The Mouths of Babes
By Ainsley Wallace
Kim sat at the end of a deck chair, her chin in her hand and watched the late afternoon sun polish the diamond tops of the waves. She'd struggled to focus on her research paper, only to stall irreversibly a handful of sentences later. Which didn't stop her from figuratively banging her head on the laptop for another couple of hours before she admitted defeat. Eventually this gave way to a spell of sitting at the dining room table, arms tightly crossed, staring down ghosts from the past. An hour's furious cleaning in the kitchen came next, followed by at least that long again preparing vegetables and a salad for supper. Finally, she surrendered to her mood and went and sat on the deck of the house that Rachel had built, to stare blankly out at the water.
Kim heard the door open behind her, made out the soft rubber thump of Kerry's wheels hitting the deck. She turned to look. Kerry sat there in her wheelchair, a few yards away with two bottles of wine and two brightly coloured plastic glasses carefully balanced on her lap. She wheeled herself closer, wearing an apologetic smile.
Kim nodded towards the two bottles. "Planning on tying one on?" she asked.
Kerry shook her head as she positioned herself beside Kim. "Actually, I thought maybe you might like to get a little drunk."
Kim gave her a long even look. "I'm afraid I'm not following you."
Kerry grinned hopefully. "It was a hard day for you," she said, "and I know I didn't help. So I thought we could have a drink together and maybe talk."
"Oh, Kerry, I'm not sure I'm in the mood," Kim said.
Kerry pulled the cork from one of the bottles and filled a plastic juice glass. "It might make you feel better," she said. "Oh and don't mind the stemware. They were all I could reach from the chair."
Kim chuckled softly and accepted the tiny glass. "You're relentless, aren't you?"
Kerry smiled. "Let's just say I'm used to getting what I want." She recorked the bottle and put it down on the deck.
"To getting what you want," Kim said and she touched her cup to Kerry's. They drank their wine.
Kim put her glass down and got to her feet as if she hadn't heard a word. "Kerry, your toes are all dusky, I think there's swelling again. We need to prop your leg." She maneuvered the support out and gently placed Kerry's leg on it.
"I'm fine, just leave my damn leg alone, already."
Kim sat down and faced her with a sigh. "So fire me."
"I can't. If it weren't for you, I'd probably still be lying on my kitchen floor," Kerry said flatly, staring at the deep purple wine in her glass. "And I probably deserve to be there. But the wonderful and terrible thing about this world is that we don't always get what we deserve."
Kim looked over at her.
"I don't know how I will ever repay you for all of this," Kerry said.
Kim turned her eyes back towards the horizon. "You don't owe me anything," she said. "I'm here because I want to be here. It's my choice."
Kerry reached out a tentative hand and touched Kim's hair, cupped her cheek. "Is it hard to be here? At this house, I mean?"
Kim closed her eyes for a moment and let the feeling of Kerry's touch soak through her.
"I have no bad memories or good memories of this place," Kim said. "Rachel built it long after we'd broken up. She took me up to see it one time, a few years ago."
"So it was what Finn said about Laura, then," Kerry said. She ached to reach out again, to touch Kim's face, her hair.
"It just sort of triggered it," Kim said, looking down at her hands. They sat in silence for a few long minutes, listening to the waves and the gulls circling over the water. Kerry bided her time, waiting for Kim to speak, sensing she would.
"We met our first year at college," Kim said softly. "We were on the same floor in the dorm and we hit it off right away. Rachel was in music, preparing to become a concert pianist and I used to tag along sometimes to her rehearsal room just to listen to her play while I studied."
Kerry watched Kim's face closely.
"We were pretty much inseparable and deep down, I already knew who I was and I knew that I was in love with her, but I was too afraid to act on it." Kim drank more wine and looked at the shore with far away eyes. "Until one night, just after Christmas break, she came to my room about ten o'clock at night and said, 'I want to try something.' And then she kissed me. I was just shocked, you know, blown away by this and she kept kissing me and touching me and I didn't quite know how to respond but in the end, it didn't matter, because she started undressing me and telling me that I was beautiful and that she'd wanted to do this for months."
"Wow," Kerry said, softly. "She knew what she wanted."
Kim nodded. "And when Rachel wants something, she generally gets it."
She pulled in a deep breath and let it go slowly. "We were together for nearly four years. Rachel wanted us to get an apartment together, so we did. She thought I should come out to my family, so I did that, too, which went over about as well as you would expect. And all along, I thought we were really solid, you know? I thought I knew her so well."
Kerry waited, attentively, holding her breath.
"The year that she was graduating from music, I was in my first year of medical school. I had turned down a scholarship at another school so that I could stay with Rachel and I had never once regretted that decision. Things between us were a little hairy and we weren't seeing quite as much of each other as we used to, but I thought that was just regular couple stuff. And then one day, I found two very surprising things. I was late for class and couldn't find my wallet and I needed bus fare. So I went looking for change in Rachel's knapsack. Only to find a receipt for the next year's tuition at a law school across the country, and a half empty box of condoms."
Kerry's face fell. "Oh, Kim," she said.
"Four years," Kim said shaking her head. "Four years together and I thought I knew her." She drained her wineglass and reached for the bottle. "What I didn't know was that I had been just a college diversion, a final walk on the alternative side before she entered the button down real world, which apparently required an Ivy league diploma and a husband, not a lesbian partner."
"How can you stand it?" Kerry asked. "I mean, if she hurt you like that, Kim, how can you even stand to talk to her?"
Kim shrugged. "Part of me can still see all the things I fell in love with in the first place. And then there's the bizarre fact that lesbians never seem to really part ways with their exes. I don't know if we're just emotionally evolved and can see past the petty issues, or is we're just incredibly self-destructive."
"Do you know Laura?" she asked.
"I've met her and she seems nice," Kim said. "And I really do wish Rachel the best, it's just..."
Kerry waited, studying Kim's profile.
"...It's just hard sometimes."
"So, now you know," Kim said suddenly, getting to her feet. "Everything's ready to go for supper. We just need to put the chops on the grill. Are you hungry?"
Kerry nodded. "Yeah, I am."
"All right, I'll get things going."
Kerry turned herself around and followed Kim. "Maybe I can help with something."
Kim opened the door to the house and let Kerry pass through. "You can keep pouring me wine," Kim said.
Whatever you want, Kerry thought as she rolled herself inside.
Kim pulled the bathroom door partway closed and headed for the kitchen, leaving Kerry to an enjoyable, if slightly awkward, soak in the tub. They'd gotten her on and off the toilet with no problems, washed her hair and now, the main priority for Kim was hot, strong coffee. The making of it and the drinking of it. She strode towards the coffeemaker with a determined expression, wondering if it was possible to have an emotional hangover, because she was pretty sure she had on this morning.
She glanced out the front doors, saw the morning surf pounding the shore and a flawless blue bowl of a sky. Another step and she spotted a blonde head, hunched over a notebook, knapsack on the step beside him. Kim veered away from the kitchen and pulled open a front door.
"Hi, Finn!" she said, walking out onto the deck. The sun warmed the top of her head instantly. It was going to be warm today.
The little figure turned, then smiled brightly. "Hi, Kim! I hope it's okay if I'm sitting here."
"It's perfectly okay," Kim said, sitting down on the top step beside him. She took in the math workbook, clenched pencil and a mass of eraser shavings. "Have you been here long?"
"A little while. I'm doing some homework."
"I see that," Kim said. She rested her elbows on her knees. "So, your Gran told you not to knock if we weren't on the deck, huh?"
He blinked twice and gaped at her. "How did you know that?"
"I used to have a Gran," Kim said.
Finn nodded knowingly. "Where's Kerry?"
"She's in the bathtub." Kim reached over and pushed his bangs out of his eyes. "I suppose you've had breakfast already?"
"Well, yeah. Some cereal. With Gran."
Kim nodded. "She also said not to be begging around for an invitation to breakfast, right?"
He sighed and nodded.
"Of course, it's not begging if I offer, is it?" Kim said.
He looked up, hope in his clear blue eyes.
"Cause I'm offering," Kim said as she got to her feet. "And you should probably know we're having pancakes." She picked up his knapsack and headed for the house. "If you want to stay, maybe you could set the table while I fish Kerry out of the tub."
"I can do that," he said eagerly. "If you get the stuff down for me."
Kim nodded. "Deal. Now, tell me Finn, do you know how to make coffee?"
He shot her a look. "Of course not. I'm only nine years old."
"Then it's high time you learned. Follow me." She smiled at the sound of small bare feet padding across the deck behind her.
Kim rinsed breakfast dishes and loaded them into the dishwasher, keeping one ear tuned to the conversation coming from the dining room table.
"Okay, now read number four," Kerry said and it was her nurturing voice, the voice Kim had heard her use with children, with frightened souls huddled on gurneys and with anyone who needed a little loving reassurance as much as they needed emergency care.
"Match the name of the -- the -- p -- polygon with the number of sides." Finn's voice was halting and broken as if he was reading a language he did not understand.
"So what does that mean? What's the job you have to do?"
"I have to draw a line from these names to these numbers."
"Okay, you do that," Kerry said.
Kim shut the dishwasher door and peered around the corner at them.
Finn was standing beside Kerry's wheelchair, one hip resting against the arm of the chair, pencil clenched in his hand, head bent over his work. Kerry's arm was around his waist, as if she was keeping him at the table to finish his work, and she was supervising him carefully.
Finn lifted his head. "Octagon," he said, eyes wide.
"You know that one," Kerry said. "Think of the other 'oct' word."
His eyes narrowed for only a moment and then he cried, "Octopus! It's eight!"
"You've got it," Kerry said, watching him draw the connecting line.
Kim slipped off to the shower, smiling to herself.
Kerry looked up at the sound of the wind chimes tinkling brightly on the deck. In the distance, she could hear the rhythm of the waves over the other night sounds and it made her want to settle back against the sofa cushions and sigh. So calm. So right. She wondered if there was a moon tonight and she thought, briefly, about going out to the deck to look.
Kim had lit a few candles around the room and now she was sprawled in an overstuffed easy chair, across the coffee table from her, one long leg flung over the arm. She was reading one of those Sue Grafton books -- 'D is for Dead Guy' or something like that and from time to time, she chuckled as she read.
Kerry had tried to read a couple of that series but hadn't found them very compelling. Not enough substance. She preferred something with some real detecting, where you paid attention to the science and the body. Like Patricia Cornwell's coroner, Dr. What's-her-name...although even the quality of her books had dipped recently. The stories read like the author needed a serious re-adjustment of her lithium.
She glanced down at her Journal of Emergency Medicine and wanted to sigh in frustration. She'd been trying to read the same article all day and hadn't gotten past the literature review. Her concentration was shot. Probably the pain. And the painkillers. And the incredible curve of Kim's bare leg as it hung over the arm of the chair. God, she was so beautiful, it still took Kerry's breath away.
That had been the hardest part at first -- believing that Kim wanted to be with her, with this awkward, tentative and terminally plain woman. She saw the heads turn when they walked someplace together -- men's for one reason and women's usually for another, but heads definitely turned. Kim just had that effect on nearly everyone -- her walk, her hair, her hands, her eyes, her voice... she just drew you in, further and further, until you were lost.
Kim turned a page and Kerry's eyes flicked up to look at her. That mouth -- how it rested in a tentative smile. God, that mouth on her belly, on her breasts, on her mouth. Sometimes Kerry could still summon up the smell of her, the scent of them together, making love in Kim's bed, their limbs intertwined, their mouths searching each other, the sweet desperation of it. She remembered being dizzy with it all, her head spinning and then just letting herself go, letting herself fall into Kim's arms, knowing she'd be there, knowing she'd catch her.
She missed it more than she could say.
All those weeks last fall, knowing deep down what she was doing when she talked to Kim and laughed with Kim and memorized the shape of her face. Knowing exactly what she was feeling but denying it to herself and then to Kim.
Wanting it so much and yet being terrified of having it.
Her voice is so soft and Kerry knows the moment before she looks up, exactly how her smile will look and what shade of blue her eyes will be in this light.
"Are you okay?" Kim asked. "You looked so serious."
Kerry summoned a smile. "I'm fine. I was just thinking about work."
Kim nodded, a slightly skeptical look in her eyes then turned back to her book.
Kerry let her gaze linger on her for a moment longer, studied the soft and creamy skin of her throat.
That was it, wasn't it?
Being too terrified to have it.
"Kerry, we've been doing geometry for a week now! Can't we do something else? I know it all now," Finn said. He was sitting on a lawn chair at the patio table, his bare feet dangling.
"But your tutor hasn't sent your test yet, Finn. You want to be prepared, don't you?" Kerry said, not taking her eyes from her newspaper.
"But I am prepared," he said. "I really am! Ask me something." He jumped to his feet as if she might ask him to sprint to the water and back.
"Okay." She put her paper down. "What's the difference between an acute angle and an obtuse angle?"
"Acute is less than 90 degrees and obtuse is more than 90 degrees."
"Correct. What do you call an angle that has 180 degrees?"
"A straight angle." He did a little dance. "Ask me something else."
"How many faces on a square based pyramid?" She watched him stare off into the distance, visualizing and counting.
""Five!" he shouted. "Four triangles and one square."
"How many degrees in a triangle?"
"Yeah, you're ready," she said, picking up her newspaper again.
He did an abbreviated victory dance, then hopped back into the chair.
"So what will we work on today?" he asked.
"Again?" He rolled his eyes and let himself fall back into the chair.
"Yes, again," Kerry said. "What did I say about multiplication tables?"
He sighed. "Multiplication tables are like muscles," he said in a singsong voice. "If you don't keep exercising them, they get all soft and flabby."
"Yes indeed, now get out those flash cards we made," Kerry said.
Finn sat back in his chair, eyeing Kerry shrewdly.
"How come I have to exercise my multiplication muscles but you don't have to exercise your crutch muscles?"
Kerry let the newspaper fall to her lap. "I beg your pardon?"
"It's true," he said. "You haven't done your exercises for your arms for three days now and that's why you aren't getting strong enough to use your crutches."
Kerry gave him a look that would have made Malucci cry. He calmly met her gaze.
"You're a pain in the neck, you know that?" she said.
He nodded. "You want me to go get your weights?"
Kerry sighed and tossed her newspaper on the table. "All right," she said, "but we're doing the nine times table today, mister."
"Ooooh, I'm scared," he said and he slipped out of the lawn chair.
At the last moment, Kerry grabbed his arm and drew him back to her. He leaned on her chair and regarded her with questioning eyes.
"What? Do you want me to get something else, too?"
"No, I want to tell you something," she said, taking his hand in hers. "I want to tell you something about why the crutches are hard for me."
"Oh, you mean about your bad leg?"
Kerry blinked. "Yeah, how did you know that?"
"Kim told me," he said. He bent down to scratch a mosquito bite on his leg. "You know the day Kim and I went swimming and you watched? She told me that you really like swimming because your bad leg doesn't bother you then."
"I see," Kerry said. She turned his hand over and looked at the young creases in his palm. "And did she tell you how it got to be my bad leg?"
He nodded, cowlick bobbing. "She said it was just born kind of weak and that you usually use a crutch to help you walk. And she said sometimes it's sore and it makes you tired."
Kerry stared at his piercingly blue eyes while he looked her cast up and down.
"I guess it was pretty unlucky to break your strong leg, huh?" he said.
Kerry chuckled and nodded. "Yeah, it was definitely unlucky."
"You want your weights now?"
Kerry nodded. "And tell Kim that we could sure use two glasses of chocolate milk out here, okay?"
A giant grin. "Okay."
Finn trotted to the glass doors and let himself in, carefully closing the door behind him without a noise. Kim was at the dining room table, typing on her laptop and he made his way to her side.
"Hey, what's up?" she said, when he leaned on the table beside her.
"Kerry wants to know if we can both have some chocolate milk," he said with a Cheshire cat smile, "because she thinks she might get thirsty lifting her weights."
Kim's eyes widened. "Nice work cowboy. That was fast."
He nodded happily. "I said what you said to say and it worked. Except now I have to do the nine times table."
"Ouch," Kim said. "Sorry about that."
"'S'okay," he said. "I can do it."
Kim tousled his hair. "I know you can. All right, you get the weights, I'll get the refreshments."
He nodded, still grinning, and then trotted across the living room, towards Kerry's bedroom.
Kim shook her head and smiled.
The sun was glorious.
Kim lay stretched out on a deck chair, drenching herself in the healing dry heat. All those months of boots and coats and scarves, of getting out of bed when it was dark and returning from work when it was dark were falling away now, one by one, melted off by the sweet caress of the sun.
"Kim, this sentence here about the previous research, I don't think it's strong enough," Kerry said from her shaded spot.
Kim suppressed a sigh. After all, she had asked Kerry to look it over. Except right now all she wanted to do was to fall asleep here in her bathing suit, while soaking up enough vitamin D to last through the next winter.
"What sentence, Kerry?"
Kerry read. "'While the conclusions of Guaraldi et al, (1995) point to the need for a universal protocol...etc, etc.'"
"What's wrong with it?"
"I think you should be more forceful. Your proposal is a good one and you should be selling it more persuasively right from the start."
"What do you suggest?"
Kerry looked at the laptop screen. "Guardaldi et al (1995) and others clearly mandate the necessity of a universal protocol in this area, which until now has been elusive."
Kim cocked her head. "That does sound better."
Kerry typed in the changes and kept reading.
"Hey, Ker?" Kim called a moment later.
"Finn hasn't dropped by yet today. That's kind of odd, don't you think?"
"Yes, it is," Kerry said, craning to look down the beach. "Maybe he had to go to town with -- wait a minute, I think that's him, there. He's just walking this way."
A few minutes later, he appeared on their beach, head down, without his knapsack. He ambled along, kicking the sand here and there until he felt Kerry's gaze upon him. He smiled weakly and climbed the steps of the deck.
"Hi," he said and there was no sense of life about him today.
"Hi, Finn," Kim said, sitting up to see the expression that matched the tiny sad voice. "How are you doing?"
He shrugged. "Okay."
"We missed you this morning," Kerry said. "I was even going to give you the morning off math today."
He nodded, his eyes far away.
"Finn, are you sure you're all right? You look a little...sad," Kim said, swinging her legs around to a sitting position.
Finn studied his toes and sighed. "I have to tell you something," he said.
Kim and Kerry exchanged concerned looks.
"What, sweetheart?" Kerry asked.
He looked from one woman to the other. "Gran wants you to come to tea. Tomorrow."
There was a silence while the two women made eye contact again.
"Well, that's nice of her," Kerry said. "Inviting us over and all."
Finn fidgeted. "Yeah, I know, but..."
"But what, Finn?" Kim asked.
He looked at Kim with pleading eyes. "Gran is kind of...well...she's kind of...bossy." He said this last word with a wince.
Kerry had to cover her mouth with her hand to keep from smiling.
"Bossy?" Kim said, leaning closer to the little boy. "You mean like telling people what to do?"
"Yeah," he said, but his tone made it sound qualified.
"Or maybe more like telling people what she thinks all the time?"
He nodded. "Yeah, that too."
Kim nodded and looked like she was thinking.
"Are you worried that we won't like Gran?"
He shook his head. "No. Not really. You'll probably like her okay. Probably."
"Are you maybe worried that she won't like us very much?" Such a gentle voice, it sounded like she was holding him.
He met her gaze, two sets of blue eyes pleading with each other. He nodded hesitantly.
"Because we're lesbians?"
The words burst out of him. "She's really happy that I'm doing all this schoolwork and I'm actually learning stuff, but sometimes she says things to Estelle and to other people you know and it's just not nice because you guys are really nice. My Mom said it was because Gran didn't know any gay people when she was a girl but I don't see why she has to be so mean."
Kim was nodding and urging him on with her eyes.
"She says that I spend too much time over here but she doesn't understand that I like it here and it's really boring at her house cause she never does anything fun and it makes me miss my Mom more. And I really like you guys, you're my friends and who cares if someone's gay or something because they're just a person like everybody else. It's so stupid."
He crossed his arms and sank back into the lawn chair, his face awash in frustration and sadness.
Kim and Kerry checked each other's expressions once again and Kerry gave a barely perceptible nod.
Kim reached over and drew Finn out of the chair with gentle hands and sat him down beside her on the deck chair, then slung an arm around his small shoulders.
"Listen to me, Finn Mac Cool," she said. "You are our friend, mine and Kerry's and when we pick out a friend, we never change our minds. Nothing that could happen at tea tomorrow could possibly change that. Do you understand that? We're not going to change what we think of you even if your Gran thinks we're horrible people and chases us out with a broom. Got it?"
A small chuckle, no doubt at the visual, and a nod. "Okay. I've got it."
"As for your Gran...well, sometimes things happen to people in their life, Finn. Things that hurt them or scare them, or things that they were taught are true. Maybe your Mom's right, maybe your Gran has never known any nice gay people, so she doesn't know much about gay people." She squeezed him in a one-armed hug. "And you don't have to worry about her hurting our feelings because Kerry and I have had other people say mean things to us because we're gay and we can decide not to let it hurt us. So no matter what happens tomorrow, we'll be okay, too."
He looked up at her, then across at Kerry, who sat watching and listening. She nodded her agreement.
"But the most important part is this, little man -- you don't have to worry about your Gran not letting you come over here anymore because we are both going to do everything we can to make sure that she still lets you come over. We love having you visit, Finn and we're not going to let that change." She smiled at him. "At least not without a fight, and remember, Kerry's got those crutches."
He blinked, then started to giggle and flung his arms around Kim's waist.
"Okay," he said. "I'm not going to worry anymore."
"Excellent," Kim said and she dropped a kiss on the top of his fair head. "Hey, are you interested in some swimming?"
He was on his feet before she finished the sentence. "I've been working on my handstand. Wanna see it?"
"Sure," Kim said. "Let's go see it."
Finn tore down the steps then spun around to face the deck. "Hey, Kerry, you watch from there, okay? Watch for my handstand!"
Kerry waved. "I'll be watching."
Kim cast a look back at Kerry and Kerry arched an eyebrow and nodded. Yeah, she thought, we'll discuss Gran later.
"Kerry, this is a very bad idea," Kim said, rooting around in Kerry's predictably well-stocked medical bag.
"Nonsense," Kerry said. "A med student could take out stitches."
"Do you know when I was last a med student?" Kim asked. "The closest I've been to stitches in the last eight years was when I cut my hand slicing a bagel last year and even then, I went back to the ER to have them taken out."
"Oh, stop fussing. Snip, snip and you slide them out."
Kim stopped, gloved hands in mid-air. "But it's your face, Kerry."
"Kim, there is absolutely nothing you can do to hurt my face. The removal of the stitches in no way affects the final product."
"They have healed really well," Kim said, probing one of the cuts with her index finger.
"Good. So take the damn things out already, cause I still need to have a bath and wash my hair."
"You're sure you want me to do this?"
Kerry gave her a look. "You either take them out or I'll do it myself with a mirror."
"All right, all right," Kim said and she disinfected the blades of a pair of surgical scissors. "But I don't see why it couldn't wait another day or two and I could take you to see a real ER doctor."
"I am not going to visit that woman with my face looking like this," Kerry said.
Kim pursed her lips as she snipped a minute knot and slid a stitch out. "Yeah, I suppose the less ammunition she has to fire at us, the more chance Finn has of getting to hang out with us over here at Lesbian Central."
Kerry sat motionless while Kim worked her way along the largest cut, quietly snipping and tweezing away sutures. "How bad do you think it's going to be?" Kerry asked as Kim dabbed her face with antiseptic.
"I don't know," she said. "We'll have to wait and see. Personally, I always like to open with honey and switch to vinegar only when necessary."
"Are you saying we should try to charm her?"
Kim wiped a piece of nylon suture off her tweezers. "If Finn's description is only partly accurate, it may not be possible to charm her."
Kerry nodded and Kim held her head still with one hand.
"So we should just be our witty and sophisticated selves?" Kerry asked.
Kim laughed as she snipped. "Oh yeah, that'll work."
Kim pulled the Jetta into the huge semi-circular driveway, edging it up behind the silver Mercedes that was parked near the door. Rachel's house hadn't looked small until they'd pulled up here and Kim realized that the view they had of the Ryan house from Rachel's deck was deceiving -- the place wasn't just big, it was palatial.
She popped the trunk and retrieved Kerry's crutches, then brought them to the passenger side door where she waited. She had insisted on the crutches, even though her stability on them was questionable, refusing to use the wheelchair, as if she felt it would take away from a potential position of power at tea.
Kim already felt the urge to roll her eyes and they weren't even out of the car.
They made their way to the front door, painfully slowly, Kerry teetering with each step, Kim standing close by, one arm extended in case she needed steadying. Kim could see the discomfort that every step brought and she felt in her pocket for Kerry's tiny bottle of painkillers. She had a feeling they'd be needing them.
Before they got to the massive front door, it flew open and Finn emerged at a gallop, making a beeline for them.
"Hi! Hi!" he said. "You're here!"
"We certainly are," Kerry said, with a smile. He took up a position on her left side, and mirrored Kim's protective posture as she crept towards the house.
"Hey, you're doing a lot better with those," he said to her, glancing quickly at Kim to catch her eye. "I think you must be getting stronger from doing your weights."
Kerry nodded. "I have a slave driver for a trainer," she said.
"Hey, look at how handsome you look," Kim said, "all dressed up."
He wore a jade green polo shirt and khakis with a sharply ironed pleat. His bare feet were gone, replaced with slightly worn deck shoes and his hair had been brushed and an effort at taming the cowlick had been made.
"Gran made me," he said, but his smile betrayed his pleasure at the compliment.
They were just cresting the threshold of the massive main doors when a woman with silver white hair and glacial blue eyes appeared. She was dressed casually in slacks and a cotton sweater with a necklace and earrings. Kim wondered if there was a section in the L.L. Bean catalogue called "Rich Ladies Of A Certain Age Having Tea." If there wasn't, there should be, and she knew who could be their first model.
"Oh, good heavens, dear, are you quite all right, there?" she said as she approached. "Now, Francis, don't get in the way."
Kim started to look around for this Francis and then remembered. Finn caught her eye and he smiled sheepishly.
"Well, now let's get you into a comfortable chair right away, dear," Gran said and she led the way out of the spacious foyer into a sitting room. "I'm Maureen Ryan, Francis's grandmother." She extended her hand to Kim in a position that made Kim wonder if she was supposed to kiss it or shake it. She opted for the latter.
"Kim Legaspi," she said, "and this is Kerry Weaver."
Everyone murmured the appropriate pleasantries as they made their way through the cavernous front hall into the cozy sitting room. Kim helped Kerry seat herself while Mrs. Ryan hovered nearby wringing her hands and saying "oh good heavens" and other such useful things. Finn pulled over a footstool and grabbed a pillow from the sofa for Kerry's leg and he expertly helped Kim to prop it.
Kerry settled in, took a deep breath and Kim saw her slide into social autopilot. A sparkling smile to Gran. "Mrs. Ryan, it's so kind of you to invite us over," she said. "We've heard so much about you from Finn."
Finn, who was perched on the edge of the sofa beside Kim, stiffened and Kim had to stifle a giggle.
"And you two are all he ever talks about when he's home," Mrs. Ryan said, sending her grandson an affectionate, yet slightly barbed look. He grinned in embarrassment and looked at his shoes. Something about this satisfied her and she turned her attention back to Kerry.
"Now what in creation happened to you, dear? You look like you've been through the wringer!"
Kerry took a deep breath. "I had an accident," she said simply.
"An automobile accident?"
Kerry's eyes flicked over to meet Kim's.
"Yes," she said.
"I trust your convalescence is progressing well and that my grandson's visits aren't tiring you out."
"Oh no, Mrs. Ryan. Quite the contrary, actually. Finn has even been helping me with my physiotherapy."
"Well, you've had quite an effect on his schoolwork, Dr. Weaver."
"Oh, please call me Kerry," Kerry said, turning up the voltage on her smile.
"Then you must both call me Maureen," Mrs. Ryan countered. Everyone smiled a lot and Kim thought she might have felt the tension fall a notch.
"Francis, be a good boy and go tell Estelle that our guests are here and not to forget the sandwiches in the icebox."
"Yes, Gran," Finn said. He scurried away towards the kitchen.
"You have a marvelous grandson, Maureen," Kim said. "He's a remarkable little boy."
Maureen Ryan looked at the empty doorway. "Do you really think so?"
Kim's smile faltered slightly. "Yes, I do," she said, uncertainly.
"Well, I ask because Francis told me that you are a psychiatrist, and I wonder what he might have told you."
Kim searched the older woman's lined face, trying to divine where the hell she was going with this. Maureen picked up on it immediately.
"About his mother's suicide," she said, a hard look on her face. "He did tell you about that, didn't he?"
"He mentioned it."
"And does he seem all right to you?"
Kim risked a glance at Kerry before she spoke. "I'm not sure how you mean."
"Does he seem to you like the kind who would take their own life?"
Kim tried not to let her mouth fall open. "I beg your pardon?"
"I am told that these sorts of things can be passed on genetically and that simply being related to people who commit suicide gravely increases your chances of--"
Kim couldn't bear to hear the end of the sentence. "Mrs. Ryan, uh, Maureen, any research on that topic is extremely speculative at best. The act of committing suicide has a complex set of antecedents and no one has come up with a good predictor for it. It's impossible to tell."
"An entire army of psychiatrists was not able to help my daughter-in-law. Maybe that explains why."
"Depression is a difficult illness to treat," Kim said.
Maureen regarded her slyly. "Do you think that Francis is depressed?"
Kim shifted on the sofa. "I would have to conduct a proper assessment and interview with him before I could even --"
"Surely you have some idea. He's at your house four or five hours a day. Aren't you paying any attention to him?"
Kim felt her muscles tense, and she forced herself to breathe. This was for Finn. "I would have to say that when we first met Finn, he seemed unhappy and a little fearful."
"He wasn't sleeping, you know, at the start of the summer," the older woman said and suddenly, the doting grandmother was back. "The boy would hardly eat. We had to literally force him to eat anything. And now..." She looked over at Kerry with an appraising eye and then back at Kim. "Well, now he's sleeping like a baby and eats three squares and as many snacks as Estelle can give him."
Kim smiled slightly. "He does seem happier these days."
The sound of tinkling china interrupted and Estelle and Finn arrived with a teacart laden with a silver tea set that had been polished to a high gleam. Bone china cups, saucers and plates were stacked on a lower tray and in the middle were plates of cookies, cakes, squares and tiny sandwiches.
Maureen smiled like the gracious hostess. "Thank you, Estelle. These are our neighbours, by the way, Dr. Weaver and Dr. Legaspi."
Kim stood to shake the woman's hand and Kerry nodded.
"So you're the ladies that Finn is always talking about. To hear him tell it, you're just about his best friends."
Kerry smiled and put her hand on Finn's shoulder. "Well, we're lucky to have him visit," she said.
Maureen efficiently poured the tea into the dainty cups and Finn delivered them, walking slowly and carefully, to Kim and Kerry. He helped Maureen distribute plates and then brought by the trays of sandwiches and cookies. Kim watched him as he performed his duties. He'd clearly done this before.
When everyone was served his took his cup of tea and plate of cookies and sat beside Kerry.
"Francis, we were just talking about your mother," Maureen said, languidly stirring sugar into her tea.
Finn's face fell slightly and he stopped mid-nibble on a piece of shortbread.
"What about her?" he asked and his voice was small.
"I wonder if you told these nice ladies that your mother was a painter?"
Finn's eyes traveled around the room before he answered. "Uh, no. I didn't."
"A marvelously talented girl," Maureen said to Kerry and Kim. "I always had a sense that her melancholy was more than the average brooding artist suffers, but of course, in the end, we were powerless to help her."
Kerry watched Finn's profile, saw the pain that was welling there.
"Maureen," Kerry said brightly, "I wonder what you think of Finn's latest marks from his tutor."
"Well, we're delighted, of course," she said, choosing a sandwich from the silver tray. "It's what we expect of him, you know. After all, Francis is a Ryan and a lot is going to be expected of him later in life."
"My tutor said that if I keep up the way I've been going that I'll be ahead of some of the kids at Blackburn, Gran," Finn said.
"Well, we'll see about that," Maureen said. "For now, you're going to keep working on your lessons because we won't have the same kind of embarrassment as we did last year. Isn't that right?"
Finn stared down at his teacup. "Yes, ma'am."
Kim stuck another sandwich in her mouth and chewed to keep herself from speaking and willed the time to pass more quickly.
"Finn," Kerry said, "did you tell your grandmother about the science project we're working on?"
Finn brightened a little and nodded. "You know, Gran, about the astronomy and planets and everything?"
"Ah, yes," she said, cradling her teacup in her hands. "He's having his father mail him books from New York on the subject."
"Kerry has a telescope and if Kim goes to Chicago one of these days, she's going to go and get it and bring it back so we can look through it at night on the beach."
Maureen listened attentively to him then raised her eyebrows. "At night on the beach?" she said. "It sounds positively dreadful to me, so I have no doubt that you shall enjoy it immensely."
Finn grinned at her. "You might like it Gran, you never know."
"Francis," she said, taking a sip of her tea, "by the time you get to my age, the only good thing is that you know exactly what you like and dislike."
Everyone chuckled politely.
"Which brings me to the reason for our meeting," Maureen said, placing her saucer and cup down on the low table in front of her. "I felt it was important that we discuss the fact that I am extremely uncomfortable with my grandson spending so much time with two homosexuals."
Kim nearly dropped her teacup. She juggled it to the nearest flat surface and put it down.
Kerry gave the older woman a smile. "I do admire your forthrightness, Maureen. Let's discuss it, shall we?"
Kim wasn't sure who was currently the greater threat to Finn's mental health and well being, Kerry or his Gran, but she did know that this was a conversation that he didn't need to witness.
"Hey, Finn," Kim said suddenly, "Why don't you show me your room? You said I could see your collections and your toys and things."
Finn's eyes were wide and he appeared to be frozen in place. "Okay," he said vacantly and he stood up. He glanced back at Kerry, who gave him an encouraging nod and then he led Kim out of the sitting room.
"Is Dr. Legaspi uncomfortable with this discussion?" Maureen asked.
Kerry shook her head. "No, I think she probably just thought that it was best for Finn if he wasn't involved in the conversation just now."
"I see," Maureen said. "Well, I'll get right to the point. I don't think that it's appropriate for Francis to visit you anymore."
Kerry took a long slow breath. "What exactly is it that you're afraid of, Maureen?"
"I'm afraid of what might happen to him in your care, how his...judgment may be warped. I'm afraid of what sort of deviance he might be exposed to. I'm afraid that he will begin to question the tenets of his faith, which teaches that homosexuality is sinful."
Kerry nodded and felt the aching in her leg intensify. "Do you have any reason to believe that those things have been happening to Finn? Do you feel he's being adversely affected by visiting us?"
"Well, it's impossible to know what diseased seeds are being planted now that will bloom later in life," she said. She stared hard at Kerry. "You must understand. Patrick, Francis's father, is my only child, Dr. Weaver. And Francis is his only child. The hopes of our family rest on the shoulders of this boy."
"And some days, Mrs. Ryan, he feels that weight very sharply."
Maureen Ryan's gaze did not leave Kerry's face. "I do not approve of you or your lifestyle. And I do not want you influencing my grandson."
"Mrs. Ryan, I am not here today to argue theology or morals or ethics with you. I doubt you and I will ever agree on most of those subjects. The only reason that I am here is because Finn is desperately afraid that you're not going to let him spend time with us anymore. I'm not sure what I can say to reassure you beyond what you already know. Kim and I are decent, hardworking people, professionals who devote our time to helping others. We are genuinely fond of your grandson and consequently would never do anything that might in the least way harm him. Since he's been dropping by, he seems happier, and you said yourself he's eating and sleeping again and he's devoted himself to his schoolwork like never before. If that's not enough to prove to you that he benefits from spending time with us, then I don't know what else to say. And although you are clearly a self-righteous, narrow-minded old bat, I think that you honestly do want what's best for your grandson. Because if you really wanted to end Finn's visits to us, you wouldn't have invited us to tea to tell us. You would've just stopped him from coming over."
Maureen Ryan regarded Kerry with a stony expression that gradually softened into something resembling a smile. "I admire your forthrightness as well, Doctor."
Kerry nodded. "Then?"
Maureen eyed her cautiously. "Francis will be allowed to continue visiting you. But I will be watching closely."
"I would be disappointed in you if you weren't," Kerry said. She picked up her teacup. "Now then, I wonder if I could trouble you for more tea?"
Maureen smiled and reached for the teapot.
"What sort of deviance he might be exposed to? Oh Jesus, she actually said that?" Kim said, shaking her head. "God, I can't remember the last time I heard someone use that word. That's a good one."
"You should have stuck around downstairs. The old woman could've come up with a few more for you, I'm sure."
They sat side by side on the deck, looking out at the lake. The glow of the sunset was colouring the horizon and making the water a bottomless azure.
"And you actually called her an old bat?"
"A self-righteous, narrow-minded old bat," Kerry said. "And to tell you the truth, I think she liked it."
Kim shook her head and laughed. "Well, at least Finn can still visit."
"Yeah and hopefully we won't have to go back for tea anytime soon," Kerry said. She shifted in her wheelchair, wincing as she moved.
"Are you sore?" Kim asked.
Kerry nodded and Kim saw the toll the day had taken in her face. She got to her feet. "Need some pain pills?"
Kerry sighed and rubbed her forehead. "Yeah, I do," she said finally.
"I'll be right back," Kim said and she slipped into the house.
Kerry sat watching the oranges and golds swirling slowly together in the eastern sky. Such a beautiful place and she never would have seen it, never would have been here at all today if it hadn't been for that insane giant in the ER that night and her own incalculable bad timing. Karma, fate, destiny, whatever, here she was and it was a lovely sunset. Which would be even lovelier if she wasn't in so much pain all the time.
Inside, she heard the phone ring. She cocked an ear and could just make out the tone of Kim's voice as she greeted the caller. She laughed at little and it sounded like she knew whomever she was talking to well.
Kerry's stomach dropped like a stone. Surely it couldn't be Rachel? But then, why not? She had been nice enough to lend them the place, it would only be natural to phone and check on them, make sure everything was all right.
But would Kim sound like that talking to Rachel? Laughing and sounding so familiar?
She gave her head a shake. What possible right did she have to be jealous, especially considering how she'd let Kim down when she'd needed her. As much as Kerry wanted to point fingers, she'd done her own betraying. In a way, she was no different than Rachel.
Kerry was so absorbed in her mental flagellations that she was surprised, a few minutes later, to look up to see Kim standing beside her, Kerry's pills and a glass of water in hand.
"That was Luka on the phone," Kim said and Kerry wanted to smack her forehead at her own paranoid thoughts.
"Oh," Kerry said, accepting the pain medication and the glass. She tossed the two Percocet into her mouth and sipped. "What did he want?"
"Mainly to know how you were," Kim said, "but he happened to mention that he has a couple of days off and so I invited him to drive up and spend the night tomorrow. I hope that's okay with you," Kim said tentatively.
"Sure," Kerry said and it was. In fact, she sort of looked forward to seeing him.
"You're certain you're up to it?" Kim asked.
"If I'm not, I'm sure he won't mind if I slip away for a nap or something."
"All right," Kim said. "If you're sure." She let herself be pulled back into the hypnotic draw of the waves, down on the shore. "Kerry?" she asked, after a while.
"Nice work today, with Mrs. Ryan. You did good."
Kerry shrugged and looked at the water. "It was for Finn."
Kim nodded and said nothing.
Although she was in the shade, a fine sweat had broken out on Kerry's face as she methodically raised and lowered the weights. Biceps, triceps, delts and trapezius, three sets of fifteen reps, twice a day and dammit, it was starting to feel good. It got the tension out of her neck and shoulders and it was helping her with the crutches. The main problem there was still her weak leg, but there wasn't much she could do about that except keep the muscles from atrophying any more than they all ready had.
Finn got up from the patio table where he'd been working and came up beside her, leaning against her wheelchair.
"I'm done," he said. "I did the whole page."
"Good for you," Kerry said, switching the weight to the other hand. "Let me just finish doing this set and I'll correct them."
Finn watched her for a moment, then reached down and picked up the other weight. He studied Kerry's form carefully, noting the movement of her forearm as he tried to mimic it. His wrist wobbled with the effort, but he persevered, trying to go as slowly as Kerry.
"You know, maybe I should start doing these with you," he said, straining to repeat the motion and steady his wrist at the same time. "If I got stronger, maybe the big kids at school would leave me alone."
Kerry watched him curl his bicep, saw the childish muscle underneath his skin tense and relax. "Do you get picked on, Finn?"
He let the arm holding the weight drop and he gave her a look. "I'm small for my age and I'm breathing. Of course I get picked on."
Kerry fought back the smile that came. "What do the big kids do?"
He shrugged. "They push me around, take my stuff. One time a couple of them lifted me up and hung me on a hook in the change room. They got in trouble for that. Mostly though, they just call me names."
He did another slow, methodical curl, his eyes on the weight. "Mostly they call me a sissy fag."
Kerry's eyebrows shot up and when Finn risked a glance at her face, she could see the conflict in his eyes.
"It's not like it's a bad thing, being a fag...or, I mean, like being gay," he said. "It's just that..."
Kerry watched him intently. "It's just that they don't mean it as a nice thing."
She nodded. She'd spent enough of the past year worrying that someone, somewhere was going to call her a dyke to understand.
"Hey," she said, suddenly, "you know how your tutor wants you to do a book report next?"
Finn's shoulder's sagged. "Yeah," he said.
"Well, I think you should go see if Kim has brought in the mail yet."
Finn gave her a puzzled look.
"Just go check," she said.
He put down the weight and jogged across the deck to the house. He was back, scarcely a minute later with a box.
"Hey, there was a package for me!" he said. "How did you know I would get a package here?"
"Because I'm the one that ordered it," Kerry said. "Hurry up, open it."
He made short order of the packing tape and soon there were white foam peanuts all over the table. He pulled half a dozen books out of the box, one by one.
Kerry wheeled herself closer as he began to inspect the titles. "Now, I got you the first two Harry Potters," Kerry said. "I haven't read them, but Kim has and she says they're great. If you like them, we can get the next two. And then there's two Hardy Boys because when I was your age, I read those and I thought they were pretty good. And these two, they're kind of older. They're the first two books of the Chronicles of Narnia. There are seven books in all, but I thought we'd start with these. My mom read them to me when I was little."
Finn looked over at her. "Really?"
Kerry nodded. "It took us almost two years to read all of them, but I loved every minute."
"What are they about?"
"They're about a magical land that girls and boys can visit sometimes and where they grow up to be kings and queens and have adventures. There's a wonderful lion in it who is very wise and powerful."
Finn listened with wide eyes. "That sounds cool."
Kerry cast a glance at the books on the table. "I think there should be a couple more in there," she said. Finn rummaged around in the packing and pulled out two more books -- The Eyewitness Guide to Astronomy and A Kid's Guide to the Night Sky.
Finn's mouth fell open as he stared at the covers, then he quickly turned and threw his arms around Kerry's neck and hugged her fiercely.
"Thank you, Kerry! These are so great! All of them! Thank you so much!"
"You're welcome," Kerry said, but she had a hard time finding her voice over the lump that was forming in her throat. "I'm really glad you like them."
Finn studied each of the covers again with intense concentration, then pulled The Magician's Nephew off the table.
"Could we start now?" he asked, holding the book as if it were made of very precious material.
"Well, sure," Kerry said. "You can read it any time you like, Finn. They're yours."
"No, I mean, could you read it to me? Please? I'll do another book for my book report, maybe Harry Potter, but could you read this one to me?"
Kerry paused, struck by the look in his eyes. A look no one should have, least of all a child. Loneliness.
"I would love to read it to you," she said. "You pull your chair up with mine here and you can follow along if you want."
Finn scurried to carry out her suggestion, then snuggled up close to her wheelchair and waited while she opened the book.
"Chapter One, The Wrong Door," Kerry read. "This is a story about something that happened long ago, when your grandfather was a child. It is a very important story because it shows how all the comings and goings between our own world and the land of Narnia first began..."
Finn leaned on the arm of Kerry's wheelchair and listened.
Kim heard a car door slam and she twisted around in her chair to peer out the window. Luka was standing beside a rented Ford Taurus, stretching his arms and back and looking around at the yard and house. Kim smiled and turned off her computer.
He had the trunk open and was unloading a box of groceries when he spotted Kim coming out the front door.
"Oh, good, I do have the right place," he said, with a grin.
"Yes you do," Kim said. "How was your drive?"
"It was wonderful," he said, pulling out an overnight bag and placing it on the gravel driveway. "Very peaceful and quiet. Unfortunately, I spoiled it by turning on one of those radio stations where they talk to people on the telephone."
"Oh," Kim said. "A little aggravating?"
He rolled his eyes theatrically. "It was like bamboo under the fingernails! I can't believe that people in this country are really that... that..."
"Bigoted? Racist? Republican? Am I getting close?"
"All of those things! I found myself doing sixty miles per hour through a little village that the highway went through, yelling at the radio at the top of my lungs," Luka said, getting a cooler out of the trunk. "And then I remembered that I was on a holiday and I turned the radio off."
Kim laughed. "Good choice," she said. She gestured at the collection of bags and boxes at Luka's feet. "What is all this stuff? I told you just to bring a bathing suit."
"Oh, I brought that too," he said, seriously. "These are just some other things I thought we might need. A few groceries in case you were low and also some beer." He checked items off on his fingers as he spoke. "And, in the cooler are six steaks. I went to the butcher near Abby's apartment and asked him for something really good for a barbecue."
"Wow," Kim said, picking up the box of groceries. "It looks like we're all set."
"How is Kerry today? Is it all right that I came? She won't be too tired for a visitor?"
"Are you kidding? I think she's so sick of looking at my face that if Romano dropped by, she'd invite him to stay a week."
Luka raised a skeptical eyebrow at that thought.
"Seriously," Kim said, "she's holding her own these days and I know she's looking forward to your visit."
Luka picked up the rest of his things and followed her up the driveway. "And how are you doing, Kim?" he asked.
She glanced over at him, smiled and ducked her head. "I'm doing all right, I guess. Coping fairly well with the patient."
Luka laughed. "Has her mood improved somewhat?"
Kim shrugged. "She still has her moments."
"Well then," Luka said with a big grin, "it sounds to me like she's back to her old self."
Kim laughed and nudged open the front door with her hip. "You know, you might be right."
Kim closed the door to the deck and sighed at the feeling of cool air against her skin. What an incredible luxury, she thought as she headed to the kitchen, a beach house with central air. Well, today, she was grateful for it. Even wearing nothing more than a bathing suit and a straw hat, she was slowly baking out in the sun. Of course, she had been chasing a Frisbee all over the beach, playing with Finn and Luka. And that got to be thirsty fun after a while, so she'd volunteered to go get another round of cold drinks, leaving Finn to explain the finer points of Frisbee throwing to his confused Croatian student.
Kim almost veered to Kerry's bedroom door to check on her, then at the last moment, decided against it. If she checked and Kerry was sleeping, she might wake her up. And if she checked and Kerry was awake, Kerry would tell her to stop hovering. She shook her head as she got plastic glasses out and lined them up on the counter. This was one she couldn't win and her father had always told her to choose her battles carefully. That and something about rotating her tires, but the former had really served her better, she thought.
She was pouring Finn's Kool-Aid (and what on earth was with this neon blue stuff anyway?) when she heard the crash. It could only have come from Kerry's room.
Kim sprinted around the counter and across the living room to Kerry's bedroom and burst in to find Kerry half-sprawled across the bedside table, a broken lamp on the floor beside her.
"I'm all right, I'm all right!" Kerry said before Kim could even get to her. She was still standing, her weight on her weak leg, her cast suspended inches above the floor.
"What happened?" Kim asked, quickly steadying the smaller woman. "Did you hurt yourself?"
"No, I'm fine," Kerry said. I was trying to get up and get my crutches and I lost my balance." She nodded towards the mangled lamp. "I hope Rachel wasn't too fond of that."
"Oh don't worry about that," Kim said, helping Kerry to move backwards to sit on the bed. "Hang on, I'll get your chair." Kim hurried to the living room. "You know, you still shouldn't try to get up by yourself." She returned wheeling the chair in front of her. "You could hurt yourself."
"Not to mention the furniture," Kerry said flatly.
Kim chuckled as she helped Kerry seat herself on the padded seat. "I'm serious, Ker. You should've called me or something."
Kerry sighed, in spite of herself. "Kim, you still have to help me undress and get into the tub, hell you nearly have to bathe me. You make all my meals. Every time I stand up or walk, you have to help me. I can't even pee without your help."
Kim crossed her arms and regarded Kerry with a puzzled look. "Your point?"
Kerry shook her head and sighed again. "I have no point, I suppose. Other than the fact that I feel bad being such a burden on you." She glanced at Kim's face then looked away. "Especially..."
Kim waited. "Especially, what, Kerry?"
The front door slammed and was followed by Finn's voice. "Hey you guys, aren't you coming down to the beach?"
Kim tried to squeeze the words out of Kerry with her most intimidating look, but Kerry's grabbed the escape.
"We're in the bedroom, Finn," she called.
He appeared at the door, his face pink from the sun. "You've got to see Luka do his catching the Frisbee behind the back trick. It is awesome."
"Okay, we'll be right there," Kim said. "Your Kool-Aid is on the counter."
"And put some more sun block on, you're getting burned," Kerry added as she started to push herself out of the bedroom.
"Kerry," Kim said, and the annoyance and the reproach in her voice made Kerry stop.
"We can talk about it later," Kerry said. "I want to visit with Luka."
Kim sighed and followed her out of the room.
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