Authors: Simone Pond
About This Story
Books By Simone Pond
A Short Story
VOICES OF THE APOCALYPSE SERIES
By Simone Pond
Copyright © 2015 Simone Pond
All rights reserved.
This short story was inspired by the New Agenda book series, which currently includes The City Center, The New Agenda and The Mainframe, and The Torrent is coming soon.
There are ten stories in the Voices of the Apocalypse Series. For more information, visit:
Keyla Johnson were probably the last two people you’d ever expect to find roving around together. But it was the end of the world and sometimes that was how these things went.
Ransom was a sixty-three-year-old retired farmer, living in a secluded spot in the woods somewhere in Lake County. He wasn’t retired by choice––the workhorse was no quitter––he had lost his Ohio dairy farm when the big corporations took control of the Midwest farming industry in the early 2000s. The big guns had shut him down and forced him off his land. A true survivalist, he stole back some of his own chickens and claimed a hidden location in the woods, where he’d been living for over two decades. Over the years, his eggs had become the most popular item at the weekly farmers market in the small town of Willoughby. He was heading to the market when he met Keyla Johnson.
He drove his rickety antique tractor along Erie Street, biting down on a piece of twig he had picked specifically for the ride to town. Chewing twigs had replaced his habit of chewing on wooden matches. Ransom often complained that “there weren’t no more matches to gnaw on no more.” He passed by the boarded-up shops and dilapidated brick buildings, remembering visions of the once charming town. The place had diminished in the last few years due to the Repatterning. Ransom had told the townspeople the Repatterning was a bunch of hooey, but nobody listened. He knew not to trust anything that worked so hard to sell itself. Just like the corporations taking over the farming industry, he knew the Repatterning was the beginning of the end.
The farmers market dwindled down a little bit more each week as the residents of Willoughby started disappearing. There were tales about “The Girl in Blue” coming from the cemetery to claim their souls, but Ransom knew it was the broken economy that had claimed them. Many folks had to relocate up north to work on the Chicago City Center. Ransom didn’t care about any foolish city center, and he wasn’t about to depend on anyone else to feed him so he stayed put. A handful of residents still lived in Willoughby because they were either too sick or old to travel. Ransom planned to stick around with those sad saps until the bitter end.
He was ruminating on those thoughts when he spotted Keyla crouched against the empty building where the town dentist used to work. The small black girl was gnawing on a raw corncob. The poor thing looked so scrawny and pathetic underneath her unruly mane that Ransom stopped his tractor. She couldn’t have been more than twelve-years-old. Someone so young shouldn’t be all alone.
He walked over to the girl. “That probably ain’t good fer your teeth.”
“Hahaha!” She laughed.
“What’s ticklin’ you?”
“That’s an amusing comment, coming from a man with hardly any teeth left in his own mouth.”
She sounded like one of those well-educated types from a good family. Ransom wondered how the girl had ended up all alone in the dying town of Willoughby. She continued biting down into the cob, pretending like it wasn’t bothering her.
“Hows about I get ya somethin’ real to eat?” Ransom tried to smile.
“I’m not going anywhere with you. I don’t know you.”
“I ain’t asking ya to go anywheres with me. I’m offerin’ to git ya fed.”
She flinched. “I’m not stupid. I know how these things go. You take me somewhere and tie me up and do horrible things. Then you kill me, or leave me for dead.”
Ransom stepped back a few inches, wondering if she was talking from experience. A sadness settled in his body. The world was all wrong, making victims out of its innocents. Now he had to help her. Though she was black and had a proper city accent, she reminded him of his daughter––the one he tried not to think about. The one he had lost in a farming accident about thirty years ago.
“Why are you crying, mister? I didn’t mean to insult you.” She stood up and held out her boney hand.
He frowned and reached out to shake her hand. “I ain’t cryin’, just caught somethin’ in my eye is all.”
“I’m Keyla Johnson. I’m originally from Washington D.C., but I had to escape with my sister because things got bad. I lost her along the way.” She looked away and wiped away a tear of her own.
“Name’s Ransom Sherman. I’m a farmer without a farm, but I figured out a way to make a livin’ in these tryin’ times. I’m offerin’ to give ya some real food, if that’s okay. I might look like a mean ol’ tough fella, but I got a heart of gold.”
Keyla smiled and patted Ransom’s brawny arm. “I appreciate that, Mr. Sherman.”
“I go by Ransom. Wait here, I’ll go git ya some eggs.”
Ransom walked over to his tractor, smiling to himself. He liked the idea of being a good citizen, helping out a starving girl who was down on her luck. Losing money on the eggs wasn’t an issue; he had enough surplus to get by just fine. What mattered was being of service to Keyla. Underneath all that sadness she had something special, a light in her eyes he hadn’t seen in a long, long time. Sometimes living out in those woods got lonely. Dusty memories he had tried to leave behind started to resurface. He missed his wife and daughter. Peggy was a stand up gal, the best wife any man could ask for, but she got real low after their daughter Emma died in the accident. She left Ransom and went somewhere south, and he never heard from her again.
“I miss you, Emma and Peggy,” he whispered under his breath.
“Who are you talking to?” Keyla asked.
His heart reared up; he hadn’t realized she had tagged along. “Oh, nobody.”
“I heard you say a couple of names.”
“My wife and daughter. Gone now. Haven’t thought of ‘em in a while.”
“I’m sorry, mister,” she said quietly.
“Ransom. Call me Ransom.”
“Okay.” She patted his arm again. The human contact felt nice.
Ransom had rigged a large crate to the back of the tractor to keep his eggs. That week was a good one––over three-dozen.
“Hmm,” he said.
“What is it?”
“I ain’t got nothin’ to put ‘em in. Don’t suppose you got something in that bag of yours?”
“I can wrap them in my sweater.”
Keyla opened the bag and pulled out a ratty gray sweater that had pieces of leaves and dirt all over it. She must’ve been using it for a blanket at night. He hoped she wasn’t shivering herself to sleep.
“Ain’t you got somethin’ else? A blanket?”
“I had to leave behind a bunch of things when I . . .” Keyla didn’t finish the sentence. Instead, she wrapped the sweater around the eggs and placed it gingerly into her bag.
“I’ll be down at the market.” Ransom paused. “If anythin’ happens to them eggs. Or if you want some company.”
“Thank you, Ransom. I’ll be okay. I’ve been on my own for a while now.”
He climbed back onto the tractor and turned the key. “Nice meetin’ ya, Keyla. You take good care.”
“You too, Ransom.”
“No more uncooked corncobs.”
She waved him off.
The farmers market was as empty as the rest of the ghost town. Only a few local farmers had anything left to peddle, and there weren’t too many buyers left. Instead of money they used other items to barter for goods––blankets, clothing, and jewelry. Some even exchanged booze, but Ransom always turned that down. Not a drop since the farming accident.
He parked his tractor at the far end of the block and waited for some customers. A couple came over and offered a handmade quilt that had been in the family for centuries. Ransom didn’t need another blanket, but he knew someone it could keep warm at night. He traded a dozen eggs for it.
Around noon, Ransom sat on the curb next to his tractor to eat lunch. The chicken sandwich was on hearty bread he had made using grains from a small wheat crop he had planted in a nearby field nobody paid attention to. The chicken was from one of the older birds that had seen better days. He glanced toward the corner and noticed a face peering out, then it quickly vanished. He chuckled to himself.
“You want some? It’s purty tasty chicken,” he yelled, holding up the sandwich.
Keyla came around the corner and shuffled over to Ransom. She sat down and gobbled up that sandwich faster than a cyclone. Wiping her mouth with her sleeve, she looked at Ransom. “I can give you back the eggs. I don’t know how I’ll cook them anyway.”
“How ‘bout you exchange them eggs for this here quilt. It’ll keep you warm at night.”
“No, I couldn’t.”
She was prideful little thing, but he understood. “I don’t need another dang quilt, so I’m just gonna leave it behind if you don’t take it.”
“You’re fibbing.” She lightly punched his arm.
He winked and handed her the quilt.
“Why are you being so kind to me?” she asked.
“Probably ‘cause you remind me of my girl.”
She widened her eyes. “Your daughter was black?”
He shook his head, laughing. “Nah, just somethin’ in yer eyes is all.”
“I’m sure she was a good daughter for you to be so nice to me.”
“Emma was the best kid a parent could ever have.”
“What happened to her? The Repatterning?” Keyla asked.
Ransom was grateful for the approaching customer. He stood to greet Mayor Craig Parks, whose overcoat was swallowing him up. He used to be a husky fellow, but now he was loose skin on bones.
“Good to see you, Mayor, sir,” Ransom held out his hand and gave Mayor Parks a firm shake, setting the feeble man off balance.
“You too, Ransom. I don’t have much to barter, but I’m hoping you can help out. I have a sick wife at home. Your eggs might do her some good.” The Mayor gave a weak smile and held out a pocket watch. “It’s a family heirloom, but it’s not doing much good collecting dust.”
“I don’t feel right taking it, sir.”
“It’s all I have of value.” He lowered his head, shamefully.
“Hows about I give you the eggs free of charge. We can figures out somethin’ later down the road.”
Mayor Parks grinned and looked over at Keyla. “I might have something for your friend.” He dug into his coat pocket, pulled out a pair of pearl hair combs, and pressed them into her small hand.
“Oh, sir, you don’t have to do that.” Keyla tried to give them back. “Though they are beautiful.”
“They belonged to my wife’s grandmother. Please take them. She’ll be happy to know someone with such pretty hair could make good use of them.”
“Wait.” She opened her bag and pulled out the sweater, offering the eggs.
“For cripes sake,” Ransom huffed. “That’s enough outta both of you. Keyla, you keep those eggs, you need ‘em you skinny little thing. And sir, I’ll give you a dozen eggs for those combs. That’s that.”
“Thank you, Ransom.” Mayor Parks wiped a tear from his sunken cheek.
“Now you git on home to that wife of yours and fix her up somethin’ real good.” He helped the Mayor back down the street toward his more recent living quarters––an abandoned hat shop. His mansion had been burned to the ground earlier that year.
“That was awfully nice of you, Ransom,” Keyla said, awkwardly jabbing the comb’s prongs into a tuft of hair.
Ransom chuckled. “Here, let me help.”
It had been a while since Ransom had done the task of taming a young girl’s hair. He fumbled a few minutes until he finally got the pearl combs evenly placed. With her hair pulled back, he could really see the depth of her sadness.
“Purty.” He patted the poof of hair.
“Thanks, Ransom. I’m glad I met you. It’s been rough.”
Ransom sat back down on the curb and Keyla joined him. A chilly autumn breeze picked up. She took the quilt and wrapped it around her scrawny shoulders. Ransom opened his thermos; the coffee was still warm. He poured some into a cup and passed it to Keyla.
“This’ll help,” he said.
She sniffed the coffee and shook her head. “No thank you.”
“Have it yer way. More for me.” He sipped the coffee and the warmth soothed his insides. Nothing like a good cup of coffee to ease the soul.
“Why are you all alone, Ransom?”
“That’s not a happy story.”
“Are there any happy stories these days?”
“How’d you lose your sister?” Ransom steered the subject away.
“That’s the saddest story I know.” She pulled the quilt tighter and tucked her chin into her chest.
Ransom didn’t want to pry. “Okay, I’ll go first. My daughter, Emma, died when she was about yer age. Bad accident. My wife never recovered from it. One mornin’ she up and left me. Been alone for ‘bout two decades. Just the chickens, roosters, and me. I miss ‘em every single day.”
Ransom had never said those words to anyone and hearing them sounded strange, as though someone else had put them there. He wasn’t sure if he should tell Keyla the whole story.
The farmers market was closing for the day. The fruit lady, who Ransom only knew as “the fruit lady,” smiled and waved goodbye. The vegetable man, who Ransom knew as Henry, nodded and got on his donkey to carry his cart back home. Everyone else had already left. Normally, Ransom would start packing up, but that day he wasn’t in any rush.
“How’d she die?” Keyla asked.
He let out a big old sigh. “I was ridin’ one of my skid loaders on the dairy farm. I’d been drinkin’ with the boys the night before. Playin’ cards till the wee hours of the mornin’. Shoulda gone on home and slept it off, but I had work to do. Bills to pay. The sun was beatin’ down on me and I was in a heap of sweat, blinded by it, you could say. I didn’t see her playing in the dirt. Ran her over. She died later that night. Worst day of my life.”
Ransom reached for the thermos and drank down a few gulps of coffee, hoping to straighten out the wiry feeling inside his gut. Keyla rested her hand on his big shoulder.
“I can’t imagine your guilt, but it was an accident. You didn’t mean it.”
“Course I didn’t mean it, but that don’t take away the pain.”
“I suppose it doesn’t. I’m sorry something so horrible happened to such a good man.”
“I ain’t a good man.”
“Sure you are. Look at what you’ve done for me––and you don’t even know me.”
Ransom nodded and grinned a little, then finished off the coffee.
“If it makes you feel any better, I did some bad stuff too,” she said.
“Little thing like you? Nah.” He chuckled and reached into his pocket to get a twig to gnaw on.
She squeezed her eyes tight and kept her head down. “I left my sister behind. I’m pretty sure she was dead, but I didn’t check to see. I just ran out of that place. She looked dead, but it’s the not knowing that gives me nightmares.”
“Where were you?”
“Somewhere down near Canton when it happened. My parents sent me and my sister there when things got bad in D.C. My mom’s sister had a house in the suburbs and she said she’d take us in until things calmed down. My folks scraped together all they had to get us train tickets to Pittsburgh. From there, we had to find a way to Canton. It was only ninety miles, so my sister thought we could handle it. I trusted she could figure out something, being an honor-roll student and all. She was top of her class.”
“What’s her name?”
“You say that like she’s still alive.”
“She might be.”
“Her name is Dayla.” Keyla stopped and looked up toward the sky, staying quiet for a few minutes.
Ransom waited patiently; he didn’t have anywhere to go. He fiddled with the twig in his mouth, wishing he had a wooden match. He remembered driving around for miles, searching every single ransacked hardware store in the nearby towns, but found nothing.
Keyla started talking again. “We hitched a ride with a nice couple on their way to Chicago to help with the city center. They had lost their jobs and their home, so they had nothing else to lose. They let us out in East Canton and continued north. They were really nice people. I hope they’re okay.”
“Did you and yer sis make it to yer aunt’s house?”
“We still had some more traveling, but there weren’t any buses or cars so we walked about fifteen miles in the middle of the night. It was probably better because it was too hot during the day. August humidity and all. Right before we got to her house, a dark blue van pulled over to the side and a sweet woman asked us if we needed a ride. Dayla told the woman no thanks and that we were fine, but then the side door opened and two men jumped out and pulled us into the van. All I remember is hearing Dayla’s scream before something went over my mouth and knocked me out.”
Ransom sat on the curb, clenching his fists, ready to punch someone. Rage twisted all around him. How could a woman do such a thing like luring two innocent girls into a van? That was really getting up in his craw but he held back his anger and stayed calm for Keyla’s sake.
“When I woke up, Dayla and I were on a cold cement floor, chained to a pipe in some mildewy basement. It was dark, but I could hear birds chirping outside so I knew it was morning. Dayla was still out and I shook her until she woke up. She cried for a few minutes and I told her to stop it before they heard us. I started looking for a way to get free, but the handcuffs were on too tight. Dayla banged on the pipe to loosen it from the wall, and that’s when one of the men came down. He was skinny, with greasy hair and dirt all over his face. He came over and kicked Dayla until she went limp. I kept my mouth shut. One of us needed to stay strong.”
Ransom had to stand up for a minute and get some fresh air into his lungs. His insides felt like they were on fire and he wanted to crush something with his bare hands. He picked up a brick from the street and hurled it into the window of one of the abandoned buildings. The sound of glass shattering settled him a little and he was able to take in a few deep breaths. He walked back over to Keyla, who was nervously readjusting the combs in her hair.
“Sorry ‘bout that,” he grunted.
“It gets worse. You want me to stop?”
“Nah, I’m good. You go on and git it off yer chest. You’ll feel better.”
“The man bent down and shot something into Dayla’s arm. Then he unchained her and dragged her over to a mattress on the other side of the room. He called upstairs to his buddy, someone named Harold, who came thumping down the stairs. He looked like a giant. The skinny man set up a camera and aimed it toward the mattress where Dayla was slumped over. He looked at Harold and ordered him to take off his clothes; it was time to make a movie. I curled into a ball and tried to block out their conversation, but it was impossible. They were making gross movies for some wealthy businessmen.”
“I don’t think I wanna hear the rest,” Ransom said.
“Yeah, it’s not good.”
“Did they hurt you?”
“They were saving me for last. I closed my eyes while they made the movie. Dayla was so drugged up she didn’t make a sound. The skinny man started kicking her again, telling her to wake up and get more into the scene. But she was too far gone. He yanked her off the mattress and threw her back in the corner, where I was stilled chained up. Her head smacked against the pipe and she hit the cement hard. Blood spilled out around her and I was sure she was dead. Instead of crying or getting upset, something deep stirred in my belly, and it felt like my insides were turning to stone. I waited for that skinny man to come over to me so I could take him out. I was going to kill him.”
Ransom understood intense murderous rage. When the corporations took away his farm and kicked him to the dirt, he plotted killing off every last one of the bastards. But this was different. This was two innocent girls who couldn’t fend for themselves. And those men hurt them for good. The kind of hurt that doesn’t ever go away, no matter how much praying you did.
“The skinny man headed over toward me so he could stick me with that needle. I stayed still until he was real close, then I kicked him in between his legs, like my daddy taught me. I yanked that needle out of his hand and stuck it right into his beady eye. He fell backward, wailing and rolling around, and I kicked him some more. Harold just stood off to the side, watching in shock. I don’t think he had much going on in the smarts department. When the skinny man finally passed out, I reached into his pocket and found the key to undo my cuffs. I took the needle out of his eye and walked over to Harold, aiming it at him. He was more afraid of that needle than a kid at the doctor’s office. He tucked himself into a ball on the mattress and I inched slowly up the stairs. I listened by the door to make sure no one was home. It was quiet and I ran out of that house as fast as I could go, leaving Dayla behind. I ran for a while, then finally hitched a ride to my aunt’s house. I knew she could help me go back and get Dayla out of that house. But when I got there, my aunt was gone. The whole house was boarded up. The neighbor said she and my uncle got really sick and died. I headed to the 77 highway and walked north. Not sure why I headed this way, but something inside told me to go north.”
Ransom pulled Keyla into his arms and hugged her tight against his sturdy chest. She stayed stiff for a few minutes until her armor melted and she began sobbing, wetting the front of his shirt.
“I didn’t want to leave her,” she cried.
“There was nothin’ you coulda done.” Ransom rubbed her back and forced himself to stay strong for her.
“I’m so glad you found me, Ransom.”
“Me too.” He stood up and adjusted his jacket. “I got an idea.”
He reached down to Keyla and helped her up. “Let’s drive down to East Canton and find yer sister.”
Keyla stepped back, almost tripping on the curb. “But she’s dead.”
“The least we can do is go git her and give her a proper burial. We can put her next to Emma, up on my old farm.”
“I don’t know. I mean, it’s been weeks, Ransom. They probably got rid of her body by now. Those people might not even be there.”
“We don’t know till we try. Whaddya say?”
Ransom had already started packing up the tractor. Once his mind was made up, there was no point trying to change it.
“Of course you are, but that don’t mean you don’t do something.”
“We’re not driving the tractor down, are we?” Keyla smiled.
“Nah, I’m fixin’ to ask Mayor Parks if we can borrow his car. I’ll give him the rest of these here eggs.”
Keyla stared off for a minute or two. The sun was setting and a crisp breeze blew through the empty streets. The dry leaves rustled along the road. She eyed Ransom up and down. “Okay, let’s do it.”
The two walked down the street toward the old hat shop where the Mayor Parks and his wife lived. Ransom gave the Mayor a brief account of what had happened and held out what was left of the eggs. Mayor Parks handed over his keys without any hesitation.
“There’s not much gas, but I trust you’ll figure out something.” He shook Ransom’s hand. “You’re a good man.”
“Just tryin’ to do the right thing,” he said, humbly.
“That’s what makes you a good man. It’s not about our past sins; it’s what we learn from them.”
They got into the large Buick and Keyla buckled up, looking tiny in the passenger seat. Ransom didn’t bother with his buckle. It took a few tries before the engine turned. There was a quarter tank left, which wouldn’t be enough to get them to East Canton.
Ransom drove down Erie Street toward Mason’s Auto Shop. He pulled up to the vacant garage.
“Mason always keeps some extra gas lying around. He’s must be gone now. Don’t think he’d mind if we helped ourselves.”
Once they were fueled up to three-quarters tank, they got on the 77 South toward Canton. Keyla took a nap along the way, while Ransom thought about the last time he’d driven down that highway. He was a little rusty at the wheel, and after a big swerve, Keyla woke up.
“You sure you know how to drive?” she teased.
“It’s been a while. Now, do you remember where that house was?”
“It was on 24
Street Southeast. I’ll never forget it. It’s off of Wayne-something. Waynesburg Drive, maybe. Once we get close enough, I can figure it out. You’ll need to take exit 43 South.”
He nodded. “Good memory.”
“It’s kind of hard to forget when you’re walking on it for a while.” Keyla smiled, pointing to the upcoming exit. “You need to get off there.”
When they got close enough to 24
Street, Keyla crouched low in the passenger seat, tears rolling down her cheeks. Ransom parked a few houses away, hidden in the shadows of the trees. Good thing the street lamps were off.
“You okay?” he asked.
“It’s that little red house. The one with the van in the driveway,” Keyla whispered.
“You wait right here.”
“You’re just going to walk up to the door?”
“Do you have a weapon or anything?”
The sixty-three year old raised his eyebrows and held up his fists.
“Good luck,” she said, shaking her head.
He got out of the car and walked toward the house, feeling another bout of that burning rage. Someone was definitely going to pay for what they did to those innocent girls. When he was about a few houses away, he waited by the trees, sizing up the place. A couple of folks came out of the house and got into the van. They peeled out of the driveway and bolted down the street. Ransom looked back to make sure Keyla was okay. Her puffy hair ducked down just before the van zipped by.
Ransom marched up to the door and didn’t bother knocking; he just barreled through it, almost taking it off the hinges. He stormed through the filthy living room and kitchen area, opening doors to see if anyone was still there. Someone had to answer for this crime. But the place was empty. He noticed a baseball bat next to the couch and picked it up for his journey to the basement. One step at a time, he descended the wooden steps into the dark hole.
“Hello?” he called down.
He thought he heard something skitter about.
“I’m here to help,” he said. “I came with Keyla.”
“Keyla?” the voice cried out from below.
Ransom jumped down the last few stairs and ran to the corner where a young black girl, who looked a lot like Keyla, was chained to a pipe. She had on a long stained T-shirt and nothing else.
“Good lord.” That was all he could get out.
“Where’s my sister?”
“She’s safe. I’m gonna git you outta this mess.”
The handcuffs were too tight to wriggle off.
“Please help me,” she cried.
“Watch out, I’m gonna bust that pipe open.”
Dayla scooted off to the side and he began swinging the bat like a madman until the pipe busted and he was able to slide off the handcuffs. He scooped Dayla into his arms and ran up the steps. Before reaching the front door, he turned around and scanned the living room. He placed Dayla next to the door and scurried back to the kitchen, looking for something flammable.
“What are you doing?” Dayla cried out.
“Burning this place to the ground.”
Those evil men would probably keep going about their business, but at least it wouldn’t be there. He snatched a lighter off the counter and searched the cabinets until he found just what he needed––a stock of Jack Daniels. Grabbing a couple bottles, he ran around dousing the furniture and carpets with the stuff. Standing next to the ratty curtains, he flicked the lighter, catching the material on fire. He picked Dayla up and darted out of the house, back to the car.
“She’s alive, Keyla! Open the back door!” he yelled, running toward the Buick.
“She’s alive?!” Kayla’s eyes bulged. “Oh, thank you! Thank you!”
Keyla opened the back door and helped Ransom get Dayla into backseat. She sat down and held her sister’s heavy head in her small lap. Ransom got behind the wheel and drove away, speeding down the dark streets. Nobody said a word until about five miles on the 77 north.
“I thought you were dead.” Keyla sobbed, hugging her beaten down sister.
“I thought you were dead,” Dayla whispered.
Ransom looked at the girls in the rearview mirror. He was still shaking with rage, but seeing the relief in their faces was enough to comfort him back down. He dug into his pocket for a piece of twig to gnaw on, but he was out. Keyla’s small hand touched his shoulder and she handed him a piece of twig she must’ve picked from the bushes. He took it and smiled in the rearview mirror. Peace settled through the Buick as they cruised along the barren highway back to Willoughby. Ransom had lost a lot over the years, but finding Keyla had been the greatest gift.
THE CITY CENTER
THE NEW AGENDA
VOICES OF THE APOCALYPSE: SHORT STORIES
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