Friday, February 14, 2014

Heart-Shaped Lock (A Kissing Midnight Valentine's Short Story)

            

*SPOILER ALERT*! This story takes place AFTER Kissing Midnight, so please read Kissing Midnight first, or you'll spoil the ending for yourself! (KM buy links are in the side bar of this blog.) Thank you!

JESSE

Getting out of Saintly’s bed never feels like a good idea, but leaving her on Valentine’s Day? That feels downright unnatural.
            So I stall. I snuggle in under the flowered comforter and watch her sleep. She looks so beautiful with her long, dark hair tangled against her pillow, her face peaceful. No nightmares at all last night. She says she sleeps better, now that she sleeps with me, but I know the nightmares still come. It has only been seven weeks since New Year’s Eve, after all – seven weeks since we destroyed Devereaux Renard and sent the midnight girls into the light – and they have been a good seven weeks, the best seven weeks of my life so far, but I know it will take longer than that to really put the pain of the past behind us and (as Dr. Sterling would say) “get closure”.
            And that’s what today is all about: closure. I kiss Saintly softly on the cheek. She smiles in her sleep but doesn’t stir, which is good because, if she knew what I was doing, she would definitely try to talk me out of it – or worse, insist on going with me. Usually there’s nothing I like better than spending time with Saint – Delia gives us crap all the time about being joined at the hip – but this time I don’t want her along. This time I need to go it alone.
            I manage to sneak out of bed without waking her (not easy when you’re sharing a skinny little dorm room bed!) and pull on my clothes. The jeans still feel too stiff – one of the disadvantages of only having been a living human being for the last seven weeks is all my clothes are too new – but the boots make my feel like I could kick some ass, which is a good way to feel today, and the Fitzgarren sweatshirt from the campus gift shop goes a long way towards making me blend in. I start to grab my winter coat, too, but think better of it and pull on my old denim jacket instead, the one I wore for twenty years as a ghost. Then I push aside the sheet Saintly tacked up between our side of the room and Delia’s, and I tiptoe out.
            I’m shocked to see Delia is already awake, sitting up in bed with her knees pulled up to her chest, her fuzzy bunny slippers sticking out from under her nightgown. “Hey,” I whisper, “Since when do you get up before the sun? On a Saturday, no less!”
            Her blue eyes are full of worry. “I don’t know about this, Jess. What if something’s whack?”
            I sit down on the bed beside her. “You’re a good friend, Deals.” It’s true. Some people might freak if their best friend came out bisexual and fell in love with a ghost, but Delia has really rolled with it. And she has been super understanding about me sharing their little dorm room until the three of us can find an apartment together this summer. So I hate to stress her out, but this is something I have to do. “I think it will put Saintly’s mind at ease.”
            “And yours, right?” She twists one frayed blond pigtail around her fingers, studying me. “This is important to you, isn’t it?”
            I look away. “Sure.” I don’t want to admit how much.
            She nods seriously. “Okay then. You have to do what you have to do.” She forces a smile. “It is V-day, after all. Good day to take risks for love.”
            “Too true.” I glance back at the sheet behind me. I can just make out Saintly’s silhouette on the bed. She won’t stay asleep much longer. “So, did you get it?”
            “I said I would, didn’t I?” She reaches under her bed and pulls out a hacksaw. It’s an old one, and simple – just a curve of blue metal on one side and a long row of rusty teeth on the other. It has THEATER DEPARTMENT written on it in sharpie.
            “Perfect.”
            She hands it over. “You can feel the weather now, remember? You’ll freeze in that jacket.”
            I flip up the collar like we used to in the 80’s. “It’s for good luck.”
            “And the cray-cray hair? Is that for luck?”
            I reach up and feel my short blond hair. It’s sticking up in ten directions. I always forget I have to comb it, now that people can see me.
            I grab a striped beanie from the hook by the door and stuff it on my head. “Problem solved.”
            Delia rolls her eyes. “Just promise you’ll be careful, okay?”
            I give her what I hope is a confident smile. “No worries. Just take care of Saint while I’m gone.”
            She smiles. “When will you two be over the honeymoon stage?”
            “Well…” I pretend to think. “Considering it took me twenty years to find her, I’d say…never?”
            Delia sighs. “Well at least someone is lucky in love.”
            I hold up the hacksaw like it’s Cupid’s bow and pretend to shoot Delia on my way to the door. “Happy V-day, Deals.”
            “Open the door this time,” she whispers.
            “Hey! I only walked into it once! This being physical takes getting used to, you know?”
            She gives a sly glance in Saintly’s direction. “And yet, you seem to enjoy it.”
            I flash her a grin as I slip out the door, shutting it carefully behind me. Then I turn – and nearly walk right into some guy. He has dark, curly hair and black rimmed glasses, and his button-down shirt is buttoned all the way up.
            “Oh, hey,” I say, “Henry, right? From the theatre department?” I feel awkward. I’m still not used to people being able to see me.
            The guy seems equally uncomfortable. “Yeah. Jesse, right? Delia’s room mate?”
            “Yeah,” I mumble, “Something like that.” I remember the hacksaw and shift it behind my back.
            He moves something behind his back, too, but I still catch a glimpse: flowers.
            I smile. One of Delia’s many admirers. “Have a Happy Valentine’s Day.”
            He blushes. “Well, I hope to.”
            I head off down the hall. It’s quiet. Most people are still asleep – which is a good thing, because there’s an RA on this floor who has already started giving me suspicious looks, and seeing me walking around with a random hacksaw might not help. Since I’m not actually a Fitzgarren student, I’m not exactly supposed to live in the dorms – ironic, I know, since I’ve been here on this campus since before that RA was born, but whatever. Sometimes being visible sucks.
            But no one sees me on my way out and Dr. Sterling’s car is right where he said he’d leave it, the keys tucked under the floor mat. Good old Dr. Sterling. He understood right away that this was a good idea, for Saintly’s mental health. Which, you know, it is.
            It’s also the only Valentine’s present I can think of. I mean, I’ve thought of a lot of them, but all the usual stuff just doesn’t seem like enough. What am I supposed to say? “Happy Valentine’s Day to the girl who brought me back to life! Here, have a box of chocolates”?    
            Nope. Just not gonna cut it.
            But at the same time, all the big stuff seems too – well, too Dev. You might not think a supernatural serial killer would be a tough act to follow, but, in the romance department, Dev actually is. My girlfriend is coming off a relationship with a dude who liked dinner at fancy restaurants and picnics under the stars – and killing people. Which makes the big romantic gestures seem a little weird.
            So, I’m left with this.
            And, if I don’t pull it off, I’m left with nothing.
            On that cheery note, I start to drive.
            At first it’s kind of fun. Dr. Sterling’s sensible sedan isn’t exactly a sports car, and I can’t risk driving fast enough to get pulled over (considering the fact that my driver’s license is a tad bit out of date) but driving itself is still a thrill. I can turn the wheel! Better yet, I can turn the radio dial! No more waiting for someone else to change the crappy station. I put it on the “golden oldies” and crank up the Melissa Etheridge. Heck, I even turn the windshield wipers on, just because I can.
            But the farther into Maine I get, the more worried I start to feel. The country outside my window is now mostly woods. This would be a crappy place to break down. It’s not like my friends could come and rescue me, considering the fact that they don’t even have a car. And what if I can’t find the place? I only have Saintly’s descriptions to go on, after all, and she didn’t exactly know she was giving me directions. What if I never get there?
            And what if I do? Delia was right to worry. After all, Saintly said Antoinette was a shape-shifting demon. What good would I be against something like that?
            And right now I have demons of my own to fight – the type that live inside my mind. Retracing Saintly’s steps like this, I can’t help imagining her driving these same roads with Dev. Did they sing along with the radio? Did he tell her a certain song reminded him of her? Did she reach up and kiss him at this stoplight? Did they stop at this scenic overlook to snap a picture of themselves with the view?
            And when they got where they were going, what did they do then? Saintly has spared me the details, but I’m sure they slept together. Just the thought of it makes me grip the steering wheel so hard my knuckles turn white.
            I’m being ridiculous, of course. Sure, Saintly thought she loved him, but that was before she unmasked him for what he really was. Besides, Dev is dead and gone, right? Still, I can’t help feeling jealous, not only of the stuff that went on between them, but of the fact that Dev could just whisk her away for a romantic overnight like that, when I can barely take her out to Starbucks. I mean, I’m alive now, but that’s about all I got. No money, no job, no car, no place…The last time I relied on a girlfriend when I had nothing, the girl broke it off.
            And we all know how that ended.
            Don’t think about it.
             I suddenly wish I had never left Saintly this morning. I want to be near her, to see the reassurance in her smile. This whole thing was a fool’s errand, anyhow, and being out in the sticks is making me sweat. The road has dwindled to just two lanes and the trees are pressing in on either side, like they want to narrow it even more. After twenty years confined to the college campus, the outside world feels threatening. It would be just like me to miraculously survive my own death, only to run out of gas and get queer-bushed in some little town.
            Does stuff like that still happen?
            Maybe it doesn’t any more.
            But maybe it does.
            I start to scan the road ahead for somewhere to turn around.
            What I see instead is an old lady in a bright red knit hat, walking a dachshund in a matching red sweater.
            Well, I think, she looks safe enough.
            Cautiously, I pull over and roll down the window. “Excuse me, ma’am, but I’m looking for a restaurant called Por Toujours.” I feel ridiculous saying it. This doesn’t exactly seem like the place for five-star French cuisine.
            “Por Toujours?” The woman’s thick Maine accent warps the words. “Canadian folk?”
            “It’s French food, ma’am, and a bed and breakfast.”
            The woman laughs good naturedly. “There’s a place in town sells French toast, if that’s what you’re after, but no B&Bs around here.” Her accent turns “here” to “he-ah.”
            I’m tempted to just drop it, but I’ve come so far. “It’s a big white Victorian house by a river. People put locks on the bridge –”
            “Oh! The bridge!” Her watery blue eyes light with recognition. “Goodness yes. I should have figured, what with it being St. Valentine’s Day and all. But there’s no place to eat around there.”
            Well, maybe the woman is confused, but I don’t want to keep her any longer. Her little dog has started to shiver in his cute red coat. I ask her for directions and she launches into them, pointing the way with a red mittened hand. At least the place she’s describing sounds close, so I’ll know if it’s right soon enough.
            “Thank you for your help.”
            She gives me a toothless smile. “Happy Valentine’s Day! And good luck to you, young man!”
            I don’t bother to correct her. I just wave as I pull out.
            The roads are convoluted, but the old woman’s directions are true. Just ten minutes later I find myself turning down a long driveway that’s just like Saintly described, but the house at the end…
            Well, it’s a big white Victorian, alright, but it has clearly been abandoned for years. The tower lilts drunkenly. The floorboards of the veranda are so warped they ripple. The white paint is scabbing off in patches, revealing worn gray wood underneath. The whole place makes me think of an elaborate wedding cake left to mold. This can’t be the place Saintly meant, and yet…
            Stranger things have happened.
            To me.
            Recently.
            I get out of the car. There’s an odd feeling about the place, a feeling that makes the hairs on the back of my head stand at attention. Yes, it’s partly the wind (and Delia was right, I should have worn a real coat) but this cold goes deeper than the February chill. It may seem weird for me to say I’m afraid of ghosts, but let’s just say I’ve seen some ghosts worth being afraid of, and it suddenly seems like a bad idea to have come here without Saintly. If I run into anything dead, I can’t exactly send it into the light. A sensible voice at the back of my mind says get back in the car.
            And yet…Somewhere nearby I can hear the steady rush of running water. In the breast pocket of my jean jacket, just over my heart, Saintly’s Valentine’s present feels heavy, like a promise. I’ve already come this far. Am I really going to turn back now?
            I grab the hacksaw from the car. Holding it like a hunter’s bow, I trot past the house. Through the cracked windows, I catch glimpses of the rooms inside. A skeletal chandelier hangs above a dusty table. A grand piano hulks in the corner, its back buckled, its keys splayed like broken teeth. A cold fireplace yawns like a dungeon door.
            I force myself to ignore it all and focus on the woods. Behind the house I spot a gap in the trees that leads to a narrow path. The wind hisses through the boney branches, getting stronger every minute.
            But the sound of the water is growing stronger, too, and now it’s mingled with another sound: the tinkle of metal on metal, like wind chimes. I round a corner in the path and it comes into view: a narrow bridge, arched like the back of a cat over a dark, rushing river. As I get closer, I can see the railings of the bridge are made of ornate wrought iron, but they sparkle with silver and gold and bronze. Locks of every shape and size tremble in the wind, chattering like teeth.
            Well, this must be the place. But how am I supposed to find the right lock?
            There’s nothing to do but start looking. I flip over locks at random, searching for DR + MS. There are a bunch of DRs and I wonder how many of them are Deveraux Renard. All of them, probably, and every girl whose initials are linked with his is already dead.
            Every girl but one. My fingers light on the little bronze lock carved with Saintly’s initials. The wind makes the locks around me shudder and I shudder with them. I’m not prepared for the revulsion that rises in me when I see that lock. Oh, it’s going to feel good to cut this down.
            Good, but not easy. In fact, cutting a tiny lock with a big hacksaw is almost impossible. I have to brace it just right against the railing, and even then the lock keeps slipping. I try to hold it still, but it’s a wonder I don’t chop my thumb off in the process. Not that I’d feel it, my fingers are so numb. My gloves were too clumsy, so I took them off, and now the cold metal burns my skin, making my hands shake. At first, I wanted to cut down every lock with Dev’s initials. Now I think it will be a miracle if I get just this one.
            But finally I manage to wear partway through the bronze. Wedging the lock against the railing, I twist it –
            And it snaps.
            The lock comes free in my hand.
            Holy crap! I did it! I do a little dork-dance on the bridge, pumping my hacksaw in the air. I did it! I actually did it!
            “What are you doing?”
            I spin around.
            There’s a woman standing on the path. She’s tall and slim and I can tell she should be beautiful, but she looks like she’s been sick. Her skin is pale, her blond hair lank. There are shadows under her sharp green eyes. Even so, I know exactly who she is.
            Antoinette studies me. “I said what are you doing on my bridge?”
            I’m torn between holding the hacksaw like a weapon and hiding it behind my back. “Nothing.”
            “Nothing?” She stalks a step closer. “It looks to me like you’re defacing my property.” She spots the little gap where the lock used to be and her eyes widen. She flies at me with superhuman speed. “What have you done with Deveraux’s lock? Do you know where he is? Tell me!”
            Gripping the lapels of my jacket, she slams my back into the railing so hard the locks around me clatter and I almost go over backwards, into the rushing river. I manage to stay upright, but just barely. “You’re one of them, aren’t you? One of the ghost girls he was so afraid of?” Her French accent is cultured but her look is feral. Dangerous.
            I force myself to look her in the eye. “Do I feel like a ghost to you?”
            “No…” She studies me. Keeping a tight hold on my collar with one hand, she frisks my jacket with the other, searching for something to ID me. Instead, her hand lands on the lump in my jacket pocket. Tugging the pocket open, she pulls out Saintly’s present and holds it up to the light.
            The little heart-shaped lock glints in the sun. I can clearly see the initials I scratched into the metal: MS+JH.
            “Mariana Santos?” She stares at it in confusion. “That was his last girl, n’est pas? But who is this JH?”
            “Jesse Hayden,” I say, “That would be me. Mariana’s girlfriend.”
            Her eyes widen. “But if Mariana Santos is alive –”
            “Deveraux Renard is dead.”
            She takes a step back like I’ve slapped her, dropping the lock at her feet. “It can’t be true.”
            “Oh, but it is.” I know I should keep my mouth shut, for my protection and Saintly’s, and I know I should run now, while I have the chance, but my anger is making me bold. This woman – no, this demon – was his accomplice. Who knows how many girls she helped trick into loving him?
            And watching her, I can tell she loved him too, if demons can love. She looks stricken at the news of his death. It’s almost enough to make me feel sorry for her.
            Almost, but not quite.  I keep my voice quiet and calm. “I saw him die. His body turned to ash and we sent the midnight girls into the light. It’s over, Antoinette.”
            “No!” The word is half human, half animal screech. She changes, her body shifting through forms too quickly for me to see them, woman to cat to snake to raven, nails becoming claws, fangs becoming beak, so quickly it all blurs. For a second she stands in front of me, a huge black wolf, and then she lunges for my throat.
            I bring the hacksaw up without a second to spare. Her jaws close on the blade and she yelps, pulling back enough to let me turn and scramble up the railing, my feet slipping on the locks. Just as I reach the top, her jaws snap again, snatching the back of my jacket in her teeth. I teeter. Below me, the black river races, chunks of ice dancing in the current. The demon’s teeth are the only thing keeping me from falling. She starts to pull me back.
            But I’m not going back. Twisting my body, I wrench free. There’s a loud ripping noise as my jacket tears, and I jump.
            The river comes up and slaps me, knocking the breath right out of me. I hit the icy surface and go under, the dark water closing over my head. The cold is like needles. The current grabs me, but I fight it, pushing up until my head breaks the surface again I gasp in a lungful of air. For a split second I’m elated. I’m breathing!
            Then the wolf hits me. She must have been waiting for me to surface, so she could see where I was. Now she’s on top of me, her wet weight forcing me under. The freezing water fills my lungs, my ears, my eyes. I fight wildly, gripping fistfuls of dense, wet fur, trying to throw her off, but she is all scrabbling paws, forcing me down.
            I’m going to drown.
            And I’m going to take her with me.
            In a second I go from trying to shove her off me to trying to hold her down. Wrapping my arms and legs around her furry body, I let myself go limp, dragging us both towards the rocky bottom.
            The demon begins to thrash. Her claws rake my chest, beat against my legs, but I hold on tight. Either she’ll surface and drag me up with her, or we’ll both die.
            But the demon has a third option: She shifts. The dog shrinks in my arms, hair sucking back into its body as she turns into a cat, then a snake. I try to hold on, but my grip is weak. My lungs burn with the need to breathe. She shifts again and for a second I’m wrapped around Antoinette in her woman form. Then, with one strong hand she pries herself out of my grip, shoves me away, and beats towards the surface.
            I follow. We break through at the same time, Antoinette exploding out of the water in her raven form, her wet black feathers gleaming. Cawing angrily, she takes off into the woods, her wings sending down a rain of icy droplets. In an instant, she disappears.
            But I have another enemy to fight. The current drags at me on all sides and my arms are too tired to resist it. Desperately I cast around for something to grab on to, to keep myself from being swept down stream.
            My fingers close around the nearest thing and I instantly wish they hadn’t. It’s my hacksaw. The rusty metal teeth bite into my palm, but I force myself to hang on. The hacksaw is looped around an outcropping of rock, and if I can just keep hold of it, I might be able to pull myself up and climb to shore.
            But I can’t. The current is too strong and my body feels like dead weight. My palm is bleeding, long strands of blood unspooling in the current around me, but I can barely feel it, my hand is so numb with the cold.
            My brain is numb, too, my thoughts sloshing like the water in my ears. As the current forces me under again, all I can think about is Saintly. I wanted to do something to prove I love her, and now I’ll never see her again. I’m sorry, Saint, I think. I’m a dumbass. The last thing you needed was to lose someone else.  
            But maybe she doesn’t have to lose me completely. Maybe I can will myself to stay here as a ghost again, just a little longer, just long enough to tell her I love her. I hold the image of Saintly in my mind, so strongly I can almost see her shadowy form rippling above me, almost hear her voice call my name. I try to tether my spirit to her world, to hook it like a saw around a rock, but I can already feel my spirit rising, being drawn up towards the light as if a strong hand is pulling me…
            Wait. A strong hand is pulling me. Two strong hands, actually. They have hold of my jean jacket and are hauling me up out of the water and dragging me onto the shore and into the cold February sunlight.
            I would laugh if I could, but I’m too busy coughing up ice. When I’ve spit out half the river, I manage to open my eyes and find myself looking into Saintly’s terrified face.  “Jesse! Oh my God, please tell me you’re okay!”
            “I’m okay,” I croak. “What are you doing here?”
            “What am I doing here?” Now that she can see I’m alive, Saintly is livid. “What are you doing here? Jesse, I could have lost you! Why in God’s name would you come here?”
            “V-v-valentine’s Day?” I struggle up into sitting position, but I’m shaking uncontrollably. I’m soaked to the bone and my clothes are starting to stiffen in the frigid air. The wind cuts through my jacket like a knife.
            “Valentine’s Day?” Saintly stares at me, completely at a loss. “You came here for Valentine’s Day?”
            I nod, but I’m shaking too hard to explain.
            She pulls off her puffy blue jacket and puts it around my shoulders. “We have to get you to the car.”
            “What c-c-car? You don’t have a car.” I manage a shaky grin. “Please don’t tell me you stole one.”
            Saintly glares at me. “Borrowed. With permission.” She nods behind me and I turn to see Delia rushing over the bridge towards us, her face tight with worry. Behind her is a Henry, the guy I saw in the hall this morning. His eyes are huge and he looks like he’s in shock.
            “I’m sorry, Jesse,” Delia pants as they reach us, “I didn’t want to ruin the surprise, but I had to tell her. She woke up and freaked out completely when you weren’t there.”
            “How many times do I have to tell you people?” Saintly yells, “I don’t like surprises!”
            “But you love me, right?” I give her what I hope is my most loveable look.
            Her face softens. “I love you so much, I don’t want you to die.”
            “But I didn’t die!”
            “Yet.” She says. “But you will, if we don’t get you somewhere warm.”
            She’s right. Not only that, but we’ll all die if Antoinette comes back. If she sees Saintly, there’s no telling what she’ll do. “Let’s go.”
            Clutching Saintly’s jacket around me, I let Deals and Henry help me to my feet. Then they run ahead to start the car as Saintly helps me struggle up the rocky bank. We’re on the far side of the river now, so we have to cross the bridge to get back to the path. On our way over, I see Saintly’s eyes scan the railing.
            She’s looking for the lock.
            “It isn’t there,” I say. “I cut it down.”
            “You what?” Her eyes widen. “That’s why you came out here? To cut the lock?”
            “I was going to put this in its place.” With shaking fingers, I reach down and pick up the little heart-shaped lock, still lying where the demon dropped it. I hand it to Saintly.
            She turns it over in her hand, staring at our initials scratched into the metal. She looks like she might cry, but I can’t tell if they’re good tears or bad.
            “I was going to put it up and take a picture for you on my…” I groan. “My phone. Which I’m guessing is dead now.”
            “It’s okay,” she says quietly, “We’ll get you a new one.”
            “We could still put the lock up,” I say hopefully. “We could do it together.”
            “No.”
            She says it so quickly, so firmly, it cuts me – worse than the cold wind slicing through my wet jeans, worse than the rusty blade that bit my hand. “No? Just no?”
            “Jesse.” She takes both of my freezing hands in hers, turning me to face her. “I thought you understood.”
            My heart is sinking. I’m having so much trouble breathing, it’s like I’m back under the water again.  “Understood what?”
            “That we don’t need that stuff – big gestures and symbols and things to tie us together – we don’t need that. What we have is deeper than that.”
            “But…” I struggle to understand. “I thought you thought those things were romantic.”
            She smiles at me gently. “Romantic is great. It has its place. But what I want now is real.”
            Real. It’s like my heart is coming up for air. I get what she is saying: Our lives are already locked together, in all the ways that count.
             “Okay then.” I raise my arm, ready to fling the little lock into the river.
            “No.” She grabs my arm to stop me. “I still want it.”
            “In that case,” I say, “Happy Valentine’s Day.” I hand over the lock. Saintly takes it, smiling shyly, and attaches it to her bracelet, so the heart-shaped lock hangs next to the little black heart tattoo on her wrist.
            “Thank you.” She reaches up and kisses me softly on the lips. For a long second I hold her there, then she pulls away. “Dios mio, your lips are freezing!”
            “Are they?” I don’t feel cold at all. In fact, I feel warm all over.
            “Yes!” Saintly grabs my hand and hurries me up the path to the cars.
            When we get there, Delia and Henry are waiting. Delia looks nervous. “You guys,” she whispers, “Henry saw the demon shift. He wants an explanation.”
            “Damn straight he does.” Henry narrows his eyes at all of us. “I’m not driving anybody back to campus until you guys tell me what’s going on.”
            Saintly sighs. “In the car, then. But I’ve got to warn you, it’s a long story.”
            I smile as I climb into the warm back seat beside her. It is a long story. But it’s also a love story.
            And it isn’t over yet.
           
           
           
           


2 comments:

  1. Awesome!! So glad it isn't over yet! Will there be a Kindle version? I would love to save this for my elibrary!

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  2. Thank you, Sue! I'm so glad you liked it and I really appreciate you reading! Yes, now that you mention it, lets do a Kindle version. I'll try to get it run by an editor and formatter and find a nice cover, and then we can put it up free on Amazon. I'll let you know when it's out. Thanks for the comment!

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