Sum of Us

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Ch. 50: Rhys

Weeks of not being able to get dressed without help, leaving the brunt of Harper’s care and keeping to Poppy, index fingers-only piano playing, voice memo songwriting, and doing everything at a snail’s pace has been…

I hate it. I HATE IT. It’s driving me crazy. If I could get my hands on something, I’d smash it. I’d smash it into oblivion and probably end up back in these stupid things.

I’m tired of being caged. I’m sick of taking things slow. The across the board coddling is driving me crazy – excluding Harper and Poppy; I like their help. Helping is Harp’s favorite hobby and Pop’s doing a standup job loving me in sickness by making references I’ll enjoy to get my mind off of what she or someone else is doing to nurse me back to health.

Everyone else needs to back off and leave me to heal. I’ll do it. I’ve been following the doctor’s orders to a T. Even though it means I can’t have a hands-on role in the early days of Harper’s potty training.

Her smartypants brain betrayed her. Harper started displaying readiness signs that would be irresponsible for Poppy and me to ignore a couple of weeks ago. The most noticeable one is retreating to a private place when she realizes she needs to use her diaper and tells us she needs a new one as soon as she has finished taking care of business.

Poppy and I let Harper pick out her toilet seat attachment. She didn’t know what it was at the time of choosing. We told her we needed help finding something pretty to sit on. Predictably, she chose a purple one with flowers and Paw Patrol characters on it. Her asking if we could share it with her was the perfect Segway to the real reason we were buying it. Harper was stoked when she learned that it is all hers. The introduction to the sticker reward system Chris suggested was a hit too.

It was going so well that I thought it would be okay to tell her the whole truth.

Big mistake. Big. HUGE.

The use of the word “toilet” while inside a bathroom set off the explosion of emotion. She sobbed herself to the shade of a cherry tomato. The Oasis trick didn’t work. Neither did her lullaby. The waterworks flowed at high pressure until she lost her battle against exhaustion, and her voice was hoarse for the rest of the day when she woke up.

Comforting her during her meltdown and giving her a week-long break from all potty-training talk and attempts was how Pop and I handled it. We used the time-out to come up with a revised game plan.

The toilet is called a “totty” now. Still motivated by stickers, Harper lets us when she needs to visit it. We have her close her eyes until she’s on the totty. Poppy takes care of everything that goes into putting her on it. A song about handwashing that Harper and I wrote together is sang while they wash their hands. She gets to wear her sticker during the day, giving her the chance to share her accomplishments with her friends; she looks forward to it. The stickers get taped into her “totty” journal just before bath time each night. Counting them every morning has been incorporated into her education session with Poppy. Harp’s always enjoyed “earnin’ time’, but the totty counting has injected more enthusiasm (which is somehow possible).

It’s not all smooth sailing, though. Flushing isn’t included in her bathroom lessons just yet. I’m still too traumatized to attempt to introduce it. Harp sometimes gets overexcited about earning her sticker and opens her eyes before she’s been put on the toilet. She sees it, a tantrum ensues, and Pop and I have to wait it out without showing fear or letting her regress.

Only having use of six fingers and limited wrist range couldn’t have come at a worse time. All I can do to help Poppy is talk to Harper and hope she listens. Whether or not she does is a coin toss. She’s down for anything half the time. The other, she’s following her random whims wherever they take her – at the rate she’s going, Harp’s going to wind up on the moon one of these days.

As the provider of our little weirdo’s impulsive hyperactivity, it’s unfair that Poppy’s been the only one running after her for weeks. I’m pretty much useless. Pop will never admit it, but I am. I’ve been on my best behavior to make her life easier.

Still, being relegated to a spectator of my life blows.

Most of the time.

~

“Op up, Daddy.” Seated on my leg, Harper loads up one of her spoons with oatmeal.

I do as she says.

“Zoop de zoop.” She makes her version of airplane noises as she flies the utensil into my mouth.

“Yummy?” Harp asks as I’m chewing.

I nod.

“Yay!” She gleefully scoops more oatmeal for me.

“Quiet-time voice, Lovebug. People are still sleeping.” Poppy gently reminds her from the booth seat across from us.

Aside from the bus driver, we’re the only ones awake.

“I sowy.” She whispers at normal conversation volume.

“You forgot. It’s okay. Just remember for next time.” Pop smiles to put our empath at ease.

The brim of Harp’s backward hat hits my shoulder as she nods. I place my hand on top of it to keep it from falling off.

She’s being wearing her Smalls hat every day since my birthday. It has to be on her head first thing in the morning and she complains whenever she has to take it off.

Chris and Poppy say Harper’s going through a phase.

I need them to be wrong.

At a lower volume, Harper continues to make robot-sounding airplane noises and both of us sing as she feeds me.

“Do you want to wear jeans or are you content wearing sweatpants until the show?” Pop asks me as she dresses Harper in our bus bedroom.

“Sweats.”

“Helping you swap them out isn’t—”

“Mama, I gots go to the totty.” Harper tugs on her earlobe as she notifies Poppy of her potty needs.

“Wait with Daddy while I get it ready for you. I’ll be super-duper quick.” Pop’s already on her way out the door.

I sit on the bed and Harper immediately climbs into my lap.

“I like your bye-bye clothes.” I put my arms around her.

“iretuck real oud. Pup real bwave. Wanna be pup when I big.” She points to the illustration of a firetruck and firefighter hat-sporting dalmatian her shirt.

“Do you want be a puppy or brave like a puppy?”

“I pup. Be real bwave.”

“Will you still be a doctor?”

“Uh-huh, I help. Fwiends gets all etter and we pway big usic time.”

She swats at the hair hanging over her left ear with the back of her hand. To solve her problem permanently, I try to tuck her hair behind her ear.

“Noooo.” She scrunches her face and turns her head.

“I’m not going to take your hat. It’s time to tame your mane.”

“No-no, Daddy. No-no.” Her pouting face remains.

I drop the matter. “Should I wear a hat today?”

“Oh, yes. Hats pwetty.”

“Will you help me pick it out?”

“Uh-huh,” she says with a bright smile.

“Okay, Lovebug, the totty is ready for you. Do you still need to visit it?” Pop returns promptly as promised.

“Yes.” Knowing the drill, Harper lifts her arms for easy pick-up and closes her eyes.

Pop praises her for holding it as she carries her to the bathroom.

Harper’s potty break gives me time to put on my shoes by myself and struggle-tie them.

A pinky, index finger, and thumb are usable on one hand. Only my thumb, index and middle fingers are functional on the other. The splinted fingers get in the way. My mouth has been introduced to my shoe tying process. I’d like to thank my flexibility for making it possible. Without it, I’d be doomed.

“I gets a ticker, Daddy.” Harper announces upon her arrival.

I clap for her. “Great job! I knew you had it in you.”

She’s beaming as she claps for the sake of clapping.

Pop and I continue to shower her with praise as she picks out her sticker and has it applied to her shirt.

“Did you break the rules or tie your shoes like a chimp?” Poppy waits until Harp is showing off her sticker to Rue to ask me.

“Door number two. I’m still a good boy.”

“A true good boy wouldn’t put his mouth on fabric that’s been dragged through unthinkable things.”

“I said good, not perfect.”

“Stubborn is what you are.”

“You only have to put up with it four more days.”

“I don’t have plans to breakup with you on splint ditch day. Are you trying to tell me something I don’t want to hear?”

Still seated, I open my arms to prompt her to walk into them. She does but remains on her feet. Putting my arms around her legs and tilting my head up to look at her is fine by me.

I sigh and do my best to look remorseful. “I hate to do this to you, babe, but you’re stuck with me.”

“Ugh, for how long?” She fights a smile.

“Forever. If my undying love falls through, I’ve got an irresistible insurance policy. She’ll talk me up until you cave.”

“She would.”

“Yeah, ’cause she’s awesome. Name one other kid who became a doctor at the tender age of two and wants to be a courageous performing artist puppy when they grow up. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.”

Poppy cranes her neck down and cups my face in her hands. “You’re ridiculous.” She breathes against my lips after kissing me.

“I can’t take all the credit. I mostly paraphrased what she said.”

“Oh, no. Your plan’s already working.”

“Good.” I kiss her cheek. “Now that we’ve got that settled, let’s play.”

“Learning time first. She slept in today. We’re a little off schedule.”

“Watching that is still fun for me. Have at it. Go bestow your wisdom on our cool kid.”

She shakes her head at me with a smirk playing on her lips.

Harper and her bag of educational supplies are collected and the three of us go to the lounge area at the front of the bus.

From the couch I used to sleep on, I observe as Harp and Poppy read a book together. Harper is seated in the nest created by Pop’s folded legs. She points out the words Poppy asks her to locate within the passages she reads. Her reward for getting all the words right is turning the page. Pop always lets her retry on the rare occasions she guesses incorrectly and breaks down the word by each letter to help her recognize it next time.

Harper enjoys learning time because Poppy makes a game of it. It’s out of character for her to start whining and being defiant halfway through the lesson, but that’s exactly what she does. And she earns herself a 2-minute time out by snatching the flashcard Poppy was displaying out of her hand, accidentally tearing it in the process, and throwing it across the room.

She has a Harper-sized timeout chair. We decorated together. It’s glittery, purple, covered in her handprints, and has her name on the back. She’s very proud her masterpiece, despite its use.

“Your time’s up.” I crouch down in front of Harper when the alarm on Poppy’s phone goes off, using on my legs. “Thank you for listening and staying in your chair. You broke one of your flashcards and hurt Mama’s feelings. Do you have anything you want to say?”

“Sowy, Mama. I help all etter.” She rubs her eye with the back of her hand.

“There’s no need to start crying, Lovebug. I accept your apology and would love your help taping the card back together.” Poppy reassures with concern.

“I no sad.”

“Are you sleepy?” I ask.

Harper shakes her head. A yawn undermines her answer.

“May I have a hug?” Poppy kneels and opens her arms.

Harper walks right into her trap.

“How about we do some koala cuddles? We can get nice and cozy and visit Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.”

“Yes, pweeze.” Harper assumes the position, wrapping her arms around Poppy’s neck and doing the same with her legs around Pop’s waist once she is standing.

Harp’s head falls to Poppy’s shoulder early into our journey to the back bedroom.

I’m actually capable of setting up Harper’s tablet without a struggle. Palm only transporting and index finger poking are my specialties now.

Musical movies or interactive shows are out of the question when trying to coax Harper to surrender to sleep. Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood is the safest choice. It’s educational, she likes the characters (especially Daniel Tiger), and Mr. Roger’s voice and demeaner are soothing and calm.

The tablet case is folded into stand mode and put on the nightstand, making it possible for Harper to watch her show while pretending to be a joey. And I throw Harper’s favorite blanket over them. I’m good at haphazardly throwing things too.

Unable to do any of the other things I busy myself with during bus rides, I opt into “sleepytime”. Harper screaming bloody murder brings my restful nap to an end.

“Shhhh. Shhhh. I know, baby. I know it hurts.” Poppy is kneeling on the ground, cradling our blubbering baby with one arm as she searches through one of Harper’s bags with the other.

“What’s going on?” I push off the bed.

“Just a second.” She brushes me off as she continues her search.

“How can I help?”

“I’ve got it.”

“Let me—”

“You’re hurt. She’s sick. There’s one me. Stay put!” She shifts to sit on the ground with Harper in one arm and her thermometer in the other.

Poppy manually turns Harper’s head and inserts the ear thermometer into its designated place. Harper thrashes and tries to squirm away the entire time. All I can do is watch the struggle and feel the ache of my inadequacy.

The frantic beeping of the device tells us she has a fever before the digital screen is read.

“100.4 degrees.” Poppy reads aloud and trades the thermometer for a bottle of a liquid pain-reliving fever reducer.

Harper fights having the oral administration syringe put into her mouth harder than she did the thermometer. As soon as she has the medication swallowed, she buries her face in Poppy’s neck to shield herself from being subjected to more of it.

“You’re going to feel better soon, Lovebug.” Poppy comforts her with a kiss and hug.

“What’s going on?” I timidly ask.

Pop opens her eyes and lifts them to mine. Remorse is written all over her face.

“Probably an ear infection. I’m sorry. I swear I’m done biting.”

“I got in the way of a mama bear fending for her cub. I’m lucky to still be in one piece.”

“She’s your cub too. You’re just as worried about her.” Once she is on her feet and has steadied herself using the wall, she sits on the bed beside me and moves Harper from her chest to mine.

Harp’s momentary bout of fussiness from being separated from Poppy comes to an end when she calms down enough to realize I’m the one holding her.

“How long has she been sick?” I rearrange Harper as best I can to make sure she’s as comfortable as possible.

“I asked her if she felt icky when she woke up late. She said she wanted to play. She’s not up for playing when she’s under the weather, so I chalked up the extra sleeping to growing pains. I noticed she felt warm and her cheeks were flushed during her nap. I accidently bumped her left ear while removing her hat to take her temperature. The whole bus heard her reaction.” She rubs Harper’s back as she talks.

Harp’s face remains hidden in the crook of my neck and she’s covering her offending ear with her hand.

I hug Harper a little tighter. “She’s getting looked at as soon as we get to the hotel.”

“Who should I call?”

“Taylor.”

“I’ll talk to him after changing her into her jammies.” Poppy steadies herself with the wall as she stands.

“She only needs pants and socks. She likes her shirt.”

Nothing makes you feel more helpless than your seeing your child in pain and being unable to spare them from it.

The medication’s activation doesn’t return Harper to normal. She’s talking less (only when we ask her questions). Playing and exploring are traded in for lounging and napping. Requests to walk instead of being carried go unsaid. She doesn’t tell the doctor she’s a “docker” too when he introduces himself. Harper and helping are synonymous yet she doesn’t ask to assist Dr. Cooper. Most alarming of all, she hasn’t sung or hummed a single note in hours.

It’s breaking my heart to see her like this. What’s worse is she does have an ear infection; it’s a virus, which means all we can do is keep her comfortable until it fades away.

Harper is dwarfed by the king-sized bed she is sleeping in the middle of, cuddling with her best friend Rue. I’m laying beside here, on top of the comforter, running my fingers through her hair, trying my best to do it the way Poppy does whenever she’s trying to make us relax.

“When did she get so small?” I don’t remove my eyes from Harp as I speak to Pop, who’s unpacking Harper’s comfort items, most of which are stuffed animals.

“She’s bigger than ever. You’re looking at a larger than life person at their weakest. It’s hard to look at when you love them, and it guts you when they’re your baby.”

“As soon as she’s healthy, she’s going straight to the timeout chair for hurting our feelings.”

“You should redact that decree, my love. You’re looking at 11 times as many minutes as her.”

“Will fussing at me again lessen my sentence?”

“I still feel awful about that. You’re vulnerable. The way I lashed out at you was unacceptable. I’m so sorry.” Her tone instantly sobers.

“Relax, I was joking.”

“You’re still bothered, nonetheless. Admit that to me.”

“I mean, yeah, it was a blow to the ego, but it was the right call. I would’ve just gotten in the way. She rightfully got all your attention.”

“I could’ve gone about it nicer.”

“Don’t. In hindsight, I can appreciate your intense mama bearing for all its majestic glory. I’ll be disappointed if I never get to experience it again.”

“That’s masochistic of you, Wilde.”

“I’m into what I’m into. Accept me as I am.”

“I—”

My cellphone vibrates on the nightstand. Poppy collects the phone, tells the caller to hold, sets me up with one of my Bluetooth earbuds, and taps the phone’s screen to resume the call – all without me needing to ask.

She’s a saint.

“Tomorrow’s show won’t be cancelled.” George states without bothering with a greeting.

“Did I ask for it to be?” I whisper for Harper’s sake.

“Not yet, and your daughter having a mild ear infection does not classify as an emergency.”

“She will be just fine, thank you for asking. She loves big music time. She can’t watch the livestream in bed if I don’t perform. I’m going on as planned.”

“Good.”

“Anything else?”

“Band meeting in your suite’s living room in an hour.”

“They all know what’s going on with Harper and that I want to do the show as planned. There’s no reason to have a meeting on our day off.”

“This pertains to the investigation.”

My ears perk up and my spine straightens. “What about it?”

“We’ve gotten far with it and we need to decide the best way to proceed.”

“Poppy, Taylor, and I should be the only ones in the meeting. The stories being told are about our private lives. They’re loosely associated with the band.”

“Yes, but everyone needs to be on the same page.”

“We’ll bring them in after the initial discussion. Has my lawyer been brought up to speed on whatever it is you’ve found?”

“Yes, our—”

“My private one. You know what? Never mind, I’ll make sure he has what he needs. All you need to do is correct the meeting setup.”

My expert-level poking skills are put to use hanging up on him.

“They’ve finally got something?”

“Yeah. Do you mind calling Bill for me?”

She picks up my phone. “I want to be in here just in case Harper wakes up. I’m trusting you and Taylor to behave without my supervision.”

“I will. I’m trying to get out of my hand prisons in four days, but I can’t speak for him. He’s got nothing to lose.”

“I’ll have the timeout chair on standby.”

She connects the call and her lips to my cheek before getting back to making our temporary room homey.

It’s mostly for Harper’s sake, but I’ve benefited from Poppy’s nurturing nesting for months. Hotel rooms and tour stops used to blend into a smoothie of expensive nothingness. The wicker basket of toys, canvas bag of books, and floral quilt Pop brings into all of our rooms aren’t done with me in mind, but the personalization’s been helping with my homesickness for months.

Framed family pictures on the dresser are a recent touch. Harper likes saying good morning and “night-night” to our entire family. They’d hate us if we gave them daily wakeup calls. Chelsea saved us from exile by giving Harp professional photographs of her loved ones – Chels included, of course – for her birthday. They’re in glittery purple frames. Also, not for me, but they lift me up when whenever I see them.

I’ve been off the phone for less than five minutes when Taylor walks into the room with enough balloons to transport Harper to the sky like the house from UP. The helium bouquet standouts are the two silver balloons shaped like the number two.

“Someone’s trying to get off probation.” I whisper-taunt as I drop my earbud on the nightstand beside my phone.

“She’s sick. Here I am, trying to do what I can to ease her pain. This is what a good godfather looks like.” He points to himself.

“Is this how I find out you have a secret triplet? That Harper ended up on a dressing room counter, covered in ranch dressing, on his watch?” Pop rhetorically asks.

“There’s only been one incident while she’s been under my supervision. She didn’t get hurt. I cleaned up the mess and gave her a bath. She was laughing and smiling the whole time. What more do you want from me?”

“Our kid not scaling high furniture and eating condiments while you mess with your phone.” I retort.

“I’ll own up to being distracted, but I shouldn’t be held responsible for curbing traits you gave her. That’s too much to ask of me.”

“He has a point, hon. You’d put ranch dressing on everything if you could and you’re a known thrill-seeker.” Pop looks at me.

“I’ve got to hold off on putting you back in the game. If Harper isn’t back to normal by Chris’s wedding, I can’t take away his flower girl and goddaughter at the same time.”

“Fair enough. The wedding’s only a week away.” Taylor ties Harper’s balloons to the closet door’s handle. “Does the doctor not think she’ll be better by then?”

“He said she’ll most likely be over it in three days, but it never hurts to air on the side of caution.” Poppy answers.

“Does Mom know?”

“She’d already be here if she did. Have you heard about the meeting?” I adjust Harper’s blanket.

“Yes, change the subject. I’ll get upset and my goddaughter needs peace and quiet.”

“New information is a good thing, right?” Poppy inquires.

“The writing’s been on the wall for weeks – Sociopath and/or her PR team did this through a shell company. All the randos were used to skirt consequences. We’re about to walk into a belittling gaslighting session were our “people” try to tell us going after the scapegoats is our only shot at justice, that going after the source is not worth the effort and resources.”

“Oh, fuck that!” I blurt.

Harper stirs. I clap my hand over my mouth. Poppy, Taylor, and I don’t dare move a muscle or breathe a word.

Harp wiggles further into her pillow and hums a sigh of contentment. The coast isn’t deemed clear until her breathing evens out.

“You’re lucky, Wilde. Very lucky.” Poppy growls at me.

“All of that angst is directed at him, correct? I watched my mouth and volume.” Taylor makes himself comfortable in a nearby armchair.

“Affirmative.”

“I want it counted in favor of my reinstatement.” Tay requests.

“Kiss up.” I narrow my eyes at him.

“I know I’ll never measure up to Chris’s childrearing skills. I’m more than fine with that overall, but he’s not replacing me for good as Harper’s godfather. He will if I don’t stay vigilant and fight for my title.”

“The intensity.” Poppy quietly teases.

“She’s the only kid that likes me. I’m holding on tight.”

“There was tile flooring below the counter she climbed on.”

I’m not letting him off the hook that easily.

“She didn’t fall. She came nowhere close. There’s no use trying to use décor details against me. I will win. I have facts on my side.” He removes his phone from his pocket.

~

Taylor being right has never been more infuriating.

George and Trina are here in person and our label-issued legal team is contributing from their Malibu office using the wonders of technology. All of them are smiling to our faces and alternating between legalese and powdered-sugar-sprinkled oversimplifications to sell us on the bare minimum.

I’ve been sporting a neutral expression since this charade started. Taylor’s taking an arm-folded, eyebrow-raised ‘do you honestly expect me to be impressed by this?’ approach.

He did this the first time around, eyed them with his skeptic gaze and saw them for all that they are when we were presented with our record deal. My mouth was agape, and I had stars in my eyes. I accepted their empty promises as gospel, bought into the things he knew were much too good to be true.

The band, as a whole, is in solid shape thanks to him – we own all of our music and we’re signed to the label as a collective, not as a solo artist (me) with accompanying musicians (the rest of the band). Money and rights disputes are what tear apart most bands. He made sure those elements got ruled out of my dream. The stuff I paid for the hard way was done behind his back, during the many times they pulled me aside to “check-in”.

Now, as insincere eyes and over-practiced smiles await my input, I see what I should’ve four years ago and so more.

And I can actually do something about it.

“This is a solid start. Hand over what you have to our attorney. You have his contact information. He’ll take it from here.” My voice is stripped of the emotions they don’t deserve.

“Was there a part of the action plan that you misunderstood? We can cut out the middleman. I’ll explain whichever aspect requires clarity myself.” The head suit forces what’s supposed to be a light-hearted chuckle.

“Is that intended to be jovial? The main character in American Psycho is all that I garnered from the noise you just made. The slicked-back hair’s not doing you any favors either, bud.” Taylor deadpans in response.

With pursed lips, I stifle a laugh. “I understood your presentation. I’m responding to it by saying I want this to be handled as a personal problem, not a job one. There are conflicts of interest on your end. We’ve got the means to tackle these lawsuits on our own now. I feel this is the best way to go about it.”

“We do.” Taylor punctuates.

“The reason we are handling it is that there will be career repercussions if it is not taken care of tactfully. We need to tread lightly. No offense, Rhys, but you are incapable of doing that. I’ve got files upon files of proof.” The attorney Taylor has convinced me is a serial killer, replies.

“No offense is the most pointless phrase. Saying it doesn’t make what you’re saying less offensive. In my opinion, it makes it more so. Just say what you need to say. Explain the context if you sincerely care about the other person’s feelings. It’s not that hard.” Tay buys me time to recover from his insult.

“Yeah, that.” I start back in by agreeing with his very valid point. “To the stuff you said after it, you’ve cleaned up plenty of messes for me. I know that. I get that. I appreciate it, but this situation is a completely different beast. It isn’t about me, not really. It shouldn’t be treated like it is. You won’t hear another peep about this as soon as you hand over the reins. Imagine it: us –”, I gesture between myself and Taylor, “quiet and discreet—”

“Oh, so discreet,” Tay echoes.

“--not asking for things you can’t give,” I continue.

“Won’t, not can’t. Either way, we won’t ask--” He follows suit.

“And whatever comes of it will be our cross to bear. Wash your hands now and we’ll regard it the way that you want us to –”

“That you did the best you could.” We say in unison.

The lawyers mute their end of the teleconference to keep us from hearing their discussion of our proposal.

“Did you rehearse that?” Trina pipes up from behind her laptop.

“No,--” He starts.

“—too busy.” I finish.

I check in with Poppy and Harper via text during our downtime. Harp’s still asleep and Pop proved me with precious picture proof.

“We will relinquish control of this matter if you are willing to sign statements declaring the alternative course of action was your idea and you were in no way coerced by us.” A new attorney addresses us. The one from earlier is off to the side, trying (and failing) to subtly change his hairstyle.

“We’re willing to sign statements, but you have to be open to edits,” Tay replies.

“We’re not putting our signatures on just anything. And I can’t write for four more days, so you have a little time to get everything together.” I add.

“That is also time for you to change your minds.” Trina proposes with optimism.

“I’m not. Not this time.”

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