor,” the youth said. The woman looked up, stared at Michael a second, smiled tightly.

The youth poured three glassfuls of lemonade, giving one to Michael then the woman, who sipped briefly before placing it down.

Michael drank, his tongue savouring the cool, natural sweetness. Worried about direction, he hadn’t realized how thirsty he was. Though he’d just met these people, he felt oddly calm in this unforeseen yet not unnatural oasis.

Then his insecure side saw a sun lower in the sky; realized the ball game was ending or over. Others might wonder where he was: he had told a counsellor he would not hike far. His oversensitive self, fearing criticism, took over.

“I’ve got to get back,” he said. “They’re waiting for me at camp. Thanks for the lemonade.”

The youth shrugged; waved a muted goodbye. The woman flashed a semi-frown. Shy and embarrassed, Michael returned to the forest wall, the path to the fork and, eventually, a clearing with tennis court. Beyond that were the wooden dining hall and log bunkhouses facing a large lake he’d hardly swum in.

Michael Vogt awoke to a diesel truck, workers shouting outside, and his improved world. Yet that dream, its images dissolving, reminded him of something.

Alan Van Vleet awoke from dream to dispiriting actuality: yesterday morning’s unwelcome news, just as life was improving. It was suppertime, Tuesday.

He lay on the bed, its sheets bunched beneath a duvet that had seen, and covered, much of his personal history. A lukewarm sun shone outside his bedroom window. A cordless phone lay on a small white table across from him. It hadn’t rung since Saturday: a hospital charity fundraiser. He had pledged money now insecure.

So how to survive: take meagre unemployment insurance benefits? That, and his small savings, could last until lease expiry several months away. If nothing happened then, and it usually didn’t, he’d have to move into someplace smaller, maybe dingier. His very soon-ending clerical post had suggested a future. Now he was being terminated with only a vague reason why. He’d heard no rumours, rumblings, or complaints.

And that dream he’d just had: no nightmare, but puzzling.

He’d been in a forest under a full sun filtered by large trees rich in needles. He’d been young in the dream: almost adolescent.

He sensed himself confused, seeking a way out of the woods. Next he stood, the forest behind him, on a clipped grassy incline leading to a white house of much glass with two people near a swimming pool: a woman on a deck chair and a dark-haired adolescent with a friendly smile. Then Alan was among them, the youth speaking words welcoming yet transient.

Next, he was leaving, the scene darkening, the glass house lustreless within a diminishing tableau. Alan saw the two’s faces, even figures slacken, the youth especially dispirited. Alan re-entered the thick forest, away from what his sleeping mind felt to be sun and something else.

Then he awoke, cars and people outside, dreary reality inside.

Patrick Anakin was born to a thirtyish, semi-literate and unwell mother ill-prepared to have him; his father had departed when told of her pregnancy. Patrick’s birth was caesarean; his mother’s natural, now heightened hypertension necessitated that.

The baby was born fairly healthy, of healthy weight, but quieter than other newborns. When presented to his mother, her pale face grimaced. She refused to accept him. Her pregnancy had been stressful and, as she lay in the recovery ward, drawn, her bloodshot eyes widened at this fleshly bundle she’d carried in her womb and whom the obstetrician had told her was male.

“Take him away,” she croaked forcefully. “He’s wrong. All wrong.”

The doctor and nurse, taken aback, returned the baby to the natal ward.

Despite being soothed somewhat by the staff, she still refused to see her son; had no first name for him; didn’t want him sharing her surname.

“He’s wrong,” she reiterated. “He’ll do bad to me, to others.”

The mother left the hospital’s neo-natal facilities still weak and without her child. Prescribed tranquilizers, she planned to move in with her own ageing state-supported mother.

A psychiatric social worker had interviewed Patrick’s mother before her discharge. The social worker and her colleagues agreed that the mother was too unstable to then raise a child. The father having fled, the mother willing to cede custody, the son was thus put up for adoption. His mother’s final comment: “Whoever takes him will come to hate him.”

This didn’t quite happen. He was given to a family named Anakin with the provable stability to raise him. The Anakins gave him their family name; Mrs. Anakin named him Patrick after a young man who’d once hinted marriage to her but instead left for a career in New York. Mr. Anakin was unaware of this. She remembered.

Young Patrick grew from a silent boy into an emotionless, expressionless young man who, while no troublemaker, made everyone rather uncomfortable when around him. He said little to his “parents;” made no friends; was derided by his schoolmates as odd.

Most people, though, just didn’t notice him there, even when he stood before them. Sometimes his parents, themselves reserved, seemed to forget his presence, even at the dinner table. They provided for but did not cherish him: he himself discouraged intimacy. Upon graduating from high school with average grades, he did broach them about his future.

They suggested he leave for the city with its greater educational and job opportunities: if anything were to motivate him, it would not be them or here.

So, that June, he bid a muted, post-breakfast goodbye to them and boarded a bus with a suitcase and money they’d given him to begin a life better than his birthplace could offer.

The bus passed concrete suburbs with fast-food outlets and strip malls, then flat farmland that became rolling green country turning into a large forest where trees grew thick enough to abolish sunlight save that shining on the two-lane highway, built decades before.

The forest stretched. Then he saw, through the tinted windows, a gap showing a restaurant beside the highway. The bus slowed; pulled onto a short driveway then a parking lot close to the brick building with entrance under a red unlit sign.

The grey-suited chauffeur announced a one-hour stop. Patrick descended the bus’s rubber steps onto pavement that, but for bus, restaurant, and some cars, was enclosed by a spruce forest. Other passengers headed for the restaurant; Patrick stood looking around. He wasn’t hungry. He only ate when hungry.

He walked to the wall of dark green trees, nothing between them and the pavement but low fluted steel slats: the lot’s periphery. He saw an aperture between trees. On rare impulse – he never reflected, just reacted cautiously – Patrick stepped over the steel to walk into the woods.

It was slightly cooler here, needles and branches muting the sun, brightness breaking through nonetheless in patches onto greenery and a slim path, rough because little used.

He took the path, needles and cones brushing his blue cotton shirt. He smelt the tang of nature as he drew deeper into it. The path was interrupted by a grey bark tree bifurcating the trail in different directions. He took the one to the right.

He followed the narrow route, the sound of tiny animals about, the bus, restaurant, and parking lot seemingly distant. The path again turned rightward, to a full sun and a forest yielding to open ground. A small bird above flew forward toward it.

He stood before terrain softly sloping into clipped vivid green lawn then a swimming pool with a white board house with a winged roof and large sliding glass doors. Before the pool was a chaise longue with a body on it, probably female.

This was someone’s property, and no place for him. People didn’t want him on their land or anywhere. The city, indifferent to difference, might be accepting. Maybe he would find a female: something he’d never tried but knew was the norm. Or maybe not. He advanced, surprising himself with his daring.

Now he could better see a blonde woman lying on a probable deck chair. Her yellow hair was bright under the sun; she wore sunshades. Patrick guessed she was in her late thirties: her toast-browned arms were wrinkled and sagged slightly. The woman looked up, turned her shaded eyes to him. He stopped. He was trespassing.

“ Hello.” The pleasant young voice made Patrick start. He’d heard no one approach, certainly not this dark-haired adolescent male in jeans, his shirtless torso tanned and fit, his longish hair shiny.

“I was just walking around, “said Patrick quickly. “My bus stopped for lunch; thought I’d take a walk.”

The youth nodded patiently, smiled, relaxing Patrick: “Sometimes people stroll this way. They’re welcome to, especially on a nice day.”

The youth paused. “Like some lemonade?” Patrick saw a small table with jug on it by the woman. The woman was looking at him steadily behind shades.

Patrick hesitated. People seldom offered him things; they didn’t notice him to do so. Yet his unimaginative mind sensed a welcome here. The youth’s warm dark eyes invited a “yes.”

A large lead-coloured cloud passed over them from out of nowhere, staying there to darken the ground, chilling the air. Patrick shivered.

The youth suddenly stepped back suddenly, concerned.

“Well . . .  maybe not.” He sounded tense.” You . . . might miss your bus.”

“I guess,” Patrick said weakly. The youth took another step back, creating distance between them. Patrick saw the woman in shades stare.

“Have a nice day,” said Patrick, feeling female eyes on him as he returned to the woods, embarrassed, even confused. Re-entering the trees, he felt warmth on his back as the cloud lifted.

Later, as the bus left forest for rolling terrain then the city, he weighed his encounter: welcome then sudden rejection; human contact withering in seconds. And that place, he felt a surprising pang of regret, had been so warm, so peaceful. It would have been nice to stay a bit longer, taste that lemonade.

II

Michael Vogt looked at the wall clock, increasingly rare in this I-Pad age: five minutes left of morning break; time to head upstairs.

He sat in the minimally furnished basement cafeteria inside the black steel and glass building where he had recently started work: pure luck as such, given his few skills and erratic job history. Yet they’d needed someone now and had called him.

He had been orientated not by the departing employee – an Alan someone who had probably left suddenly or perhaps been fired – but by another worker. Alan had left trace history here: cartoonish decals on the shelf nearest, scattered stick-on notes, bookmarked websites, one of them risqué.

Whatever. Michael had been too busy focusing on computer functions he should actually know, learning responsibilities, and employees’ names. He was, really, in over his head, but would try to swim. He had not been hired as permanent.

And his co-workers seemed welcoming, all except one young man, medium tall with short brown hair and bland deadpan features who, when passing Michael’s desk, gave him not a glance; just looked straight ahead robot-like, almost rudely, going to and from his job in back. The back: best place for a drone. Anyway, others here interested more: a thirtyish ash-blonde woman who’d given him smiles as she passed. Overall, he liked it here, and again thanked that phone call that made here possible.

Alan Van Vleet saw the black steel and glass building, so important to him until recently, ever closer from the bus’s weather-scratched window. Returning from working out at a YMCA he seldom used, he was taking a different route home. He had nothing planned this evening.

He hadn’t passed here for weeks, not since losing his job to worry about the future in his small apartment on a street that, currently under renovation, was busier than when he’d first moved in.

The bus stopped across from the building, its adjacent sidewalks bare: it was six o’clock on a non-residential stretch. He looked away, sighed: his dismissal still smarted. His supervisor, Mrs. O’Neill, could only cite him a general dissatisfaction with his work. Yet he’d been more commended than criticized his year there. Why then? Something, someone had instigated it. Who? He was as much puzzled as upset.

Then he recognized someone from work boarding the bus: young, medium height, short brown hair, short sleeves on a cool fall day. Alan remembered: Patrick someone, the mail clerk who seldom spoke, only kept a blank face his entire shift. He looked no different now: removed, his eyes glancing at Alan as he walked past. Those eyes showed no recognition as he continued toward the back.

No matter. Alan was out of there forever, heading home, his evening very open.

Patrick Anakin lay on his hideaway bed in his neat, cream white bachelor apartment, his first ever. Though smaller than the bedroom he had bid goodbye to last spring, he did not mind. To mind, he would have to feel confined. He was naturally constrained.

Eying his evenly painted plaster ceiling, he considered the passenger on this evening’s bus: male, 35ish, familiar. Indifferent to most things, Patrick had nothing to think of but someone meaningless to him.

Right: Alan someone, laid off from Patrick’s division not so long ago, giving everyone strange looks his last week there. Patrick had heard it said that a certain female had taken a dislike to Alan; had repeatedly informed Mrs. O’Neill he was a slack employee meriting dismissal.

Would this ever happen to Patrick? No. Women, or men, would have to truly notice him there. He did his job; was polite but no more to everyone. He sensed, though, that some there resented him. People wanted more than just courtesy.

Courtesy. Still eyeing the ceiling, he recalled his bus trip here, a way through the woods and that strange smooth oasis. That tanned youth had welcomed Patrick, then not. His was an even physical shunning, not the usual indifference. That made it unusual. But why?

Thinking of this spun his thoughts to an upcoming Thanksgiving visit to his parents: one of those unavoidable formalities. He would soon be taking the bus to his hometown and, who knows, stopping at the restaurant beside a forest leading to bright green grass, a pool and a white house. The grass would not be so green now.

Michael Vogt awoke with a sour mouth and mental image: a dream of a madwoman’s face spewing negativity. He looked blearily toward the alarm clock just beyond arm’s reach: still minutes left before its workaday ring.

That face: drawn, bloodless, female with prematurely dark grey hair, probably bad breath as she mouthed malice, warning him of someone, something threatening. He couldn’t remember her words, just their force. Had he eaten something disagreeable last night?

Rising groggily from his jaded captain’s bed, his open cluttered cupboard reminded him of this weekend and a trip to pack for. He and some co-workers were going to a former summer camp turned campsite-resort. This weekend was Thanksgiving, but with an Indian summer forecast. Michael, not long on the job, felt good about being asked to join, especially since a thirtyish ash-blonde woman he now chatted with was also going. He had not received an invite for a while.

And that campground, its brochure with log buildings on land just above a very large cold-blue lake, a long wooden wharf jutting into it: It seemed attractively familiar. Why? He had only once experienced summer camp a thousand rocky mountain miles away. This place was closer, off a highway running from here to there and beyond.

Whatever. He would soon be enjoying fresh air with others; with a certain someone. Good. Perhaps his drudge history was becoming history.

Alan Van Vleet couldn’t forget this afternoon. It symbolized his unsettled state.

He had been returning early evening from the central Y, walking to save on bus fare. He was crossing a street when he saw someone familiar walking impassively along the block: Patrick again. Then from beside the stone foundation of a heritage bank building, a woman with iron-grey hair broached, gestured and spoke forcefully at Patrick. Patrick, his phlegmatic self visibly startled, almost sped around the corner.

Alan tried to bypass the woman, who wore an oversize, desiccated vanilla raincoat with high collar. She approached Alan from the middle of the sidewalk; he tried to step away. He saw light

blue eyes within a face prematurely lined. They widened in mild madness as she insisted hoarsely:

“He’ll bring bad to everyone. He’ll bring bad to you. You saw him. You saw him run.”

Alan hastened past her, unsettled, gymnastics bag over his shoulder.

Later, lying on his rumpled bed against the bedroom wall of the cozy apartment he might have to vacate, he wondered why that not-so-old woman had targeted Patrick. Paranoia? Alcohol abuse?  Her deluded existence made Alan worry about his own.

Patrick Anakin felt an odd pang as the bus entered the forest: the mid-point of his journey homeward, its solid greenery now turning orange, red, and yellow, today’s sun milder than last summer’s. It would be dark and cool when the bus tooled into his hometown’s quaint terminus this autumn evening.

Would they stop at that restaurant? Did he want it to? His stroll last summer had led to somewhere, to people far from his familiar. He had not met the like in the city: at work or the odd time he’d socialized. He simply could not give of himself to others; had nothing to give. That boy, his mother maybe, had seemed to feel different.

He sat alone on the bus, the other scattered older passengers likely welcoming a stop to stretch briefly and eat. Patrick, not hungry, did feel like moving his legs. This mild restlessness coincided with the memory of that aggressive woman downtown who had croaked curses at him, claiming he would bring bad to all. How, why would she say that? He had felt persecuted in

public; had hurried away. And she looked familiar – from where? Her intrusion remained unkempt in his ordered mind.

He looked down the aisle, to the driver’s sunken space before the wide front window that showed the trees open briefly. The bus cruised left to a parking lot fringed by forest then a restaurant with an unlit red sign.

Michael knew this place somehow; sensed it after exiting the station wagon to view cleared terrain declining to a large cold-blue lake, the smell of pine and wood smoke about. The grounds included plank wood cabins with tiled roofs and a large log building above a tiny inlet in the lake: the former chow house where boys had been fed porridge and Sloppy Joes. So, the youngish manager, pink face sporting a hip half-beard, had told them as they settled in.

Now, a few hours later, the sun having sunk below the forest on the lake’s other side, Michael Vogt sat on a boxlike bed. The others had gone somewhere without informing him. Annoyed, he got up to walk past the cabin’s array of beds, shelves and closets to open a plank door, stepping outside into the cool autumn eve.

Lights were on in the other cabins, low voices audible. A mosquito buzzed late in the year. He crossed the grounds, up a rise beyond the cabins, past a net-less grass tennis court, leaves scattered on its clipped surface, to a wall of spruces. Here he could really smell nature; hear nocturnal animals: another world. Never outdoorsy, this wood, though nocturnal, interesed. He then noticed, though dark, a deep narrow cut between trees: a path.

Where did it lead? He might suggest a mini hike tomorrow. Judging by tonight, the others might not bite. And that woman: she’d been standoffish to him in the car and afterward. Why?

He yawned: Though not late, the clean air kicked in. He headed back to his cabin, feeling an odd affinity to here. He wanted to know here better.

III

He, they, she, might arrive any moment, stepping out of the wood with its green needles to an unexpected sight that would nonetheless compel them toward the white house with the long glass doors.

This was the only home he’d known, once a log structure with chimney and a thick door of oak cut from the other side of the then uncut forest, before highways or restaurants. Back then, those who passed travelled by horse, wagon, or cart. Back then, and even afterward, people had stayed: they often had nowhere else to go. Now, cities just beyond beckoned.

He saw the woman, blonde, older, half-sitting, half-lying on the deck chair, inanimate in a dark blue safari suit, her concession to autumn. She hardly felt temperature; neither did he. She was not his mother, more a silent partner. She also craved company. Having none weakened them.

It was mid-afternoon, the sun nearing peak heat for today. Several hours from now it would be behind then below the trees. Maybe their visitor would be exiting the forest by then, or maybe tomorrow morning. But the visitor would appear, soon, to stay then fade, leaving his life-giving energy for those needing it; those much older, like themselves.

Then he thought of someone from last summer whom he didn’t want to stay, or see again: someone young in the world beyond, alive but not living; someone who ruined good things.

IV

Alain Van Vleet was fatigued by employer apathy. He had spent this week, last week, fruitlessly job-hunting – the same old. Now, lying on his bed, sparse traffic outside, he just wanted to blank out. Minutes later, he did. He dreamt.

He was walking a rough path bothered by tensile bushes with small lime-green leaves. Trees with needles shaded the inner forest.

He’d been here before; he knew that vaguely. This time all seemed more definite: his own solid image advancing into wild nature on a rough beaten path.

The path ceded to a gap in the trees, clear blue sky, a field of cropped green grass and a white house with long glass doors glinting under the sun. He walked toward it.

A person appeared, as if natural, from the scene’s periphery: male, shirtless, tanned. A horizontal shape in front of contained water asserted itself into a blonde woman in bathing suit.

Though dreaming, he felt content – unlike in the woken world. There, he had no direction. Here, he had sun, the welcoming smile of a youth with warm dark eyes, cool water, and a glinting home to greet him. Why wake from that?

Michael Vogt walked the rough path into the wood that, last night, had beckoned. Now, under a warm late-morning sun, its jutting branches, rough cones, needles, and denuding bushes more cloyed than attracted. Yet he felt glad to be here.

He’d had a deep though strange sleep, awakening several times to in his bunkbed to pitch night outside, a closed window above the snugly sleeping body of one of his workmates. When sleep returned, he’d dreamt jumbled images of the others here, of that ash-blonde woman, of this place.

This morning he’d breakfasted with them. In the chow house, and while discussing the job over buttery golden-brown toast, thick porridge with milk and brown sugar, the ash-blonde woman Michael had appreciated mentioned Alan’s dismissal:  her initiative, it seemed, motivated by Alan’s constant lackadaisicalness. The others didn’t comment. Yet Michael noticed a bite to her tone: some root, unexpressed, reason had motivated her effort. After breakfast he left the grounds, carrying cold water, bread, and cheese. He wanted away from the others, from her.

In the woods, he heard animal noises; wondered about meeting bears. He trod on; at least black fly season was over. Then the sun strengthened, shining segmented light into the forest. Nature heightened its ambience. He now smelt rich autumn in the air, invigorating him.

He reached a timeless grey tree with vivid pink-red leaves. Here, the path split into diverging directions: leftward, clearer cut but curving; to the right, straighter but encroached on by denuding bushes.

Standing there, Michael felt a déjà vu: he’d been here before. But he couldn’t have. Mildly confused, he wondered which path to take? He sighed, and took the one leading left.

Patrick Anakin regarded the low steel beam separating concrete from forest: both, like the restaurant, unchanged. The bus had stopped for late lunch. He wasn’t hungry. He stepped over the steel to enter that divide between evergreens.

Unable really to recall this forest’s interior, he imagined it unchanged: the same rough path but for scattered auburn leaves. Walking over their crisp skins, deeper into the wood, he wanted to see that house, that pool, those people again. They might welcome him now.

Springy branches, their needles and cones, brushed his arms. His sweater was slightly hot for today’s Indian summer.

He reached that sturdy grey-scaled tree, rust-coloured leaves around it. He saw the path branch left and right; did remember to go right. Minutes later the path bent, and he then saw sun beam fully into an opening ahead. And he wanted sun on his face; to again see warm people greet him. He stepped out of the woods to . . .

. . . ankle-length brown grass and discoloured weeds on a scrubby field ending at a log cabin with purlin roof and a skinny black chimney, the shutters of its single long window sagging, neglected.

The solid forest behind him, he stood fazed at what he saw. What was this? A negative curiosity brought him forward.  He stepped on twigs and stalks under a sun with no heat. Approaching the

cabin, he saw gashes in its once strong pale oak logs, the flat grey filler stones between them insecure, spilling. He peered into the pane-less window: a single shadowy room with broken glass on the floor, a rocking chair in the centre. An inert form slumped in that chair. The form moved.

Someone in a large pale coat arose; turned to shuffle to the window. It was an elderly woman. He stared, held despite himself.

It was the woman who had harassed him downtown. The sunlight showed her dark grey hair and staring blue eyes. And she was, seen fully now, not really old.

“See what you’ve done, “she hissed. “You bring bad everywhere.”

Patrick retreated, almost ran into the forest. He passed the hoary grey oak, passed other trees, branches slapping him as he fled toward a world alienating yet familiar. Here he’d hoped for welcome, only to find madness within log walls.

Alan Van Vleet lay in his bed, late day waning, feeling content.  Good had finally found him.

One phone call had done it, breaking the chain of hopelessness. A government job he’d interviewed for then forgotten about months ago was now his to start Monday. It seemed a bit unreal, almost dreamlike. But his dreams, those rare agreeable ones, remained that. Today, reality had gifted him for once.

A car passed outside, its motor loud then distancing. Evening was falling; he was unworried about what to do with it. Instead, feeling slightly drowsy, he mused on how the best or worst of life arrives from out of nowhere.

glasses

David Mills

David is a senior (in terms of age) civil servant who has done volunteer and other journalism, and has always been interested in stories of the unusual.

Image by jplenio from Pixabay

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