We Once Possessed the World

 

In this weekend’s story, “We Once Possessed the World,” Cote Smith takes us into the world of basketball, tutoring, and impending parenthood. He takes us into the world of math. He takes us into the world of philosophy. He takes us into Kansas. But more than that, he takes us into the struggle to be true to oneself, when one doesn’t even know who he is. —Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor

I began tutoring college athletes the fall my partner got pregnant. Cate wasn’t working at the time, hadn’t worked in years in fact, because of her disability, and we both agreed we could use the extra money. Up until then, our only source of income had been my job as an adjunct instructor at the state university, where I earned my masters in Humanities. The wages I made were pretty terrible, but were enough to get us through our later 20s in a one bedroom downtown. Now we needed more space, more money, more everything. That spring semester I was assigned to tutor Rell Mabry, a five-star recruit and the top-ranked point guard in the entire freshman class. Rell picked our school over a year ago, when he announced that he would graduate high school early so he could get a head start on college, because, as he told the media at the press conference in his high school gymnasium, academics were just as important as basketball. Everyone smiled when Rell said that, including his mother, sitting next to him at the time, her hand holding his. And including me. I was a huge basketball fan. I had grown up cheering for my school’s team, who played their home games 40 minutes from my lousy hometown, but were somehow nationally known. As a child, I couldn’t understand how anyone from Kansas could ever be famous. And really, no one was, except for a lady in red shoes who didn’t exist, and our basketball team, who did.

♦◊♦

A month into the semester Rell was failing nearly all of his classes. This included the class I tutored him in. It was called Western Thought and was required by every liberal arts major. I pretended otherwise to my supervisors, but I was not surprised Rell was failing. He didn’t do any of the readings, and Western Thought was nothing but readings. Socrates, Aquinas, Locke, Rousseau, et al.—complex texts that traced mankind’s millennia-long attempt to make sense of a senseless world. On Valentine’s Day Rell’s counselor cornered me in the workroom, where we kept the coffee and the copier. Every sport had its own counselor, someone who made sure the student-athletes were attending and passing their classes, declaring their majors. Rell has to do better, she told me. You have to do better. I put my hands up like I was being robbed, like, Hey, I’m doing my best here, but I could tell she wasn’t buying it. She said if Rell’s grade didn’t improve soon, she’d find him another tutor, one who got results. Then she left before I could make any false promises. The next time we met I told Rell to take off his baseball cap. Put your phone away, I said. When he asked why, I told him to take out The Aeneid. “I don’t have it,” he said. I sighed. “Oh, mirabile dictu.” “What?” he said. “It means wonderful to relate. That’s in the notes you don’t take.” Rell leaned back in his chair, put his baseball cap on. “Why are you doing this, man?” he said. I pulled out The Aeneidand slid it across the table. “Book I,” I said. “Read.”

 ♦◊♦

That night I came home to Cate and complained. She was lying in bed with her laptop propped up on her stomach, watching bad TV shows on the internet. “You’re gonna make our kitten radioactive,” I said. She didn’t look at me. We called our baby a kitten because Cate said when the baby kicked it felt like a kitten kneading its claws on Cate’s insides. Plus, every time we brainstormed names, it ended in a fight. “How was work?” Cate said. “Stupid,” I said, and told her about Rell and the counselor. She turned the volume down and listened impatiently, not picking a side like I hoped she might. She didn’t say you’re right, what do they expect with a kid who doesn’t care about school, who will probably leave school to go pro when the season ends in April? Cate shut her laptop, taking away the room’s light. I could hear her worried breath in the dark. “Please don’t get fired,” she said. “We can’t afford it.” “Hey, you’re not the boss of me.” “I’m serious,” Cate said. “I’ve been crunching the numbers. We’re in trouble.” Before she dropped out, before she began to recede from the world, Cate was a statistics major. She studied things I could never understand, and didn’t want to, like linear regression analysis and time series econometrics. When we first started dating, she tried to explain why she chose what sounded like a terribly boring field. How when she crashed her car the week she turned 16, the doctors, unlike the caring nurses, all spoke in numbers. We’re giving you this many milliliters of this drug. You’ve fractured your seventh and eighth thoracic vertebrae. You have a 50 percent chance of ever walking again. Cate remembered existing in a fog of drugs, in which numbers floated in and out of her mind, loomed over her alongside the blurry faces of the few family members who came to visit. In that daze she vowed she would walk again, and that one day she would be master of all things numbers, not the other way around. Cate reached for me in the dark. “Come here,” she said. “Feel.” She took my hand and placed it on her belly. “She averages eight kicks per hour. That’s a 20% decrease from two weeks ago.” “Is that normal?” “Yes,” she said. “She’s just running out of room. Which means we’re running out of time.” I closed my eyes. I tried to imagine what it was like for the baby, floating in a fog of its own. I waited for it to reach out to me, to let me know it was here and everything was all right. “There,” Cate said. “Do you feel that?” “Yes,” I lied. “That’s great.”

 ♦◊♦

I planned to leave Cate, until I found out she was pregnant. It should have been easy enough. We’d been together since college, but we never married. We’ll marry when everyone can marry, we told ourselves, but really we were just scared. Our parents were all divorced, having married what society now realized was too young. And like anyone else, we did everything in our power to not end up like the sad people before us. For weeks I imagined breaking up with Cate. I saw myself standing over her, saying things predictable but true, like I wasn’t happy, like I wanted something else, though I didn’t know what that was. Like, I need to get out of this college town, away from everything that paradoxically makes me feel both suffocated and comfortable. And that includes you. But each time I pictured the breakup, something went wrong. In my head Cate would stand up to yell or throw a box of my stuff out the window, then fall over and moan, unable to get up. When I move to help, she screams at me from the floor. Get away from me, she says. Don’t come near me again. As I drive away, our apartment window hovers yellow in the darkness, and Cate wails from inside. I can do this myself, she cries. I may be crippled but I don’t need you.

 ♦◊♦

Saturday night we stayed in bed and watched Rell on national TV. Cate hadn’t cared about sports until she became pregnant, but confined to bed all day, often there was little else on. Plus, she found the statistics fascinating. She would tune in an hour early to hear the analysts support their subjective guesses of who would win with shooting percentages and assist-turnover ratios. Soon, we were watching every basketball game together, what we called our bball bonding time. Though the team had already begun conference play, it was Rell’s first game. In the fall there had been a lengthy investigation questioning Rell’s amateur status. I never asked him about it, but apparently his mother had taken a few grand from a family friend who happened to be a former professional. That same friend had invited Rell to play pickup ball with other pros, and may or may not have given him a car to drive to and from their games. In the end, it was ruled Rell had to sit out the first six weeks of the season, including practice. None of it mattered, though. His first game, Rell started. It was strange to see someone I knew on TV, to hear his name chanted by all those faces. It was like Rell existed in two realities, one filled with glamour and glory, the other with characters like me. After he hit his first shot attempt, a deep three from the top of the key, the camera cut to a sea of screaming students, holding enlarged cut-outs of Rell’s head, a handmade sign that read, The Rell Deal. The game itself was a blowout. Rell became the school’s first true freshman to have a triple-double in his debut. In the postgame interview, Rell thanked God and his family for all their support. When a picture of his tear-eyed mother popped up on the screen, Cate started crying. “Hey, what’s wrong?” I said. Cate wiped her wet face on her shirt. I put her feet in my lap and wiggled her toes one by one, something I did each night to test for feeling. “I don’t know,” she said. “What if this year is, like, the worst year of my life?” I pinched her pinkie toe and watched her face flinch. “Oh, c’mon. You’re fine. You’ll be fine.” “How do you know?” Cate said. “You don’t know. Don’t act like you know when you don’t.” “Cate,” I said, putting her feet down. “What’s the worst that could happen?” “The worst? The worst! Are you trying to kill me?” She stormed to the bathroom and slammed the door behind her. For a moment, I lay in bed, listening to the water run, replaying what just happened. We’d been having more and more moments like these: Cate overreacting, me underreacting, both of us stumbling into the lead roles of a stereotypical sitcom. We liked to pretend these extra spats were just a side effect of Cate’s pregnancy, that they hadn’t started long before. Which of course wasn’t true. We’d been taking shots at each other for over a year, Cate sneaking in jabs about my job that was going nowhere, wondering out loud what I would do if the school ever went through with its threats to cut a few adjuncts. In return I resented Cate for sitting around all day, existing in statistics and not the real world, for thinking everything could be simplified or contained by a number. But where had those numbers got her? Here were the numbers that mattered: She had zero degrees, zero job experience, and soon, one child. We even fought the night she found out she was pregnant. Cate had thrown up three times that week, but swore it was another bladder infection, the same sort that plagued her for years after her injury, causing her to vomit twice a day one week, be perfectly fine the next. These were the same infections that made Cate eventually drop out of college, forced her to admit that she just couldn’t do it anymore. Her final semester she suffered a particularly embarrassing spell. She threw up in her Intro to Intervals course, peed herself in Probability, and fell out of her desk in Calculus. (It took the professor and two GTAs to help her up, and to play it off, Cate whistled Humpty Dumpty.) And now they’re back, Cate claimed. The infections are back. I remembered her face tensing in a way I hadn’t seen before, as if her biggest childhood fear, the one she made herself forget, had finally returned, bigger and stronger. But I knew she was pregnant. I was sure of it. At night, when we cuddled in bed, when I failed to muster the courage to end things with Cate, I often made a list of things I didn’t want to happen. I tried to rehearse death, as the Stoics would say, get myself prepared for whatever life might throw at me. But what scared me the most wasn’t dying, which seemed too far away to be real. It was making a mistake with long-lasting consequences. It was laying out a life I didn’t want to live.

♦◊♦

Rell had a kid of his own. A 1-year-old daughter who lived in Dallas with her mother. Her name was Kaylin. I learned about her the week after his first game, the day he refused to read Seneca. Why, Rell wondered, do I need to read any of this ancient shit? What does it have to do with me? We’d had this argument before. Normally I would bumble through a half-hearted explanation about how it’s important to know where ideas come from, to understand how we got to where we were. Today I didn’t have the energy. I said, You have to read it because you’re failing. Because if you don’t, they’ll kick you out of school. And I’ll get fired. “Listen, Rell,” I said. “We all do things we don’t want.” Rell nodded, smiled. “Hey. You want to see something great?” He slid his chair next to mine and pulled out his phone. Before I knew what was going on I was looking at an adorable picture of a bow-headed baby, sitting in the arms of a large man. “Is that her?” I said. “Yeah,” Rell said. “That’s the little one.” He ran his finger over the screen, leaving a smudge on the little one’s beaming face. She had Rell’s eyes, almond and bright. “You miss her?” I said. Rell put his phone away. “Yeah, man, I’m her father.” A silence drifted into the room. Other tutors, like Rell’s math tutor, would have pressed Rell further, gotten him to confide in them. I’d seen these sorts around, the kind who made the students give them a hug at the end of each session, until it became second nature. But Rell and I had long ago established that that wasn’t the sort of person I was, or would ever be. As much as I wanted Rell to like me, ultimately what I wanted was for him to do well and leave me alone. “You know, Seneca had a famous dad, too,” I said. “Seneca the Elder. He was a gifted orator and writer, like his son.” “For real?” Rell said. “For real. He died just before his son was banished, then forced to kill himself.” “That’s fucked up.” Rell pulled out his phone again and thumbed through more pictures, as if he’d already forgotten what the little one looked like. “How old are you?” he said. I told him I just turned 30. “You married?” he said. “You have any kids?” He glanced up at me for a second, before returning his attention to his phone. I opened my mouth to respond, but nothing came out. I kept waiting for Rell to look up, to say, Come on, man, it’s a simple question. Do you have a wife or not? Do you have a little one or don’t you? I put my head down. “No,” I finally said. “I don’t know.” I looked up at Rell, to see what he made of my answer. But he hadn’t heard a thing. He was texting.

♦◊♦

My favorite nights to tutor were during home basketball games. The student-athlete center was next to the fieldhouse, and when I finished with work I liked to walk outside and listen to the buzz of the building, the hum of twenty-thousand ready to erupt. The rest of campus was a ghost town, and lately I’d extended my walks to include its empty streets as well, pausing to marvel at my favorite buildings, the statues that stood like guardians. My favorite was a sculpture in front of the humanities building, depicting Aristotle and Plato from Raphael’s painting The School of Athens. The teacher and his most prized student, walking around Plato’s Academy, discussing what the good life looked like. Of course, I wasn’t just marveling at fine artwork, I was avoiding. Cate had grown more cantankerous as of late, and while I told myself it was the hormones, really, she was disappointed with me, the way I refused to turn out. The only thing the hormones did was make Cate less subtle. Instead of politely reminding me to slow down when we were out and I was walking too fast, she yelled, Hold up, moron, I’m crippled andI’m pregnant. She’d even started making statistical charts of the dumb things I said, using formulas to calculate the likelihood of me angering her on any given day. “You know, Cate,” I said, “there’s something unsettling about someone graphing your stupidity.” I had just picked up Chinese food after work—what I thought was a thoughtful gesture. But the place I went to was known for using a chemical bad for babies, and not that good for adults. When I apologized, Cate said it was no big deal. That she would have been more upset if she hadn’t seen this coming, but it was all here in the chart. Cate shrugged. “What can I say, the numbers don’t lie. How’s Rell?” I ignored her question and went to the kitchen, where I threw away the unopened bag of Chinese food. The kitchen stank. The trash was overflowing and the sink was stacked high with crusted dishes that could have passed as science experiments. What does she do all day? I wondered. Other than make those charts. This kitchen is a mess! I yelled, though not with all my force, unsure if I wanted Cate to hear me. So clean it! she said. If you think it’s so bad! As the sink filled, I tried to recall the time when Cate didn’t lie around and complain, at all, even though I thought she had every right to. It used to be, if we were stuck in a long line at a restaurant, that Cate would smile and make small talk with a stranger, even though she was in pain, even though standing for more than a minute was the equivalent of someone reaching inside and wringing her spine like a poisonous snake. Those days, however, the days Cate squeezed my hand if she were in pain, but didn’t let it show otherwise, were gone. This was the Cate who no longer talked about going back to school, someday getting a job. This was the Cate who didn’t have any hobbies, other than watching TV and thinking about the baby. This was the Cate who hung up on her mother the instant her mother annoyed her, who wore a permanent grimace, who put up no facades. This was the Cate who didn’t see the point. I cleaned the kitchen and snuck into bed late. Before she fell asleep, Cate called for me to massage her back and tell her about my day. I didn’t want to do either. I never told her this, but I didn’t like looking at or touching Cate’s back. She was super skinny, a result of her limited mobility, and if you looked closely, you could see the bumps made by the metal rods that replaced her broken vertebrae. The two alien sticks that tested the limits of her skin, like a fingernail digging through a balloon.

♦◊♦

Rell’s tutors were called into his counselor’s office. She wanted an update report on Rell’s progress. How is Rell doing? What are the latest grades? What’s next on the Rell agenda? She made each of us give one great idea on what we could do to help Rell succeed. I sat in the back, racking my mind for something professional. Make the work more relatable, the math tutor said. Basketball word problems, essays on rap music, that sort of thing. Rell’s English tutor rolled his eyes, but offered no better suggestions. The counselor’s gaze landed on me. “What about you, Bryan? What ideas do you have?” The other tutors twisted in their chairs and stared. With the exception of the math tutor, by far the youngest, I recognized a certain sadness in each of their faces, one that had snuck up on me for years before finally catching me in the mirror. It was the post-mortem face of our dead 20s, the decade we thought we would figure things out. The math tutor’s eyes widened the longer I remained silent, the longer it took me to filter the truthful ideas swirling my brain, the ones I knew I couldn’t say. There’s nothing we can do. He’s never cared about his education. He’s not going to start now. And I don’t blame him. I envy him.“Read,” I finally said. “Rell needs to read.” The counselor lowered her eyes with disappointment. “Yes,” she said. “Well.” They finished going around the room, and when the meeting wrapped up I was the first out the door. Behind me I heard the counselor call my name—Bryan, can you hold on a sec?—but, afraid I might get fired, I pretended I didn’t hear her and ran to my car. That night I pushed St. Thomas Aquinas in front of Rell, but he wasn’t having it. Get that shit away from me, he said. How’s your ladyfriend? “She’s fine,” I said. “We’re good.” “Yeah?” “Yeah.” The book sat between us like bad leftovers, or an uninvited guest. “Man,” Rell said, “I don’t know how you do it.” “Do what?” “Be with the same lady for so long. I couldn’t do it.” Rell shook his head, his brow furrowing as he concentrated on whatever message he was composing. How did we do it? I wondered. How did we pile up these years? I thought of Cate’s smile, bouncing toward me in a bar. I thought of the first time she slept over, how she took my hand and guided me so I didn’t hurt her, how she told me where not to touch. “What about the little one’s mom?” I said. “Don’t you still see her?” “Man, that girl is crazy.” He glanced up from his phone. “Plus her dad hates me.” “But you see her?” “Yeah,” Rell said. “I see her. So I can see Kaylin. Otherwise, fuck her stupid ass.” I tried to imagine Kaylin’s mother, sitting in some sorry Dallas apartment. I wondered if she counted the days until Rell went pro, when he would move her and Kaylin into a nicer place, some mini-mansion in the suburbs. “What about after?” I said. “I mean, when you’re done here.” “What about it?” “Will you see her then? Or are things done for good?” Rell arched an eyebrow. I could tell he was beginning to see right through me. Thankfully the counselor barged in. She wore a fake smile and asked how things were going, looking at each of us in turn, at the unopened book that sat lifeless on the table. “Is everything OK here?” she asked. “Rell, is he making you work hard?” Rell looked at me and laughed. “Yes, ma’am,” he said. “Bryan is the best. My man’s got all the answers.”

 ♦◊♦

I reached a point where I imagined what would happen if Cate lost the baby. As with the breakup, I concocted horrific scenarios in my head: Cate tripping down a tricky set of stairs; Cate’s spine giving out, the baby sliding out like a dead bunny. While I was supposed to be paying attention in birthing class, or reviewing with Rell for an upcoming exam, I was picturing Cate crying in a hospital. I was picturing myself free from everything, a birth of my own. At our last appointment, the doctor declared everything looked fine. Cate was still a high-risk pregnancy, but other than that, things were “go for launch.” Dilated one centimeter, 90% effaced, three weeks to go. Everything is right on schedule, the doctor said. Everything is ready to happen. That Cate and I hadn’t talked in days we didn’t tell the doctor. Not when he closed his chart, sat down with his legs crossed and said, Let’s talk about how youtwo are doing. “So this one centimeter,” Cate said. “One out of how many.” “10,” the doctor said. “We count down from 10. Tick tock, tick tock.” After our appointment we went home and Cate took a nap without me. She wanted to rest up before cheering on Rell. Have you noticed he hasn’t been playing as well lately? she said. His shooting percentage is way down and when teams throw zone he looks completely lost. I told her I was sure he was fine, and went into the other room to work on the crib I was supposed to assemble months ago. The second room, which used to house the detritus of our abandoned hobbies, was now the nursery. I found it overwhelming. Cate had stockpiled towers of diapers, onesies, and wipes, turning the room into a baby fallout shelter. The crib came in a bazillion parts. “Do you have any idea what you’re doing?” Cate said. She had waddled from the bedroom, and her silhouette stood in the doorway. “Yes,” I said. “It’s just these instructions.” I held up the poster-sized sheet of directions, and prayed Cate didn’t ask me what number I was on. Instead, she sighed and swayed away. A moment later I heard her call from the bedroom. “Game’s starting,” she said. Then: “Don’t worry. If you can’t do it, I can always get someone else.”

 ♦◊♦

A week later, in the hospital parking lot, Cate let some poor smoker have it. I knew it was me she was yelling at, not this middle-aged man who hadn’t noticed the sign saying you couldn’t smoke on hospital grounds anymore. She’d done the same thing to her meddling aunt, who, like Cate’s mother, always talked shit on me for never proposing, and called weekly to remind Cate what she should and shouldn’t eat. Still, it felt good to see what Cate was really feeling, how much anger she’d stowed up and was ready to unleash on the world, without any of it hitting me. “Take my damn hand,” Cate said. The smoker had shrunk into non-existence, and there was a gulf of concrete between us and the car. “Can you believe some people? I mean, people are trying to live here.” She anchored her body on mine and we drifted toward the car. It was cold for what was supposed to be the beginning of spring. Our breaths puffed before us, and a few flurries floated in the air, reminding us that in Kansas the worst seasons lasted the longest. I opened the car door for Cate, and she turned around and stared at me. “You know, we can’t do this,” she said. “We can’t be like this. This is our parents.” “What do you mean?” I said, feeling my face redden. “I mean, it’s two weeks away and we don’t even have a name. It’s pathetic. We’re pathetic.” She fell back in the seat but left the door open. The flurries fattened into flakes, stamping Cate’s dress for a moment before melting. I stood there, knowing this was my opportunity, and wondered if I didn’t say something now, would there be another chance? “Cate,” I said. “I don’t know if I can do this.” Cate looked up at me. Her mouth shivered from shock, or maybe it was the cold. When I rehearsed this scene in my head, I always opened with this line—Cate, I don’t know if I can. And Cate always came back with, Can, or want? Isn’t that it, Bryan? You don’t wantto do this. Isn’t that what you’re saying? In reality Cate didn’t respond at all. Or, if she did, it was a quick nod, confirming what I now realized she had known for weeks, months, longer. Then, she sat there. The snow stopped and there was nothing between us. We stayed silent on the way home. In my head I begged Cate to say something. I kept the radio off, inviting her to scream at me, pound my arm, slap my face. At the very least give me a number. A statistic: 70% of men contemplate leaving their pregnant partners, but only the worst few do; or, if you leave now, there’s a 100% chance you’ll regret it the rest of your life. She gave nothing. She didn’t ask if this meant I was leaving, if we were done for good. Maybe like me, she was afraid of the answer, of transforming a hypothetical to a permanent reality. “It has nothing to do with your disability,” I said, helping Cate climb our building’s stairs. “Thanks,” she said. “I wasn’t thinking that, but thanks.” It was dark. Inside, the apartment already felt different. Changed somehow. The wood floor was harder, the air staler, more tangible. Cate and I climbed into bed fully clothed. “You asked about the worst,” Cate said. I felt the mattress shake as she started to convulse. Out of habit, years of practice, I reached for her. “Don’t you fucking touch me,” she said. “Don’t you know? Don’t you think I know?” She rolled over, shook for a few more minutes before her body went still. Know what, she never said. And I never asked. We spent the entire night laying there, in the dark and the quiet, our bed a raft we waited to crash the shore.

 ♦◊♦

Rell and I met for one last session before he left for the conference, and then the national tournaments. I gave him a study guide for an upcoming exam, which I had no faith he would read. At this point I was certain he would fail the test, fail the course, and I would be fired. As I leaned back in my chair and looked across the table at Rell, I wondered if any of it mattered now. What did it matter when Rell, a guaranteed lottery pick in the summer draft, would soon be a millionaire? What did it matter when Cate and I couldn’t even be in the same room anymore? Rell, for his part, seemed in a studious mood. He was more somber, didn’t text, and remained wide awake. It wasn’t until our session was half over that it occurred to me something was wrong. What’s up? I asked him. Something with class? No, Rell said. Nothing to do with school. He put his hoodie over his head, casting his face in black, so I couldn’t guess his expression. Here was a moment to reach out to Rell, to pry into his life and discover what he was upset about. If not class, then basketball. If not basketball, then family. His daughter. If not one of these, then all of them. In that room was the weight of the world. After a minute of silence, Rell took his hood off and drummed his fingers. A hint of Cate’s anger and disappointment formed on his face, and as with Cate, I quickly looked away. Down at the study guide. I grabbed it and searched for something to say, some idea to put between Rell and me. My eyes found a quote from Seneca, a passage I pulled for Rell to use in the test’s long essay. I read out loud: There is no extension of our boundaries that can bring us back to our starting point. When we have done everything within our power, we shall possess a great deal; but we once possessed the world. Rell blinked. He nodded his head, taking the words in. As usual, I had no idea if what I said meant anything. “Well, Rell?” I said. “What do you think?” Rell rolled up the study guide and stuffed it in his hoodie pocket. He stood up and extended his hand. “Hey, I appreciate it,” he said. “Good luck with the kid.” He put his headphones on and turned the volume up as loud as it could go, so no matter what I said, he wouldn’t hear me. Then he left, and with the exception of TV, that was the last time I saw him.   –Flickr/StuSeeger

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About Cote Smith

Cote Smith's fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in One Story, Five Chapters, Third Coast, and elsewhere. He teaches in Kansas, where he lives with his wife and their three animals. He can be found at the dog park, as well as @cotesmith.

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