by Nann Dunne
Sarah's hopes that a confrontation with Scott could be avoided were dashed when he insisted on speaking with her privately after dinner. She could have refused, but thought it better not to. Which meant she couldn't see Faith until tomorrow, after school let out.
Scott chose the office for their discussion, and he sat at the desk while Sarah took a seat across from him. "Sarah, I want an explanation of your rude behavior on your past visit. You caused quite a stir." Scott sat back and folded his hands across his stomach. He still wore his dark-brown business suit, white shirt, and tie, and his hands rested just below a watch chain and fob that crossed his vest.
The cane bottom of the chair she sat in pressed against Sarah's rear end, making her conscious of the weight she'd lost in the last few months. It also increased her irritability. "Since when do I have to explain my actions to you, brother dear? I'm a grown woman and may act as I choose."
"Not when you cause the rumpus you did," Scott said sharply. "One sign of maturity is taking responsibility for the consequences of your actions. A wedding was cancelled because of you."
Sarah jumped up, leaned her hands on the desk, and thrust her head forward. Scott flinched, and a hint of a wry smile flashed across Sarah's lips. "The only consequences of my actions would have been having to replace me in the wedding party. I had nothing to do with the wedding being cancelled."
"That's not exactly true, and you know it." Scott thrust up his chin in a gesture of defiance. "Your . . . relationship… with Faith had everything to do with it."
Sarah lifted one hand from the desk and rolled it into a fist. She tapped the clenched hand gently, but firmly, on the desktop with each word. "I had no 'relationship' with Faith." She unfurled her fingers and laid her hand back on the desk. "We discovered we were attracted to each other, and that's as far as it went. Why do you think I left? She was promised to Phillip, and I had no intention of disrupting that. Anything Faith decided was between her and Phillip."
Scott actually sniffed. "Two women being in love with each other is unnatural and against God's laws. Why would any decent man want to marry a woman like that?"
"Scott, you look and sound like a pompous ass." Sarah straightened up and folded her arms across her chest. "Show me in the Bible where Christ says two people of the same gender can't love each other, and maybe I'll take your argument seriously." She unfolded her arms. "Meanwhile, I'll act in a way that's perfectly natural to me. Your sister is in love with a woman whether you like it or not."
"There. It's your foolish determination to follow an unacceptable lifestyle that broke up the marriage." Scott seemed to be clutching at straws. "And that stubborn attitude of yours."
Sarah shook her head in frustration. "Phillip and Faith called off the marriage, not me. Can't you at least accept that?"
"Maybe," Scott conceded reluctantly. "But I'll never accept your choice of loving a woman. And I think you owe Phillip an apology."
"You know, it's funny." Sarah sat back down and leaned forward. "I already talked to Phillip. And he wasn't anywhere near as pigheaded as you are. Nor did he blame me for destroying his wedding plans."
"He's not your blood."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Sarah's eyes narrowed as she contemplated Scott's remark. Then something occurred to her that was almost too unthinkable to voice. She forced the words between her teeth. "Does this have something to do with Jessica?"
Red suffused Scott's face. "No!" His jaw opened and closed twice before he could get anymore words out. "How dare you bring her into this. Are you using her to threaten me?"
Well, no, Sarah thought. But maybe I'll just let him worry about that. She stayed silent.
Scott glared at her, then apparently decided to let that thought rest and try another tack. "And speaking of the children, what will they think when they're old enough to understand what you're doing? How will that taint their minds?" Scott's expression turned rather smug, as though he had scored some winning points in a game. "And how about Mother and Father? They'll be appalled."
"I've lived half my life more or less following what my parents wanted for me. Then I started making my own decisions, and I nearly died twice." Sarah slapped the desktop with her open palm. "But by God, I have a right to make my own decisions, and I'll take full responsibility for whatever results from them." Her voice lowered. "And I don't have to answer to you, or the children, or our parents. I'm going to live my life the way I see fit."
"That is so typical of you," Scott said. "I should have known it was too much to expect you to consider other people's feelings."
Sarah stood up and sneered. "If that isn't the pot calling the kettle black. You're more worried about what everyone else might think about me than you are about my feelings or desires." She moved toward the door, but turned as she reached it. "I'm living in Missouri, Scott. No one needs to know my personal business, nor will they be close enough to be 'tainted' by my example." She put a hand on the knob and twisted it, pulling open the door. She turned back once more. "Your children will be just as tolerant and forgiving as you teach them to be. I hope to God that Lindsay has more influence on them than you have with your narrow, self-righteous bigotry." She walked through the door and slammed it shut, tormented by the knowledge that she might have slammed the door on the affection that had always existed between her and her twin brother.
She yearned for Scott to be more like Lindsay or Phillip. Maybe time would soften his bitterness. Meanwhile . . . no matter how battered she felt . . . she still had to face Faith. Tomorrow.
Sarah had worried that Scott might continue their argument into the next day, but fortunately, he had a business meeting with a new supplier and was needed at Coulter Foundry. After the war, the foundry had sold off the armament machinery and geared up for peacetime pursuits. Now the company made nails and sheet metal, both in plentiful demand. The office worker who had been hired when Lindsay went to Virginia to attend to Sarah had been kept on, leaving Scott's wife free to take care of her home and children.
Sarah and Lindsay sat at the kitchen table, lazily enjoying a cup of after-lunch tea. The children played almost at their feet. Pres was supervising the building of what he had informed them was a fort and he pointed to a specific block for Jessica to hand him. She crawled to the block, picked it up, and stood up. With a wicked glance at Pres, then at her mother, she took off running down the hallway. Pres chased after her, got ahead of her, and herded her back to the kitchen, both children laughing wildly. Then Jessica set the block exactly where Pres indicated and clapped her hands. The two knelt back down and continued building.
Sarah was beguiled. "Well, that went a lot better than I expected. No screaming, crying, or fighting."
"Yes," Lindsay agreed. "But it sure took a while. No matter what Pres was playing with, Jessie would come along and grab it and take off. I finally convinced him that she was only teasing, and if he joined in the game and made it fun, she would eventually give back whatever she took." She gazed fondly at both children. "Now, he sometimes grabs stuff she's playing with, and they do the same thing, only he lets her catch him. They have a grand time."
"Jessie's a little on the pushy side, huh?" Although she wasn't aware of it, Sarah's eyes lit up whenever she looked at her daughter.
"A little?" Lindsay laughed. "Scott and Phillip say she takes exactly after her Aunt Sarah."
"Both the children are getting so big. I miss being here to see them grow," Sarah admitted.
"It's too bad you don't live closer. You could move back here, couldn't you?" Lindsay sounded enthusiastic, then she made a small groan. "But I guess that would depend on what happens with Faith."
"Your husband seems to think that my relationship with Faith-or any woman, for that matter-would taint the children."
Lindsay's face crumpled. "Oh, Sarah. I noticed you both were awfully quiet this morning. Was he impossible?"
"You could call it that." Sarah shrugged. "But I'd rather not discuss it." She stood up and looked out the window. "There are children passing by. It's too early for school dismissal, isn't it?"
Lindsay joined her at the window. "Sometimes they have half-days. Maybe this is one."
"Then I'll get a buggy and go see Faith." The livery stable at the corner had buggies for hire, and the Coulters had a standing account.
Lindsay slipped an arm around Sarah's waist. "Good luck." She gave a squeeze. "Go get your woman."
Sarah turned within Lindsay's arm and embraced the small woman. She laid her head on Lindsay's dark hair. "I thank God you're my sister-in-law. You're more like a sister to me."
When Sarah let go and stepped back, Lindsay looked up to meet Sarah's eyes. "You will come back and let me know what happens, won't you? No more running away without notice."
"I will," Sarah promised. "But I hope I'm not running away at all."
Sarah walked up the three cement steps and stood on the flat top of the stoop in front of Faith's house. A brass knocker in the shape of an upside-down woodpecker loomed large in her eyes, awaiting her touch. I can do this. I can do this. The mantra had worked for her in some dire situations, but in none of them had her knees felt more wobbly than they did now. She touched her scarred face and damaged eyelid, wondering how anyone could look past that devastation, no matter what Lindsay said. And what about her scarred soul? But she wouldn't know until she tried, would she? She squared her shoulders, grabbed the back of the woodpecker's body, and hit the beak solidly against the striker three times.
Without warning, the door immediately opened. And there stood Faith . . . the redheaded, green-eyed vision who had haunted her dreams for months. Sarah wet her lips and cursed inwardly at her throat's tendency to tighten during emotional difficulties, cutting off speech. With her heart pounding, she watched Faith's expression go from curious, to startled, to cold. They stood and stared at each other for several moments. Sarah's chin lifted up, then she cleared her throat and swallowed. "May I come in?"
Without a word, Faith stepped back and pulled the door farther open. Sarah stepped into the hallway, and Faith closed the door. They were close enough to touch, but miles of icy distance loomed between them.
Sarah hadn't brought a handbag, something she left at home whenever possible. It was bad enough that custom demanded she wear a bonnet. But now she wished she had a bag to fiddle with. She stuck her hands into the pockets of the light coat she was wearing. The movement hunched her shoulders, making her feel slightly defensive. She looked down into chilled green eyes, and her stomach spasmed. "I came back."
"So I see." Faith's tone could have frozen a burning log. Silence reigned again until she finally spoke. "What do you want from me, Sarah?"
Forgiveness? But the word wouldn't issue from Sarah's throat. She couldn't get past her belief that Faith should ask for forgiveness too. "You didn't marry Phillip."
"Obviously." Faith jerked around and walked toward the kitchen. Sarah hesitated, then followed her.
She spoke to Faith's back. "Had I known sooner, I would have returned sooner."
Faith halted then swung around, forcing Sarah to an abrupt stop. "Why?" Faith asked harshly. "You slap me silly, accuse me of all sorts of things I never did, and when I'm stupid enough to give in to my-" She shook her head. "When I'm stupid enough to kiss you, you run away. You left me all alone to face Phillip's shocked dismay and your brother's anger."
"You didn't have to tell them," Sarah murmured. She hung her head, ashamed of her lack of support for Faith during that time. But she had been shocked too. That Faith was actually attracted to her hadn't even occurred to her before the kiss.
Faith's mouth snapped shut and she breathed heavily through her nose. "I was supposed to just go ahead and marry Phillip after that? I needed time to get my feelings straightened out. Damn you. Damn you, Sarah Coulter or Bren Cordell, or whoever the hell you are. You turned my whole life upside down, and my son's too."
Stung, Sarah fought back. "I turned your life upside down? You're still lying about your part in the attack on me. After everything that's happened, you still won't admit what you did." She tore at her bonnet's strings and snatched off the head-covering. She thrust the damaged side of her face toward Faith, stopping a fraction away from butting their heads together. Faith drew back, and the corners of Sarah's lips turned down. "Yes, go ahead and pull away. Can't stand to look at me this closely in the daylight, can you? You think this hasn't changed my life? You don't know the half of it."
Now Sarah was breathing heavily too. She turned to leave, and Faith spoke, her tone still sharp. "That's it? That's it? You scream at me and run away again? Why did you come back, Sarah? Why?"
Sarah kept silent, but her thoughts screamed to be heard. Because of the kisses. I came back because of your "stupid" kisses. She sneered at herself for presuming that the kisses meant anything to Faith beyond a momentary attraction. She strode toward the entryway, slapped the bonnet back on her head, and pulled open the door. "Damned if I know!" she shouted. She stalked out and yanked the door shut so hard the loud bang reverberated up her arm and through her body, providing a lonely note of satisfaction in a chord of misery.
"Sarah," Lindsay said in protest, "you didn't get any information from Faith at all. You haven't cleared up whether she loves you or not." When Sarah had come storming back into the house, she found Lindsay in the drawing room, folding a pile of clean clothes. Lindsay had helped calm her enough to sit on the couch and tell about the meeting with Faith.
Sarah turned glaring eyes on her sister-in-law. "There wasn't any warmth there, Lindsay. Only anger. She didn't give a damn about me. She just cursed me for breaking up her marriage to Phillip and 'turning her life upside down.'"
"I think you're mistaken," Lindsay said. "She's the one who told Phillip about her feelings for you. He never would have known if she hadn't said something."
"That's what I told her!" Sarah said, fuming. She grabbed one of Jessica's dresses from the pile of clothes and started folding it in her lap.
"Exactly," Lindsay said. "So she can't blame that on you. She's probably angry that you ran off without settling anything between the two of you. She saw a door opening up, then you slammed it in her face." She reached to take the dress, but Sarah pulled it away from her. "Sarah, it's no good to fold more wrinkles into the dress than you're smoothing out of it."
Sarah stared at Lindsay as though her words were foreign. Then she looked down at the small dress she was mangling and thrust it back into Lindsay's hands. "Sorry."
Lindsay expertly folded the dress and put it on Jessie's pile then reached for the last piece, a blue shirt belonging to her son Pres. "It sounds to me like we have two women in love and both too proud to be the first one to admit it." She folded the shirt and set it on the proper pile.
"I swallowed my pride long enough to come back for her," Sarah said, "and she took my head off." She shrugged. "I'll be leaving on the first train west. If you're right and she wants to see me, you can tell her where to find me. Most of the time, I'll be at the address I gave you."
The news shocked Lindsay. "My goodness, you drop into Faith's life, and you're going to drop right out again? Don't you think you should give her some time to think about it?"
Sarah's sideways glance met Lindsay's concerned gaze. "She's had plenty of time. Has she ever inquired about how to contact me?"
"We didn't know how to contact you. Even your parents wrote that they hadn't heard from you."
"But Faith didn't know that." Sarah stood up.
"True," Lindsay said, "though we haven't really stayed in touch with her. She might have been too embarrassed to ask us." She rose also. "But you can't leave already; you just got here. Stay and visit for a while. It's been ages since we've seen you. Besides," she said as she slipped her arm through Sarah's, "I'd like the children to have more opportunity to get to know their favorite aunt."
Sarah shook her head. "I'm sorry, Lindsay. I don't feel welcome at the moment. Scott seems even angrier than Faith, if that's possible. I think everyone needs a cooling-off period." She patted Lindsay's arm. "I'll wait until the children wake from their naps, though. I don't want to miss giving them a hug and kiss goodbye." A small jolt of pain at these words surprised her, and she scoffed inwardly. Don't go getting motherly at this late date. You're mixed up enough as it is.
Lindsay let go of Sarah's arm and picked up a couple piles of the folded clothes. "Good. At least that will give you time to help me put these clothes away." She tilted her head and treated Sarah to a sweet smile with just a hint of tease in it. "Make yourself useful?"
Sarah picked up the other two piles. "Useful instead of a pain in the neck?"
"Right," Lindsay said and poked her with an elbow.
"Damn!" Sarah stopped dead still and nearly shouted.
"What?" Lindsay asked, her eyes going wide.
"Faith got me so befuddled, I forgot to ask about Redfire."
"Oh," Lindsay said with a groan. "Your poor horse! I'll try to find out for you."
"Thanks, Lindsay. I'd even be willing to buy him from her if that's what she wants. Please write to me as soon as you find out anything, all right?"
"You know I will."
Sarah gave her a big hug. Seeing Lindsay was the brightest spot in this short visit-that, and seeing the children again. Who knew how long it might be until the next visit. If there ever is a next visit, Sarah thought in a momentary return of anger.
After the door slammed behind Sarah, Faith stormed up and down the hallway, her arms hugged against her chest.
Her voice grated into the silence, echoing her last questions to the woman who had spurred her fury. "Why did you come back, Sarah? Why?" She knew the answer she wanted to hear, but those words hadn't been spoken. How many times had she asked herself what the incident between Sarah and her in the Coulter home had meant to the other woman? Faith's memory had replayed the scene over and over. Oh, how sweet those kisses were. Faith had believed it was a new beginning-Sarah mirrored her love.
Could I have been so mistaken? Faith shook her head as the memories flowed over her, and she felt her body respond to her desire for Sarah. Surely, she can see my side of this. Maybe if I give her more time, she'll feel calmer and be able to understand how I feel and why I jumped all over her. Faith chewed on a knuckle. She knew that might never happen. Sarah might just disappear out of her life altogether. She threw herself into a chair and covered her face with her hands, again muttering her woeful lament. "Why, Sarah? Why couldn't you say you came back because you love me?"
Faith was astonished when a courier delivered a note to her door the day after Sarah's appearance. And she was even more astonished at its message.
Sarah has left, once again.
Please forgive me for intruding into affairs that, on the surface, would appear to be no concern of mine. But I care very much for Sarah, and I know Sarah cares very much for you. She used to be bold and self-sufficient, but her confidence in her worth has been shattered by war experiences too terrible to fathom. Her stay with you and Benjamin is the only reminiscence that brings a smile to her face. What a loss it would be for us all if that smile should disappear forever.
I hope I am not presuming too much when I believe you might be interested to know she is living in Bonneforte, a small town south of Cape Girardeau, Missouri.
With sincere regard and all best wishes, I remain yours truly,
Yearning filled her as Faith felt the pull of the words, "I know Sarah cares very much for you." Why couldn't Sarah have said that? But each time she asked herself why, Lindsay's next words answered. "Her confidence in her worth has been shattered by war experiences too terrible to fathom."
Faith's hand curled in as her fingers remembered the texture of Sarah's scars. They don't affect my feelings for her, she thought, but they obviously affect Sarah's belief in herself. How awful to have her beauty wrenched away so violently. And her innocence. Tears overflowed Faith's eyes.
I have to convince her she's loved. And I'll have to do that in person. Faith went to her desk and pulled out paper and pen. She needed to find some work. Maybe she could find something near Cape Girardeau.
Sarah bent over her drawing board as she focused on one arm of the Rebel soldier she was sketching. A soft knock sounded, then a harder one, demanding her attention. "Come in," she called. The door opened, and Leah brought in a tray holding a cheese and tomato sandwich on a ceramic plate, a cup of coffee, and a white cloth napkin.
Leah's smile was tentative. "I thought you might like some lunch for a change."
Sarah looked up, her face somber. The artist in her noticed Leah wore a dress that almost exactly matched her blonde hair and was dotted with varicolored geometric designs. It made a bright contrast to Sarah's own dark brown trousers and forest green tunic. "I like your dress," she said, and Leah's smile changed to glowing.
"Thank you. I just finished making it yesterday." Leah placed the tray on a table in front of the cinnamon brown couch that rested in one corner of the gallery. "Are we in a better mood today?"
Sarah smiled rather wanly. "Only if you stop that 'we' nonsense."
"You've got a deal. Come on over here and relax while you eat," Leah said in a wheedling tone.
Sarah sighed, put down her pen, and rose from the five-foot-long ebony bench she used when drawing. "I know I've been a miserable bitch, and I apologize." She picked up the sandwich, took a small bite, then began to gobble it.
Leah sat on the couch and patted the cushion next to her. "Please sit down."
"Uh-oh, she's being so polite-I must really be in trouble." A half-smile quirked one side of Sarah's mouth as she tried to chew and talk at the same time. She sat next to Leah, finished the sandwich, and took a long drink of coffee. She patted her mouth with the napkin before laying it back on the tray. "Ahhh, that was good. Why do you take such great care of me, even when I'm miserable to you?"
Leah reached over and pinched Sarah's cheek. "You know it's because you're so damn cute I can't resist you." Then she sobered. "And I figure when you're miserable is when you most need to be taken care of."
Tears sprang into Sarah's eyes, and she dragged her sleeve across her face, catching them before they fell. "I'm sorry," she apologized again. "I think I'm becoming an emotional wreck."
"Do you want to talk about it?" Leah murmured.
Sarah looked at her and waited for a moment, a puzzled look on her face. "What did you say?"
"I asked if you want to talk about it." She raised her eyebrows. "You didn't understand what I said?"
Sarah rubbed her hand across her face, then touched it to her right ear. "No. I think my hearing in this ear is getting worse. Or maybe I just notice it more now. Anyway, I can't do anything about that." She tapped her fingertips against the depression on her forehead, then lowered her hand to her lap. "I guess you want to hear about my trip home."
"Only if you want to tell me."
"I do." Sarah said. "Anyway, after putting up with my sulking for the past week, you've earned it. But when I'm done my tale of woe, I want your honest opinion-about whether I'm an idiot or not." Leah nodded, and Sarah told her the whole story.
When she finished, she laid her head against the back of the couch and closed her eyes. She waited several moments, then asked, "Well?"
"You're an idiot."
Pain distorted Sarah's face. She opened her eyes and sat up, then leaned forward, braced her elbows on her knees, and set her head in her hands. "I am an idiot. I am. I am. An idiot for thinking Faith loved me. She was right, it was just some stupid kisses." Sarah rocked back and forth. I will not cry.
"I didn't say you're an idiot for that reason. Think, Sarah. Faith told Phillip she was in love with you. She knew her life would turn upside down, but she told him anyway. She had to be meaning it."
Sarah dropped her hands and sat up, confusion written all over her face. "Maybe she had just learned for the first time that she was attracted to women. Maybe she only thought she was in love with me when she spoke to Phillip."
"I think she already knew a long time ago that she liked you. I mean, where did those kisses come from? If I remember right, you had just smacked the hell out of her." Leah banged the back of her hand against the side of Sarah's trousered leg, and Sarah jumped. "You think that's a good reason to kiss someone? The attraction must have been mighty strong for her to be able to ignore that."
Sarah gave a heavy sigh. "So you think I was an idiot to leave?"
Leah pushed her lips together and nodded. "Put yourself in her place. Suppose she loves you, but she's not sure how you feel. You said you bumped her against the wall with your body, and that's what stoked your fire. It must have stoked hers too, so now she can't control herself-she kisses you. And what did you do?"
"I kissed her back," said Sarah, her voice almost defiant.
"And I'll bet that got her hopes up. She was probably even too excited to sleep," Leah said. "She could see a door opening, and it probably half scared her. She was anxious to talk to you about it. But you slammed the door and ran away. No wonder she's angry."
Sarah's hand moved to her knee and her fingers began drumming. "Slammed a door? That's the same thing Lindsay said. Are you sure you two aren't in cahoots?"
"Maybe we are," Leah said then shrugged when Sarah's amber glance slewed quickly sideways at her. "I never met your sister-in-law, but she sure sounds like she loves you and wants you to be happy. We both do."
Sarah blew air through her lips. "I know that, and I appreciate it. But I can't go back after Faith again, Leah. I just can't take another rejection. If you and Lindsay are right, she should be able to figure out why I came back for her, and she can make the next move."
"And what if she doesn't?"
"Then I guess," Sarah said as she blinked back annoying tears, "it's over before it even got started."
"And you're happy with that?"
"Of course not!" Sarah said fiercely. "What the hell do you expect me to do? Go back and kidnap her? Drag her off by her hair like a caveman?" Her fingers flexed in time with her words, and her heart leaped as she realized the idea held some atavistic appeal. But Faith wasn't the kind of woman to be dragged anywhere she didn't want to go.
"I'm sorry, Sarah. I didn't mean to come in here and upset you any more than you already were." Leah patted her fingers. "But I'm worried about you. You're not eating right, or sleeping right either. I thought the trip home would fix that, but it didn't." Her voice turned pleading. "I know you're feeling pretty bad right now, but please try to take better care of yourself. For Amy's and my sakes, if not your own."
Sarah's eyes went round. "You believe I'm endangering my health?" Leah nodded. Sarah considered that a moment. "I don't feel sick or anything, but I know I'm too thin. I'll try to eat better, all right?"
Leah got up. "Wonderful! For starters, I'll go make you another sandwich." She leaned down and kissed Sarah on the cheek. "At least you gave Faith a try, Sarah. Don't give up. You're a very lovable person. You'll find that special someone eventually."
Sarah forced a wry grin. "I can count on one hand the people who think I'm lovable."
Leah frowned, then said sternly, "Your biggest problem is you don't believe you're lovable. But you are."
Sarah got up and walked to her drawing board. She pointed to the Rebel soldiers in her latest scene. The battle showed the soldiers caught in a Union ambush. "I wonder how lovable they would think I am." She sat on the bench, and Leah put a hand on her shoulder and shook it a little.
"Think of all the Union lives you saved. Those Confederate deaths made that possible. You have to accept that."
"Ah, Leah, I can convince myself intellectually, but emotionally is a different story. I certainly can't convince my nightmares."
"You're still having nightmares?"
"Sometimes." She looked down at her hands, then lifted her gaze to Leah. "I had hopes that a loving partner could help me with that." Then she looked off into the distance. "Maybe not having one is my punishment for all those deaths."
"Stop talking such nonsense. It's not like you to feel sorry for yourself." Leah sat down on the bench and wrapped her arms around Sarah. "Keep your hopes up, Sarah. Things will turn out. I have faith in you."
Sarah's arms went around Leah. "I'd rather have Faith with me," she said with a sad smile. Both women leaned into their embrace.
To be continued in Part TwelvePlease comment to Nann Dunne at PruferBlue@aol.com
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