A Sprauling Family Saga

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Chapter 35

To Annabelle, Georgian Bay looked like Maine: the worn granite rocks, the small coves and bays and islands, the mix of evergreen and deciduous forest. It was hard for her to believe that the expanse of water she saw before her was fresh, not salt, and that the tide wasn’t going to go out to reveal mudflats and mussel beds and seaweed.

“Why didn’t my father ever bring us up here?” she wondered aloud as she and Paul shared sandwiches and beers at another picnic table in another Ontario Provincial Park. “It isn’t that far from Wisconsin.”

“Maybe he was too busy making a living,” Paul said.

Annabelle flashed him a look of annoyance, which he missed by taking a big bite of his ham and cheese sandwich, mustard but no mayonnaise, the way he liked it. She knew he wasn’t happy about missing a week of lobstering in the middle of the summer, but she was without children at home for the first time in 33 years, and she had by God earned a vacation.

They had rented a car two days ago at Bangor International Airport, a comfortable four-door midsize sedan with plenty of room in the trunk for their suitcases and souvenirs. The plan was to drive it leisurely across Quebec and Ontario, re-entering the United States at Sault Ste. Marie, on the tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and spend a couple of days with Harold Sanderson before flying back from Milwaukee to Bangor, where their own car would be waiting for them. Annabelle’s father hadn’t been feeling well lately. He’d had a scare a year earlier when a routine colonoscopy turned up several precancerous polyps, and he had some issues with his lungs – probably from all the years he’d spent with Annabelle’s mother while she killed herself with cigarettes – but he was in reasonable shape for an eighty-two year-old man. He tired easily, though, and was prone to falling behind on the upkeep of his house. Annabelle felt a little guilty that she lived so far away, but now that the kids were gone, perhaps she and Paul could visit more often.

They had spent the first night at the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec, but had thereafter mostly avoided cities, skirting Montreal and Ottawa in favor of smaller roads that took them through quiet communities and vast stretches of woods. They spent the second night in one of a collection of quaint cabins on the edge of a lake, where they cooked their own dinner in a kitchenette and sipped bourbon in two wicker chairs as the setting sun lit up the water. That morning they had breakfasted in Parry Sound, where she had bought a tee shirt for Madison proclaiming the town’s claim to fame as the birthplace of Bobby Orr. Since then they had been picking their way north along the shore of Georgian Bay, stopping every hour or so to read a roadside plaque or to visit a gift shop or to admire a particularly pretty piece of scenery. The land was not hilly, nor was it flat; it was, as one Canadian they met described it, lumpy, the rocky remnants of mountains after the ice scraped everything off the top. Glaciers had carved this land, as they had the coast of Maine, leaving shallow lakes instead of a drowned coast. To Annabelle it felt both familiar and new, like a childhood friend rediscovered in adulthood. She was fifty-six and had never been here before.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” she said to her husband.

Paul Bremerton chewed another bite of his sandwich. “It’s pretty,” he acknowledged. “Not too many fish in those waters, though. And no lobsters.”

“Oh, Paul, can’t you just enjoy it for what it is? Besides, I saw a bunch of fishing boats back in Parry Sound.”

“Fishing industry in the Great Lakes is drying up,” he said. Paul had never been here before, either, as far as she knew. He was paraphrasing something he’d read somewhere. “Overfishing and pollution have just about killed it off. ’Course up here it’s probably better than Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, but still…”

“This water looks pretty clean to me. I’d eat fish out of it.”

“Wonder how far out it freezes in the winter,” he said. “Fresh water, no tides. No wonder everyone up here plays hockey.”

“I was thinking about a swim,” she countered. “Water’s warmer than back home. And no salt to wash out of your hair.”

“But you’re less buoyant,” he pointed out.

“Less buoyant or not, I can still swim circles around you.” In all the years they’d been together she had seen him swim exactly once, on a flat calm August day when the temperature at the point had reached 95 degrees. Lobstermen were not swimmers.

He laughed, and fished another beer out of the small blue cooler. “Hell, take your swim,” he said, cracking the can. “It’s not like we’re in a hurry to get anywhere.”

“I think I saw a restroom on the way in.” She had been impressed with the system of provincial parks across Ontario. They were clean and spare, with well-marked trails and plenty of bathroom facilities. Overnight campsites were usually separated from day-use areas. She had seen a few RVs but had not been overwhelmed by them. The parks themselves were expansive – some were bigger than Acadia National Park in Maine, her most familiar point of reference. Annabelle hated RVs and had no desire to sleep in a tent, but she thought again of her daughter Madison, and her Canadian boyfriend – still on the lam though the more serious charges had been dropped – and how much they and her kids would have enjoyed a trip like this. She wished Paul would lighten up and enjoy it, too.

He will, she told herself as she walked to the restroom to change into her bathing suit. She could sense him starting to relax a little on this, the third day of the trip. Getting away from the point had to be good for him, too, after the difficult spring of Everett’s senior year. For months her greatest fear had been that he would flunk one of his exams or punt a term paper and not get his diploma, but he had pulled through, and had found a place to live in Bar Harbor for the summer with several musical roommates, all of them working restaurant jobs and sharing expenses. She hadn’t a clue what he planned to do over the winter, but he had a car and an income and a circle of friends; he had turned 18 that spring and moved out the week after graduation. He had wanted to have a party at the point, but Paul had flat-out refused to host a gaggle of inebriated teenagers at the end of a narrow rural road. Everett justified their refusal two weeks before graduation by driving into a ditch and leaving a small amount of marijuana for the cops to find in the car. With the help of an attorney Annabelle knew in Ellsworth, he’d pleaded it down to a two-hundred dollar fine (Paul had fronted the payment), but the incident didn’t bolster her trust in her younger son’s judgment.

He wasn’t moving back, in any case. She would give him rent money before she took him back in. She had had enough of the arguments. He had lashed out at her for living so far out in the boonies, and for being the oldest kid on the school bus until finally getting his license on the fourth try. She had expressed her exasperation that he wouldn’t work for Paul or any of the other Brooklin fishermen, preferring to stay late in Blue Hill messing around with his music friends and calling her for rides. Paul barely concealed his contempt when Everett slept until noon on Sundays, the only mornings he was home, while he got up and mowed the grass or split wood or fixed anything that needed fixing.

She doubted she would suffer much from empty next syndrome. Once, only half in jest, she had told Paul that the happiest day of her life had been the day Pilar joined her older siblings and lined up at the head of the driveway on South Street and the bus had taken them all away. She had opened a bottle of champagne that morning, all the kids safely off to school, and her husband at the hospital. But within months Elliot Sprauling was dead and she was pregnant again.

She told herself that she loved Everett every bit as much as the others. But his arrival had been unplanned, and coupled with the doctor’s death, it had seemed a cruel twist of fate. But she had made the best of it, found a new man and a new life, and now the long and winding road of raising children was finally behind her. Try as she might, she could find little sadness in the thought.

The water was delightfully chilly, warmer than the Gulf of Maine but not soupy like smaller lakes get in August. Paul took off his shoes and waded out up to his ankles to hand her a towel and a fresh beer when she came ashore after a minute or two of vigorous Australian crawl and several more minutes of leisurely floating. Afterward, they sat together at the picnic table and he casually draped an arm around her as they consulted the map and the guidebook she had bought back in Quebec for where to go next.

“This place looks interesting,” she said, pointing. He looked over her shoulder, leaning gently against her, and the contact felt good. They had needed this time away together. Too many nights over the past few years she had come to bed only to snuggle against the broad wall of his back after a day of fighting and stress. He went to bed at nine to get up at four, and Everett sometimes did not come home until midnight. Sometimes he called to tell her he was staying in Blue Hill with a friend. When he got his own car, he no longer asked for rides but she still worried about him. It was good to get away from all that.

“Killarney?” Paul said. “An Irish enclave in northern Ontario?”

“It’s named after the town in Ireland, but according to the guidebook it was founded by French fur traders,” Annabelle said. “I just want to see what kind of place is at the end of a 42-mile road. The road wasn’t even built until 1962, but the town’s been there since the 1800s, accessible only by water.”

“Like Deer Isle before the bridge was built,” Paul said. “Or Isle Au Haut and Swan’s Island today.”

“Exactly, except on the mainland. It’d be fun to go check it out, don’t you think? There’s a lodge there, if we decide to stay the night.”

“I don’t know, Annabelle. That’s an 84-mile detour.”

“Come on, Paul, we haven’t exactly been traveling as the crow flies. If getting to Father’s fast was the most important thing, we would have stayed in the States and taken the Interstate.”

He had no answer to that, and thus when they came to the intersection of the main highway and the 42-mile dead end that led to the town of Killarney, population approximately 500 according to Annabelle’s guide, he aimed the car left.

As they rode past wooded ledges and small lakes, she scanned the guide for more information about the town and the surrounding provincial park of the same name. They saw no houses or buildings, and only occasionally another car traveling the opposite direction. “What on Earth do people do out here?” she said.

“I don’t know, Annabelle, but I imagine people might come to Maine and ask the same thing about us.”

She laughed, because of course he was right. They lived at the end of the road, too, in a town not much larger than Killarney. Why was she drawn to isolated places? Perhaps it was her Midwest upbringing. Wisconsin was open country, crisscrossed with straight roads, and no matter where you wanted to go, you could get there from here. She hadn’t even been to Washington Island, a short ferry ride off the tip of Wisconsin’s thumb, until she had visited with a group of college girlfriends. Harold Sanderson had never taken the family there, either, though it was only three hours away.

Killarney turned out to be charming. The town proper was built along a channel between the mainland and a large island, creating a natural harbor. Docks and moorings abounded, and Annabelle spotted several sailboats of varying sizes. A seaplane bobbed on a mooring in mid-channel. Jeremy would love this, she thought. She determined to find a nautical chart of the area and send it to him in California.

They parked the car in what appeared to be a public lot and strolled along the waterfront street. It was not crowded. Everyone had a smile and a hello for them as they passed; several dogs wandered about unleashed and apparently ownerless. They walked past small shops and restaurants interspersed with private homes, most with flower boxes in the windows. The afternoon breeze off the water felt cool on her skin.

“Oh, Paul, let’s stay here tonight,” she suggested. “We’ll get a room at the lodge and go out to dinner. Maybe find the local bar. I can’t think of a better place to spend the night.”

They ate burgers and drank beer at a small place overlooking the channel, where they could watch boats come and go. At the bar afterwards, Paul fell into a conversation with the owner of a tourist boat that made regular trips between Killarney and Little Current, the largest town on Manitoulin Island, some twenty miles away by water. He was a barrel-chested man about the same height as Paul but thick through the middle where Paul was wiry, but like Paul he had the rough hands of someone who handled lines on the deck of a boat. He had a bulbous nose set in the middle of a weathered face topped by a shock of white hair beneath a decrepit engineer’s cap. He introduced himself simply as “John.” When he found out that Paul was a fisherman from Maine, he began regaling them with stories about the old days of the Georgian Bay fishing fleet and the storms he had encountered as a young man. Annabelle mostly listened as the two men traded exaggerations and bought each other beers. She was glad that her husband finally seemed to be having a good time and not worrying about all the lobsters he was missing back in Maine.

“How much of it freezes in the winter?” she heard her husband ask. “Can you travel on it?”

“Oh, hell yes,” John replied. “It gets pretty solid in here among the islands. We can take our snowmobiles over to Little Current for a drink, and be back here before last call.”

Annabelle tried to imagine it – a bunch of drunks tearing around on the ice on a dark winter night, to get from one bar to another one very much like it, separated by miles of wilderness. She supposed it was safer than driving – especially since she had seen the only road into and out of Killarney.

“It’d take you two, three hours to drive there,” John went on, as if reading her mind, “but we can do it on our sleds in about forty-five minutes.”

The light of day was fading when they returned to the lodge. Their room had a view of the eastern end of the channel and several small islands. It was Spartan yet comfortable, with a large double bed, a desk, a refrigerator, a sitting area with a table and several chairs, and a small balcony. The manager had allowed that summer wasn’t their busiest season, but when the hunters arrived in the fall, rooms could be scarce on short notice. “I’m going to call Father,” Annabelle said, as Paul fished a beer from the refrigerator and slid open the door to the balcony. “Isn’t this wonderful? Cool air, and no bugs.”

He grunted and stepped outside. She placed the call. When Harold Sanderson answered, he seemed not to recognize her at first, and she wondered if his doctor had put him on some new medication that was messing up his short-term memory. “We should be there day after tomorrow,” she told him. “We’re staying in the most incredible place. It’s a small town, on the north shore of Lake Huron, at the end of a forty-mile long road. I swear it looks like home. Like Maine, I mean. It’s full of islands and little inlets and coves, and all kinds of wildlife. I wish you could see it. I’ll take some pictures.”

“Annabelle,” her father said on the other end of the line, when she finished gushing. “You’ve got to call Gretchen.”

“Gretchen? Why? Is anything wrong?”

“It’s Everett,” her father said. “He’s been in an accident.”

“An accident?” She glanced at Paul on the balcony, his back to her as he gazed out over the water. All the relaxation drained out of her. She felt something sharp between her shoulder blades, where she stored tension and where Paul sometimes rubbed her with his calloused hands if she asked him to. “What kind of accident?”

“A car accident,” Harold Sanderson said.

Annabelle’s throat constricted. “Is he… Is he all right?”

There was a pause on her father’s end, which told her more than she wanted to know. “I think you better call Gretchen,” he said. “She has all the details. She called here this morning. Said she didn’t know how to reach you.”

“What about Everett?”

“He’s alive,” Harold Sanderson said. “That’s all I know. She promised to call me back if anything happened. That was about eight hours ago. It sounds like he’s pretty banged up. I’m sorry, Annabelle.”

“Oh my God. Oh my God. Did she tell you anything else?”

“He had a passenger with him, and they’re both in the hospital. She was upset. It sounds like they’re both hurt pretty bad. She really needs you to call her.”

“I’ll call right away,” she said. “And I’ll call you back when I find out what’s going on.”

“Yes, sweetheart, but the most important thing is Everett.”

“Oh dear God,” she moaned. “Please let him be all right.”

By this time Paul had come in from the balcony and was looking at her quizzically. She cupped the mouthpiece. “Everett’s been in a car accident,” she said.

Even in her frazzled state, she noted that his reaction conveyed more concern than surprise. She shouldn’t be surprised, either. Everett was the worst driver she had ever seen. He’d finally passed his test, but she suspected that the people at the Department of Motor Vehicles in Ellsworth had gotten so sick of seeing him that he would have had to hit a school bus broadside before they flunked him again. He was nearsighted, impatient, and careless, a bad cocktail for operating a vehicle. Paul put a hand on her shoulder. “Dad, I’ll call you as soon as I know anything,” she said, and severed the connection.

“Is he okay?” Paul asked.

“I don’t know,” she said, her voice trembling. “I’ve got to call Gretchen. Oh, Paul.” She put down the phone and allowed him to encircle her in his arms. She was shaking. She wanted to cry, but she sucked in a sharp breath and steeled herself to call her oldest daughter.

Gretchen answered on the first ring. “Thank God,” she said. “I’ve been worried sick all day. There’s a good chance he’s going to pull through, but he’s still in critical condition, in and out of consciousness. That’s all they’ve told me.”

“Gretchen, what happened? Where is he?”

“Ellsworth,” Gretchen said, answering the last question first. “Apparently he and his friend got out of work and were going someplace to play music, because there were two guitars in the back seat. Both of them got wrecked with the car.”

“I don’t care about the car or the guitars. How is Everett? And why did they take him to that hospital?”

“Closest one,” Gretchen said. “It happened about two in the morning, in Trenton, right near the cheese shop. You know where that is?”

“Yes.” It was a store shaped like a wheel of cheese, on a straight stretch of road between Ellsworth and Mount Desert Island. Everybody drove too fast through there.

“Apparently he was passing a Winnebago, and cut back in too soon. He clipped the corner of the camper and spun out and hit a telephone pole. He and his friend both got an ambulance ride to the hospital. Everett’s in worse shape than his friend, though. He hit the pole on the driver’s side.”

“Oh, God. Have you talked to any of your sisters?”

“Not yet,” Gretchen said. “One of the nurses knew who he was, though, and when they couldn’t reach you, they called me.”

“Oh, God,” Annabelle said again. Her mind raced with logistical scenarios. Should they continue to Wisconsin and see if they could move up their flight a few days? Or should they start driving back to Maine immediately? Or find the nearest city with an airport? Where the hell would that be, in this part of Canada? What was she doing out here anyway, so far away from home, when her son needed her?

“Mom, I think he’s going to make it,” Gretchen said. But she could hear the tremor of uncertainty behind the words. Annabelle knew her oldest daughter well enough that she recognized this as false reassurance, an attempt to calm her when the circumstances called for panic. “He’s got a broken arm and a couple of broken ribs and a couple of injuries they don’t know the extent of yet, but when I talked to the nurse, she said he was young and strong and ought to make a full recovery.”

“Ought to?” Annabelle echoed. “That doesn’t sound very promising.”

“Mom, it could have been worse.” When Annabelle didn’t say anything, Gretchen added, “He could have been killed right then and there.”

She let this sink in for a minute. She had been lucky with her children – no debilitating diseases or disabilities, no catastrophic injuries, and only earlier today she had been congratulating herself that all six had survived into adulthood. In an earlier century she would have lost at least one of them to childhood illness. But beyond Madison’s teenage pregnancy and Joanie’s coming out as gay, she had faced few crises, and those she had handled with as much grace as she could muster. She had been a good mother. So why did she feel that Everett’s accident was somehow her responsibility? It never ends, she thought. Your children are attached to you forever.

Paul opened a beer from the refrigerator and handed it to her. She nodded thanks and gulped it gratefully. Gretchen filled her in on the details of the accident and its aftermath. The driver of the Winnebago and his wife had not been injured. What had they been doing on the road at two in the morning? Why had they been so hell-bent on getting to their next destination that they couldn’t have waited to leave Bar Harbor until daylight? She realized in a back part of her brain that her anger at the anonymous tourists was misplaced, but had they not been on the road in the wee hours of the night, her son would be unscathed right now instead of in a hospital bed. At that hospital.

She had to go back. So much for her first vacation in years. So much for visiting her ailing father. When she called him back, Harold Sanderson assured her that he would be fine, that he was feeling better, and that her brother Byron was only an hour away and could get there quickly in an emergency. Annabelle knew this, but she had also witnessed her brother’s half-hearted housekeeping, and she had planned to clean her father’s home from top to bottom during her visit. Maybe she could persuade him to hire someone, though Harold was penurious when it came to spending money on things he deemed unessential. Well, it would have to wait. Right now, her son was more important.

Her next call was to the hospital. Everett was in intensive care; the nurse on duty was guarded when she asked about his prognosis. He was alive and breathing, but the nurse had no more information.

It was frustrating not to know the extent of Everett’s injuries. Gretchen had said he would make it, but Annabelle knew she would not sleep until she saw him for herself. And suppose there were unexpected complications? Please let him be all right, she pleaded silently, as Paul took over the phone and tried to plot the quickest way back to Maine. If anything happened before she could get there, she would never forgive herself.

She paced the room while he worked the phone and scribbled on a notepad she’d found in the top drawer of the desk. It took several calls for him to compile the necessary information. “There’s an airport in Sudbury,” he told her, “and a flight to Toronto at eleven. From there we can make a connection to Boston, but the earliest flight to Bangor lands at nine o’clock tomorrow morning.”

“And how long if we drive?” she asked.

“I’d say at least twenty-four hours, considering where we are. If we drove straight through.”

“I don’t want to wait twenty-four hours,” Annabelle said. “I’m going out of my mind as it is.”

They kicked this around as they quickly packed up their belongings. She looked around the room. It would have been a lovely place to spend the night. They could have had breakfast in town overlooking the water, taken pictures, maybe even chartered a boat. It was an intriguing and beautiful area, and Annabelle was certain she would never see it again.

Paul came up with the sensible suggestion that she fly home while he drove the rental car back to Maine. It would save money. The manager offered to refund the entire cost of the room rental when she told him the reason for their sudden departure. “That was awfully good of him,” she said in the car. “I’m pretty sure that would never happen in the States.”

It was full dark when they drove back out the 42-mile road to the main highway. Annabelle wouldn’t have noticed the scenery anyway. Her mind was back in Maine. But when they arrived on the outskirts of Sudbury, the trees disappeared, to be replaced by wires and lights and fences cordoning off huge swaths of barren land. “God almighty, this place looks like the moon,” she said.

“Mining town,” he told her. “Big nickel mine. It’s the mainstay of the area’s economy. Pays for all those parks.” She gave silent thanks for his stoic demeanor, his ability to distract her with pieces of information he’d picked up before the trip. All she could think about was Everett.

“Have a safe trip home,” she told him at the airport, as she prepared to board her flight. “Don’t drive too fast.”

“I won’t,” he said.

“Stop somewhere to sleep. There’s no point in both of us killing ourselves.”

“I will,” he said.

“If I’m not at home, you can reach me at the hospital.”

“He’ll be all right, Annabelle.”

“I hope so.”

Twelve hours and three flights later, she landed at Bangor International Airport and found the car right where they had left it in long-term parking. In spite of her anxiety, she had managed to doze on the morning flight, and now she was wide awake as she drove ten miles over the speed limit to Ellsworth, to the hospital where her first husband had died, and her second son clung to life.

She raced into the lobby, conscious that she must look a mess but not caring. She identified herself to the women at the desk, whom she did not recognize, and was told that Everett was recovering in a room on the second floor. He had survived the night. Relief washed over her.

But what kind of shape would he be in? An elderly couple was just boarding the elevator. “What floor?” asked the old man, a gentle gaunt figure wearing a green flannel shirt in August. She held up two fingers. The man’s much shorter wife smiled. They were both at least eighty. Annabelle smiled back quickly and looked down.

“It will be all right,” the woman said, her face friendly like the old man’s. Perhaps they had outlived their worries.

“My son…” Annabelle started to say.

But then the elevator door closed, and a voice so close to her it could have been speaking directly into her ear said, “I’ve missed you.”

“What?” Annabelle cried, whipping her head around.

The old man and woman looked at her blankly.

“Did you hear that?” she said. She looked back and forth from one wrinkled face to the other.

“Hear what?” the old woman said.

Well, of course they hadn’t heard it – they were old and deaf. But she had heard the voice quite clearly. Moreover, she had recognized it, though she had not heard that particular voice for almost nineteen years.

The elevator didn’t move. Annabelle pressed the button again.

“She sticks sometimes,” the old man volunteered. “It’ll go in a minute.”

“It’s temperamental,” the woman said, nodding at Annabelle and smiling.

She felt the floor press against her feet as the elevator began to rise. At the second-floor nurses’ station, a plump girl of about thirty who looked vaguely familiar – one of Gretchen’s classmates, perhaps, or Madison’s – regarded her from behind a pair of pink-framed glasses. “I’m here to see my son,” Annabelle announced. “He was in a car accident.”

Recognition flickered across the dull brown eyes behind the glasses. “You must be Mrs. Sprauling.”

“Mrs. Bremerton.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” the girl said. She scanned a clipboard. “Your son is… Everett?”

“That’s right,” Annabelle said. “Which way is his room?”

“He isn’t in his room right now. He’s up on the third floor with the physical therapist.”

“Oh?”

The girl pushed the pink glasses up the bridge of her nose and straightened her wide shoulders. “He’s made quite a recovery,” she said.

“Has he?” Annabelle’s voice sounded far away to her own ears.

“Mrs. Bremerton?”

She turned to see a woman in starched whites with dark hair pulled into an oblong bun at the base of her neck, and recognized her as a nurse that had worked with her late husband, though she could not come up with a name.

“I’m Eileen York,” the woman said. “Would you come with me, please? I’ll take you up to see your son.”

She allowed the nurse to lead her back down the hall. “How is he?” she managed to say.

Eileen York stopped in front of the elevator. “He’s fine,” she said. “In fact, he’s doing better than any of us had a right to expect. It’s rather remarkable.”

Annabelle said nothing.

“When he came in here last night, we didn’t know whether he was even going to live. His friend wasn’t hurt nearly as badly, but he’s still down in intensive care. But your son apparently has a strong will to survive, along with some extraordinary healing powers. Well, let’s go up, and you can see for yourself.”

The elevator light went on, the door opened, and out stepped Everett, his left arm in a sling and a butterfly bandage above the bridge of his nose, between his eyes. He wore a hospital gown and loose-fitting hospital pants, but he walked out of the elevator under his own power, only leaning a little on the pretty young nurses who gently guided him by his good arm. And though his face was bruised and swollen, he managed a hint of the trademark Sprauling grin when he saw her.

“Hi, Mom,” he said.

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