El Dorado

By Sacha A. Howells


Our swamp cooler's busted, so I was in the porch chair deciding if it was hotter in or out when a horn in the driveway made me jump.

"Hey, Jesse." A goofy smile stretched all over Billy's big blonde head. "Saddle up!" Instead of the dusty minivan he was in last I'd seen him, he was driving the '77 Firebird from high school, probably fifteen years since I'd seen it.

"Back from the grave, baby!" he said. It must have been at his dad's in Wasco. The gold paint had oxidized off the roof in salty puddles, but a Bakersfield High Drillers derrick was still stuck on the windshield.

He leaned over to unlatch the creaky passenger door. "Worked on it all week. Plugs and points, rebuilt the carb, she's smoking man, same as high school. Better, even." He stroked the pedal, rattling the side windows with the rumble. We'd poked nail holes through the muffler baffles because he couldn't afford Flowmasters.

"Jesus H., the Nightprowler lives." I bent to look inside. The seats had split and the radio was torn out, but the barefoot gas pedal we'd put in, a stainless steel footprint, still sparkled.

"My friend, we are about to solve one of the great mysteries of life. Pack a bag and get the hell in here." His eyes were open wide, and his smile was all shivery.

"Sorry, man," I said. "Got work tomorrow." Actually, I had the day off.

"Call sick for, Christ's sake." He slapped the seat beside him.

"Got to watch the house, you know. What time is it anyway, six-thirty?"

"Jesus. Like it's gonna pick up and move zip codes." Billy drummed on the door panel. "When's the last time you did something for the hundred-and-eighty-proof fuck of it?"

I ran my fingers over the black phoenix on the hood, part of a wing faded away. I was slipping into the old tracks, remembering how, along with the brawls and the honor farm summer, with Billy it was impossible to be bored.

"Come on," he said. "I'll buy you a Slurpee."

"Well, shit." No kids, no girlfriend, it was easy enough for me to pack tube socks and deodorant for an overnight. But Billy had a family, with a wife who liked to schedule things. I couldn't guess how he'd squirreled out of the Sunday soccer tourneys and pizza parties. "Just let me lock up," I said, and ran for the door.

Back outside I jiggled the knob and tucked the key on its ring into my jeans. Then I checked under the mat for the spare, in the same spot since we were kids, so long it'd burned a shadow key into the concrete. I kept my back on Billy, though he knew what I was at, and nudged it into the rusted bloody outline with my fingernail. I jogged to the Firebird, squeaked into the bucket vinyl and tossed my bag in the back, and just that familiar swing of my arm across my chest made me feel sixteen. The back seat was already pretty full, boxes and t-shirts on hangers, and the guitar he never learned to play, a knockoff Flying V with the strings all rusted.

When we rolled out he did a squeal around the cul-de-sac that brought the same idiot smile to both our faces, and when he slammed the old drum brakes for the stop sign at the corner a flat hip bottle rattled to the front of the floorboards. I scooped it up and took a drink, dirty vodka that made me thirsty right while I swallowed.

The Kid had been the good-looking one that got us girls, but I'd stayed kind of rangy from climbing phone poles all day, and kept my hair better on top. He'd gone to fat and always burned quick, so he was pink as a cartoon pig.

"Where are we going, anyways?" It had been a long time since I'd just gone along with Billy, though it used to come pretty natural.

He held up a finger. "What happened the eighth of August, nineteen and eighty-six?"

"No clue."

He punched me in the shoulder, hard. He was a big guy, always seemed to hit you harder than he meant. "At one-thirty in the a.m., Jesse Miller and Mister William G. Harper hopped the fence at the Old Stockdale course and drank on a pact on the fairway of the sixth hole."

"August?"

"It was summer. Roll with me here." He reached back and pulled out an old record cover, scuffed up but easy to recognize: people cut out of snapshots, their eyes blacked out like the outcall girls in the Vegas papers, and pasted onto a picture of a dirtbag motel.

"AC/DC," I said. "Sure."

"Nothing?"

There'd been a lot of drunk pacts, and most of them started with jumping a fence. Like every other kid at BHS, or South, Highland, West, even the Catholic kids at Garces, every bullshit daydream ends the same, someplace else. "Sorry, man," I said.

"Bill Harper and Jesse James Miller swore when they got their license they'd drive to Hollywood, California, and stay in the motel on the front cover of the greatest album of all time, one Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap."

My hands popped up. "Whoa. Iron Maiden? Priest? Come on, British Steel?"

"Dude, stop causing trouble." Billy tipped the bottle and sucked down a good inch. "Got it yet?" He was hoarse after. Good, he could feel it too.

The story didn't knock anything loose, but I was feeling the old sway of adrenaline. "By the sand trap? You puked on the green?"

He laughed so hard I thought he'd steer us into traffic, and banged the heel of his hand on the wheel. "Jesse James, I knew you'd remember. Some people just don't understand how important these things are." The last words hooked in his throat and his eyes looked slick and wet. But there was old dust blowing out the vents.

The 99 spools out right by me, so it didn't take long to get to the freeway where Billy could really open the Firebird up. She did sound good, full of throat and the old roar. When my Dad bought the house it was the last one on this edge of town, alone on an unfinished cul-de-sac that opened onto scrappy tumbleweed streets with lampposts and no houses. Now the developments stretch almost to the mountains. Hell, the Kid was right, the car was better than it used to be, and we blasted past the signs for Lamont and Arvin before I really thought what we were doing.

The Grapevine's a bitch even for the Nightprowler, and when we shifted to the middle lane for the climb, I finally asked. "So Janice let you off the leash?"

He spat at the floorboard. "She's at her mom's, took the kids. You know Janice." I didn't, really. I remembered the Christmas card right after the twins were born, the four of them stiff in front of the baby-blue sky of the Sears basement. Janice was still fat around the face, she never would lose it, with her bangs sprayed up like a homecoming queen. Billy looked surprised by the whole deal in a Santa sweater with a baby stretched along his forearm, like he was steeling up for a linebacker.

"Let me call it in to work before I forget." I tugged the phone out of my pocket and dialed. "You've reached the Millers." My dad's voice, warbly from being played so many times, the tape stretched thin. "If you have any information at all, please leave—" I clicked off the phone. The machine would have beeped first if there was a message. "Sorry Carl," I said. "A little under it. Flu, something. Write me up sick tomorrow and I'll see you Tuesday."

I pointed up at a sign as it flew overhead. "Pull over, dude," I said. "Drain the vein." We were coming up on Gorman, last pit stop for a good stretch.

"Good call. Supplies." We hammered down the offramp and followed the underpass to the main road. Chevron, Carl's Junior, Econolodge, maybe twelve houses where the clerks live, I guess. Billy headed to the minimart while I wandered into the raggedy bathroom shed, hit the urinal and flushed with my foot.

Outside Billy was holding up the quarter panel of a red Ford pickup with his ass, sucking in his gut and spinning lines to two girls in the cab that couldn't have been nineteen. "Little place I know on the beach south of T.J.," he was saying. "Buckets of ninety-nine cent Coronas, fish that jump out of the ocean right onto the grill. It's like the American dream down there. Come with us, stay for a week." He saw me watching and looked at the ground. The blonde riding shotgun handed him some folded money and he jogged over, looking all his thirty-six years and some.

"Shoulder tap?" I asked.

He winked, with this big crazy grin on his face that made me wonder if Janice might be gone for good.

Even up in the mountains the sun scorches the sweat right off your skin, so I hung around the shade of the minimart and read the handmade signs in the window: '04 F250 MUST $ELL, Lost Pitbull No Tag, Fix-y Man Avalable. At the bottom a row of color-copied photos of a skinny brunette in her big pink prom dress made the skin goose on my arms. Mary Garcia, sixteen, missing five weeks, last seen in a white Honda, a grainy snapshot of the car. "We Miss You" curled across the bottom in black marker. I pulled down one of the pages, careful not to tear where it was taped to all the others, and studied the face, all braces and half-moons of sparkling eye shadow.

I was fourteen when my sister Terri conned the old man into letting her borrow the Grand Wagoneer. Checking out a junior college in Encino, she said, then overnight with a friend. They were really going to a concert, W.A.S.P., I think. She didn't make it to Encino, and Dad said he was going to have to lock her in a room like goddamn Rapunzel. Then we never found her, the car, nothing. Mom sent me door to door with posters like this for years. I always feel guilty remembering her, because it means I've forgotten, even for a minute.

"Red and a squirt of blue raspberry." Billy held out a plastic cup the size of a pail.

"Jesus, I could swim in that thing."

"Sixty-four ouncer. Now on, only the best," he said. I took it and sucked on the big red straw. It was so sweet my tongue hurt, and the ice punched me in the forehead.

"And what do I have here?" Billy held out a square of paper, the clanking brown bag crooked in his arm. "Looks like we may have to give these young ladies a call."

There were only nine numbers, and the area code was 123. "Dude, it's not real."

He looked it over and sagged a little. "Are you fucken kidding me?" He walked slow to the car and fired it to life, leaned on the barefoot pedal to make it thunder. The pickup was gone. As soon as I slammed my door he chirped the tires and tore onto the freeway.

He was really flooring it, and the heat and oily breath off the engine made my eyes tear. He fishtailed around an RV towing a boat, and at the top of the next hill I saw the red pickup dawdling in the fast lane. Billy glanced at the speedo. "Ninety-five," he yelled.

Before I even thought to talk him down we were rubber banding up and back, inches off their bumper. I dug into the ripped vinyl under my seat; we'd never put in seatbelts. "Jesus Kid, who cares?"

Just before we hit—I could see their little heads bobbing in the cab window, the shotgun girl looking back with an open mouth to scream—he sheered alongside and paced them. The girls tried to outrun us, but the Nightprowler's bloated V-8 lurched us ahead. Just off their nose, Billy pulled the empty bottle from under his seat and heaved it out the window. Even over the brawling motors I heard it smack their windshield and shatter. They skidded onto the gravel shoulder in a cloud and Billy pulled away, forcing the engine to a whine. "Right in the numbers!" he shouted.

"What the hell, man? Just kids," I said.

He laughed. "Please. Like you never threw a bottle before."

"Well." And a brick at a cop car on prom night. "It's not like you rammed 'em or nothing."

"Hell no. Mess up the Nightprowler just when she's back cherry? Jesus, you hear her back there? Like a goddamn Doberman." He slapped the dash, and the smile on his face stretched too wide.

"At least get off the freeway," I said. "What if they call it in?"

I was folding and unfolding Mary Garcia's flyer, and when Billy saw me he looked it over and shook his head. "Aw jeez," he said.

"The 138, maybe," I said, and tucked it away.

"Whatever keeps your panties dry," Billy said. He grabbed the Slurpee from between the buckets and sent it sailing out the window too. In the rearview I saw it splash across the lanes ten yards in front of a Winnebago. "Dammit."

We banged onto the old two-lane and Billy had to slow down, stuck behind a tagged semi with BACK OFF Yosemite Sams dancing over the tires. He drank from the bottle and rested it between his legs, like everybody used to. I leaned my head against the window and closed my eyes.

It took a long time to realize Terri wasn't coming back, nights when Mom cried in the garage to hide it and Dad stared down the TV like it could answer. Sometimes I'd make up a happy ending for her—shipwrecked on an island with Rick Springfield, or a Beverly Hills housewife with amnesia—but it always sank into the worst serial killer sodomy my sick head could cook up. Poor Terri, who only wanted to see W.A.S.P. and maybe get Blackie Lawless to sign her bra. Three days before she left I told her to go die because she wouldn't spot me two dollars for a comic book. Crisis on Infinite Earths number 7, death of Supergirl.

We ran through the little towns on the 138 and passed the bottle without talking, and I guess I fell asleep because when I woke up it was dark and I knew we were in L.A., smelled the traffic and the sweaty millions and the decayed flowers that grow in the roads.

"Morning, starshine." Billy smacked my shoulder. "Sunset Strip, You Ess of Ay." His words had started to bumpercar into each other, the old drunk beat. I scrabbled around the floor for the new bottle myself, took a nice big belt to catch up. He'd bought cheap tequila in Gorman that made me gag.

It didn't look like the Strip. It was Sunset, I could read the street signs, but they say the Strip is dance clubs and Escalades, and we were rolling past taco stands and nail shops with prison bars on the doors.

"Damn, there it is!" The Firebird heaved right 'til the hubcaps barked on the curb in front of a crap motel with the parking lot in back, no way this was the one from the record. "Stick here, the driver's lock is busted." The door screaked and Billy swayed across the sidewalk.

I can only call up shards of Terri any more. Helping me paint her old girl's bike so I didn't get shafted with a pink hand-me-down. Knotted blonde strawberries of AquaNet hair in the brush she always left on the sink, and the little silver hoop in her nose that made Dad punch through her bedroom door.

A few days after she went missing, when I was scared she was really gone, I sat on her bed and promised I'd never move house, still be there when she came to find us, like the neighbor's cat that found the way back from Reno. The memory kicked in my head—it was the night we made this stupid pact.

I was straightening the shrine of old Barbies on Terri's dresser, convinced for some stupid reason that if I lined them up just right she'd come home, when Billy popped through the window after midnight. We rode bikes to the golf course and hopped the fence, and he pretended not to notice when I cried. He kept talking up crazy trips and scams, forced me to swear we'd find this damn motel, kept going until I laughed through the bawling, maybe just to shut him up. It did, though. Make me feel better.

Billy slammed the car door. "Fine, it's not the place. Don't dick out." He grabbed the bottle from under his seat, drank from it in its bag and passed it over. "Drinking game. Every stop do a shot."

The last one was still boiling in my belly, so I blocked the mouth of the bottle with my tongue when I tipped it. Billy was right on the edge of trouble-drunk, and if I tumbled down after him there'd be no one to pull us back.

The blocks of buildings flickered past, boxy store courts piled up with Laundromats and liquor stores and psychics, and all the motels with smashed neon and Weekly Rates signs. Shangri-Lodge, Rest E-Z.

"There's another one," Billy said. We bumped into a parking lot and the Nightprowler's fat rear tires squealed on the pavement. "I feel it brother, this is it!" The crazy smile was back, and he smacked me in the chest before he staggered out.

It was a Holiday Inn with a ramp down to an underground lot. I didn't know if Billy could even remember the album at this point. I dug for the record cover to steer Billy around with the evidence, but it was somewhere under his junk. There was a lot back there, a wrench set and some camping stuff, balled up clothes. When I slid the lid off the styrofoam cooler jammed between my seat and the bench in back, it was full of pictures: Billy and the boys at the Grand Canyon, Janice in a lacy corset, smiling through her hands on a motel bed.

Billy fell into the car and dropped his head in his hands. "It's right around here. I just . . . lost it." He drank again, didn't notice when I just held the bottle. When he reached for the wheel, I held him back with my forearm. "Hold up, Kid. Five-O." A black-and-white rolled by, the cop in the passenger seat mad dogging us.

Billy pressed his palm against one eye, looked far away down his nose. "What they got, a Crown Vic? Couldn't fucken touch us." He lunged for the keys swinging from the ignition, missed them twice.

"Hey, hey Billy. Here." I hit his side, kept slapping his arm to hold his attention. "What are we doing, man? What's this all about?" We needed to stop, sober up, get home.

"Oh, I don't know, only forty minutes and fifty-two seconds of balls-on-the-wall rock and roll. You know every word of this record, man. Remember? You sing, I play lead guitar. One day? Sell out the Forum."

"I mean why's all your shit in the car." I didn't even listen to AC/DC any more.

He blew his breath out in a boozy spray and put a hand on the top of his head, looked like he was about fourteen. "You ever look around and realize life's almost over, and you never even got a chance and you're like a used car salesman?"

I laughed. "You mean every morning?"

"Not me. Not us." He wagged his big head. "I got a plan. One magic fucking word: May-hee-co."

"Your job didn't suck yesterday? Give me your keys, let's ride before some cop runs the plates."

"We'll be drinking fish tacos and margaritas for dinner by tomorrow," he said.

"What's Janice got to say about that?"

"Janice." Billy pressed his forehead to the steering wheel. "I get home late one night last week, right? She's at the kitchen table in a robe, looking like my mom. Cell phone records, credit card receipts. Rubbers from my glove box."

I sighed and played with the ragged headliner.

"Like she's Magnum P.I. now," he said.

I sat there for a second, just staring down the street. "She'll be back, just needs time." I saw myself nodding in the side mirror.

"Girl from work, she answers the phones. Twenty-two, ass like a Brazilian."

"Yeah well, whatever Janice says, suck it up and do it," I said.

He shook his head, closed his eyes. "She's pregnant."

I shook my head too. I could just see him driving across town to see this other kid on Father's Day, buying extra Christmas presents and having to hide them from the twins. "Jesus. So child support and the whole bit?"

"What? Not her." Billy fiddled with the shifter. "It's Janice."

"Oh. Well, thank god, right?"

He wiped his eyes with the backs of his hands, like a giant baby. "No more. I can't do that again. With her. And them."

"You don't just bail," I said.

"I hate it. I fucking hate it. Diapers and that formula smell and all those little socks. And then they've got A.D.D., and one of them kills a cat with a rock. No more."

"You don't get to choose any more, bro. Too late."

Billy's voice lifted, went animated and high. "Remember how we said we were going to live on the beach, Rosarito, Ensenada, Cabo even? Keep going for ever, fucken Peru. Things are finally gonna turn out how they were supposed to."

"Hate to break it, but this car isn't getting to Peru," I said.

"Holy shit." He grabbed my arm and pointed down the street across Sunset. "This one's it."

The parking lot was in the right place, the WATERBEDS sign in the window and the ratty palm trees, but sticking up over it was a sign I didn't remember, bulbs chasing each other in curlicues that spelled EL DORADO MOTOR COURT. He pulled out of the car and this time I followed him, slow, and while Billy argued with the night man, with his fat arms waving and pointing at the sky, I dug for my wallet. Almost eighty bucks.

Billy came running over, punched me so hard in the shoulder that he knocked me up against a dumpster.

"Jesse James, you and me have got a room at the Dirty Deeds Motel!"

I followed him through the parking lot. Across from the room was a familiar car I couldn't place, a slammed Japanese sedan.

Billy scrabbled at the door with a key chained to a plastic blue diamond, and finally let us into a shabby little polyester cave. Breathing heavy like he was snoring, after a minute he got the TV on and cued up censored cable porn, Debbie Does Van Nuys or something.

"Jesse, this is what it's supposed to be, out on the road with the people who really care about life, man. Who ever does this, make a pact to answer one of the great ones, and then actually fucking go and do it?"

Maybe crash here and talk him down in the morning. Should have stayed home.

"Right back, check the car," I said. I stood by the tagged up pay-phone at the edge of the lot and dialed home on my cell phone, "You've reached the Millers," no message. I checked the slot for quarters. Nothing.

Back inside Billy was on the bed, his eyelids puffed up and barely cracked open to the glisten underneath, like oranges slit with a razor. "Anyone call?" he said, then threw the TV remote at the wall and yelled. "She's gone. Move on, man."

"Fuck you, Billy." I didn't say it loud, but he heard me. We sat there with the shitty AC wheezing.

"You gotta come with me. Want me to beg? This is a beg." He clapped his hands together. "Come with me. To Mexico. And we will live the awesome life. We were supposed to." He bowed his head and closed his eyes, like church.

"Billy. There's responsibilities. I can't move to T.J. with two shirts and a toothbrush. And your kids? All of them?"

"South of T.J., that's what you don't understand." His voice was high and wheedling. "Where the beaches are clean."

I pulled out the Mary Garcia flyer and read it again while he watched.

"Hey." He sat up, fell off his elbow once and climbed up on it again. "I know something, something important that's going to make all this the best idea there ever was. I heard Ricky Benson said he saw her one time in Fresno. Like ten years ago, working at a Jolly Roger in the mall. Terri."

"Don't," I said. Stop talking, Billy. Knock it the fuck off, right now.

"Serious." He was all in, talking with his bullshit voice, the one that always got me into trouble, that made setting trash fires inside the junior high seem like a great idea. "Her hair was dyed and the tag said Leah. Lisa. But it was totally her."

"It's like every single thing that comes out of your mouth is complete shit."

"No." Billy wagged his big head. "He said she was really happy, had a kid, maybe. And like a husband, he worked at the post office?"

"Ricky Benson said this ten years ago and you just remembered."

He lay back down and stared up at the ceiling. "Mexico, dude. Learn to surf, live in a shack on the beach, couple a teenage girls. You can live like a drug lord down there for pennies. And Terri's all cool and got a dog and stuff."

"Do you even listen to yourself, you selfish fuck?" I stood up and leaned over him. "The shit you say." I slapped his face hard, left my fingers in a line down his cheek like a pack of hot dogs.

"Her little boy's gotta be what, sixth grade? Great age," he said. He closed his eyes when I slapped the other side too, then punched him in the eye with a flat crack. He didn't put his hands up, just lay there hunched up and took it, kind of nodding. The next one split his lip and his tooth slashed up my knuckle.

"You can't even come up with a decent lie." I walked out and slammed the door, but it was too quiet, slammed it again.

My hand was starting to throb and that car was still across the lot. I looked at the flyer again, but there were thousands of white Hondas in the state, a million, no way it was hers. I tried to smooth it on my leg, but the cheap photocopy cracked along the bends and my palm took the dusty ink with it.

I walked across the lot with the blood banging around in my ears. Up close it wasn't even really white, more tan, tricked out with a spoiler and a coffee can muffler that weren't in the picture. And it was a Toyota.

It was parked in front of an open door with voices and a radio buzzing inside, somebody on the phone starting up the party. Framed by light behind, a girl in the doorway was fastened onto a tall, ropy kid in baggy jeans, grabbing the back of his neck with her hand, eeling her tongue into his mouth. I looked at the car again, and they stopped to stare.

"Got a problem?" The guy was ugly, with patchy blue ink climbing up his forearms.

"Are you Mary Garcia?" I just looked at her.

"And that's your business, like, why?" She hugged up on the guy, who was closer to my age than hers.

Finally in front of her, nonsense words clattered in my head. "Just look out. Don't get stuck doing something you never wanted to, for your whole life, just because of what happens right here." I pointed at the ground. "Tonight." I was so tired.

"Are you high?" She cocked her hip up with a wrist at the curve.

My mouth had gone dry, my tongue like a towel. "You should go home. People are waiting for you."

She bent her lips into a sneer. "I'm eighteen next month. I can do what I feel like, they got nothing to say."

I held out the creased paper, and while she read the guy grabbed it away.

"Holy shit, look at this!" He held it high, waved at someone inside. "Check out her hair, we picked up a mall rat!"

The girl jumped for it, slapping at his ribs. "Give it!"

He shoved past her and hopped into the room.

"Whoever you are, you're a total prick," she said, her face twisted up. "My name's Angelica, not whatever." She turned and yelled into the room. "I'm not even Mexican!"

I held out two folded twenties. "I got some money. I mean, if you need a cab."

She winged a plastic trash can at me, hit me in the leg. "Leave me alone."

"Call your mother, OK?" I wiped my face with the back of my hand. "Call your grandma, call the newspaper." I crumpled a twenty and threw it at her face. "Think of somebody besides yourself for once in your stupid life."

"Fucking stalker." The door slammed in front of her middle finger.

I tried to wiggle my swollen hand. Mom moved to Tehachapi to live with Aunt June after Dad's heart failure, but I stayed in the old house. Weak spots are wearing through the walls as the stucco and sheetrock blow back to the desert, but somebody needs to be there. Terri had a key, I can still see it rubber-banded between the plastic bangles on her wrist, but it's probably lost by now. Who knows if she'll remember where Mom hid the spare.

I looked in on Billy. He'd put a towel under his mouth for the blood and passed out. I walked across Sunset to the Nightprowler, the streetlights flashing on the gold paint where it hadn't worn to primer, and bent to unscrew the old blue and orange plates with my thumb. If those girls from Gorman had called us in, maybe the asshole from the motel would get nailed first, and maybe the girl would make it home. Back in the lot with the plates in my bloody hand I squatted behind the Toyota and pried off their new white ones, tags up to date and all, and switched them for Billy's rusty set. I jogged back across the street, a cat staring at me from the corner. My hands were shaky, but I was able to screw the good plates onto the Firebird with the edge of a penny.

There was nothing fair about Billy running, I know, but maybe Janice and the kids could knock together a legend to live with, some reason he had to leave. And if one gets away, maybe somebody makes it back.

I left a twenty by the Kid's head and tested the lock twice on my way out. I started down Sunset, mapping out bus benches. West to the water, then south. If I could hit LAX, the Airport Bus would get me back to Bakersfield, twenty-seven bucks one way.

 

Sacha A. Howells lives a block from Sunset Boulevard, but has never been able to find the Dirty Deeds Motel. His work has been performed at the New Short Fiction Series, published in Gauntlet Magazine and the Menda City Review, and is forthcoming in an anthology from Forest Publications.

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