From Bram Stoker Award nominee Ronald Malfi comes a brilliantly chilling novel of childhood revisited, memories resurrected, and fears reborn.
When Laurie was a little girl, she was forbidden to enter the room at the top of the stairs. It was one of many rules imposed by her cold, distant father. Now, in a final act of desperation, her father has exorcised his demons. But when Laurie returns to claim the estate with her husband and ten-year-old daughter, it’s as if the past refuses to die. She feels it lurking in the broken moldings, sees it staring from an empty picture frame, hears it laughing in the moldy greenhouse deep in the woods.
At first, Laurie thinks she’s imagining things. But when she meets her daughter’s new playmate, Abigail, she can’t help but notice her uncanny resemblance to another little girl who used to live next door … who died next door. With each passing day, Laurie’s uneasiness grows stronger, her thoughts more disturbing. Like her father, is she slowly losing her mind? Or is something truly unspeakable happening to those sweet little girls?
Release date: June 27, 2017
Publisher: Pinnacle Books
Print pages: 352
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“Glad to see Lurch from The Addams Family has found work,” Ted commented as he shut off the car.
“It looks like a haunted house,” Susan spoke up from the backseat, a comment that seemed to underscore Laurie’s initial impression of the ghostlike man who stood beneath the partial shade of the porch alcove. Susan was ten and had just begun vocalizing her critical observations to anyone within earshot. “And who’s Lurch?”
“Ah,” said Ted. “When did popular culture cease being popular?”
“I’m only ten,” Susan reminded him, closing the Harry Potter book she had been reading for much of the drive down from Connecticut. She had been brooding and sullen for the majority of the trip, having already pitched a fit back in Hartford about having to spend summer vacation away from her friends and in a strange city, all of it because of a grandfather she had never known.
Who could blame her? Laurie thought now, still staring out the passenger window at the man on the porch. I’d pitch a fit, too. In fact, I just might do it yet.
Ted cupped his hands around his mouth. “Thank you for flying Genarro Airlines! Please make sure your tray tables are up before debarking.”
Susan giggled, her mood having changed for the better somewhere along Interstate 95. “Barking!” she cried happily, misinterpreting her father’s comment, then proceeded to bark like a dog. Ted wasted no time barking right along with her.
Laurie got out of the car and shivered despite the afternoon’s mild temperature. In the wake of her father’s passing, and for no grounded reason, she had expected her old childhood home to look different—empty, perhaps, like the molted skin of a reptile left behind in the dirt, as if the old house had nothing left to do but wither and die just as its master had done. But no, it was still the same house it had always been: the redbrick frame beneath a slouching mansard roof; Italianate cornices of a design suggestive of great pinwheels cleaved in half; a trio of arched windows on either side of the buckling front porch; all of which was capped by a functional belvedere that stood up against the cloudy June sky like the turret of a tiny castle. That’s where it happened, Laurie thought with a chill as her eyes clung to the belvedere. It looked like a tiny bell tower sans bell, but was really a little room with windows on all four sides. Her parents had used it mostly for storage back when they had all still lived here together, before her parents’ separation. Laurie had been forbidden to go up there as a child.
Trees crowded close to the house and intermittent slashes of sunlight came through the branches and danced along the east wall. The lawn was unruly and thick cords of ivy climbed the brickwork. Many windows on the ground floor stood open, perhaps to air out the old house, and the darkness inside looked cold and bottomless.
Laurie waved timidly at the man on the porch. She thought she saw his head bow to her. Images of old gothic horrors bombarded her head. Then she looked over her shoulder to where Ted and Susan stood at the edge of a small stone well that rose up nearly a foot from a wild patch of grass and early summer flowers on the front lawn. Yes, I remember the well. Back when she had been a child, the well had been housed beneath a wooden portico where, in the springtime, sparrows nested. She recalled tossing stones into its murky depths and how it sometimes smelled funny in the dead heat of late summer. Now, the wooden portico was gone and the well was nothing but a crumbling stone pit in the earth, covered by a large plank of wood.
Without waiting for Ted and Susan to catch up, Laurie climbed the creaky steps of the porch, a firm smile already on her face. The ride down to Maryland from Connecticut had exhausted her and the prospect of all that lay ahead in the house and with the lawyer left her empty and unfeeling. She extended one hand to the man in the black overcoat and tried not to let her emotions show. “Hello. I’m Laurie Genarro.”
A pale hand with very long fingers withdrew from one of the pockets of the overcoat. The hand was cold and smooth in Laurie’s own. “The daughter,” the man said. His face was narrow but large, with a great prognathous jaw, a jutting chin, and the rheumy, downturned eyes of a basset hound. With the exception of a wispy sweep of colorless hair across the forehead, his scalp was bald. Laurie thought him to be in his late sixties.
“Yes,” Laurie said. “Mr. Brashear was my father.”
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you.” She withdrew her hand from his, thankful to be rid of the cold, bloodless grasp. “I was expecting Ms. Lorton.. . .”
“I’m Dora’s brother, Felix Lorton. Dora’s inside, straightening up the place for you and your family. She was uncomfortable returning here alone after . . . well, after what happened. My sister can be foolishly superstitious. I apologize if I’ve frightened you.”
“Not at all. Don’t be silly.” But he had frightened her, if just a little.
Across the front yard, Susan squealed with pleasure. Ted had lifted the corner of the plank of wood covering the well, and they were both peering down into it. Susan said something inaudible and Ted put back his head and laughed.
“My husband and daughter,” Laurie said. She recognized a curious hint of apology in her tone and was quickly embarrassed by it.
“Splendid,” Felix Lorton said with little emotion. Then he held out a brass key for her.
“I have my own.” David Cushing, her father’s lawyer, had mailed her a copy of the key along with the paperwork last week.
“The locks have been changed recently,” said Felix Lorton.
“Oh.” She extended her hand and opened it, allowing Lorton to drop the key onto her palm. She was silently thankful she didn’t have to touch the older man’s flesh again. It had been like touching the flesh of a corpse.
“Hi, there!” It was Ted, peering up at them through the slats in the porch railing while sliding his hands into the pockets of his linen trousers. There was the old heartiness in Ted’s voice now. It was something he affected when in the company of a stranger whom he’d had scarce little time to assess. Ted was two years past his fortieth birthday but could pass for nearly a full decade younger. His teeth were white and straight, his skin unblemished and healthy-looking, and his eyes were both youthful and soulful at the same time, a combination many would have deemed otherwise incompatible. He kept himself in good shape, running a few miles every morning before retiring to his home office for the bulk of the afternoon where he worked. He could work for hours upon end in that home office back in Hartford without becoming fidgety or agitated, classical music issuing from the Bose speakers his only companion. Laurie envied his discipline.
“That’s my husband, Ted,” Laurie said, “and our daughter, Susan.”
Susan sidled up beside her father, her sneakers crunching over loose gravel. Her big hearty smile was eerily similar to his. She had on a long-sleeved cotton jersey and lacrosse shorts. At ten, her legs were already slim and bronze, and she liked to run and play sports and had many friends back in Hartford. She was certainly her father’s daughter.
“Nice to meet you folks. I’m Felix Lorton.”
“There are frogs in the well,” Susan said excitedly.
Lorton smiled. It was like watching a cadaver come alive on an autopsy table, and the sight of that smile chilled Laurie’s bones. “I suppose there are,” Lorton said to Susan. He leaned over the railing to address the girl, his profile stark and angular and suggestive of some predatory bird peering down from a tree branch at some blissfully unaware prey. “Snakes, sometimes, too.”
Susan’s eyes widened. “Snakes?”
“Oh, yes. After a heavy rain, and if it’s not covered properly, that well fills up and it’s possible to see all sorts of critters moving about down there.”
“Neat!” Susan chirped. “Do they bite?”
“Only if you bite first.” Lorton chomped his teeth hollowly. Then he turned his cadaverous grin onto Laurie. “I suppose I should take you folks inside now and introduce you to Dora.”
“Yes, please,” Laurie said, and they followed Felix Lorton into the house.
She had grown up here, though the time spent within these shadowed rooms and narrow hallways seemed so long ago that it was now as foreign to her as some childhood nightmare, or perhaps a threaded segment of some other person’s life. Her parents had divorced when she was not much older than Susan, and she and her mother had left this house and Maryland altogether to live with her mother’s family in Norfolk, Virginia. Subsequent visits to the house were sporadic at best, dictated by the whim of a father who had been distant and cold even when they had lived beneath the same roof. Her mother had never accompanied her on those visits, and when they stopped altogether, Laurie felt a warm relief wash over her. In her adult life, Laurie had chosen to maintain her distance, and she had never returned to this unwelcoming, tomblike place. Why should she force a relationship on a father who clearly had no interest in one? Even now, despite the horrors that had allegedly befallen her father, Laurie felt little guilt about her prolonged absence from his life.
“This place could be a stunner if it was renovated properly,” Ted commented as Lorton led them through a grand entranceway. “I didn’t realize the house was so big.”
“Is it a mansion?” Susan asked no one in particular.
“No,” Ted answered, a wry grin on his face now, “but it’s close.”
The foyer itself was large and circular, from which various hallways speared off like spokes on a wheel. There was an immense crystal chandelier directly above the entranceway and a set of stairs against one wall leading to the second story. The floors were scuffed and dulled mahogany, with some noticeable gashes dug into the dark wood. Some of the floorboards creaked.
Laurie paused at the foot of the stairs. She felt Lorton hovering close behind her. A cool sweat rose to the surface of her skin and the nape of her neck prickled hotly. “I’m sorry,” she said, reaching out and grasping the decorative head of the newel post for support. “I just need a minute.”
Ted asked if she was okay.
“It’s just a bit overwhelming, that’s all.”
Frightened, Susan said, “Mommy?”
Laurie offered the girl a tepid smile, which Susan returned wholeheartedly. “Mommy’s okay, sweetheart,” she said, and was glad when her voice did not waver.
Ted came up behind Laurie and squeezed her shoulder with one firm hand.
“It has been a while since you were last here, Mrs. Genarro?” Felix Lorton asked.
“It has, yes,” she confirmed. “I spent my childhood here but haven’t been back in many years.”
Felix Lorton nodded. “Understandable.”
After Laurie regained her composure, Felix Lorton led them into the parlor. The walls were drab, the paint cracked and peeling. A comfortable sofa and loveseat sat corralled on a threadbare oriental carpet before a dark stone hearth. A few books stood on a bookshelf, while an ancient Victrola cabinet squatted in one corner, its lacquered hood raised. Beside the phonograph was a small upright piano, shiny and black. A tarnished candelabrum stood on the piano’s hood. At the opposite end of the room, a liquor cabinet with a mesh screen for a door displayed a collection of antediluvian bottles. The windows in this part of the house faced a green yard and, beyond, a wooden fence that separated the side of the house and backyard from the neighboring property which, from what Laurie was able to glimpse, looked overgrown with heavy trees and unkempt shrubbery. The whole room smelled unsparingly of Pine-Sol.
“Strange,” commented Ted. He was staring at a large gilded frame on one wall. The frame held no lithograph, no portrait, though bits of it still clung to the inside of the frame. Aside from that, it framed nothing but the blank wall on which it sat. “What happened to the picture?”
Felix Lorton cleared his throat and said, “I wouldn’t know, sir.”
“Did you work for my father as well, Mr. Lorton?” Laurie asked as she walked slowly around the room. Beneath the cloying smell of Pine-Sol, she could detect the stale odor of cigar smoke, and for a brief moment she was suddenly ushered back to her youth. Her father had often smoked the horrid things. The parlor had been arranged differently back then, her mother having brought to it a domestic femininity it now sorely lacked. Cigar smoking had not been permitted in the house, and Laurie recalled a sudden image of her father standing just beyond the windows of this room, firmly planted in the strip of lawn that ran alongside the fence while he puffed away on one of his cigars. The vision was so distant, Laurie wondered if it was a real memory or some nonsense she had just conjured from thin air.
“No, ma’am, I did not. My sister was assigned to take care of your father from the service. When things got . . . more difficult. . . the service brought on another girl to assist with the caretaking responsibilities. A night nurse. You’re aware of this, I presume?”
“I had been coming around on occasion in the past few months, Mrs. Genarro, mostly to do minor repairs. Old houses like these . . .” There was no need for him to complete the thought. “When Dora said the locks needed to be changed, I came and changed them. That sort of thing.”
“Why were the locks changed?” she asked.
“You’ll have to speak with Dora about that.”
Laurie frowned. “If it was necessary to have someone maintain the property, I wish the service would have told me. I don’t like the idea of you having to take care of my father’s things for free.”
“It wasn’t like that at all, ma’am. My sister had simply requested I come with her so she wouldn’t have to be here alone.”
“What about the other girl?” Laurie asked. “The night nurse?”
“They were never here at the same time. They worked in shifts. Toward the end, your father required around-the-clock care, as I’ve been told. I presume you were kept up to date on all of this?”
“Yes. I was aware of my father’s condition.” Then she frowned. “Why wouldn’t Dora want to be here alone?”
“You’ll have to ask her, ma’am,” said Lorton. It was becoming his automatic response. “If you don’t mind my asking, where do you folks currently reside?”
“Hartford, Connecticut,” Laurie said. She feigned interest in the crumbling mortar of the fireplace mantel. As a child, there had been framed photographs and various other items on the mantelpiece. Now, it was barren. “It took us longer to get here than we thought,” she added, as if the distance excused her absence from this place and her father’s life.
What do I have to feel guilty about? she wondered. He was never there for me; why should I have been there for him? Anyway, what business is it of Felix Lorton’s?
“Understandable. Please have a seat and I’ll go fetch my sister,” Lorton said, extending a hand toward the sofa and loveseat. “Would any of you like something to drink?”
“Ice water would be great,” Ted said. He was examining the spines of the few books on the bookshelf.
“Do you have any grape juice, please?” Susan asked.
The question caused Felix Lorton to suck on his lower lip while his eyes narrowed to slits. A sound like a frog’s croak rumbled at the back of the man’s throat.
“Water will be fine for her, too,” Laurie assured him.
“Very well,” Lorton said, then disappeared down the hall that led to the kitchen.
“All these books have pages torn out of them,” Ted said, replacing one of the leather-bound editions back on the shelf. “How strange.”
Laurie went to one of the windows and looked out onto the side yard. The lawn was spangled with sunlight and the wooden fence was green and furry with mildew. Tree branches drooped over the fence from the neighboring yard, the trees themselves all but blotting out the house next door. She could make out shuttered windows and dark, peeling siding. A green car of indeterminable make and model was parked in the neighbor’s driveway and there was another vehicle with some sort of emblem on the door parked on the street. The Russ family had lived there when she was a girl. Laurie wondered who lived there now.
“This house smells funny,” Susan said. She was crouching down to peer into the black, sooty maw of the hearth. “It reminds me of Miss Tannis’s house back home.” Bertha Tannis was the elderly widow who lived two houses down from the Genarros in Hartford. When she was younger, Susan would sometimes go there after school if both Laurie and Ted weren’t home to greet her.
Ted went over and sat on the loveseat. He sighed dramatically as he draped an arm over the high back. “I should have asked the old galantuomo for a scotch and soda.”
“Is this where bats live?” Susan asked, still peering into the fireplace. She was trying to look up into the chimney, but there was a tri-panel screen in the way blocking her view.
“It’s a fireplace, Snoozin,” Ted said, using their daughter’s much hated nickname. “You know what that is.”
“I know what it is,” she retorted, “but there’s animals out here. Not like we have at home. Didn’t you hear what the man said about the snakes in the well?”
“There are no snakes in the well,” Ted assured her. He sounded bored, tired. It had been a long drive down from Connecticut for him, too. “He was just pulling your leg.”
“What does ‘pulling your leg’ mean?”
“It means he was joking.”
“I know it means that, Daddy, but why does it mean that?”
“I don’t know. That’s a good question.”
Felix Lorton returned with two tall glasses of ice water. He set them on the coffee table between the sofa and the loveseat. Laurie caught Lorton eyeing Ted ruefully, as if he did not approve of the man lounging on the loveseat in such a casual fashion.
“Thank you,” Ted said, picking up his glass and taking a healthy drink from it.
“Why does someone say ‘pulling your leg’ when they’re telling you a joke?” Susan asked Felix Lorton.
The man straightened his back and lifted his head just enough so that the bands of loose flesh beneath his neck hung like a dewlap. He cleared his throat. “To pull one’s leg is to make a fool of them, as in to trip them up and make them fall down.” Felix Lorton spoke with an authority Laurie found comical, particularly when addressing a ten-year-old girl. Laurie bit the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing.
“Neat,” Susan said.
“Yeah, neat,” Ted added. “I didn’t know that, either.”
“My sister will be with you folks shortly. If you’ll excuse me, there are some things I need to attend to before we leave.”
Laurie thanked him and Lorton effected a slight bow. His black coat flared out around his ankles as he shuffled quickly down the hallway. Blood thinners, it occurred to Laurie. That’s why he’s wearing the coat and that’s why his hand was so cold. He must be on blood thinners for medical reasons. A moment later, Laurie heard a door far off in the house squeal open and then close again. With little carpeting to dull the noise, the sound echoed throughout the house.
Susan skipped over to the coffee table and scooped up her glass of water. She hummed a soft melody under her breath.
“Don’t spill it,” warned her father.
Susan scowled and, for a moment, she looked to Laurie like a grown woman. Those dark eyes, that lustrous black hair, the copper-colored skin and long, coltish legs . . . at times, the girl looked so much like her father that Laurie felt like an outsider among them, an interloper in some other family’s life. Laurie was the fair-skinned freckled one with a plain face and eyes that were maybe a hair too far apart. Summertime, while her husband and daughter tanned with the luxuriance of Roman gods, Laurie burned a fiery red, then shed semitransparent sheets of peeled skin for the next several days.
“How come you didn’t tell me it was such a nice house, Laurie?” Ted asked from the loveseat.
“A house like this could go for top dollar, even in this lousy economy. I’ll bet it’s worth a fortune. It just needs a little TLC, that’s all.”
“I guess we’ll find out when we speak to the lawyer.”
“What’s ‘TLC’?” Susan asked.
“You’re dripping water on the rug,” Ted told the girl.
Susan set her drink down on the coffee table, then went over to the piano.
“B flat,” Ted said.
Susan pecked out the correct key. It rang in the stillness of the otherwise silent room.
“D sharp,” Ted said.
Susan said, “Oh,” and her index finger moved up and down the keyboard like a dowsing rod, counting the keys silently, but with her mouth moving. She tapped another key, lower on the fingerboard.
“Yuck,” Ted said from the loveseat. “Are you sure? D sharp? Try again.”
Under her breath, Susan mumbled, “Sharp is . . . up. . . .” Her lithe fingers walked up a series of notes until she rested on one. She hammered the note a few times, smiling to herself.
Ted stuck his tongue out between his lips and produced a sound that approximated flatulence. This set Susan to giggling. She turned around, her face red, her eyes squinting in her laughter. Laurie watched her daughter, smiling a little herself now. She was glad to have Susan back to her old cheerful self again, after the sullenness of the long car ride down from Connecticut. Then Susan’s laughter died and the girl’s smile quickly faded from her face. Laurie followed her daughter’s gaze to the alcove that led out into the main hall. A woman stood in the doorway. Her face was sharp and white, her iron-colored hair cropped short like a boy’s. She wore a paisley-patterned frock and was in the process of wiping her hands on a dishtowel when Laurie spotted her and offered the woman a somewhat conciliatory smile.
“You must be Dora,” Laurie said, moving swiftly across the room with her hand extended.
“That’s right,” said the woman. She had a clipped, parochial voice. She stuffed the dishtowel partway into a pocket of her frock and shook Laurie’s hand with just the tips of her fingers. She looked to be in her early fifties. There were faint lines bracketing her mouth and crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes. The eyes themselves were an icy gray.
“It’s so nice to finally meet you. I’m Laurie Genarro. That’s my husband, Ted, and my daughter, Susan.”
“I’m sorry we must meet under these circumstances,” Dora Lorton said as she nodded her head at each of them curtly. “My condolences, Mrs. Genarro.”
“If you’ve got bags with you, Felix can help bring them in from the car.”
“That isn’t necessary,” Laurie told her. “We haven’t decided whether we’re staying here or not.”
“Why wouldn’t you stay? It’s your house now.”
The thought chilled her.
Ted stood from the sofa, straightening the creases in his linen pants. “There’s supposed to be an historic inn downtown. It sounded interesting.”
“George Washington stayed there!” Susan chimed in.
Dora’s brow furrowed. “Downtown?”
“Annapolis,” clarified Ted.
“Well, it’s your house now,” Dora Lorton repeated, and not without a hint of exasperation. “I suppose you folks can do as you like.”
Ted shot Laurie a look, one that she interpreted as, Cheerful old coot, isn’t she? Once again, Laurie had to fight off spontaneous laughter.
“The house is clean and everything in it is functional,” Dora went on in her parochial tone. “Your father was not a man of excesses, Mrs. Genarro, as I’m sure you can see, so you’ll find very little items of a frivolous nature in the house. There are no televisions, no radios, nothing like that. What items there are—Mr. Brashear’s personal items, as opposed to house items, I mean—have been relocated to his study. When was the last time you were here at the house, Mrs. Genarro?”
“Not since I was a teenager, and that was just for a brief visit. I can hardly remember. And, please, call me Laurie.”
“Do you recall where the study is?”
Laurie considered and then pointed down one of the corridors that branched off the main hall. It had been a small library when she had been a child, and she could easily imagine it as a study now. “Is it the room just at the end of that hall?”
“Yes. Do you require a rundown of the rest of the house?”
“A tour of it, in other words. Seeing how it’s been such a long time.”
“Oh, I don’t think that will be necessary. I remember it well enough. And what I don’t remember, I can figure out.”
“Nonetheless, there are a few things I feel I should show you.” Dora’s chilly gray eyes volleyed between Laurie and Ted. “Which one of you does the cooking?”
“Mostly, it’s me,” Laurie said.
“Laurie’s a splendid cook,” Ted added. His smile was charming, but Laurie could see that it held no influence over Dora. “I can hardly microwave a salad.”
“I figured I would ask nonetheless, just so my assumptions wouldn’t offend anyone,” Dora said, marching right past Ted’s attempt at humor.
“Oh,” Laurie said, “not at all.”
“Very well,” said Dora, those cold eyes settling back on Laurie. “You’ll come with me then?”
“Can I go play outside?” Susan chirped to her mother.
“Not just yet, Susan.”
“But I’m bored!”
“I’ll go with her,” Ted said, taking up Susan’s hand.
“All right,” Laurie said. She shared a look with her husband then . . . and wondered if he could decipher the clutter of emotions behind her eyes. Not that she could decipher them herself. She was weak, tired, troubled, overwhelmed. There was a darkness here in this house, she knew—something cold and widespread, like black water gradually filling up behind the walls—and she thought it might have been the residual ghost of her parents’ divorce and Laurie’s subsequent extraction from this place. Extraction, she thought, summoning the image of a diseased tooth being liberated from purpling gums. That’s good.
Laurie followed Dora into the kitchen. It was a spacious room with brick walls and stainless-steel appliances. A small circular table stood before a bay window that looked out on the backyard and the moldy green fence that separated the property from the house next door. There were plenty of windows and the room was generously bright.
“You lived here as a child?” Dora said. She led Laurie over to the stovetop.
“I did, yes.”
“It’s a gas range. The appliances are in fair working order, though I can’t be certain how old they are. You’ve cooked on a gas range before?”
“We have a gas range back home.”
“Let me show you, anyway,” said Dora. She turned the knob and let the burner tick until a blue flame ignited. The smell of gas rose up to greet them. Dora turned the stove off and moved to the refrigerator. She opened the refrigerator door. It was stocked, but not obnoxiously so. Laurie could see many of the items within hadn’t yet been opened, and it occurred to her that either Dora or Felix Lorton had recently gone to the supermarket in anticipation of their arrival. “You’ll find it is stocked with milk, cheese, bread, juices, and plenty of condiments. There are frozen meats and poultry in the freezer as well, Mrs. Genarro, and the pantry is sufficiently stocked with cereals, pastas, and canned goods. I didn’t bother getting any fruits or vegetables or other perishables from the market, as they tend to go bad quickly in the summer if not eaten right away. I wasn’t sure how long you folks planned to stay.”
“I’m not sure we know yet, either.”
“It’s understandable,” Dora intoned, sounding just then like her brother. Next, Dora led her over to the dishwasher. “Standard functions, quite easy to use. There is detergent beneath the sink.”
Beyond the curved bay windows, Laurie saw Ted and Susan galloping across the green lawn. They raced along the fence and up the lawn’s slight incline to where the trees grew denser and wild blackberry bushes and honeysuckle exploded like fireworks . . .
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