I look at my daughter. My darling girl. I remember her tiny hand in mine, her first smile. I recall her tears when she’d tumble over, healed instantly with a band-aid and a little kiss. I have to keep her safe. Even if it means someone else gets hurt…
In the pretty, privileged college town of Milford, New Hampshire, everyone is friendly, everything is safe. And on this cold autumn day, as red and yellow leaves begin to fall from the trees, and everyone wraps up for the first time, it would be easy to believe nothing bad could ever happen here.
Until a screech of tires is heard, a thud, a child’s scream. The crash that sees Jenna’s six-year-old daughter Amy Rose being hit by a car driven by seventeen-year-old Maddie.
Maddie’s mother, Ellen – a college professor with a warm, approachable reputation – insists it must have been an accident. Her daughter is always safe on the road—and she’s vulnerable herself.
But as Amy Rose lies unconscious in hospital, the town begins to take sides. With Ellen, who just wants to defend her daughter. Or with Jenna, a single mother with a past, whose child hovers between life and death…
The truth is that both mothers have secrets they’re trying to keep. And, with Amy Rose’s life hanging in the balance, one of them will stop at nothing to protect the person she loves—her daughter.
An incredible, powerfully emotional and heartbreaking read, with a dilemma that will make everyone wonder what they would do, in either mother’s shoes. Perfect for fans of Jodi Picoult, Jojo Moyes and Diane Chamberlain.Readers love Kate Hewitt:
“This book had me crying so badly. It broke my heart, never has any book been able to just wipe me out with such gut-wrenching sadness. A book of love, loss, and loyalty… BEAUTIFULLY DONE.” NetGalley Reviewer ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
“Not only broke my heart but shattered it… When the tears [came] though, they didn’t stop. It is such an emotionally charged novel… An absolute tear-jerker of a read for which I highly recommend having a box of tissues on standby.” Goodreads Reviewer ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
“OMG I couldn’t put this one down. It was just that good… Definitely a tear-jerker… Touched my heart so deeply and will affect me on some level for many years to come.” Blue Moon Blogger ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
“I don’t think I have ever cried as much… heart-breaking and unputdownable… To say this story is a five-star read is an understatement. There are not enough stars in the world to show how much this book has touched me.” Sinfully Wicked Book Reviews ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
“Oh wow… This story has literally broken my heart into tiny little pieces at every emotional and heart-breaking turn.” Welcome to Mixing Reality with Fiction Book Blog ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
“I’m not someone who cries easily but… [I] thought this book might just break me into tiny pieces…
Release date: September 27, 2021
Print pages: 350
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My Daughter's Mistake
This never should have happened.
I am awash with regret, with fear, with guilt, with longing. Please, I pray, please let her live. Please let her heal. Please let her thrive…
Is that so much to ask, to want your child to flourish? Isn’t that what any and every mother wants? Isn’t that what every mother prays or even wills from the moment she clasps her child in her arms, red-faced and squalling, damp and new? Please let this child thrive.
Now I would settle for survival. Almost. But surely my daughter deserves more than scraping the barrel of life, making do with its dregs. She has so much to live for, so much possibility. I imagine the sparkle in her eye, the laugh that rings clear as a bell. I can’t bear for her to be changed, to be less. Please let her get better.
And then, as if I have some sort of bargaining power, I start making deals in my head. If you let her be okay, I’ll be the best mother I know how to be. I’ll be better than that. I’ll try so hard. I’ll love so deep. I’ll never be disappointed or disapproving. I’ll never get angry or irritable or afraid…
I have so many promises to make, to keep, if my daughter can just be spared.
A nurse comes along the hallway, her rubber-soled shoes squeaking on the floor. “You shouldn’t be here,” she says, glancing around, sounding as if she isn’t sure whether to be sharp or sympathetic.
“My daughter…” I gesture to the door, the room, that bed.
“I’m sorry, but we can’t allow visitors in the ER,” the nurse replies, and now she sounds gentle but firm. “The doctor will be with you shortly.”
I let myself be borne away on a tide of well-meaning officiousness, to a small room with vinyl sofas and a stale smell of despair. I am picturing my daughter—how I held her in my arms, how I kissed her head, how I nestled her against me and thought I would never let her go. I kept her safe then. It was so easy.
How did everything go so wrong? I wonder helplessly, and then another, far worse question reverberates through me: Is this all my fault?
When I answer my daughter’s phone call, all I can hear is sobbing. I am sitting in my office, the window open to birdsong and the scent of freshly mown grass, and Maddie is hiccupping and crying as she tries to get the words out.
“Maddie, what’s happened? What’s wrong?” The questions come out of me like bullets, my voice already high with panic and fear. “Take a deep breath, sweetheart, please.” Although perhaps I’m the one who needs to take a deep breath. My heart is already racing, my palms damp as I clamp my phone to my ear. Not again, I am thinking. Praying. Please, please, not again…
“Mom, can you come?” She gives another gulping, hiccupping sort of sob. “Please, can you come?”
“Yes, I can be home in five minutes—”
“I’m not at home.”
A split second’s pause as I absorb that information, what it might mean, the ripples of it spreading outward into ignorance. When I left the house an hour ago, my teenage daughter Maddie was lying on her bed in a spill of summer sunshine, languidly scrolling on her phone. William was downstairs, eating cereal and reading a book about beetles, at twelve years old his latest obsession. Brian had left for work, as he usually did this time of year, at the crack of dawn; I vaguely remember rolling over and pulling the pillow over my head to drown out the sound of his shower. And now this.
“Maddie, where are you, sweetheart?”
She sniffs, draws a shuddery breath. “Um… Torrance Place.”
“Torrance…” The word escapes me in a breath as my mind reels through the streets of our small New Hampshire town. Torrance Place, I think, is on the opposite end of Milford, a fifteen-minute walk at least from where we live, a place I’ve only driven past, and then indifferently. “Why—” I break off, because I don’t need to know why right now. I just need to know where. “Okay.” There are so many more questions I want and need to ask—Are you hurt? What happened? Why did you go out? Why are you on that street?—but I know this isn’t the time to ask, or perhaps even to know. My daughter needs me. That’s all that matters. “I’m coming,” I tell her. “Hold on.”
I disconnect the call and grab my keys and my bag, nameless fears scuttling into dark crevices in my mind that I try to ignore. I tell myself her call, her tears, might not mean anything actually truly bad. Since she came home a month ago, Maddie has veered between lethargic indifference and manic obsessiveness. Sometimes she has been seemingly uncaring that she’s going into her senior year having missed the last two months of eleventh grade, and at other times she has burst into tears when Brian tells her, gently, to turn her music down.
It’s so hard to know how to handle any of it—the doctor in charge of her care insisted we measure her food portions; the counselor said not to make a big deal of mealtimes. How are we supposed to do both? How do we navigate the tightrope of care versus control, interest versus indifference? And what has happened now that threatens to upset the fragile balance we’ve almost managed to achieve?
I take several deep breaths, trying to tamp down the ever-present fear that threatens to lurch up to grab me by the throat and strangle me.
My perfect family fell apart four months ago, and I am still scrambling to put the pieces of it back together.
Quickly I leave my office, although that might be too grand a word for the glorified broom cupboard I was given after I returned part-time to Milford College ten years ago, when William went to preschool. As part-time adjunct professor of sociology, my position didn’t warrant a proper office, a slight I took with as much grace as I could, because staying home with my kids had been worth it.
Hadn’t it? Then why am I here, rushing into a drowsy summer’s afternoon, so afraid my world has spun out of control yet again?
As my best friend Tabitha told me, there are no guarantees with children. You can bake brownies and tuck them in every night, buy organic and shepherd them to Little League every single Saturday, and it still might not make a whit of difference to how they end up. The choices they make. The mistakes.
It’s a truth I hate to face, and yet ever since Maddie was rushed to ER back in April, I’ve had to.
But that’s not going to happen this time, I tell myself as I head out into the college’s verdant quad, the air warm and humid, the two-hundred-year-old buildings of pale gray limestone surrounding me on all four sides in perfect, pastoral peace. This time it’s going to be something small, probably nothing, an overreaction, a blip…
I look up from my head-down quick stride across the quad to see Abigail, another sociology professor, full tenured and sometimes a bit smug about it, walking towards me, a quizzical smile on her face.
“Hey.” I manage a tense smile back, a mere stretching of my lips. My heart is still racing. The truth is, I don’t believe Maddie called me for nothing. I have an awful, certain sensation that it is very much something. It’s just how bad that something is.
Brian would tell me I was being melodramatic, paranoid; he’s observed how, in the last few months, I’ve become, as he says, “more of a glass-half-empty person.” He’d shake his head and say something like, “You think the glass is broken and there isn’t any water for a hundred miles, Ell. You’ve got to relax. Maddie’s okay now.”
The funny thing is, someone telling you to relax doesn’t make you feel relaxed. At all. And based on the call I just received, I’m not at all sure she’s okay.
“Just picking up my daughter,” I tell Abigail before I can think better of it, regretting it instantly because I don’t want to talk about Maddie.
As expected, Abigail’s friendly expression morphs into a look of sorrowful sympathy I’ve learned not to trust. Milford is a small town, and people love to gossip, especially when the object of their gossip is distant enough that it doesn’t actually affect them. Abigail has met Maddie a handful of times, if that.
“Maddie?” she asks, as if I have another daughter. “How is she?”
“Fine,” I reply tightly, my keys clutched between my fingers like I’m about to be attacked. “She’s fine.” Abigail is opening her mouth to ask another question, but I’ve already started down the sidewalk. “Sorry,” I call over my shoulder as I head toward the parking lot. “I’m already late.”
I don’t want those words to actually be true.
My car is one of only a handful in the half-acre of concrete that is Milford’s faculty parking lot. It is the week before freshmen orientation, and professors are slowly starting to trickle back to their offices, to deal with paperwork and problems, fall syllabi and department politics. Five minutes ago, my main focus was locating a copy of an out-of-print textbook for my freshman class, Sociology of Organizations. Now I’m trying not to hyperventilate, not to remember the last time I got a call like this, from William. “Mom? Mom? Maddie’s in the bathroom and she’s not answering. I’m scared…”
As I slide into the oven-baked interior of my car and turn on the AC, I take several steadying breaths. The still-hot air rolls over me as sweat prickles along my forehead and under my arms. I rest my hands on the steering wheel and breathe. In. Out. It may be nothing.
Then I reverse out of the parking lot, and try not to break the 25 mph speed limit through the town’s historic center.
Milford is the quintessential New England college town, with a main street of gracious limestone buildings on the banks of Shelter Brook, a cheerful, burbling tributary of the Connecticut River. The college is at one end and the town’s slightly less salubrious elements at the other, and the two co-exist in a state that is both amiable and uneasy. Population three thousand, with a high school, two elementary schools, a public park and swimming pool, five churches and six restaurants. The perfect place to raise a family.
I take Main Street at the necessary crawl, my fingers tapping the steering wheel in a frenetic, staccato beat—past the tiny movie theater that locals campaigned to keep open to show arthouse films, the old-fashioned drugstore that still sells milkshakes at a marble counter in the back, the erstwhile Woolworth’s that is now an upmarket boutique for designer clothes and homeware, the eye-wateringly expensive vegetarian café with its chalkboard sign offering cold-pressed juice and acai berry smoothies.
Milford is a jostling mix of old and new, ordinary and elite, town and gown. I’ve lived here for nearly twenty years; I know everyone, or almost. I’ve done the baby groups, sent my children to local schools, shopped in every single store, gone to every harvest and Christmas festival.
I like to think I straddle the town and college divide, but as I drive over the bridge and turn onto Torrance Place at the far end of Main Street, I realize I have never actually been on this street before.
Just one block away from the town’s well-heeled main drag, it’s a depressing mix of dilapidated clapboard and squat brick ranch houses, all with overgrown yards of summer-brown grass, and a few broken-down cars in the driveways. It reminds me of that old New England joke, what’s the difference between a house in Vermont and one in New Hampshire? The car on concrete blocks in the driveway. Told by Vermonters, of course, but we’re only seven miles from the border. Vermont’s affluent, touristy vibe feels a lot closer on my side of Milford than here.
As I drive down the street, I scour the cracked concrete sidewalks for Maddie, but I don’t see anyone at all. The whole place feels empty and lifeless, with barely a breeze stirring, the boxy houses looking blank and uninviting. Is Maddie really here?
Then I round a corner, and my heart freefalls. I glimpse the flashing blue siren of a police car, the banner of red lights on top of an ambulance, with several paramedics standing by. I forget to breathe as my mind spins and blanks with terror.
Somehow I manage to pull over to the far side of the road, hitting the curb in the process. I yank my keys out of the ignition and then stumble towards the configuration of cars—the police car is parked sideways to block off the road, the ambulance is behind it, its back doors open. I see Maddie’s car too, pulled haphazardly up on the other side, past the police car and ambulance.
Why was she driving out here? When I left this morning, she hadn’t been planning to go anywhere, as far as I knew.
Clearly, I didn’t know much.
“Maddie!” I shout her name even though I can’t see her, and a police officer, one of several milling about the area, holds up her hand to stop me, her expression foreboding and officious.
“Ma’am, please, this is an active—”
“My daughter,” I tell her in something between a growl and a scream. “My daughter is over there.”
She hesitates, and I start to push past her.
“Ma’am,” she calls, annoyed now. “Ma’am!”
I am already running.
My daughter is huddled on the curb, her hands locked around her knees, her head bowed so her honey-gold hair is falling like a curtain in front of her face. A female police officer is crouched next to her, talking quietly. My daughter looks, thank God, unhurt.
“Maddie,” I say again, and I drop down onto the pavement before her, scraping both my knees as I pull her into a hug while the police officer looks on. Maddie flings her arms around me, her face burrowed into my shoulder the way she used to as a child. I can feel her slight body shake with sobs. “You’re all right,” I tell her, as I stroke her hair. I am willing it to be true, this time. “You’re all right.”
“Are you the mother?” The police officer who has been crouching next to her asks the question in a voice that sounds strangely cool.
I look up, Maddie still huddled in my arms. The mother? It sounds so objective, almost inhuman. “Yes,” I say, tightening my embrace on my daughter. “I’m Maddie’s mom.”
“I’m afraid we need to ask her a few questions.”
Annoyance prickles, along with disbelief, as well as a little fear. “Is that really necessary right now?” I strive to sound calm, friendly, although inside I am raging. “She’s clearly had a huge shock—”
“It is necessary, to determine what happened here.” Now the woman’s tone is implacable and her face looks hard. I feel like I’m missing something, and I don’t think I want to know what it is.
I glance up at the scene—expecting to see a crumpled fender, maybe a dented mailbox. A few months ago, when our neighbor’s fire alarm went off accidentally, the town sent two police cars and three fire trucks. It’s that kind of place. The fact that there is only one police car and an ambulance here doesn’t alarm me, not now that I have Maddie safe in my arms. It has to be the town’s usual cautious overkill.
“Questions about what?” I ask.
“About the incident.”
The incident? Then my gaze trains on a thirty-something woman standing by the ambulance, her arms wrapped around her thin body, her dark hair in a wild tangle about her gaunt-looking face. Her expression is tense, angry; as I watch, she speaks urgently to one of the paramedics. I recognize her, but only vaguely. Perhaps I’ve seen her on the street, or in the schoolyard.
Then she clambers up into the ambulance and the paramedic closes the doors smartly behind her. Seconds later, the siren is switched on, the wail ear-splitting, as the ambulance heads down the street.
In that moment, I understand something much bigger has happened than I’d realized. Than I’d hoped.
“Maddie?” I draw her away from me; her face is blotchy, her eyes red, snot dripping from her nose. “Maddie, what happened?”
“I didn’t see her, Mom. I swear, I didn’t see her.”
My lips feel numb as I ask, “Didn’t see who?”
“The little girl.” Her voice rises in a wail. “Amy Rose.”
My hands fall away from her shoulders as the world spins again, making my stomach churn. “You… you hit a little girl with your car?”
Maddie hiccups and nods, her gaze downcast, like she can’t meet my eyes.
The policewoman intervenes. “We need to ask you some questions,” she tells Maddie in the kind of steady voice I imagine they are trained to use—calm, unflappable, implacable, firm. “And you’ll also need to take a breathalyzer test. It’s routine for all road accidents. If you can come this way…”
I am reeling too much to protest as Maddie stands up on shaky legs, although I feel like I should. Surely Maddie has some rights in this situation? Do I need to call a lawyer? But why should I, since it was so clearly an accident? The questions pummel my brain, but I can’t think coherently about them, or anything. I should call Brian, I decide. Brian will know what to do.
But when I manage to make the call on my cell with trembling fingers, it goes directly to voicemail. Twice. I leave a message the second time; my voice sounds tinny and strange. “Brian… there’s been an accident… Maddie’s all right, but she… she hit a little girl with her car.” I draw a clogged breath as the words slam into me. “We’re on Torrance Place, on the far side of town. Please… please come.”
As I’ve been speaking, the policewoman has taken Maddie over to the sidewalk and is giving her a breathalyzer test. It’s barely past noon, for heaven’s sake. Then I catch sight of the crime tape, vivid splashes of blood like paint on the road.
I stay where I am for a few seconds, try to catch my breath. There is a buzzing in my ears. How badly was this little girl hurt? I think of the woman by the ambulance, her gaunt, angry face. The girl’s mother? Surely she wouldn’t be angry if it had been truly serious. She’d be terrified, sobbing and incoherent. I know I would be.
The thought brings a wary sort of relief; it can’t be that bad. A broken arm, maybe, or an ankle. Guilt flashes through me that I am thinking so cold-bloodedly about a child’s injury. If Maddie had broken her arm…
But it’s Maddie I have to think about now.
I scramble up from the road and walk over to another police officer, this one managing the crime scene.
Crime scene. It feels crazy, like I’ve stumbled onto a movie set. I’m waiting for the director to call ‘cut!’ and everyone to relax their ridiculous poses, their stern, serious faces.
“Please…” I ask, my voice croaky so I have to clear my throat. “Can you tell me what happened to the little girl?” I fumble for the name Maddie mentioned. “Amy Rose…?”
His face is expressionless, but I still search for a flicker of sympathy in his eyes. Surely he can see how devasting this is for Maddie, for me?
“She’s been taken to the hospital.”
Well, obviously. “But will she be all right? Was she badly hurt?”
His face closes up completely. “I’m afraid I can’t give you that information.”
I bite my lip hard to keep from saying something stupid. I know better than to talk back to police these days. I’ve read the stories in the news of people who stepped a little out of line and suddenly are in cuffs, spreadeagled on the ground, although I’ve always assumed there’s an excuse, an extenuating circumstance. I’ve never been on this side of the law before, feeling uneasy, unsure, even guilty. It disquiets me almost as much as the fact of the accident does.
“Thank you,” I murmur, and then on watery legs I walk over to Maddie, who is looking dazed, her eyes strangely vacant as she breathes into a tube the female officer is holding.
“Is this really necessary?” I ask, trying to sound reasonable, but my voice comes out sharp because I’m so afraid. This is the last thing Maddie needs right now, just when she was starting to reach a fragile equilibrium. This could send her right back to where we were in April, when life felt so dark, the world so hopeless. “My daughter was not drinking alcohol.”
I glance at Maddie for confirmation, just to be sure, even though I know she wouldn’t have done that, and the policewoman notices my inquiring glance. I see her lips tighten.
“This is standard procedure.”
“But it’s upsetting to my daughter.”
For a second, the woman’s eyes flash. “There is another mother who is currently on her way to Two Rivers Hospital with her daughter who is a little more than upset,” she states coldly.
“Is she badly injured? The little girl?” I mean to sound concerned, I am concerned, but it comes out like a challenge. I picture a tiny, crumpled body, and then I push the image away. I can’t think about this other girl right now, whatever her condition. I have my own daughter to care for. I take a deep breath to steady myself.
“I’m not able to discuss that with you,” the police officer tells me firmly before turning to Maddie. “Now, we need to ask you a few questions about what happened. Just to understand. Could you come over to the car, please?”
“The car—” I interject, alarmed. “Why do we have to do this right now?”
“Because your daughter’s memories are fresh in her mind. If we wait, things become foggy, vague. All we want is to know what happened.” She pauses, her expression softening, although I wonder if it is strategic. “This is all standard procedure, Miss—?”
“Wilkinson. Mrs. Ellen Wilkinson.”
“Mrs. Wilkinson,” the officer repeats agreeably. “And I’m Officer Beecham. Now, I think we’ll all be more comfortable in the car. The conversation will be recorded—again, standard procedure.”
Feeling like I have no choice, I nod. I want to cooperate with the police, of course I do. I’m a law-abiding citizen. I never speed through town; I never jaywalk through the single needless traffic light by the Walmart. I pay my taxes; I recycle; I give to charity. Of course, none of that matters right now, but I feel as if it somehow should, as if I should be making a list and offering it to this woman as some sort of proof—of what, I don’t even know, but the instinct is there.
“Thank you,” I murmur, although I’m not sure what I’m thanking her for.
I take Maddie’s hand as I follow Officer Beecham to her car. Maddie clings to me, her hand thin and icy in mine.
“Mom… I’m sorry… I really didn’t see her… it happened so fast…”
“I know, sweetheart, I know. It was an accident.” A terrible, terrible accident. Surely the police will see that?
“Take a seat,” Officer Beecham invites, patting the backseat of the police car as she fiddles with a recording device. Her tone has turned friendly, which I mistrust. “Maddie, isn’t it?”
Maddie nods as she perches on the edge of the seat while I stand, looming, by the car door. Her eyes look huge, her nose is still running. I fish a crumpled tissue out of my bag and hand it to her, but she just clutches it in her fist without using it.
The officer switches on the device, then gives her name—Sue Beecham—and the date. “So can you talk me through what happened, Maddie?” she asks. Now she sounds positively gentle. “From the beginning?”
Maddie lets out a shuddery breath. “She just came out of nowhere…”
“From the beginning. You were the driver of the car?”
My daughter throws her a startled, panicked look. “Yes, of course I was.”
“Where were you going?”
“Um, I was just driving.” She glances at me and then away again, quickly. “You know, to clear my head.”
“To clear your head? Why did your head need clearing? Had something happened to upset you?”
“Is this relevant?” I burst out, unable to help myself. The last thing I want right now is for Maddie to talk about what has been going on in her head, her life recently.
“I’m just trying to establish the facts,” the officer—this Sue—replies calmly.
I give a terse nod, not wanting to argue the point. Do we need a lawyer? I don’t want to ask, in case it makes Maddie look guilty, but what if we do? What if having this conversation at all is a mistake?
I glance at my phone, but Brian hasn’t called, and that makes me angry—unreasonably so, I know, but anger feels better than fear.
Officer Beecham turns back to Maddie. “So you went for a drive, to think about things.”
Maddie nods, almost frantically. “Yeah.”
“Any reason you were on this road in particular?”
“No, I was just, you know, going wherever.” She has started to shred the tissue into ragged strips.
“Were you on your phone? Texting or reading something, responding to someone?” She sounds almost conspiratorial, as if she’d understand if it was something like that.
“No.” Maddie sounds so indignant that I feel a rush of relief. I believe her, and I think Sue does, as well. We’ve drilled it into her so many times, about not texting and driving.
“And so what happened then?”
“Amy Rose just… bolted into the street. Honestly, it was, like, out of nowhere. From behind a parked car, I think.”
Both Officer Beecham and I glance at the road; the closest parked car is about a hundred feet away.
Maddie must realize this, because she continues quickly, “I mean, I didn’t see her at all. She just… ran.”
“Why do you think she ran into the street?” Officer Beecham asks.
“I don’t know. How should I know?” Maddie lifts her thin shoulders in a shrug, giving me a helpless, frightened glance.
“Did you brake when you saw her?”
“Yeah, I mean, of course, but she was right there… I couldn’t do anything. It was too late.” A hiccupy sob escapes her, and then she hides her face in her hands as the sobs shudder through her. I put my hand on her shoulder, even though what I really want to do is gather her up in my arms and start sprinting away. “Is she going to be okay?” Maddie asks through her fingers. “She looked so still…”
“The doctors in charge of her care will give her the best treatment they can,” Officer Beecham says tonelessly, which is saying nothing at all.
My stomach feels hollow, my skin clammy. This is sounding like more than a bumped head, a broken arm. A lot more. This isn’t an anecdote I might relate later, with a wavery sigh of relief. Honestly, it was so scary, but she was absolutely fine, thank goodness, just a bit of a bump… kids these days… they never look where they’re going…
No, I can already see—feel—that it is not going to happen like that. I know, with a leaden sensation in my gut, that life has changed irrevocably—for this poor Amy Rose, for her mother, . . .
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