Closeted

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Other  |  House: Booksie Classic
Dramatic story with supernatural overtones and a bit of horror near the end about a man whose greatest demon is his fear of acknowledging who he is.

Submitted: August 19, 2010

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Submitted: August 19, 2010

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CLOSETED

By

D.S. Ullery

 

Grady stared into the empty room with sad eyes, his large frame filling the doorway, casting a dim shadow that stretched across the hard floor from the threshold to the base of the west wall. The absence of the familiar mattress and adjacent nightstand (with its perpetual stack of loosely arrayed CD’s and small reading lamp) stung him. His eyes flitted to the southwest corner of the room, where a small table used to support an aging boom box.  Now there was  a blank corner that could have been in any room in any house, with no more character than that provided by the small clumps of residual  dust  scattered across the tile. No indication Steven had ever lived here . Not a trace of his personality.

  Something on one of the bare walls caught Grady’s attention and he stepped into the room, mentally acknowledging that it was the first time since the furniture had been removed he had  been able to do so . He approached the wall slowly, his eyes poring over the washed-out yellow surface (he had once asked Steven why he had never bothered to repaint the room, to which Steven- in his characteristically good humored manner- had replied brightly, “Dude, c’mon.. who else has a room with yellow walls? It’s unique!”).

Traced on the wall were the faint outlines of two rectangular patterns. The surface was brighter on the inside of the borders than out, clearly marking where Steven’s framed poster copies of his  own artworkhad hung.

  The memory brought with it another stab of grief and Grady closed his eyes. The original paintings (Steven’s first to be sold as part of a local art expo) had brought in the money to put down the deposit on this smallapartment . Grady vividly remembered the joy on Steven’s young face, his dark brown eyes brimming with excitement and pride not only because he had just sold his first pair of paintings , but because the apartment was only two city blocks away from Grady’s place, a surprise his dead lover had been hiding until the day he signed the lease.

Shame washed over Grady as he recalled explaining to Steven why he hadn’t been able to attend the expo, lying about being away due to work. Instead of acting hurt or issuing recriminations, his partner had smiled and replied “It’s okay, Grady. You didn’t miss much. It was cool to have my work seen  but, truth be told., it was pretty damned boring.”

Such a forgiving attitude, never aware (or, if he was, never showing it) that Grady had actually spent those two days with someone else. Someone he had met on an actual business trip a week earlier. Alone with the memory,  Grady could only rationalize that it was the element of the forbidden which had attracted him. That  inherent excitement of tasting the fruit he wasn’t supposed to partake of.

Tears began to spill. His eyes red and wounded, Grady collapsed against the wall, sliding to the floor. He pulled his knees up to his chest and hugged them tightly to his chest,  leaning his face into the material of his jeans. His body trembled as muffled sobs echoed through the emptiness.

The crying jag eventually spent itself and Grady wiped the remaining tears from his puffy eyes with the back of his hand. He sniffled and laughed humorlessly.

‘Oh boy‘, he thought , ‘If Steven could see me now ,he’d  surely give me some serious hell.’

  It was true . If Grady was the epitome of pragmatism, Steven had been his polar opposite, an eternal optimist who held the firm belief that life was to be cherished and celebrated. That had actually been the focus of their last conversation,  the one they had as Steven lay in a hospital bed, barely conscious, yet somehow remarkably lucid.

 

It had been late on a Thursday afternoon and visiting hours were going to be over by six. Grady had managed to arrive by four o’clock.  His thoughts had been occupied by the client from whose office he was heading to the hospital . The man had been planning to upgrade his business with the latest software and the computer retailer that employed Grady had sent him over to solidify the deal. The meeting had gone well and a lucrative arrangement had been tentatively worked out. That had put Grady in a considerably good mood , all things considered.

The moment he had stepped into Steven’s hospital room, his mood changed. Though he had spent countless hours there since Steven had been admitted, Grady was always taken aback by the sight of his partner lying in the bed, a thin, wasted version of his former self. It was as if Steven had been snatched away and replaced with some grotesque effigy. 

Yet even in his sickly state, Steven’s eyes retained that soulful quality which had attracted Grady to begin with. Those eyes that carried so much power, so much pure emotion, had looked at him from the bed. They lit up with pleasure.

Grady had settled into a chair positioned a few feet away from the bed. He leaned forward and just stared at Steven for a long, silent moment, a rush of bitter misery threatening to overcome him . There was his one true love, dying from a disease he had contracted during a one night stand of his own. A man who had been repentant of his actions to a partner who was equally as guilty. Except, unlike Steven, Grady had never had the courage to admit his infidelity.

Even worse was the knowledge that it had been Grady who had unwittingly pushed Steven into the affair. Too many nights away from home on business, both legitimate and the personal  kind.  It had gone on for months. Finally, when Grady had announced that he would have to spend New Year’s Eve  of their second year together away because the company wanted him to take a particular client out on the town (a lie), something in Steven had rebelled. Though he was never anything less than stoic in Grady’s presence, he had grown increasingly lonely over the preceding  weeks. Which was why he had found himself waking up  next to another man on New Year’s Day.

The horror of it was, Grady had actually decided to end his own affair. The guilt over lying to Steven had finally overcome him and he had decided to make more of an effort to appreciate what he already had going on.

Upon coming home he had headed directly to Steven’s place, hoping that he could slip in while Steven was out and be waiting there when his partner came home. But Steven had been home..and in a bad way. Unlike Grady, the young artist had no capacity for keeping such a secret and Grady had listened with a mix of shame and rising anger as Steven made his tearful confession.

Technically they hadn’t broken up, butthat day had marked the end of their intimacy.  Their relationship became more of a deep friendship. This had gone on for months, yet neither man ever moved on. Despite the hurt, neither one could bring themselves to leave.

  Eventually, Grady had realized  he was being both prideful and a hypocrite. He decided that he was willing to give the romantic aspect of their relationship another chance. He had been preparing to approach the subject with Steven when life threw them another curveball, this one with a twist .  Steven had begun to show signs of being legitimately sick . Then came the diagnosis ,those dreaded words which delivered not merely a physical death sentence, but a societal one as well. 

The illness had taken its’ toll rapidly. Steven had always been somewhat frail and when his immune system began to shut down, it hadn’t taken long for him to deteriorate.

 Staring  at Steven that day in the hospital, Grady had reflected that the hardest part was knowing  his partner could still look at him with such love. Despite all of the trials life had thrown at him, despite a boyfriend who had in reality been behaving like a sanctimonious ass,  Steven still demonstrated so much devotion.

“Grady,’ Steven had whispered ,interrupting Grady’s memories. He lifted a skeletal hand off the mattress, gesturing to him. Grady had pulled his chair closer to the bed, so that Steven didn’t have to make the effort of speaking louder. Then he softly took Steven’s hand in his own.

“What is it, love?”

“I want you to promise me something.”

“Anything.”

Steven had fallen silent and, for a terrible moment, Grady thought he had slipped into unconsciousness , never to awaken. The virus had devastated his body and he had already reached the point where oxygen was needed to keep his respiration steady. The attending doctors had advised Grady that it would be over in a matter of days. At any time, Steven would quietly close his eyes and  never open them again. 

Instead, Steven slipped the plastic mask over his mouth, took a few breaths, then slid it down below his chin again

“Don’t be bitter.  I know I made a huge mistake..the last mistake of my life..but please, don’t be bitter. I love you now and  I did then. He was just someone different. I should never have betrayed you.”

“I won’t”, Grady had replied, his voice a monotone, a thousand conflicting emotions churning within him at the time. His mind had been going in so many different directions in that moment he had thought he might end up screaming in protest at the damnable absurdity of it all.

  To his surprise, Steven had chuckled softly.

“You say that like it’s a fact, but I know you. You‘ve never been comfortable inside your own skin, despite how practical you are. 

“I don’t think this is the time for this conversation, Steven,’ Grady had muttered and , again, Steven had laughed. He took a few more breaths from the mask and continued.

“Really?  Because I think this might be the only time for this , Grady. Face it, you live according to your fears, not according to your heart.  Case in point- You never did tell your parents about who you really are. That’s why I never met them. Do you know why I stayed with you after our falling out? ”

Grady had sighed, realizing that the discussion was going to take place whether he wanted it to or not.

“No. Educate me.” he had answered wearily.

“Because I wanted you to know that someone could love you for who you are, Grady.” Steven told him with a weak smile.  “That the love we’ve shared is something deeper than any desire we feel. I wanted you to know that you had that love. There’s no shame in being who you are. Stop hiding your true self from the world. ”

“ Steven, I..” Grady hadn’t been able to finish the sentence. Not when he glanced up from the bed in that moment , away from Steven’s face, and saw the otherwise empty room. Steven’s parents were noticeably  absent,. He had come out to them several years earlier and their reaction had been the nightmare scenario every closeted  gay or lesbian person feared. Unlike Grady’s family , who had no say in the matter, Steven’s had chosen to deliberately remain in denial.

“Grady, I want you to promise me that you’ll tell your family the truth. I know it’s been killing you to keep it hidden. You need to be honest with them . Not only do you deserve to find this kind of love again, you deserve to let the whole world know you’ve found it.”

And so Grady had made that promise, knowing somewhere inside that it was nothing more than a beautiful lie.

Steven had grown quiet after that and Grady had remained for a while, watching him . When visiting hours finally drew to a close, Grady had risen from his chair and planted a soft kiss on Steven’s cheek . Although he seemed to be sound asleep , Grady could have sworn he saw those lips curl into that familiar, knowing smile beneath the cover of the oxygen mask.

That was the last time he had seen Steven alive. The following morning the call had come in. Sometime in the night, his beloved had slipped away.

 

Grady stretched his legs out across the barren floor of Steven’s room. He wasn’t at all surprised to discover that he had been crying again. He swiped at the tears  and pulled himself up, the image of that last day with Steven fading away.

Enough was enough. Steven’s landlady , a very nice, elderly woman by the name of Mrs. Freeman  , had been gracious enough to give him a month to clear out Steven’s personal belongings before even putting up a “For Rent” sign.  Grady had come there to make sure he had gotten the last of Steven’s things and it appeared that he had. So now it was time to walk out of the apartment, leave the key under the front mat and abandon within its’ hollow chambers the ghosts of a life he could never return to.

As he made for the door, Grady heard a low creaking noise behind him. He paused and glanced over his shoulder. Across the room was a walk-in closet. The door to the closet was slightly ajar.

Grady considered the door for a moment and seemed to remember it being fully closed when he had entered the room, but this thought was interrupted by another- he hadn’t checked the closet to see if any of Steven’s belongings were still inside. With a resigned shrug , Grady crossed the room in two long strides and opened the closet door , stepping inside.

The interior was dark, but there was an overhead light with a pull  chain fastened to the ceiling. Grady pulled the chain and the room immediately lit up, revealing a row of empty hooks to his left and an equally barren set of shelves erected on the wall on his right. Not that he really noticed any of this.  There was something on the wall directly in front of Grady and it had captured his full and undivided attention.

Grady’s mind erupted into an almost apocalyptic firestorm of confusion. What he was looking at was impossible. It couldn’t be there. But there it was, hanging on the back wall of the closet in brazen defiance of reality.

One of Steven‘s paintings -one of the two which had been sold at the art expo the day Grady was out of town having his dalliance- had been hung on the wall.  The piece  captured a deep, green ocean of tall grass over which an expanse of bright blue sky stretched infinitely . A young child and a small dog frolicked in the midst of the serene image . Steven had titled the piece  “Summer” and (as he had told the story) a buyer from New York, a collector who had been visiting their area on vacation, had been so impressed with his ability to not only render the scene with almost tactile believability but an overwhelming sense of the emotion of lost summer days, she had purchased it immediately. According to the buyer , it would be placed in her studio apartment in Manhattan as a reminder that there were places in the world where blue skies, green grass and the innocence of childhood were still the order of the day.

  But thiswas the original. Grady knew, because he had seen it two nights before Steven had taken it to his booth at the expo.  This was no poster, it was the actual canvas. Unless Steven had managed to paint a second copy with the exact same paint strokes, this had to be the same one.

Grady also knew that the painting couldn’t possibly be here in this closet. A week after the sale, the woman who had purchased this painting had emailed Steven a photograph of her standing in her Manhattan apartment, proudly displaying “Summer’ on the wall behind her. Steven had been so passionate about his art that if she had returned it, he would have been far too upset to hide it from Grady.  Yet such a thing never been mentioned or even implied.

“So then how the hell did it get here? Grady muttered ..and that’s when the closet door slammed closed behind him.

Grady spun around, startled. His heart was racing as he twisted the door knob. Even as he tried, he knew deep down that the door would not open.

“I don’t believe it,” he said with a despairing, ironic laugh, “ I’m actually trapped in the fucking closet.”

The light went out. One second the interior of the closet was illuminated, the next it was enveloped in shadow.  Before Grady could register this fact or even begin to experience any sense of fear, he became aware that the closet door was somehow glowing.

Grady took a step back and peered at the door. A thin line of pale light had appeared across its surface , stretching  from top to bottom. The sliver of light began to widen. As he watched , bewildered, it began to dawn on Grady that the light was coming from behind him.

Grady turned slowly. The wall with the painting was sliding back and away, as if  opening into a room beyond the confines of the closet. This new and mysterious opening  was the source of the ethereal light, which glowed so brightly now that he could not see into it. Yet, remarkably, Grady was unafraid . Quite the contrary, something inside of him was stirring, being motivated to step forward. As if the light were calling to him. 

Grady looked behind him at the closet door and was somehow not surprised to see that  it was gone, replaced by a single flat wall, with no ridges, no knob and no  hinges.

So, his choice had been made for him.

Grady surrendered to the inevitable and stepped into the light. 

 

What struck him first was the familiarity of the scene . He had been here before, but it took a moment for his mind to associate the image with the memory.

Grady was standing in the center of a coffee shop. To his right was a counter lined with a row of  empty stools, the older kind with red plastic cushions that swiveled atop steel poles, at the bottom of which a metal plate provided support for the diners’ feet . There was no one behind the counter. No hostess and no kitchen staff.

To his left were a series of booths, faded vinyl benches facing one another over pinewood tables worn down by years of use. In between the counter and the booths,  a row of round, white tables with matching chairs stretched to the other end of the room.

The booths and the tables were also unoccupied. As far as he could tell, Grady was the only person in the place. That actually made sense, since he had finally remembered where he was .

This was Bailey’s , the coffee shop and diner where he had first met Steven. But this was as impossible as the painting, as  Bailey’s had closed it’s doors permanently a year earlier, after one of those franchise coffee houses had opened up across the street and drained off all of the customers.

Grady began to walk across the room, taking in the  sight of the place. He felt a deep sadness as memories of his first few dates with Steven came flooding back. Halfway across, he paused in front of one specific booth.

Tilting his head to one side out of curiosity, Grady approached the booth and , after considering it for a thoughtful moment,  slid into one of the seats. He rested his elbows on the table, leaning forward,  peering closely at the table top. A small smile crept across his face as he recognized familiar words  faintly etched into the wood : Stevie loves Grady, followed by a small heart.

So it was true. This was their booth. Steven had scratched those words into the table during their fourth date. By then it had become apparent that they were crazy for one another.

Grady closed his eyes and sighed, remembering happier times

‘Oh, how I wish we could have that back for just one more day,’ he thought wistfully. Even in the face of this current delusion, that was true.

“But we can’t have that back, Grady, not even for one day,” Steven replied flatly, causing Grady’s eyes to fly open with a start.  He flinched , instinctively  pressing his back against the cushion of the booth.

Steven stared at him from across the table, wearing an expression that was simultaneously both pitying and somewhat reproachful, shaking his head.

“ You haven’t gotten it yet, have you?” he asked.

Grady couldn’t answer. He was still in shock.

“Grady,” Steven continued, his voice almost soothing, “take a look around. Look at the counter, the tables, me. What does it all have in common?”

Grady simply stared. He was still digesting this turn of events.  Steven waved his hand back and forth  in front of Grady’s face, issuing a quick whistle.

“Hello? Grady? You still with me?”

Silence.

Steven sighed.

“Look, Grady, I realize that this is all a bit overwhelming, but I need you to focus. There’s a reason you’re here and the longer it takes you to join the conversation, the longer we’ll need to stretch this out.”

That seemed to do the trick. Grady blinked his eyes and shook himself.

“Steven? Steven.. what’s going on? What is this?” he asked weakly.

“I believe that was my question,” Steven replied. “ What do this place and I have in common?

“You know  what,” Grady shot back, his tone hurt.  Did Steven think this was a game?  If he really was here and this wasn’t some sort of bizarre psychotic break, didn’t his lover  know how much this was killing him?

Correction,’ Grady thought, ‘my dead lover.’

And  that’s when it came to him, the answer to Steven’s question.

Steven nodded , seemingly aware of the silent connection Grady had just made.

“Say it Grady. Explain it to me.”

“ It’s all a part of my past. This was where we met years ago. But you and this place no longer exist. You no longer….”

Grady choked off, tears welling up in his eyes for the third time that day. He clasped his hands together and stared down at them, trying furiously not to cry. A moment later, Steven’s hand appeared from across the table, sliding over his own.

Grady looked up and found himself  staring into those eyes which, in life, had been an entirely new world to him. Steven offered him a sympathetic smile then nodded toward the table, indicating their intertwined hands.

“What do you feel? What do you feel right now, Grady?”

Grady was about to reply that he felt sad and hopeless . That he felt lost. Then something else crept in and overrode his grief. In that moment, Grady realized that he couldn’t feel anything.

There was no warmth, no sense of connection. He might as well have been holding the hands of a statue.

“I ..don’t feel a thing. It seems cold and empty.”
 

Steven withdrew his hand and tapped his index finger on the side of his nose.

“On the money, smart guy.”

“Why?” Grady pleaded, shaken by the revelation.

“Because,” Steven explained  softly, “ I exist as a part of what was. I exist only in your memories now, Grady. You loved me and I knew that. I know it still…. but that’s over.”

“But I don’t want it to be over! I need you!” Grady protested.

“Hey, I didn’t want to die at the age of twenty nine, but here we are, man!” Steven chided him , his tone sharp with sarcasm. “The only place we can be together is up here.” He reached over and tapped Grady’s forehead. “ But you can’t exist in there, Grady. That’s a death in and of itself. It seems wonderful to wrap yourself in this comfortable cocoon, but if you spend all of your time hiding in your memories you’ll miss the life going on around you.”

“Maybe I don’t want that life, ever think of that?” Grady snapped and Steven shook his head sadly.

“Are you kidding me? Seriously, Grady? Mr. Practical? Mr. Pragmatic? You’re going to deny yourself the opportunity to live and love again because you lost someone? How pathetic.”

“It’s not pathetic. Don’t you belittle my pain!” Grady shouted, pounding the table with unexpected ferocity. Now the tears were coming, but they were hot and angry, not mournful. “It’s not pathetic to be sad when the only man I was ever able to be honest about myself with dies!  I have a right be sad! I have a right to give up!

“No, you don’t!” Steven shot back, equally angry. “You do not have the right to give up. Everyone loses someone eventually, Grady. It’s part of life. We live, we die.. it happens. Don’t you dare use our love as an excuse to keep hiding.”

Grady froze, staring at Steven balefully.

“What in the hell are you talking about? How am I hiding? I’m here, right? I came through your spooky little doorway with the painting on it.. how am I doing anything but facing this?”

To Grady’s surprise, Steven laughed.

“Oh maaan..I didn’t realize how bad off you really are. Grady you dummy.. that wasn’t my doorway, it was yours!”

What!?

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. That’s why you’re here. Because you’re so afraid to truly live. You’re hiding from your grief over losing me, over not coming out to your own family and over not telling me about your affair. Not only have you stayed in the closet, you’ve barricaded the door so no one can get in or out. Particularly yourself. “

Grady was speechless. Not because of anger or sadness., but because Steven’s words stabbed at him like a poisoned blade. 

“You knew I cheated?” he whispered. It was all he could manage, the only coherent thought he could isolate.

“Not until I passed on. Then I knew everything. “

Grady didn’t answer, he simply stared back at Steven, wearing a mask of  guilt.

Steven rolled his eyes.

“ I’m dead, remember? Getting an all-encompassing picture of my life is part of the package.”

Grady’s eyes wandered down to the table again.

“I’m so sorry, Steven.” he muttered without looking up.

“Grady, look at me.”

Grady couldn’t bring himself to do it. He was too ashamed.

“Grady.. look at me.”

The intensity of Steven’s voice caused Grady to glance up reflexively . What he saw staring back at him made him recoil .

Steven had changed. He was a withered, pallid wraith. Red rimmed eyes hung lifelessly in dark, sunken sockets. Colorless lips turned downward over yellowing teeth , creating a thin sneer in the center of a gaunt, hollowed out face.

The ghastly vision reached across the table with a decomposing hand and gripped Grady by the shoulder, pulling him forward, within kissing distance. Grady  picked up a  rotten stench  rising from Steven and he gagged, turning away.

“Do you see me?” Steven demanded. “Is this how you want to remember me? Because if you don’t stop hiding from the truth, this is what’s left for you. If you refuse to tell your family about yourself ,you will never let the people you love know about how much you loved me ..and your fear and guilt will bring you back to this again and again until the only thing you remember is my death, not my life!”

Grady screamed , a mournful  cacophony which distilled every moment of fear, horror, rage and anguish into one echoing wail. He  thrashed in his seat and knocked the corpse’s hand away , sliding sideways frantically, spilling out onto the floor and scrambling backward until something hard and unyielding prevented him from moving further. He glanced over his shoulder and realzied that he had scrambled backwards right into one of the walls. A shadow passed over him and Grady turned his head to face it. The decimated corpse of his boyfreind was right in fornt of him,sytaring directly into Grady's eyes, it's breath foul with rot.

Grady closed his eyes and put an arm out as if to ward off the grim specter.

“Oh god, no!” he cried. “I don’t want this! I want to remember you as you were.. not like this!! Please! Not like this!”

Steven didn‘t answer. Grady opened his eyes and saw the wall of the closet in front of him. It was a blank, faded white. The overhead light was still on ,casting long shadows underneath the edge of the shelves.  There was no painting. No eerie pale glow.

Grady exhaled a lungful of used, stale air and let himself rest on the closet floor for a moment. He examined he interior and saw that it was as it had been when he first stepped inside. Empty.

It was an hour before he moved again.

 

 

 Eventually, the physical toll of such a large man sitting hunched in a relatively confined space like the closet took it’s toll and  Grady’s back grew increasingly sore.  Finally, he shook himself out of his haze and started to move.  Still pondering (as he had for the past hour) if Steven’s painting had ever actually been there to begin with, Grady took a deep breath and pushed himself up off the floor . He brushed himself off and turned around. A perfectly average closet door greeted him.

Grady gripped the doorknob, wondering what he would find on the other side as he twisted it and pushed. A second later he stepped into Steven’s empty bedroom. Again, all was as it had been before he entered the closet. Nothing had changed. 

Quietly, Grady closed the closet door firmly behind him. He still felt shaky, his body trembling at as the ghost of the hideous dead thing flickered in his mind. Grady let out another long breath. Then he took a final look around and, satisfied that everything had been tended to, he exited the room as quickly as he could manage.

Outside on the front stoop, Grady slipped the key under the doormat as had been arranged with Mrs. Freeman. As he did this, he wondered if the entire experience had merely been a dream, a hallucination brought on by extreme grief . He was calming down already. The shakes had stopped and he was focusing again. But that didn’t change what (if anything) had happened. He wondered if he needed therapy.

Probably. Even if it he had imagined it, that still left the very real possibility that he would need counseling to work through his pain in the months ahead.

“Wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to talk to someone,” he murmured and straightened the mat so that it effectively concealed the house key. Then, taking a moment to bid  Steven a quiet farewell, he turned and walked toward the spot where his minivan was parked.

 

Ten minutes later, as he pulled the minivan to a stop at a red light, Grady noticed the object poking out from beneath the sun visor above the  passenger seat.

He didn’t recognize it and, to his knowledge, he hadn’t put anything there to begin with. Grady knew  that lots of people kept items such as driver’s licenses or insurance cards in such places, but he was somewhat of a neat freak when it came to he interior of his vehicle, so that wasn’t his style.

Curious, Grady reached over and  pulled the object out. Upon having a closer look, he was so surprised by what he saw that he dropped it onto the passenger’s seat. He went to pick it up again, but the beeping of a horn from the car behind him captured his attention. Glancing out the windshield, Grady saw that the light had turned green. He waved  an apology into his rear v


© Copyright 2018 DS Ullery. All rights reserved.

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