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Displaced I: The Exchange

By Kevin Provance All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi / Adventure

IV - Fortuity

“A chance or accidental occurrence.”

****

Date: Thursday, June 13, 1991

Location: Ocean City, Maryland

Age: 19

****

I

Senior Week in Ocean City, Maryland. It’s a local rite-of-passage in which graduating seniors of Maryland high schools enjoy a weeklong, non-stop party. Participants are introduced to the accoutrements of college life by renting the dirtiest, most run down rental houses or apartments while consuming bad beer, cheap vodka, old weed, and the raison d’etre: random hookups.

Nonetheless, the experience is so much more than a few descriptive sentences. Some underclassmen who already have their licenses invite themselves as well. One might also find first-year college students, or high school dropouts who show up to hang out with former high school friends in an effort to relieve past glory one last time.

As with most northern beach communities, the prime tourist season falls between May’s Memorial Day and September’s Labor Day, otherwise known as the lazy, hazy days of summer.

Senior Week parties stretch out between the months of May and July with the peak occurring during the first two weeks of June, when the majority of graduation nights take place. Families on vacation and elderly tourists keep the last quarter of the summer for themselves.

Ocean City encompasses the eastern Maryland shoreline bordering the Atlantic Ocean, starting at the southern inlet and extending ten miles north into Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. The inlet and the boardwalk resemble a smaller, more family friendly variation of Atlantic City, sans the casinos. What it lacks in gambling it makes up with outlet shops, famous restaurants, arcades, and the pier. There, tourists will find several acres of amusement rides, fishing, and the Photon laser tag arena.

Even with all these attributes, Ocean City has always been so much more to me.

II

I didn’t go to Senior Week when I graduated high school in 1989. I didn’t want to. Save for one or two people, I didn’t have any close friends in my graduating class. I was also not one of the popular kids.

In fact, most of my peers viewed me as a geek. This didn’t bother me. I learned very quickly not to care about what other – lesser – people thought about me. I was a ‘big brain’, a term coined by my ex girlfriend Christina Buchanan, so when I say ‘lesser’ it’s because I considered them complete morons. Sure, they could attempt to beat up on me, provided they could catch me (they never did), but as far as a verbal argument? They would lose before I began warming up. This is why animals resort to violence. It’s all they understand. Civilized people discuss their issues in search of compromise. Those other cliques do not.

I earned my ‘geek’ brand from having an interest in computers, the drama club, and choir. Those other activities – the popular activities – didn’t appeal to me on any level. Neither did the cliques who dominated them. In Carroll County we had the ‘jocks’ who control the sports scene, the ‘farmers’ who ran the Future Farmers of America (a very popular club in our county), and the affectionately termed ‘druggies’ who all but ran the vocational classes. I should point out - for posterity - I never witnessed any student labeled a ‘druggie’ do drugs. I believe the whole façade was an image; one they chose to wear to exacerbate the desired reputation. Who was I to argue with tougher kids who could have easily kicked my ass up one end of Liberty Road and down the other?

Me? I belonged to no particular clique. When I say I didn’t want to go to Ocean City Senior Week of ’89, it was because I knew such a trip would end badly for me. The kind of money a kid my age needs to make such a trip requires a committed saving of funds earned through working, allowance, or rich parents. If I were going to Ocean City, it would be the trip I wanted, free of harassment from the other high school cliques.

The friends I did have consisted mostly of underclassmen that also belonged to no particular clique, due to their geekish ways. One might say we were privy to our own private clique, should such labels suit ya fine. We played our card games on the weekend and had a damned good time doing it. Thank ya.

The summer of 1989 wasn’t a total wash as far as Ocean City was concerned. When the early June rush of Senior Week participants subsided, Andy Myer and I took an impromptu trip to my favorite beach city. I’ve known Andy Myer since the seventh grade. He suffered the same torments as I during those awkward years. Myer earned a rarely given title of ‘best friend’, the kind one will know their entire life, no matter how far away one moves or how often one might not see one another when real life kicks in.

Myer, who also graduated in 1989, skipped Senior Week as well. He cited that it ‘seems like too much trouble.’ During high school, he befriended more people than I did, within our graduating class. I’m sure if he had wanted to go, he would have made due. Instead, he waited for me so we could take our spontaneous weekend trip. That’s what a best friend is all about. Mark it well.

On the second weekend in July, Myer and I each packed a bag, jumped into my little 1973 Fiat Spider, and made the three-hour drive across the state of Maryland to our Atlantic Beach Mecca. We hoped to find a place to stay once we arrived. Locating occupancy without a reservation was more of a challenge than we originally anticipated. Eventually, we did find something. A non-efficiency, closet sized hole on the second floor of a building that Ocean City should have condemned years ago. To call it a dump would have done a great disservice to buildings that were actual dumps. The apartment’s floor slanted so badly, I could put a soda can on its side and watch it roll from one side of the room to the other, and not always in a straight line. It all depended on which way the wind was blowing. Seriously, no joke.

Never mind. None of that matters. We only used the room during the day in an effort to catch up on badly needed sleep. Any other time, Myer and I could be found somewhere on the town. Most on-the-fly trips to Ocean City typically happened in this fashion. It was part of the adventure.

III

The most important detail concerning the summer of 1989: I was in Ocean City, even if only for a weekend. How we got there, where we stayed, when we left, all these things are irrelevant to me. Only the ‘why’ matters.

Because it’s all I have ever wanted. Because there’s no other place I’d rather be. The fresh salt air, the sound of the foghorn in the morning, the tastes and smells of the boardwalk, and the gorgeous fire red sunrises over the Atlantic Ocean. I could live there, die there, and be happy. When I am physically there, I feel at peace, as if I am really, truly home. When I’m not there, I feel drawn back by some unseen string pulling at my heart, no matter how far away I am.

Sometimes - not every trip - but sometimes there will be a short period of time directly after the sun sets and twilight begins where the sky is dark with hues of blues and greens, sprinkled with the set sun’s orange and red. Stars are beginning to show themselves with their signature twinkles. It makes whatever I am looking at surreal, as if everything has a florescent glow around it. The ‘twilight effect’ I call it, and it’s beautiful.

There is a downside (and isn’t there always?). The drive. From our homes in Carroll County, the trip to Ocean City takes three to four hours, depending upon traffic and the speed in which one drives. As with most road trips, the excursion to our destination is the fun part with the anticipation, excitement, and jamming out to our favorite tunes the whole way there. That same drive home, after all the enjoyment? Not so much.

Leaving Ocean City - for me - has always been a somewhat painful experience. No matter how much time I am able to spend there, making that turn off Coastal Highway onto Route 50 West is the most heart wrenching experience there is. I feel like…no, feel is wrong, I know I’m leaving behind everything that makes a difference, everything that is right. The fresh salt air, the sound of the fog horn in the morning, the tastes and smells of the boardwalk, and the gorgeous fire red sunrises over the Atlantic Ocean, how could anyone ever want to leave behind such bliss? I’ll carry that heartache with me all the hours of the long, boring drive home. Sure, we’ll listen to the same tunes and put on a façade as if everything is okay, even if I am far from. The music is not quite as loud now, and we’re not nearly as enthusiastic. The adrenaline is also gone. In its place is dread. The whole trip home has become a necessary evil I want done and over with. Because in the end, what’s back home to look forward too? Stale stagnant air? Hot days doing outdoor chores? Working some lame part time job so I can have a couple of bucks in my pocket? Yes, those things are hard to bear while imagining the harmony of sounds, sights, and smells that embrace Ocean City, Maryland. When I’m there, I don’t ever want to go home. I want Ocean City to be home. I didn’t know it as a child, and didn’t realize it until I was much older and had moved away from Maryland. Ocean City is the ‘happy place’ I go to in my mind when I am down or depressed. It haunts my dreams, recurring almost every other night. I’ve come to realize, and perhaps accept I will die there, where I will finally find the peace I never found in life.

IV

It wasn't until 1991 that Andy Myer and I were able to experience Senior Week for what it really was, for what it should have been.

In the school year leading up to Senior Week 1991, at my invitation, Andy Myer began socializing with my younger group of friends. We quickly inducted him into the Card Players Circle. Following high school graduation, Myer spent the next two years away at college in North Carolina. At the end of those two years, he decided college was not his bag. He managed to stay in college one more year than I did. Myer was like me, attempting to find his way in life post high school. Like me, he wasn’t having the best time of it. Most of his other friends were off at various colleges across the country. This left me to entertain him when he had free time, which was often. Now that he was back home in Maryland during summer break, and because there can never be too many card players at any given table, I took the liberty of introducing him to O’Bryan von Wald, Christopher Manyette, and their friend Andrew Taylor; the Card Players Circle.

He fit right in.

The origin of the Card Players Circle was an organic thing. It began with O’Bryan VonWald – or Wald, as he preferred - whom I met in high school on his very first day as a freshman in 1987. He’d taken an interest in the Audio-Visual club, of which I was unofficial ‘president’ at the time. We didn’t have a hierarchy, as did many of the other high school clubs. Even though I was only a high school junior at the time, I was the oldest and longest standing member. During the morning on the first say of school, Lita Henchick, the Head Librarian introduced me to Wald. She asked me to familiarize him with the morning responsibilities and expectations of an audio-visual club volunteer, including the services we provided to the faculty of South Carroll High. The job beat sitting in homeroom for an hour before classes began, bored off my ass. Wald and I hit it off immediately. We became fast friends.

Through Wald, I met two other freshman students as the school year moved forward, Chris Manyette and Andrew Taylor. The three of them grew up in the same neighborhood, within walking distance of one another’s homes. By the end of autumn, Wald revealed their weekend ritual of playing card games at Manyette’s house, and always at Manyette’s house. The night Wald introduced me to the Card Players Circle, I quickly discovered why. The Manyette household was the ‘in’ house of the neighborhood. We had permission from Manyette’s parents to be as loud and boisterous as we wanted, without fear of retribution. Sure, it was helpful their home sat nicely in a remote woodsy area away from other homes, but more than that, if there was to be teenage debauchery, why not let it be right under the noses of Manyette’s parents where we were safe and accounted for. They allowed cigarettes and alcohol with the strict understanding such things were not to leave the property. Intoxicated persons were to spend the night, no exceptions, no questions asked.

There was also the matter of Manyette’s older sister, Tessie; a teenage boy’s wet dream.

V

It was the same story with every new male friend Manyette invited over; Tessie would eventually find her way into the dining room, where the Card Players Circle met, seeking out the new blood in her house. Male blood. Perhaps she ingratiated herself into the game to annoy her younger brother. Either way, the result was the same. The new boy’s jaw would drop at the sight of her. To be brutally honest, I couldn’t claim Tessie to be the most beautiful woman out there, but no one could deny the splendor of her body. In short, Tessie Manyette dripped pure, unfiltered sex appeal with her thin figure, blonde hair, and big breasts.

The nights Tessie joined the Card Players Circle, the younger boys tried flirting with her using various uninventive techniques in hopes she would raise her shirt for a quick braless peek. None of them ever got one. Tessie would get them all riled up only to walk away and go to bed. Her victims would stare at her all hot and bothered as she left the room, wondering what her big soft breasts would feel like in their inexperienced hands.

When I met Tessie, I couldn’t take my eyes of her breasts. Like all those who came before me, I was instantly obsessed. I wanted her. I envisioned her in dozens of fantasies before making actual eye contact with her. Since Chris Manyette was a new friend, I felt concerned such a lustful attitude towards his older sister might be cause for an uncomfortable atmosphere. He assured me with a snorting laugh I was not the first friend to wag his tongue as Tessie, and would not be the last. Six years her brothers senior, she spent her days in college pursuing a degree in nursing (earning her the colorful nickname of ‘Bedpan’), making it clear on more than one occasion her priorities did not include casual sex with his friends. If she wasn’t annoying Manyette or occasionally joining in the card games, she was in her room studying. Sometimes she would ask if she could practice drawing blood on one of us with a very big needle. No one volunteered, ever.

Strangely, Myer didn’t find Tessie attractive. He never bothered with her outside of our card games, save for occasionally lobbing a friendly insult or two her way. My attraction to her was a different matter, quickly venturing beyond harmless flirting. Perhaps it was the age difference. With such a difference comes experience, or so I’ve heard. I wanted her. When I realized that want would not go away, I made it my mission to have her, at least once.

I did make one very serious error in my journey to bed Tessie. I confided my intentions to Wald. I foolishly assumed he would back me up. What I got was the exact opposite. Since he and Manyette grew up together, Wald would constantly remind me he knew Tessie first, knew her longer, and generally knew her better. More importantly, he didn’t want me to sleep with her. The subject of Tessie didn’t come up often, ensuring a continued smooth and unscathed friendship. Even so, Wald would - on occasion - share some fact about Tessie’s past in hopes of demonstrating why an ice cube would survive in hell before Tessie Manyette would sleep with me. Wald knew he would never win Tessie’s affections. He was too young and too close to the Manyette family. Tessie openly considered Wald her other ‘little brother’. Still, with those parameters firmly established, Wald would never give me his blessing in any matter related to Tessie. Although he didn’t see it, his paranoia betrayed him. His constant attempts to ward me away from her told me if anyone had a real chance with Tessie, it was I.

As the years passed, Wald’s jealousy intensified. All too often Wald would storm out of a card game when Tessie and I were there, flirting with one another from pillar to post. His temper tantrums gave the group a good laugh. The Card Players Circle’s syllabus included the complete and unfettered verbal abuse of one another; an unwritten contest to determine which player could cut up and put down the others the best (or the worst, depending on one’s point of view).

It might come as no surprise that Wald was the undisputed master of the game, earning him the apt, but deserving “master of cut-downs.” He never let us forget it, either. Wald could make snappy comebacks out of thin air, faster than any seasoned comedian could. I’m not talking about a few dry quips, no. I’m talking about uncensored one-liner comebacks that had everyone, including his target, rolling around on the floor, holding their gut from laugher.

Yeah, those were good times. Good times.

But, as Robert Frost once wrote, “Nothing gold can stay”.

VI

When graduation week of 1991 approached, Senior Week, The Card Players Circle moved their decadence to Ocean City for a week. The week (and year) Myer and I had been waiting for, having chosen to abandon our graduating year’s Senior Week extravaganza.

A close friend of the Manyette family owned a condominium on the north bay side end of Ocean City. Their graduation present to Manyette included use of the condominium for Senior Week. He and a select few of his friends, namely The Card Players Circle, could stay at the condominium for a week, rent-free. The only condition; leave the condominium in the exact same condition in which we found it. The location left something to be desired. The condo sat about as far from the boardwalk and the pier as one could get before crossing into Delaware. None of us complained though. Beggars cannot be choosers. Besides, who in their right mind turns down such a generous and awesome offer as this?

The spree would be the time of our lives, seven days of partying throughout the city without parental supervision. That’s what Senior Week is all about, baby!

Six of us went to Ocean City, Maryland in June of 1991.

Five of us came back.

VII

Anyone who lived in Maryland during the summer of 1991 might remember what happened, or read about it in the news. A freak thunderstorm developed over Ocean City the night before the Card Players Circle’s vacation ended.

Hurricane strength wind, hail, and some displaced buildings littered the beach town. Then there was the legendary lightning strike.

Oh yes, the lightning strike took out an entire section of the Ocean City fishing pier.

Wald had been standing upon that particular section of the pier when the lightning came. He was out there because of me, and because of that, I blame myself for his death.

Well, I suppose I should clarify here: presumed dead, officially.

The police and the search-and-rescue teams never recovered Wald's body.

VII

“It’s gonna fuckin’ storm, damn it,” I said, with a sigh. I looked out of the backseat window of Chris Manyette’s pitch black 1990 Chevy Beretta, a car he dubbed “The Black Flash”. Storm clouds were forming over the pier end of the Ocean City boardwalk. Since my run in with the rogue lightning strike at the Liberty reservoir, I avoided thunderstorms wherever and whenever possible.

“We’ll play Photon for an hour,” Wald said, from the passenger front seat without looking back. “It’ll rain for a half hour like it always does and that’ll be that. Big fucking deal.”

I sighed again, watching the lightning dance from dark cloud to dark cloud. Wald could be an insensitive prick sometimes. Now was one of those times. At present, the “master of cut-downs” was slightly annoyed with me over the Tessie issue. “I guess you forgot I was struck by lightning a few years ago, asshole. Way to be supportive.”

Wald scoffed. “Allegedly struck. You don’t really know what happened that day, right? Anyway, you lived. Get over it.” Tessie - who sat in the backseat, squished between Andy Myer and me - reached out and smacked Wald on the back of his head. He snapped around, glaring at Tessie. “What the fuck was that for?”

“Because Kevin is right, you are an asshole!” Wald tossed her a doubtful glance, mumbling something inaudible. Tessie sat at attention and leaned forward, cupping her ear. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”

“I said ‘you’re only saying that because you’re fucking him’.” Wald said, discernibly louder. He didn’t look back to face her.

It wasn’t true, at least not then. There had been some heavy duty flirting and the sharing of a bed between her and I the previous night, but no sex. The fact that Tessie and I shared a bed led the others to believe something sexual in nature occurred. Wald was especially inquisitive the next morning, almost to an unfriendly accusation. In an effort to yank his chain more than we normally did, Tessie refused to give him a straight answer. I remained silent, always with a smirk. To say Wald was pissed would be an underestimation.

As the day progressed, we let everyone but Wald in on the truth. I passed out on the bed I used during our stay. Tessie came to say goodnight, as she had every night we were there. I remember hugging on her and not letting go. It seems I put away enough straight Bailey’s Irish Cream during the evening to warrant that kind of confidence, without apprehension. When I awoke the next morning, she was lying to the right of me. We were both fully dressed.

Still, it was the closest Tessie and I had come to physical romance. That night represented the beginning of the most memorable summer of my life. The best summer and the worst summer, all rolled up into one.

Tessie laughed at Wald’s accusation. “What’s the matter, Bryan? Jealous?”

“What, of him?” Wald’s eyebrows rose in offense as he nodding toward me. “Let me explain something to you, Bedpan, here is what will happen; Kevin will use you for a few weeks, lose interest, and find someone younger to play with. Whereas I would marry you if you asked me to.”

Sadly, Wald’s prediction would end up being more on target than even he might have guessed. By August of that summer, friendships and alliances would change in ways none of us could ever have imagined. The Card Players Circle would break, per Wald’s prediction. The fault would be mine.

Wald’s brash attitude stuck a nerve. I was going to say something snappy in retort. Tessie beat me to it. She grabbed my hand and pressed it up against her sizable breast. “You’re upset because Kevin can do this and you can’t.”

This was it. After years of fantasizing and wondering what the sensation of my hand on Tessie’s breast would feel like, I now had the highly coveted answer. I smiled, wide eyed, enjoying the softness of her upper body. I waited for her to push me away. She didn’t.

“Fuck you,” Wald muttered, glancing briefly with greed at the act. He then bitterly looked out the windshield.

“You so wish!” Tessie said, gloating. She giggled over Wald’s irritation. Manyette rattled off his goofy giggle as he drove. Myer bellowed with laughter. Andy Taylor, the forth stuffed into the backseat with the rest of us merely grinned. He was a kid of few words, often claiming neutral party status when such side-taking rows occurred.

“All kidding aside,” I said, switching topics. “I’d prefer not to be near a coming thunderstorm of this magnitude. It looks like it’s going to be big enough to take the pier apart.”

Manyette finally spoke up. “We’ll do Photon first. If the storm isn’t done by the end of round one, I’ll just kick all your asses a second time.”

Wald scoffed again. This was his ‘tell’ that words of offense would soon follow. “Yeah, right. You do remember yesterday’s game, right? I shot your ass seventeen times and you got in…what? Maybe three shots? A dyslexic monkey throwing bent twigs could aim better than you and hit way more targets,” he paused, an evil grin creeping across his face, “And probably do a better job in bed with your mom, considering the bad review she gave about your gimpy old pop.”

“Q buddy,” Manyette said, flipping Wald the bird. ‘Q buddy’ was Manyette’s unique translation of ‘fuck you buddy’ and would be his catch phrase all summer.

At some point during the diatribe, Tessie moved my hand to my leg, leaving hers over mine. She squeezed slightly, guiding me to her inner thigh. A warm rush of blood flooded my extremities. She tilted her head to rest on my shoulder. I sighed in deeply, feeling the butterflies of a new crush dance throughout my mid section. I tuned out the lingering conversation, enjoying Tessie’s silent company.

Soon after, we arrived at the south pier parking lot on the inlet. Thunderstorm clouds had now spread well to the south of the inlet where Ocean City ended and the wildlife sanctuary of Assateague Island began. Looking north up the boardwalk, the storm stretched well over a mile. The sunset behind us gave the beach an eerie fire orange glow, a remarkable phenomenon one would have to see to believe. The dying light of the sunset reflecting off the storm clouds, coupled with the lack of cloud cover to the west of Ocean City made this visual spectacle possible.

The strength of the wind also allowed for piquing curiosity. The source seemed to originate from the east, but as we walked across the parking lot toward the Photon arena at the edge of the boardwalk, the direction changed twice, at least.

My paranoia about possible lightning strikes all but ruined the unusual weather. I kept watching the hair on my arms, expecting them to stand up straight at any time, a reliable warning indicating an imminent strike.

Tessie, good enough to notice my self-preserving body language, escorted me to the Thrasher’s Fries pavilion - or Boardwalk Fries as the locals call it. The expected scent of vinegar and salt filled the air, sending waves of hunger pangs through my stomach. Boardwalk fries straight out of the fryer could easily be the sole reason to haunt the south end of the boardwalk. They were that good. Tessie caught me lost in thought, staring at the Thrashers counter. “You wanna get some fries? I’ll split a bucket with you.”

“Yes, but not right this second,” I said, noting how low the clouds were to the ground. “I just want to get inside Photon and out of this storm.”

“I understand,” Tessie said, waving over the rest of our crew. The four of them stood next to the Black Flash, admiring the orange glowing beach. Taylor waved back. None of them made any effort to move along. I suspect he was simply returning Tessie’s wave.

The fickle wind changed direction again, now blowing from the north. Paper plates, napkins, and straws exploded off of the Thrasher’s Fries counter, sending them dancing across the boardwalk. Gasps of excitement arose from the crowd. Before the paper products could continue their southward voyage, a burst of southerly wind blew them apart in every direction.

“What’s with this fucked up wind?” I asked. Tessie and I walked to the front end of the Photon building, toward the entrance.

Tessie responded with her own sense of wonder. “What’s with those storm clouds?”

From behind the safety of the Plexiglas surrounding the double door entrance into the Photon arena, I allowed myself to take in the view. I couldn’t find the words to describe what I was seeing. The dark fire orange storm clouds literally gave an aura of florescence, lighting up the beach as far as the eye could see. Lightning inside the clouds flashed like strobes, seemingly speaking to one another in an alien Morse code. The winds – and I must use the plural here, as I was certain there was more than one at work - pushed the waves higher and farther onto the beach. Salt spray kissed the boardwalk from at least 500 feet from the water’s edge. Mother Nature was putting on one hell of a light show. Masses of people stood on and along the boardwalk, hypnotizing with her glory. I watched enthralled, forgetting the equal measures of fright.

“Do you have a quarter, Kevie?” Tessie asked, disrupting my trance. I turned around to face her. She was fiddling with a horoscope scroll dispenser just outside the protection of the Plexiglas. “I want to read our horoscopes.”

Our horoscopes, she said. Our. Not mine, or yours, but our. Her simple choice of words launched those ‘in love’ butterflies again. I marveled at the sensation. I continued to stare at her. This was the first time I felt anything close to an emotional attachment where Tessie was concerned. In my quest to bed her, I never considered the possibility of falling in love.

“Yeah, I think so,” I said, reaching into my side pocket. I felt change there. I pulled out a collection of coins to dutifully search for the requested quarter. I stepped out of the protection of the Plexiglas to join Tessie as I began fingering through the coins.

“MOVE! GET OUT OF THE WAY!” The heavy sound of running footsteps filled my ears before I could look up. The impact of a running person knocked me into Tessie, sending the two of us down onto the concrete. The coins in my hand flew in all directions, each making a distinctive cling or clang noise based on their size as they bounced on the concrete surface. The kid who knocked us over flew overhead, diving into a tuck and roll. He landed on his back and rolled onto his knees. It was an impressive feat of gymnastics. I couldn’t see him clearly at first, due to the vertigo of the unexpected collision.

“What the FUCK is the matter with you?” I snapped. The kid glanced at me briefly with intense green eyes, acknowledging my voice. As he stared at me, he cocked his head in a curious manner, messy black hair flopping in the wind. He opened his mouth to say something until he glanced toward the crowd behind me. The look on his face said it all. Someone was pursuing him. There was no time for him to stop and have a chat. I looked around to see what spooked this kid. Three Ocean City police officers and a fourth man wearing a black suit approached at the same break neck speed. With no apology, the kid scooped up what change he could off the ground and fled into the crowd. The group of men giving chase followed without stopping.

“Did you see that?” I asked Tessie. “That punk stole my change!”

Tessie sat on her backside, propped up by her arms. “I'm fine, thanks for asking,” she said, dripping with sarcasm. I smiled. She was my kind of gal.

“Sorry,” I said, standing up, pulling her with me. We looked off in the direction of the chase. As the parted crowd began to close back up, the man in the black suit stopped, turning back to look at me. After a few seconds, he disappeared out of sight as people began mingling, never looking away from me.

“What was that about?” Tessie asked.

“I have no fucking clue,” I said, softly. “Creepy.”

I knelt down to fish for the remaining coins. The kid left me two quarters, a dime, and a nickel. I gave Tessie one of the quarters for her (no, our) horoscope scroll purchase. I pocketed the remaining change. As Tessie went about the business of wasting a perfectly good quarter on her (our) silly horoscopes, I again redirected my attention in the direction of the fleeing kid. They were gone.

Something clicked in my head. Sort of like déjà vu on steroids. For a moment, the run away kid seemed familiar, like a single faded image in my head leaving a full color afterimage. He was wearing a yellow jumpsuit, surrounded by an aura of blue. The image disappeared leaving me hungry – craving, in fact - for a slice of shrimp pizza from PJ’s Pub, a restaurant at Carrolltowne Mall in Eldersburg. An odd hunger, especially for a food I had not eaten in years from a place I had all but forgotten about. I also had the idea there might be a quarter in a secret pouch of my wallet. I didn’t know why. I brought out my wallet not only to stick the remaining change into the bill fold, but to see if there was indeed a quarter in the pouch behind my drivers license fold. It was empty. I stuffed the wallet back into my rear pocket and stared off in the direction of the chase. Why I was so certain a quarter from years past would be hiding in my wallet, I couldn’t say. Additionally, why was I craving pizza from a family pub 190 miles away?

“Is PJ’s Pub still open?” I asked Tessie.

“I don’t know, where’s it at?”

“Carrolltowne Mall, in Eldersburg.”

Tessie looked up, confused. “I haven’t been there since I was a little girl. Why do you ask?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know. I thought about it just now. I’m not sure why.”

Tessie giggled. “I guess that kid knocked something around in your head when he ran into you, Kevie.”

Manyette, Wald, Myer, and Taylor finally appeared from around the corner of the Photon arena, fighting the strength of the wind pushing toward them, then all at once, behind them. The wind’s intensity grew with each passing minute.

“Listen to this,” Tessie began, holding out the horoscope scroll. “This is mine; ‘Forbidden love is in your future when it arrives from a place you least expect.’” I imagined this was a reference to me as one of her brother’s best friends, which certainly qualified as ‘least expected’, if not forbidden.

I looked over her shoulder to see if she was making the prediction up. To my surprise, she recited it exactly as printed. I didn’t know if I could use the word ‘love’ with Tessie. I enjoyed her company, no doubt. I enjoyed spending time with her as well. I also readily admit my desire to sleep with her, very badly. Should I ever obtain that goal, my biggest concern would be the repercussions. What would happen if Tessie wanted more than I wanted to give? What would happen to my friendship with Manyette if a relationship with his older sister didn’t work out, making Tessie bitter? Having listened to her tell stories of past break ups, she was sure to take it badly no matter who served whom the ‘Walking Papers’, a termed I coined to describe a break up.

Tessie interrupted my thought. “What’s your sign, Kev?”

“Scorpio.”

“Yours says; ‘Use caution when dealing with strangers who come as friends. Coming events in your life are not what they appear to be.’” I scrunched my face in confusion. “That was pretty bleak.”

I looked at her with a wicked grin. “Are you not who you appear to be, Tess?”

She wrapped her arms around me. I felt her hot breath on my neck and ear. The sound and intensity of the wind disappeared with her words. “I promise you Kevie, when I want something, I will be completely up front about it.”

“Get a fucking room!” Wald called out, breaking the magic of the moment. “What are we doing now? Besides watching the two of you open festivities for GropeFest ’91?”

To this, Tessie turned around with my arms still around her. She took my hands and pressed them against her breasts. “You mean like this?” She said, over the bluster of the wind. Still annoyed over Wald’s comment breaking an intense high from the free flow of endorphins, I decided to exacerbate the situation; I saluted Wald with a double flip off.

What happened inside me then, I’m not able to explain clearly. For a split second, I decided not to flip Wald off, somehow having the knowledge that doing so would antagonize him into doing something bad, something that would have lasting negative consequences. I can only describe the sensation as having two consciousnesses inside my head, one deciding to flip Wald a double middle finger, the other not. The reality where I spared Wald the extra insult faded away, leaving me standing there with my hands pushed up against Tessie’s breasts, each producing the middle finger.

Wald’s face flushed with anger. In all the years I’ve known him, I don’t recall ever seeing him so red with fury. I immediately regretted my actions. This was no longer a game. Wald was genuinely upset. Now Tessie was about to make a bad situation worse. “You’ll never get this close, Bryan!” She said, over the bluster of the wind. “Take a picture so you have something to spank to. Or if you want to wait, you can get some better shots later this evening.”

Wald was not smiling. His eyes were narrowed, one eyebrow twitching. “Fuck you, Bedpan,” he said, plainly. The intense anger on his face washed away, leaving one of disregard. “I can do something Kevin never would. Wait and see.” Tessie burst out laughing. Wald cleanly shook his head as if it say, ‘Silly woman, you have no idea.’ He turned away, walking back around the corner of the Photon building, toward the parking lot. Toward the pier. The five of us watched him leave.

“What’s he doing?” Taylor asked.

I knew then what Wald meant to do. He and I, we’ve had this dance before. He planned to engage me in a battle of courage. A game of ‘who can outdo the other guy’ in an effort to appear braver to casual observers. The last time we played for bragging rights, now it was for love.

“He’s going to get himself killed,” I answered, chasing after Wald. I was not going to watch one of my best friends tease death merely to impress a girl we both fancied, thunder and lightning be damned. The rest of the crew followed, Manyette and Myer at my heels.

I pushed Wald too hard. He wasn’t used to losing, always the one laying out the insults, the quips and the put downs, and most of the time in jest. On rare occasions, one of us can get the better of him in those verbal sparring matches. When Wald doesn’t ‘win’, he throws the most hellacious temper tantrums.

I feared we were about to witness the mother of all tantrums.

Wald sprinted through the gusts of wind toward the fishing pier. To compound matters, rain began to fall. Hard, fat rain stung my skin as I gave chase. Catching up with Wald proved to be difficult. He was already halfway across the wooden planked pier when the rest of us stopped at the pier’s entrance.

“WALD!” Taylor called out. Wald stopped and turned around to face us. “Get your scrawny ass back here before the wind tosses you into the ocean.”

Wald said something barely audible in retort. I looked at Taylor who shrugged his shoulders. “He’s trying to impress Tessie,” I shouted over the howling of the wind, coupled with the noise of the pounding ocean beneath us.

“What?” Taylor asked in surprise, pointing towards the pier. “Why would he go out there to do that?”

“Because…it’s something I won’t do.”

The shrieking of the wind sounded more like full throttled jet plane. My ears began to hurt from the unnatural noise.

Taylor never took his eyes off me. They were pleading with me not to let his life long friend die. It was a matter of time before the wind would indeed pitch Wald off the pier and into the raging ocean below. With the rocks of the inlet jutting out underneath the pier, no one would survive such a fall in these extreme conditions.

Thunder rolled, without the benefit of a lightning flash. When the low bass rumble of the thunder did not stop, I knew it wasn’t thunder. What I heard was the symptom of a tornado. A friend in Florida once described for me what a tornado sounded like, especially if it planned to drop right on top of you. She said, ‘It’ll sound like a freight train coming right at you.’

What I heard sounded exactly like that. I feared for Wald’s life, my life, hell everyone’s life. This was no longer Wald’s game. It was a fucking rescue mission.

“I’m going out there to get him,” I told Taylor. It took a maximum amount of effort to take a single step forward. Andy Myer - a big guy with the strength to help - followed without being asked. “WALD!” I shouted into the wind. “You need to get back here! Being dead won’t impress anyone!

A very wind distorted ‘fuck you’ was all I heard. I looked back at Myer, pushing my face into his ear, so he could hear me. “Stay behind me,” I said. “If I can chase him back to you, you’re going to have to hold him down. Be ready. It’ll happen quickly.”

“Okay man, be careful,” he advised, clapping his hand on my shoulder.

Careful, indeed! My hands were shaking a mile a minute and it wasn’t from the wind. I was scared out of my skin. Had one been watching, they would’ve seen my skin running in the other direction while my muscle exposed body sauntered forward.

Wald stood ‘matter-of-factly’ right smack in the middle of the pier, waiting for me to approach. I knew I was in for some form of verbal abuse for daring to challenge the almighty Wald. As I slowly approached him, I heard Myer let off a rather loud swear. A glance behind revealed why. The wind blew the cap off his head and tossed it from the short side of the pier to the other. I knew the cap was one of Myer’s favorites, something to do with baseball and a signature. I caught site of an opportunity to save it. When the cap came within reaching distance, I picked it up and firmly put it on my head. I glanced briefly back at Myer. He was madly displaying a thumb up.

I reached Wald in a matter of steps. “Get back to the fucking arena you psycho!” I yelled. Wald did not move. He stared at me with fire in his eyes, letting me know I was the last person on the Earth from which he would take advice. “What the hell are you trying to prove?”

“Nothing!” He spat. “I want to see if I can make it to the end of the pier in this storm, nothing more, nothing less.”

“Bullshit!” I said. “This has to do with Tessie! Now tell me what you’re really trying to accomplish out here before we both get killed!”

“Fuck you, bitch! You don’t deserve her.” Wald said in a bellow.

“We’re not together!” I shouted back. “Tessie and I are not together. We are not boyfriend-girlfriend. Do you understand me?” The wind around us began to taper.

Oh yeah, this was bad. The eye of the storm approaches.

“But you will be,” Wald said, with angry insistence. “When Tessie wants something, she usually gets it.”

I took a step back. Unconsciously, I think I knew what was coming next. “Maybe I don’t want her, Wald. Did you ever think of that?”

“Now who’s full of shit?” Wald snapped back. “You’ve been trying to get into her pants since you met her. You told me so. So you say she’s not your girlfriend, and I believe you. Tell me Kevie,” Wald said, sarcastically using Tessie’s nickname for me. “Do you love her?”

I stumbled, which gave me away. “Wald, I really do like her a lot, but what you don’t---“

“So that’s a no, you don’t love her. But you want to sleep with her. Yes or No.”

I sighed. “You know I do.”

“And what happens afterward, old friend of mine. What happens to Tessie when she wants more and you don’t”

“I don’t know, Wald. We haven’t slept together yet, and that is the truth.”

“Oh, I know it is,” Wald said, smug. “Taylor told me everything that didn’t happen. Did you really think you and Tessie could torment me all day without a real friend telling me what going on, right under my nose?”

“For a little while anyway,” I said with a sheepish grin.

Wald’s composure never changed. “Okay, then answer my question; what happens to Tessie when you fuck her and she wants more from you?”

Damn, he had me.

“I’m hoping Tessie and I will get to know each other a little better before anything like that happens.”

Wald actually appeared to relax, just a little. “Really? Do you really mean that, or are you just telling me what I want to hear to get me off this pier?”

Another excellent question. I never thought - but hoped - Tessie would get to the point when she would begin to take my flirting seriously, as she was doing now. The thought of Tessie and I together as long-term lovers was very real for Wald. It had not been for me. Maybe it should have. Maybe I should be given my budding relationship with Tessie some serious consideration.

My silence must have been too long.

Fuck this! I know you Garrison!” Wald shouted. “You’ll fuck her and throw her away. You don’t deserve her.” Wald knew his words were probably correct, but considering the situation, it was a moot point. “I’ve loved her almost all my life, you don’t love her at all,” Wald insisted. “And it’s NOT FUCKING FAIR!”

Finally! The heart of the matter, a matter of the heart.

“Wald,” I began. “Let’s get off the pier and talk about this like civilized people. We’re both going to get fucking killed out here.” Wald said nothing. He did his best to stand up straight with arms folded while peering into my eyes. I could only hope he was considering my words.

The wind around us stopped dead, although it had not stopped completely everywhere else. I could still see the effects of strong wind at both ends of the pier and the parking lot behind Myer.

This was eerily familiar, beyond déjà vu. I was experiencing something akin to flashbacks from my morning at Liberty reservoir, not memories specifically, more like sensations. I was remembering how I felt. Did it happen like this, the deafening quiet, the tingling skin?

I looked at my arms, checking for raised hair. Although my skin tingled, the hair was not standing up.

The cumulus storm cloud over the area of the pier began to glow a dull pink. From within the cloud, the sound of some kind of machinery began, warming up. Had I been blind, I would have guessed a passenger airplane turned on their engines. Only this engine did not sound healthy and might benefit from a mechanic’s visit. I knew this sound. I don’t know why I did, but I knew it and it meant something bad was about to happen.

“Wald!” I yelled urgently. “We have to go, NOW!” The sound of the machine warming up was now a full-fledged roar, encompassing everything. Ignoring me, Wald looked up. I suppose he expected to see what was making the noise. What he got was a dark storm cloud tinged with glowing pink light. “Wald! This is bad! RUN!”

I turned and ran toward Myer as fast as I could go, frantically waving him off. I skidded to a stop at the entrance of the pier, looking back to Wald, hoping he had followed. He budged not an inch, smiling at me as I ran. Was he completely satisfied with himself since I ran away and he stayed? Was it because he believed he won?

I would never get those answers. For then it happened.

A blinding bolt of lightning jumped out of the pink tinged cloud. It landed directly on top of Wald. He did not fall into the water. Nor did he explode into several pieces. He disappeared. One second he was there, the next he was not. It’s as simple as that.

After Wald disappeared into thin air, the section of the pier he stood over exploded, literally. The explosion sent shards of wood and steel parts raining all over the area. The force of the blast tossed Myer and I several feet away from the pier’s entrance. I landed back-of-the-head first into a parking meter. The bolts of pain in my head from the collision with the parking meter injected themselves into every vein of my body. The pain momentarily blocked out the sound of whatever propelled a section of the pier into nothing. Flashes of light, like sunlight twinkling through ice sickles filled my peripheral vision.

“Dude, are you okay?” Myer asked.

“Wald,” I said through the haziness of semi-consciousness. “Is he okay?”

“I dunno.”

Myer helping me to my feet is the next coherent memory I could recall. He helped me off the parking lot. A crowd gathered around the entrance to the pier. I expected it to be on fire. It was not. The powerful winds slowly began to die. The rain stopped.

Tessie joined me as I stumbled to the entrance of the pier. “Kevin? Are you okay?”

“He’s gone, Wald is gone. He was standing where --” I pointed at the pier, trying to catch my breath, “-- it blew up. I think he was hit by lightning.”

“Are you sure?” Tessie asked, as we pushed our way through the assembling crowd.

“I don’t know. I can’t think straight.” I put my hands over my head in a futile attempt to stop the vertigo. Myer’s cap was gone. He was not going to be happy.

“We should get you to the hospital,” Tessie said. “You could have a concussion.”

“No, not yet,” I said, insistent. “I need to find Wald.” Manyette and Taylor were now among us, although I don’t remember them approaching. They were asking the same question I wanted answers to. What happened to Wald?

My struggle to stay conscious developed into a fight I would not win. Every time I blinked, the effort to reopen my eyes and keep them open raised slightly. Soon, that effort would fail. The uneasy feeling of my legs turning to jelly was too strong to ignore. My weight doubled in an instant.

“Kevin?” Myer asked. I leaned on him for support, as I knew my fight was over. The flashing sparkles returned. They filled my entire view as the twinkling faded to black

Then nothing.

VIII

I am standing on the cement sidewalk that is the inlet end of the Ocean City boardwalk. No one else around. I am by myself. The soft sound of the ocean waves breaking onto the beach fills my ears. The call of gulls to one another fill the gaps of the remaining silence creating a soothing harmony.

I am home. Everything begins and ends here in Ocean City, Maryland. When I am here, I do not want to leave, ever. I know if I try, it will be impossible. This place will pull at my soul, forcing me to return before I’ve left.

I am able to turn completely, facing the beach. It is dusk here. The sun has already set, but the fire orange of atmospheric distortion spills light all around. It is always dusk here now. The sky is permanently on fire. It is a soothing, comforting sensation reminiscent of the womb.

This is the end of the world and I am content with it. This is where I want to be. This is where I have always wanted to be. I know I have left loved ones behind, but I am not sad about it. I know they are waiting for me to return, but I will not. I am okay with this.

A gentle breeze blows. It always blows and it feels good. Although there is no one else here, I can still smell the ambient scents of the boardwalk. Vinegar, salt, taffy, pizza, sun block, they are all here.

I hear my name spoken. I turn around to find myself standing in the middle of the fishing pier, with Wald. His hair is no longer chestnut brown, it is black. He is wearing the same entourage of cloths I normally wear. Jeans, white collar shirt, tie, black sports jacket.

“Why are you here?” I ask.

“I was going to ask you the same question,” Wald replies. He is non-confrontational. He is not angry.

“This is where I belong. I live here.”

“Do you?” Wald asks, inquisitively.

“Yes, I’ve always lived here.”

“We all have,” Wald says with indifference. Somehow, this makes sense.

“Why are you dressed like me?” I ask. “Are you trying to be me?”

“No,” Wald replies. “I am you.” This makes sense as well, but it is a lie.

“No you’re not,” I say. “You died.”

“Did I?”

“Yes, I watched it happen.”

“Are you sure?” Wald is not being sarcastic as he often is. He is serious. Like me.

“No,” I admit. “Not really.”

“Good,” Wald says nodding in approval, folding his arms. “Events are not as they appear to be.”

“So, you’re a stranger who comes as a friend?”

“No. I am you.” Wald says, reiterating what he has already explained.

“I don’t believe you,” I say. “Who are you really?”

“How’s he doing?” Wald asks, ignoring the question.

“He’ll be fine,” I say, shrugging my shoulders. “Although I don’t envy the headache he’ll have.”

“That sucks,” Wald says, turning away. “Will he be able to leave tomorrow?”

“Yes,” someone else says. Not me. Tessie. “I’ll probably have to drive his car though.”

IX

I opened my eyes, raising my hand to cover them. The reflection of white florescent light off the white cloth partitions gave me pause.

Tessie sat next to my bed, holding my other hand. The soothing envelope of my dream shattered, leaving me in the cold painful world of reality. Pain pulsed through my head and out into the rest of my body with each heartbeat. I groaned.

“Good morning, sleepy head.” Tessie said, smiling. Myer stood behind her looking down at me with concern. “Did you have a nice nap?”

“What the fuck happened?” I said. The words came out as a croak. My throat felt like a slab of dried leather. Tessie poured some water into a plastic cup out of the dull topaz water pitcher typically found in hospital rooms. I took the drink eagerly.

“You took a rather big thump to the head, sweetheart,” Tessie said. “You passed out and we took you to the hospital.”

“How long was I out?”

Tessie looked at her watch. “Six hours, give or take. You have a mild concussion and a shit load of cuts and bruises.”

“You look like you got your ass kicked,” Myer added. I sat up taking in a better view of the cubicle. It appeared to be a section of the emergency room with each cubicle partitioned off by a hanging section of sterile white cloth.

“Where’s Wald?” I asked, sitting up. “Did they find him? Is he okay?” Tessie looked down at the floor, gently squeezing my hand.

“No,” she said. “Christopher and Andy went back to the pier after we admitted you. The thunderstorm cleared up as quickly as it came. Rescue teams are still searching the length of the pier but haven’t found anything yet. I think they’re planning on extending the search father out to sea.”

“They won’t find him,” I said, flatly. “I watched him get hit by lightning. He disappeared.” Both Tessie and Myer stared at me, perhaps waiting for me to say more. “I don’t know how else to explain it to you. He was there, and then he wasn’t. Then the pier…blew up.”

“He probably fell into the water,” Myer said. “A whole section of the pier is gone. Where else could he have gone but down?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe I’m remembering it wrong.” I lay back down on the quasi-soft bed. “It was my fault he was out there.”

Tessie squeezed my hand again. “No, Kevin, that’s not true.”

“Yeah, it is,” I said, insistent. “One of the last things Wald said to me was I didn’t deserve you. He went out on the pier to prove to you that he would do something I never would. We egged him on, Tessie. With you putting my hands on your tits, and my flipping him off…”

“No, it’s always been that way, Kevin,” Tessie said. “Wald has been crushing on me since we were kids. Every boyfriend I’ve had, we’ve always teased him.”

“But we’re not there yet,” I said, correcting her. “All games aside, we both know there is something going on between us that hasn’t evolved yet. Wald knew it. But I’m not some guy you went to high school with, some dude Wald didn’t know. He knew me, Tessie. Wald and I have been tight since we met. I can’t help but think the prospect of you and I getting serious affected him more than either you or I realized.” Tessie said nothing. She looked down at the floor and nodding slightly. The guilt festering in my stomach began to rise into my throat and ultimately into tears. Tessie leaned over to hold me.

Myer looked on, appearing slightly uncomfortable. “It’s not your fault, Kev,” he agreed. “We all rode his ass for one thing or another. We do it to each other, all of us.”

“Yeah, I know that,” I said, choking down a sob. “But this is different. I can’t help but wonder if in this particular game of ‘who can put the other guy down worse’ that maybe we crossed a line this time.”

Tessie straightened up so she could look into my face. “Even if that was true, you didn’t tell him to go running out onto a pier in the middle of a hurricane, all in an effort to impress me.”

“Didn’t I?”

“No, you didn’t,” she whispered, laying her head back down on my chest.

I let it go. She didn’t understand.

I let her hold me, but I found no solace in it. I looked off, pondering my guilt.

X

Tessie and I got together in the weeks following Wald’s disappearance, for all the wrong reasons. We lasted a short two months. From beyond the grave, or wherever Wald was, he made sure his final act would haunt me for years to come.

Tessie will tell you we broke up due to me messing around with other women, as Wald had predicted. I’ll tell you we broke up because I couldn’t handle the guilt, along with my inability to grieve someone I didn’t believe was dead. Every time I stared into her eyes, every time we made love, all I could hear were Wald’s last words; he always loved her, I didn’t, and it wasn’t fucking fair.

There are three sides to every story: yours, mine, and the truth. The truth most often lies somewhere in between yours and mine.

Tessie didn’t lie in her reasons for the breakup. I sought comfort elsewhere. She was Andy Taylor’s girlfriend at the time, Becca Saccarelli. I didn’t cheat on Tessie with Becca for the reasons Tess believed. Taylor brought Becca to meet us, the remains of the Card Player’s Circle. Becca and I connected on some subconscious level, which led to her and I getting together, behind Taylor’s back while my festering guilt over Wald’s disappearance led to my inability to sleep with, much less look at Tessie. I refused to believe for the two months Tessie and I dated that Wald was dead. Becca reached into me and pulled me over that hump.

Taylor reacted badly, naturally. He swore never to speak to me again after a bad attempt to kick my ass. He was drunk when he tried, and failed miserably. I didn’t fight back, allowing him to vent at me instead. He had the right. It took a whopper of a lie about not hooking up with Becca to escape that situation. He bought it, then, only to discover in the days that followed that I duped him twice. We didn’t speak for months afterward.

Manyette left for Navy boot camp while Tessie and I dated. When he came home after graduation, he found the entire situation amusing, if not inevitable. Tessie was who she was, as was I. Coming clean with Manyette helped me to realize Tessie and I should have stayed friends, and not crossed the line into lover territory.

In the end, Myer was the only one left from the Card Player’s Circle to stand by me. Only now, with the Circle broken, I realized Wald had indeed been the glue holding our group together. It was he, who brought us together.

After almost a month together, Becca’s parents would force her to choose between her college education and dating me. They didn’t approve of me and consequently forced us apart. We tried desperately to find ways to continue seeing one another, up to and including running away together. For reasons that would take too long to get into – and because that tale really is best told another time – out plans fell apart. In the end, she stood in her parent’s backyard, on chilly September night, waved, and blew me a kiss goodbye. I never saw her again.

In addition to Wald’s disappearance, I carried the guilt of ripping the Card Player’s Circle apart, for hurting people who did not deserve to be hurt, simply because I was hurting and didn’t want to deal with it.

A month after losing Becca, I would meet Marie Kirsch, the girl who would grow up to be my future wife. I wish I could tell you meeting Marie improved my life after the mess I left behind in the summer of ‘91. I wish I could tell you that, for not all stories end with ‘and they lived happily ever after.

I don’t believe any of them do.


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