Into the Darkest Day
When Lily finds meets American GI Matthew, she’s mesmerised by him. She knows his mission will take him into battle, and that their love barely stands a chance. But she wants to listen to her heart. How can she though, when she discovers Matthew is not the man he claims to be? That he is harbouring a secret that could change not just her life, but the lives of many others…
Present day, USA:
Abby has done everything she can to keep her life quiet, unassuming and safe. Living on an apple farm in rural Wisconsin, nothing can shake her stability. Until a mysterious stranger arrives—with a Purple Heart he insists belongs to her grandfather. A medal that his own grandmother had kept for decades. But how did she end up with Abby’s grandfather’s medal? And what secrets and lies will be uncovered when they find out the truth about the past?
Release date: May 14, 2020
Print pages: 404
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Into the Darkest Day
The street is empty, the city a palette of grays, as she looks out the window and waits. She has been waiting for months, years, her whole life. And she does not know when—or if—the waiting will end.
She understands that promises can’t always be kept, and she knows better than to ask or expect words put to paper, not when the whole world has been held in the balance, life itself no more than a dandelion clock in the wind.
Still, she cranes her head to look down the street; the only signs of life she sees now are two raggedy children chasing a cat, and a charwoman lugging her pail. It is late afternoon, the sky a heavy gray, the world dispirited.
It has been three months since the victory in Europe, nearly a month since the war the world over has ended, and yet no one seems able to summon much effort to celebrate, never mind rejoice. Perhaps they are too weary; they have forgotten how to hope.
As she scans the empty street, she does not know if she hopes or not. Her belief feels more certain than that, a hope with a sure foundation, and yet even so she does not know what will happen.
He will come, she thinks.
As the sunlight is leached from the sky, she lets her mind drift. The night at The Berkeley, when they danced and drank champagne. The moment at the stairs to the Underground, and then again in the narrow little hall, when she handed him his coat and the world seemed to tilt as she forgot how to breathe.
Every memory is precious, because she knows that they are all she might have. He has not written since September last year, not one word. Perhaps he is dead. She thinks she would know that; fancifully, she believes she would feel it, but perhaps she wouldn’t. Perhaps she’ll never know.
The possibility sits inside her like a stone, a lifetime of this. There could be worse things, she tells herself practically, and of course she knows there could be. Far worse. The news has come from Germany, the terrible photographs she can’t bear to look at, and yet neither can she make herself look away. Yes, far, far worse than this.
She puts one hand on the cool glass and spreads her fingers wide as a sigh escapes her, a sound of acceptance rather than defeat. Darkness is starting to fall, like a mist creeping in. Not today, then, but perhaps tomorrow.
She will keep waiting. No matter how long, no matter how futile, she will wait.
Abby Reese watched the dust rise from the dirt road in a golden-brown plume, obscuring the car that was causing it, although she knew who was driving. At least, she acknowledged as she stood on the farmhouse’s front porch, one hand wrapped around a weathered wooden post, she knew of the driver. She’d never met Simon Elliot, and had only heard of him a few weeks ago. Yet now he was almost here, and she had no idea what to expect—a flicker of curiosity was championed by a deeper sense of trepidation, born from experience. Abby didn’t like the unexpected.
The dust cloud grew larger as the car continued down the drive, a straight shot of dirt road that Abby knew like her own hand. All thirty-two years of her life had been spent on Willow Tree Orchards, in the southern heartland of Wisconsin, the gateway—or at least one of them—to the state and its many lakes.
She straightened, her hand tightening around the post, fingers pressing into splintered wood. Next to her, her golden retriever Bailey’s tail thumped a staccato beat on the weathered boards of the porch, both of them waiting and watching as the car pulled up in front of the farmhouse and the driver cut the engine, leaving a stillness behind like an echo. She couldn’t see him through the darkly tinted windows, and she had no idea what he would look like when he opened the door—old or young? Tall or short? All he was to her at this point was a name.
Three weeks ago, Simon Elliot had written her an email through the orchard’s website, utterly out of the blue, asking to visit her and her father here in Wisconsin. The only other time she’d communicated with him was two days previous, when he’d sent a confirmation email of his visit, after he’d arrived in Chicago all the way from England. And now he was actually here, to give her—or, really, her father—something that belonged to the family. Something neither of them had even known about, or so her father said.
The car door opened and Abby stepped down from the porch, Bailey trotting at her heels. A smile flirted with her mouth and then slipped away. Nerves danced in her belly, along with a curiosity she couldn’t suppress, even though at least part of her wanted to.
“You must be Abby.” The man who emerged from the dust-streaked car had floppy brown hair, glasses, and kind eyes—brown and warm, like mahogany, like chocolate. The warmth of his expression had Abby’s smile finding its way back. The nerves settled down and her curiosity, although still wary, sharpened just that little bit.
“Yes… and you must be Simon.” Obviously. She let out a little laugh, because he was smiling and suddenly this didn’t seem as hard as she’d thought it would be. “Welcome to Willow Tree Orchards.”
“Thank you. And who is this?” He nodded towards Bailey, who was sticking to Abby’s side.
“This is Bailey. You’re all right with dogs?” Not that Bailey could do much damage. She was ten years old, a tired, faithful old girl.
“Oh, yes, certainly.” Simon bent down to pat Bailey’s head before he straightened and looked around, seeming delightfully pleased by everything he saw. “What a beautiful place you have here.”
Abby followed his gaze, taking in the familiar sight of fields rolling to a sunny horizon, the apple trees in full, verdant leaf in the distance, the clapboard farmhouse that was a hundred years old and looked it, all under a picture-perfect blue sky. Something settled in her bones, a rightness that she clung to. Yes, this was home. This was good.
“Thank you,” she said as she started towards the screen door that led inside the house. “Would you like to come in? I’ve made lemonade.”
“American lemonade?” he asked with a sparkle to his eye, and Abby nodded. What other kind was there? “Marvelous. I’d love some, thank you.”
“How long did it take you to drive from Chicago?” she asked as she led him inside, relying on the usual pleasantries to pave the way, at least until she found her social footing.
“Not long at all. An hour and a half, if that. I was expecting it to be longer. You always hear about the great distances in America, everyone taking a trip, give or take a thousand miles.”
“Yes, I suppose you do.” Not that she’d taken many, or really, any. But that was okay. That had been her choice, made deliberately and definitively, fifteen years ago.
Abby moved down the hallway with its faded runner and the grandfather clock against the wall, still ticking time away after seven decades of standing sentry, to the kitchen at the back of the house—a large, friendly room where she spent a good deal of her time, whether it was with her laptop and paperwork spread out at the old, square table, or standing by the stove, stirring something or other, while Bailey flopped at her feet.
How many evenings had she stood or sat here and watched the sun sink towards the orchards, its golden rays spreading along the backyard like melted butter? How many mornings had she cradled a cup of coffee and watched the mist melt into shreds of fog as the sun burned the last of it away?
Now she took in the view of the backyard, the burgeoning vegetable garden, and then the orchards beyond, their thick green leaves hiding the first small fruits of the season. It was early July, with still over a month to go before the first varieties of apples could be harvested—a busy time of year patrolling the orchards and inspecting the trees for insects or disease, as well as keeping their small farm shop, Abby’s own brainchild, running.
She reached for the pitcher of fresh-squeezed lemonade that had been chilling in the fridge and poured them both tall glasses, while Simon stood in the doorway, jangling the keys in his pocket and looking around. “I suppose it’s cooler on the front porch,” she said. “If you don’t mind going back outside?”
She handed Simon his glass of lemonade and he took a sip, smiling in pleasure at the taste.
“Ah, I’ve missed this.”
“Do you not have lemonade in England?”
“In some places, but lemonade is generally the fizzy drink, not fresh-squeezed. Like Sprite.”
“I see.” Abby nodded. She’d never known that, but why should she? She hadn’t been anywhere in the world but Wisconsin, save for a couple of vacations when she was a child—the ubiquitous trip to Disney, and one golden summer road trip to the Grand Canyon, which felt like a million years ago, sepia-tinted in her mind, frozen forever. “Well, enjoy,” she told him as she led the way back outside.
“Your father?” Simon asked carefully as they stepped back onto the front porch, the old boards creaking under their footsteps, Bailey between them. “Is he…?”
“He’s in the barn at the moment, inspecting a delivery of pesticide,” Abby answered. “Organic,” she added. “We do everything sustainably here.”
“So I saw on your website.” Simon gave her a glinting smile, and she looked away, finding herself just a little bit disconcerted by his easy, rather bookish charm. He looked very British, she decided, in battered cords, a slightly crumpled button-down shirt, and wire-framed glasses.
His accent sounded sophisticated—or what did the British say? Posh. It sounded like something she’d hear on one of the BBC dramas she sometimes watched on Netflix.
“So, will he be coming back soon?” Simon asked as they settled in rocking chairs on the porch, and Bailey sprawled contentedly between them. The day was warm and drowsy, a few bumblebees tumbling lazily through the still air, the scent of honeysuckle that climbed up the side of the house as sweet and heavy as perfume.
“Yes, when he can.” Abby injected a note of positivity in her voice that she didn’t necessarily feel. The truth was, when Abby had read Simon’s first email out to her father, she’d been surprised by his clear reluctance to summon any interest. He’d stated that he didn’t need to know about any medal, because the past was in the past, where it belonged. Abby had thought why can’t we live that way then? but, of course, she hadn’t said anything. They were living that way. Sort of.
Still, she hadn’t understood her father’s obvious reticence. These were different ghosts they were dealing with.
Based on his lack of enthusiasm for Simon’s visit, it hadn’t surprised her when he’d gone out to the barn right before Simon was meant to arrive. It bordered on rude, but Abby knew it wasn’t meant to be, or at least she hoped it wasn’t. It was just her father’s way of dealing, or not dealing, with something he didn’t like.
Abby was well-used to his ways, had learned a tried-and-tested method of handling him that her best friend Shannon said was dysfunctional but Abby preferred to think of as expedient. Besides, Shannon didn’t know everything, even though she thought she did. Only Abby and her father did, though they never talked about it. Only she and her father knew how to move carefully around the ghosts that drifted through every room of the house. Only she and her father knew why they were there—what had really happened the day her mother and brother had died.
“I hope he does come,” Simon said with another one of his engaging smiles, the kind that crinkled eyes and wrinkled a nose and made Abby feel like smiling back. “It was his father after all, isn’t that right?”
“Tom Reese? Yes, he is—was—my father’s father.” Abby shook her head slowly. “Although neither of us know how your grandmother could have ended up with his war medal. My father didn’t even know he had been given one in the first place.”
“I’m afraid I don’t really know why she had it, either. My grandmother didn’t tell me that part, at least not exactly, although she gave a few hints.”
“It’s very strange…”
“But intriguing, don’t you think?” Simon leaned forward, his face alight with interest, his brown eyes sparkling behind his glasses.
Abby rolled her glass, damp with condensation, between her palms.
“Yes, I suppose it is.” She knew she sounded wary, by the way Simon’s smile faltered as his curious gaze scanned her face.
When she’d read Simon’s first email, she hadn’t known what to think.
Hello, you don’t know me, but I know of you—at least a bit! My grandmother Sophie Mather died a few months ago, and she was in possession of your grandfather Tom Reese’s Purple Heart medal, awarded during his active service in the second world war. She told me she wanted it returned to “its proper owner”.
I’ve read on your website that your grandfather passed away some time ago, and I’m very sorry for your loss. I presume the proper owner would now be you or your father. I’m coming to the United States this summer for an extended visit, and would love the opportunity to return the medal to your family.
Abby had read it all, her mind both blank and spinning. Sophie Mather? What medal? And a visit?
“Do you know anything about your grandfather’s war service?” Simon asked and she looked up, shaking her head.
“No, not really.” Not at all, actually. All Abby knew was that Tom Reese had fought in Europe in the Second World War, come home to Minnesota, and then moved with his young bride Susan to Wisconsin. He’d bought Willow Tree Orchards in 1951, and died when Abby was a toddler, forty years later, a heart attack when he was seventy-one. Her grandmother had died three years after that.
Abby didn’t remember either of them really at all, save for a few vague recollections of her granny—a powdered, wrinkled cheek pressed to hers, and a tin of boiled sweets kept high on a shelf in the pantry, doled out at special moments. There was only one portrait of them to go by, hung in the hall, of Tom and Susan’s wedding day, black and white, both of them looking serious and old-fashioned, even a little bit grim.
And yet, somehow, Simon Elliot’s grandmother back in Britain had been in possession of Tom Reese’s war medal. There had to be a reason.
“It was clearly very important to her,” Simon said after a moment. “He was. The tone in her voice, the way she talked about him—they clearly had a friendship of some sort.”
Abby shifted in her seat, the rocking chair giving a protesting creak. “I really don’t know anything about it. I’m sorry…”
“He never mentioned my grandmother?” Simon asked, sounding both earnest and disappointed. “Sophie Mather? Not even in passing?”
“Not that I know of. But, as I said in the email, he died when I was a very young child. I don’t remember him at all. Maybe my father…” She stopped, not wanting to give him more hope than was warranted. She doubted very much that her father wanted to stroll down memory lane with Simon Elliot.
“Don’t be sorry.” Simon glanced out at the rolling lawns that led to the main road, everything lush and green this time of year, before the heat of the summer dried the grass out and turned it brown. “It’s so beautiful here, and I’ve always loved the States. I spent a year here after university, in Pennsylvania. I absolutely loved it.”
“What were you doing?”
“It was a teaching program for new graduates. I taught history to a bunch of students in inner-city Philadelphia.”
“Goodness. That sounds challenging.”
“Yes, but wonderful too.” He cocked his head. “What about you? Have you traveled?”
“Not at all.” She tried to lighten her response with a smile. “I’ve been to a few places in America, but basically I’ve stayed here my whole life, helping on the farm.”
“You must like it, then.”
“Yes, I do.” She spoke firmly—maybe too firmly. Abby turned her head to gaze out towards the barns, their red-painted sides weathered and peeling under the bright summer sun. She squinted, trying to make out the familiar, slightly stooped figure of her father coming across the yard, but she didn’t see him. “Should I get my dad?” she asked. “You’ll want to meet him, and I suppose the medal belongs to him, really. He was my grandfather’s only child.”
“Yes, I suppose it does. But I don’t want to trouble him—”
“It’s no trouble. I’m sure he wants to meet you.” Abby hoped she sounded more convincing than she felt. “And see the medal, of course,” she added.
“All right.” Simon’s gaze scanned her face, seeming to look for clues. Was he wondering why she wasn’t more interested, more engaged?
Abby smiled back at him, trying to convey a level of interest she wasn’t sure she felt, and she knew her father didn’t.
Sometimes the past was better buried.
Simon watched Abby walk across the yard, towards the barn. The dog had raised her head as Abby had gone down the steps, and then dropped it down again with a tired sigh. A nuthatch trilled from its branch in the giant willow in front of the house that must have given the orchard its name. Simon recognized it as the orchard’s emblem on its website.
He sat back in the rocking chair, taking a sip of lemonade as he tried to figure out what felt just a bit off about the whole situation. Abby Reese didn’t seem particularly interested in the Purple Heart, and Simon suspected her father was even less. He hadn’t been expecting unbridled enthusiasm, not like he felt, perhaps, but something.
Instead, despite the bright beauty of the day, he felt a tangible sense of sorrow hanging over the whole house like an invisible mist, and emanating from Abby herself. He saw it in her dark eyes, her uncertain smile, the careful way she spoke. And he wondered.
Of course everyone had sorrows in their life, as well as regrets. He had his fair share of both, and they could cripple him if he let them. But the Purple Heart medal was seventy-five years old. All the people involved were dead, Tom Reese for nearly thirty years. Why would his family not want to know?
Or maybe he was presuming, taking a natural reticence and making it into something bigger. Maybe David Reese would come striding onto the porch, shake his hand, and exclaim over the medal resting in its little box in his pocket.
Simon patted his trouser leg to make sure it was still there, and then he slid his phone and checked the screen for messages, although he knew better than to expect any. He saw that his message to Maggie, sent from Chicago with a picture of the Sears Tower from his hotel window, had been read, but not responded to. Par for the course, and sadly he didn’t blame her.
A noise in the distance had him looking up, and as he slid his phone back into his pocket, he saw Abby coming back across the yard, followed by a tall, rangy man with a full head of gray hair and a craggy, weathered face. He wasn’t smiling.
Simon stood up as they approached; he felt weirdly nervous. David Reese had to be six three at least, a loose-limbed man with a sense of restrained power in the way his arms swung at his sides, his long strides. He didn’t look angry, but he didn’t look friendly, either.
Abby gave them both a fleeting smile. “Dad, this is Simon Elliot. Simon, this is my father David Reese.”
David gave a nod as way of hello, and Simon smiled back.
“Pleased to meet you, sir.” He had no idea where the “sir” came from, only that with a man like David Reese it felt right, and David didn’t question it.
“Shall I get you some lemonade, Dad?” Abby asked. Her voice had an over-bright quality that Simon didn’t understand.
As Abby went into the house, David lowered himself into a rocking chair, giving the dog’s head a gentle pat before resting his large, callused hands on his thighs. He gave Simon a level look. “I’m sorry you came all this way, son. I’m not sure what I can tell you about these things.” His voice was a low rumble, and he seemed a man sparing with words. Simon tried to resist the urge to overcompensate, to crack jokes and keep things light and breezy, as was his usual nervous habit. He sensed in this case it would be a futile effort.
“I realize that, but perhaps I can tell you some things,” he said with what he hoped was an easy smile. “If you’re interested.”
“Not sure what the point is, bringing all this up now. Won’t make much difference to anything, and, as far as I’m concerned, the past is the past. Gone.”
“True… but wouldn’t you like to know why my grandmother had your father’s Purple Heart?”
David shrugged. “You don’t know, do you?”
“No, but I’d like to find out.”
David made no reply, and Simon felt as if he’d said the wrong thing.
“At least, you must want it back,” he added with a little laugh.
“If it’s here and you have it, I suppose, but I don’t see the point in anything else.” David shifted in his chair, and Simon thought he was going to say something else, but then he didn’t. The silence felt clumsy, and he struggled to know how to fill it.
This was all decidedly odd. David Reese’s reticence was far more ingrained than he’d expected; it almost felt hostile, although maybe that was just the man himself. His attitude made Simon more curious, even as he felt a desire to hand over the medal and hightail it out of Willow Tree Orchards as soon as he could. Then Abby came back onto the porch.
“Here you go, Dad.” She gave him the glass of lemonade and then took her own, leaning against the porch railing as they both waited for Simon to speak.
Simon met her gaze before hers flitted away. She was, he couldn’t help but notice, very pretty, in a quiet sort of way. Thick, dark hair caught back in a ponytail, lovely dark eyes. A sense of contained stillness about her. Was it sorrow? Or maybe just shyness? She didn’t seem nervous, though. Just reserved.
“So, why don’t I tell you what I know?” he said when the silence had stretched to several seconds, and threatened to become something seriously awkward. He tried to summon something of the cheerful tone he’d had with Abby earlier, but it was starting to feel forced.
Unsurprisingly, David didn’t respond, but Abby raised her eyebrows expectantly, giving him a little smile. Lovely smile, too.
Simon pushed the thought away as he began. “My grandmother Sophie Mather lived in London during the war. I think that’s where she must have met your father, Tom Reese.” He directed this towards David, but then glanced at Abby, who nodded encouragingly. “I don’t know the nature of their relationship, of course, but it seemed… close. My grandmother certainly spoke fondly of him before she died. She seemed to have seen quite a bit of him.”
“My father never mentioned her to me.” David moved his implacable gaze from the distance to Simon. “Not one word.” The reticence must have run in the family.
“My grandmother never said anything to me either, or my mother, until she was diagnosed with terminal cancer last year,” he agreed. Not that his grandmother had had many opportunities to share such details; her relationship with her daughter, and her daughter’s family, had been complicated and often fraught. “These things… they’re difficult to speak about, aren’t they? The war, I mean, and all that happened then. My grandmother hardly ever mentioned it.”
“There’s a reason for that.” David’s tone was flat.
“What did she say about Grandad?” Abby asked. Simon could tell she was trying to pitch her tone somewhere between cheerful and cautious, and it wavered between the two.
Her father shot her a quelling look that brought a faint flush to her cheeks. Abby had to be thirty years old, at least. What was she doing, living at home, under her father’s thumb? Or was he imagining the unhealthy dynamic, reading too much into a single look?
Simon directed his reply to David. “Not all that much, to be honest. Just that he was an American soldier stationed near London before D-Day, and they’d become… friends. She said they’d parted badly and he’d given her his medal as a keepsake. She felt it was time to give it back.” He paused. “She also said she should have given it back a long time ago, and she hoped that he could forgive her.” Another pause as he let that information sink in. “She gave me the address of your place. She said she’d lost touch with your father right after the war, but she told me she looked him up on the internet. She was surprisingly savvy, that way.” If Simon had been hoping for a small smile at that, he didn’t get one. He felt ridiculous, as if he were in a play, pretending this was a fun, friendly conversation when it was anything but. David wasn’t overtly hostile, not exactly, but close enough. “She wanted him—or his descendants—to have the medal back.” He looked between Abby and David, trying to gage Abby’s mood. Was she interested in the medal, despite her father’s determined lack of interest? “Do you… do you want to see it?”
David rose from the rocking chair with a creak of both joints and rockers. “I don’t need to see it.”
“Dad,” Abby protested quietly. “What’s the harm—”
“I already knew he was wounded.”
Abby’s eyes widened. “You never told me that—”
“There was never any reason to. He didn’t like talking about it, and it wasn’t too serious, anyway.” He turned to Simon. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m not interested in digging up the past, finding out what my father had to do with your grandmother. He was happily married to my mother for forty years. He made his life here. No good will ever come of poking around in the past, digging up things people don’t want to talk about.” He nodded towards Simon as he thrust his barely touched glass of lemonade onto the porch railing. “I appreciate your interest and concern, and I thank you for your time, going out of your way to bring back this medal, but this is the end of it,” he stated, and then, giving the dog one last pat, he stepped off the porch and started walking back towards the barn.
Wow. That had gone even worse than Abby could have possibly expected, which was saying something. She felt herself flush as the ensuing silence stretched and stretched between them. Simon looked bemused, staring after her father’s retreating back. Bailey lifted her head, looking between them, and then pressed her head against Abby’s knee, as she so often did when she sensed tension.
“I’m sorry,” Abby said at last as she fondled Bailey’s ears, her gaze lowered. “I know what it sounded like, but he really doesn’t mean to be rude.”
Simon turned to her, eyebrows raised, a wry smile quirking his mouth. “Are you sure about that?”
“It’s just… he doesn’t like talking about the past.” Which was rather obvious.
Simon nodded and sighed. “No, I’m the one who’s sorry. I don’t mean to cause trouble.” He smiled ruefully. “But I have, haven’t I? For whatever reason, your father does not want this medal back, or for anyone to talk about Tom Reese.”
“It doesn’t have to be such a mystery,” Abby felt compelled to say, although she wasn’t sure why. Maybe it was a mystery. “It’s just… my father doesn’t like anything to change.”
“But this wouldn’t change things, would it? If anything happened, it was almost eighty years ago. Surely it couldn’t matter now.”
“I know.” She gazed at her father’s retreating back as he headed into the barn, noting his heavy tread, his stooped shoulders, before dropping into the seat he’d just left. “It might change his opinion of his father, I suppose, if he got up to something…” She trailed off, unsure what she was implying, especially of Simon’s grandmother. The truth was, she had no idea why her father was so reluctant to receive the medal, or know about Simon’s grandmother. Was it just his natural reticence to talk about the past, or something deeper?
“Got up to something?” Simon repeated, sounding skeptical. “It’s true he might have had a wartime romance, years before he was married. That hardly seems scandalous.” Simon sounded gently incredulous, and Abby shrugged again, spreading her hands in a gesture of helpless apology.
“Honestly, I don’t know.”
“Do you want to see it?”
She blinked, a little startled. “The medal?”
“It belongs to your family. I need to give it back, whether you want it or not. It was my grandmother’s wish.”
“All right.” Bailey flopped on the floor again as Abby held out her hand and Simon reached into his pocket. Abby’s breath caught as he gently, and almost reverently, opened a little box and then deposited the little heart with its faded purple ribbon into her palm.
“The Purple Heart,” he stated, his tone solemn. “Awarded to men wounded in combat. That’s George Washington on the front.”
“Oldest medal in American history,” Simon continued. “Awarded to members of the military who were wounded or killed in combat, and nowadays also anyone wounded or killed in a terrorist attack.”
Abby turned the battered little heart over, to read the inscription on the other side. For Military Merit Thomas Reese. The heart felt strangely heavy resting in the palm of her hand, laden with significance.
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