Kelly Kathleen Ferguson

The Texas Project

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Lora meets Derek at Measurement, Inc., a grading service for standardized tests. In a basement below the mall, tables of college graduates judge preteen thoughts on gun control and personal liberty. This job is considered better than temping. Should Smithtown build a park or a library? Support your argument with evidence. The Texas Project is a crucial assignment. The first batch of scores was contaminated; this is a retest. For five weeks 373 readers will assess 200,900 essays written by Texas ninth graders. The scores determine who moves up and who gets held back, the first sorting of the college bound from the cashiers. The topic: drunk driving.

Lora sits at a table with seven others, a stack of blue books at her side. The room is silent except for the swirl of artificial air and the scritch scritch of pencils. The air smells of old cardboard. The large black clock on the wall tells Lora she has been here one hour and fourteen minutes. Three hours and forty-six minutes until lunch. She stares at the clock and imagines federal agents in white hooded suits shoving contaminated blue books into plastic bags.

A small yellow sticky note appears on her blue book. The message in green ink reads:

Drunk driving is very bad. Like when you drink too many Budweisers and wreck your brand new truck and your father is mad at you and you can’t go out or do anything fun anymore.

His wavy, purplish-black hair curtains over one eye. There is something fluttery and striving there, like a trout. A few minutes later another sticky note appears.

Teenagers think they are indispensable and would undue their limit on alcohol.

Generally speaking, striving-eyed guys did not pass Lora sticky notes. Usually she got the mushroomy ones with skinny calves and weak chins.

But again,

Because DUI accidents holds up the traffic because of beer jams.

And is cut down on populations, she writes, but then crumples the note and hides it in her pocket.

Lora remembers the time in seventh grade when the mean girls told her Steve Cooper liked her, but it was only a joke. “Steve Cooper likes you,” the girls had said. “He likes you.” Then she thought of her last therapist, who after a year leaned forward in her chair, clutching her head with exasperation. “Why do you insist, Lora, in believing nothing good could ever happen? It’s as though you believe you’ve been cursed.” Fatalism could be Lora’s problem. She doesn’t believe anything good could happen so nothing ever does. Lora sits straight and peels off a yellow stock note. This is nothing, she tells herself. Normal people flirt all the time.

These kids do not have enough of a maturity liver and young lives would be a steak.

••

With her first check Lora spends eighty-five dollars on a French saucepan. Built to last a lifetime, Le Creuset is cookware for the generations. The bottom is weighted, the sides thick and shiny. The long, tapered handle is soldered firmly. It feels smooth to the grip. The instructions come in four languages, including Japanese, and Lora doesn’t read any of them.

Lora brings her first adult purchase home, to her tiny apartment overrun with post-college knick-knacks and thrift store furniture. As friends left for graduate studies and trips abroad, they had insisted she take things. The chartreuse pleather sofa. The wall of cross-stitched owls. The amputee He-Man figurines. At college parties everyone loved to make She-Ra and Skeletor wrestle, fuck doggy-style, and debate, giving the apartment an air of kitschy chic. Now everything has reverted to its true state: junk.

Lora decides to make biryani. The recipe comes from a magazine that scientifically evaluates all preparation methods. While raisins can be substituted, the clinical font reads, we found black currants had the short burst of sweet flavor we craved. As promised, the chicken thighs are tender with juice seeping down the fork puncture, the basmati rice creamy. Saffron stains her fingers orange and adds a pungent lobster aroma. But when Lora digs further, she uncovers the acrid smell of ashes cutting through the eastern spice. A thick black coat of burnt rice crusts the bottom. She sets the pan to soak even as she knows it is now ruined. Before she lays Le Creuset to rest in the sink she takes the wooden spoon and shakes it at her reflection.

“See, it’s you,” she admonishes the woman, “you’re the reason we can’t have nice things.”

••

Lora had always thought Jeeps were bourgeois, or “bougee” as her college roommate would have said, but now that she is riding in one, she never wants to get out. Surround-sound thumping. Wind rushing. The bounce. The Jeep embarrasses Derek. It had been an eighteenth birthday present and thrilling at the time, but now its bougeeness bothers him.

“Well, you know, you were young,” Lora says, secretly happy as a dog. “It’s not as though you picked it out.”

“This Jeep makes me feel like a jerk,” Derek says.

Lora begins to rejoin with a laugh, but then she sees that Derek’s face is serious and dark. Over the speakers a woman, sultry and strange, begins to sing.

“Do you like Cat Power?” he asks.

“Love it,” Lora says, although she has no idea who or what Cat Power is. She pictures a hydroelectric dam constructed of orange tabbies.

Derek smiles and Lora knows she has given the right answer.

His car is clean. If she pushes a button it works. When they sit at the bar their drinks sparkle. His polished cotton shirt is china white and crisp, with the perfect amount of crinkle; Lora wants to wrap herself in it like a mermaid in a sail. Later, as his pincushion mouth closes around hers a silver wire shoots straight up her spine.

Derek brushes back her bangs in need of a trim, as though he finds this cute. “Why is it I feel so comfortable around you?”

Lora has no idea, but tries to look like the kind of woman who makes men comfortable. Maybe she should buy some houseplants. She had read that once, that indoor greenery puts men at ease.

Derek lives in a loft apartment that was once a tobacco warehouse. The ceilings are high, the floors a light honey color. He has Swedish furniture and suspended shelves packed with books and music. Derek had been a fine arts major and his canvases are piled against a wall. They are expanses of white painted on white with tiny black figures in the middle. Lora decides the work has potential. Derek pours two tumblers of Irish whiskey.

“You know, the year I spent in Ireland was the one time I have ever been truly happy,” he says.

They clink the heavy-bottomed glasses and Lora decides from now on she will dedicate her life to art, European travel, and clean open spaces. They should move to Italy so Derek can develop. She will shop at the market for fresh produce while Derek paints. They will live in one white room, with a single window that overlooks the aquamarine sea and a white linen curtain that waves in the breeze.

“Art is so selfish.” Derek frowns at his body of work. “How can I justify this when so many people need so much?”

Lora needs a garlic press. She sees three in the sink, but knows it is bad date protocol to ask for one. As Lora pans her gaze outward she sees that she is surrounded by kitchen utensils—pizza cutters, paring knives, cheese graters—all with thick, black handles. Night of the living zesters. Derek admits with a flush that his last name is Harper, as in Harperware and the Happi Grip line of kitchen utensils. Derek works at Measurement to pay for his art supplies, and because his father believes in the value of an honest dollar.

“Mom has arthritis, but loved to cook, so Dad invented kitchen utensils that she could hold,” Derek explains, weary of the story.

Lora wraps her fingers around a beefy Y-shaped jar opener. She thinks back on all the Happi Grip displays she has seen in her lifetime, in people’s kitchens. Derek opens a closet filled with kitchenware still in the packaging.

“Can you believe this? Here, take some of this stuff. I don’t know what to do with it.” He hands her a bundle, and Lora tries not to be so thrilled that a twenty-dollar garlic press is in there.

“It’s pretty amazing, though. What your father has done,” Lora offers.

Derek gets a pained look and Lora sees this time she has given the wrong answer.

She puts the packages down on the counter, but this time when they kiss his mouth feels like wet rubber. Their lips stick and slide. When she unbuttons the white shirt his chest is scrawnier than expected and she feels sad for the tiny patch of hair. Lora feels a small panic rising in her throat. She can’t fail at this, she can’t take any more failure. She crawls up on the counter, pushes the Happi Grip utensils aside, and wraps her legs around his waist, securing him, but despite her resolve they belly flop like seals on an iceberg. Lora thinks about taking a white pillowcase and waving it in surrender, when she finally comes with all the pleasure of coughing up a pea lodged in her throat.

“I don’t know,” Derek finally says, his voice shaking. “I always mess this part up.”

“Shhh,” says Lora. She smoothes back his dark wave of hair and cradles him in the crook of her shoulder. Maybe Derek had the shiny objects, but she could see the rest was up to her.

••

The Texas Project is in jeopardy. Not enough kids are passing, and the bell curve is at risk. Although Measurement, Inc., cannot risk recontamination, the graders are encouraged to give essays a second chance. Lora and Derek vow that if they encounter any essays that have the courage to argue for the pleasures of drunk driving they will automatically award them a 5, the top score. Lora combs her stack of blue books for an essay that contains only one sentence: Drunk driving is awesome.

Lora imagines finding this sentence and awarding the kid who wrote it a scholarship. Derek and Laura would speed together across the dusty plains of Texas in his Jeep, tumbleweeds and armadillos in their wake. “This,” they would say to the scrawny teenager in a Whitesnake T-shirt, “is your reward for original thought.” The kid stands on the steps of his airstream trailer and takes the enormous poster board check, realizing that from this moment on his life is irrevocably changed.

There are three main reasons to not drink and drive. Before school drinking, after school drinking, and most importantly, during school drinking.

They only doing it because they don’t want to be stupids in front of other people.

“I don’t know. I really don’t know about these kids.” Derek brandishes a 2, a failing grade, on a blue book. “What can we do?”

Lora wants to say something about how she hadn’t noticed Derek actually reading the essay, but is too happy that she is considered a “we” in this conversation versus a “these” or a “them.”

Derek bends his head in conspiracy, talking low through his hair. “Hey. Tonight, do you wanna go to Hell?” Hell was a dark bar lit by Christmas lights.

Lora whispers, “Okay. But I should warn you that drinking scares the liver, and extreme hangout is likely.”

••

Lora resurrects the French pot to prepare a humble yet nourishing meal. Le Creuset has been soaking for two weeks now but the black crust remains. The instructions forbid a scouring pad, which would permanently injure the fine metal forged by expert craftspersons. She figures the burnt bottom won’t affect boiled hotdogs.

Lora finds an old movie on television because nothing truly bad ever happens in black and white. In the movie, a woman insists there was a Miss Froy on the train, who has mysteriously disappeared. A handsome man in tweed doesn’t believe her but finds her attractive, so he agrees to help. “But I know there was a Miss Froy. She was sitting right here!” the woman cries plaintively. She is supposed to be American but speaks with a British accent. She runs up and down the aisles peering in cars.

At the end they find Miss Froy, who, it turns out, is a spy for the Allies. A Nazi doctor had wrapped her in bandages, disguising her as a brain operation patient. In the end, the woman dumps her rich, dull fiancé with the big nose and runs off with the jaunty man in tweed, her real true love.

••

Lora invites Derek up to her apartment. He brings a bottle of Napa Cabernet that drinks like black velvet berries. He doesn’t seem to mind the mess and immediately begins wrestling He-Man and Skeletor.

That night, his curved penis shoots inside like a question, and Lora writhes to make room. Their wine-purple tongues desperately search for a hold. Lora flips him so she can concentrate. She had hoped for an easier way, but there is only one rescue, a crack deep in her chest. The fissure moves up and out before snapping off with a ping and flying away. A spray of cold sweat and a collapse.

After, Lora goes to pee and a strange splash shocks her. It’s the condom falling out of her in the toilet—a paratrooper shouting Geronimo long after battle. She wonders if she should say something, but when she returns to bed Derek is asleep. His mouth is open and he is snoring lightly. She digs in and tries to cuddle but she can’t find rest in the bony spine. Lora wills a trip to Italy into the back of his neck, breathing in Derek’s smell of forest, stockpiling what she can for later.

••

That morning Derek has a tiny white corner in his iris that gives him a faraway look. They are both awkward and Lora isn’t sure what to say about the tardy paratrooper. At work she takes sticky notes and writes, forget something last night?, but can’t bring herself to pass them. They both grade with overzealous focus. She finds herself relieved when he says he has something to do at lunch. Lora knows she would only be nervous and boring and would ruin everything.

Lora eats crunchy-corn ground-beef tacos alone at the food court. A stretchy-pants mom sits next to her. She has a burrito that lies untouched on the wrapper. The mom unpacks a small crew of tiny Tupperware and lines the containers in formation. Her skin is wan.

“Oooh, yum yum. Avocado!” the woman says, but her voice has the tinny edge of desperation.

“Gack!” says the baby, who barfs everywhere. The smell of chewed fruit fills the air.

Jesus,” the woman says.

The woman’s impatience ignites Lora’s maternal instinct. She wants to grab Baby Gack and run. She could take this woman, she thinks—her arms look thin and that mall security guard lazy. They would move to Mexico, eat beef tacos and avocado, and develop a tolerance for the water together. But then the woman wipes the baby’s face lovingly with towels and Lora can see she isn’t really needed.

Lora feels a twinge and runs for the bathroom, hoping for the stain of red. She knows it’s absurd to think she would start early just because she needs to, but maybe God will be good to her. Toilet paper remains white. The door in front of her reads your choice—heaven or hell. Underneath is a drawing of a large cock dripping semen tears.

••

Lora decides that if Le Creuset was really so great, it wouldn’t have burned so easily, and she decides to return it. The department store features an enormous pyramid of Happi Grip kitchen tools. A saleslady with too much makeup walks up and asks if she can help. Lora knows what she really means is don’t steal anything. She knows there are codes they call out over the loudspeaker. Assistance at the changing rooms means a klepto is shoving accessories up her skirt.

Lora can’t bring herself to take out the stained, blackened pot. Instead, she swings by the men’s department and finds the shirts Derek wears, except these are starched, not worn and soft. She holds up the price tag. Crikey, she thinks, and drops it. But then her hand reaches out again, she rubs the bright polished cotton between her thumb and forefinger until it feels smooth.

All over the mall, children desire to help. The mothers must be in constant search of a task. They have to nurture their children’s sense of well-being or it fucks them up. As she leaves, Lora watches a mother of two—one in a stroller and the other struggling with the door.

“Let me help!” whines the boy. “I can do it!”

“Oh-you’re-such-a-big-strong-boy,” the mother replies in listless monotone as she tries to balance the stroller, her purchases, and her child’s psychological future.

The boy senses placation. Mommy doesn’t really want his help, he can tell. His eyes narrow to red laser points. When Lora exits after them, the Le Creuset pot clangs against the metal doorframe. She does not stop by the drugstore for a pregnancy test.

••

Deep in the heart of Texas, teenagers deplore the perils of drunk driving. Please, they exhort, before you take the reel, contact a designer driver. Versace consulting at a fly-fishing shop. Maybe a child would bond them. Great events inspire great love. For her and Derek to move past Jeeps and vegetable peelers, they will need something of significance in their lives. Since paratrooper night, he spends more time bent over his work. She notices a white patch on the back of his head. Would she still love him ten years from now when that bald spot spreads like cheese on a griddle?

••

They would have the reception at the country club. Not because it was their style, but for the parents, and the kid would want pictures. There are ecru polished cotton tablecloths, flowers, crab rangoon on silver platters, piles of kitchenware that Mr. Harper gives as parting gifts. Derek wears an Armani tux and raises a flute of Veuve Clicquot Champagne—bougee, sure, but you only get married once.

“To Lora. We’ve had our ups and downs. But I love you so damn much.”

His toast is lame but so heartfelt everyone cries.

Lora’s parents are huddled and watching from a corner, their eyes concerned but loving. They feel out of place and aren’t crazy about the shotgun wedding, but they are proud of her for doing the right thing. Derek’s parents wonder at first about Lora’s unconfident middle-class status but come to love her simple yet forthright manner. Her college friends fly in from their studies abroad and graduate programs. They whisper at round tables, scandalized but impressed that she has nabbed a millionaire, the liberal metaethics of sophomore feminism forgotten in the power drunk of procreation and cold hard cash. Lora raises her flute of fizzy grape juice, the slight pooch of her first trimester protruding from her white satin gown, a Vera Wang that will never fit her again.

••

By the end of the week Derek hasn’t said anything about getting together. Friday they walk to their cars, which they have dutifully parked, according to Measurement, Inc., policy, south of the Sears Auto Court. Lora fiddles with her keys for a full five minutes before she sees his Jeep drive off. She hesitates and then calls from her cell phone. He doesn’t seem irritated, and as it turns out he has tickets to Cat Power.

He shows up in a gangster pinstripe suit. She hates his fedora, too, but the great pride he takes in his ridiculous outfit softens her. As they ride in the summer night air, she feels as though she needs to cradle every warm molecule of wind that rushes by. Against sound judgment, she is buoyant.

That night Cat Power plays to a sold-out adoring crowd but spends most of the set paralyzed. When she finally moves, she writhes, barely willing to peer out from her keyboard. Was that okay? She pleads after every song. Should I play more? You all hate me, she accuses. Each time, the crowd of mostly men reassures her how much they love her. It takes five or ten minutes, but then Cat Power heaves herself up on the bench for another number.

Derek begs along with the rest of the crowd. Lora feels slighted, standing there unnoticed while Cat Power sucks the room dry. Is this what men want? Should Lora collapse on the ground and beg for help? She wants to out Cat Power as a phony. Lora knows that anyone who really hates herself would never ask people to love her, afraid of the answer.

••

When a pustule bubbles on her chin, the white pus makes Lora weep with joy. She wants to machine-gun an SUV for blasting the Steve Miller Band and feels the cool salve of relief. Any seepage, imagined or real, sends her running for the toilet. She’s this close to salvation; she can feel it. If there were a Olympic sport called bathroom sprinting she would be a gold medalist. She would be a Wheaties box champion, arms outstretched in victory as she broke the ribbon ahead of sorority girls with UTIs and old ladies with irritable bowel syndrome. Lora wins and wins, but each time she pulls down her panties, the unstained crotch lies flat and plain.

pure pressure is the main cause teenagers

teenagers having problems with their organs when they drink alcohol

they drink in France

Ma’am , I am not making excuses , Because there is no excuse. The accident was in the “antelope press” , About the 7 year old hit on a scooter , So you know I am true , But I’m not going to give up. Thank You Again thank you for these issue that have a rised.

••

The next morning Lora runs to the bathroom where she is shocked to experience an actual event: vomit. The center of the earth shifts, her body lurches to compensate for the shifting pull of gravity. The glittering tile and porcelain sting her eyes as the thin yellow of sunrise probes the room. The rays illuminate the unused bath crystals and beads, years of dusty Christmas gifts. Acid burns her throat. Lora brushes her teeth and thinks about her cousin who named her child Quinoa. The name came from the sonogram where she and her husband noticed their son resembled a pearly fiber. Lora wonders what makes a parent believe that a weird name is a good idea. The funny part is these kinds of parents, the ones who doom their children to a playground life of spitballs and dust-face, fawn over their offspring the most. Oh, they will gush given half the chance, Have you met Vageeta? They have no idea how they have ruined their child’s life, how much therapy that kid is going to need.

••

Lora sits in the food court picking at a crunchy-corn beef taco. She’s hungry but isn’t sure what her stomach will do, so she has picked a seat near the bathroom. Derek shows up and wonders why she is sitting back here in the corner. Looking around, he puts his brown plastic tray down slowly.

After they exchange their usual complaints about Texan ninth graders, Derek gathers his taco, the pale pink squares of winter tomatoes spilling on the wrapper.

“I’m going to move to Chicago. If I don’t move I’ll get stuck here.”

Lora gets that she is supposed to absorb this information casually, the way you would do in first grade when someone calls you a doo doo head. If you let on that you care, you are doomed.

“Everyone should have the big city experience at least once,” Lora says carefully, testing.

“I’ve got to get out of here. The only time I’ve ever been truly happy was the year I lived in Ireland.” He is looking past her as he says this, over the ocean.

The only time Lora has ever been truly happy was riding in Derek’s Jeep. Her throat constricts, and she realizes she is about to crack so she runs to the bathroom. She doesn’t take off her pants, just sits on the toilet, gasping.

“You okay, baby?” a voice calls out from the next stall. It is the rich, nourishing tone of a black woman. She wasn’t going to cry but this unexpected depth and kindness amidst the foul smells breaks her. When she finally gathers herself, Derek is gone. She is the last person to come back to the grading room from lunch and McKinley Zimmerman raises an eyebrow.

••

That night Derek is coming by and they are going to talk. Lora washes with lilac soap and loofahs her back. Her nipples, she thinks, might be looking different. Wider. Redder. Or did they always look like that? She wants to wear sweatpants but instead puts on the low-rise brown corduroys he said he liked once. She feels like she’s taking too long to get ready and runs to the clock. He’s running late.

Lora lies on the pleather sofa, unbuttons her cords, and palpates the hard muscle of her womb, pushing with her fingers, checking for life. She isn’t sure if she should push hard, in the hopes of inducing an abortion, or gently massage the fetus. The bargaining begins. She will be a better person, send money to Africa. No more talking about people behind their backs. Lora scuttles her hand sideways like a white crab up her torso. While checking for growths she might as well get her breasts. She is careful to be clinical, deriving no pleasure as she pokes her glands like a nurse practitioner. Do you do this at home? she asks herself sternly as she makes sure to check under her armpits, squeeze the nipples and check for discharge. Guiltily, she must reply no, but finds her honesty refreshing as she breathes in and out, her heartbeat sharp and hot against the empty rattle of her chest.

Lora pulls out Tender Is the Night from her bookshelf. An hour later she is on page three. Maybe he was in a terrible accident, she thinks hopefully. The good news could be that he’s dead. She wills herself from checking the phone. Only assholes check to see if the phone is working. She opens the bottle of wine she bought, the same Napa Cabernet they had shared before. Drinking the rich wine alone feels like a waste.

At 10:01 she checks the phone connection.

The problem with the He-Man gang, she decides, is that they are only partially maimed. It’s the halfheartedness that reeks of failure. She rips their limbs and heads and tears their clothes and snaps their plastic swords in two, until parts lie in a pile on her coffee table.

By 11:10 she has worked up no less than five scathing yet witty diatribes that subtly insult Cat Power, the male race in general, and Derek’s bent dick, specifically.

Midnight she lies face down on the sofa, her face swollen, head pounding, the throw pillow damp with salt and snot when she hears the faithful chirp of the phone.

Derek rambles on about how he’s been trying to return this movie to a friend. Lora sucks in her breath.

“Weren’t we supposed to get together?”

“There’s no cell phone connection out here,” Derek’s voice is soft, a stony pebble at the bottom of a well.

“Oh,” she says. “Out where?”

“I got lost. I don’t know. I was driving and driving.”

“As long as you weren’t dinking and driving. Or drunking and diving.”

“I still don’t know where I am.”

“Where does your friend live?”

As Derek talks Lora realizes he is at least an hour away.

“So what do you think?” she says. “I mean. I know it’s late. But what are you thinking?”

The silent stretch is so long Lora thinks the phone has cut off. She struggles to remember just one line she had rehearsed, but her head is hollow.

“Maybe this isn’t working out.” Lora pauses, waiting for him to disagree.

“If that’s what you think.”

Lora hangs up and gathers up the bits of the amputee gang and throws them out the window limb by limb, watching them roll out in the street. She waits for a car to come and run them down and is rewarded by a Toyota Corolla. She strains her ear for the thud and crack of plastic. She guzzles the rest of the wine from the bottle and sleeps on the sofa, a sword shard digging into her sweaty cheek.

••

Measurement, Inc., is pleased to report that the Texas Project has been a great success, and the readers are congratulated on a job well done. They completed 17 percent more papers than projected at 93 percent accuracy without contamination. Measurement, Inc., has purchased glazed donuts and lemonade in a carton to celebrate.

Derek and Lora do not exchange sticky notes. The room empties out. Derek is about to walk off but then reaches into his manbag, turns, and hands Lora some flyers. They read, Men Can Prevent Rape. Four young men who look like a boy band stare defiantly outward.

“For your friends,” he explains. “They need to go in men’s spaces. I’m going to hang some in the bathroom.”

“I love bathrooms,” Lora says.

“That’d be great. I could use the help. I have a thousand projects I’m working on.” He waves the flyers as proof.

“Right.”

“I’m starting a new job in Chicago at a Men’s Resource Center.”

“Isn’t the world a Men’s Resource Center?”

Derek’s face darkens. “It’s easy to poke fun, but men have to fight stereotypes, too. Men are fed stories of power and identity.”

“A cultural mythology of lies. So that’s why you blew me off.”

“Oh, no,” Derek’s brown eyes turn liquid, filled with concern. “I’m not that kind of person. I would never do that.”

Derek edges away. He has to go. The real girlfriend is waiting. The waifish one with liquid eyes who asks if he loves her again and again, always knowing the answer. And as Derek turns to leave, Lora catches the final look, the one that reveals that maybe her skin smelled of too many public school lunches, which probably explains why so many blue book answers keep repeating in her head.

A youngster may drive and cause a unanimous accident, where everyone dies. Kids getting “wasted” or “crunk” because of problems at home, like familiar problems My cousin Shannon she plowed a family and a dove flew the winshield. Now she lies in bed but she never knows. It’s the budweisers, all fifty that get you. Your that man at the parking lot of Hardee’s. You want gas money for Greensboro but don’t ever go. In conclusion, it’s too bad, because people is needed in the future to run the robots.

 



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