Checking Out

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Chapter 4

By the time I dropped down on my bed, I was already half asleep. Jason's car roared off into the night, but I was unconscious to the world, not even bothering to take off my shoes. I slept like a rock, and when I woke to dim morning sunlight creeping in through my window a few hours later, I was still in the exact same position in which I had collapsed. My neck was sore, and my mouth tasted like the diner had smelled, but the first thing I noticed was the hunger. It was getting worse. I was back to pre-burger levels in just a few hours.
I dragged myself off the bed, pulling up my shirt to look at the wounds. They didn't appear to be any better, but they weren't any worse either, so I dropped my shirt and pushed it out of my mind. I could hear my dad snoring down the hall, the sound comforting me and disorienting me at the same time. It was so strange to me that while my entire life had been flipped upside down, my dad was going through his usual routine, completely clueless. I only had myself to blame, of course, but keeping him out of the loop wasn't even a question. He would only find out about any of this if he had to, and hopefully I could find a way to get back to normal before that happened.
I made my way quietly to the kitchen. There were beer cans covering the counter by the sink, which actually made me smile. I had trained him enough to not leave them all over the floor, like usual. It was a first step years in the making. Normally I would have done the bathroom thing first, at least washing the horrible taste out of my mouth, but my stomach was in control this morning. I opened the fridge and peered in. My usual bowl of cereal was out. The idea of another morning like the one before made me gag. I pushed the meager contents of the shelves around, irritated that I hadn't thought to make a store trip at some point during my breakdown the day before. I was just about to give up and root around in the freezer when I remembered the hamburger meat in the drawer at the bottom of the fridge. It sat by itself in the drawer labeled “meat”, rolling around in its plastic tube. I grabbed it and shut the drawer quietly, the snoring still drifting down the hall.
This was a dilemma. I needed to cook the meat on the stove, but the sizzling would be too loud, and the smell of cooking meat might very well wake the man down the hall, who loved nothing more than a slightly undercooked burger to go along with his evening beers. Somehow I doubted he wouldn't be a little confused at the sight of my cooking up burgers at 6 in the morning. I could head down to the nearest fast food place and order some sausage or something, but the tube of hamburger meat in my hand was so much more convenient. I already knew what I was going to do before the thought had fully formed in my mind. I grabbed some scissors from their place by the knife stand and cut open the top of the tube, squeezing some of the meat out in the process. The smell of it hit me like a punch to the gut. It smelled even better than the burger I had devoured hours before. I put the scissors back on the counter and held the now misshapen tube up to my face. It smelled so good, I was literally salivating. My mind went on autopilot and I squeezed a big chunk of the raw meat into my mouth, a quiet moan escaping me as it hit my tongue. I swallowed the first chunk whole and proceeded to squeeze the rest of the meat out like a tube of toothpaste, starting at the bottom so I didn't miss a bite. It was so much better than the burger. It was infinitely better than the mysterious meatloaf. It was the most amazing thing I had ever tasted. When it was all gone, and I was left licking the inside of the wrapper, my mind kicked back in and I looked down at my hands in horror. I felt like I should be gagging, or throwing up, but the hunger had receded back to its dull ache, and I still had the wonderful taste in my mouth.
Oh god. What was happening to me?
By the time I had showered and gotten ready for another strange day at school, I was thoroughly freaked out. It was one thing to be a carnivore, it was quite another to start eating raw hamburger meat straight from the package. Besides the ick factor, who knew what kind of crazy disease I could get from it. Of course, the gaping holes in my stomach hadn't managed to kill me, so what was a little mad cow after that? I tried to get my composure back by the time Jason's Camry screeched to a halt in front of my apartment, his music blaring. He flashed me a grin as I locked the door. It looked like he had managed to get some sleep as well. The circles under his eyes were less noticeable and his hair was back to it unruly but clean state. I took a deep breath and put my calm face on for him. If we were right, the school day would start out with the announcement of a dead student, so my composure only had to hold out until advisory.
Our ride to school was tense, at least on my part, although Jason's happy demeanor was a bit strained around the edges. He was trying to be himself, but we were still catching up to the craziness around us. We both knew this day was going to start out bad and go downhill from there. And we were both probably holding out a shred of hope that we were wrong about Kim. I guess neither of us were as jaded as we sometimes put on. By the time we got to the parking lot, Jason's music was filling the silence between us. He shut off the engine and hesitated, turning to look at me.
“It'll be okay,” he said, reaching up to pull on my still damp from the shower ponytail.
“You don't know that,” I replied with a hint of a smile.
That was Jason, ever the optimist, even if it fell flat.
He sighed and nodded, but we both got out of the car and fell into the stream of students laughing and yelling as another school day began.
The last bit of hope I had for this to all be a bad dream died as soon as the bell signaling the start of advisory rang out shrilly. The seat behind me stayed stubbornly empty, the only absent student standing out glaringly. My teacher, Mrs. Russo, a constantly worn out woman in her late fifties, was sitting behind the desk, looking even more tired than usual. Her gray hair was up in its usual bun, the very picture of a schoolmarm. She always wore some combination of black and white, and today was no different. A white button up shirt over a long black wool skirt, sensible shoes peeking out beneath the hem when she got up and stepped out from behind the gleaming wooden desktop.
She waited for a moment as the class grew quiet, the only sound left behind was the constant shuffling of papers that would forever make me think of my days in high school. She was frowning, deeper than usual, and I could feel my stomach drop, the hunger overridden by a sense of panic.
“I have some troubling news today. It seems that yesterday one of our students, Kim Beally, passed away.” She said.
My first thought was that her method was just pulling the bandaid right off, but really, how else do you make that announcement? None of us even suspected that we weren't invincible at this point in our lives. The room grew loud again as the students around me started asking questions, but it was just a buzz in the back of my mind. All I could think see was the scene from the day before, ambulance waiting for a teenage girl who wouldn't ever warrant a 911 call again.
For the first time since this whole thing started, I went through a different scenario in my head. One where I wasn't walking and talking, but I had died there in that alley like I probably should have. How would everyone have reacted to an announcement of my own death. How would my father have reacted? I tried to believe he would get through it, that he would survive and come out stronger on the other side, but that wasn't the truth. He would be alone, and he would never stay above water. I knew Jason would have made it, but I think his happy spirit might have died that day. If it hadn't a little already.
Someone was asking what happened, but Mrs. Russo didn't have any information. All she could tell us was that there were grief counselors on campus, and we weren't in this alone. She had no idea. The rest of advisory passed around me, but my head was in a fog. I almost didn't notice when the bell rang, but the commotion around me signaled the class change. The students were subdued, but not completely. By the end of the day, everything would be back to normal. The attention span of a teenager couldn't even hold onto something this huge.
It was toward the end of third period when I finally came out of my haze. My wake-up call was precipitated by Matt Johnson, a sophomore whom I only knew in passing. I could remember his last name because he was a student aide, and every time he walked into my math class, Mr. Temple greeted him with “Mr. Johnson, back so soon”. As if he showed up in the class for his own enjoyment. I would never understand some of my teachers. Even if I were a teacher myself, most likely.
Matt knocked on the doorframe and walked up to the big teacher's desk that sat facing the class at the front of the room, crammed into too small a space next to an antiquated slide projector.
“Mr. Johnson, back again,” Mr. Temple said, pushing his glasses up on his nose.
Matt smiled at him, a pained smile that probably had something to do with the usual greeting, and glanced at my face before handing a pink slip of paper to my waiting teacher.
Oh crap.
He glanced at me again as he sped out of the room, off to another of the principal's duties, no doubt. There was a never ending list of things for office aides to do, which was one reason I never signed up to be one. I also needed to cram as many required courses into my schoolwork as possible, but I had managed to fit in one or two blow-off classes as well.
I turned my gaze to my teacher, who glanced at the note and then looked up, catching my eyes. He nodded slightly at me, probably trying to keep from disturbing the students around me who were, for the most part, working on their homework for the last fifteen minutes of class, although a few were watching with mild curiosity.
I gathered my notebook and textbook together and stuffed them into my bag, taking my time. Whatever the pink note was, it was from the principal, and that was never a good thing, in my experience. I had never personally been called to his office, but I had a wealth of knowledge passed on to me by my best friend, who had a tendency to get himself into sticky situations, which he always managed to get out of mostly unharmed. His charisma and ability to give a straight-faced lie were his most valuable assets.
Mr. Temple handed the pass to me and turned back to the class, apparently dismissing me. The trek to the Principal's office was a silent one. The halls were empty and silent, except for the muted sounds of lectures and discussions going on behind a few doors. In a couple of days, the sounds would multiply as everyone got revved up for summer vacation. Finals were over, but the freshman, sophomores, and juniors were still immersed in the learning. The seniors had checked out mentally the second their last finals ended. Some had checked out physically as well, something I was looking forward to doing a year from now.
I entered the outer administrative office and gave my pass to the secretary sitting behind the reception desk. She glanced at it and hit a button on her phone, as I stood awkwardly, waiting for instructions. There was something about this office that made me feel like I was in trouble, even though I was quite certain I hadn't done anything to warrant it. The secretary didn't help, she was completely ignoring me, typing away on her computer, her fingernails clacking on the keys. Just as I was wondering if it would be better to sit down, the Principal's office door opened and I was summoned inside.
Our Principal, Mr. Summerfield, was a short man in his mid forties who managed to radiate authority simply with his presence. He always wore perfectly pressed suits, today it was black with a silver tie and a crisp white button up shirt. He could be seen walking the halls between classes, keeping an eye out for trouble while conversing with the teachers, who all seemed just as intimidated by him as the students. He had a habit of turning up at the right moment and place when someone was about to break some sacred school rule, which made the students go the extra mile to cause problems. Or, as time went on and his reputation for ball-busting grew, simply not cause trouble while on school grounds.
I entered the office and started to get even more nervous than I had been while standing uncomfortably outside. Mr. Summerfield moved behind his desk but stayed standing. Two men who had been sitting in chairs facing him stood up as I closed the door. They were wearing suits, but theirs didn't look like they just came from the dry cleaners, and they both had an extra adornment hanging out of their pockets.
Police badges.
I resisted the urge to dramatically gulp, instead choosing to concentrate all of my efforts on appearing cautiously curious. As a last resort, I would be pulling the “I'm only 16” card and requesting my father be present for anything they wanted to talk to me about. That anything was obviously Kim. Unless something else crazy had happened while I wasn't paying attention.
“Tricia,” Mr. Summerfield began, breaking the tension that was building up around us, “these two gentlemen are here from the police department and they wanted to ask you some questions.”
I nodded, taking the lone seat on the right as they sat in the left two seats. Once we were settled, Mr. Summerfield joined us, behind his desk, looking as imposing as ever.
“You aren't in trouble, we just need some information,” the one closest to me said, a small reassuring smile on his face.
I wasn't reassured, but I tried not to let on. He was younger than his partner, and he seemed to be playing the good guy, if this was a good guy/ bad guy scenario. He pulled out a small pad of paper and pen from his inside jacket pocket and gave me another smile. His partner was watching me, and when he smiled as well, I actually managed to relax a bit. A good guy/ good guy team-up seemed much more doable.
“I'll be acting as your adult supervision for the moment,” Mr. Summerfield told me, glancing at the policemen as they nodded their agreement. “If there's anything you feel uncomfortable with, let me know. We can contact your parents if you would like for us to at any time.”
I nodded again, ignoring the Principal's mistake. He hadn't done his homework on my parent situation, which hopefully meant he wasn't that concerned, rather than meaning they just sprung this on him and he hadn't had time to do his job. If they wanted to play this friendly, I could too.
“My name is Detective Jacoby, and this is Detective Wills,” the younger cop told me, indicating his partner, who would apparently be the silent half in this meeting. “We had some questions about your whereabouts two days ago.”
So it was about Kim. And they apparently knew something I didn't. That was unsettling, to say the least.
“I was at school for most of the day,” I replied, wondering how specific I would have to be, with my huge memory gap looming over me like a storm cloud.
Detective Jacoby scribbled some notes in his pad while nodding, “and after that, where did you go?”
I shifted in my seat, “I went home. I didn't have work, so I decided to stay in.”
Another nod and some more scribbling. I could feel Detective Wills watching me, but he had yet to speak.
“Do you know Martin Dreyer?” Detective Wills asked, his voice gruff and his eyes still scrutinizing.
Oh no.
I looked him in the eye, “he's the night manager of the convenience store by my apartment.”
How could I have forgotten about that? I saw him on my mad dash home, more worried about my missing memories than what was going on around me.
Detective Jacoby was frowning now, flipping through his notepad, every page filled with his messy scrawl. He finally settled on a page near the front, and looked up at me.
“Martin Dreyer seems to remember you walking by his store two nights ago, in too much of a hurry to stop in and say hi.”
I looked over at Principal Summerfield, but he was just watching the conversation patiently, no emotion showing on his face. No help there. I silently apologized to Marty as I started in on the denial phase of my interrogation.
“He must have been thinking of another night.”
“Maybe,” Jacoby replied.
He was looking a lot less friendly now, and his partner was still trying to dissect me with his eyes.
Wills adjusted his wrinkled brown tie and cleared his throat. “This may be hard to talk about, under the circumstances, but how well did you know Kim Beally?”
I schooled my face to show sadness, masking my relief that they were letting the Marty thing go for now. “We were friendly. She sat by me in advisory. I helped her with some of her classes.”
Jacoby nodded and reached down into a bag that was lying by his chair. He pulled out a large plastic bag containing some papers. He handed it to me and waited as I looked the papers over.
One piece of the puzzle fell into place.
“Do you recognize that?” Jacoby asked, indicating the papers with a nod of his head.
I nodded right back, “these are some of my notes from math. I loaned them to Kim a few days ago.”
The hitch in my voice was real. What had happened to Kim? Did I have something to do with her death? Was this just a coincidence? I didn't even remember lending her my notes, but I must have given them to her that night. Maybe I had gone to her apartment to help her study. It wasn't unheard of, just because I had never been there before. If she had offered to pay me for some tutoring, I would have jumped at the opportunity.
Jacoby was writing again. When he was finished, he held his hand out and took the papers back from me. He packed them back in the bag and looked over at the Principal, who was still sitting behind his desk, observing.
“Okay, Tricia, we're done here. Thanks for talking with us.”
I stood up, grabbing my bag from the floor, and the three men followed suit.
“We might be in touch with you again. Please try to keep this conversation to yourself, we don't need to cause any more grief to the student body.”
I nodded, numbly, no longer paying attention. My mind was racing. I needed to talk to Jason.
Principal Summerfield looked at the clock, then at me, “go ahead and go to the cafeteria,” he said, handing me a pink pass from his desk, “and talk to the counselor if you feel the need today, she's available anytime.”
“Thank you,” I said, leaving the three men behind and heading off to an early lunch.
Thoughts were whirling through my mind as I took a seat at our usual table. My stomach was screaming at me again, but I was doing my best to ignore it. The solution seemed to be coming clean with the cops, but how could I? I'd end up as a science experiment or something.
Before I could get too caught up in that line of thinking, my best friend dropped down into the seat next to me. I gave a startled jump and frowned at him. He shot me a half smile of apology.
“So, we were right,” he said, rubbing a hand over his tired looking face.
“Yeah,” I replied.
We sat in silence as the room filled up with noise around us. It looked like the mourning didn't even make it to lunch. I was trying to think of a way to start the inevitable conversation about how Kim's death was involved with my problem, but I was interrupted by the perky voice of my cheerleading acquaintance.
“Oh my god, Tricia,” Marci said, her voice brimming with overdramatic concern, “I heard about those cops.”
Fantastic. It looked like my conversation decided to start itself.
Jason was looking between us, confused. I gave him a weak smile that probably came out like a wince, and nodded to Marci.
“Yeah, they were just asking some questions.”
“About Kim,” Marci asked, suddenly more perceptive than I would have given her credit for.
It looked like she could at least put two and two together and get four.
“I'm not supposed to talk about it,” I replied, flashing Jason a look that I hoped added the “until later”. “I'm gonna get lunch.” I said, heading off toward the lunch line before they had a chance for a comeback question.
I made a beeline straight for the hamburgers, cutting past several conversations that included the word “Kim” in them on the way. I grabbed two burgers and sat them on my tray with a “thunk”. I wondered idly what they would say if I asked for a discount for not buying the buns. I could claim I was on a no carb diet. Maybe only keeping meat down would get me into supermodel shape.
I paid for the full burgers and snaked my way through the long crowded tables back to our more secluded table at the back of the room. Jason had pulled out a bag lunch, which I slipped up on again this morning, and started in on his massive amounts of food. Marci had, thankfully, headed off to the lunch line herself, so I took the opportunity to clue him in on the craziness of my morning.
“The cops suspect me,” I started.
Jason looked up sharply, half eaten sandwich forgotten in his hand. A tomato fell to the table with a wet plop, which we both ignored.
“Okay, maybe not the best opening line,” I said, a little sheepishly.
“What do you mean, they suspect you? Suspect you of what?”
“You know what. It's all anyone can talk about.”
“Nobody knows how Kim died.”
It would have been more convincing if he hadn't immediately jumped to the topic.
“I'm guessing she was murdered.”
Jason put his sandwich down. If he had lost his appetite, I knew it was serious. He looked around us, paranoid, and leaned in to talk to me.
“They think you murdered her?”
I nodded, peeling one of the top buns into grease soaked pieces as I gathered my thoughts.
I looked up at him, his blue eyes wide, my fear reflected in them. This was a twist we didn't need right now.
I took a deep breath and forced myself to stop fidgeting. “The night manager at the convenience store saw me when I was on my way home.”
Jason leaned back, and I took that moment to eat one of the overcooked hamburger patties. It tasted wonderful, which just proved to me, once again, how messed up I was. I forced myself to eat at a normal pace, when I was dying to cram it into my mouth. My stomach gurgled impatiently.
Jason sat silently, staring at a point past my shoulder.
“This is so screwed,” he finally said, as I finished the first patty.
“Don't I know it.”
We ate the rest of our lunches in silence. He managed to finish his sandwich, but everything else lay untouched. I ordinarily would have taken his bag of Doritos from him, but Doritos were out of my diet for good. They used to be my favorite snack, and now just the thought of them made me sick. When he finally gave in to defeat and packed his remaining lunch back into the paper bag, I looked around us, trying to place just what was different.
“Where's Marci?” I asked, noticing she had never returned from the lunch line
Jason grinned at me. “She does have other friends.”
My discomfort around his peppiest acquaintance did not go unnoticed.
I grinned back, “but she loves you most of all.”
He rolled his eyes, which made me grin wider. Even with looming catastrophe, we could still joke around. It would probably keep me from going crazy.
The bell rang shrilly, indicating the end of lunch.
“I'll take you home after school. Meet me at my car.” Jason said, gathering his things together.
“I have to work.”
“I think you can probably call in 'my classmate died' just this once.”
I gave him a look. Joking around about Kim's death wasn't something I was ready for. Count on Jason to push it.
He held his hands up in defeat. “Seriously, just call in sick or something.”
I nodded and gathered my own bag, tossing our trash in a nearby trashcan and heading in the opposite direction from him, to chemistry.
The chemistry classrooms were some of the only classes in the back of the school, two rooms with large windows that actually opened, as opposed to the smaller fixed windows in the rest of the school. I assumed it was for safety purposes, though we had yet to test that theory. I had heard rumor of some accidental explosions in previous years, but I didn't know how many of them, if any, were true. I sometimes sat in class and daydreamed about having to climb through the big windows to escape a huge inferno. But only on my bad days.
As I was heading down the hallway that led from the cafeteria to the small back section of the school, I saw a flash of red hair disappear around the corner ahead of me. My memory was poking at me again. I sped up, dodging around a few students from the art classes that took up the rest of the back classrooms. I turned the corner, but the person, whoever it was, was gone. The only thing in this direction was the back exit that led out into the grassy area where the stoners went when they weren't sleeping through class. I had about seven minutes left to get to class, since I hadn't had to swing by my locker. That probably gave me enough time to investigate and still make it back, if I sprinted. I ran down the hall, ignoring the art teacher shouting at me to slow down, and burst through the glass double doors, looking around frantically for another flash of red. I saw it across the grassy area, disappearing behind an old unused portable from earlier in the year, when the school was still under construction. Hitching my bag up on my shoulder, I followed at a slower pace, internally questioning why this was so important to me. I was pretty sure it was the same person I had seen the night before, and I couldn't remember any students having long, bright red hair, but for all I knew, I was stalking some poor new student who was just lost looking for their next class.
The throbbing in the back of my head disagreed. I reached the portable and made my way around. I was pretty sure it was surrounded on the backside by the woods that covered that entire side of the school. I had never had a class in the portables, but they had expanded the school out as far as they could this way, the remainder was a thick forest.
I peeked my head around the side, leaning back against the corrugated light brown wall, which may have actually been made out of plastic, and peered out at the back of the structure. No red hair. I let out my breath and stepped around the corner, scanning the entire area. Something on the ground a little ways into the tangled trees caught my eye. At first I thought someone had lost some shoes, until I realized that they were connected to something. A human something. I put my bag down, dread washing over me. I made my way slowly toward the treeline, the red haired stranger forgotten. The gravel surrounding the portable crunched under my sneakers, joined only by one lonely bird talking somewhere deeper in the forest. I kept my eyes focused on the shape that lay amongst the fallen branches and thick weeds that had grown up just beyond the school property line.
When I was about five feet away, I knew exactly what I was looking at. A pair of black mary janes, one with a broken strap, and a short pleated skirt, the orange and white covered by dirt in some places and gleaming in others. One pale arm lay out to the side, the hand splayed, a silver ring glinting in the stray sunlight that filtered through as the wind blew the leaves around. Her face was obscured by a riot of dark curls, flattened down at the bottom where they lay amongst a dark patch in the dirt. I moved closer, and the wind changed again, blowing past the body and up into my face.
I almost fell over. The smell was like the hamburger patties I had just devoured times a million. Before I knew what I was doing, I had kneeled down right next to the dark patch of dirt. It was dark because it was wet. As I leaned over, I put my right hand in the middle of the wet patch and lifted it up again. I held it up to my face, smelling it. It was covered in red liquid and crumbles of dirt. It smelled amazing. I was holding it up to my mouth when the wind blew a harder gust and the riot of dark curls shifted, blowing towards me and revealing a bloody face. A bloody face that I knew well. I saw it every day at lunch. Today I had only seen it for a few minutes.
When I saw Marci's lifeless eyes, I fell backward, pulling myself frantically away, the gravel eating at my palms.
Oh god. I had just tried to taste my dead friend's blood. And I still wanted to. I could smell it even stronger now, covering my right hand and pooled all around me.
My breaths were so loud in my ears, I didn't hear the footsteps behind me. A shadow fell over me and I shouted in surprise, pulling myself back even more and falling to my side.
“It's okay,” the figure said, walking into my frame of vision slowly, her hands raised in a nonthreatening gesture.
All I could do was stare. This was the phantom I had been chasing all over town. Her red hair was long and bright, framing a pale pretty face that was full of concern. Her eyes were green like mine, but the difference between the two shades was striking. Where my every feature was a dark muddled version of itself, dirty blonde and slightly hazel, hers were all clear and vibrant.
She crouched down in front of me, never taking her eyes off of mine. The moment her face blocked Marci's lifeless body from view, I felt a calm come over me. If it wasn't there, maybe it would go away. I was well practiced in sticking my head in the sand by now.
“Hey,” she said, her voice low but breathy, like she was talking to a wild animal, trying to soothe it into not attacking her.
I wasn't going to attack her. I wasn't going to do anything right now, except relearn how to breathe. The smell of the blood was still rich in the air, but I forced myself to breathe through my mouth and it got a little better.
She was still frowning, studying my face. “I know you didn't do this.” she said.
I nodded. I was getting myself under control, but still too freaked out to speak.
“I can take care of it. You need to get back to class so no one comes looking for you.”
“Why would they come looking for me?” I asked.
She gave me a small sympathetic smile. “The police have been watching you.”
She glanced behind herself, probably at Marci, and looked back at me. When she stood up, I almost grabbed her to pull her back down. Marci's body appeared before me again, looking as broken and dead as before.
The redheaded woman pulled her black hoodie off and held it in front of me. “Here, clean yourself up.”
I took my eyes off of Marci and grabbed the jacket, sitting up to wipe my bloody hand off. Once it was clean, I stood up and handed the jacket back to her.
“Who are you?” I asked.
It had just occurred to me that I was trusting this woman whom I had never met with something that could potentially ruin my life.
“I'm someone you can trust,” she replied, reading my mind.
Well then. I didn't really see any other option. The second bell was about to ring and I had to make an effort to look as innocent as I actually was. I nodded my thanks and grabbed my bag, running back to the school building. It was time to go with the punches. Chemistry class was what I would focus on now.

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