By Brad Willis
If there had been a second vote—a vote after the vote, a referendum wrapped in impossible suburban anonymity—the 87 families represented at the meeting of the Lakeside Estates Homeowners Association would have spoken as one. That giant conglomerate of fair-minded people would’ve collectively decreed the following (as quietly as possible and so no one could actually hear): there was no way the Madden family should’ve won the 2010 Lakeside Estates Halloween Decoration Contest.
The Pendletons had purchased an immodest $50 spider web that stretched from the branches of their misshapen oak down to the lavender fence pickets at the edge of their lawn. When that didn’t seem enough, Marcie Pendleton spent three days sewing a two-foot-wide arachnid with grapefruit-big Styrofoam eyes. Tad Pendleton climbed to the top of his ten-foot stepladder, stapled the spider to the web, and threw out his back while carrying the ladder to the garage. He persevered—vocally, obscenely—through the pain. By nightfall, he had installed a solar-powered floodlight at the base of the web to cast an amber halo around the spider’s eyes. Per the neighborhood covenant’s light pollution clause, the Pendletons extinguished the flood lamp every night at ten o’clock and not one second later.
The Youngs strung three thousand orange, yellow, and white bulbs from the eaves of their house, the branches of the multi-trunked sweet gum trees, and the rusty rim of the basketball goal in the driveway. Three dozen pumpkins in various stages of decomposition sat scattered across the browning Bermuda, a third of which had been carved into garish jack-o-lanterns in the likeness of Disney characters, Miley Cyrus, and unless the reviewers were just patronizing Hal Young, a young and dashing Cassius Clay.
The Worley family gathered in the detached two-car garage on three consecutive Sunday afternoons and stuffed 13 scarecrows with crumpled pages of the local right-thinking newspaper, The Way. Each of the scarecrows enjoyed adornment in long wigs and flowing robes. Ten-year-old David hand-painted a sign that screamed in yellow and orange the words from Romans 6:23. Two collapsible plastic tables sat side by side on the curb with loaves of stale bread and purple-tinctured water in two-liter bottles. The paper-crammed Scare-Jesus and the assembled Scare-Postles surrounded the table with as much reverence as stuffed shirts can inspire. Judas’ robe had disappeared twice since October 1, and Ed Worley silently blamed “that Madden boy” each time.
The neighborhood’s collective dedication notwithstanding, when Sabrina Lester counted the ballots and then counted them again for good measure, there was no questioning the contest’s winner. The Madden family’s Halloween effort had taken first prize: a $25 gift certificate to Applebee’s and a six-month subscription to The Way. It had been a landslide. More than 75% of the little slips of paper had been carefully lettered “Madden” by a series of families that either pitied or feared the family on Sanguine Court. The other 25% of voters, or so supposed the majority, had foolishly voted for themselves.
Around the corner and at the dark end of Sanguine Ct., Christopher Madden didn’t know he won. He was mercifully unaware of any contest. He had never been to Applebee’s. He stood on his lawn with a tangle of fescue hiding his untied shoelaces. He leaned against the tree with the corners of his mouth upturned just enough to call it a smile. He breathed once, looked at the single Halloween decoration on his lawn, and began to walk away.
Behind him, the gravestone—cut from the side of a big cardboard box—sat immobile in the grass with the word “Daddy” stenciled on the front.
Margaret Timms stood by the den’s bay window and twisted a curl of hair around her index finger. Thirty-eight years old, too fit for the other neighborhood housewives’ taste (“You know she isn’t working out for that man who calls himself her husband.” “I’ve seen her talking to that Brazilian soccer coach more than a few times after practice.”), and just starting to gray, Margie barely remembered why she first started grabbing the shoulder curls. With the help of Dr. Sanders, she’d been able to recall how old she’d been when it started, but beyond that—to Sanders’ chagrin—Margie had chosen not to think much more about it.
“There’s Chris Madden,” Margie said aloud. In her head, her voice was a whisper.
“He have that dog with him?” Ben Timms sat on the couch, his face buried in the Opinion section of the newspaper. He was still waiting for his letter to the editor (“Speed Bumps Danger, Burden to Homeowners”) to appear.
“Yes,” Margie said. She didn’t notice that she’d pulled a couple of hairs out.
“At least he’s got the dog,” Ben said. “Not going to make up for a father, though.”
Margie turned from the window and said in whisper, “We don’t know!”
Laurie Timms was on the floor, her six-year-old elbows pressed firmly in the carpet. “Chris Madden says his daddy is in China.”
Ben sniffed, but didn’t say what Margie knew he was thinking. China on business. Laurie and Margie had caught Jill Madden and her son at the mailboxes six weeks ago. Chris had told the China story, one surely told by a mom who lacked inspiration or hope. Jill had looked sadder than Margie had ever felt.
Laurie grabbed a coloring book and pushed a green crayon into the paper. “Yesterday, Robbie Coleman asked Chris if he was going to dig to China and find his daddy.”
Margie turned on her kindergartener. “That’s not nice, Lor-Bear.”
Laurie smiled. “It was funny, Mom. I didn’t say it. Mrs. Maples told Robbie to stop. He couldn’t go to recess.”
Margie let go of her curl and pasted her face with faux disappointment. “Well, you shouldn’t pick on Chris.” The wife turned to the husband and deployed her “back me up” look.
Ben rolled his eyes. “That’s right, Laurie. You should be nice to people.” Where was the damned letter to the editor?
“I didn’t say anything!” Laurie said.
Outside, Chris Madden turned the corner. Margie watched the boy and the beagle walk away. The mother held a lock of gray around her first knuckle tight enough that her fingertip turned purple.
I am six.
Mom says I’m creative and have a good imagination. She says she likes my stories. I don’t know why she sometimes cries when I tell them. When I try to tell them around our neighbors, Mom puts her hand on my shoulder and gives me a “Sssssh.”
Most of the time, I tell my stories to Gray. I know he can’t understand. He’s a dog. Mom calls him a “beagle,” which is just another way of saying dog. When I said I wanted to name him Gray, Mom asked why.
“He’s brown, and black, and white,” Mom said in her happy voice.
“Should I call him ‘Beagle’, Mom?” I said.
“Well, a beagle is a kind of dog,” Mom explained. Happy voice again. “You can call him whatever you want. Like Rex. Or Spot.”
“I’ll call him what you want, Mom.” I said. I liked it when she spoke in the happy voice. “But his name is Gray.”
Mom didn’t say anything else after that, so I kept calling Gray “Gray.” That’s his name.
Gray just sits there when I tell my stories. Sometimes he barks at what Dad called, “Those damned squirrels.” Mom cried when Dad left. Said it wasn’t my fault. I told her Dad didn’t like my stories. She cried some more and said it wasn’t my fault. Dad didn’t like my stories. He told me to stop telling them.
Mom and Dad used to yell at each other when they thought I was asleep. Once I heard Dad say my name—my full name, Christopher. Mom calls me Chris. Dad never did.
When he said bye, it was how Ms. Maples says to say bye politely. “Goodbye, Christopher,” Dad said. He looked scared.
I decided to walk to Ms. Maples’ house. She’s my teacher and said we kids shouldn’t come to her house, but I think she won’t care if I come today. I don’t know if she likes my stories, but she tells the other kids to be quiet when they make fun of me. I think Ms. Maples treats me different. Laurie Timms lives right there in that house. She’s one that makes fun of me.
Mom said today that she doesn’t think Dad is coming home.
It had been seven autumns since Sara Maples had allowed students to visit her at the house.
The first ten years of her teaching career had established Maples are one of the most-loved educators in the entire 3rd District of the Yancy County school system. Four times a year, she held an always-anticipated and unfailingly brilliant Maples Mixer for her kindergarten students and their parents. The affairs were a modest but coveted rite of passage for both the children and the accompanying adults. Maples’ cookies and secret-recipe punch were the subject of neighborhood speculation and experimentation year after year. In the middle of spastic Ritalin-fits, more than a few mothers had gone temporarily mad trying to duplicate the teacher’s efforts. It was unanimously decreed that to create consumables of such uniqueness, Maples must be a witch—but a witch of the very best kind.
In 2003, Carl Washburn tripped on a decorative cement turtle. Maples had bought it just the weekend before after falling in love with its perpetual reptilian smile, one so pure and everlasting that it didn’t flinch when the young Washburn boy dragged his Nike across the monochrome shell, fell onto an exposed tree root, and broke his arm. It was a clean break, right above the wrist. Washburn’s parents—who had doctored enough of young Carl’s breaks and bumps to know that it was as much the cement turtle’s fault as it was Ms. Maples’—simply shook their heads and apologized for being a distraction at the party. The mixer continued until dusk and at least half the mothers left with a cookie in their purse for later testing.
Ms. Maples had signed Carl’s cast the following Monday and told him how sorry she was that the mean turtle had tripped him. Carl shrugged and smiled, a response that his elders, friends, girlfriends, wife, and children would come to expect and pity for the remainder of his years.
The superintendent of schools had himself delivered the district’s message to Maples the following week. Over coffee and some of Ms. Maples’ lemon cookies in the staff break room, the superintendent had used every method of consolation that the district’s attorney had allowed (“We don’t blame you. You’re a valued member of our education family. I love your cookies.”), and then told Ms. Maples that her mixers had to end. She was to never again host a student at her home, for any reason.
“I’m sure you understand,” the man had said. “There are liability issues.”
Ms. Maples had nodded and signed the agreement the superintendent had put in front of her. She returned to class the next day, hugged Carl, and told him to not listen to the children who were already blaming him for the end of the Maples Mixer. As an adult, Carl would recall with a shrug and smile that he received at least one good beating every year until he graduated and went to college.
Ms. Maples thought of Carl as she stood at her storm door with a cup of Earl Grey. Outside, shuffling through the leaves, a little beagle at his side, Chris Madden was on his way to Ms. Maples’ house.
And she was going to let him come in.
There were two theories regarding the disappearance of Terry Madden, 48, of 17 Sanguine Ct. Both theories had a nearly equal number of supporters, each as sure of himself as the next.
The police and most of the Lakeside Estates neighbors had reached the conclusion that Terry Madden had, in the words of Chief Layton Sanborn, “most likely disappeared of his own will.” The whispers and asides at the neighborhood Ice Cream Chats and Bunco Bonanza Weekends did more than simply imply that the elder Madden had tired of his mouse-wife and creepy son and run off to the islands. On each retelling, the island became more exotic, his mistress more Latin and brown, and his set-aside fortune older and more planned than any reasonable person could have ever imagined. After a month of investigation, it was widely assumed Terry Madden was no longer Terry Madden, but a very happy, tan, unshaven John Smith of the British Virgin Islands.
Jill Madden did little to dispel this notion. For the first couple of weeks, she insisted her husband had told her he was leaving on business and would return within the month. She would stand straight-lipped and insist, “Terry likes to make his own travel arrangements. I expect him home any time.”
The neighborhood wives patted Madden on the shoulder, gave her encouraging hugs, and said, “That’s right, honey. We know that. Don’t listen to those nasty people.” It would take less than ten minutes after those reassurances for the private Facebook thread to reach 100 messages under the heading, “She still believes it!”
The police, meanwhile, had exhausted countless leads, put in innumerable man-hours and had come up with, as one investigator told his buddy Ben Timms, “exactly zilch.” There had been no activity on Madden’s cell phone, credit cards, debit cards, Google account, Yahoo e-mail, or work Blackberry. A search and re-search of the Madden home had revealed no sign of Madden’s wallet, or for that matter, Madden himself. While the man’s car was still in his driveway, his key ring was nowhere to be found. In short, it was if Madden left his home on foot and walked into the ether.
Indeed, a few people in Lakeside Estates had reported seeing Madden and his son walking through the neighborhood early one evening, but no one paid the pair any mind. The detectives found the son to be either overly troubled or, in the opinion of the lead investigator, slow. Each time an adult asked Chris Madden if his dad said anything about going anywhere, the boy only said, “Once upon a time, my dad and I took a walk. He told me I’ll understand when I grow up. The end.”
As for the wife, Ben Timms’ detective friend whispered once or twice that Jill Madden had been, “the perfect combination of cooperative and clueless.” Such combinations rarely lead to successful investigations, and because Mrs. Madden wasn’t pushing the issue, the case remained open but perpetually ignored. “He’s gone and happy to be that way, if you ask me,” the detective said.
There was, of course, a second camp made up of people who believed Terry Madden had fallen victim to some horrible crime, one that had left him gravely injured or—and most in this camp crossed herself and whispered if forced to say it—dead. The people who worked around Mr. Madden shook their heads resolutely and insisted to whomever would listen that their boss would never leave for more than a weekend without making sure his calendar was clear and his staff informed. The remaining (surviving, some said) three-quarters of Madden’s Saturday foursome affirmed at every opportunity and with a firm nod that Madden had never—not once!—missed the weekly 8:44am tee time. They had played for three weeks as a threesome before asking Tyson Sikes from Media Relations if he could make the weekly commitment.
Unlike Camp Madden Ran Off, Camp Madden is Dead did not subscribe to a single-threaded theory. The Run-Offers had all come to the sincere conclusion that the 48-year-old man was immersed in libidinous treachery, smoking thick cigars, and drinking dark, sweet rum with his lunches. Several detectives made actual notes in their reports that nearly 100% of the time the Ran Off story emerged, a rum drink of some sort was involved in the telling.
The members of Camp Dead, however, could find no such common villains as rum and Caribbean women. The people who believed Madden was no longer breathing suggested everything from an early-onset Alzheimer’s wandering incident, to suicide, to, in one lurid scenario, radical and homicidal hobos. The police were forced to listen to every scenario. For weeks, they wrote down the suggestions, searched nearby abandoned quarries, and interrogated more than a few confused homeless men. All of it served only the purpose of allowing the chief to declare on television that, “No stone has been left unturned, no lead unfollowed, no suspect unquestioned.” If Madden was dead, the police said, it was at the hands of someone unknown and in a method not yet suggested by the city’s scores of amateur sleuths.
Among Camp Dead, however, there was a quiet, break-off sect. It was one that did not talk to police, did not purposely associate with other members of Camp Dead, and certainly didn’t speak to the people who believed Terry Madden was snorkeling with a woman named Juanita. This sect, these Branch Deadians, this group of silent, frightened people believed not only that Terry Madden was dead, but that they also knew who killed the patriarch of 17 Sanguine Ct.
This collection of head-hung whisperers believed with every chamber of their arrhythmic hearts that Terry Madden was killed by his six-year old son Chris.
Sara Maples watched Chris Madden shuffle-step through the leaves in her front yard, his off-leash beagle two steps behind and nipping at any leaf that dared come more than three inches off the grass. Chris’ face was blank, simultaneously serene and soulless. He rarely smiled, but never cried. Even under mortar-fire kindergarten teasing, the Madden boy simply sat at his desk and wrote with his thick-barreled pencil.
Ms. Maples surprised herself by immediately trusting Christopher Madden. Seven years had passed since she had allowed herself to feel more than a professional responsibility for any child. Since the day the superintendent had slid the agreement across the table and asked her to sign away her Maples Mixers, the kindergarten teacher had become rather famous for never being alone with a student. If she was forced to discipline one of her charges, she would call in Ms. Lang or Mr. Frank to, in her words, “chaperone.” If no other adult was immediately available, Maples would force the offending child to pick a classmate to accompany him for his punishment. Educators who did not know of the Maples Mixers incident called Mrs. Maples’ new style, “revolutionary” and “a sign of the times.” Everyone else referred to it as it was: sad.
Chris Madden took Mrs. Maples’ front steps one-by-one, stopping on each to let Gray catch up. Maples watched him through the curtains of the front room, the cup of tea growing cold in her hand. She watched the boy knock three times—not tentative, not forceful—on the storm door and wait with nary a tapping foot or glance over his shoulder. Mrs. Maples put her tea on the coffee table behind her and took a breath. If anyone saw Chris come through her front door, Maples would be the talk of Lakeside Estates. It would be a violation of her agreement with the school district. It would draw the attention that she had gone to pains to avoid.
The boy didn’t knock again, nor did he turn away. Gray sat on his bottom and kept watch on the street. Maples looked once more out the window, took four quick steps forward, and opened the door.
The teacher had, of course, heard the stories about Chris and his father. As the boy’s kindergarten instructor, it was impossible to not serve as a junction for every bit of Madden gossip that traveled through the suburb. She knew there were adults who pitied Chris for his father running off or being dead. And yes, Maples had heard the rest of it, too. She knew the police had immediately discounted the idea that Chris had anything to do with his father’s disappearance. When, as his teacher, Sara Maples was asked what she thought about her student’s potential involvement, she had used words like preposterous and cruel.
“Hi, Mrs. Maples,” Madden said. “Is now a good time for a story?”
Maples had prepared for the afternoon as if it were one of her Mixers. Two dozen Snicker Doodles were in a jar on the coffee table. A pitcher of punch sat on a tray with two half-full glasses of ice. She stood in the doorway clad in a pair of loose blue jeans, a Lakeside Elementary sweatshirt, and Reebok sneakers. She offered a half-smile, stood to the side, and ushered Chris Madden and his dog though the door.
Dad didn’t like my stories. I told you that part. He told me that I shouldn’t tell them to people outside of our house. I asked him if it was okay if I brought some people inside our house to tell. He yelled and then went outside. When he came back in the kitchen, he was pretending to be quiet. He talked slow. And quiet.
“Your stories aren’t like other kids’ stories, Christopher,” Dad said. “Some people might not understand.”
Dad didn’t say much when I started telling what I dreamed. About the ghosts. About the man with the teeth. About the place in the attic where the old lady lives.
“Those are scary, Chrissy,” mom told me. I hate it when she calls me that. “Don’t scare me!” she said and pretended to fan the story away from her face.
When Rally—that was my dad’s dog—died under the dining room table, Dad buried him in the back yard. The next day, I told Mom and Dad the story about Rally chewing through the black trash bag, through the dirt, through the tree roots, through our back screen, and through the door into our kitchen. I told how Rally was rotten, and stank, and didn’t have one of his eyes. I told how Rally went back to sleep under the dining room table. Because that’s where he wanted to be. The end.
Daddy’s face was red, but he didn’t yell this time. He went to his bedroom. Mom said my story had scared dad. That was when I had to go see the doctor.
The doctor lady asked me why I told the scary stories. I told her “I dunno.” She said it was okay if I didn’t know. I said “okay.” But I knew it wasn’t okay, because I had to keep going to the doctor. She was nice, though. She asked me if I knew the difference between a fictional story and a non-fictional story. I told her a non-fictional story was true everywhere, and fictional stories are only true in my head. The lady wrote that down.
“Chris, do you tell the stories because you want to scare people?” the doctor asked me one day. She was pretty. I told her no. And then my mouth said, “I tell the stories so they won’t be in my head anymore.” She liked that answer. She told me I could tell her any story I wanted.
Once upon a time, Dad stood at the top of our stairs in his underwear. His belly was red. His face was read. He was sweating. I was hiding in the closet. Mom was on the first floor. She was crying. Dad was throwing things. He threw my shoes and hit mom on the head. He said my name. He yelled it loud. He asked where I was, said he was going to find me. Mom said, “You won’t touch that boy!” Daddy kicked the floor and said a word I’m not supposed to say. The end.
That was the story I told the doctor lady. She said it was a good story and that I could tell her stories any time. Mom didn’t take me back there after that.
It’s hard to find people to tell my stories. Mom will listen, but she always fans the scary away from her face. I don’t want to scare her, but when I don’t tell stories, my head gets funny. I get sort of confused.
“Gray doesn’t bite or go to the bathroom on the floor,” Chris said as he sat down on the sofa’s middle cushion.
“I’m sure he’ll be just fine,” Mrs. Maples said. She poured two glasses of punch and sat them beside the napkins and cookies. “How is your mother?”
Chris screwed up his face like he’d seen adults do when they were thinking. “I guess she is okay. She asks Gray and me to sleep in bed with her some nights. I think she misses Dad.”
“I’m sure she does, honey,” Maples said. “I’m sure she does.”
The teacher looked at her student’s skinny fingers. They looked like they still belonged on a doll. To think anyone would accuse those little hands…
“She says if Dad doesn’t come back soon that we may move somewhere warmer,” the boy said. Cookie crumbs were falling on his lap.
“Would you like that, Chris?” Mrs. Maples asked.
Chris thought for a moment, and said, “Yeah. I think so. Gray loves being warm.”
Mrs. Maples fingered the screen print on her sweater, tracing the outline of the lake, ignoring the homes around it. Another batch of cookies sat on the counter in the kitchen. She would have to decide soon whether to let Chris stay and have those, as well. She wondered how many of the neighborhood women would allow themselves to be alone with the little Madden boy.
Maples took a nibble from a Snicker Doodle and said with as much cheer as she could muster, “So, you wanted to tell me a story.”
Chris looked at his dog and toward the back of the house.
“I don’t know if I should, Mrs. Maples,” he said.
Maples wondered the same. She didn’t know if Christopher Madden should tell his story. To anyone. Ever. But, she worried for the boy and what would happen if he didn’t tell it.
“Well, what do you think, Chris?” It came out as a croak, and a sip of punch did nothing to wet Mrs. Maple’s throat.
Chris’ eyes turned up as his chin pointed toward his dog. “Once upon a time,” he began.
Once upon a time, I went to a school named Lakeside Elementary. I got Mrs. Maples. Everyone said I was lucky because Mrs. Maples was nice. She was a good teacher. She let me tell her my stories and didn’t get mad when I told the ones about my dad yelling or my mom crying. One day, Mrs. Maples told me I could come to her house to tell stories, but only if it was okay with my dad.
I told her my dad wouldn’t let me come, because my dad didn’t like to hear my stories and he didn’t want me telling them to people outside our house. Mrs. Maples asked if I would come if she could get my daddy to say okay. I said I would.
Mrs. Maples said we would have to have a little secret. We’d have to tell a little lie. A white lie, she called it. She wrote Dad a note saying that I was having trouble in class and she wanted to talk about it. When Dad read the note I brought home, he called Mrs. Maples a “meddling bitty,” and told me not to tell my mom about what my teacher sent home.
The next day, Dad asked if I wanted to go visit Mrs. Maples. I said yes, and we went, but I had to leave Gray at home. Dad didn’t like Gray.
Mrs. Maples made punch and cookies. She told Dad, “Hello” and asked him to sit down on her couch. She asked me to help her in the kitchen. I went with her. She told me to carry a plate of cookies. I said okay. Mrs. Maples carried another plate of cookies and put it in front of my dad. She called them Amaretto Crisps. “Chris shouldn’t have these,” she said. “There is liqueur in them.”
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been here,” Dad said. Mrs. Maples said Dad was right and that she missed having people to her home. Dad nodded and grabbed an Amaretto Crisp from the plate.
Mrs. Maples started talking. She told the white lie she talked about. She said I was having trouble concentrating in class and told crazy stories about men with sharp teeth, ladies in the attic, and his daddy throwing shoes.
Daddy said, “Ha, ha, ha!” and slapped his knee. “Christopher is quite a little story-teller, isn’t he?”
Dad started to cough. Little speckles of Amaretto Crisp flew out of his mouth. He grabbed at his throat. Dad threw up on the coffee table. Mrs. Maples didn’t do anything except smile at my dad. She sat in her chair and drank a cup of tea. Dad looked at me. His face was red. I sat there with my hands in my lap.
“Goodbye, Christopher,” my dad said.
His eyes closed and he slumped over on the couch. Mrs. Maples asked me if I would like to stay or if I wanted to go home. I said I wanted to go home. She told to me go, and said if I ever wanted to tell this story, to tell her first. The end.
It was dusk in Lakeside Estates as Chris Madden walked home with his beagle. The people who watched him noted a soft, uncharacteristic smile on the boy’s face. He kicked at the leaves on the ground and hopped in the air to snatch the ones falling from the trees. When he stepped into his front yard, he casually grabbed the cardboard gravestone from the grass and dropped it in the recycling bin.
When the young Madden was out of view, Sara Maples walked out to her slab concrete porch and sat in old rocker. She looked across her lawn to the seven-foot-long patch of fresh, black, overturned dirt. Maples had planted a row of red and yellow mums that were now full bloom and reaching toward the day’s last light as if it might pull them away from the fertilizer beneath. Among the flowers’ stems, his head curious and poking out from the petals, sat a decorative concrete turtle. It was smiling. If you looked close enough, you could almost see the seven-year-old scuff of Carl Washburn’s sneaker on the turtle’s shell.
In the living room of the Timms’ home, sitting next to Ben Timms’ recliner among the remote controls, Jolly Rancher wrappers, and chewed toothpicks sat that week’s edition of The Way, read front to back without a single mention of speed bumps. As the Timms family walked to the dining room for dinner, Margie Timms stopped at her husband’s chair, twisted her hair in her finger, and read the newspaper’s banner headline: “Yancy County Superintendent of Schools Terry Madden Missing 54 Days.”
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