Tale of Three Cities


6.4k words. Mystery, suspense, graphic.

It had been two days since the incident. The body still lay there, cold and slowly beginning to go pale from how it had been hours after what happened. It lay on Eighty Feet Road, yellow and alarming barricades surrounding it, making way for the cops, who were constantly calling in newer and higher-paid consultants to try to figure out how it got there. I didn’t understand why such a big mess was being created over a small thing like this.

‘It’s so cold. It’s June, how can it be this cold?’ The little voice in my head washed over any other thought I had. ‘Only for the past couple of days though. My muscles are really tense too. Could be a fever?’ I pondered the possibility but was rudely interrupted by the sound of a distant horn, blaring continuously for about ten seconds, trying to make way for itself on the street, past the huddle. I was brought back to the actual world and its stupid, stupid problems.

In a city like where I lived, where it’s hard to recognize yourself; in the melting pot which consumed and digested personalities and aspirations constantly, where people didn’t have the luxury to be concerned about anyone but themselves, and were in the constant pursuit of meaning and love. It was a recipe for death, for loss of identity and aim, for dissolution of meaning and for the birth and rebirth of crime and hatred.

A death in a place like this? It shouldn’t make this much of a fuss.

Lost in my thoughts, I didn’t realise I had approached my window and begun to look at the scene of the incident itself. I noticed the group of children that surrounded the barricades now, looking like insects on the ground from fourteen floors above, when I heard the banging next door. Again.

I resisted the urge to punch the wall I shared with him, my godforsaken neighbour, the same wall that that man constantly kept banging with a hammer. Harlem was senile, I could swear it. He looked like he was out of a mental hospital, or a jail. The man was dishevelled and unkempt, old, dirty, and ridiculously skinny. He seemed like he was a safety hazard, honestly. He only ever bought nails, repeatedly, dozens of packets loaded in his arms whenever I saw him, sometimes struggling to even look over them. I had honestly considered just going to the police and telling them that an actual crazy person lived beside me, but I was too busy to bother myself with him. I had too much purpose.

It would be much easier for me to be the bigger person and not smash his head in with his hammer if he wasn’t always making. That. Noise.My inner monologue was becoming a little sinister, I had noticed.

“Let him be, Maddy.” I heard her voice behind me, a second after I had turned back towards the window. “Harlem’s an old man and you know it.”

Her voice was soft. It always had been. I never understood how a woman with so much purpose, with so much divine responsibility, and so much power, could be this soft. Her voice was velvet. Hearing it made me feel warm, and it put my heart to rest. I turned towards her, unable to resist myself.

My love, Holland. She was divine, and she was beautiful. Her charm and her glowing skin.

I traced my eyes from the top of her head till the tips of her toes – I saw her thick hair which lay open against her back, the swollen eye that was purple from the bruising, the lip cut open and the ever-present finger imprints against her throat. Below, her dress fell around her body, unflattering, but she looked amazing. Her wrists had the marks of the cuffs she used to wear so happily, and her legs were bruised, especially her knees. I had never been able to take my eyes off of everything that made her look good, gorgeous, mine.

‘He’s vile. I could honestly throw him off of this floor if you would let me.’ I thought to myself, not wanting to scare her with what I was thinking.

“But I’m sure he has his reasons, Madrid,” She smiled and held up her wrists, blue and bruised, for me to see, “Didn’t you?”

I couldn’t help the endearing smile I felt creep up on my face, but at the same time felt a strange and sickly feeling spread across my shoulders and a little lower below them. As if my muscles were becoming gooey, or just melting down. I shook it off, blaming it on the fever and fatigue, to turn my attention back onto her.

What was the point of trying to hide anything I thought? She read my thoughts. She had always been able to, even before. “Well, yes. I suppose you’re right. We all do things for a reason.”

She was right. She always was. I began to take her in again, losing myself in the way she looked.

“What’s all the noise on the street downstairs about?” She took a step toward me. Her eyebrows were raised in question, her eyes hopeful. She was everything.

“It’s a body, love. Nothing to worry about.”

She frowned in thought for a second, and then she grinned at me, the red stains on her teeth, decayed blood as I remembered it, showing more than ever. I had never actually been able to deal with how good one person could possibly look.  

And just like that, she was gone. I sighed when I heard the hammering continue next door. Holland had once again, successfully made me forget it existed, that the man next door was clinically insane and out to kill either himself or everyone, and she made me forget everything else when she was around. I loved that.

It felt strange sometimes. Doing just the things she wanted me to. It was restrictive, but I was aware that she knew what was best for me, just like I did for her.

‘She’s my guide. She’s the love of my life, and if you don’t follow every instruction your love gives you, what’s the point?’ I sighed again.

I knew this. I knew I had to keep Holland happy, just like she kept me. I knew I had finished every step, every job she had asked me to do, but I somehow couldn’t remember what exactly it was.

I realised that my entire chest had that feeling, now spreading from just my shoulders, and I didn’t just feel loose. It felt like my muscles were digesting themselves. I’d never felt anything like it before. The cold was becoming unbearable. ‘I have to do something.’ I ignored it – didn’t have the energy to investigate the issue further, and I had other things on my mind. This fever would have to wait.

Regardless, I was okay with that if that meant my love was satisfied. So, I walked away from the window towards my room, not sleepy, but completely exhausted.

When I woke up the next day, I almost felt like I couldn’t control any of my muscles. My limbs felt like they were at war with themselves, and as if they were disintegrating. I had to wait for forty-five minutes in my bed before I found the will and the control over my body to move.

I was heading out when I opened my door and found myself walking into another door. Harlem, who made me question what crimes I had committed to deserve his neighbourly qualities in my life, was entering his home just as I was leaving mine.

“Hey, Harlem. Everything good?” I asked, resisting the urge to point out the fact that his hair was pointing in forty different directions and that his shirt’s buttons were mismatched, as I locked up my apartment. It was polite to make conversation, Holland had taught me, and the man practically never left his apartment.

I didn’t expect his reaction even a little.

Just as I turned around to face him again, side-stepping his door and coming to stand right before him, I noticed how pale he had gotten. His hands began to quake, the little plastic sealed bags of nails he had piled up until above his chin beginning to fall one by one from his arms. I frowned, taking in how he was curling up his arms towards himself, his hands becoming fists at the same time, and I noticed him taking the most minuscule of steps away from me. I looked back up at his face and he was sweating, his eyes wide in fear and his eyebrows had almost disappeared into his non-existent hairline. This, grouped with how dishevelled he constantly seemed to look, I could have sworn he was insane. I had no idea what to do. He just stared at me, petrified, and I stared back helpless and confused. ‘What the hell?’

“Help him.” I heard Holland before I saw her, standing right opposite me, on the other side of Harlem’s doorway. “You can see he’s afraid. Ask him what’s wrong.”

But I couldn’t be bothered with even beginning to ask Harlem anything, because just as I had turned towards my love when I heard her voice, so had he. It was impossible. He couldn’t see her, he wasn’t supposed to see her. How could it be? She was mine, she was dead, so it couldn’t be possible that as soon as Holland spoke this insane man could have heard her. It just couldn’t.

But he had turned, the second she had spoken, and now stared at her with the same look he had possessed for the past five minutes, but more defeated.

He dropped his arms, and consequently all the packets of nails, and began taking steps backwards into his house. He was going crazy, I could’ve sworn, mumbling to himself and constantly grabbing at his arms and head. But he had looked at Holland, somehow, and I knew something was wrong. I ignored the puddly, wet, lifeless feeling blooming from the centre of my chest and across my upper body. This couldn’t be a viral, I knew – but I also knew that I had a sixty-year-old man spiralling right in front of me and no idea why it was happening.

‘You can’t just stand there and stare at him. Help him. Anything.I knew I wasn’t wrong. I racked my brain for something to say to him, and the whole time he paced around his hall, kept looking back at me and where Holland had stood a minute before, and paced more. I smelled a faint smell of rotten eggs. Sulfur? I didn’t know. He was basically tearing out his hair at this point, his shirt had almost become translucent from the sweat. The tension he exuded had now wrapped around my chest and I came up with nothing to say to him, other than:

“Okay, buddy, you need to calm down.” ‘Wow. Is that really the best I can do?’

He didn’t seem to hear me, and I was thankful for that fact because of how unhelpful what I said really was. What could I say? I knew nothing about him but his name, and here he was ready to kill either himself or me unhinging about something I had no idea how to deal with. I began to panic myself, and I could make out some faint, rushed words from the rant he had gone into.

He was stuttering and his eyes were wide, but now he was addressing only me. I guessed he couldn’t see Holland anymore – which made sense, neither could I – and he was gesticulating wildly. He looked so frazzled, so confused, and so shaken; but all of this to such an extent, that it almost seemed painful to be thinking whatever he was. He said something about a ghost, and a hammer and something else about the walls, but I got distracted again when I finally, finally looked away from him and at the rest of his home.

It seemed unimaginable to me that this was the first time I had properly noticed the man’s house ever since I had walked into it. The more I looked at it, the more I realised I had no way to rationalize what I saw around me. It was nails, and they were… everywhere.

‘Now would probably be a good time to run, right? I probably should. I would if I didn’t feel like the only thing keeping my body together right now was my spine. What is happening to me? I have to get out of here.’ My veins and nerves and muscles felt like pools of melted ice cream, and the smell of rotting something, it was making me lose my mind. I felt this strange pressure coming from the inside of my body as if I was a gas bomb ready to explode.

I couldn’t tell which diabolical thing to give my undivided attention to at that moment. I ignored the weird pain in my stomach and looked around me again. At this point, Harlem was probably too far gone to be brought back to sanity, and I decided to let that little spiral fester in itself until I could figure out what the hell was really going on.

Every surface I could see was covered in nails. The table and its chairs, small areas on the floor, the photo frames and the doors and windows. The walls were the worst – every centimetre of every part of those walls was completely covered with the nails that had been hammered into them. Looking at the whole house, I felt almost sick looking at those many tiny nails, sticking out of everything in every direction. It made sense to me now, why the man was constantly lugging around packets and packets of nails, but I was yet to come up with an explanation for this hysterical behaviour. ‘When I called him insane, I didn’t mean like this.’

They stood out against the browns and yellows of the room, shining under the light streaming in from the windows, and created an endless pattern everywhere. I felt like I was in a fever dream – possible, considering how my body felt at that moment. The nails stuck out so evident and stark in contrast to their environment, like blisters on a child, but also so many in number that they looked like they belonged there.

I had no idea what to make of any of this. How could I? I had never felt this confused, this helpless, this completely out of my depth in my life. Harlem was crazy. This I knew, but now Harlem was the type of crazy which gave him an intense passion for interior decoration and nails, and the type of crazy which made him afraid of me. But most importantly, Harlem was the type of crazy which made him apparently able to see Holland.

‘How can this be possible? You can’t see a dead person, you can’t, and I killed her myself. She’s gone and she’s mine, and she’s been mine since then so how could he possibly see her? And if he can, have they spoken? Do they speak?’

The idea was unthinkable but apparently unthinkable enough for my eyes to feel like they were literally about to pop out of my skull. At this point, I was slightly spiralling myself, if I’m being one-hundred percent honest. But what could I do? Not one explainable thing had happened until now. The pain in my stomach had become almost intolerable, and I felt a prickly sensation all over my skin, but so soft that I was sure it wasn’t there.

‘So, Harlem and Holland are friends now. Manageable, I think. Harlem is disposable and no one will notice that he’s gone. I’d be doing the world a favour, probably. But why are there nails everywhere? He was afraid of Holland, which makes sense because he probably wouldn’t understand her through the cuts and bruises, but why did he look so afraid of me? Am I supposed to be able to explain any of this?’

“Of course, you are, Maddy. It’s your fault.”

I whipped around the second I heard Holland’s voice again, to my immediate left, looking gorgeous as ever, but angrier somehow. Sadder, and more unwell. Her cheeks were sunken in and I could see her collarbones too prominently to be comfortable with it. She looked as if she was starved, and that putrid rotten smell came back stronger than ever. I had thought it was from her, but she smelled like she always did – lavender, and some blood.

My fault? I didn’t know what she meant. I would’ve asked the second I realised what she had said, but I heard a sharp gasp from my right and saw Harlem staring at both of us, back and forth. He had stopped whatever mumbling he had been doing, or praying, or being insane in general, and he was staring at us more scared than I had seen him in the past twenty minutes. It was eerily silent now, and I didn’t dare make a sound. I felt like I was in a room full of active grenades which would go off the second I did something sudden, and I felt like I was one of those grenades myself.

Harlem had begun to hyperventilate now, and I knew I had to do something before one more life-changing and earth-shattering thing happened. I had to do something while I was still the sane one around, which at this rate, wouldn’t be for long.

My arms were outstretched and my palms were facing him, trying to pacify him. I took a deep breath and took a cautious step towards him, and the wooden panel that my shoe stepped on created a sound which sounded more like a whine than a creak, much louder than I had hoped it would be. Harlem immediately turned towards me and drew his arms towards his chest, looking like he was coiled up.

I was frozen, but I still spoke, trying once more. “Okay Harlem, yo-”

“Don’t say my name!” He roared out and interrupted me, throwing his arms out and looking more and more out of his mind by the second.

I immediately stopped in my tracks, surprised and even a little afraid. ‘I could get hurt. He could hurt me, and if he can see Holland he can probably hurt her too.’

I waited for him to move, or speak, or do anything. It felt like I was standing there for hours, watching him move his mouth around the beginning of a word but not ending up saying anything – but I knew it was less than seconds. The tension in my body was as evident as it could be with how I was feeling physically. I realised that the prickles on my skin had begun to itch, and that was when Harlem decided to speak. He looked at me, took a look at Holland, whose skin was now a little bluer – she looked cold. The bags below her eyes were huge, and her eyes looked hollow. I became more afraid of the effect this lunatic was having on her, but I didn’t dare move.

His words came out in an exhausted whisper.

“Earlier, I could only see one of you.”

I breathed. ‘So maybe this is the first time he’s seeing my love, and that’s why he’s scared. This makes more sense now. Okay.’

“I could see her, and she was everywhere. I didn’t know what to do to stop it. Iron. Iron nails kill ghosts, and she’s everywhere, so I tried to stop her. But she didn’t stop.” Harlem said as he shook slightly but constantly, looking like a sudden, manic energy was slowly possessing him. I began to grow tense again. He continued, almost yelling this time.

“She was the ghost in my walls. She was always in and out, and she looked so sad all the time! So bruised and broken and someone like that could only be here to do something bad, I knew. So I began to try to kill her because I was seeing her and she didn’t belong in my home! The nails were meant to kill her, and I kept trying, but she just refused to go away.”

I didn’t know how to react. I turned towards Holland, and she stood staring at the man with a soft smile on her face, and tears in her eyes – and I immediately knew she felt sorry for him. ‘This. This is why I did what I did.’ 

To protect her. Holland was… soft, all her life, and she needed someone like me to protect her from people like Harlem, who would take advantage of her. Who she didn’t know would harm her. So I did it.

I imprisoned her with me, forever, despite her begging and pleading for me to let her go. I knew she didn’t understand that what I was doing was good for her, and I had tried to keep her as happy as possible. She had been shackled to my bed frame for six months. I brought her food, took her to the bathroom four times a day, read her to sleep, and bathed her. She slowly began to realise that this was what was best for her, my best girl, just like I knew she would, and she stopped asking to be let go.

Eventually, she stopped eating. Stopped cooperating with what I said when it came to her nutrition and health, and she convinced me to not argue. Said she’d rather die than live like this, and I knew just what she meant. She would die here, in my bed, and stay with me forever. She wanted just what I did, and she had finally understood what was good for her. So I stopped bringing her food altogether. She barely slept, especially never when I was next to her.

At that time, along with all her cuts and bruises, she had begun to look thinner. Too skinny, and too weak, but I knew this was a part of her process – for me – so I had let it go. But looking at Holland now, as she stood in Harlem’s home staring at him with understanding and pity, she looked just like she had then, and I didn’t like it as much this time around.

I had come home one day, around a month after Holland had stopped eating, when I had found her body. She was in the same place she always was, lying on my bed with her hair messy around her head, but when I checked her breath and her heart and I didn’t get anything back.

It was the happiest moment of my life. I had thought I’d just keep her with me until we grew old, but Holland had gone and died, for me, so we could be together just as we were, forever. I had patiently waited next to her body for two days after that until I saw her standing in front of me. She had told me she was there forever, and she was never going to leave me, provided I did some things for her. And that was how Holland and I had been since then.

“I thought it was the walls.” When Harlem continued, properly shouting now, I turned my attention away from Holland again. “I thought it was the walls and the doors, I thought it was this home. Mine and yours! You think I haven’t heard you speaking to her?! You talk, for hours and hours, every day, and you did when she was alive! I’d seen you two. I’d heard you two!”

I squinted my eyes at him. I had no idea where he was going with this, and I had a sinking feeling that I didn’t want to find out. On top of everything, my skin itched so bad.

‘He cannot be saying that everything is because of me and Holland. This insanity, the nails? This can’t be possible. How could he see her in the first place? Does he know that Holland died in my home? Does he think I killed her?’

“But you did kill me, Madrid,” Holland spoke again, and this time her voice sounded deeper, like a growl or a snarl. “I died because of what you did.”

I was stunned. I was heartbroken, and I didn’t know why she would say that. Why was she trying to hurt me, lying this way? I gulped, fighting the weird acidic vomit that had made itself present magically in the past second, and spoke.

“My love, you died for us. For me! You died so we could be together forever.”

Holland let out a chuckle, but it was sad and furious. She sounded so bitter, and so cynical, I knew all of this was somehow Harlem’s fault. But the way she sounded was beginning to make me a little frightened. ‘Am I insane? Frightened, of Holland? She’s my love. We’re going to be together forever.’

“It’s not me you’re frightened of, Madrid. It’s the truth.” Holland growled out somehow, and her voice and skin both gave me the feeling of death and decay. I felt like I should run, but I was glued to my spot on Harlem’s apartment floor.

“You’ve told yourself I died for you because that’s what I made you believe. I never thought I would actually be this cursed, this unlucky, that I would have to spend this eternity around you! I killed myself, Madrid, and I did it so I wouldn’t have to spend one waking moment more around you, and your insanity.” I took a step back, hurt and confused. What did she mean? I had no way to make sense of what she was saying, and though I was beginning to get a little angry, the befuddlement won over it.

“Everything I said after I came back was a plan. All that divine responsibility? All that purpose? An agenda, to bring you exactly where you are, so you could see what I drove you to. I may have been stuck with you, Madrid, but I have never wanted to watch anything more than this.” She sounded so smug and sure, but her expression remained one of anger and poison. I finally found the strength in myself to ask, “Wh…What do you mean?”

I realised that I sounded petrified. The words that left my mouth had barely managed to reach her, I was sure, because they were so soft and airy I could barely hear them myself. My voice was trembling, and my mind felt like it was an airplane, crash landing into an endless ocean. I felt completely out of control, and I began to itch at my forearm.

“There was a body, outside the building, right? Do you know how it got there? As a matter of fact, do you have any idea about even one thing you did between my death and before that body appeared there? Or before?” She asked, taking a step closer to me. I felt cold. I itched harder on my arm, feeling the little scab from which blood was now slowly oozing out.

“Y-Yo-You both.” My attention turned towards Harlem again. At this rate, my heart would give out just by the surprises these two were throwing at me. I didn’t know how to feel. What to do. Holland had disappeared again somehow, before I could ask her the million questions that had risen in my head. Where did she go? What did she mean? I racked my brain, growing more frustrated and confused by the second, trying to remember my childhood. My mother’s name. What I did on my eighteenth birthday. Anything. But it was Harlem’s turn now apparently, and he spoke again.

“You’re both inside of me.” He stood facing me, looking like he was piecing together a puzzle which had bothered him for lifetimes. I didn’t even want to ask what he meant.

“You’re both a part of me. I’ve been so stupid! I didn’t see it until she said it, but it’s true! Until now, I only saw her. Coming through my walls, bothering me! She’d destroyed my life, and she lived in the walls, so I had to kill her!” Just as he said that, he hastily dove toward my feet and grabbed packets of nails from the ground to hold them up towards me. Though my heart jumped in alarm, I couldn’t bring my feet to move. I did notice the stream of blood leading out from my arm dripping onto the ground when he bent, however.

“But I realise now,” Harlem continued, seeming overjoyed by his revelation, “that she wasn’t in the walls. She wasn’t in my home or yours!” I continued to stare at him in silence, partially because my jaw felt like it had unhinged from my skull, and partially because I wanted to know what he meant. “She was inside me. And now you are too! You’re dead, like she has been, and if I can see you both, that has to mean that you’re both a part of me! I’m the solution, not the walls.” And as he said his last sentence in a whisper, I immediately found the energy to refute what he was saying.

I was incredulous and had now found testimony that he was insane. He had just called me dead and for the love of God, if that wasn’t proof enough I don’t know what could have been. “Whoa, Harlem. I’m not dead. I really think you need to calm down and think about what you’re saying. I live next to you, I’m alive! Madrid, see? Right in front of you! Please ju-”

You’re not dead?!” Harlem thundered and interrupted me, even though it still felt like he was speaking to himself, and I immediately stayed quiet. “You’re not dead? My own mind is playing with me now. You’re not dead? Well, then. I must have been an idiot to think you’re dead if I just crossed your goddamn dead body on the street outside!” He stopped breathless, and I froze.

And somehow, my inner monologue had no statement to refute his madness. I thought nothing, and I could suddenly think of no logic to make him see. I realized I had been itching on my arms the whole time he spoke, and scabs covered my arms and hands. I felt them on my legs, and not just as they were. They were growing, fast, taking over my skin almost completely.

I stood there, frozen with bewilderment and a sudden, heart-stopping realization, and I watched Harlem reward himself in his brain for figuring it out. His problem. He looked like a man possessed with purpose, like he knew exactly what he needed to do. He began to scramble, looking for something, and I didn’t bother asking what because I saw him yell out an affirmation and appear with a hammer in one hand, and a packet of nails in the other.

He stopped and stared at me, continuing to look at me as he slowly sank down into a chair and finally said, with calmness in his voice, for the first time ever – “You’re a part of me, I know, and I know what I have to do.”

And in that moment of utter horror, he tore open the packet of nails with the back of his hammer, lined one up at the centre of his thigh, and began nailing it into his skin. I stood there, petrified and feeling as if maybe, at this point, my brain was making this up. It had to be. Was this really possible? But I realised I was unable to bring myself to do anything other than watch as he took nail after nail and continued to hammer three more in his thigh.

I would have said my heart was beating out of my chest if I had felt even the smallest heartbeat inside me at that moment. Somehow, the thing bringing me the most fear wasn’t the fact that I was watching Harlem wedge nail after nail into his skin, or that Holland had looked like someone that wasn’t mine anymore, or even that Harlem had said that I was dead.

No, it was the feeling I got when I realised I was. I actually was, dead, and I knew it. And as soon as I was able to think this, I didn’t feel any more fear. I didn’t feel anything, and I just stood there, staring down at myself.

My skin had begun to look like a tissue paper that was doused with water, and I stared down at it until one little piece peeled off, excruciatingly slow, and slopped onto the ground. I looked up to see if Harlem had seen, because I knew if I was alive at that moment I would have been horrified, but I didn’t see him.

There was a body, a man, with nails inside him. There were too many nails to count, and the blood had begun to pool around the feet of the wooden chair in which that body sat, slumped against the backrest. But there was no grey hair at the top of his head, and the mismatched buttons of his sweaty shirt had disappeared. This man was younger, more healthy. I stepped toward the body in horror, already knowing what I was about to do. It couldn’t be. It wasn’t possible, and I may have been dead but I couldn’t have been insane.

They say you can never truly look at your own face. You can only see yourself in a reflection, or in a picture, but you can never actually see yourself the way that others see you.

And in that moment, when I stepped towards the body who sat in that chair, head fallen back and facing the other direction; when I reached out with my decaying fingers and held that body by the jaw and softly turned his face towards my own – I realised, I was looking at myself.

I was sitting there, where Harlem had sat less than minutes ago, with nails embedded into my body from my legs till my chest, and I was dead.

There was no thought in my head. No feeling, no emotion, no possible explanation I could give myself in that moment. I found myself turning away from that chair, and turning to walk out of that apartment.

I had energy now, as I walked out of that house, slowly, slowly dropping pieces and chunks of my skin behind, hearing them slosh and land on the floor with a loud, wet sound.

I slowly made my way past my own front door and turned to my left to peek into where Holland used to sit and wait for me. There she was, shackled, sitting there, except there was barely any flesh on her bones and her skin had almost completely melted away.

I turned away from her and went towards the window that looked out over the street outside of my building. As my legs crumbled below me and I barely looked out of that window, before I hit the ground with a thud that I couldn’t hear, I saw the street – a busy street, with children walking in a group along the footpath, cars passing as they usually did, and no dead body anywhere in sight.

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