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Christmas on North Tucker One.

"Do you think you're a danger to yourself or others?" Ben asked. He was the admitting nurse on the night shift. It was 6:45 a.m. He was eating an Italian sub. The ceiling above him was vaulted and high.

"And do you know what day it is?" he asked Joan.

She was checking herself into the short-term ward at Belmont Hospital. North Tucker One. Her ward, she liked to think.

"It's Christmas Eve. Do you have to eat that?"

Ben said, "Yup."

Joan liked Ben. He was handsome, black, and a little overweight. Always eating. Too comfortable but a smart person too.

She was checking herself in so she didn't have to spend the holidays alone. And maybe she had problems. She held her aluminum crutches close and looked out the window. The redbrick ward extended into the snow. It was Romanesque, with arches over the doors and a crenellated tower. Belmont had been built in the 19th century, and a roster of wealthy and distinguished patients had called the place home.

Ben touched the bald spot on the top of his head. "Are you hearing voices? "

That had been a problem once or twice. "Not voices," she said. But her Harvard Square apartment, her beautiful apartment, which she had filled with needlepoint and mobiles, pottery and cats, had not been its cozy self.

"I see people on the street with pink cheeks and packages. I don't have anybody to bring packages home to."

Again, she clutched at the crutches, which had been slipping down to the floor.

"You have a family."

"I hate them. They hate me." Her family in New York were distant, rich, cold, hurtful.

"I don't have a man." Joan sniffed. She could hardly say the word "man"; it felt so foreign to her. What good were the tiny meals she'd been eating or the family money that paid for her hospitalizations or her Mount Holyoke education--what she had of it--when she had no one to talk to? Sex?

"You're forty-eight, my friend?" Ben asked her.

She nodded yes. Joan was 48 but she had a babyish quality about her, she knew. She had never lived and looked like an odd 25-yearold. "Old and all alone." She grinned and then stopped. He wasn't laughing at her joke.

"But what would justify admitting you on Christmas Eve? We're almost full."

"This is real. I'm disturbed. Do I have to tell you? "

"You have to tell me."

"I cry all day. I can't eat. I've been cutting myself."

She showed him the red lines, some fresh, some less so, on the undersides of her wrists. She winced but Ben appeared stoic or unmoved.

He spent some time looking at his clipboard. He picked up the phone and had a conversation about beds.

Then he hung up and said, "Okay, kid, you're fooling with razors, and that weight loss of yours may be a problem. We'll admit you."

Staff were her friends. Ben smiled and stood. For an instant they were just two people in a room.

Joan said, "Thank you," in a small, shy voice. He would be nice to snuggle up to.

He interrupted her thought. "Promise me you won't fight with other patients."

She had pulled out a teenager's long, blond hair, punched an old schizophrenic woman, and many times threatened male patients who dropped their pants--a commonplace at Belmont--with castration. It was a threat taken seriously by staff, even though they routinely confiscated sharps.

She just needed to find the right person.

Claude, her favorite mental health assistant, brought her to her room. Claude had been a surgeon in Haiti, he had told her, but he didn't have a medical license here.

"Ca va?" Claude asked her.

She nodded.

Claude wore brown polyester pants and a yellow polyester shirt, open at the collar. He needed skin lotion: his hands were cracked and there were dusty, white grooves in his elbows.

The window in the door of the room he brought her to was crisscrossed with shatter-proof wire, in case patients tried to smash their hands through the glass. Lucky: there was no sign of a roommate, just two tightly made beds.

"Breakfast is here," Claude said. Breakfast came on trays at eight o'clock. A series of underground tunnels connected the buildings on grounds, and through these minions pushed gleaming stainless steel racks stacked with food.

"You must come and eat. We are worried about you. You are so thin."

Joan didn't want him to leave. She said, "I saw two people sexualizing on the couch in the dayroom when I came in." She felt her face turn sour. She put it in laymen's terms. "They were having sex."

Claude set his hand on her shoulder. Staff-patient touching was prohibited but it happened. Joan became excited when male doctors she liked touched her. But she wasn't attracted to Claude.

"Sex?" he asked. "La vie est belle, nest-ce pas, Joan? Come, join us."

"You're kind," she said, choked up.

He walked her into the dayroom. A small calendar proclaimed "Thursday, December 24." Under it a cigarette lighter was embedded in the wall. Patients were scattered throughout the room, sitting, standing, pacing. Few talked to each other for any length of time. Patients in sunglasses, patients with scars on their wrists, fat ones, anorexic ones, eating patients, patients watching TV, patients talking to themselves, patients staring quietly ahead.

Joan loathed most other patients. They were sick, horny, overweight, and poorly dressed. Some had no clothes of their own, had come in in rags or nothing and wore castoffs the hospital provided. They came in and stuffed pancakes into their mouths and let butter and syrup drip down their chins.

She sat down in a plastic bucket chair and ate oatmeal from a plastic bowl on an orange plastic tray. A large young woman leaned over to her. The woman had the ruddy skin, straight, coarse, dark hair, and strong, pronounced features of a Native American brave, but Joan knew she was from Hyde Park.

"I've been mental twelve years," the woman said. "Before that I worked at the Coop."

People finished eating. They rarely needed more than four or five minutes. They started to disperse.

Some claimed orange chairs. A few clustered back in front of the television set. Some sat down on the couch and stared at a seascape jigsaw puzzle that had been in progress for years.

The ward was stifling at best. Joan tended to forget that when she was on the outside and lonely. Outside the pleasant memory of being surrounded by other people stayed with her. She forgot certain things from one hospitalization to the next. As soon as she was admitted, though, the unpleasantness of being locked up with a bunch of lunatics clamped down around her and made it hard for her to breathe.

She slumped. "I hate the hospital," she said to no one.

"I've been hospitalized fourteen times," George Peabody called.

Joan had been there for at least half a dozen of them.

He punctuated his remark. "Ha, ha, ha." He stood looking out at her, imprisoned by his quiet room. The quiet room had pink walls and nothing in it but a bare mattress. "Ha, ha, ha, ha. Ha."

George always laughed. At first, Joan had thought that it stemmed from an exaggerated sense of mirth, some form of Brahmin insouciance. Then she had realized that the laughter was mania. When George was out of the quiet room, he hung girly pictures on his walls. To Joan's mind that was character flaw, not illness.

"Meds," the head nurse, Mary Ellen, shouted from the nurses' station. That would make it 9:00 a.m. Mary Ellen was tubby and Irish Catholic, curly-haired, and maybe pretty once. Everybody liked her. Everybody lined up. Haldol for the Coop employee. Lithium for George Peabody. And 150 milligrams of Wellbutrin for Joan.

She accepted a little ketchup-dispensing cup with the two light-orange pills in it. "Really?" she asked. "I'm depressed?"

"Isn't that what you want? Take the pills," Mary Ellen said. "Juice or water? "

Joan preferred water and swallowed the pills. George took his Lithium, laughed, and dropped his pants, revealing a cluster of flesh so pale, it was almost gray.

"Froehliche Weihnachten," he said. He loomed in a threatening manner, shaking.

"Go away," Joan said but he had cheered her.

"I played rugby at Columbia." George pulled up his pants at Mary Ellen's directive. "Ha, ha, ha. I told my doctor I have nothing against him except that he's a Dartmouth man."

George wasn't the person for her, even if he was Ivy League. She had seen his private parts many times and didn't care for them. He wore a navy blue windbreaker. He frequented strip clubs and his tongue lolled. She wondered if she would ever find anybody. She imagined herself with someone professional. She wanted someone who would be nice to her. Not a patient, maybe not a doctor. Who then?

"Okay, everybody, OT room, group therapy," the other nurse on duty, Nicole, shouted.

"I like Nicole." George attempted to whistle as the nurse walked down the hall. Nicole was from New York and, this morning, wore black leather pants.

"Nicole's been around the block and back. Ha, ha, ha. Ha."

"Everybody here has been around the block," Nicole said.

Joan positioned her crutches.

"You're not fooling anybody with those." Nicole hung her index fingers in her leather belt loops.

It was true. She didn't need them.

The occupational therapy room was populated with soft, welcoming maroon leather chairs. Joan sunk into one. She faced sunshine-filled windows and thriving plants. A wall of cubbyholes was stacked with pads of paper, paint, and folded smocks. Cheerful and colorful, that was OT. Was it OT or Wellbutrin that was making Joan smile?

"We have another new admit this morning," Nicole said. "He's a guy, Joan," she added.

Mary Ellen stood at the door with him. "This is Geoffrey."

"You can join us in group," said Nicole.

"I don't think that will be necessary," the man said. "I'll just walk around and get acquainted with the place."

"It's necessary." Nicole pointed to a chair.

Joan looked at the new man. Early 30s. She had never seen him before, and although it was clear somehow that he wasn't staff, he didn't seem like a patient. He was slender, with blond hair. Did it look dyed? She ignored that. He wore loafers with tassels, immaculate, creased blue jeans, and, over a pink shirt, a cheap-looking, white V-necked sweater that bore, in a machine-embroidered crimson script, the word "Harvard." This must be her lucky day.

"Geoffrey?" Mary Ellen asked. "Come in and sit down. Tell us what's going on."

He came in but he didn't sit down.

"I went to Mount Holyoke," Joan said, tugging neatly at her cuffs.

The man glanced at her. "I went to Harvard." He pointed at the insignia on his chest.

She pulled a sprig of ivy from a pot behind her head and twined it around her finger.

"Tell the truth, Joan," Nicole said.

"You're not a very nice person." Joan looked at Nicole and then turned to Geoffrey. "I went for a semester--until I panicked at midterms and went into the hospital for the first time." She started to sniffle. "I was only eighteen."

"Boo hoo." An emaciated teenage girl sneered and tucked her feet underneath her on her chair.

Geoffrey said, "My wife committed suicide. I've been up all night."

Joan was delighted. Clean, thin, Harvard, and unattached!

"And I might commit suicide," he said.

"Don't pull that shit around here," Nicole said. "Don't you dare. Not on my ward."

He blinked and quivered slightly.

"I've tried to kill myself," Joan said to Geoffrey. She touched the short hair at her temples and wished for more of it.

There was a commotion to the left. Cammie MacAusland had vomited on his hand-knit sweater and all over the floor. Patients put their feet up on their leather chairs. Cammie lifted his ponytail gracefully out of the way. He'd been to Putney before he'd done too much LSD. Nicole called housekeeping to clean up his puke.

"Geoffrey, sit down," Mary Ellen said. "You're making me nervous."

He sat down in an armchair next to Joan. She beamed.

"I can't hack too much of this loony bin stuff," he said to her. "I'm not really that way myself."

"Everyone says that when they're new here; even when they're completely crazy," Joan said.

Nicole pointed at him. "Someone brought you in. Why? "

Geoffrey said, "I'm lonely."

"Tell us about your loneliness." Mary Ellen smiled and clasped her hands.

"That was a private conversation," Joan said.

Nicole said, "This is a public group."

Geoffrey pulled his sweater over his head and folded it neatly. He tossed his hair into formation. "I'm lonely and I lie," he said.

Joan said, "I'm lonely because I don't have a boyfriend."

"Spare me," said the emaciated girl.

"We could walk around grounds together." Joan felt herself leer at him. Crud.

Whoops and groans from those group members who were lucid enough to be listening.

"Geoffrey, what do you say? Would you like to take a walk with Joan here? She's an interesting woman."

"Possibly," Geoffrey said.

"Isn't that nice." Mary Ellen stood up and tied a yellow smock around her large midriff. "Now we're going to take paper and markers and draw what we want to get out of our hospitalizations."

"Drawing is optional," Joan told Geoffrey. She carried her crutches out the door. She almost wanted to whistle a tune in the linoleum hallway. In her room she changed into blue jeans and a turtleneck. Wasn't that collegiate? The turtleneck, unfortunately, emphasized the flatness of her chest.

She reminded herself that, at 48, she was still a virgin. And here she was, a mental patient at Christmastime, wishing she could get to know another mental patient. It was pathetic. But she conjured a picture of Geoffrey--smoothing over certain details--and swore that if she had the chance, she would do something about him.

The regulation Belmont closets barely held all the clothes she had brought. She admired the size-four herringbone jumper she had taken off, a recent purchase, and hung it on her own wooden hanger. Then she arranged her glass figurines on the windowsill, picking up the horse and making him gallop. Suddenly, she felt sad again and stared out the window at the snow and the distant trees. She took her vanilla wafers out of her monogrammed tote bag and ate a few of them.

Someone cleared his throat at her open door. She turned and saw Geoffrey standing there.

"I thought this was my room," he said.

She didn't see how that could be true, but she decided not to care.

She sat down on her bed and patted a spot next to her. Somewhat surprisingly, he sat down.

"Did you like Harvard?" Her face was tight with nerves.

"Who wouldn't? They set you up for life."

"So what happened to you?"

"I'm sensitive." Out of his pocket he pulled a watch, an heirloom watch that belonged to Cammie.

"I have something for you," he said.

"Where did you get that?"

"I found it."


"Suit yourself. Hey, is it true that actress from Cambridge checked in here? "

"Was she a cutter?"

"Jesus, a what? "

"Someone who cuts her wrists. I might know her."


"I did it." Joan showed him her wrists.

"That's sick," Geoffrey said, standing up.

"So what's your method of choice?"

Just then Claude appeared with his clipboard and said, "Checks." When he saw them together, he smiled and closed the door, which was prohibited. Joan took it as a sign. Whatever had been said or done, she had made her decision. She pulled her turtleneck off over her head. When she remembered that she was wearing an undershirt, she was embarrassed.

His face was grave. "I'm glad you did that."

"I don't have any bosoms."

"I think you look cute."

"Would you like to have sex?" She giggled in a way that even she could hear was weird. "I've never done it before."

"I don't really do that with anyone," Geoffrey said.

Outside a snowball hit the screen, making a muffled sound.

"Not even your wife? "

He hesitated. "That's a different situation."

"You won't take any clothes off?"

"Quit asking," he said. "Sorry. I'm not mean. I'm a mess."

He sat back down next to her. The only sound was the floor buffer outside. Joan knew the janitor who pushed it. They were silent for a while.

"This is my most comfortable moment in years," she said.

Geoffrey started to cry, his whole body heaving.

"What did I say?"

"My cousin brought me in. That asshole. " He snorted back his tears and inspected his tassel loafers. He looked at her in a manner she couldn't decipher. "Fuck it. Would you like to go to the Chestnut Hill Mall?"

From the dining area Mary Ellen called, "Lunch!" That would make it 11:30 a.m., Thursday, Christmas Eve.

They sat at a round table, eating hamburgers and French fries. Joan hoped people noticed that Geoffrey was sitting with her.

"Since it's Christmas Eve," he said, wiping at his lip with his paper napkin, "I have some shopping to do. I need to get away from these thoughts of my wife."

Had that sounded canned?

"I mean, wouldn't you like to get out of here?"

Outside the sky was white. Staff had posted the weather report--snow.

"Come on, I need you to come." He tapped her foot with his. "It will be nice with the Christmas decorations. And shopping is such a rush."

Had he said he needed her?

"If we can get privileges."

"Screw that."

In the hallway staff were chatting with each other. Joan felt wistful.

"It will be good for you," Mary Ellen said when the outing was explained.

Nicole was less sure. She handed Joan a piece of paper with the ward number written on it. Joan reached down into her bag and let the paper fall where it might.

"Have fun, mes enfants," said Claude.

Joan chalked their departure time and destination on the five-foot-high blackboard in the hall. Claude walked them to the vestibule, pulled a big, round key ring out of his pocket, and unlocked the ward's two sets of doors, where a handwritten sign read, "Split Risk." Staff jargon meaning beware. Someone on the ward was trying to escape.

Leaving the building and stepping out into cold air, Joan thought of what would be happening on North Tucker One while she was absent. There would be no doctors over the holiday. No appointments, no more groups, no scheduled activities, no structure after lunch. There would only be waiting and cigarettes, each other and food. And, of course, their thoughts, their raging thoughts. George Peabody's mind would roam over his premania days, playing rugby at Columbia. He'd resent his old, cruel mother, hunkered down in her furs and her jewels at Longwood Towers, never giving him a cent. He'd ponder what he'd like to do with Nicole; she'd take his vital signs wearing only scanty lingerie while he.. .forget it.

"Can I have a cigarette?" the woman who had worked at the Coop would plead as soon as she'd finished her last one.

"One an hour," Mary Ellen would say for the hundredth time.

Psychotic men and women would pace up and down the dayroom, Walkmen in their ears to help drown out their voices. Patients whose suffering was acute would get PRN medication. Visiting families would chat with staff or sit with their hospitalized daughters and sons, the patients looking at the floor, hunching, shifting their feet. The visits were never short enough, never long enough.

"I'm so excited!" Joan said as they walked down the path flanked by trees that would bloom in the spring. Belmont sat on top of a hill. In the distance the mountains of western Massachusetts were visible.

"I have a BMW," Geoffrey said, "but don't think I'm rich or anything. It's leased."

The car was white. "Why are you parked in the visitors' parking lot? "

He answered with, "My name is Ivan."

"You lied to staff?"

He held the car door for her, and they drove down the hill and exited hospital grounds.

"Do I need to feel unsafe with you? "

"I lied to hide my identity. No. Just kidding. You can feel safe. We're alike."

She grinned. "We're preppy."

"Harvard and that."

"Do I really?" Joan asked. "Seem preppy?"

"Preppy and, yeah, wealthy, with that camel's hair coat you're wearing." He leaned forward to wipe a tiny speck off the windshield. "You're an interesting person, just like that nurse said. Obviously, you're intelligent. You're not even really shy. Even if you are psycho."

"Watch it, mister."

"One problem I have is with lying."

"You've made that clear."

Then they were silent until Geoffrey said, "Here we are."

They entered a sea of cars. Joan raked her hair with a small tortoiseshell comb while Geoffrey circled for a spot. Joan hadn't been to a mall since she was a little girl, when malls were still called shopping centers. Snow fell and Geoffrey parked and held her hand as they crossed toward the stores. When they stepped inside Joan gasped.

"It looks like a fantasy world."

White lights cascaded from the soaring ceiling, and giant sprays of green scented the air. On a central dais a woman in a black velvet dress sang "O Come All Ye Faithful" while a man accompanied her on a grand piano. Bells were ringing somewhere. A spiral staircase wound up to the mall's second level, a curlicue of possibility.

But no sooner had Joan and Geoffrey joined the throng of shoppers than it began--rude, crass people carrying two or three overloaded shopping bags, all jostling past.

Geoffrey--what had he said about his name?--seemed to have shifted into a higher gear.

"Listen," he said, pulling Joan back against the glass wall of a candy store, "how much do you like me?"

"I don't have any basis for comparison."

"See, I left my wallet at home. When I had to leave my house. You know, when my wife committed suicide." He put a blank, serious expression on his face. "I need new things."

"Is that all?" Joan's father had supplied her with the full complement of credit cards. Every month he replenished her checking account and paid off her charge bills. "I have Visa Platinum and American Express Gold and then all the stores and my checkbook," she said.

"Great," he said, nodding maybe too vigorously. "I need to go into Filene's. To pick out some things."

More flirtatious than she'd ever felt, she asked, "Buy me a red cashmere sweater? "

"First, you have to wait here in the courtyard."

"But this is the best Christmas I've ever--"

He took her hand, stopping her midsentence. He started to say, "I'm not--"

"I don't care what you are." She slipped her bag off her shoulder and handed it to him.

"There is no wife."

Joan felt the smile fixed on her face. "I know you miss her."

He leaned down slowly and kissed the top of her head.

"Don't move from this spot," he said. "Keep in mind, I like you."

She felt her face go slack, a gash of delight.

Geoffrey merged with the shoppers. At the entrance to Filene's, he turned back to look at her and then stepped lightly in.

A kiss. Wouldn't Nicole be surprised when they came back to the ward a couple? Joan has been around the block.

Twenty minutes passed. People pushed by furiously and it was loud. She couldn't wait to shop with Geoffrey. What would she buy for her fellow patients? A sport jacket for George Peabody. Knitting needles and yarn for the Indian brave. A new sweater for Cammie MacAusland. Wouldn't that show how she'd changed?

Another 20 minutes passed. She began to feel uneasy. Her ears were ringing. It occurred to her that she hadn't heard voices in several years. The first time had been when she was in college. She'd been studying French history. She would have to tell Geoffrey about it. But where was he? Why hadn't he come back? She remembered the panic she'd felt when confronted with an essay question on Saint Joan, her namesake, and Joan's Dauphin. She had often, since then, likened herself to the Maid of Orleans. The way they both suffered.

After 20 more minutes the crowd backed her flat against the candy store wall, where huge, pink lollipops loomed on their sticks like menacing flamingos. The panic arrived full force. She felt like her Joan, amid the swirl of people. She feared, yet again, the onset of her voices. Save France! There was roaring in her ears. She wanted to call Mary Ellen and Nicole, her Saint Margaret and Saint Catherine. They were saying to her, "Have fun! Be careful! Watch out!" The phone number was in her bag, with Geoffrey, and so was all her money.

Where was he? She needed help. She tapped the shoulder of a passing man in a Harvard sweatshirt, but he said, "Ha! Ha, ha, ha, ha!"

She started to cry. Over an hour had gone by since she'd seen Geoffrey. She didn't care if he wanted her to wait; she headed for Filene's. Red dresses filled racks crammed so close together that she had to wade through them. Red dresses blazed on the floor. The noise was so loud as to create an inferno. Hell, she thought, and then saw red flames licking at her feet. She was Saint Joan burning at the stake. She stepped, twisted her foot in fabric, and fell to her knees. Chiffon embers ate her up.

"Geoffrey," she screamed. "Help me!"

A cab was ushering her through snow-dusted suburbs. After she didn't know how long, a woman had learned who she was, given her money, and sent her on her way. The woman had retreated quickly, not wanting to get involved. No one wanted to get involved.

No wife. He had meant it. She had thought he liked her, but he had lied to her. He had lied to staff. He had told her there was no wife, and she hadn't been able to take it in. Why did she never change? Why had a man fooled her on Christmas Eve? He was never coming back.

The cab wound up the long drive, through the wooded hospital grounds. Joan thought of the chief psychiatrist's wife's hand-drawn map, "Trees of Belmont." That was WASPy. If she knew anything, Joan knew this place. She gave the driver all the money she had.

"Merry Christmas, dearie," he said.

She rang the bell of the ward.

"Ma petite." Claude let her in.

"Where's Geoffrey?" Mary Ellen drew Joan close to her.

"I don't know." She felt the need for crutches and let herself fall from Mary Ellen's arms into Ben's. He would soon start his shift.

"We'll take care of you," he said, righting her.

"My jumper is all dusty."

"Did he hurt you?" Nicole wiped at her, more like hitting her.

"No. But he lied, just like he warned us he would. Why didn't you protect me? He left. He didn't come back. He took my bag, with my wallet and checkbook and credit cards."

"Christ," Nicole said. "I'll call your father."

Joan started to cry.

"The Christmas party is still going on in the dayroom." Mary Ellen walked with her. "You're not too late."

"No one cares about me," said Joan.

"We care about you," said Mary Ellen.

"You're paid to care about me."

On a steel rack in the dayroom sat an enormous turkey carcass. Wielding a knife, the Native American woman ate brownies out of a baking tin.

"Looks like you all had a field day," Joan said. She meant it kind of nicely, and she wiped her tears on a paper napkin depicting angels.

"Let's sing Christmas carols," Mary Ellen said. She handed out sheets with the words. George Peabody played the recorder, and the rest of them sang "Jingle Bells," jerky, timid, not in unison.

The song ended. It was deathly quiet. Cammie MacAusland sat forward in his chair and pulled at his ponytail. "Why do we have this disease? It's tragic."

The last light of the day entered the room at a slant. Crazy snowflakes leaped outside the windows. No one moved. The umpteenth change of mood in a day: Joan felt strangely serene.

And then, hefting Joan's bag and a wrapped present, Geoffrey stepped past Claude and into the dayroom.

"I wanted to sneak in," he told them.

"Why'dja come back?" Nicole had her hands on her hips.

"I lie. I steal. I got myself in trouble, and I tried to kill myself. My cousin found me in the garage with the engine on."

The patients shifted in their seats. They all hated to be reminded of suicide.

"That's disgusting," Joan said.

"I brought you a present." He lofted a bag from Jaeger's. "Take it so I don't feel guilty."

"You bought it with my money."


She tore off the wrapping paper and, out of a decorative box, drew a red cashmere sweater.

"Forgive me? "

She beamed.

Claude said, "La vie est belle, n'est-ce pas, Joan?"
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Author:Holmes, Margaret N.
Article Type:Short story
Date:Dec 22, 2009
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