Thomas Phillips knows he's losing his mind. He's been losing it for as long as he can remember. And yet, when a strange old man asks him to consider that he, out of everyone in the world, knows the real truth, Thomas' life begins to spiral out of control. He loses interest in his job and is fired. He refuses his wife's suggestion of psychiatric care, and she leaves him. In the end, Thomas is alone. Except he's not, because someone seems to be following him. What if you were Thomas? Where would you go? What would you do? What if you realized every person in your life had been scripted to be there? What if you were haunted by the idea that you'd lived all these encounters before, hundreds or even thousands of times before? And what if the person watching all this time was you?
Thomas World explores what happens when the borders of reality start seeming a bit porous... when things start bleeding through the edges, challenging ones perceptions of the universe. The grand tradition of Dickian, New Wave SF is explored by Richard Cox in this 21st century thriller!
Trade Paperback, 300 pages
Night Shade Books, August 30, 2011
Excerpt: Chapters 1 and 2
You ever notice how life is full of coincidence? I do. Strange little things happen to me all the time, events that must surely be random but don’t feel random. Like this morning Gloria and I were late leaving for church, and for reasons that escape me she will not walk into mass even one minute late. In normal traffic on a Sunday morning the drive would consume at least fifteen minutes, perhaps even twenty if the weather were nice. The church is six miles away. There are three main cross streets and a total of seven traffic lights. If you were to leave my house nine minutes before mass was scheduled to begin, as Gloria and I did this morning, a bookie in Vegas would give you no better than 10-1 odds to arrive on time. Probably more like 20-1.
To be honest I was sort of hoping we wouldn’t make it. I forgot to set my fantasy football lineup again, and every time I do that I end up starting a quarterback who was benched last week and a running back with turf toe and a wide receiver who tore his ACL in practice on Thursday. Whereas when I remember to set my lineup, I invariably manage to bench a player who that week scores four touchdowns for the first and only time of his career. This is what I mean about coincidence.
Another reason I like to skip mass is because I prefer to watch football live. TiVo is great for some things, but every time I watch the Cowboys play on delay I get a call from one of my friends about a touchdown or a bad officiating call that hasn’t happened in my version of the game yet. So reality gets all fouled up and I fast forward to the present time anyway, and that’s why I try not to time-shift football games.
But the main reason I didn’t want to sit through mass this morning is because I’m exhausted. Last night Gloria and I went to a Halloween party put on by some of her work friends. I spent the night drinking too much rum and Coke and looking for Jack, and the drunker I got, the more convinced I became he was hiding from me. There was no reason he shouldn’t have been there. He’s Gloria’s boss.
When the party was over we were both pretty drunk, and I probably shouldn’t have been driving. I shouldn’t have been thinking, either. I think too much when I drink. I asked Gloria why Jack wasn’t at the party and she didn’t like it and we got into a fight. She told me I was being obsessive again, which upset me even more because I hardly ever bring up Jack.
So we got home and kept arguing, and finally Gloria got out of bed and went into the spare bedroom. I sat there staring at the wall. I was very drunk. One thing I only noticed recently is how the room doesn’t spin the way it used to. After I’ve tied one on, I mean. In college I could make the room spin on a six pack of Natty Light, but these days it seems my tolerance is a lot higher. Naturally, this made me wonder if I drink too much. Whenever you’re very drunk or hungover you always think you should cut back on your drinking, but last night was different somehow. More intense. I got out of bed and walked to the spare bedroom and saw the door was closed. As drunk as I was, that turned my blood cold. Gloria has never shut a door against me, not ever.
I opened the door slowly and called to her. She didn’t answer. The room was dark and colorless, moonlight and shadows. I could make out the vague shape of her body under the covers of the guest bed. I was quiet for a long time and eventually heard her whispering something, but I couldn’t make out what she was saying. I walked over to the bed and crawled under the covers. She was facing away from me, and her body jerked when I touched her, which turned my blood even colder. I cherish Gloria more than anything. We are kindred spirits, she and I. Years ago we found love against insurmountable odds, and I don’t understand how we sometimes end up in these terrible places, but it has to stop.
I folded my arms around her and she stiffened against me and started to pull away. But I held her tightly and kissed the back of her neck and told her I was sorry. She struggled against me, still trying to get away, but I held tight, kissing her again and again until she finally relaxed. I told her I loved her. When she didn’t respond I told her a second time. I worried that she wasn’t going to answer me, that she wouldn’t say it back because she couldn’t. But finally she curled her hand around mine and pulled it close to her heart. She began to cry again. “I love you, too, baby,” she said. “But we can’t go on like this. We can’t. You have to let it go. You have to let Jack go.”
And even then I could feel it, the resentment. As drunk as I was, having only just won her back, I was still gripped by irrational fear, still worried about Jack and how he would someday take Gloria away from me. But I held my tongue and said, simply, “I know.”
We lay there for a while, and I kept thinking we should get up and go back into our own room. The guest bed is small and there’s no alarm clock in there. But I was afraid if I let go of Gloria I might never get to touch her again, that she might get up and walk out of the room and out of my life forever. So I held her tight and she held me back and eventually we drifted into a sort of mutual coma, drunk and exhausted and emotionally spent.
Then, only moments later, or so it seemed, Gloria was jumping out of bed and sunlight was blazing through the window, stabbing my eyes even through their lids.
“We’re late!” she cried. “Baby, we can’t miss again. We already missed last week!”
As I said before I would have been fine skipping another mass. I would even have forgotten about the football game if Gloria remained in bed with me, her back curled against my chest. It’s been so long since we’ve done that, spent time holding each other, and I don’t know if it’s the cause or result of the distance between us.
But Gloria wanted to go to mass, and I wanted to make her happy, so I hopped out of bed. I did my best to get ready on time, showering in three minutes, putting on clothes that weren’t quite pressed, ignoring my two-day-old stubble. We blazed toward the church at speeds that bordered on obscene. A lot of people would have been worried about being pulled over by a traffic cop, getting a ticket or maybe even going to jail, but not me, not even a little bit. I’ve never been pulled over by a police officer in my life, for anything, ever. Which may not seem that impressive to you, but I’ve been driving for eighteen years, and I speed everywhere I go. It’s a miracle I’ve never been ticketed and I’ve never been in an accident, as if, on the road, I don’t exist at all.
Even going as fast as we were, we still shouldn’t have made it to mass on time. Not with all the traffic lights along the way. But wouldn’t you know it, on this particular morning, when even the shortest delay would have kept us from arriving on time, every single light on the way to the church was green. We walked into the chapel with one minute to spare and sat down six seconds before the scary organ music told us to stand up again. Of course we got here on time. You can’t make this stuff up.
Let’s pretend like this is TiVo and fast forward to live programming. Right now mass is halfway over and Father Kindred is giving the homily. That’s what we Catholics call the sermon. Today’s subject is gay marriage. The Father is explaining why the Roman Catholic Church doesn’t support the idea. Loosely, his reasoning is this: Marriage is a holy union between a man and woman, and to give equal rights to homosexuals goes against natural moral law and obscures basic human values. Actually, that isn’t loose at all…it’s his exact argument. Which, I don’t know, I used to think that way, too, but these days it just seems so ridiculous. Aren’t we past all these labels and prejudices? I’m barely holding onto my own marriage so it’s probably not a good idea for me to have an opinion about someone else’s. In fact this is one of the ways Gloria has had such a positive influence on me, primarily because her brother, Michael, is gay. There was a time when I would make fun of him because I thought he was an effeminate, know-it-all elitist, and Gloria would tell me I was an insensitive prick. We went around and around about it until one day my eyes opened and I realized she was right. So I stopped being an asshole, and it took a few years, but eventually Michael and I sort of became friends.
This is why I’m surprised to see my wife nodding as Father Kindred builds his case. I would have expected her to be frowning with disapproval, or at the very least not responding at all. Hell, now she’s almost smiling.
In fact, as I look around the church, I see a lot of smiles and nods. More than a few people exchange knowing glances with each other, as if to share their approval of the homily. At one point Father Kindred quotes Pope Benedict, how homosexuality is an “intrinsic moral evil,” and if anyone here is offended by this statement, I can’t find them.
Look, I realize we’re in a church. This isn’t exactly the place where you stage a gay pride rally. But my wife has told me more than once that six or seven percent of the population is gay, so if there are, say, three hundred people in this room, twenty of them have just been told they’re evil. And no one seems to have a problem with it.
When I imagine Gloria’s brother sitting here, listening to this, it makes my head hurt. I don’t mean that metaphorically…I really am developing a headache.
My wife gives me such a hard time when I point out how much she’s changed, but this is a perfect example. Why on earth isn’t she offended? They’re talking about her brother, for heaven’s sake. There was a time when she would have walked out of the chapel rather than listen to a homily like this. Now she just sits there, smiling. Something is different about her, and I think it has to do with Jack. Ever since she started working for him I’ve noticed little things, different things. She dresses nicer. Wears new perfume. Works longer hours. When I ask about it she tells me she’s just playing the part of a director. She makes six figures. People report to her. It’s all part of the game.
But she and Jack have a history together, and I know she’s acting this way because of him. If I told you the whole story you would understand, but I’m not supposed to bring it up anymore because it makes me seem obsessive.
Eventually Father Kindred finishes the homily and begins the Nicene Creed. The Creed is a long prayer the congregation recites together, and which during the course of my life I have repeated hundreds of times. I don’t really think about the content of the prayer as I recite it—it’s more of a ritual thing. We believe in one God, the Father the Almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth, of all that is seen and unseen…And for some reason, in this particular moment, it occurs to me how bizarre the whole mass is. Like, I work in a cubicle five days a week, building Internet marketing campaigns, and on Sunday I come to this odd building and chant ancient phrases along with three hundred other yahoos.
My headache grows worse. A lot worse. When I touch my temple, I feel the brain vein pulsing with blood. Have you ever had a migraine? A real one? I get one or two a year, and sometimes they land me in bed all day. Don’t laugh. If you get migraines you know what I’m talking about.
What’s funny is it also seems like the light in the church is different now. Everything seems to have taken on a bluish cast. Even Gloria seems a little blue. When she notices me looking at her, I smile and look away, wondering what’s wrong with me. But now at least the blue seems to fade.
Or rather, it hasn’t so much faded as it has condensed to a point on the wall behind Father Kindred. A bright blue point.
Either I’m hallucinating, or there is a stationary point of blue light on the back wall of the church.
It’s really pounding now, my head. And strangely, that point of light looks like it’s coming closer. Instead of being projected on the wall, it’s somehow moving toward me.
Through the air.
As the blue point passes over the pews I expect to see heads craning, turning to watch it, but in fact no one seems to notice it.
No one except me.
I look over at Gloria. The alarm I feel inside must be obvious on the outside, because you can tell she’s worried about me. I smile again, trying to reassure her, even though inside I don’t feel very sure at all. I feel like this time I might actually be losing my mind. As she watches me, I look directly at the approaching blue light, but evidently she can’t see it. Evidently no one can.
Except yours truly.
I know it’s possible to hallucinate during a migraine, but it’s never happened to me. I shouldn’t overreact, I realize this, but for the love of God now it’s hovering right in front of my face.
Seeing it up close like this, it looks more like an orb than a point. About the size of a golf ball. It’s bright and electric, what I imagine ball lightning might look like. But bluer. And rotating, like a planet on its axis.
If it were possible, I would get the hell out of here, but everyone around me is on their knees, and people are already leaving their pews to receive communion. So instead I remain where I am, immobilized, as if this whole thing is a bad dream. No one but me notices the orb make contact with my forehead. The thing is hot, searing hot, so hot I close my eyes and will myself not to scream.
And then it’s gone.
Along with my migraine.
I stand up.
“Baby,” Gloria whispers. “Are you okay?”
“Migraine,” I say. “I need some water.”
She starts to get up herself, but I put my hand on her shoulder. “I’m okay. Really. I’ll be right back.”
People around us are starting to notice. I shuffle past the other kneelers, which is more awkward than you might think, until I reach the end of the pew. Then I genuflect, head for the back doors, and cross myself with holy water.
I’m not sure why but something tells me this is that last time I’ll ever do that.
By the time I get to the bathroom, my heart is pounding so hard it hurts. My ears roar with silence, waves of it. My face feels hot to the touch even though the rest of my body is shivering.
In the mirror I see fear. I lean in with my face, close, until my nose nearly touches its reflection. The pores are large between my eyebrows and become smaller toward the scalp. There are two horizontal creases on my forehead that seem to deepen a little with each passing day. And for just a moment—a flicker, really—I swear I see a faint blue spot between them where the orb entered my head.
Doctors will tell you how stress can do funny things to the human body. I knew a guy who would sometimes go blind in one eye when he got really worked up. But nothing of the sort has ever happened to me.
All of my past migraines have, in some way, been tied to stress. The last one was a few months ago when one of my work projects was picked apart by the new vice president, Kurt Truman. Truman is one of those corporate climbers, some fast-track guy with an Ivy League education and a tropical tan. After just a month on the job he wanted to throw out or reengineer all of my major projects, and the combination of my general apathy for this work and his meddling with it drove me insane. One afternoon, during a staff meeting, I balked at a few of his ideas. Or rather I offered possible alternatives to them. Truman chuckled and suggested I forcibly insert my alternatives into a certain body cavity that had no real use for them. For the next hour and a half I was forced to sit there while this blustering phony told stories about his career experience and how he planned to transform our team from merely good to great. My migraine began the moment he opened his mouth and was singing by the end of the meeting. I went home and skipped the next day of work altogether.
I do have a hangover. No question about that. But honestly I never get headaches after drinking. I’ve always been lucky that way. In any case, my head stopped hurting after I watched a ball of blue lightning enter my forehead, so at this point I suppose the headache isn’t even relevant. What’s relevant is seeing that blue light in the first place. Healthy people do not see things like that.
For a while I’ve been worried that I might be losing my mind. I could try to explain to you why, except I’m not exactly sure myself. I think a lot about Jack, that’s for sure. Gloria says I talk about him too much, but compared to how much I think about him, I hardly ever mention his name aloud. But it’s not just Jack. Sometimes I look around at everything and I wonder if I’m even here, if any of this is even happening. And I wonder what would happen if I just rejected it, just simply refused to believe what my eyes tell me I’m seeing. How the hell can I trust anything? I just saw a floating orb of blue light in church, for heaven’s sake.
But I can’t just withdraw. From everything, I mean. If I do, then I may as well find a mental hospital and purchase myself a lifetime room. Since I don’t think I’m quite ready for that, what I should do, instead, is summon some courage and leave this bathroom and go back into the chapel.
And yet I’m still standing here.
Maybe I could pee first. It’ll only take a few seconds. I walk over to a urinal, unzip my pants, and…I…uh…
The way I know I’m losing my mind is that I continue to hallucinate. I’m not even sure how to put this without sounding pornographic. My sexual equipment appears to be larger than normal. I don’t mean “it’s hot in here” larger. I mean, the thing is never this size, even when it’s ready to be deployed in extracurricular activity. Especially different is the girth. I can’t help but stare at it. And then—gingerly—I grip it with my hand to get a sense of the heft.
Something is wrong. Really wrong. My ears are roaring again.
As if things couldn’t possibly get worse, the bathroom door bursts open, and an older man I don’t recognize marches straight for the bank of urinals. I let go of my hallucinated heft and try my best to ignore him. With four urinals, I naturally expect him to pick one at the other end, away from me, but that’s not what happens. He stops at the urinal right next to mine, unzips his pants, and proceeds to deliver a stream of urine directly into the drain. Meanwhile I can’t go at all. My brain hums like an electrical transformer. The bathroom begins to spin.
I put my hand on the wall for support. I feel sick to my stomach, and for a moment I’m sure my knees will buckle, sending me to the floor. Squares of industrial green tile corkscrew around me like galaxies, multiplying, layers upon layers, and music, a string section, violins screaming at me. I feel like I’m speeding toward some unknown destination, my car careening out of control, spinning, tumbling…
The old man’s voice booms at me. Overdriven. Distorted.
“YOU’RE A PRISONER.”
When I look up, a geyser of bile surges into my throat. He is a puffy, red-faced madman. His nose is a network of broken capillaries. His gray beard is sprinkled with occasional threads of darker hair, and his entire mustache is black.
“EVERYTHING YOU KNOW IS A LIE.”
I blink. A camera shutter.
“THEY’RE WATCHING YOU.”
I blink again and he’s gone.
My mouth tastes like the leads on a nine-volt battery.
Where the hell did he go? Was he even here? I know he walked into this bathroom, I watched him do it, but where the hell did he go?
Or maybe the hallucinations are growing worse.
I look into the open fly of my pants. Just as big as before.
And somewhere—in the distance, in my subconscious?—I hear a woman’s voice counting out numbers in a measured, almost robotic tone:
These numbers: even in the haze. I could stand here listening forever. But I can’t. I have to find my way back to some kind of reality. I have to go back into the chapel. Gloria must be worried sick.
I reach down and try to zip myself up, but my hands are shaking like I have Parkinson’s. I shuffle to the sink and finally manage to close my pants. Splash water on my face. Blink a few times and shake my head.
Now, the bathroom door. It’s right there. All I have to do is open it and walk back to the chapel where my wife is waiting for me. That’s all. And yet part of me is afraid to leave this bathroom. Part of me is afraid if I open that door, I won’t like what I see on the other side. There should be a foyer out there, and beyond that the chapel doors, and beyond those a few hundred people worshipping the Lord. But what if that’s not what I see? What then?
My feet scrape across the tile, inching toward the door.
This is ridiculous. I’ve never been an anxious man. Not until recently, I mean. Recently everything is all confused, but I can’t go on like this forever. I have to pull myself together. I have to open that door.
The foyer is there. Empty, but there. I walk out of the bathroom and into sunlight. Through plate glass windows I see trees rocking back and forth in the gusting wind, cars in the parking lot, an old man pushing a woman in a wheelchair. This looks like reality. Maybe everything is going to be okay.
I hear a commotion, like scuttling feet, and then scores of relieved-looking people pour through the chapel doors. I see Gloria before she sees me, chatting to a red-haired woman whose husband seems to be enamored with the back of my wife’s slacks. This looks even more like reality. My wife has a great ass. I don’t usually like it when men stare at it, but right now it seems like a pretty good thing. A normal thing.
Gloria laughs at something the woman says, and for whatever reason it makes me think of college, our first time alone together after the big scene at Goose’s. We sat in front of a television set, bloated on cheap pizza, playing Super Nintendo like it was the first time either of us had ever seen a video game. At first we boxed and raced cars, but only when I plugged in SimCity did Gloria truly become hooked. She was (and is) the most intelligent woman I’ve ever met, and the logic of the game appealed to her in a way that thumb-intensive games did not. I showed her how to organize her city, how to zone for industrial and commercial and residential construction, but Gloria figured out the rest all by herself. For hours we played, drinking beer, lying side by side on the floor, our arms and legs brushing against each other. With each touch my skin felt electric, as if her body was made of pure energy. On screen, our city grew until it was a sprawling metropolis, and at one point Gloria wondered aloud how much more fun the game might be if we could get to know the actual people living in it. Which is generally the premise of The Sims, the best-selling PC game of all time.
Gloria had long hair then, dyed blonde, crimped perm and dark roots. Sometimes, when she tied it back in a ponytail, it almost hurt to look at her. She was so gorgeous, so alive, like nothing in the world could ever slow her down.
Today her hair is back to its natural color, a sort of light brown, and several months ago she cut most of it off. Said it was too thick and difficult to dry. She’s still beautiful, of course, and I would love her even if she were bald, but sometimes Gloria baffles me. She spends hundreds of dollars on her skin, exfoliating this, microderming that, and then she gets a “mom” haircut. It would be like if I intentionally shaved a bald spot onto the crown of my head.
Gloria finally looks up and sees me. She reaches forward and touches my face.
“Are you okay?”
“Fine now,” I say, which is the appropriate answer if not entirely the truth. “I thought I was coming down with a migraine, but I after I got some water I felt better.”
“Are you sure it’s gone? You looked awful in the church. I was worried.”
“It’s gone for now. Hopefully it stays gone.”
We find our car in the parking lot and head home. The sky is postcard blue, the clouds sparse and wispy—so perfect you’d think it was filmed that way. Speaking of filming, did you ever notice how marriage is sort of like a television series? Week to week things are pretty much the same, little joys and calamities come and go, but over time gradual changes occur. For instance, in the fall, Gloria and I enjoy a lazy Sunday routine: mass in the morning and football in the afternoon. I usually open my first beer when the late games start and coast into the evening with a nice buzz. I’ll grill some steak and chicken and vegetables. But whereas Gloria used to sit next to me on the couch and flip through magazines—and drink a few beers herself—now she spends the afternoon writing a blog for the Council of Catholic Women.
“I’m sorry about your head,” Gloria says. “And you missed communion again. But I guess you can make it up next week.”
I want to tell her what happened in the church, about the man in the bathroom, but I don’t. I can’t. I’ve been coming apart for a while now and I’m afraid to tell her. I’m afraid she’ll look at me differently, she’ll see me broken, and whatever thread we’ve been holding onto will snap. My arms are cold. They’re marbled with goose bumps. Out of nowhere I wonder what would happen if I steered the car into oncoming traffic. Here comes a big, white Cadillac, a ’70s-era monster with huge fins. It’s a convertible but the top is up. Would the collision be fatal? Or would airbags and crumple zones save us?
“What did you think about the homily this morning?” I ask Gloria.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean when the Father called your brother evil.”
“He didn’t say that.”
“He said homosexuality was evil. Or did I only imagine it?”
A second ticks by. Then another. I can still see the old man’s red cheeks, the spidery capillaries in his nose.
Everything you know is a lie.
She doesn’t answer me. We reach a stoplight. It’s red.
You’re a prisoner.
“The Father stood there and ranted against homosexuals for ten minutes, and you nodded and smiled like someone waiting for their crazy Kool-Aid.”
Now Gloria’s eyes glower in their sockets. For a moment she looks mad enough to spit on me.
“The situation with Michael is extremely complex,” she says, “and I won’t have you of all people try to characterize my feelings about the subject.”
“Then why don’t you characterize them for me?”
“Why are you trying to pick a fight?”
“I’m sorry,” I say, my voice almost wavering. “I’m not trying to pick a fight. But I don’t understand why you and pretty much everyone else in the congregation bought the Father’s speech so easily. It’s like you were all hypnotized. I’m not even sure why I go to church anymore.”
“Thomas Phillips! Don’t you say something like that!”
“Don’t say something like what?” I ask. “Don’t tell you how I really feel?”
“That’s not how you really feel!”
“Why are you yelling at me?”
“Baby, please don’t do this. When you came into the other room last night and kissed me and hugged me I felt so close to you. Do you know that’s the first time in months you’ve said the words ‘I’m sorry’? It made me think I mattered to you again. Like we were finally reconnecting. I thought maybe we could finally push past this.”
“I know, Junior. I know. I felt the same way.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
I should let it go. I know I should. Who cares what the Father thinks about homosexuality? He doesn’t even know Gloria’s brother. Michael hasn’t been to church in years.
But it’s not the homily. It’s not the Father. It’s Gloria. She’s different somehow. I can’t put my finger on it but I know it.
“You’re changing the subject on me,” I finally say. It’s like I’ve lost control of my own mouth. “We are not talking about us. We’re talking about your brother and the church and why it’s anyone’s business who he sleeps with.”
We reach our house. I pull into the driveway, put the transmission in park, and turn off the ignition.
“It’s God’s business,” Gloria says, looking away from me, out the window. “Everything is.”
“But why create gay people and then condemn them to Hell?”
I wait for her to continue, but she doesn’t.
“It’s not fair,” I say.
“God has a plan for all of us, but sometimes it’s difficult to see what that plan is.”
“Okay, but if your brother doesn’t stop being gay, is he going to Hell?”
For a long moment Gloria doesn’t say anything. But her eyes turn glassy, and her bottom lip quivers, and I hate myself for it. I wish I knew where we went wrong. Have I changed? Has she? Have we both?
“You’re horrible,” she finally says, and gets out of the car.
I watch her walk past the car and into the house. I want to follow her inside, apologize, but I don’t.
My mind isn’t right. I need to compose myself before I talk to her again.
I close my eyes and picture the bathroom. I watch the old man striding across the floor, headed directly for me. I think about his black and white beard and the spidery capillaries in his nose. I’ve never seen that man in my entire life.
So why on earth is his face so familiar?
About Richard Cox
Richard Cox believes he was born in Texas and now lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. According to multiple Internet sources, he has published three novels, Thomas World (September 2011), The God Particle, and Rift. Richard has also apparently written for This Land Press, Oklahoma Magazine, and is an associate editor for TheNervousBreakdown.com.
However, you can't believe everything you read. Or see. For all you know, you're not even reading this right now.
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