The Kid

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Chapter Two

From where he was standing, Francis “Bud” Tripplehorne was ready for a fun ten minutes which would be well spent in creating another story, building another piece onto his legend, and humiliating this country bumpkin.

Not that Bud was an awful, heartless man...but he had made a living and a life out of his legend, out of being the shining star, the guardian angel of the National League Certified Since 1903 Boston Braves. Though every man on the team was important, he was the hero, he was up a step or three from the rest of them...

...and he was scared to death that somebody would stop talking about how good he still was after all these years and notice that he really wasn’t quite as good anymore. Scared that someone would notice that he was slowing down, just a little here and there but still slowing down, quietly and inexorably.

Somehow he had gotten through Pearl Harbor without a scratch, done his bit for his country without taking any serious harm for it...but there was no running from the inevitable curse of growing older, as hard as he tried. And he did try. He had to get a few more good years in, a few more chances at the brass ring called the World Series.

And right in front of him was the perfect chance to turn everybody’s attention away from his performance, turn the locker room talk further away from How long can he keep this up, turn it back to Did you see what he did this time?

Bob Germane had slipped up, bringing this kid out with no experience or talent. D.G. had done the right thing, handing him the perfect chance to kill two birds with one stone; build his legend back up and send the little kid packing, sadder but wiser.

Bud Tripplehorne was ready for battle, and thought maybe he’d even have some fun with the kid at first, let him tag a few...before sending him home.

* * *

Jason didn’t see any of this in his opponent’s eyes, but whatever was coming, he was ready for it.

The first pitch, however, he could have hit with his eyes closed. It was as if Bud was pitching to his kids or the mayor or something. The baseball just quietly floated right down the middle of the plate, and Jason was so fired up, ready for a difficult hit, that he came out swinging hard and sent the ball sailing all the way over the fence.

It was a home run, and that was enough for some murmurs of approval from the players behind him, but not a real achievement and Jason knew it.

Still, he heard the catcher’s quiet voice behind and below him say “One for one.”

With a smirk, Bud wound up and threw again, and it was the same sort of easy pitch--and Jason sent it almost to the same place, though the ball fell short at the edge of the outfield fence.

“Two for two.”

Jason shot a look around. D.G. was frowning at his pitcher; Bob Germane was still playing poker by the dugout, no expression either way; the gathered Braves were now making jokes, and Dutch Cattan called towards the mound, “Are you guys old army buddies, or what?”

When Jason looked back at the Braves’ star pitcher, he saw the man’s face change and knew their struggle was about to get more interesting.

* * *

So the hayseed had proven that he could hit nice easy pitches. Thinking about it, Bud decided that he would pull out an old favorite for Mr. Stiller to play with, and that it was time to get serious.

His knuckleball had been a comforting if not constant friend over the years, but that day it let him down. The pitch felt good but didn’t pan out; the ball flew so wide of home plate that Sammy didn’t bother reaching for it.

D.G. called “Ball One!” There were more jokes coming from the team, from his pals, and now Bud found himself flushed and a little angry.

Even the little puke got into things, calling out from the plate, “Hey buddy, I’m over here!”

* * *

Jason knew he had made a mistake the moment the words left his mouth. Without pausing Bud wound up and chucked an angry fastball right at him, forcing him to jump back from the plate and lose his footing, landing hard on his seat in the dust.

Nobody said a word. Jason stood up and knocked some of the dirt off his pants, found the Slugger and hefted it again.

“You okay, kid?” D.G. was serious.

“Fine.”

“Okay. That’s Ball Two, Tripplehorne, and I don’t think we want to see that again.”

“Sorry, Deeg.” Bud spat in the dirt and considered his next move. Jason stepped up to the plate again, licking his lips and trying to read his opponent’s eyes.

The pitch was a sinker, and a perfect one: Jason swung at what he thought was a nice, straightforward pitch, and the ball dipped below his bat right at the last moment.

“Strike One!”

“Two for three. Come on, pal.”

Sure that Bud wouldn’t throw the same thing twice in a row, Jason watched...and proved himself right. It was an excellent curveball that came sailing towards the plate, but there was a bat ready to meet it, and though the resulting pop fly would have made an easy out, it was still a hit.

The newcomer looked at the team manager, but D.G. nodded. Before Sammy could inform the world, D.G. said, “Three of four. That was a nice hit.

“Keep it up, kid, you’re beginning to slightly impress me.”

Jason turned back to his task, wondering why in the world D.G. was so angry at him just because he had showed up.

Three of four. Only ten minutes had gone by, but it felt like an hour.

J. Stiller wiped his brow, tapped the Slugger against his right shoe, and stepped up to the plate again.

* * *

Bud stared him down, and decided against another curveball. He was running out of options. Maybe another slider would catch the hayseed off guard.

* * *

“Four of five!”

Bud was yelling from the mound. “Come on, Deeg! That ball went foul!”

D.G. wasn’t having any, and his temper hadn’t receded now that he was both upset with Bud and starting--against his will--to think favorably of J. Stiller. “Sammy called it right, Bud, four of five. A foul tip is still a hit. Are you gonna beat this kid or not, Tripplehorne?”

* * *

None of the Braves were joking now, and while Bud and D.G. had their little argument, most looked like they wanted to be elsewhere. Fun was fun, but this battle didn’t make any sense. If the kid could hit, and he had already proved that, let him play...Dutch leaned over to Lefty, summing up what was running through more than one player’s mind. “Who’s winning, exactly?”

“That all depends on who you’re rooting for. The kid? Bud? D.G.?”

“So you don’t know what’s going on either?”

“Not a clue, Dutch.”

Bill Pickens was on Cattan’s other side. “Sammy’s rooting for the kid.”

“I think I am too,” Lefty allowed. After a moment’s thought, both Dutch and Bill agreed with him.

“Bud’s nice to have around,” Dutch whispered, “but this new guy’s already proved he’s a crackerjack hitter. Don’t we need one of those?”

Pickens laughed. “At least one.” He raised his voice a little, showing the first sign of heart the Braves had seen from him in awhile--if it was only halfhearted. “Hey, Stiller, you look all right.”

Dutch laughed out loud. “That’s telling him, Pickens.” He too yelled at home plate. “Go for it, kid! You can pull this off!”

There were more shouts of encouragement as the Braves realized that if this miracle was accomplished, they just might have a brighter chance for the upcoming season.

Not to mention the fact that it was fun to see David square off against Goliath and at least keep swinging.

Even D.G. had lost his frown. “That’s pretty close, kid, closer than I thought you’d manage.”

From the mound: “I thought you wanted me to beat this rube and get it over with, Muldowney.”

D.G. didn’t miss the insult in what Bud had called him. “You have my permission, Tripplehorne, to go right ahead and beat him. We’ve been waiting for you to beat him the past fifteen minutes.

“I’m not sure you can anymore.”

Now the comments were mixed, encouragement for the newcomer and razzing for the star pitcher.

“We still like ya, Bud, but how about letting somebody new have a turn at stardom, huh?”

“Give him heck, kid!”

Jason found new courage as he listened to the encouragement of his heroes.

* * *

Bud was anything but encouraged. Some of the comments, about “Letting someone else be a star,” those broadsides were coming a little too close to where he was vulnerable.

He did a slow burn on the hayseed, staring him down...all the while rubbing his right thumb hard against a fresh ball, as a broken eyelet on his batting glove nicked and marred the white horsehide.

When he turned and launched the ball, it looked normal enough, and the baby swung...

* * *

But even as he did so Jason realized the ball was moving in a way he hadn’t noticed, there was an extra stutter to the spin that pulled it just out of his reach as the bat came around.

“Strike two.”

Catcalls and go-get-ems had both quieted; when Jason turned and prepared to argue with D.G., everybody could hear it. “He cheated.”

“Aw, give it a rest, kid.”

“But he cheated! He--”

“It’s called scuffing, Mr. Stiller, and it’s a part of baseball.” D.G. spoke over the kid’s objections. “I know it’s not legal, and if I catch him doing it more than four, five times in a game I go out to the mound and we have a little chat.

“But I’m not gonna baby you, boy, and I’m not gonna make him play nice. If we keep you around, maybe you’re gonna face off against people that scuff the ball. You may face off against spitballs, against squeeze throws, against a ball with a blasted Roman candle stuck in the side, sparking and flashing and everything, and are you gonna turn to me and beg for a second chance?

“Either you can hack it or you can’t, kid. Now I didn’t think you’d hit a single one of his pitches and you’ve proved me wrong, but I’m gonna forgive you for that because I’m maybe starting to like you a little.”

The manager of the Braves pointed at the pitcher’s mound. “He’s got one chance left to beat you and you’ve got one chance left to beat him, and maybe I’ll keep you around even if you don’t. But you can’t count on that, can you? Maybe I think keeping my word’s more important than benefitting this team which I now know you would, greatly, but maybe I’ll be stubborn anyway if you lose and send you packing, back to those Iowa hayfields you wandered out of.” D.G. ran out of words and breath at the same time, and faced Jason for a long moment. When he spoke again, his tone was almost pleading, and a look had come into his eyes that Jason couldn’t understand. “One more chance, kid. So why don’tcha hit the ball, already.”

They seemed to be finished, and J. Stiller stepped away from the plate for a moment, looked to the west again, to where the sun was now in the midst of setting.

Jason looked at the sunset and wanted so badly to be a part of the team...to wear the uniform and swing the bat and hear the crowds cheering him on...

...there were sudden tears in his eyes, but he scowled, and blinked them far away, and reached down deep within to find all of the courage and strength he had.

Then he turned back to the plate, tapped it twice with the bat for no particular reason, and rested the Slugger on his shoulder.

His eyes met the pitcher’s eyes dead on, and Jason almost smiled, absolutely certain of what was coming.

* * *

Bud Tripplehorne was losing the battle. Even if this little hooligan missed, the kid would still probably get to stay, and everybody would remember what a good showing he made and how he showed up poor Francis as a washout. The star pitcher of the Boston Braves felt his own exalted status slipping as this babyfaced nobody kept swatting cards away from the bottom of his stack and everything was going to crash down if he didn’t win...and win big.

On the mound, Bud Tripplehorne relaxed, and almost smiled despite the huge doubts that were whipping around inside him...because he still had one weapon left.

His signature pitch, his ace-in-the-hole, the one skill on which most of his prestige, most of his glory was still riding.

Bud Tripplehorne had a fastball.

The funniest thing to the star pitcher was the fact that he knew, he knew everyone in the stadium was expecting it. The owner, the manager, the players, and even Mr. Jason Stiller knew that there was a Bud Tripplehorne signature fastball coming, and even knowing about it couldn’t possibly prepare the kid for it.

Sammy was looking edgy, and Bud knew he was thinking about the pennant race in ’45, where a Bud Tripplehorne signature fastball had actually broken one of his fingers through the glove; D.G. had unconsciously stepped back a pace, knowing without thinking about it that if the coming pitch went past--or through?--Sammy, he was next in line...

Bud Tripplehorne locked eyes with Jason Stiller and almost pitied his opponent.

Whether or not Jason got to play on the team wasn’t so important anymore. Five of seven wasn’t even important anymore. Only the last pitch mattered.

There wasn’t the slightest chance that the kid could win.

Like he always did, Bud closed his eyes, reached inside himself past the fears, past the doubts, past everything to the deepest, darkest cavern within him where he kept his fastball chilling until called for...and not a sound broke the hush over the stadium, nobody but Bud and Jason breathed as suddenly, like lightning, the pitcher reared back, twisted around, planted his left foot into the mound hard enough to leave a print and threw!

* * *

If it hadn’t happened in front of twenty witnesses, nobody would ever have believed it.

The red-stitched baseball whistled down the alley towards home plate faster than ever before, the most perfect strike Bud had ever thrown in his life...

...except that right as the ball crossed home plate it met a solid, wooden Louisville Slugger heading the other way, and with a CRACK that echoed off the stadium’s back wall the bat shattered.

When the dust cleared, when the Braves had blinked and looked again, they all saw the beginning of the legend as Jason Stiller stood quietly by home plate, a broken handle still firmly in his grip.

A split second later the ball, severely bruised and mistreated, bounced off of second base with a donk!

Sammy said “That’s five hits,” before what he had just seen registered in his brain.

D.G. heard the crowd behind him chattering amazedly--and distantly he wondered how big the story would have grown by the time even a day had passed. The manager of the Braves knew that Bob Germane had granted his wish.

Looking over, D.G. saw the owner’s smile, and though he was too shocked to smile himself Dennis nodded, and turned back to his newest player. He could think of nothing to say but, “Gee whiz, boy, those bats cost money.”

Jason kept a straight face. “I’m sorry.”

“That’s all right, kid, that’s all right. Just let me have your gambling payoff when Sammy comes up with it, and we’ll call it even.”

“So that means I can stay?”

“We had a deal, Jason. I sure as heck hope you can hit like that more often than this one time, though.”

Jason grinned. “Count on it.”

The sun was just about set, and shadows stretched long across the field. For a moment D.G. was distracted by this, and a saddened look crossed his face...but disappeared when he caught sight of Bud Tripplehorne, his back turned to everyone, walking away as quickly as he could. “Do yourself a favor, Mr. Stiller.” He pointed. “Stay far away from that man until he cools down.”

“How long will that be?”

D.G. thought about it, and didn’t know. He was spared having to say anything as most of the Braves came up to shake the hand of their new teammate and congratulate him on one of the finest displays the ballpark had ever seen...

Suddenly the manager of the Braves found himself to be at the outside of the group, and for some reason that irritated him, but he felt himself older than such foolishness and simply turned away. Let the kid have his moment. They were few and far between as it was.

Bob Germane was waiting. “So he’ll stay.” It wasn’t a question, but by then it didn’t have to be.

“Of course.”

“All right, then, shall we try to meet tomorrow morning?”

“Sure, Bob, whatever.” D.G. rubbed his face and felt old. “He’s really something.”

“Told you.”

“Have to fill me in on where you found him, someday.”

“Sure.”

Dennis felt a thought niggling around in the back of his manager’s mind, but couldn’t get a handle on it...wait. “Out of curiosity, does Mr. Stiller have a home to go to?”

“Not in Massachusetts,” came a voice from behind him. D.G. turned to see Jason waiting patiently for further instructions, his well-wishers trailing off, already making the story bigger than it had been.

“Let me guess, Bob, he’s not sleeping in your house.”

“I don’t think so, Dennis.”

D.G. nodded and was not surprised--or especially bothered. The Muldowney home had sheltered rookies before, and Gertrude would like the extra company. He sighed, though, just so Bob would know that he was put out. “I suppose we can shove you into Hattie’s old room. Shake a leg, Stiller, we’ll be late for supper.”

“Right behind you.” Before he followed, however, Jason made a quick trip out past second base, and though D.G. lost him in the growing darkness, it was fairly easy to guess what the kid had picked up.

“By the way, Mr. Muldowney,” he mentioned as he walked back, “they were cornfields.”

“What? Cornfields?”

“Sure. They were Iowa cornfields, not hayfields, that I wandered out of.” He tossed the his bat-shattering baseball into the air and caught it again with a quick snatch.

The older man regarded the younger for a moment. Finally, “Shut yer trap, boy, and let’s get home. It’s been a long day and I’m an old man.” While Jason grinned and ducked into the clubhouse to change into his street clothes, D.G. followed after more slowly, knowing how long the shadow had grown behind him but not turning to look.

* * *

Things settled into a normal pattern like things usually do. Jason easily took to being part of the Boston Braves, though there was friction because Bob Germane would not stop treating him like a star, instead of the rookie he was...despite his batting ability.

Which, contrary to D.G.‘s two a.m. nightmares, did not pale with time. Not that the Braves’ newest and youngest player could hit everything, but he sure could hit a lot...and the excitement level, the buzz around the team was double or more the usual.

Everyone knew that their chances for success, for wins and pennants and the World Series, had taken a huge stride forward.

Around the clubhouse it was almost like the Manhattan Project, everybody was so secretive about Jason Stiller. People who wandered by to catch batting practice were kept an eye on, and no comments were available for the few scant reporters that came on scene...the last thing anybody wanted was another team learning about the new secret weapon, and finding a star hitter of their own--or luring Mr. Stiller away. Not that this feeling made a whole lot of sense, but it pervaded among the boys.

D.G. kept an eye on the kid, pushing away his own quiet feelings of jealousy and envy so to better benefit his team, his players...and Jason Stiller, whom he was starting to like very much despite himself. He didn’t think all the attention would do the rookie a bit of good, and tried to encourage more of a normal perspective on things.

However, on at least one point Bob and Dennis were in agreement: there was no way Jason Stiller would be carrying a mitt. He was there for his batting abilities alone--everybody on the team knew it.

Jason himself had little problem with that, knowing that the batter’s box had always had his name on it. Yet when batting practice was over and the team fanned out to work on fielding, he was left with little to do.

Still awed by the heroes on the team, keeping his distance from Bud Tripplehorne, and still getting used to the idea of belonging, being a member of the Braves...it was fairly natural for Jason to develop a quiet friendship with a fellow rookie, and so when Phil Brice was out in center field working on his catching and his throwing, Jason Stiller was usually sitting on the nearby grass or in the first-row bleachers.

On April 12th of that year, just a few days before the first big game, the sunlight that filtered through the passing clouds found Jason Stiller sitting on the outfield grass, tweaking a grass stem between his teeth and wondering what finally playing in a real game would be like.

He and Phil hadn’t been saying much that morning, each occupied with his own thoughts. Jason knew his friend was concerned about something--his fielding was the worst Jason had seen from the rookie, though Phil had impressed him and earned praise from D.G. before.

Not that day. Errors, dropped balls, pop flies lost in the sun... “You okay, Goliath?”

The nickname Jason had bestowed upon Phil had evolved from a simple enough story to something that had to be constantly explained, how Jason had made a joke about Phil being short for Philistine and it had gone from there...it was a friend thing, and people usually figured it was a gag on the size of the rookie, which was nothing to write home about.

Phil was feeling like no giant that day. “I suppose I’m okay.”

From experience Jason knew that Phil wouldn’t just blurt out whatever was bothering him. Usually he would take the time to work it out of his friend, but Jason was restless that day and figured he knew where to stab. “Afraid you’ll make a fool of yourself in front of thirteen thousand people?” He saw Phil wince from ten feet away. “D.G. knows his baseball, and he knows his players. He wouldn’t put you into the lineup if you couldn’t hack it. Believe in yourself.”

“I ain’t trying to step on your toes, Jas,” Phil put in a nice throw and sent the baseball he had been holding on a high arc to second base, “but I’m sure that’s pretty easy for you to say.”

Jason couldn’t argue with that. “Sure, I believe in me. It works, too. Give it a shot.”

The clouds were getting deeper and darker, and it smelled like things were soon to get wet. “Right.” Phil wanted to change the subject and didn’t think very hard about what he was saying...not soon enough, anyway. “You’re starting to sound like my mother, now. You know how mothers get when--” and then he remembered himself and broke off, but it was too late. The damage had been done.

Without a word the young man stood up, dusted off his pants, and started walking. Jason heard Phil calling after him, trying to apologize, but he didn’t know how to explain...that he wasn’t mad, that he wasn’t hurt, but he didn’t want to talk either. He just had to move off, that was all. Just had to get some space.

Lost in his thoughts, thinking of anything but what he needed to deal with, what he still hoped after all the years would go away if he ignored it long enough, Jason passed into the infield and walked by first base without really noticing it, headed for the dugout maybe...until for some reason he looked up at the grandstand.

That was where he first saw her.

And he stopped walking.

The young lady was easily the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She was standing at the railing above and behind the western stands, looking out at the field. Her simple and austere gray dress was of little interest, meant to be unnoticed--but she couldn’t hide her face. Jason found himself staring at thick, shoulder-length brunette hair framing softly delicate features...in which two most perfectly matched, excellently shaped and deepest green eyes gazed out at the world.

Jason also wondered if he had ever seen anybody look so sorrowful.

* * *

D.G., standing near the dugout reading notes on a clipboard, looked up and noticed his rookie superstar staring off into space. “What’s the matter, kid, need something to do?”

“Who’s she?”

Now the manager of the Braves was intrigued; enough to at least turn around...and the older man made a surprised noise because he knew the girl in question, following that up with a sigh.

* * *

Stiller thought he heard his manager say something like, “My little Coon,” but he didn’t ask.

He merely walked over to where D.G. was standing and waited for the answer to his question.

Dennis G. sighed again and looked over. “You remember the guy who paid for you to get here?”

“The one who bought me the train ticket and everything?”

“Yeah, him.”

“Sure. You’re going to tell me she’s related to Bob Germane somehow?”

D.G. had the best wry smile when he wanted. “In a small way, his being her father and all.” The smile disappeared as he wondered, “Don’t you know the Germanes? At least a little?”

“You remember the first day of spring training?”

“The rest of my life, kid, yeah.”

“That was the day I first met Bob Germane.”

Now Jason had his manager’s full attention. “You mean to say you came all the way out here without meeting anybody from the team?”

“Just a letter asking me to come. Surprised me, too.”

“I’ve gotta get Bob to explain your presence here sometime.”

“Make sure I’m there and I’ll be a happy man.” Jason looked up to where she was still standing, looking out at the field without really seeing it, her expression unchanged. “She’s beautiful.”

“So she is.” Softly as if to himself, D.G. whispered, “She grew up when I wasn’t looking.”

The young man continued to study the face of the young girl, wanting suddenly to be able to call it to mind, no matter where or when he was...and now that he thought about it again, Jason knew he had seen that look before, the look in her eyes... “What is it that she’s lost, to look that sad?”

His manager didn’t say anything at first. Jason was about to ask his question again when the reply finally came. “Listen, Jason, you’re a nice guy but you expect a lot of people sometimes. Right now, I figure if you don’t know it ain’t my place to tell you. Let Raven tell you herself if she wants.”

“Raven Germane?”

“Yes, Jason.”

He filed the name away for further contemplation. Just then, for some reason, the beautiful lady stirred, as if awakening or losing her train of thought. She looked around the ballpark as if actually seeing it, and when her eyes fell on the two men standing watching her, her countenance softened perceptibly--though not coming close to anything resembling a smile--when she saw the manager of the Braves. Then her gaze shifted to Jason and immediately her face froze once more into a blank, untrusting sadness.

Then she turned and disappeared.

* * *

If he was hurt by the apparent rejection, Jason Stiller decided not to show it. “Was it something I didn’t say?” “She’s been through some tough stuff, kid. Might be wise to leave her be.” D.G. hadn’t missed the rapture on the rookie’s face. “The last thing she needs is somebody hanging around making gushy, romantic faces at her. Plus I might get sick.” Dennis turned his back on the rookie and tried once again to get a handle on his work for the day.

Jason was not one to give up easily. “She’s beautiful,” he said again.

D.G. tapped his pencil against the clipboard and then spoke without turning. “Kid?”

“Mr. Muldowney?”

“First of all, call me Deeg, like everybody else, and secondly...about Raven. I know she’s beautiful but she’s a lot more than that and I won’t stand to see anybody mistreating her, you understand?”

“Of course.”

“I’m not suggesting you’re some sort of hooligan, but you’d be fighting the most uphill battle of your life, believe me. Against Bob Germane as well as his daughter.”

“It might be worth the fight.”

The manager of the Braves cast around in his mind for a way to make his point, and settled on what was comfortable to him. “Listen, Jason. Even though you never spent any time on a real baseball team before, would you still know what I meant if I talked about stretching a single into a double?”

“Yes sir, Mr. Muldowney,” Jason chirruped, not-quite-mocking D.G.’s insult to his baseball knowledge with the utmost naive sincerity, “If’n you asked me to do that, why I’d just have to figure you meant running real fast, so’s that I could take a one-base hit, a grounder, and get two bases off it.”

“Score one for the rookie. Here’s what I’m trying to say,” and now he turned to look his player straight in the eyes, “I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to turn Raven’s head and I’m not saying it can’t be turned.

“But listen, kid. When it comes to baseball? A lot of players out there are quick enough that they can stretch a single into a double. There’s a few I know of that are so speedy, have so much heart to throw into the challenge that they can stretch a double into a triple.

“But not once, in the thirty-seven years I’ve been a part of professional baseball, have I ever seen anybody try to stretch a triple into a home run and make it.”

“Not once?”

“Not once.”

“Mr. Muldowney?”

“What?”

Jason paused, and looked up with a glint in his eye. “How many tried?”

And D.G. laughed, slapping his knee with the clipboard. “Somehow I knew--I just knew that was the question you were going to ask me, Stiller. I just knew it. Kid, you’re all right.” And then he turned away, still chuckling.

* * *

And that was that. Jason left his manager’s side and walked up the bleachers until he could stand where she had stood, and look out at what she had been looking out at, and wonder what she had seen.

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