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Paddling Upstream

By Strickland83

 

Chapter 1 - A Writer Tries to Start Over

I turned off the Interstate and drove into the little town on a bright warm Saturday morning. From the highway the round white water tower was visible, proudly proclaiming the name in big black letters. Once I drove into the town itself, it was apparent the town square was charming. It had the traditional county courthouse (no, not here Ė here they are called parishes) and a dark red brick jail next door. The courthouse was built of a yellow brick and the shape vaguely resembled the U. S. Capitol building, with a large green lawn in front. The jail was square and imposing, though tiny. A large fir tree grew in front of the jail and I had seen photographs of it in winter when the tree was decorated with Christmas lights.

It was a small town, just barely able to be classified as a city. A narrow river ran through it and the house I was going to buy was built along this river. I had already seen pictures of the houseópictures e-mailed to me by Maria, my real estate agent. I had already put down a deposit and, if the house passed my on-site inspection, I was going to finalize the paperwork. My signature in a few places and it would be all mineóthe perfect place for a new start.

Mariaís office was down a side street from the ancient courthouse. The courthouse square stuck out, causing doglegs in the street that ran in front and giving downtown frontage to what would otherwise have been side streets. I parallel parked along the high curb and looked at the building with its gray stone faÁade. The front part of the building was a clothing store, with a few offices along the side and more offices on the second floor. A barber shop was tucked between Mariaís office and the clothing store. On the other side of her office, across a driveway, was a post office fronted with enormous white columns, an imposing structure compared to the other buildings around it.

As I opened the door, the building had an old smell to it. Not musty, just oldóvery old. Maria saw me coming in and stood up to greet me. We had never met in person, just talked over the phone. I guess I was her only customer that morning because she greeted me by name.

"Hi, you must be Michael. Welcome to Fournton."

"Maria?" She nodded. "So far it looks like what you described. Thanks for all the help with getting this set up."

"Sure, Iím always glad to help. I can show you around, or we can go straight to the house. Whatever you like."

"I think Iíd like to see the house first. Iím a little anxious," I said, smiling.

"Iíll bet you are. Letís take my car. Itís out back."

She locked the front door and we left through the back, which opened onto a gravel lotóreally a little courtyardówhere her car was parked. I noticed that none of the car doors were lockedósmall towns.

She pulled out onto the street and turned left, then immediately right, rounding the old bank on the corner. The street was divided, called Main Street appropriately, and had charming street lights that hung over the road, just beneath the stretching limbs of stately oaks that lined the large houses on each side.

"Your house is on the edge of town, just a few minutes away. Everything is all set and we can close as soon as you are ready. All it needs is your final approval."

"Iím a little nervous about setting this all up in advance. I suppose most people donít buy a house this way."

"Itís not a problem. We did all the preliminary paperwork but you can still back out. The owners are even available if you want to close today."

She turned off just as the divided street turned into a two lane highway. The small side street ended abruptly in a dogleg, as the street sign proclaimed Oak Street. Oak Street, in turn, dead-ended one house past mine. Well, it wasnít mine yet.

"Here it is," she said, as she pulled into the driveway. "It was built in the late 1940s, right after World War II. The original owners put in a pool and later owners made modifications. Itís in excellent condition, well-built, framed in cypress and it should suit your needs perfectly. That back room with all the big windows would make a wonderful study."

We got out and she let me lead the way around the house. It wasnít large, but it would be enough for me. Going down the left side, there was a stand of banana trees behind a fence. The swimming pool was in back, adjacent to a brick patio and a large built-in barbeque pit.

"The pit is natural gas," Maria explained. "Soís the pool heater and the house."

I nodded.

"Most of the original landscaping is intact, though storms over the years took out some of the pine trees. The citrus grove still produces."

"I like oranges."

"Several varieties of oranges, along with grapefruit, lemons and a few other things," she explained. "Other fruits too, plums, figs and even strawberry plants."

We went past the swimming pool, heading to the waterfront. An old wharf built of heavy timbers extended out over the water, with a covered boatshed attached to it. Our shoes made a clopping sound as we walked over the old uneven timbers.

The water drifted lazily past, almost silently. I looked downstream to the woods that lined the river outside of town, then upstream towards town where houses dotted the banks on both sides. Satisfied, I indicated the house with one hand.

"Letís take a look at the inside," I said.

She led me around the other side, where dressing rooms for the pool had been built, and to the front door.

"I always like to enter through the front door the first time. It makes a statement," she said as she opened the lockbox and took out the key. She handed the key to me.

"Itís going to be your house. Do the honors," she said with a smile.

I took the keyÖ my house... just mine.

I put the key in the lock and turned. The door opened easily, without a squeak, and I led the way into the living room. What parties had been held here? What Christmases had been celebrated here? Families had started here, children had grown up, people had loved here. Aware there must be a history, I stepped reverently. Would I make any memories here? I wondered.

It was quiet inside, the outside world behind walls now. This house was empty, except for the two of us invading its stillness. It was not a place where a family lived now. That pressing quiet reminded me of what I had lostóof just how alone I was.

"The carpet is all new, and the appliances have been updated. The last owner put in a beautiful kitchen just a year ago."

I jumped a little at the words that ripped apart the very stillness. Maria had already slipped into real estate agent mode, proclaiming the amenities. I knew them by heart. Everything matched the pictures she had sent me. A few things were dated. The garage was only for one car, the washer and dryer were in the kitchen, but otherwise the house looked fine.

She showed me the master bedroom, not much but sufficient. It had two closets flanking a built-in chest of drawers, and above was a large insert for a television.

The other room that interested me was the back bedroom, the room I was going to use for my study. It was paneled in cypress and the wall that faced the river was almost entirely glass. Windows extended from about a foot above the floor to the ceiling. It faced north and gave an excellent view of the river.

After I had been given the complete tour, I turned to Maria and announced, "Iíll take it."

"Great. Do you want to handle the paperwork today?"

"Why not? Letís get this done."

Maria nodded and led the way back out to her car. We chatted about the town on the short drive to her office. When she was back at her desk, she made a few phone calls while I waited patiently. She smiled as she hung up the phone after the last call.

"The owners are available and they will be here in about half an hour. The lawyer I usually use is in his office upstairs and we can close on the sale there."

We talked some more about the town while we waited, about the doctor who had recently been elected mayor, and his wife who loved buying shoes and giving parties. The local scandals were small ones, not what I was used to. It was a slow life, like times long past. It was what I was looking for. It was a place where I could lose myself.

The half hour flew by and soon the sellers arrived. We had already discussed the issue of payment. I was paying cash and had a cashierís check for the purchase amount with me. The other incidentals could be handled with personal checks.

"Hi, Frank, Mary. Come in and meet Mr. Newcombe," is how Maria greeted them.

Frank looked to be about forty-five and Mary was probably the same age. We were introduced and Mary assured me I would enjoy the house. They had lived there for five years and were only selling it because Frankís job was being transferred out of town. They had, of course, already moved out but wouldnít actually leave town for another week.

Maria politely guided us out of her office, onto the sidewalk and around to double doors next to the barber shop. The doors were made of carved wood, probably old cypress, with big glass windows. The names of the occupants were printed on the glass with crisp white letters.

The door opened onto a staircase which had an even stronger old smell than Mariaís office. The lawyerís secretary was expecting us and ushered us into a conference room. The furniture was dated, but nice. The young lawyer came in soon after and greeted everyone with a smile.

"Mr. Newcombe, do you have the cashierís check for the purchase price?" he asked as he looked up from the papers in front of him after taking his seat.

I pulled it out of the inside pocket of my jacket and slid it to him. He was seated at the head of the table, with Maria seated between him and me, and Frank and Mary across from us. He nodded as he looked the check over.

"This is fine. Ordinarily there is a bank involved but I see this will be a cash sale. Have you made arrangements for the utilities to be transferred?"

Maria spoke up. "I already setup the transfer of the utilities for him."

"Okay, did you take care of the insurance?"

Maria again answered before I could. "Heís using State Farm for the insurance and they already have issued a binder."

"Good, that takes care of the preliminaries. Well, then, unless anyone has any questions, we can start signing." He looked up expectantly, first at me then at Frank and Mary, but we all shook our heads. He began the process of turning pages and indicating places for signatures. He handed a copy to Frank and Mary, indicating with his index finger where they were to sign, and then doing the same to me with the other copy. When we finished, he took the copies back, verified we had signed in the correct places, and swapped the copies so we could sign the other ones. The whole process took about half an hour.

Eventually, with Maria and his secretary signing as witnesses and the lawyer crimping the papers with his notary seal, the whole event came to an end.

"Now, for the keys," he said as he looked to Frank.

Frank reached into his pocket and took out two brass keys. He looked at them as Mary touched him on the arm. Then he laid them down on the table with a clink, right in front of me. He stood and held out his hand.

I stood and shook his offered hand as my left hand scooped up my keys.

"I hope you will be very happy living there," he said with a gracious smile.

"Iím sure I will be," I told him.

Then, we all filed out and went our own ways. I went with Maria back to her office for a few other things. We had already discussed things like utilities, insurance and local banks in the weeks leading up to the purchase. She thanked me for my business. She had just made a sizeable commission.

"Itís lunchtime. How about letting me buy you lunch? Then we can walk around downtown and I can show you where things are."

"That sounds great," I told her.

As we turned left onto the sidewalk, she pointed to the door just past the one for the staircase.

"This is Dooleyís Barbershop. Itís been here sinceÖ well, my grandfather had his first haircut in that chair," she said with a chuckle. I looked in as we passed, seeing a few green barber chairs in a shop that looked like it was straight out of the set for the Andy Griffith Show.

As we turned the corner, I could see that various shops lined the narrow boulevard as far as I could see. Maria identified the stores as we passed them.

"Hereís Wormserís. This side is for menís clothes. The other side is womenís. Across the street is the Ford dealership. There is Main Hardware. Itís where every bride registers her china selection."

I raised my eyebrows at that comment.

Maria laughed as she continued, "Yes, this is a small town. We buy our fine china at a hardware store."

There was a jewelry store, a shoe store, a combination newsstand and candy shop, and the diner. Business was slow in the diner since it was Saturday.

"Hi, Maria. Whoís your friend?" called a big man in a white apron as we entered. He spoke with a deep voice, and just a trace of a fading Italian accent.

"Sam, this is Michael Newcombe. He just bought the Bergeron place over on Oak Street."

Sam stuck out a meaty hand in greeting. "Nice to meet you, Michael. Glad to have you in town."

"Thanks, Sam. Iíve wanted to move to a small friendly town for a long time."

"If small is what youíre looking for, then Fournton is the place. How about some lunch?"

Sam showed us to a table and handed us two photocopied menus. He continued wiping the tables around us as we looked over the menu. The place smelled of steam and fried food and a few other things I couldnít identify. It wasnít unpleasant. It seemed to fit. Along with the usual plate lunch favorites on the menu were some of the specialties this region was famous for.

"Sam, Iíll have the fried catfish and white beans," I said.

Maria opted for a shrimp salad. Sam went to the back to prepare our plates.

"Small town living will seem so relaxing after what Iíve been through," I told Maria.

"After lunch, I donít have any appointments so I can show you around some more if you like."

"Sure, if you donít mind. I want to settle in as soon as possible."

"It sounds like you want to rush into relaxing," Maria said with a little laugh.

"I do need to ease into this. Iím really looking forward to it, though."

"Well, youíre a homeowner now. When do you plan to move in?"

"I have the keys and the utilities are being transferred. I think Iíll camp out there tonight. My furniture and other stuff wonít arrive for a few days. Monday I need to get a refrigerator."

"Becnelís is down the street. If you buy one today, it can be delivered this afternoon."

"Really? Today?"

She nodded. "Itís a small town, remember?"

Sam brought out the food and I enjoyed it as much as any fancy restaurant I had ever eaten in. I was going to like this place.

After lunch, we walked back past Mariaís office and kept going down Willow Street. A ways past the post office was a big covered farmerís market. Most of the activity took place in the mornings, but a few vendors were still there. As we walked through it, a cute young brunette greeted Maria. It seemed like everyone knew everyone else in town.

"Hi, Maria. Whoís your friend?"

"Oh, hi, Lindsey. This is our townís newest citizen. Meet Michael Newcombe."

Lindsey stuck out her hand and I took it, reveling in its softness and surprised in the friendly firmness of her grip.

"Oh, a newcomer. Welcome. I hope you like it here."

"Michael just bought the Bergeron place on the river."

"Ooh, thatís a nice house. Iíve always admired it. Do you have children?"

"No, Iím single," I said, almost ruefully. "Itís just me."

"Too bad. With the swimming pool and all those trees, it would be a nice place to raise kids."

"So whatís your story? Your hands are too soft to belong to a farmer," I countered, drawing the attention away from me and to her.

"Lindsey teaches elementary school," Maria explained.

At my surprised look, Lindsey smiled warmly.

"Schoolís out for the summer. I help my grandfather with his farm when Iím not in school."

"Iíll keep that in mind when Iím looking for fresh produce," I said with a warm smile.

"Weíre on the way to Becnelís to buy a refrigerator," Maria explained.

"Iíll be back to stock it," I promised Lindsey.

"Iíll be leaving soon, but Iíll be back here Monday. Come early in the morning for the best selection."

As we walked away, thoughts of Lindsey stuck in my mind. Schoolteachers were never that cute when I was a child.

Becnelís Hardware Store was in the next block, an unimposing one-story building along a street with even higher curbs. As we walked in, I was surprised by the circular bins of nails, nuts and bolts. Maria interpreted my question with a chuckle.

"I know, another hardware store. But itís where you buy appliances in Fournton."

"Small towns," I said, trying unsuccessfully to conceal my mirth.

We were greeted by a tall slender man with white hair and black framed glasses, wearing light green coveralls. As most of the people in this town seemed to know each other, he knew Maria and was immediately introduced to me. I explained what I was looking for and he showed me several samples. I selected a refrigerator and he promised to deliver it that afternoon.

Maria filled me in on other trivia about the town as we walked back to her office. With all of my business completed, I was ready to take possession of my new home.

"Congratulations and thanks again. I enjoyed working with you," Maria told me.

"I appreciate the help," I told her.

"If you need anything else, please call. Iíll be happy to help you get settled."

I drove off with a final wave, now feeling more like a resident of the town.

As I drove down the tree lined boulevard, I was reminded of other trees and another time. It was so recent that the wounds were still fresh. That face was there; it would probably never fade, never be replaced.

I was so lost in thought that I almost missed the turn. It was the transition of boulevard to two lane highway that brought me back from where I had been. I made the left turn onto the quiet street.

There is something about a dead end street. It is so quiet and nobody just passes through. I made the sharp right turn and saw my house ahead. A thrill passed through me with that thought. It was mine. Just mine, though.

I pulled into my driveway, passing under the oak tree and parked in front of the garage door. This time when I opened the front door and stepped in, it really felt different. I was coming home. It seemed silly to be camping out here when I could be staying in a hotel, but I wouldnít have it any other way. I walked from room to room, planning in my head where to place furniture.

I paused longest in the bedroom that faced the river. This was going to be my study, where Iíd do most of my writing. I had to get back to writing. It had been long enough. My agent was starting to pressure me and my fansÖ well, I didnít want them to lose interest. It had taken me long enough to gain recognition the first time.

The view of the river through the big windows could be inspiring. I might even trim that tree in the middle of the yard so I had a better view of the water. I could see myself sitting here, pounding away at the keyboard as my next bestseller took form.

A knock on the front door brought me back to reality. I shook my head and looked at my watch, surprised that I had wasted so much time daydreaming. It was the appliance delivery already. I let them in and showed them where I wanted it placed in the kitchen. The water tap for the ice maker was already there so it didnít take long. I inspected cabinets while they worked. Before long, they were on their way and I was alone again. The only sound in the house was the barely audible hum of the new, and empty, refrigerator.

I couldnít stand all that quiet. Not anymore. I opened the garage door and moved my car inside. I had enough packed in it to sustain me until the moving company arrived in a few days. The utilities had been left on and were being transferred to my name. Phone service was scheduled for installation on Monday, along with DSL. The first thing I moved in was my computer. I put the notebook on the wood counter in the den, found an outlet to plug it into, and started WinAmp. I turned up the sound so music would fill the house.

With a long playlist going, I brought in the rest of the things from the car. I had a pillow and a red nylon sleeping bag for a bed, two suitcases and a few cardboard boxesósome clothes and enough pots, pans and utensils to get by for a few days. Not much else had accompanied me on the drive. I laid out the sleeping bag and pillow against one wall in the bedroom. Now I had furniture. I laughed at that pitiful thought. Everything would be here in a few days, though.

Next I decided that I needed food for my new refrigerator. I locked the house, put my key in my pocket and drove back into town, looking for a grocery store. On the way, I remembered the farmerís market, and Lindsey. I smiled at that memory and retraced my earlier path, passing up the grocery store on Main Street and turning left at Mariaís office, parking in front of the open air shed. To my great disappointment, Lindsey was already gone for the day. In fact, almost all the vendors were gone. I did manage to get a few fresh items, but I ended up having to go to the grocery store for the rest.

Back to the grocery store, I walked in and got a basket. Grocery stores have a smell all their own. Itís a mixture of fresh produce, air conditioning, and something else. Industrial cleaner, maybe, not the kind of disinfectant you smell in hospitals. I wrinkled my nose as I thought how I hated that smell and immediately pushed the whole thought out of my mind.

Back home with the refrigerator stocked, I went for a walk. The backyard spread out to the right, expanding in width to encompass much of what should have been the waterfront of the house next door. The backyard was about an acre, and the section to the right of the house had been planted with a variety of fruit bearing trees. Many of them had survived the hurricanes and freezes over the years. It was so refreshing to spend the rest of the day out in the openómy openóthat I couldnít believe it was really all mine now.

The next day was Sunday. In the distance, I could hear church bells throughout the morning. I wasnít ready for that. I didnít know if I would ever be ready for that again. I spent the day being lazy and enjoying it.

Monday dawned bright and early with the phone company arriving to install the telephone and DSL service. I wasnít used to this kind of serviceóthey actually showed up when they said they would. Small towns.

I was able to catch up on e-mail easy enough, and all the usual discussions about writing and such. Not much had happened in my absence, except for a few comments about my relocation. I was anxiously waiting for my friend to come online. She didnít usually spend time online on the weekends. We usually spoke during the week, when she was home alone while her husband was at work. With my notebook on the counter at my side and Skype loaded, I was starting to fix lunch when the computer began ringing. I looked hopefully at the screen and smiled when I saw her picture. I put the Bluetooth earpiece in my ear and pressed the button.

"Hi, Amanda," I said.

"Michael! How are you? Where are you? Did everything go alright?" came the excited reply. It was soothing to hear her voice again. It was a sound I knew, a piece of stability from the life that had been thrown into turmoil.

"Yes, all is well. Iím in the house. Well, Iím camping in the house. The movers wonít get here for a few days, but I have a sleeping bag and my computer. What else do I need?"

There was a giggle before she said, "We wonít go into that right now. Tell me all about it."

"The house is charming. Itís kind of small, three bedrooms and two baths. Brick and siding, you know, built back in the forties. Thereís a pool in the backyard and a fruit orchard. Iím going to use the back bedroom for my study. The view of the river from there is so inspiring."

"Good. Iím dying to read something new from you. Have you done any writing yet?"

"No, not yet. Iím getting things setup. Donít worry. Inspiration will strike soon enough. You know me. Before long, I wonít be able to do anything except write."

"Have you met anyone inspiring yet?" she probed.

"No," I answered thoughtfully, "nobody who will find a way onto the page. Well, maybe that guy who owns the restaurant where I had lunch right after I closed the sale on the house. Heís an interesting character."

"You know thatís not what Iím talking about," she admonished.

"Amanda, you know Iím not ready for that."

"MichaelÖ"

"Donít push. Please. Just be my friend. I need friends right now."

"You need more than friends. You have to get back into the groove. You know shó"

I deftly cut her off.

"Iím going walking through town tomorrow morning, looking for characters. I still donít have a clear idea of the plot yet, though."

Amanda let it drop, just for now, Iím sure, but she didnít push. We talked about how things were going for her, she passed along good wishes from our mutual online friends, and we just chatted. That was what we did best. We just talked about everything and nothing.

"Oops, hang on, I forgot I have lunch on the stove!" I interrupted.

The entire time I was trying to salvage my meal, I could hear Amandaís laughter in my ear. She berated me for not paying enough attention and warned me that I was going to burn my house down even before the furniture arrived.

I hung up to eat and called her back later. As we chatted, I bounced ideas for my next book off her.

"Theyíre all good, Michael, but theyíre not you. You know what I mean, donít you? I canít hear that passion in your voice yet. Youíre always saying that you have to feel passionate about a story before you can begin writing it."

"I guess youíre right. It will come. When it hits, Iíll be writing like mad for weeks," I said.

"Now, about your love life," she began.

"Amanda," I warned with a sharp tone in my voice.

"You have to start eventually," she pleaded.

"Itís too soon," I hedged.

"Have you even cried yet?" she asked.

"What? Have I cried? Thatís kind of personal."

"Iíve been reading this book about grieving. Until you get it out, youíll have it hanging over you. Itís over, Michael. You have to ó"

"I donít have to do anything, Amanda. I will get on with my life when the time is right. Right now, I think we both need to go."

Amanda was silent for a few moments and I regretted how roughly I had cut her off.

"Amanda, I am sorry. I didnít mean to be so abrupt. Itís just tható"

This time, she cut me off with, "I know exactly what it is. I also know why you moved. When are you going to realize it?"

I wasnít sure what she was referring to, but I wanted to hang up and I knew she had to get dinner ready for her husband. We said strained goodbyes and I said Iíd be back online the next evening, ready to tell her all about the town.

Later, when I was in my sleeping bag in the silent and lonely darkness, I did a lot of thinking. All those memories came rushing back. I relived why I had come to this place. The truth was that I didnít know what I was hoping to find here. I knew I was running away, and I knew that Amanda knew it, too. The other truth is that I hadnít cried. I hadnít really cried. Not then, and not now. I just lay there in a depressed funk, seeing the image of a face, until sleep finally overtook me.

After breakfast the next morning, I decided to walk into town. It was a small town, after all, and it would take less than a half an hour to walk to the center of downtown. Walking would give me a better feel for what it was like to live there, a quite different experience from driving down the street.

Once I had reached the main street I followed the sidewalk, passing beneath majestic oak trees. The median that ran down the middle of Main Street had intricate old iron lamps that hung out over the street. As I got closer to town, the homes became more majestic. It was early summer, with all the accompanying scents and sounds hanging in the warm breeze. I didnít meet many people because it was a weekday. Most people were at work, after all. Most of them had real jobs.

The courthouse square was the center of downtown. Behind it was the river, and a bridge that connected to the fields and newer subdivisions on the other side. First I passed the red brick jail. The dark red of the brick reminded me of an angry color. There was a mood about that building which exuded an aura of punishment. Next door was the charming old courthouse, with its rotunda capped by a tiny statue of Justice holding her scales. Across the street I had passed a flower shop, gas station, movie theater and the grocery store I had shopped at the day before. Past the courthouse was where the main shopping district began. Here was everything from a car dealer to a hardware store, shoe stores, clothing stores, banks and a cafť.

I walked along, window shopping, looking for inspiration. I wanted to get the feel of what it was like to live in Fournton. In the second block, I suddenly remembered about the farmerís marketóand Lindsey. I crossed the street and turned back, going down Willow Street and past Mariaís office. In the block after the great white post office, I saw the market. I pretended to be shopping for vegetables, but I was really looking for her. I never let myself think about why I was looking for her. If I did, I might have turned back.

"Hello, Newcomer," came that delightful voice as I pretended to browse.

"Hi, Lindsey. How are you today? Do you have anything good this time?"

I noticed that she was wearing one of those sticky paper nametags that said, "Hi, my name is" and she had dotted the "i" in her name by drawing a tiny red heart. She was also wearing a ball cap and her ponytail was pulled through the hole in the back. The whole image was so cute that it made me draw in a deep breath. She was older, in her late twenties, but the look and her personality were of someone younger, a teenager.

"Everything I have is good," she self-assuredly told me with a broad smile. "Are you looking for anything in particular?"

I looked over her selection and picked up a tomato. She was right, it was ripened to perfection.

"I was thinking of making a pasta sauce and these tomatoes look excellent."

"Ooh, he cooks his sauce from scratch. This sounds good," she pretended to observe. Then she chuckled, a truly delightful sound that was like music. "They were picked this morning," she told me.

"Iíll take six," I told her.

"Only six? I can make you a special deal on an even dozen."

"I have to carry them home. Besides, I can come back tomorrow and get fresh ones."

"Alright, six then. But Iíll give you my dozen discount anyway, seeing as how youíre new and all."

I got my six tomatoes and her trademark beautiful smileóall at a discount. She could have given me two rotten tomatoes; I would still have paid for that smile.

Wanting to have an excuse to hang around her a little longer, I inquired, "Maria said you were a teacher. What do you teach?"

"I teach elementary school, so I teach all subjects," she told me.

I tried not to stare as I commented, "Lucky students."

She blushed ever so slightly as I said that.

"Are you trying for a bigger discount?" she asked, but her grin disarmed her accusation.

"Iíve already gotten more than I bargained for."

Another customer was now waiting impatiently to buy some of those ripe tomatoes so I knew my time was up.

Before I could tell her goodbye, Lindsey added, "Come back tomorrow. Iíll have some fresh corn."

"Thanks. Iíll do that," I said, and left.

Since I was now carrying six tomatoes in a paper bag, I realized I should head home with my bounty. I had pretty much decided to give up on my research for the morning when I passed Mariaís office. She must have seen me coming because she opened the door as I approached.

"I see you remembered about the farmerís market," she said in greeting.

"Yes, I bought some of Lindseyís grandfatherís tomatoes," I said, stopping for a quick chat.

Maria, standing on the doorstep so she was taller than me, peered into my bag.

"Those are really ripe. Donít carry them around town like that, theyíll start to split and the bag will break."

"I was going to walk around downtown, but after I bought these I think Iíll head home."

"Why donít you leave them in here? Theyíll stay cool and you can finish your walk. Iíll be here awhile and you can pick them up on your way home."

"Thanks, Maria. That would be nice," I said.

She took the paper bag from my hands and set it on a chair near the door.

"Are you looking for anything in particular?" she asked me.

"I was looking for characters," I explained. Her expression showed me she didnít understand.

"Iím a writer, remember?" I asked and she nodded. "I came here to write about small town life. Iím still searching for a plot. I thought if I walked around and observed, some of the people might inspire me."

"You couldnít do better than Lindsey," Maria said with a sly smile. "Sheís a cute one. Very inspiring."

Maria sounded like an old aunt trying to find me a date.

I deftly deflected her comment with, "When I see something that inspires me, Iíll be writing so much I sometimes forget to eat."

"Really?" she asked and I nodded. "We canít have that. You need to keep up your strength. If you starve to death at your computer, Iíll never be able to resell a house that someone died in."

She looked at me seriously for a moment. When my shock showed, she laughed.

"Iím just kidding. Iím sure you have your own way of working. Do you have a type of person in mind?"

"No, not really. I just want to get the feel of life here."

"The Farmerís Market is a good place to start. You see quite a cross-section of the town there."

"Yes, even a school teacher who sells tomatoes," I observed, but with a gentle smile.

"Yes, even that." Then Maria paused thoughtfully a moment before continuing suddenly. "You could try Samís cafť at lunch. Itís busier during the week than it was on Saturday."

"Thanks. Thatís a good idea. I think Iíll walk around a little, get the feel for things, and then walk home with my tomatoes. I just might have lunch at Samís a few times this week," I told her as I turned away.

"Anytime, Michael."

I turned the corner at Main Street and passed the usual assortment of small town shops. I walked into the newsstand, the bell over the door ringing as the door closed behind me, the sweet smell of packaged candy filling the air, and I bought a local newspaper. The old cash register that the clerk used was truly an antique. He introduced himself, probably because he didnít recognize me. When I told him who I was, he explained that he had heard I had moved into town and welcomed me.

There was another bank across the street, barely a block from the one across from Mariaís office. I turned towards the river and walked back towards the courthouse. Here the street dipped down to the water, the buildings behind me up on a hill. There was even a bus depot, something you didnít see much anymore in small towns. I passed the bridge and studied the back of the courthouse, imagining what the view must be like from the upper windows. As the street wound around the back of the government buildings and towards Main Street, I found the Chamber of Commerce office and went in to ask for a map.

The helpful lady gave me one and asked me who I was. She also had heard of me, presumably from Maria. It was truly a small town and what little news there was traveled quickly. I thanked her for the map and worked my way back to Mariaís office where I retrieved my bag of tomatoes. Maria was on the telephone so I just waved and went on my way.

The walk home went much like the morning, only it was warmer. Sounds of a few lawn mowers could be heard in the yards of the nicer homes. Obviously these people employed gardeners. Homeowners cut their grass on the weekends when they werenít working.

Back at home, I washed the tomatoes and began planning how to use them. I still hadnít come up with a plot for my next work. After a light lunch, I was going to walk back to town but the skies clouded over. In short order, a rain began to fall. I used the time instead to try sketching out a plot. I sat in the den to work, watching the raindrops splashing in the pool.

I thought back to my arrival in town a few days before, to the people I had met. One face kept coming to meóa certain school teacher who sold vegetables. Her smiling face and cuteness were something I looked forward to seeing. Did I go out of my way to seek her out? I knew I wasnít ready for something like that.

By late afternoon, I had a few ideas for stories. Nothing was jumping out at me, demanding to be written yet. I typed up some ideas I had come up with and saved the file for later.

The ringing sound from my computerís speakers jolted me. The Skype window came up to reveal Amandaís picture. I clipped the headset to my ear and clicked the answer button. Just as I did, a particularly loud clap of thunder rumbled, rattling things in the kitchen cabinets.

"Wow! That sounded close. Are you alright, Michael?"

"Hi, Amanda. Yes, Iím fine here. Weíre just having some rain," I explained to my friend.

"So, any progress? Will I be reading a new novel from my favorite author anytime soon?"

"Nothing yet. I got sidetracked this morning. I was going to do some more walking around town this afternoon but the rain put an end to that."

"Tell me some more about this town. What did you do all morning?"

I told her about what I had seen, ending with buying the tomatoes from Lindsey.

"Lindsey? Whoís that? Youíve never mentioned her before."

I felt my cheeks blushing, something I did not want to happen. "She is just a young woman who sells vegetables in town," I covered.

"Uh-huh. A cute woman? How young? Does she know who you are?"

"Amanda, stop it. Itís not like that. I just bought some tomatoes from her. Iím going to make a pasta sauce with them."

Amanda waited about a minute in silence. I knew what was up but I was not going to give her the satisfaction of providing a lead-in.

"You didnít answer the rest of my questions, Michael."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"You know damn well what I mean," she said, and I could hear the smile in her voice. "How old is she? Is she cute?"

"I have no idea how old she is," I said.

"A teenager? Your age? You have some idea. She isnít nine years old by the way you talk about her."

"I have never talked about her before. All I said is that I bought some vegetables from her today."

I was trying not to get aggravated, but it felt like Amanda was interrogating me.

"So today is the first time youíve ever seen her?" Amanda asked. She knew me too well and I realized she would be able to tell if I lied to her.

"No, I ran into her before. She sells her grandfatherís vegetables at the farmerís market in the summer."

"And what does she do the rest of the year? Is she in school?í

"Yes, as a matter of fact, she is." I let that statement hang in the air, a smile growing on my face as I made her wait for me to continue. "Sheís a schoolteacher."

"So sheís closer to your age. Thatís good."

"Whatís good about it?"

"Youíre meeting people. Women people."

"Amanda, donít push," I warned, trying to sound stern.

"You should hear yourself talk about her. I mean really hear yourself. Your tone changesÖ and you get all defensiveÖ I think you like her."

Her statement scared me. I couldnít think of a good comeback to it. Then I realized that not answering was more of an admission than answering.

"Michael, are you still there?"

"Yes, Iím here."

"Does Lindsey know who you are?"

"She knows my name. Maria introduced us last Saturday."

"Thatís not what I mean. Does she know who you are?"

"Of course not. No one does. They all know I write, but they donít know my pen name. Even if they did, I doubt they would recognize it."

"Theyíd know, alright. Did you go to the library yet?"

I knew what she was getting at. "No, not yet," I said, fighting a chuckle.

"Youíre going to do it. You know you will. You always do."

I was blushing now because we both knew she was right. "Okay, yes, I am going to do it in a few days. I am going to go into the library and check if they have any of my books on their shelves." I ended with an exasperated sigh.

"You should tell them who you are. You could do a reading or a signing or something. Those people would be thrilled to find out who their new neighbor is." Then, after pausing and changing her tone, Amanda continued, "Iíll bet Lindsey is even a fan of yours."

"You think everybody is a fan."

"If they arenít, itís just because they havenít read one of your books yet. I keep telling you that. If you wonít believe me, believe your sales figures. Ask your agent."

"I am not nearly as famous as you think I am."

"Thatís what you told me before I figured out who you were," Amanda observed. "I didnít believe you then, and I donít believe you now."

"As I recall, you were pretty tenacious once you thought you knew who I was."

"I knew. I knew and you knew I knew. It just took you a little time to admit it," Amanda proclaimed triumphantly.

I chuckled. "Yes, once you figured it out, you didnít give me a chance to deny it." I paused. Sounding as sincere as I could, I continued, "Thank you for keeping my secret."

"You know I wouldnít do anything less," she assured me.

Iím sure we both smiled at that point.

"Tell me some more about Lindsey," she prodded.

"There isnít any more to tell."

"Come on, sure there is. What does she look like?"

When Amanda said that, a wave of emotion accompanied the image that swam into my mind. I remembered every detail and I felt it. A part of me didnít like that because ofÖ

"You have to overcome that," Amanda interrupted.

"Overcome what?" I asked, trying unsuccessfully to sound like I didnít know what she was talking about.

"Oh, no, you donít. I know you. I know exactly what youíre thinking. Michael, itís time. Itís more than time."

I thought about what she said. Inside, part of me wanted it to be time. Another, bigger part didnít want it to ever be time.

"She would want it that way."

"You canít know that. You didnít know her like I knew her." The words that slipped out stung and I felt tears.

There was a pause in the conversation. I thought I had hurt Amanda with my words. What came next was not what I was expecting.

In a tiny voice, Amanda began to speak, delicately. "Yes, I did. I knew her, Michael. I came to know her."

After the shock had a chance to wear off a little, I croaked out, "How?"

I heard Amanda sigh, or maybe sniffle, before she began her explanation. "About two months before the end, I saw your computer come online and I wanted to tell you I had just bought your new book so I called you with Skype. I was surprised when a womanís voice hesitantly answered. I thought at first I had clicked on the wrong username, but she quickly identified herself as your wife."

As Amanda proceeded to tell me her story, confess to me the secret she had been keeping, her voice clearly betrayed the pain she felt. I imagined how that scene must have played out, in the past, two months before the endÖ.


It was difficult for the two women at first. One was married to Michael, the other was a close friend, and they had never spoken before. Amanda was embarrassed and just wanted to find a way to end the call quickly, forgetting her enthusiasm about Michaelís new book. Theresa had another idea in mind and quickly took control. It was one of her last strengths and she had to use it.

"Amanda, how much has Michael told you about me?" she asked gently.

"He talks about you all the time. It sounds like you two have a terrific marriage. He sounds so in love with you," Amanda said with enthusiasm.

"Has he told you about my illness?" she prodded.

"Illness? No. Is something wrong?"

Fear shot through Amanda as she contemplated what Theresa had just said.

There was a very long pause while Theresa prepared herself to repeat what her doctor had told her, told both of them, months before. It was never easy to face it, to say it out loud, but she knew she had to.

Theresa drew in a deep shuddering breath and said, "I am dying."

A deep silence, an almost unbreachable gulf, came into existence between them. What could Amanda say to that? She couldnít think of anything, though she tried desperately to say something, anything, to end that silence.

"Iím sorry to shock you like that. I didnít know how else to put it," Theresa said.

"No, donít be. Iím sorry. I really had no idea." Then a question occurred to Amanda. The very idea chilled her as she wondered why Theresa was telling her this. As scary as the potential answer was, she had to ask the question. "Does Michael know?"

Theresaís tone, when she answered that question, was almost smug. It was a smile, but not in the happy way. Rather, it was how Theresa was reassuring Amanda. "Yes, he knows."

"I know Iím far away and you really donít know me. Michael doesnít even know me. Not really, that is. Weíve only talked, butÖ is there anything I can do?" Amandaís thoughts were a jumble of emotion as she tried to reach out to her friendís dying wife.

"Yes, there is, and that is why I am telling you this. That is also why I answered the call. I knew you were calling for Michael and I knew he wouldnít be home for awhile, at least not until after we had finished our conversation."

"Iíd do anything to help," Amanda said, tears stinging her eyes. "Anything to help you and Michael."

"I know how close you and Michael are. He talks of your friendship often and Iím so glad he has that. He is going to need it.

"Amanda, I would like you to promise to do something for me. Would youÖ would you look after," and her voice broke here. She tried again after swallowing with difficulty. "Would you look after MichaelÖ, afteró"

Amandaís palms became sweaty and her heart pounded. She knew what Theresa was implying and couldnít imagine how she would have been able to say it.

"Iím worried about Michael, about what will happen to him after. It would make it a lot easier for me knowing he has a friend watching over him, supporting him, as he tries to get his life going again. Would you be that friend, Amanda? Would you encourage him to find someone else, someone who can help him be happy again?"

After the stress of saying that, Theresa sobbed a few times and Amanda heard her.

"Yes," Amanda said softly as she wiped handfuls of tears from her eyes. What else could she say to a request like that?

"Thank you, Amanda. Your promise means a lot to me." Theresa took in a deep breath. "Please donít tell Michael we had this conversation. He doesnít want people to know whatís going to happen. I think you know how private he is."

Amanda had another question. She hated herself for even thinking it, but knowing the answer would help her to do her part. She had to try twice before she could make herself speak the words. "How long?"

Theresa spoke clearly, a little stronger that time. She had already said the worst. The rest would be somehow easier now that Amanda knew. "Maybe a couple of months. Not much more than that, at best."

"Oh, God," Amanda breathed and her tears came in greater force.

"Donít cry for me, dear. Iíve accepted it. Weíve tried everything we could. Iím at the end and Iím ready for it to be over. My only fear now is for Michael. I worry that he will fall apart when Iím gone. Be there for him, Amanda. Make sure he keeps writing. He has a gift to give to the world."

"I will, Theresa. I promise with all I am that I will do that for you, and for him." And Amanda meant every word of that statement.

"Thank you, dear. Your promise means a lot to me. It takes a lot of worry off my shoulders. God bless you, Amanda."

"Thank you," Amanda said, not wanting to repeat how sorry she was. She could tell Theresa wasnít looking for pity.

"Michael is going to be getting back really soon so Iím going to hang up now. I am sorry to burden you with this."

"Iíll keep my promise," Amanda assured her.

The last thing Theresa ever said to her was, "Goodbye, Amanda."


When Amanda had completed her confession, I was trying my hardest to keep the sobs silent. I wasnít entirely successful, though, and Amanda could hear. She was sobbing, too.

"Itís okay to cry, Michael. She was a wonderful woman."

"Iím not crying," I told her, and I wasnít. Not really crying, though the pain was so real.

"You need to let yourself cry," Amanda told me.

I couldnít let myself do that, and I didnít. I fought with myself for a few silent moments, to control myself.

"So you knew," I said when my voice was under control. It was hard to keep the tears at bay while the sounds of Amanda crying filled my headset.

"She told me because she wanted me to be there for you, to be here for you, Ö now." Amanda caught her breath and swallowed. "She knew you have a gift to shareóyour writing. She didnít want you to waste that gift or waste the rest of your life. You have a lot of love to give. She wants you to find someone else."

"I donít need anyone else," I said, my tone suddenly going emotionless.

"You do, Michael," Amanda pleaded. "Donít shut yourself off from the world. Let it in."

"Amanda, you donít understand."

"But I do, Michael. I understand more about pain than you know."

A silence hung in the air. Neither one of us could think of how to break it.

"I need to go so I can find something for dinner."

"Donít go, Michael. Letís talk about it first. I donít want you to hang up while youíre still upset."

"Iím not upset," I lied.

"Youíre running away. Youíre running away from your emotions. Youíre running away from the memories. Youíre running away from life."

"I have to go. Goodbye, Amanda," I said with finality.

Then I clicked the red icon and the connection was broken. She rang me again but I closed the program to stop the noise.

I got up and walked out the back door. I needed to get away for a few minutes. I walked around the backyard, ending up on the wharf over the river. I sat on the wooden bench and listened to the water making trickling sounds as it flowed around the pilings. I thought of her as I listened to that tiny sound.

Later, I donít know how much longer it was, I got up and walked back toward the house. I stopped to look at the pine trees and realized that would be a great spot for a hammock. I made a mental note to look for one at the hardware store soon.

I went for a swim, to try to wash away the pain. It was the first time I had used the pool. I stood at the deep end, facing the house, and dove in. The water washed over me, but didnít take anything away. I swam laps hard, the workout gradually taking my attention away from other thoughts.

I was tired and hungry by the time it started to get dark. I ended up eating outside by the pool. The dim lights reflecting off the water were comforting, somehow.

I know I should have called Amanda back but I didnít. When I was lying in bed in the dark, images of Theresa came to me again. I didnít want to face those thoughts at that moment so I tried to think of anything else. I tried to flood my mind with images of this town I had made my home. One face came to me out of the dark voidóLindsey.

It was with pleasure that I greeted the image of her smiling face. Then I realized that I felt more than friendship for her. I felt like I was being unfaithful to Theresa. A fear gripped my heart at that thought and I tried to force her out of my mind. I was not supposed to feel love for Lindsey or any other woman. I ended up tossing and turning for hours before exhaustion finally overtook me.

The moving company showed up and turned my house into a home early the next morning. They were great at putting things in place, not just unloading the truck, and before long I was moved in. Once they were gone, I took a break and went back to the hardware store to find a hammock. The salesman tried to sell me a stand to go with it, but I wanted to hang it between two trees, the old fashioned way. I told the salesman what I had in mind and he showed me the big screw hooks I could use for that.

When I got home, I stretched out the hammock on the ground and found two trees the right distance apart. With the two hooks screwed securely into the trees, I was able to hang the hammock. I tried it out and it felt so good. It was so relaxing lying there, the gentle sway of the hammock accompanied by the swishing sound of a breeze through the tops of the pine trees, that I almost drifted off to sleep. My eyes were closed and I was in that foggy space between wake and sleep when a sound roused me.

It was a bump, something metal bumping into something wood. I opened my eyes and sat up as a face appeared above the planks of the wharf.

"Hi, Newcomer," Lindsey called out, her trademark smile lighting her face.

Seeing her there made me forget to be worried and I just enjoyed the moment. I got up as she climbed the ladder with a rope in her hand. She had arrived in an aluminum canoe which she was tying up. As she crouched and bent over to tie the knot, she looked to her side and gifted me with another smile.

"Hi, Lindsey. This is a nice surprise," I said, my voice shamelessly betraying my delight over her unexpected visit.

"I was out for some exercise and I remembered Maria saying you had bought this house. Are you getting settled in?" she asked.

"Yes, I am. Itís already feeling like home," I said, half turning back to the house and gesturing.

Her smile was infectious. I couldnít look at that beautiful smiling face and not smile along with her. She was genuinely friendly. I assumed she was that way with everybody, that it was not just meant for me. Why should it be?

"Nice hammock," she observed.

"I was just trying it out when you got here."

"Donít let me stop you," she said, but I did.

"Nonsense, I can do that later," I hurriedly said. "This is quite an honor."

She raised an eyebrow at my comment.

"A visit from the seller of the best produce in the county." At her surprised look, I corrected myself. "I mean parish."

She chuckled. "My grandfather is the one with the green thumb. Iím just the retailer."

"Regardless, Iíve been enjoying what youíve both done."

"So what did you make with all those tomatoes?" she asked.

I indicated with a gesture that we would walk up to the house.

"Spaghetti and meat sauce. It was wonderful."

"You like spaghetti?" she asked.

"I love everything Italian," I told her. "Pizza is my favorite thing to make."

"Do you make it from scratch like your spaghetti sauce?"

"Totally," I answered proudly.

"That would be interesting to see," she said.

Before I even realized it, I automatically responded with an invitation. "Youíll have to come over sometime when I make pizza."

She laughed. "Itís a date," she said.

Her choice of words struck a chord, but I kept my reaction buried. By that time, we were up on the pool deck.

"Have you done much swimming yet?" she asked me.

"Just a few times. I love to swim but Iíve been too busy to do a lot."

"The pool is heated so you can swim into the fall, too," she told me. "Though not through winter."

"Have you been here before?" I asked.

"I knew one of the former owners," she said. "Itís been a while though."

"Let me show you around. I understand the last owners did a lot of renovations."

I opened the sliding glass door and motioned her inside. I followed her but then turned to the kitchen.

"Wow! They did make a lot of changes," Lindsey remarked.

I surveyed the kitchen, my kitchen now, with pride. A built-in table and the countertops had been covered in granite. The stove had been upgraded and the backsplash was also granite. The tile on the floor also looked new. I only knew the room this way but she had apparently seen the room before the changes.

I opened the wine cooler and took out a bottle of white wine I had opened the evening before. I held the bottle out to her and she nodded.

"When I saw it, I had to have this place. It looked perfect," I said, putting down the bottle and having to think for a moment to remember where I had put the wine glasses.

"I think it is," she said, looking around. "The change is so dramatic. I never would have imagined the kitchen was like this now."

"That table should be great for working with pizza dough," I told her as I poured and handed her a glass.

"Iím looking forward to that invitation," she said. "I love pizza, too."

A part of me must have known that unless I committed myself now, Iíd never follow through because I found myself saying, "How about tomorrow afternoon?"

"Are you serious?" was her response.

"Sure, why not. I havenít made pizza in a long time and Iím anxious to do it again. Are you doing anything tomorrow?"

"No, Iím off for the summer and I usually finish at the market by two oíclock at the latest."

"Fresh tomatoes tomorrow?" I asked.

"Of course. Iíll save you the best ones. How many do you need?"

"Iíd like a dozen. How about you come over after you finish at the market? Iíll start the dough rising in the morning and we can make the pizza together when you get here. The pizza wonít be ready until dinnertime, but Iíll have some things to snack on until then."

"Thanks, Newcomer. You seem to be a man of many talents."

I gave her a quick tour of the rest of the house. The bathrooms had been redone, judging from her reaction. When we got to the study, she looked around, then to me, with a question in her expression.

"I guess since Maria told me youíre a writer, I was expecting to see a typewriter and a stack of paper. I suppose you do all that on a computer now?"

"Yes, the typewriter is no more. I do all my writing on a notebook computer."

"So what do you write?" she asked.

I felt my defenses automatically going up. "Fiction," I said, knowing she wouldnít let me off the hook that easily.

"Really? I love to read but I donít remember hearing your name before. What are some of your books?"

"I write under a pen name," I said. "I keep my private life and my professional life separate."

She thought about that for an instant before saying, "You mean youíre not going to tell me?"

"Sorry, no," I said with a slight smile to disarm my refusal.

"Aw, come on. I wonít tell."

"Iím sorry, Lindsey, but I donít do that. You probably havenít heard of any of my books anyway."

I led her back to the den. Behind me, she kept up her protestations.

"Youíll just have to think of me as Michael the Pizza Chef," I said.

"Then you better make an awesome pizza tomorrow," she warned but with a smile.

"Iíll certainly do my best. Iím expecting those tomatoes to be perfect."

"They will be."

"I donít doubt it. Iíll also want some bell peppers and onions. The rest will have to come from the grocery store."

"Come see me early in the morning and Iíll take care of you."

We walked out to the patio to finish our wine.

"Now I get to quiz you," I said, grinning, as we sat. "Youíre a teacher at the elementary school. What else do you do?"

"You know I help my grandfather with the farm," she said and I nodded as I took a sip of wine. "I love the outdoors. I canoe, hike, I love to go camping in the spring and fall when itís cool."

"That sounds nice. Do you do a lot of traveling?"

"Iíd like to, but I donít get a lot of chances, what with teaching and helping Grandpa. How about you?"

"I get to travel a lot, doing research for my books."

She held eye contact. When I didnít say anything else, she giggled and asked, "Youíre still not going to tell me?"

"Nope."

"Youíll slip upóeventually. Everybody does."

"Not me," I assured her.

She drained her glass and held it out to me.

"Another?" I asked but she shook her head.

"It will be getting dark soon. I have to get home."

We walked back down to the waterfront.

"That must be good exercise," I commented as she started untying her canoe.

"The biggest part of the workout is coming up. On the way home, Iíll be paddling upstream."

"Where do you live?" I asked.

"Just before the bridge," she said, pointing upstream with the hand holding the rope. I took the rope from her as she got in the tiny boat. "After you wow me with your pizza, Iíll have you over for dinner and you can see where I live."

"Iíd like that," I told her.

As she took the paddle and turned the canoe into the current, she called out, "See you tomorrow morning."

"Iíll be there," I assured her.

I sat on the bench and watched her paddle, enjoying the view. She turned once and waved, and I waved back. When I could no longer pick her out on the water, I walked back inside.

 

 

Continued in Chapter 2

 

This story is Copyright © 2007 by Strickland83. All rights reserved.

 

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