"[H]er big brown eyes…widened when the sickness was around."

stories

flash fiction

Kellan Rhude


portraitBorn in upstate New York in a suburb of Syracuse, the son of a marine, Kellan has lived in many places, including Hawaii, Louisiana, and the Carolinas. Kellan's aunt inspired him to write this story; she worked for some time at St. Jude's in Boston. Every Christmas during his high school years, Kellan would go to St. Jude's to bring children toys and read to them in their hospital rooms. He felt sad for some children because they seemed to feel trapped, as if they did not have a voice. Kellan's passions are acting and writing. He has appeared on such shows as General Hospital and Hannah Montana. He also had a leading role in a short film that was an official selection for the Summer 2011 Dances with Films festival in Hollywood.

Other Works:



How To Live When You’re Not Really Living

Bad news and I have become best friends.

Soccer is a great sport.  I love the adrenaline rush I get when I am about to score a goal. The sweat rolling down my face under the sun.  I run fast, I could give a Tanzanian Cheetah a run for its life.  Driving fast cars is fun, too.  My dad got me a chrome-blue 1970 Plymouth Roadrunner for my sixteenth birthday; it makes a boisterous entrance anywhere.  Everyone stares at me in envy, especially pretty girls.   They love my smile and my ocean-blue eyes.  I have a lot of friends.  We have bowling parties.   Last week I made two strikes in a row, and they announced my name on the intercom; everyone smiled at me.   We skate in the park.   I can do a lot of tricks, especially an insane Ollie.  I get bystanders everywhere stopping and watching, cheering me on. I make my own horror movies.   We screen them at our town cinema; it’s one of the last standing WWII era theatres on this side of the state, and the marquee sticks over Main Street so everyone can see my name.  And did I mention I’m the lead in our school production of Hamlet?   I was voted best actor and had dozens of roses thrown beneath my feet during my performance. I play the guitar in a band.   We have a record deal and over a million fans; we’ve played in Tokyo, London, Sydney, and we even took home a few awards last year.

I wish I could continue to gloat about my life for hours.  You might begin to think I’m a cool fellow.  However, I hate to be the breaker of bad news, but bad news and I have become best friends.   All these cool things only exist in my imagination.  They are the things I wish I could have.  My life is simple.  I have lived in the same 20’ x 22’ room for the past three years.  The walls are white.  My blankets are ordinary.  The only life I see is the people walking through the park, six floors below my window.  My closest friends are those living in the television box, anchored into the ceiling.  A few years ago I was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.  My mother couldn’t take care of me.  She would say, “Your puking scares your little brother”.  She said I would lose my hair.  She said, “People wouldn’t know what to think.”  She said, “It would frighten most people.”  I frightened my mother.  I could see it in her big brown eyes; they widened when the sickness was around.  One afternoon she took me to the hospital; it was on the edge of town, on a large secluded hill, surrounded by pine trees.   We walked through these large, sliding glass doors, where my mother told me to sit and wait.  My mother informed me I was meeting a new friend today and that I was going to stay with her, while our house was undergoing “structural fumigation.”  I guess the house was going to be wallowed under a tent while the monsters were killed. Eventually a nice old lady covered in liver spots sporting badly dyed black hair brought me to my own room.  I had comics, a refrigerator, a huge reclining bed, and my own TV.  My brother Jeremy would be jealous of that.  We always fought over who got the cooler shirt or the better toy.

I was so aroused by the swanky idea of my own room that I forgot about my mother and Jeremy.  The first night was scary; I could hear loud screams and other kids crying, even the sounds of the ambulance approaching below.   I decided to turn on the TV as loud as I could.  I had trouble falling asleep that night; I missed my mother, and my brother Jeremy.  At home we had bunk beds; Jeremy was always right below me, and we usually played pretend with our stuffed animals.  My favorite was Crockett, a fat brown walrus who was missing a stuffed tooth.  We had our own city and our own rules; our animals were the kings of the pillows

I was smart enough that after three weeks in the hospital, I knew my mother and Jeremy would not be coming back.   I started to get even sicker, throwing up, really bad headaches, I was thirsty a lot, and slept most of the time. 

The state owns me now.  The same old lady comes here twice a week to check on me.  Her name is Margie.  She has these thick, faded glasses and wears one of the same selections of suits every week.  The first Tuesday it’s the red and two Tuesdays later that same red suit pops up again.  I guess it’s a sign that my life needs some consistency.  One month I feel fine.  Maybe? I might just be able to get out of this dump.  Then a few months later, I’m throwing up again, and the cancer is spreading to my brain. 

I hate hospitals.  If you think you’ve seen it all, wait till your life is surrounded by people who are dead, dying, or think they’re going to die.  It’s a messed up situation anyway you think about it.  I often ask myself why I’m cursed.  I say cursed because that’s how it feels.  I’m still a kid, and yet I cannot be a kid.  I see the kids on TV going to school, laughing with friends at tall, nerdy science teachers who talk through their nose; I have a tutor that visits me for an hour.  My tutor’s name is Becky; she has a face you’d see on a girly magazine.  She’s pretty and shiny from all her make-up. Becky is teaching me as charity work; she thinks the folks at Princeton will be impressed if she puts it on her application that she taught a bald, dying kid the ABC’s before he croaked.  She can be nice sometimes, but she’s what they call a social butterfly; her phone is always buzzing, and she leaves the room every five minutes to talk to her boyfriend Chad, who apparently, according to her conversations with her best friend Christie, is “ a hot hunk with three tattoos and a Maserati.” Becky hands me a few books, tells me what I must learn to succeed in life.  I don’t think I’ll be succeeding in life when I have no clue what that is.  Life.

I asked Margie if I could live outside the hospital.  I still have trouble sleeping at night.  The orderly said I have to keep the volume down, which doesn’t make sense when half of the hospital is making a fuss at 2am. Usually someone is screaming or crying because someone they love has just died.  It’s a usual occurrence around here.  I had a friend once.  His name was Henry.  Henry was only a few years older than me.  He was super short and had a pointy nose.  He actually used to share this room with me.  We would play Play Station and read comics and make bets on who would be the first to get better.   We’d write out our bucket lists.  Everything from skydiving to taking a swimsuit model to a movie, and getting her to park the car with you. 

Henry had a family though.  They eventually became like my family, too.  They would visit several times a week, and when they brought Henry a neat present they never left me out.  Those presents stopped though, and this room is quieter.  I’d like to say that Henry got better.  That he is dating a swimsuit model, taking her to a movie tonight, and parking with her, on a quiet mountain lookout with a view of the stars. Maybe even making it to second base.  We both haven’t even made it to first, so second would be more than pleasing.

Henry died four weeks ago.  This room has become subdued and far more lonesome.  I miss his jokes and the way he would hide my pudding above the TV.  After he died I just remember the cries of his mom.  You could tell she really loved him.  She spent so much time here.  She’d even read comics with us sometimes, and even though she knew nothing about the greatest superheroes of all time, I admired her effort. 

I was sad when Henry died.  I was used to it though.  I’ve thought of death every day.  Every time they stick a needle in my arm or put me in a rotating box.  I’d be thinking they’d find another problem with me, a problem that would finally set me free.  I asked Margie several times if I could live outside of the hospital.  There had to be a family somewhere that wanted kids.  Everyone needs to love someone.  Margie explained to me that there aren’t many people who want to foster a sick kid.  I was basically a burden.  I cost too much money, and people think if they touch me, I’ll taint their precious lives and they’ll end up in the same place as me, a place of lost dreams and everlasting misery.  If my real Mom didn’t want me, I was foolish for thinking there would be another one out there who did. 

It was Thursday and Margie was visiting as usual.  She was set to arrive at no later than 4 pm; I was always her last visit.  Today was different.  I was watching a special on TV about this kid who hated his Mom’s guts.  He didn’t want her controlling him anymore.  Granted he had a case.  She was a jobless drunk who lived off welfare and other support from the state.  He decided to sue her for emancipation.  The kid got a job fixing car windshields and was free to make his own decisions.  This had me thinking.  I buzzed the orderly and asked to use the computer in the recreation room.  I immediately searched everything I could on emancipation and the rights of minors.  I felt like this kid except without a mom.  The mom controlling me and forcing me to stay in this heap was Margie, and the guy at the state department signing her paychecks.  She always smiled and assured me I would recover and that life would turn around for me.  It hadn’t happened yet and my patience was diminishing.

I had exactly an hour before she’d be strutting into my jail cell.  I hated the way she walked too, carrying that flamingo-colored clipboard; badgering me with questions and asking if I was okay.  If she had any common sense she would realize that, if I were okay, she wouldn’t have a job.  

I searched for over an hour on the computer, coming across psychics, therapists, and a recruiting site for the Nigerian mafia.  I eventually found this non-profit site and a guy named Al Zinger.  He was a former lawyer who now worked for a human rights organization; he specifically focused on minors and giving them a voice.  Apparently his ex-wife divorced him and won custody of their daughter.  Al fought the state but lost.  Turns out his wife was a real Manic Depressive.  She killed herself and their daughter in 1983.  Ever since then he’s had a real animus against the state.  I felt bad for the guy, but he was someone I needed.  If I couldn’t get a family to take care of me, he could at least get me out of here, and I could take care of myself.  I might die, but it certainly wasn’t going to be in here.  I’ve watched too many people make it to the light in these walls; I refused to join the club.   I decided to email him.  I told him everything from start to finish.  I mentioned my Mother, Henry, and the gatekeeper Margie.  I also filled him in on why I needed his help and why I would be worth his time.  I’m pretty smart.  I know when to use this cancer thing as a way to empathetically draw people’s attention.  I strutted back to my room just in time for Margie to waltz in minutes later, carrying a rocket-shaped popsicle as if I am still ten years old, and found rocket-shaped popsicles amusing. 

I decided to be straightforward with her.  I told her I had something really important I needed to discuss with her.  She said she was all ears, but was clearly more concerned with dissecting me on her clipboard.  I said straight to her face “I want to emancipate myself from the state and live on my own.”  I told her that I could get a job.  I read employers weren’t allowed to discriminate on disability, and I can assure you, I’m disabled.  I might throw up a lot, my head might not have any hair on it, but my heart is good.  I know I’m a nice guy.  I think I’ve repented every bad deed since I ended up here.  I know it was wrong to sneak a peek at the Christmas presents; I understand now you’re not supposed to use crayons on the wall.  I am sorry.  I wanted the world to know I would be a good citizen.

If I had the same chance as healthy people… I wouldn’t litter, I wouldn’t hurt someone’s feelings ‘cause they walked funny or had bad taste in clothes.  I wouldn’t yell at the old lady cause she drives too slowly.  I just wanted a chance to fit in.  I knew I didn’t belong in this hospital.  It might be dangerous, but I was determined at a chance in the real world.  Margie of course said I was thinking irrationally.  She said I wasn’t able to care for myself.  She said because of my illness I can’t drive and I probably wouldn’t hold a job because my body is too weak.  She even said that I couldn’t even afford my own place because without an education I wouldn’t make very much money.  She even told me the state wouldn’t pay my medical bills anymore.  I’d basically be committing suicide.  No judge would grant me freedom because I wasn’t in the right state of mind to request it.  I basically told her it was MY life and I wanted to live it MY way.  She said I was being selfish.  I said, “I don’t own anything and no one owns me.”

It was two weeks after I had the conversation with Margie.  The orderly, a balding forty-something, came to tell me I had a visitor.  It was Wednesday, and Margie only came on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  I walked out of my room and into the recreational room on the third floor.  There was a tall man by the windows, his back facing me.  He had to be the one looking for me as everyone else was either in scrubs or their prison gowns.  The nurse called after him and he turned to approach me.  He shook my hand and introduced himself as Al Zinger. I could tell he was the real deal ‘cause he had some strong grip, especially for a guy who had to be nearing 60, clearly aging day by day.  I was surprised.  I didn’t expect a visit.  I had hoped for an email response, maybe a phone call?  Al was a gentle fellow; his voice was stern, but had an honest, genuine tone I hadn’t heard in a long time.  He asked me to sit with him.  I was nervous and didn’t know what to say.  I just sat gazing out the windows at the trees as he spoke.  He told me about why he was here and that my email impressed his boss, who sent him here.  His boss had a grandmother who died from lung cancer, and I guess it was pretty gnarly.  He figured if a kid has any type of cancer, then that kid deserves a chance at someone listening.  He wanted to know why he should help me.  He said a lot of kids petition for their rights, but most of the time they are just pretentious fellows who eventually discover they lack the maturity or responsibility to survive in the real world.  If a normal kid faces this problem, then someone like me is treading in some deep waters.  I just decided to be honest with him. 

We sat there for hours talking.  He told me stories about when he had a family, his trials and roadblocks when he was my age, and how he came to be where he was today.  He was an interesting guy.  I could tell he was lonely though.  He mainly deals with troubled youths who lack the listening skills a sick kid like me has.  Truth is all I can do is listen.  I rarely see outsiders, so I’m constantly absorbing information from visitors or staff.  I like to learn.  Al says most of the kids he sees can’t focus, and all I have is focus.  This is mainly because I don’t have anything to focus on.  I’m full of focus.  I wish your health was like focusing on a baseball; maybe then I’d hit the homerun to recovery. 

At 8pm the Orderly came in and said I needed to get back to my room, that visiting hours were over.  Al told me he would speak with some colleagues and look into some options for me.  He even mentioned the possibility of seeing a judge.  I thought it was silly though.  How one man can sit in a mocked-out uniform high above you and decide your fate.  I’m a good person; my fate should be decided by me.  Al gave me his business card, and I went back to my room.  After I shut the lights out, it was hard to fall asleep at first.  I was on cloud nine with everything.  I actually had hope life could exist outside a hospital room.

It had been six weeks since I heard from Al.  Margie forgot about my speech about leaving the hospital.  People were still dying, and the guy in room 27 was still licking the walls.  All was back to normal.

I was brushing my teeth to get the vomit taste out when the orderly told me I had a phone call.  I had started to lose faith over the weeks until I answered it to Al’s voice.  I was pretty happy to know he hadn’t forgotten about me, or found some kid stealing tennis shoes who needed his help more than I did.  Al told me a judge would see me, but I had to get a doctor to give me permission to leave the hospital.  I figured it’d be easy. Then again, it’s a hassle to convince them to allow me to stroll through the garden that lies on the bottom floor of the east wing.  Al said they would take care of everything and that there were a lot of people interested in my case.  Apparently America loves the media, and a sick kid gets everyone’s attention with a little voice behind him.  Al told me they had donations sent in to help me set up a fund so I could get on my feet and pay for my medicine.  I guess ever since his family died Al turned his faith to God.  He was lonely and wanted peace.  I suppose feeling like he wasn’t alone and that there was a plan for him gave him security to help others.  He told me the nice folks at the church passed a basket in my name and how he was here to help me with my goals, even if walking away from 24-hour hospital supervision wasn’t the smartest move.  I just feel like if I stay here I’ll die anyway, ‘cause I don’t know what I’m living for anymore or who I’m living to meet or what I’m living to see; all I see are white walls and Margie.   This turn in my life was a lot to take in; it was almost too good to be true. 

The next week Al came back to the hospital.  This time he had Margie and a doctor with him.  The doctor asked me a bunch of questions, and checked out my body to make sure it wasn’t all out of whack.  Al and his team landed me a hearing with a Judge TODAY.  I was a little nervous.  I began to have second thoughts, as maybe I was rushing this.  After all, I am an Alien to that world.  The only part of it I see is on the television, or in the stories I hear from visiting family members, and the hospital staff.  I remember Henry told me about his Grandpa’s farm; how they had real cows and chickens.  The doctor said I was in good enough shape to attend the hearing.  I had an IV hooked up and was confined to a wheelchair with a nurse peering over my back, but it was still good enough for me.  I was wheeled out of the hospital and into the ambulance to the courthouse.  The fresh air hit me hard.  It was crisp, and I could smell the fall and the fading life of the leaves as they fell from the trees and hit the ground. 

The courthouse was large; it was a four-storey limestone castle.  The steps in front must have been in the hundreds.  I, however, I was disabled and had to use the handicapped entrance, which again reminded me why I was here.  I thought the process would be fairly easy.  I’d see the judge, he would listen to me, hear my determination, and set me free.  I was wrong…  The hearing started thirty minutes late.  My headaches had started to return, and I was getting drowsy from the medication they gave me.  After Al and the judge spoke about my welfare and the state gave their input, I was asked to speak.  I muffled a word or two that I was ready and able to defend myself.  The judge asked my assigned nurse to wheel me near the defendant stand, so I could speak and be heard.  He asked me a few questions.  He started with my name, my knowledge of my disease, and why I feel that I am fit to take care of myself.

He stressed I was in a fortunate situation.  I was in a hospital where I had the care I needed and that I was safeguarded in the walls of a place with highly trained professionals who had my best interest at heart.  He said it would be stupid to be on my own, and that as a minor in my condition, I couldn’t make that decision in the current state of mind I was in.  That is when I spoke.  I told him if I couldn’t make that decision, then I wouldn’t have pulled myself together to meet him.  I told him he didn’t know where my state of mind was.  He probably had a family at home he said goodnight to.  I told him he had things, he had a car, he had normal clothes, he could shop where he wanted to shop and eat where he wanted to eat.  I can’t do these things!  I don’t have a family.  My “condition” is what feeds the families of the staff who care for me.  The only people I know and relate to die around me every day.  I see pain.  I see tears.  I see death.  I looked the judge in the eyes and let the tears roll down my cheek until I tasted the salt on my lips.   I pleaded: I don’t want to see that forever. 

I don’t want to die in a place where everyone dies.  I want to see colors, I want to see birds fly, kids doing kid things, I want to drive a car for the first time, I want to see a movie bigger than the side of a cardboard box, I want to ride a bike, I want friends, I want to experience love.  I know I’m a freak and I don’t look normal.  I know people will stare and point...  I know I don’t have a mom to tell me that she can see what’s beautiful on the inside.  I’m alone, and I just don’t want to die that way, and most certainly don’t want to have a daily countdown, locked in a building with a bunch of sick people.  I hate being sick.  I just want to live like you, or Al, or the lady behind him, or the guard at the door.  I just want a fair chance, and no one will give me that. 

The room was quiet after my little rant.  I could tell I made an impact.   I think I heard the security guy let out a sniffle.   I certainly was not looking to have everyone feeling sorry for me; if I did then no one would buy me as independent, and they’d keep me “under care “until I wasn’t their problem anymore; I prefer the term locked up.  It didn’t help I had thrown up that yellow bile twice, and I clearly looked like I belonged in the morgue, pale as a ghost.  The judge gave us a recess.  They decided I should be transferred back to the hospital.  Al told me he would let me know what the judge says; that he would visit me and tell me the news in person.  I didn’t want to leave.  I really wanted to stay and prove I could.  My body said otherwise.  I left the courthouse and blacked out in the ambulance.

I woke up the next morning.  Most of the drugs had worn off, and I was feeling a little better.  I still hadn’t heard from Al, and that’s basically all I could think about.  I could hardly pay attention to the cartoons on TV.  I was eating my breakfast, which looked like a decaying mush of the same old prison food I was used to getting. There was a knock on my door.  It was the Orderly.  My hopes left as I turned back to the TV.  Then Margie popped up behind him and came on in.  I was even more depressed now.  I thought of Al and my ticket out of here, every split second.  Margie approached my bed and said she had some news from the courts.  I told her Al was supposed to deliver the news.  That’s when my heart sank.  She said the courts rejected my petition for emancipation, and that I was deemed unfit to care for myself.  For a moment I was torn apart.  I had that clenched feeling in my stomach when you hear something you don’t want to hear.  This was the worst.  Then she said there was a compromise.  I looked at her again, eagerly curious to figure out where she was getting at.  Then she told me, “Al petitioned the judge so he could act as your legal guardian. He has agreed to care for you, and you’re able to start outpatient therapy, IF your health improves.”  My eyes lit up like the camera flash in a speed derby.  There was hope, IF my body allowed it.

It took two weeks and intense observation before I was released.  I was lucky that my body wasn’t doing anything too crazy, or having bad reactions to medication, so I was allowed to leave the hospital.  Al picked me up after lunch, Friday afternoon.  I would get the whole weekend away from the hospital, the longest in a long time.  I still had to return Monday for a checkup, but I was eternally grateful to Al.  I still didn’t know him that well, but I knew I did.  He was a good guy.  He was helping me more than anyone had before. 

Al had this large house to himself.  It was a country style family home with a wrap around porch, blue shutters, and to top it off… a swing.  It was perfect.  It was a lot for an old man living on his own.  I guess he had plans for his family nesting here, till that dream was cut short.  Al made great food.  His cooking for an old single guy impressed me, but he pulled it off.  What I thought would be TV dinners turned out to be a four-course gourmet meal.  It was the first night, so I’m sure he wanted me to feel at home. 

After dinner Al had to finish some work at his computer so I explored the house.  He had a lot of old things.  This stuffed badger topped the list of the creepiest.  The bedrooms looked mostly unlived in, and the house was eerily quiet, just the sound of a grandfather clock.  It was much different than the rumblings of the hospital.  I didn’t have much with me, but did my best to make my room special.  I had a few comics, and some things Henry’s mom gave me.  I even had a picture of my brother Jeremy and me on a visit to Myrtle Beach when we were little; I don't remember much, just the white sand and blurs of faces and voices.  I thought about him sometimes and what his life was like.  I suppose his life would be better, without someone burdening it.  He probably has tons of friends, and chases the girls by now.  Too bad I couldn’t teach him things, like how to play sports, hunt rabbits, or maybe someday ride a bull.   Then again, what did I know? He had been out here this whole time—living!—when I’d been away.  I was pretty tired, so I went to bed early.  Al hooked this alarm near my bed, so if I was dying, I could push the button; he was a little paranoid, but all in good faith.  I fell asleep quick, all silence but the faint tick of the grandfather clock.

Over the next few weeks, Al and I became closer and closer.  He was an old guy, but sort of became like my best friend.  He has this duck pond behind his house and taught me how to fish.  There wasn’t much in there, but I caught a little baby something; of course, I threw the little guy back.  I didn’t want to harm any creatures.  I sure know what that’s like.  An innocent fish is just trying to find food to survive, when in a split second, he’s hooked out of the water, and his life is over.  The idea is kind of sad, but I guess humans got to eat, too.

Al would tell me stories about him and his father.  He said growing up, he taught him certain life skills that shaped him as a man, and he was determined to do the same for me.  He taught me how to shoot a gun.  We never harm anything, just play a little target practice with the trees.  I never got into sports, but dreamed about it a lot.  We threw a baseball around the yard, and he’d tell me how his pops would take him to Yankee games in the city, and get him the biggest dog they had, with kraut and mustard and a huge soda.  With my condition we couldn’t really make it to the city, but a grill in the backyard, and some dogs on a stick, made it all right for us.  We even played the game on the radio; we’d yelled like banshees when a play crossed our team. 

As the weeks continued life started to get a little more normal.  I could wear normal clothes and even shop around town.  People still noticed I was different, but my baseball cap kept away the long glares, and the people looking for a good ol’ sick kid story to entertain them.  I didn’t like talking about it.  When I was away from the hospital, I wanted to make my life as normal as possible.  I wanted to live. 

After the next year, things started to get better.  I was able to go to public school and make real friends.  I found that if I let my personality overcome my illness, and not let my illness overcome me, people weren’t scared of me.  I was a kid just like them.  I was just a bit different.  We’re all a little different though. 

Difference is what makes us unique; it allows us to grow, and learn from each other.  What I learned from all this was to be strong, and that I could do whatever I wanted in this world, and I really could.  I think your body knows when it needs to be strong, to fight.  I could feel my body improving.   As time went on I didn’t have to see the doctor as much anymore, and my tests were always seeing signs of improvement.

A few months later, I had a lot of more visits to the hospital.  This time, they were good visits.  They were to make sure my illness was gone for good, and over the next few weeks, I was on my way to a full recovery.  It was strange that it was only some time ago that I was stuck in a hospital, and giving up hope.  I felt as if my life inside the box was all it would be.  My luck changed.  I met someone who guided me, influenced me; allowed me to see what I couldn’t before.  I was surrounded by so much sadness that I couldn’t see the joy others in the world had.  I am joyous now. I have friends, a girl in 3rd period English who thinks I have nice eyes, a bike (hopefully soon I’ll get a car), and a Dad who loves me.  I don’t remember my real dad; he left when I was a baby. 

Maybe that’s why my mom left me.  She was afraid I was going to die, and someone she loved was going to leave her again.  It wasn’t my choice, but I think everything worked out pretty well.  I ended up getting a family, and friends, and so did Al.  We were kind of the same.  We both had a terminal illness, and we were able to bring life back, because we realized that if you find it in each other, nothing is terminal.  The life was always in us, its just sometimes…you have to help people, ‘cause people are always going to need help, even if they don’t know where to find it.


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