Writers Institute

The Baker's Daughter

by Billie R. Tadros


My father screamed in his sleep. Drowning in waves below the surface of consciousness, in dreams suspended and repressed over longing crescendos of pain and passion, he would release cries – wails – that seemed to embody the full spectrum, overtones and undertones, of human grief and sorrow. I only recall hearing him once, when I was twelve years old. It was almost comical, hearing his wavering, theatrical moan project through the house and the middle of the afternoon; in my world, nightmares only happened at night. My mother quickly ran up the stairs to wake and quiet him, to restore his reality, though I have reason now to question whether there was ever a solid distinction between what he lived dreaming and waking. I am certain that his nightmares made no such distinction.

surrounded by four walls without name without place he is no longer and yet he is there here his face two or three days between shaves in a plaid collared shirt like the ones that hang restless in what is still his half of the closet. I embrace him but he does not speak he does not move. end scene open scene we are in an apartment on an upper floor there is a party. he stands in front of the glass doors to the balcony. his eyes are vacant (this is full of meaning). I turn and a twisting in my stomach tells me to turn back around that he will leave that he is on the balcony. I turn and the glass doors are open (something about a white towel falling to the grass below).

I wake, confused to find my pillowcase saturated to the pillow. I realize I have been crying. I am shaking, full-body tremors as if I am in shock, as if he was alive five minutes ago, as if I have really just turned my back, as if he has really died twice. I grab Dylan and shake her awake instinctively. I cannot compartmentalize, separate thoughts/images/realities. I am between indistinct worlds. In both of these, my father is dead. In both of these, he has orchestrated his ending. In both of these, I have turned and lost him. She rocks me like a child rather than a lover, kissing the top of my head (I’m sorry, baby, I’m so sorry) until the other world subsides, morphs into the dark gray of my bedroom at night.

The morning I decided my father was a genius was a Sunday. I was ten years old. I found him surrounded by paper balls, white dodecahedrons at his ankles, the conception of another forming in his hands. His hands were those of an artist, hands that could craft something living out of two-dimensional nothingness, could create form from shapelessness, taste from mere ingredients. Clearly it was this sensibility that made him such a gifted baker. I remember watching him dissect desserts when we would go out to eat as a family, pulling apart layers with his fork, gathering information with all of his senses which he could then later recall and use to reinvent these cakes and tortes and pastries, to make them art.

“I used to make these when I was a kid,” he said, sitting in our blue rocking chair, tossing and catching the last paper ball as he rocked, covering and re-revealing the unfinished molding between the living room and the kitchen with his rocking. He frequently immersed himself in these projects – tiling the two bathrooms, the kitchen, putting the wood flooring in the living room. He rarely finished them completely. His depression was visible in the three inches of wall in want of molding, in the mosaic corner piece of tile he had put together from scraps when he made an imperfect cut, in the box of abandoned ceramic in the garage. These relics stand as testaments to those moments in which manic dissolved into depressive, as a material chronology of his depression and the house that enclosed it.

I never gave a second thought to the fact that my father would spend days at a time in bed. His eyes were always marked by dark circles, at least in all of the images of his face I can still summon without the aid of photographs or home videos. When I do exhume my memories of him through these media, it shocks me to see the moments of brightness in this eyes, seconds of tape seeming haphazard among the dozen or so videocassettes documenting his decline. I assumed he was just tired; he would go in to work at the bakery at three or four o’clock in the morning and not return till six or seven o’clock at night on a good night. When he wasn’t in bed, he would often drift into unconsciousness on the couch. Sometimes he would ask me to make him a cup mint tea, but it would grow cold as he slept. I quickly measured him against the definition of workaholic, but depressed was far less concrete, the gray vortex that had been feasting insatiably on our household while we struggled to find the source of our growing emptiness.

“It came back to me in a dream,” he said, fingering the vertices of his creation. My mother sat marveling at him, a smile on flush cheeks as though she were eighteen again, quietly loving this man whom she doubtlessly knew better, more wholly than anyone else did or ever would, but who remained after almost twenty years still so mysterious, as if his depth, his darkness, was simply incomprehensible. We could see it faintly, a sort of gray silhouette of the man we knew, beyond the translucent walls he so painstakingly built to keep us out, to keep everything out. But even my mother could not penetrate them. In time, he would leave all of us on the other side, and from our individual vantage points, we would watch him disappear, become one with those depths, an ingredient of his own darkness.

We were never a beach-going family. We had a cooler, but we didn’t have an umbrella, and we only had lawn chairs for the fireworks on the Fourth of July because Pops usually came with us, and he could no longer sit on the ground. I was fourteen, and I came up from my bedroom, the basement – Sarah and I had stopped sharing the second bedroom just a few months earlier – and my mother told me to get ready; we were going to drive down the shore. It was Labor Day. This struck me as peculiar, that we would follow the flock of New Jerseyans bumper-to-bumper going east on possibly the busiest shore holiday of the year, but her expression suggested a certain urgency, a certain desperation that told me not to ask questions. The desperation was concentrated largely in her eyes, in the frantic blue so carefully contained within the context of the forced calm of the rest of her countenance. It was not her outward expression that silenced me, but the latent one beneath it, the one that lay like a watermark behind the surface, the mark of authentic emotion.

The four of us filled the eggplant-colored Honda Accord. Dad drove – Dad always drove. Sarah sat behind him, and I sat behind Mom, and the sounds of my adolescence filled the car as Dad played my eighth grade mix CD and kept repeating the tenth track – Liz Phair, “Why Can’t I.” He habitually latched onto one song and played and re-played it for weeks. Then he would find another. This made me nervous on this particular occasion, because in my unedited, pirated version, unlike the radio version, you could actually hear Liz Phair singing “We haven’t fucked yet, but my head’s spinning,” instead of the familiar, polite silence that overtook the vocal track on the cadence before the chorus when I heard it on the radio. Dad didn’t catch on, and luckily, neither did Mom, but every time the second verse came through the back speakers, Sarah and I held our breath and then released it in exhalations of laughter after the word “fucked.” We were not allowed to say “fuck” yet.

Years later Mom told me why we took that Labor Day shore trip, one of only three shore trips I can ever remember the four of us sharing together. Sarah had swallowed the contents of a bottle of Ibuprofen the night before. I’m not sure how big the bottle was – or if it was a bottle at all (an image of a large Ziploc bag of pills comes to mind) – but when the physical pain coursing through her body shook her from the other pain that had prompted the act, she ran to my parents’ room, and Dad successfully thwarted her attempt on her eleven years of life. I don’t know if it was a run to the ER or Ipecac, if he was calm or panicked, if it was the first time or not—I slept through it. I prefer not to speculate and cannot ask; in this instance, I prefer the indistinction. The shore trip was an escape.

For years Sarah’s depression was as elusive as my father’s. My parents began taking her to a therapist when she was eight. She had rubbed a nail file against her forehead until it collected the first layers of skin, leaving an egregious red mark. Largely, at ten, I had dismissed this as a consequence of childish curiosity, but her arms and wrists, palimpsests on which the brown lines of scars betray her private thoughts and their consequent actions, now stand as testaments to my ignorance, my inability to elicit a definition from the indistinct, gray suggestions of depression that surfaced from that distinct darkness in which both my sister and my father lived.

The rooms of our home house the chronology of her sickness as well—in the words death, pain, hurt on the wall behind my mother’s dresser in black Sharpie. (My parents had given my sister the master bedroom for a few years; after my father left, my mother and sister switched bedrooms again.) In the locked box where we keep all the medication in the house—in the smallest bottles sold.

After the Ibuprofen, when death had been uninvited and graciously left our house for the night, my father had stood in the hallway and begged Sarah to stay – for him. Three years later– after he was gone, Sarah told my mother she felt she no longer had a reason to.

we are three. our greatest common factor is our greatest common loss and we are walking on a path I know but do not recognize. we are navigating asphalt and conversation my mother and I but my sister does not speak she is listening to music through headphones. we walk past a brick building. I turn and look at my mother my sister is gone we are frantic we are searching there is terror in my mother’s eyes like when Sarah was two and let go of Daddy’s hand in Macy’s and the nice bald man brought her back on his shoulders and we all cried and I got a pink t-shirt. my mother screams her name I look up. she is on the roof.

This is months later, but the transition from one indistinct world of darkness to the darkness of Dylan’s room this time is slower and more painful than the last. This time the quaking sobs continue for twenty minutes. I cannot stop. It is so real (I’m sorry, baby, I’m so sorry. But she’s okay. Sarah’s okay.) I do not believe her. I think she is offended, but I don’t know – I have awoken but I am not awake, and it is so real. I try to call my sister– it is four AM. I think of her just months before sitting on the roof of our house. I think of her explanation of the uncertainty surrounding how she got there, of her loss of control, what it was like she woke up there, how she willingly stayed in the hospital for a week where we were not allowed to bring her even hot chocolate, where she could not use plastic utensils. We are naked; we made love tonight, Dylan and I, and in her vulnerability, still, I do not believe her. I quake and sob against the pillow with my phone to my ear and wait irrationally for an answer on the other line. Tomorrow Sarah will call me in tears and tell me some asshole in her freshman seminar class attacked her for linking gun laws to suicide. I will cry, relieved, and ask for the bastard’s name.

Dylan and I met freshman year of college. One Thursday night we shared a bottle of Pinot Grigio in my dorm room. Dylan told me she was going home the following morning. She lived about three hours away, and it didn’t seem worth the drive or missing classes when the semester was ending the following weekend. When I asked her about it, I expected her to say she was bringing half of her stuff home or that it was her mother’s birthday or a cousin’s wedding, something like that. Instead she said, “I have to testify tomorrow, against the man who raped me and my sister.”

I remember staring helplessly at the bottle of wine, my stomach twisting as though someone had driven a cork into it. No words seemed appropriate. I don’t remember which ones I chose. I just remember meeting her eyes on the other side of the room. They were always greener when she cried.

I told Dylan about my father for the first time that night, though I think she already knew. For a while I had worn it forwardly, almost proudly, like an ID bracelet: The Baker’s Daughter. The Suicidal Baker’s Daughter. The Daughter of the Baker-Who-Put-a-Gun-in-His-Mouth-and-Pulled-the-Trigger. The words I chose to wear varied, but the message was always the same – matter-of-fact, to the point. Emotionless. The experience of it was often like that as well, as though I had banished my him to the darkest corner of my memory, buried him beneath dates and facts and middle school crushes and the inexplicable anger I felt when I thought about his disappearance.

My father’s disappearance was prefaced by shorter lapses in his presence. He would disappear for two to three days at a time. My mother worked hard to retain her composure, so I never questioned his absence. I assumed he was at work. In reality, she called the police at least twice, and on at least one occasion they came to the house. I imagine three squad cars and sirens and red lights circumscribing the neighborhood, though I’m sure his disappearance warranted no such scene. He returned home before he was declared missing.

The September I was fourteen he crashed his car. I watched them tow the totaled eggplant-colored Honda away. That Sunday he dropped my mother off at work so he could use hers. I was in my black marching band T-shirt and moving toward the door, gathering my saxophone and a few dollars for the township’s fall festival; the band played the national anthem every year, and then we were on our own to enjoy root beer and hot dogs, collect free water bottles from the fire department, and watch the children’s karate classes perform. Dad was going to drop me off at the high school.

“I’m going to be going away for a while,” he said. I sat down.

“Like, on business?” I asked. The bakery had only gone under three months before; my father did not have a job for which to take a business trip.

“Your mother knew this was coming,” he said, matter-of-factly, without even a touch of defensiveness. I vehemently expressed my doubt at that, given the fact that they had celebrated their eighteenth wedding anniversary only three weeks prior, and launched into a sobbing tirade about the meaninglessness of promising someone “till death do us part.” I asked my father why I should believe any sorry bastard promising me those words at the when my own father was a liar. He stared at his knees and shrugged.

I prolonged my festival time with a trip to ACME with a few of my girlfriends, buying pointless groceries to kill time—a bar of soap, a netted sack of Babybel cheeses. Eventually Mrs. Lin had to collect us from the aisles and drive us home.

When I walked in, Dad decided it was time to practice driving. I had my learner’s permit and was due for my license in seven months. He took me and my sister to the nearby park and let me back the car up a few times in the lot. In retrospect I have to think this was a backwards parallel to absent fathers taking their sons to baseball games after ten years without communication; he was “going away for a while,” so he had to fill a few Dad quotas first. When we got home, he left us to go pick Mom up from work—to go break up with my mother as if she were his high school prom date.

Sarah and I sat in the basement rocking back and forth in our seats while I played tasteless pop songs to try and make both of us laugh. The half hour passed with synthetic bass lines, nervous laughter, crude lyrics, and occasional sobbing, but everything was silenced when the front door flew open against the wall upstairs, the sound of the wood against the drywall like an imagined gunshot and followed by a cry from my mother that sent me up the stairs, two at a time.

When I reached the living room my mother was fighting heaving sobs on the couch, her hand against her chest, my father pacing the room as if he was looking for something, eyebrows raised. I can’t remember if I started crying then, or if my first response was anger, if I met my father with explicit invectives or stood frozen. What I do remember is Dad telling me to call an ambulance. I had never seen my mother like that and thought she might be having some kind of attack, so I grabbed the cordless phone and dialed until Mom screamed desperately at me not to call. They shouted different directions at me for the next four minutes until my mother directed her cries at my father and I grabbed the handle on the oven for support. My legs were shaking so violently I could hear the metal of the pans inside the oven clanging against each other. I watched my sister’s face collapse into red and crying, her hands out as if she had just spilled fourteen years onto the kitchen floor and watched them become shards against the tile.

“Peg, do you want the girls to see this?” my father belittled her manipulatively. I had never seen a woman look so small. As furious as I was with him, I was humiliated by her. I watched her plead with him between gasps as I continued quaking in the kitchen as he shouted looking for his cell phone charger.

“Jacob, please!” she pleaded, and I heard his absence in the low pitch of her voice, resonating against the walls. “Girls, find your father’s charger so he’ll call us!”

He found the charger and moved for the door, first kissing us each on the forehead. I grabbed the fabric of his shirt. He pulled away forcefully, but without violence. “I have to go.” My mother ran into the kitchen and slid onto the floor, throwing her arms around my father’s calves.

“Peg, I have to go,” he said firmly, moving toward the door.

As he turned the doorknob, my mother yelled after him, “Is this what it felt like when you had that gun in your mouth, Jacob?”

I doubled over as if I had been punched in the stomach, the pressure rushing to my eyeballs, no sound I could make loud enough to relieve it. There was a wildness in his eyes beneath those raised eyebrows now, a stare that conveyed both fury and betrayal.

He called the next day to tell me how well I had handled the situation, and to tell me to take care of my mother, not to give her a hard time. I saved his number under the name “Jackass” in my phone.

I saw my father three more times after he left that night. The first was several weeks later. He came over for dinner. Mom made sausages and peppers and rice. I had just been voted homecoming queen. All of the other girls in the court would be escorted by their fathers. I asked my grandfather to escort me. My father congratulated me at dinner. I not remember what else we talked about. Then he left. A week or two later the four of us went out to dinner. My mother tried to hold my father’s hand across the table. He never looked up. My sister threw her burger up in the bathroom for the first time.

The last time I saw Dad I was getting ready for a Halloween party. I had just finished my shift at Dunkin’ Donuts and had quickly caked red and black make-up on my face so I could go to the party as a zombie donut employee. My father looked at me and smiled. Outside there was the honk of a horn; my ride had arrived. I reluctantly wrapped my arms around my father to hug him. I did not look back. After that Dad moved down to Maryland and got an overnight job working for Panera.

My father had been telling my mother for years he wouldn’t live to see fifty. After he left, he had picked a date. He told my mother he was going to kill himself on January 26th. That morning he sent her an e-mail, telling her “the time had come.” I calmly ate my breakfast cereal before school that morning as Mom frantically phoned the Germantown police, who told her that “the time has come” does not qualify as a suicide threat. When he did not make an attempt, I started joking to my friends that I wished he would, that he was probably worth more dead than alive. My mother, in justified anger, called him and told him she was glad he made good on his threats as well as his promises.

Later I would find out that the date was not arbitrary. He could not pull the trigger until the $600,000 insurance policy he secured was mature. Both of my parents went bankrupt when the bakery folded. In a twisted kind of Death of a Salesman parody, my father thought he could save us by killing himself. Without this insurance money, we would have lost our home. The 26th, however, was his best friend’s birthday; not wanting to forever create that association, he waited.

* * *

The fall semester of my sophomore year in college, Dylan encouraged me to talk about it—my father. Sometimes I got her to talk too. We would get Taco Bell and walk from campus– or drive, when it got colder – down to the river. Dylan would skip rocks, and I would plunk them, and between awkward bites of Crunch Wrap Supremes I would admit that I missed him, that I loved him, that I blamed myself for the fact that he did not talk to me or Sarah for the three months before he died. I told her about his ostensibly, deceptively quick downward spiral, about the failure of the business, about the day he walked out, seemingly out of nowhere. I told her about how my mother fell on her knees and threw her arms around his calves to stop him. I told her about the e-mail I sent him when he served my mother the divorce papers, about how I told him I’d rather die than be half his in a custody battle, how I told him to rot in hell.

I was sixteen, and I was angry. And they were the last words we exchanged. He e-mailed me back, saying merely, “You’re right. I will not seek joint custody. You have your mother.” The last thing I ever said to my father, the man who had helped me with all of my science projects, who had personally made all of my birthday cakes, who had literally carried me to the doctor when I tore my ACL just a year before, was in an e-mail – cold, devoid on the screen of the emotion that necessitated its typing: “Dad, all you had to do was say you were sorry.”

Later my mother told me that he called her frequently those final months, late at night while he was working. That she would rationalize with him, that he would almost decide to come home, but that he would then become furious and silence her, tell her that it would be easier if we stopped loving him. That if we could just hate him it would be easier. He would command her to stop loving him, and to his credit, he tried valiantly to make this happen. But he knew he had failed with them—with my mother, with Sarah. He knew they never stopped loving him. He died thinking he had succeeded with me.

Dylan would hug me to her, and I would feel nervous and not know why. I would feel tingling in my fingertips and behind my eyes and look at her and flush and wonder if it was just the shame of my confession. One of the nights she held me as we talked the river, I felt it again—the tingling again and the cork in my stomach. My hands found her lower back under her t-shirt. She kissed my neck. Her lips brushed mine. I kissed her first herlipsherneckherbreasts. I rested my head on her chest and found something I had lost somewhere. That something was there, right there in the sound and the vibrations of her heartbeat against my face, steadying once more. I had buried something else, something deeply, beneath my father.

* * *

I am sick-nervous to my stomach it is late it is night I am staring. she is beautiful she is mysterious forbidden I have been inside her she stirs tosses a corner of bedsheet and thrashes violently. the upturn of her eyebrows childlike quiver of her chin tell me she is dreaming she is mouthing words in silence until they find sound – “get him off me,” “don’t let him,” “keep me safe” I am thinking of my father and his wailing and wondering how my mother quieted him and I stroke her face and kiss her cheek (it’s okay wake up it’s just a dream) eventually she wakes her eyes dart around the grayness of my bedroom until she makes the distinction – she finds me grabs me as though I’ve just saved her life.

There will be weeks that winter when I wake her five or six nights, nights when I wake her five or six times. It will not always be this easy. There will be nights it almost seems she is fighting me, nights she cannot seem to make the distinction. I will watch her decline, watch her disappear into the familiar darkness, watch her construct the same translucent walls. I will listen to her tell me it will hurt less if I don’t love her and try to effect this end. I will listen to her evade my questions and avoid my eyes as she tells me she can’t be with me – she cannot promise she will stay. I will swallow the pain of sleeping beside her and watch her suffer from the affliction, the disease, whose symptoms we learned to identify too late to save my father. One night she will tell me she has bought a gun. We will fight in indistinct worlds for months before she seeks help. I will not sleep in my own bed; I am afraid she will not be there in the morning. Eventually winter will end, and she will tell me the gun is gone. Years later I will still not know whether or not it actually ever existed.

* * *

February 12, 2005 fell on a Saturday the weekend before Valentine’s Day. My boyfriend Andrew was home for the weekend from Rutgers and came over around noon with a teddy bear and a box of chocolate. I hugged the bear to my chest and told him he might want to get going soon, that our family friends had called in tears and said they were coming over. My Uncle Harold had been struggling with his health for a few months, and we assumed that only the worst would move his wife and daughter to drive forty-five minutes to deliver news, rather than to tell us over the phone.

Andrew and I were in the basement when I heard the doorbell. I braced myself and climbed the stairs. I hugged my aunt as she cried disconsolately into my shoulder. When she caught her breath, she looked at my mother and said, “Peggy, it’s Jacob.”

* * *

Sarah delivered the eulogy at my father’s funeral. She called him her hero. My mother had restored their wedding portrait to its resting place above our sofa. (He was sick, the last six months of his life were not representative of who he was, he loved us.) I was not ready. I could not make the distinction between who he was and who he became, who his depression had made him.

He did not look like himself in the casket. His face was strained, his eyebrows raised as though in great pain, his lips spread in a wide grimace. I could not help but wonder if his appearance was the result of the best cover-up job the morticians could do. When my father’s body was transported up to New Jersey from Maryland, we were not even sure there would be an open-casket viewing. I imagined the physical stress the body must endure the millisecond before death in a suicide was enough to distort—everything.

* * *

we are three we are in the living room. I walk through the kitchen and see a man approaching the door I know through the indistinctions we all know he is there to kill us there is no reason but death is not reasonable. my mother grabs my sister and tells me to call 911 I run down to the basement grab the phone dial a voice answers a woman’s voice smooth and saccharine. I tell her a man is there to kill us I expect her to be calm she says only “oh my God” busy signal. I leave the phone hanging from the receiver on the desk grab something run up the stairs I am terrified running-knowing – I must kill him at the top of the stairs is my father. he is no longer and yet he is – there here pounding the intruder with the baseball bat he promised to keep as a warning to our future boyfriends until he is motionless my mother and sister stand and watch we all know he is no longer and yet he is – there. here. and she my mother says “daddy came back to save us.” end scene open scene I am sitting on my father’s lap in the living room as it used to look as I am now. we are all in flannel pajamas the matching ones we would always get at Christmas it is as if the nightmare has ended it is as if he is once more.

This is before Dylan. This is the first of the dreams. There is no one to hold me, to rock me. I rock myself, wrap my arms around my shaking form, half crying because of the trauma, because of the gore, half crying because I thought I would wake up on my father’s lap, my arms around his neck. I wonder if there is meaning beyond my grieving to this dream, if this is the dream all the bereaved long for, if this is communication. Or if it is merely the manifestation of my longing.

* * *

My family members, who had arrived one by one after we received the news, put on a home video that night. It was at least ten years old because it was shot in the apartment we lived in previously.

In the video, my sister and I are playing. Family friends are visiting, taking the video. My mother is there. My father makes a cameo in his starched, all-white bakery uniform, complete with the white belt and the gold buckle. In his pocket there is surely a white handkerchief. (I found one under the sofa cushions a few months ago and kept it.) He looks apologetically into the lens and says, “I’m sorry. I have to go. I wish I had more time.”

* * *

It had taken me almost twelve hours to cry after we found out Dad had shot himself on the side of some road in Germantown, Maryland. I still would like to know the name of the road, to drive there, to try to reassemble his final moments. I cling to the pieces I can remember, to the pieces I have collected. Already I have forgotten what his laugh sounded like. I must now refer to older home videos; his laughter became more and more infrequent as the years passed. I would like to know what shirt he was wearing. Part of me would give anything to have it in my possession, to hang it in my closet, painted the color of my father’s last breath, his last movement, his last moment and the moments that followed in that car.

Sometimes I wonder what that must have looked like, what it must have been like to be the guy who had to pick up the pieces of my father and catalogue them, to sweep his residue from the car seat.

Already I am beginning to forget. I struggle to remember what his pumpkin cheesecakes tasted like, what his stubble felt like against my face in the morning. I try to close my eyes and recreate the timbre of his voice. When I find notes he wrote to himself in desk drawers, I pocket them. Recently I was cleaning behind the computer and found a note he wrote to my mother in 1998—“Peggy, In my world of chaos, you are the order and the meaning. Love, Jacob.”

I do remember the line of cars in the funeral procession behind us, and how long it was. It stretched the length of the entire town. My mother turned around in the front seat and watched it wrap around the streets crying. “Jacob, if only you could have seen how many people loved you.”

I try to imagine how alone he felt with his lips around the mouth of that gun, the man who the entire church congregation adored, the man who brought a carload of baked goods into the church for free once a month. The man whose nieces and nephews came to for advice on life and love and business. The man who built me a boat when I was obsessed with Titanic so I could pretend I was Kate Winslet. This image of his last moments exists juxtaposed with that of the endless line of cars, and it doesn’t make sense. These are two distinct/indistinct realities. I remember the line of cars, and how we drove in the wake of his dreams.

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