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Within a few days the Zeitman house was at its usual level of summer activity. Alex, now out of school, was enrolled in two different training programs, a district one for high school science teachers and a seminar on young people with emotional disturbances to keep current his second certification in special education. In between the training he would take on a list of household improvement projects, shuttle Teddie to a summer volleyball workshop, get each of the aging Zeitman cars in top working order, and handle at least half of the stuff on their mutual back burner.
Teddie was slightly more pleasant now that her big sister was home, and Lola noticed with joy that for the first time their over seven-year age difference was not so great. As the two sisters sat huddled together in front of Ariel's laptop laughing, Lola noticed how much Ariel's thin straight coppery red hair contrasted with Teddie's almost black curls. How Ariel's lanky body differed from Teddies already soft curves. How Ariel's narrow, challenging light blue eyes differed from Teddie's round warm dark ones. Now that she thought about it, the girls had as little in common in other ways as they did physically. So it brought Lola joy to see the two of them head off on a shopping expeditions together, and to hear that they were going out to lunch, or that they were renting a movie to watch together. This was good.
Lola felt like her employer had been getting less than her full attention since the canoe trip, and so now that her clan was together looking out for each other, she tried to focus harder on her work. The success of this well was clearly important to her tiny company. The location had been approved in theory, and now the engineers were developing a specific drilling plan while all of the necessary permits were being obtained, a drilling rig was being sought, and the drilling materials were being procured. All were vital and time-consuming parts of the process, but from Lola's point of view the main work was done. A reprocessed seismic data set had arrived over the area, and her job now was merely to double and triple check her own original interpretation.
Near as she could tell, the medication was having absolutely no effect. Zilch. No scary side effects, no change in her symptoms, no nothing. But she continued with the morning swallow of the little green pill, hoping for the best. She had to reluctantly give up her evenings sitting on the porch anyway, as the Houston nights became too hot and clammy. She opted instead for the air-conditioned comfort of her easy chair in front of some mind-numbing television, where she most often joined Alex for reruns of crime dramas while they both ate the lavish salads Alex tended to make in the summer.
By the time Zane came home to visit it was almost mid-June. Lola picked him up at the airport that Friday evening after work, surprised at how pale and almost chubby he seemed, with his ill-behaved medium brown hair cut shorter than usual. "You really need to get some sunshine after all that time working in a lab" she kidded. He seemed embarrassed, and she let it drop.
Zane had always been a little self-conscious of his body, reacting defensively when Lola had chortled about his sprouting facial hair years ago or when she continued to marvel at his odd eyes that always seemed to be the color of the fabric of whatever shirt he was wearing. Oops. It was hard to be a mom.
"Good to see you dear," she changed tack. "Dad's got quite a meal waiting at home. His eggplant parmesan and Caesar salad special."
Zane's major in neuroscience had always been a safe subject, as he was as fascinated by the workings of the brain as Lola herself was by the processes of the earth. So she pressed him for more information about the job. What was it like being part of a pharmaceutical company? He had called his work as a lab assistant grunt work, but wasn't he getting exposure to some of the leading edge research into new medications? Just to be around it would be so informative. Yes, Zane reluctantly agreed, some of the research itself was exciting.
Lola hesitated for a minute, not wanting to worry her son, then decided why the hell do you have kids if you can't talk to them at all? So she shared her most recent medical experience with him, keeping the information light and vague. She did not have to. Zane was surprisingly supportive, understanding very well based on his own studies, he told her, how even a short trauma could have surprising ramifications and how getting help was absolutely the right thing to do. "Too many folks in this world don't even have access to mental health care," he said. "We have a well-developed system in the U.S. and yet many are too proud or ill-informed to get the help they need. Actually Mom I am proud of you for taking care of yourself."
"Oh." Lola had not expected that. "Thanks."
This was probably why three days later, when Lola arrived for her follow-up appointment with Dr. Walker, she allowed him to talk her into doubling the dosage.
"I started you on a very low dosage, fully expecting this," he explained. "Fifty milligrams is what I would expect to be the appropriate dosage for you but I always like to start out cautiously. Now, you should have twelve or so tablets left at the old dosage and I want you to dispose of them safely.
"Why can't I just take two at a time and use them up?"
Dr. Walker smiled like one would at a particularly cute and precocious child. "In my experience it is best to keep this very simple and leave no room for a patient to go deciding to raise or lower their own dosage. Please dispose of them as I have instructed, and I will have Dr. Hayes call you in a new prescription that will be ready today.”
So now Lola had little blue tablets that said 50 mg. And as days wore on Lola decided that they did not seem to do anything either.
Somadina had made no secret of her intent to buy a cell phone so that she could talk to Nwanyi as often as she pleased. By mid-June, just after the last of the yam crop had been planted, she figured that with the small coins she was charging her clients she had saved half of what she needed for a disposable cell phone with minutes, which she knew could be purchased in a nearby city. Her plan was to ask Azuka's father to please drive her to Abakaliki, or to lend Azuka the car so that he could do so, and she was trying to figure out how many more days needed to be worked, when Ikenna knocked on her door. He walked in without greeting and gruffly handed her his cell phone. “Do you know how to work this thing?" he asked.
"Yes. I have used others just like it many times before. Why?"
"Call Nwanyi," he answered. She found the phone's directory, saw that the only entry was her sister’s name. It must have been entered by someone who was not her father and much more adept with small electronic devices. As she pressed the call button he offered, "Djimon typed in the name and number for me when he gave me this new phone before they left."
Bing ding bing. The little chimes played softly. "We are sorry. This number is no longer in service."
"It has been saying that since yesterday," her father told her.
"How often do you call Nwanyi?" Somadina asked surprised.
"Every day," he mumbled. "The very first time she called I tried to call her back to ask her a question I had forgotten. I don't even remember the question now, but I got this strange message saying my call could not be delivered to the number I had dialed. It bothered me, so I have tried to call her number every single day since. Until yesterday, I always got that message, every time, saying my call could not be delivered to the number I had dialed. What kind of message is that? But I never asked her about it and I know I should have. I was afraid that I was misusing the phone and I didn't want to look stupid. And she just never seemed like she wanted to talk when she called me. So to answer your question completely, yes I have tried to call her every day since her first phone call to us. And no, I have never gotten through to her once, although she has now called me a total of six times in the two months she has been gone."
Somadina sighed heavily. She did not know whether to be happy that her father had been making this effort or frustrated that he had not shared this with her. "That message you were getting means your number was blocked. Why didn't you try calling her from another phone? One you could have borrowed from someone else?"
"I did not realize that would work," replied a puzzled Ikenna.
"It doesn't matter now," Somadina said in frustration. "The number you have is now clearly disconnected. Do you have another number? Djimon appeared to have means. Perhaps his house has a landline?"
"If he does have such a thing I do not know of it."
"Okay. Do you have an email address for him? You know quite well that Nwanyi isn't that good at reading or writing, but I tried to talk her into getting email anyway once she got to Lagos. I told her that way we could at least send each other photos once in awhile. But I do not think she has done so. I have been able to get online twice since she left, and there has been no message from her. So perhaps we could email him instead?"
Ikenna shook his head sadly. "I have already asked both of your oldest half brothers to help me. Udo (OO doh) is especially good with computers. He is really very smart, Somadina. I took him with me to Abakaliki myself." Ikenna sighed. "We spent the day. I had him search all those things he knows. Yahoos and Googles and Facebooks and there is no such man in all of Lagos in any directory or anywhere to be found on the internet."
This was worse than Somadina had even imagined. "Well then let's take your car and drive to his home address. We can confront him in person and demand to see Nwanyi. Who does he think he is to deny a woman contact with her own father and sister like this?"
"Do you not think I would already have done this daughter? I have handled this badly. I should have gone with her to Lagos in the first place. Demanded to meet his family before the marriage ever took place." Ikenna looked sad beyond belief. "The address he has given me turns out to be that of some random government building. No one lives there. Udo pulled up a picture, it was amazing, he pulled up the picture right there on the computer, a picture of what is at the address Djimon had given me. It is a big office. Ugly, and very clearly nobody's home."
"Do you have any other contact information at all? Surely you got more?"
"Of course. I did try to be a good Igbo parent, even though the situation was odd. I have names and addresses of all of his family. His mother. His brothers. He went to great lengths to show me their photos, and to assure me that Nwanyi was entering an honorable and welcoming family."
"And Udo was in every case able to find no such people. Well he found two teenage girls on the Facebook with the mother's name, but obviously that is just a coincidence. It is certain that neither is Djimon's mother. No address he gave me was real. No phone number reaches a working phone. Probably nothing he told me is real. He may not even live in Lagos." Ikenna hung his head.
"And you have nothing else?"
"Just one more thing," and with this admission Ikenna looked as upset as Somadina had seen him in many years. "He gave me a mailbox to which to send her passport, with an addressed, insured box in which to put it, with all the postage paid. He paid to have the application rushed, too. I received the passport in such very good time, and I was so proud of that and so hoping it would make him happy that I sent it on to him as soon as it arrived last week."
"Yes. He should have received it from me in the last day or two. I thought maybe I should have waited and confronted him about talking more with Nwanyi before I sent it. But I didn't want to lose it and didn't want him to think I was not keeping up my end of the bargain. I hoped that if he was happy we might hear from Nwanyi more. So I mailed it the same day Udo and I went to Abakaliki. In fact, I mailed it on the way into town. I had no idea our day would turn up such troubling information."
"Wait. Back up." Somadina had listened to this last confession with growing confusion and concern. "You got Nwanyi a passport?? Why??"
"It was the only thing that Djimon asked of me, other than to have a very quick wedding. He said it was very important to him, that he traveled often and understandably wished to have a wife with him on those occasions when he was gone for a lengthy period of time. He said that his first wife had some issues trying to get a passport because of some political group that her family members were involved in. Nothing she has any part in of course. But Djimon had given up trying and so he was particularly happy to have this Igbo wife now with no past to cause problems in this area. He asked me as a personal favor. Just to be sure that association with his first wife, Mairo, did not cause issues in Nwanyi's case as well, he asked me to get the documents under Nwanyi's unmarried name and have them sent here and then to forward them on to him just as soon as they arrived. It seemed so reasonable. He was a good man who just wished to have a wife with him to help him avoid temptation while he was away from home. I admired that."
It was Somadina's turn to sigh deeply. What she really wanted to do was to scream at her father, "How could you be so incredibly stupid??" but in her world, as in many, such behavior would have been unacceptable beyond belief for a twenty-one-year-old daughter. So she said merely, "He must have received the passport yesterday."
"I know." Ikenna muttered. "I know. Because I also am sure that is when he turned off the phone."
"Nwanyi may be in more danger than that of just common mistreatment from a bad husband," Somadina added.
"I agree," her father said. "I too am saving money now. As of this morning both of my wives are on a very strict budget and not terribly happy with me. But I need to hire a detective. I need to find my daughter. I just came here, well, because I did not want you to waste your money buying a cell phone. You may use mine all you like and you could have used it all along. I just kept it from you hoping that not being able to get through was some sort of misunderstanding, one that I could fix before you got involved."
He paused, as if he was considering whether to say something or not. He decided to go on. "Somadina, please understand that I did not involve you sooner only because I did not wish for you to think any more poorly of me than you already do."
"And that worked well," Somadina muttered.
"Since your mother died I cannot seem to do anything right in this particular area. But it is not because I am not trying." And he thought, with fear, of how over the years Amaka had occasionally appeared to him in his dreams, always beseeching him to do better by the two daughters she had left him, and never satisfied with his meager efforts which she always judged to be too little too late.
"Then let's work together," Somadina said with whatever graciousness she could muster on behalf of her sister. "Nwanyi needs us to be as smart as we can possibly be. Smart together. Not stupid alone." It was the closest she could allow herself to get to chastising her father, and though he noticed it, this once he let it pass.
"I agree," he said. "Let's combine what we know and what we can do and get her back home."
He started for the door, then paused. "You can't really tell fortunes can you? That could perhaps be useful."
Oh dear. "No father, the truth is that I am a pretty weak fortune-teller. Please don't pass that around. I, um, have enough skill to help the lovelorn, but not enough real skill to help us here. But you know, I do have some other unusual abilities. Maybe I can use them better, now that I know how serious the situation is."
As her father walked out the door, she resolved to also start using her abilities in earnest to make sure she was getting the entire story from her father point forward.
In 2002, Lola made her one and only attempt to write an article for publication. It was called "Face Painting for World Peace." After dozens of revisions, it still sounded embarrassingly naive, and therefore it still lived in the bottom of a desk drawer awaiting additional inspiration or perhaps just more sophistication. The odd thing about the article, though, was that Lola knew its basic premise to be utterly true. She just lacked the skills to express the concept.
Over the years Lola had made a significant effort to be involved in her children's lives because she thought it was important. To them, to her, to their future. But a full-time career meant she had to pick her spots wisely. Half-a-day off to drive the van on a field trip. Yes. That one was a real kid pleaser. Joining PTA committees which would hold endless meetings, usually during the day attended by moms in no particular hurry and about which the kids could care less? No.
The annual PTA carnival, a huge event at her children's grade school, had lots of opportunities for attending such lengthy meetings. But by sheer luck, back when Zane was in first grade she had signed up for the face-painting booth. Turned out she had a bit of an artistic streak and a talent for inventing kid-beloved designs. By year three she was running the booth, featuring Ninja turtles and unicorns, and she had become one of the coolest moms at the school, which was interesting because she'd never been cool at her own grade school. Apparently, it was never too late …
As a completely unintended side effect, face painting changed Lola. With a husband teaching in the public school system, Lola and Alex made the principled decision to fight the "white flight" into private schools, to put their children and their energy into the public school system and their resources into a college savings account. So all three little Zeitmans had been sent to a magnet elementary school attached to a local intercity grade school and had grown up with groups of friends who looked like a junior United Nations delegation, which Lola and Alex were fine with, of course. Theoretically. But Lola at least had grown up in a time and place in which everyone around her was very white. It is one thing to believe something about how the world should be. It is another to actually be comfortable with it.
Then Lola found herself holding little black girls on her lap, dressed in the stereotypical frills that she used to scoff at. She painted rainbows on their arms while they giggled in delight and pretty soon she was giggling too. The little boy whose parents were newly arrived from India wanted the Batman logo on his chin. The little boy from Vietnam wanted a flower. The little Latina wanted a heart on her face and a lightning bolt down her arm. As Lola held the children, touched the children, enjoyed the joy of the children, year after year, somewhere along the way a funny thing happened. They went from being those people, to being people.
Once you make that transition, you don't go back.
A few years later when Lola's employer sent her to interview grad students as prospective new hires, she listened to the hopes and dreams of aspiring geoscientists from Jamaica, Croatia, Pakistan, and China. The HR department asked her to please stop recommending so many foreign students. It was then that Lola had penned her article. We need massive amounts of card tables and millions of gallons of tempera paint. A billion little paint brushes and a ton of old newspapers. Let's send every adult on the planet somewhere else, and have them paint children’s faces for a day. Then have them interview the young adults for a day. Then have them paint faces for a day more. Let's do it once a year. Everybody goes somewhere different each year. We can do this. Given the time and resources, we can do world peace.
It was meant in jest of course, but only kind of.
She looked across the hall at her new friend, the young Nigerian geologist Okocha. A kindred spirit of Lola's had certainly designed that National Youth Service Corps with the wild idea of achieving peace in Nigeria. For all of its flaws and troubles, who knew what chaos that country might be in today without that oddly idealistic plan.
So how about just getting people working together in an office for world peace? Exchange students? Pen pals? She thought of her group of word-game playing internet friends. A Mormon grandmother with a delightfully earthy sense of humor. A Muslim physician who had been kind enough to explain to her what all the racket was about when she found herself in Jakarta on Eid al-Adha, which turned out to be a holy day for giving to the less fortunate and feeding the poor. Given that, how could one possibly complain about the music coming from the mosques?
So, internet games for world peace. Everybody grab a mouse and play something. Come on people. We can DO this!
Phase three, according to Djimon's plan, involved several weeks of moderate physical pain and mild verbal abuse on the weekends, combined with confinement and lack of attention during the week. It was important that the situation be well-orchestrated, and that Nwanyi not be made so afraid that she was pushed into rash or desperate behavior. The mild ongoing abuse had to become her new sense of normal while her self-esteem slowly eroded.
At the same time, it was also important that she have no friendly contact whatsoever, so that she would slowly, almost unnoticeably, learn not to feel any sense of hope. Djimon pushed Mairo to work with him on this latter part, to keep the children away, to slap down Nwanyi's brief meals personally, to limit toilet access, to keep her chores indoors, isolated, simple, and boring. There must never be panic, but rather an ongoing sense of discomfort that was never interrupted by joy. After six weeks of such, Djimon determined to his own satisfaction that Nwanyi was ready for phase four. This phase, which would feature more intense humiliation and discomfort, would begin this weekend.
Djimon waited until he heard Mairo's car leave the driveway before he insisted Nwanyi assume a crawling position on the floor of her tiny room, like a dog. He often did not need to bind her hands or feet anymore, depending on his plan, as she would now generally do as he ordered in hopes of making the sessions briefer. He took pains to assure her that her compliance indeed bought her shorter sessions. He knew this violated his own edict against giving her any sense of power over her own life, but it did make her less difficult to control, and on some level he enjoyed watching her strip and willingly assume any bizarre and even sexual position that he ordered.
Tonight, as she knelt on the floor like a scrubwoman, he took his time waiting and watching. He had learned that anticipation of what was coming was one of his most potent weapons. After a few moments, he would approach her quickly, and watch her tense, expecting the blow. Then he would wait some more. Until she relaxed. And then, sometimes, he would strike. Other times he would just walk away feigning disinterest, often pausing within her field of vision to eat a small snack out of his pocket, some delicacy he hoped she would crave, while she watched. Or, alternatively, he would return to her side immediately and administer her punishment. Or not. Thus he found he could inflict the maximum amount of anxiety and misery on her, with the minimum physical effort on his part. It was a particularly good technique on days when his back was bothering him.
Luckily, however, his back was doing fine this evening, which was good because this was a particularly important night. He made her watch from her position on the floor as he slowly put on his steel toed boots. Then he walked towards her from the rear and paused to give her time to wonder what nature of torment was coming. Then, using his stronger right leg, he kicked her as hard as he possibly could right in the center of her female parts. The "oof" sound she made was more of a groan than a scream. He kicked again, this time her right buttock. Then once again to her left lower thigh. They both know that this was rougher, faster than his usual style, but of course only he knew that it was for a carefully calculated purpose.
"I will stop," he whispered loudly, "when you say exactly what I tell you to."
Another fierce kick, this time aimed more toward her anus.
"Anything." She coughed out the word softly. "I'll say anything."
Good. At this point he had expected such compliance.
A slightly softer kick to the left buttock, its relative gentleness meant to acknowledge that she had acquiesced. "Tell me 'I am worthless. I do not deserve to be alive.'" Nwanyi exhaled loudly, then repeated it without emotion.
A bit rougher kick to the back of the right thigh. "Say it again like you mean it."
"I am a worthless. I do not deserve to be alive."
Another kick. "Again. With more feeling."
"I am a worthless. I do not deserve to be alive."
Another kick. "Again."
And so it went for almost an hour. At the end of it Djimon made Nwanyi scrub the entire floor of her bedroom, her bruised naked backside toward him while he supervised her from the hallway as he sat in one of the children's little bean bag chairs eating popcorn, using the power of its smell. The child's chair was slightly uncomfortable, but he pretended to be relaxed and even bored as he sipped his sweet soda loudly and occasionally administered an order to scrub harder or to redo a particular section of the floor.
Up until the middle of June, Nwanyi had given the servants little to remark upon, except of course for the broken face which no one thought for a moment was an accident. But now they gossiped to each other and to their friends and family with great animation about how the new second wife who always stayed in the tiny little room in back seemed to be getting stranger every day. And how sometimes, if she fell asleep before one of them left for the evening, they could hear her whimpering loudly like a hurt animal in her sleep.
After her talk with her father, Somadina tried to reach Nwanyi with renewed efforts. It frustrated her that she so easily picked up the mundane and irrelevant emotions of those around her, but all she could feel from Nwanyi was a muffled sense of misery and hopelessness that seemed to get worse with each day.
Somadina also tried reaching out harder to the mystery woman, who now often offered her feelings of comfort and sympathy but who had yet to prove to be of any use whatsoever. However, she was able at least to learn a little more about the woman. This lady had a husband, a good man whom the woman loved, and there were children. More than one. That was nice. And yes, the woman worried about all of them and she worried about someone else.
Then Somadina got the connection. There was a younger sister, almost exactly five years younger, who was now far away, whom the woman had looked out for and protected throughout childhood. The woman loved this sister dearly, and was worried about her. Somadina had to laugh. Wasn't it the way this gift of hers seemed to work? Instead of finding someone who could help her, she had found someone who would understand her.
Phase four was going as well as Djimon could have hoped, although he was a bit concerned that each week he spent more time than needed planning the specifics of the coming weekend's activities. To be completely honest, maybe he even occasionally dwelt on his plans for Nwanyi more than he should, particularly at awkwardly inappropriate moments, like in the shower. And while he had to admit that the unexpected interest he had developed in his role as Nwanyi's chief tormentor was a bit disturbing, he assured himself that for the most part it was just a psychology student's clinical interest in the unusual combined with an admirable zeal for his cause. It would surely pass when his need for such behavior was over and done.
Zane left Father's Day afternoon, after the kids spent the morning indulging their dad in the spirit of the day by playing basketball with him. Zane had never been the athlete that his father had hoped for, more due to lack of interest than lack of ability, and though that had induced some frustrating moments for all over the years, Alex had eventually accepted that Zane was just the kind of kid who preferred video games and books and had satisfied himself with being proud of the unique achievements of his National Merit finalist son.
Ariel, on the other hand, had been something of a high school athlete and had a fiercely competitive streak. Had she not been also trying to match her brother academically, her girlfriends socially, and fill in part-time for her mom around the house, she might have been something of a volleyball star. Even giving it only a quarter of her attention, she was still good.
Teddie, who Alex thought had the best innate physical skills of all three, turned out to have the worst sort of personality for any contact sport. She was hanging in there with her junior high volleyball team, but hated it when the other team was mean, or when her own teammates criticized her or each other. She had already almost quit twice, once when the coach had actually yelled at the girls and once when the other team's cheering section had singled Teddie out for some mild verbal abuse from the sidelines. Lola doubted Teddie would last long at the high school level.
As she looked out the kitchen window at her clan while she whipped up waffles for a father's day brunch, she could hear a happy Alex coaxing the best from teammate Teddie, while Ariel struggled to not mind losing, and Zane struggled to care enough to make an effort for his dad. Ah well. Her family. She loved them.
Jumoke, the engineer from the Lagos office, surprised Lola by calling her directly at her office in the middle of an otherwise quiet Wednesday morning in late June. Lola was genuinely glad to hear from him, and they spent a few minutes getting caught up on company issues and life in general. Lola was sure that there was a point to the call, however, so she wasn't surprised when he said, "Lola, there is somebody who would really like to have lunch with you next week. I am going to ask an outright favor of you and ask you to please do this."
Lola assumed it was a friend looking for a job. "Of course. I'll be happy to talk to him. Who is it?"
"No, it's not professional. More, uh, personal."
"I'm not really looking to make new friends, Jumoke."
"Neither is he, dear. He is eighty-four, and I think he might have known your parents. At any rate he is from the Midland area, and he is a friend of my brother’s."
"Well that alone has got to be an interesting story. Sure, of course I will. But why?"
Jumoke hesitated. "My brother dropped by last week and we got to talking and I mentioned your visit here last March. The more I described you the more adamant he became that you needed to meet his friend. The man's name is Maurice and he doesn't drive much any more, but he is coming to Houston on some other business. I'll email you details."
And Lola remembered the old man's voice she had heard in her head while sitting on the porch, asking about Lola Conroy. Damn. She knew now with absolute certainty that it had been Maurice.
On June 25, Michael Jackson died. Although none of the Zeitmans were devoted fans, all five mourned the loss of a talented, troubled man who had written songs that they had enjoyed. Lola noted with interest that so many people accessed the internet in search of more details about his death, or even just in search of shared comfort, that several major websites became unusable for a while. What a force we can be en masse, she thought.
While she found herself humming snippets of his music for days afterward, she mostly sang to herself the one song of his that she had liked best of all. Forty-three other musical stars had joined in to sing his 1985 collaboration with Lionel Richie called "We are the World", with over sixty million dollars in proceeds donated to fight starvation in Africa.
She could still see in her mind the video of Michael in the black jacket with the gold sequins, his sparking white glove undulating to the music while he sang the first rendition of the chorus. Lola thought that when Cyndi Lauper quipped that the lyrics sounded like a Pepsi commercial, she had a point. There was no deep meaning here. Just a hell of a great idea. "We are the world." (BUY)
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