I’ve always taken it for granted, he thought as he stared at the fluorescent glare from his prone position. Always, always.
The lights buzzed quietly behind their cloudy, faceted faces, and one bulb was in the habit of flickering ever so slightly, interrupting the monotonous tone with which he tried to harmonise under his breath. He hummed aimlessly, searching for the correct pitch. He gave up after a while. Never had an ear for music anyway. The high-pitched drone and stammering silences sounded better, and he gazed towards the ceiling with unblinking eyes.
On the verge, he narrated silently, the poor bastard. In another month or so he’s going to beblinking like a strobe. Then he’s going to die up there. Or maybe they’d put him out of his misery. Merciful of them.
He inhaled slowly and exhaled, and listened to the slight change in the rhythmic beeping of the ECG machine at his bedside. He wondered what sort of an institution they would put him in, or if he’d be forced into some ridiculous physical therapy programme where he’d be followed about by a nurse all day. He wondered if they’d ever let him wear buttons and zippers again, or if they’d keep him in one of those ghastly hospital tunics that left his buttocks glaring out from between the ties. He wondered if he was going to spend the rest of his life sleeping in a bed with straps holding him fast. He wondered if they were going to be watching his every move from a camera mounted high in the corner of his white-walled room. He wondered if they would keep him heavily sedated, fill him with pills and syringes three times a day, medicate him until he felt nothing again, just like he had before he…
Outside the hospital, a low rumble of thunder sounded. The ECG suddenly spiked, its chirps keeping steady time with the beating of his stimulated heart. He closed his eyes and lay absolutely still.
The sand’s started to fall… I’m frightened.
Four months before, Frederic Frankly had been quite different. Or rather, he was the same as everybody else, so similar that he was practically indistinguishable from the rest of the mediocre middle-class population of which he was a part. He was the living, breathing antonym of ‘special’, quite possibly the most un-extraordinary human being on the whole planet (including Wales). He was the middle child of three siblings—his older sister Cheryl and his younger brother Paul—and little did he know that this familial hierarchy would project itself upon the course of his entire life.
Never wholly failing but never quite succeeding: this was Frederic’s inescapable destiny. If he were a colour he would be the same shade used to paint the interior walls of government buildings. He was of medium height, medium build, and medium looks. Brownish-grey hair, brownish-grey eyes, a nondescript complexion. When he was eight years old it was discovered that he had the eyesight of a geriatric mole, and to this day he wore the same style of glasses that made him look like Buddy Holly’s less-attractive twin sister. He escaped ridicule from his classmates by essentially refraining from speech for the next ten years. A straight-C student all his life, Frederic always avoided any necessary exertion in favour of ‘just barely scraping by’. After a brief stint in community college he took a desk job for the civil service, which worked spectacularly for him in that he didn’t know the first thing about politics and had no opinions about anything, including the government.
If a lack of personality was still technically considered a form of one, then it could be said that Frederic had a personality. Whether or not he made any use of it was debatable; the man was as sharp as a bowling ball and duller than a charter accountant. He had no wit, no sense of humour, he couldn’t dance, and he looked terrible in denim. He had absolutely nothing going for him. No natural talent, no hobbies, no unique abilities, nothing. He had nothing to live for and, ironically, was at the same time too stupid to realise it. He never contemplated the fact that he might be better off dead than alive, but suicide didn’t occur to him since he hadn’t really used his brain before in his life. He was like a potted plant: required a little bit of sunlight, a little bit of food and water and maybe some fresh air, but that was it. Everything beyond those staples was up to his own good fortune.
Yes, this was Frederic Frankly, a man who hadn’t yet lived a single day despite his being on earth for the past 26 years. Looking on the bright side, however, he had great potential for being any number of things as he hadn’t really tried to do anything at all by this point in his life.
That potential had been waiting for a very long time, and on the 19th of March, it would at last be given the proper catalyst it needed to set it into motion.
Frederic lived with his sister and brother-in-law in a small suburban home at 3542 Columbus Street located in Waking, Hamfordton, just west of London. Cheryl was a registered nurse and worked evenings with her husband Graham, who was a specialist of something-or-other at the same hospital. Frederic usually arrived home just as Cherie was leaving, meaning that their interaction with one another was kept to a bare minimum. They had both gotten on all right growing up since Frederic never had anything to argue about, so their relationship (or non-relationship as it should rightly be called) was on good terms.
That day—it was a Wednesday—he passed his sister on the front walk at 6.23 pm. They waved their hellos and goodbyes to one another and continued on their separate ways. Frederic entered through the front door as he usually did, and flipped the light switch in the hallway. Nothing happened. He paused halfway in removing his coat and tried the switch again. And again. More of nothing happened.
Dead fuse, he imagined, and went to find the torch they kept in the laundry cupboard.
The peculiar thing about the house at 3542 Columbus Street was that it was a part of a block of terraced houses that had been built some forty years ago and still utilised fuse boxes instead of reasonably safer circuit panels. The current residents had no idea as to exactly when the building had been erected, but judging from the condition of the fuse boxes, it was guessed at about the same time as electricity had first been introduced into private homes.
There was a small attic upstairs where they kept spare fuses, and Frederic naturally found them in a box marked FUSES. Taking up one of the small glass cartridges, he made his way down out of the attic and into the laundry closet, where he wrestled with the beaten metal lid of the fuse box until it grudgingly opened with a squeal. Adjacent to the short bit of wall wherein the fuse box was placed was approximately 4 millimetres of space. The clothes-washer occupied the rest.
Frederic had to lean over the washer in order to reach the box, whose door opened from the nearest end, making a simple task like changing a fuse the most annoying, tedious experience of one’s entire day. However, seeing as how our lad Frederic was impervious to annoyances due to a lack of sentiment and etcetera, he championed onwards and eventually located the blown fuse that had taken the lights out of the main part of the house.
One noteworthy point to mention about fuse boxes is that, unlike circuit panels, there is the potential for a careless person to electrocute themselves should one of their digits come into full contact with the disengaged plug of an open circuit. And Frederic, juggling a torch in the dark and attempting to locate the socket with his fingers, did exactly this.
In television and movies, there is always a familiar sound that seems to accompany the act of somebody being electrocuted; this is only a silly residual of cartoons, because the only sound heard when one is being electrocuted is, most probably, their own screams.
But Frederic didn’t scream—in fact, he had no idea what had happened to him at first. All he knew was that he was suddenly gripped by what felt like an omnipotent magnetic force, rendering him motionless as he was subjected to a tidal wave of molten fire roaring into his body. He shook and trembled violently—but quietly, mind—and simply allowed the 230 volts of electricity to course through every fibre of his puny mortal frame.
It was during this moment, during the six whole seconds that was the span of the actual mishap, that Frederic Frankly, for the first time in his life, felt something. And then, as if the gods of electricity had finally been appeased through the torture of this poor human, he was thrown one metre backwards into the opposite wall, where he crashed into a shelf of detergent and collapsed against a wicker hamper.
Faint wisps of smoke rose from his singed clothes, and he was quite certain that his eyeballs were steaming. Foamy spit bubbled at the corners of his mouth while trails of superheated snot leaked from his nose; he wiped his face on his sleeve and tried to remember how to think. His heart, fluttering like a pinwheel in a hurricane, continued to deliver adrenaline-rich blood to his brain and other vital organs that were suddenly jarred awake.
For a long while he remained slumped against the hamper, glasses hanging askew on his face, waiting for his pulse to slow and wondering if he was dead or not. Presently he opened his mouth, allowing a thin cloud to issue from his throat as he said in a long sort of sigh, “Muhhaaaaa.”
After a moment he lifted his hands up and wiggled his fingers, noting his blackened nails with interest. He touched his hair—which was standing on end—and checked to make certain that he still had feeling in his arms and legs (he did). Once he had concluded this personal investigation, he did something that was even more fantastic than surviving a nearly-fatal shock of electricity: he began to laugh. He laughed and he laughed and he waved his roasted extremities about and laughed again. Then he picked himself off of the floor, trotted upstairs, and went straight to bed.
Frederic woke up late the next morning and had no time to dwell upon last evening’s experience—he hurried through his morning routine with reflexive efficiency and still managed to miss the bus by a good twenty-two minutes. He was fully prepared to sit on the bench and wait for the next bus when it suddenly occurred to him that he had legs. Legs that were capable of carrying a person from one place to another. Legs that could have very well been fried completely off yesterday. And since they were still there, and since they still had some use, Frederic decided that he would like to make the best of them. So he walked to work that morning.
He was late by at least three hours; however, not even a sound lecturing from his supervisor could drop an anchor through the bottom of Frederic’s dinghy of unusual liveliness.
He whistled tunelessly for most of the day. His co-workers didn’t know he could whistle, and neither did Frederic. It was obnoxious and disconcerting. And then Frederic put cream in his tea at break. He never took cream with his tea. In fact, sometimes all he had at break was a cup of hot water poured over yesterday’s teabag. This bizarre behaviour was noticed by everyone in the department, but Frederic himself seemed blissfully unawares.
He walked home that evening, his mind strangely alert and talkative. He noticed things en route that he hadn’t noticed before, little things. Like the faces of the people he encountered, and the noise of the busy street, and the intense green hue of Mrs Adderback’s hedgerow. Then there was the way the front gate chirped when he opened it, and he said to his sister as she passed on the front walk, ‘Oi, Cherie! What’s new?’
Cheryl halted dead in her tracks and stared back at her brother, who had given his customary wave in closing and was now entering the house. She mused for another moment before giving a few perplexed blinks and then heading towards the bus stop.
Graham must have repaired the blown fuse sometime during the night because the lights were working again. Alone in the house, Frederic shucked off his shoes and had the leftover Thai for dinner. Then he restlessly wandered the house until eight o’clock, volleying back and forth between the television and the laundry room, where he’d stand in front of the washer and stare at the fuse panel without blinking.
He fell asleep on the sofa that night watching the BBC news. He was still wearing his tie.
It was fortunate to some that this inexplicable strangeness Frederic Frankly was displaying had begun to fade as the month drew on. He slipped back into his old ways again: taking the bus every morning and evening, hot cups of water at break, no whistling, no unpredictable behaviour. He was back to his normal, bland, dull, boring, colourless, mindless self.
But that all changed when he decided to have toast for breakfast one morning.
Frederic was never a bright lad, and he was honestly too stupid to know better than to poke about the toaster slot with a butter knife in an attempt to extricate a crispy slice of bread. He was—promptly and appropriately—electrocuted.
White-hot fire and blue pixie sparkles burst through his nervous system like every cannon of the Royal Fleet, combined with all the fireworks on earth, going off at the same time. It was a frame-shaking, teeth-chattering nine seconds of spastic convulsions, ended only by Frederic’s inability to keep a firm grasp on the butter knife. He eventually ended up on the kitchen floor, looking alive if slightly burnt about the edges.
I should really be more careful, he realized after his senses had returned, or else next time I could be toast.
He smiled. Then he chuckled. And then he spent the next five minutes rolling about on the floor, holding his sides as if to keep them from bursting apart with laughter. At last he composed himself enough to get on his feet again, put some new bread in the toaster, had tea with cream and sugar, and walked to work whistling.
I’m sure that by now you have already managed to draw conclusions about this little story, and it seems as if it would have a happy ending so long as Frederic Frankly was able to light himself up like a Christmas tree every month or so. But it wasn’t that easy, you see, to ‘accidentally’ electrocute oneself in such a way that nobody would take notice, because sooner or later the blackened nails and frazzled MuppetŪ hair are going to alert people to the fact that something dreadfully awful is happening at home.
Frederic’s co-workers thought he had gotten nice and addicted to speed or one of those palpitation-inducing energy drinks that tasted like battery acid. The formerly-dour civil servicer was unusually bright and animated, joking and chatting with people during break and acting as if he honestly enjoyed his job (which was strictly forbidden and reinforced by a ‘must be this depressed to work here’ stipulation in the code book). He even wore a bright yellow tie one day. Yellow. It was practically a declaration of corporate mutiny. Had anyone in the office actually cared about Frederic in the first place they’d have arranged some sort of intervention. He needed a good re-programming, perhaps even a lobotomy, but, as it was, the civil service minions went about their business as usual and tried to ignore the radical amongst them.
About the time that the effects of the Paperclip-in-the-Wall-Socket incident were beginning to wear off, it finally dawned on Frederic—who now referred to himself as simply ‘Fred’—that perhaps he ought to seek help concerning his high-voltage addiction before it killed him. He sat in on a Cocaine Addicts Anonymous meeting one evening and decided two things after the first 10 minutes: firstly, that this was not the appropriate programme in which he should be investing his time, and secondly, he would never be able to look at flour again without conjuring up the image of a fat, grease-stained lorry-driver named Herbert whose teeth resembled mangled jigsaw puzzle pieces. Needless to say, Fred didn’t return for the next meeting.
He caught Graham one evening after work and asked if they still offered electroshock treatment to reasonably insane persons, to which Graham replied in his scholarly tone, ‘It’s called electroconvulsive therapy these days, Frederic, though most doctors are reluctant to prescribe such an extreme procedure to even physically healthy individuals.’
‘How mad do you have to be to qualify for shock therapy?’ asked Fred.
Graham thought a moment before replying. ‘Paranoid Bi-Polar Suicidal Schizophrenic with Depressed Psychopathic Tendencies, I believe. Chances are that a patient such as that would find their way into a state institution rather than at the forefront of any therapy regimen. They don’t experiment with electricity on the human body anymore, Frederic, not since the 19th century.’
Well, so much for the idea of going mad. Fred was going to have to come up with alternative means of getting his fix, because going back to The Way It Was Before was simply not an option. He had finally begun to see how miserable he had been, how much of his life he had wasted doing nothing. He hadn’t accomplished anything at all, and the clock was ticking. He wouldn’t be here forever, he realised. He had to live as if he would die tomorrow, or die the next time he attempted to shock some feeling into his body.
He had rented Frankenstein from the video store one night, the old one with Boris Karloff as the staggering, billboard-foreheaded monster who was sewn together by a madman and brought to life by a bolt of lightning. Fred sat cross-legged on the floor of the living room like a child, neck craned and staring with awe, as if it was the first time he had ever seen a motion picture. And when the windmill went up in black-and-white flames, there was a shimmer behind Fred’s thickly-framed glasses.
They never fell, but the tears were there.
Two weeks later, he’d finally had all he could take. The withdrawal he was experiencing was so terrible that it became a grueling effort just to ooze out of bed in the morning. Fred often found himself wishing that he had never tried to change the fuse on the 19th of March, but what was done was done and there was no way to change the past.
So after returning from work that evening, Fred went straight into the attic and found the answerphone that Mum and Dad had given Cherie for Christmas in 1991. It had a very long cord. He took it into the lav, plugged it into the wall, turned on the shower, and stepped under the stream with the answerphone clutched tightly to his chest.
It took a few seconds for the water to seep into the electrical components, but the wait was well-worth the awesome shock that followed. The pain, the power, the heaven, the hell; it was all there—had been there the entire time—right inside him. Yet only when he brought himself to the brink of death did he feel truly alive. Only when he was aware of what he could lose did the monochromatic world around him burst into colour, like Dorothy taking her first steps into Oz. And the electricity… it was the tornado that ripped Fred from Kansas and set him in the middle of all this.
In the end, however, it had been nothing but a dream. A beautiful, miserable dream. If only he could find his way to the land of Oz without the tornado carrying him there. If only he could bring the Ruby Slippers back to Kansas, then everything would be okay again. Wicked Witches and their Flying Monkeys wouldn’t be able to harm him, and Toto would live forever—
Fred was suddenly jarred awake by Cheryl’s panicked voice calling his name, and he found himself lying in the bath, still hugging the charred remains of the answerphone. His sister, leaning over him in her sterile-white uniform, had turned off the shower and was attempting to drag him from the tub. She was shouting at him but Fred couldn’t understand what she was saying. He thought she was upset about his destruction of the answerphone, and offered up an excuse in the form of: ‘I didn’t want to ruin your hairdryer, Cher.’ And she burst into tears.
Fred was scheduled to speak with a therapist the next week.
It was June. Things were a little better since the Death of the Answerphone, though Cheryl remained constantly worried and Graham was clinically concerned that Fred was suffering from post-electrocution delusions. The sessions with the therapist were going well, although the psychiatrist Fred was seeing was unable to reach any conclusions about her patient’s obsession with shocking himself other than the fact that he was depressed and possibly suicidal. Fred vehemently denied any attempt to take his own life, quoting that he was ‘just trying to make the world a brighter place’. That one earned him a Zoloft prescription.
Fred’s co-workers found out about his hobby of showering with appliances and took every opportunity to make sure that he knew they knew by whispering and sending sidelong glances and shaking their heads in pity if he were ever in the same vicinity with another human being. That was the last thing he wanted—people thinking him mad for trying to make the best of his life. But Fred didn’t resent his co-workers; it was because of them that he knew how anger and humiliation felt. They were the Apple Trees, the Lions and Tigers and Bears. They were a part of Oz, the bad as well as the good. Fred could never hold them accountable for something that they couldn’t help, although he certainly felt like tossing a pail of water on his supervisor from time to time, just to see if she’d actually melt into a foul green fondue.
The bright colours were starting to fade again, slowly de-saturating as time passed. Fred was watched closely by Cheryl, who lived in fear of coming home to find her brother in a blackened, crispy state of rigour mortis. She had Graham put a lock on the fuse box, and things such as the toaster, the hairdryer, the radio, ad infinitum were regularly moved about so that Fred never knew where they were.
Fred tried to resist the urges to shock himself, tried to convince himself that the medication was working, but as the world began to turn black and white again, he grew more and more desperate. He had dozens upon dozens of 9-volt batteries scattered on the floor of his room. He used them like vitamins, sticking his tongue on the terminal to receive a meagre shock that only made him crave the awesome amperage of an open AC circuit. Once or twice he seriously considered buying a car battery and some jumper cables, but if that thing ever cracked open it would be the end of the carpet (and also the end of his life, because Cherie would kill him without remorse).
With his energy draining and his office life reduced to an emotional tug-o-war, Fred decided to take a weekend holiday to Dover. He had been making good progress in his therapy and had everyone convinced that he was on the road to recovery, and Cheryl thought the clean air would do him some good. So Fred rented a small car from the vehicle depot and was on his way to the White Cliffs.
Once he had cleared the congested city streets of London and begun to make his way through the more rural areas, something began to nag at the back of Fred’s mind like an obnoxious song whose lyrics you can’t seem to figure. He knew he was missing something but couldn’t for the life of himself reckon what it was.
He stopped at a petrol station shortly before noon. The sky was grey and overcast, thick with a cover of clouds. Fred was exiting the store after buying a soda and some crisps when he looked up and saw it. His mouth fell open.
The power lines. That was what had been needling his brain. They led out of the city, crisscrossing over the roads and growing bigger, thicker, more numerous. Bunches of wires clumped together like black spaghetti noodles, carrying the vital electric blood to other towns and cities. But where there were capillaries, there were vessels. Where there were vessels, there were veins. Where there were veins, their were arteries. And where there were arteries, there was a heart. Somewhere. Beating.
Fred swallowed dryly and stepped forward, meek before the giant that dwarfed him. Dozens of metres above, the grey pylon loomed, silent and purposeful. Behind it was another, and another, and another, and another, all strung together by bands of massive cables. They cut a wide swath through the surrounding wooded area, disappearing as the land dipped, and then rising—much smaller—into view at the crest of the hills. They went on, it seemed, to the end of the world.
Fred tried to control himself but his heart was hammering too fiercely. He had found one of the arteries, a path of pylons that led to the Emerald City, just like the Yellow Brick Road. Oz was in Kansas all along, Dottie, he thought to himself. Home is where the heart is, and the heart—
He had to find it. He had to feel it. No one could stop him; not Cherie; not Graham; not the civil service; not the therapist; not the pills. He was free, and he had to know. He had to know.
It was amazing, really. Fred had never been quite fond of heights, but as he climbed the steel pylon and cast a glance below, he wasn’t the slightest bit queasy. It was very peaceful up here, with a steady breeze blowing. Height always puts things in a different perspective, he supposed, and continued upwards with the speed and agility of a monkey that had just escaped from an organ grinder.
When he finally reached the first yarn of wires, he had no idea what he should do next, so he began to tug and pull on them with all him might, hoping against hope that there was a reachable current within. Bloody safety precautions! Didn’t they know anything at all about typical occupational hazards? Who were they trying to protect from electrocution, Godzilla? This lot of nonsense could—
And then the universe exploded. Everything in it, down to the smallest atom, erupted like a million billion suns rushing outwards in a supernova tsunami of stars and planets and glittering asteroids. Dark became light became life, and the microscopic entity who called himself Frederic Frankly sailed down into the spinning arms of a sparkling green galaxy.
And he knew what life was.
The petrol station clerk had told the police everything once Fred’s unconscious body had been carted off in an ambulance. A small group of people had gathered on the other side of the street, watching with fascination as the electric company went about repairing the cable that had taken the power out of the entire town. The crowd remarked how miraculous it was that the young man had survived both the shock and the 20-metre fall to the ground with only a cracked arm and a few bruised ribs. What on earth could have possessed a person to do such a mad, mad thing?
It would make the headlines of three papers the following day. Cheryl brought Fred several copies and showed him the photos when he came out of his coma a week later. The doctors wanted to monitor him for several days, just to be certain that he wasn’t at risk for suffering a stroke or possible heart failure. Fred’s physical exam had revealed no internal injuries, though his extremities were nicely singed and his left eardrum had blown like a flat tyre. The doctors said it would heal itself within a few weeks, like most of his injuries. However, it was the patient’s mental health that they were truly concerned about. Oz only knows what they had planned for him.
Fred lay in his bed and stared at the ceiling. He was the only person in the room and he had his own tele, but he didn’t feel like watching it. Didn’t want to risk seeing stories about the ‘deranged lunatic who electrocuted himself on a pylon’ in the news. It was bad enough that most of London already knew his name. He’d never be able to go back to the civil service. Maybe he could sign autographs for a while, advertise himself as the Human Lightning Rod. Thunder outside his window gave Fred bad ideas. How would they ever let him go back?
Well, thought Fred sarcastically, they certainly won’t be giving me electric shock therapy.
What if he told them the truth? No, he’d tried that with the therapist and all it had gotten him was a 12-month prescription. What else could he do? Lie? Fred wasn’t a liar. They’d never buy his ‘just getting a good look at the scenery’ excuse. There was no easy way out of the Wicked Witch’s castle, was there, Dorothy? The hourglass was leaking sand and the evil guards patrolled the halls. What to do, what to do!
That sound outside—was it the Wizard in his hot air balloon? Yes, it was the Wizard!
‘Come, my dear!’ he cried, beckoning hastily. ‘Hurry, before it’s too late!’
Electrodes popped off and the ECG turned into a dial tone. The window was wedged open, a way out of the cursed room—the Witch’s power would not get him out there. It was the only way. Dorothy stepped out onto the ledge, teetering unsteadily as she stared at the dark cliffs below.
‘Don’t look down, child!’ warned the Wizard, extending his arm. ‘Grab my hand!’
‘It’s too far!’ she said.
‘Then you must jump!’
‘You must, my dear! Time has almost run out!’
Dorothy swallowed her fear and pressed her back against the wall, readying her legs for the spring. She was suddenly grabbed by the ankles and pulled back through the window by many pairs of arms, just as the Wizard let out a deafening crack and disappeared into a jagged line of blinding light.
The Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion helped Dorothy back inside the room. A few blinks later and the faces of Graham, Cheryl, and a particularly large nurse came into view.
‘You’re all here,’ Fred said with a smile. ‘You all came to save me.’
Cheryl was in tears, trembling as she held her brother. ‘Why, Freddy? Why?’ she wept.
‘There was no way out,’ he answered distantly, still staring at the window. ‘I thought I was going to die in here. But then… you all…’
‘He’s delirious,’ said the nurse sharply. ‘He needs to be sedate-’
‘He needs to go home,’ Cheryl interrupted harshly, cradling Fred in her arms. ‘You’re treating him as if he’s a rat to be experimented with. You’re all making him mad by keeping him here! Graham, help me get him to his feet. We’re taking him home. Freddy, do you hear that? You’re going home now. We’re going to take care of you and everything is going to be fine.’
‘I know,’ said Fred gently, ‘but I really don’t need to be helped any longer. It’s all here and… and I love you all.’
Cheryl crushed her brother in a hug and Graham put his arms around his wife. Here was a colour that Oz had never had, one that had always been missing, one that never faded—and it was Ruby Red.
Three clicks to get home, and the power had been there all along. The Yellow Brick Road would always be there, but he had no reason to walk the path again. He knew now. It didn’t lead to any heart; the only heart was in the place he had tried to leave behind.
Lethal Arms Rated: K+ When Alex receives a threatening letter from Yassen Gregorovich, it sends him headlong into another adventure.
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