Ky turns back, pushes his way ahead. I watch him move, the muscles in his back inches away from me; I follow close so that I can slip through the
branches he holds back for me. The smell of the forest seems, for a moment, to be simply the smell of him. I wonder what sage smells like, the
smell he said was his favorite in his old life. I hope that the smell of this forest is his favorite now. I know it is mine.
“The Society decided that they needed to give Sisyphus a punishment, a special one, because he dared to think he could be as clever as one of
them, when he wasn’t an Official, or even a citizen. He was nothing. An Aberration from the Outer Provinces.”
“What did they do to him?”
“They gave him a job. He had to roll a rock, a huge one, to the top of a mountain.”
“That doesn’t sound so terrible.” There’s relief in my voice. If the story ends well for Sisyphus, maybe it can end well for Ky.
“It wasn’t as easy as it sounds. As he was about to reach the top, the rock rolled back to the bottom and he had to start again. That happened
every time. He never got the rock to the top. He went on pushing forever.”
“I see,” I say, realizing why our hikes on the little hill reminded Ky of Sisyphus. Day after day we did the same thing: climbed back up and came
back down. “But we did make it to the top of the little hill.”
“We were never allowed to stay there for long,” Ky points out.
“Was he from your Province?” I stop for a moment, thinking I’ve heard the Officer’s whistle, but it’s merely a shrill birdcall from the canopy of
leaves above us.
“I don’t know. I don’t know if he’s real,” Ky says. “If he ever existed.”
“Then why tell his story?” I don’t understand, and for a second I feel betrayed. Why did Ky tell me about this person and make me feel empathy for
him when there’s no proof that he ever lived at all?
Ky pauses for a moment before he answers, his eyes wide and deep like the oceans in other tales or like the sky in his own. “Even if he didn’t live
his story, enough of us have lived lives just like it. So it’s true anyway.”
I think about what Ky said while we move again, quickly, tying off areas and helping each other around and through the tangled parts of the forest.
There’s a smell here that I have smelled before: a smell of decay, but it doesn’t seem rotten. It smells almost rich, the scent of the plants returning to
the earth, of wood giving way to dust.
But the Hill could be hiding something. I remember Ky’s words and pictures and I realize that no place is completely good. No place is completely
bad. I’ve been thinking in terms of absolutes; first, I believed our Society was perfect. The night they came for our artifacts, I believed it was evil.
Now I simply don’t know.
Ky blurs the lines for me. He helps me see clearly, too. And I hope I do the same for him.
“Why do you throw the games?” I ask him as we pause in a small clearing.
His face tightens. “I have to.”
“Every time? Don’t you even let yourself think about winning?”
“I always think about winning,” Ky tells me. There’s fire in his eyes again, and he snaps a branch off a tree to make room for us to go through. He
tosses the first branch to the side and holds another one back, waiting for me to pass, but I stay right there next to him. He looks down at me,
shadows from the leaves crossing his face, and also sun. He’s looking at my lips, which makes it hard to speak, even though I know what I want to
“Xander knows you lose on purpose.”
“I know he does,” Ky says. A smile tugs at the corners of his mouth, like the one I thought I saw last night. “Any other questions?”
“Just one,” I say. “What color are your eyes?” I want to know what he thinks, how he sees himself—the real Ky—when he dares to look.
“Blue,” he says, sounding surprised. “They’ve always been blue.”
“Not to me.”
“What do they look like to you?” he says, puzzled, amused. Not looking at my mouth anymore, looking into my eyes.
“Lots of colors,” I say. “At first, I thought they were brown. Once I thought they were green, and another time gray. They are most often blue,
“What are they now?” he asks. He widens his eyes a little, leans closer, lets me look as long and as deep as I want.
And there’s so much to see. They are blue, and black, and other colors, too, and I know some of what they’ve seen and what I hope they see now.
Me. Cassia. What I feel, who I am.
“Well?” Ky asks.
“Everything,” I tell him. “They’re everything.”
Neither of us moves for a moment, locked instead in each other’s eyes and in the branches of this Hill we might never finish climbing. I’m the one
who moves first. I step past him and push my way through some more tangled leaves, climb over a small fallen tree.
Behind me I hear Ky doing the same.
I’m falling in love. I am in love. And it’s not with Xander, although I do love him. I’m sure of that, as sure as I am of the fact that what I feel for Ky is
As I tie another red flag on the trees and wish for the fall of our Society and its systems, including the Matching System, so that I can be with Ky, I
realize that it is a selfish wish. Even if the fall of our Society would make life better for some, it would make it worse for others. Who am I to try to
change things, to get greedy and want more? If our Society changes and things are different, who am I to tell the girl who would have enjoyed the
safe protected life that now she has to have choice and danger because of me?
The answer is: I’m not anyone. I’m just one of the people who happened to fall in the majority. All my life, the odds have been on my side.
“Cassia,” Ky says. He snaps another branch off and bends down in a swift movement to write in the thick dirt on the forest floor. He has to push
away a layer of leaves and a spider hurries away. “Look,” he says, showing me another letter. K.
Thankful for the distraction, I crouch down beside him. This letter is more difficult and it takes me several tries to even come close. In spite of my
practice with the other letters my hands are still not used to this; to writing in any way but tapping. When I finally get it right and look up, I see that Ky
is grinning at me.
“So, I’ve learned K,” I say, grinning back. “That’s strange. I thought we were going alphabetically.”
“We were,” Ky tells me. “But I think K is a good letter to know.”
“What’s my next letter, then?” I ask with mock innocence. “Could it be Y?”
“It could,” Ky agrees. He’s no longer smiling but his eyes are mischievous.
The whistle sounds behind and below us. Hearing it, I wonder how I could have ever thought that the birdcall I heard earlier sounded anything like
the Officer’s whistle. One sounds metallic and man-made and the other is high and clear and lovely.
I sigh and brush my hand across the dirt, returning the letters to the earth. Then I reach for a rock to make a cairn. Ky does the same. Together we
build the tower piece by piece.
When I put the last rock on top of the pile, Ky puts his hand over mine. I do not pull it away. I do not want anything to fall and I like the feeling of his
rough warm hand on top of mine with the cool smooth surface of the rocks underneath. Then I turn my hand slowly so that my palm is up and our
“I can never be Matched,” he says, looking first at our hands and then into my eyes. “I’m an Aberration.” He waits for my reaction.
“But you’re not an Anomaly,” I say, trying to make light of things, knowing immediately that it’s a mistake; there’s nothing light about this.
“Not yet, anyway,” he says, but the humor in his voice sounds forced.
It is one thing to make a choice and it is another thing to never have the chance. I feel a sharp cold loneliness deep within me. What would it be
like to be alone? To know that you could never choose anything else?
That’s when I realize that the statistics the Officials give us do not matter to me. I know there are many people who are happy and I am glad for
them. But this is Ky. If he is the one person who falls by the wayside while the other ninety-nine are happy and fulfilled, that is not right with me
anymore. I realize that I don’t care about the Officer pacing below or the other hikers among the trees or really anything else at all, and that is when I
realize how dangerous this truly is.
“But if you were Matched,” I say softly, “what do you think she’d be like?”
“You,” he says, almost before I’ve finished. “You.”
We do not kiss. We do nothing but hold on and breathe, but still I know. I cannot go gently now. Not even for the sake of my parents, my family.
Not even for Xander.
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A few days later, I sit in Language and Literacy, staring at the instructor as she talks about the importance of composing succinct messages when
communicating via port. Then, as if to illustrate her point, one such message comes through the main port in the classroom.
“Cassia Reyes. Procedural. Infraction. An Official will arrive to escort you shortly.”
Everyone turns to look at me. The room goes silent: students stop tapping on their scribes; their fingers stilled. Even the instructor allows an
expression of pure surprise to cross her face; she doesn’t try to keep teaching. It’s been a long time since someone here committed an Infraction.
Especially one announced publicly.
I stand up.
In some ways, I am ready for this. I expect it. No one can break as many rules as I have and not get caught somehow, sometime.
I gather my reader and scribe, dropping them into my bag with my tablet container. It seems very important, suddenly, to be ready for the Official.
For I have no doubt which Official will come this time. The first one, the one from the greenspace near the game center, the one who told me
everything would be all right and nothing would change with my Match.
Did she lie to me? Or did she tell the truth, and my choices made a lie of her words?
The teacher nods to me as I leave the room, and I appreciate this simple courtesy.
The hall is empty, long, the floor slick-surfaced from a recent cleaning. Yet another place where I cannot run.
I don’t wait for them to come for me. I walk down the hall, setting my feet precisely on the tile, careful, careful, not to slip, not to fall, not to run while
they are watching.
She is there in the greenspace next to the school. I have to walk across the paths to sit on another bench under her eye. She waits. I walk.
She does not stand to greet me. When I come close to her, I do not sit down. It’s bright out here, and I squint my eyes against the white of her
uniform and the metal of the bench, both dazzling, sharp, crisp in the sunlight. I wonder if she and I see things differently now that we don’t just see
what we hope to see.
“Hello, Cassia,” she says.
“Your name has come up lately in several Society departments.” She gestures for me to sit. “Why do you think that is?”
There could be any number of reasons, I think to myself. Where do I begin? I’ve hidden artifacts, read stolen poems, learned how to write. I’ve
fallen in love with someone who’s not my Match and I’m keeping that fact from my Match.
“I’m not sure,” I say.
She laughs. “Oh, Cassia. You were so honest with me the last time we talked. I should have known it might not last.” She points at the spot on the
bench next to her. “Sit down.”
I obey. The sun shines almost directly overhead, the light unflattering. Her skin looks papery and misted with sweat. Her edges seem blurred, her
uniform and its insignia small, less powerful than the last time we talked. I tell myself this so that I won’t panic, so that I won’t give anything away,
“There’s no need to be modest,” she says. “Surely you have some idea of how well you performed on your sorting test.”
Thank goodness. Is that why she’s here? But what about the Infraction?
“You have the highest score of the year. Of course, everyone is fighting to get you assigned to their department for your vocation. We in the Match
Department are always looking for a good sorter.” She smiles at me. Like last time, she offers relief and comfort, reassurance about my place in
the Society. I wonder why I hate her so much.
In a moment I know.
“Of course,” she says, her tone now touched with what sounds like regret, “I had to tell the testing Officials that, unless we see a change in some
of your personal relationships, we would be averse to hiring you. And I had to mention to them that you might also be unfit for other sorting-related
work if these things keep up.”
She doesn’t look at me as she says all of this; she watches the fountain in the center of this greenspace, which I suddenly notice has run dry. Then
she turns her gaze on me and I feel my heart racing, my pulse pounding clear to my fingertips.
She knows. Something, at least, if not everything.
“Cassia,” she says kindly. “Teenagers are hot-blooded. Rebellious. It’s part of growing up. In fact, when I checked your data, you were predicted
to have some of these feelings.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Of course you do, Cassia. But it’s nothing to worry about. You might have certain feelings for Ky Markham now, but by the time you are twenty-
one, there is a ninety-five percent chance that it will all be over.”
“Ky and I are friends. We’re hiking partners.”
“Don’t you think this happens quite often?” the Official says, sounding amused. “Almost seventy-eight percent of teenagers who are Matched
have some kind of youthful fling. And most of those occur within the year or so after the Matching. This is not unexpected.”
I hate the Officials the most when they do this: when they act as if they have seen it all before, as if they have seen me before. When really they
have never seen me at all. Just my data on a screen.
“Usually, all we do in these situations is smile and let things work themselves out. But the stakes are higher for you because of Ky’s Aberration
status. Having a fling with a member of Society in good standing is one thing. For the two of you, it’s different. If things continue, you could be
declared an Aberration yourself. Ky Markham, of course, could be sent back to the Outer Provinces.” My blood runs cold, but she isn’t finished with
me yet. She moistens her lips, which are as dry as the fountain behind her. “Do you understand?”
“I can’t quit speaking to him. He’s my hiking partner. We live in the same neighborhood—”
She interrupts me. “Of course you may talk with him. There are other lines you should not cross. Kissing, for example.” She smiles at me. “You
wouldn’t want Xander to know about this, would you? You don’t want to lose him, do you?”
I am angry, and my face must show it. And what she says is true. I don’t want to lose Xander.
“Cassia. Do you regret your decision to be Matched? Do you wish that you had chosen to be a Single?”
“That’s not it.”
“Then what is it?”
“I think people should be able to choose who they Match with,” I say lamely.
“Where would it end, Cassia?” she says, her voice patient. “Would you say next that people should be able to choose how many children they
have, and where they want to live? Or when they want to die?”
I am silent, but not because I agree. I am thinking of Grandfather. Do not go gentle.
“What Infraction have I committed?” I ask.
“When they called me out of school over the port, the message said I’d committed an Infraction.”
The Official laughs. Her laugh sounds easy and warm, which makes a shiver of cold prickle my scalp. “Ah, that was a mistake. Another one, it
seems. They seem to keep happening where you are concerned.” She leans a little closer. “You haven’t committed an Infraction, Cassia. Yet.”
She stands up. I keep my eyes on the dry fountain, willing the water back to it. “This is your warning, Cassia. Do you understand?”
“I understand,” I say to the Official. The words are not entirely a lie. I do understand her, on some level. I know why she has to keep things safe and
stable and some part of me respects that. I hate that most of all.
When I finally meet her gaze, her expression is satisfied. She knows she’s won. She sees in my eyes that I won’t risk making things worse for Ky.
“There’s a delivery for you,” Bram tells me when I arrive home, his face eager. “Someone brought it by. It must be something good. I had to have my
fingerprint entered in their datapod when I accepted it.”
He follows me into the kitchen where a small package sits on the table. Looking at the pulpy brown paper wrapped around it, I think how much of
Ky’s story he could put on those pages. But he can’t do that anymore. It’s too dangerous.
Still, I can’t help but open the paper carefully. I smooth it out neatly, taking my time. This almost drives Bram crazy. “Come on! Hurry up!”
Deliveries don’t happen every day.
When Bram and I finally see what’s in the package we both sigh. Bram’s is a sigh of disappointment and mine is a sigh of something else I can’t
quite define. Longing? Nostalgia?
It’s the scrap of my dress from the Match Banquet. In keeping with tradition they have placed the silk between two pieces of clear glass with a
small silver frame around the edge. The glass and the material both reflect the light, blinding me for a moment and reminding me of the glass mirror
in my lost compact. I stare at the fabric, trying to remember the night at the Match Banquet when we were all pink and red and gold and green and
violet and blue.
Bram groans. “That’s all it is? A piece of your dress?”
“What did you think, Bram?” I say, and the acid in my tone surprises me. “Did you think they were going to send our artifacts back? Did you think
this was going to be your watch? Because it’s not. We’re not getting any of it back. Not the compact. Not the watch. Not Grandfather.”
Shock and hurt register on my brother’s face, and before I can say anything he leaves the room. “Bram!” I call after him. “Bram—”
I hear the sound of his door closing.
I pick up the box that the framed sample came in. As I do, I realize that it is the perfect size to hold a watch. My brother dared to hope, and I
mocked him for it.
I want to take this frame and walk to the middle of the greenspace. I’ll stand next to that dry fountain and wait until the Official finds me. And when
she does and asks me what I’m doing, I’ll tell her and everyone else that I know: they are giving us pieces of a real life instead of the whole thing.
And I’ll tell her that I don’t want my life to be samples and scraps. A taste of everything but a meal of nothing.
They have perfected the art of giving us just enough freedom; just enough that when we are ready to snap, a little bone is offered and we roll over,
belly up, comfortable and placated like a dog I saw once when we visited my grandparents in the Farmlands. They’ve had decades to perfect this;
why am I surprised when it works on me again and again and again?
Even though I am ashamed of myself, I take the bone. I worry it between my teeth. Ky has to be safe. That’s what matters.
I don’t take the green tablet; I’m still stronger than they are. But not strong enough to burn the last bit of Ky’s story before reading it, the piece he
pressed into my hand earlier on our way back down through the forest. No more after this, I tell myself. Only this, no more.
This picture is the first one with color. A red sun, low in the sky, right on the napkin crease again so that it is part of both boys, both lives. The
younger Ky has dropped the words of father and mother; they have vanished from the picture. Forgotten, or left behind, or so much a part of him
that they don’t have to be written anymore. He looks over at the older Ky, reaches for him.
they were too much to carry
so I left them behind
for a new life, in a new place
but no one forgot who I was
and neither did the people who watch
they watched for years
they watch now
The older, current Ky’s hands are in handlocks in front of him, an Official on each side. He’s colored his hands red, too—I don’t know if he means
to represent the way they look after he’s been working, or if he means something else. His parents’ blood still on his hands from all those years ago,
even though he did not kill them.
The hands of the Officials are red, too. And I recognize one of them; he’s caught her face in a few lines, a few sharp strokes.
My Official. She came for him, too.
The next morning I wake to a shrieking so high and keening that I bolt straight out of bed, tearing the sleep tags from my skin.
“Bram!” I scream.
He is not in his room.
I run down the hall to my parents’ room. My mother came home from her trip last night; they should both be there. But their room is empty, too, and
I can tell they left in a hurry: I see twisted sheets and a blanket on the floor. I draw back. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen their bed unmade and,
even in the fear of the moment, the intimacy of that tangled bedding catches my eye.
“Cassia?” My mother’s voice.
“Where are you?” I call in a panic, turning around.
She hurries down the hall toward me, still wearing her sleepclothes. Her long, blond hair streams behind her, and she looks almost unearthly until
she pulls me into arms that feel real and strong. “What happened?” she asks me. “Are you all right?”
“The screaming—” I say, looking around her for the source. Just then I hear another sound added to the screaming: the sound of metal on wood.
“It’s not screaming,” my mother says, her voice sad. “You’re hearing the saws. They’re cutting down the maple trees.”
I hurry out onto the front steps where Bram and my father also stand. Other families wait outside, too, many of them still wearing their sleepclothes
like us. This is another intimacy so shocking and unusual that I am taken aback. I can’t think of another time when I’ve seen any of my neighbors
dressed like this.
Or maybe I can. The time when Patrick Markham went out and walked up and down the street in his sleepclothes after his son died, and Xander’s
father found him and brought him home.
The saw bites into the trunk of our maple tree, slices through so fast and clean that at first I think nothing happened except the scream. The tree
seems fine for a brief moment, but it is dead as it stands. Then it falls.
“Why?” I ask my mother.
When she doesn’t answer right away, my father puts his arm around her and tells me. “The maple trees have become too much of a problem. The
leaves get too messy in the fall. They’re not growing uniformly. For example, ours grew too big. Em’s is too small. And some of them have
diseases, so they all need to be chopped down.”
I look at our tree, at its leaves still reaching for the sun, still working to turn light into food. They don’t know they are dead yet. Our yard looks like a
different place without the tree standing tall in front of our house. Things seem smaller.
I look over at Em’s house. Her yard, on the other hand, doesn’t look much different now that their sad little tree is gone, the one that never quite
grew. It was never much more than a stick-stalk of a tree with a little burst of leaves on the top. “It’s not as bad for Em,” I say. “Her tree isn’t as much
of a loss.”
“It’s sad for all of us,” my mother says fiercely.
Last night when I couldn’t sleep, I crouched down near the wall to listen to her talk with my father. They spoke so softly that I couldn’t make out any
of the words, but she sounded tired and sad. Eventually I gave up and climbed back into bed. Now she looks angry, standing in front of the house
with her arms folded across her chest.
The workers with the saws have already moved on to another house now that our tree is down. That part was easy. Tearing up the roots will be
the hard part.
My father holds my mother close. He doesn’t love the trees the way she does; but he loves other things that were destroyed and he understands.
My mother loves the plants; my father loves the history of things. They love each other.
And I love them both.
It isn’t only myself and Ky and Xander I’ll hurt if I commit an Infraction. It’s all these other people I love.
“It’s a warning,” my mother says, almost to herself.
“I didn’t do anything!” Bram exclaims. “I haven’t even been late to school in weeks!”
“The warning isn’t for you,” my mother says. “It’s for someone else.”
My father puts his hands on my mother’s shoulders and it is as though they are alone, the way he looks at her. “Molly, I promise. I didn’t …”
And at the same time, I open my mouth to say something—I don’t know what—something about what I have done and how this is all my fault. But
before my father can finish and I can begin, my mother speaks.
“It’s a warning for me.”
She turns and goes back into the house, brushing a hand across her eyes. As I watch her go, the guilt slices quick through me like the cuts in the
I don’t think the warning is for my mother.
If the Officials truly can see my dreams, they should be happy with what I dreamed last night. I burned the last of Ky’s story in the incinerator, but
afterward I kept thinking of what it showed, what it told me: The sun was red and low in the sky when the Officials came to get him.
So then, when I dreamed, I saw scene after scene of Ky surrounded by Officials in their white uniforms with a red sky behind him, a glimpse of
sun waiting on the horizon. Whether it was rising or setting, I could not tell; I had no sense of direction in the dream. In each dream he did not show
any fear. His hands did not shake; his expression remained calm. But I knew he was afraid, and when the red light of the sun hit his face it looked
I do not want to see this scene played out in real life. But I have to know more. How did he escape last time? What happened?
The two desires struggle within me: the desire to be safe, and the desire to know. I cannot tell which one will win.
My mother hardly speaks as we ride the train to the Arboretum together. She looks over at me and smiles now and then, but I can tell she’s deep in
thought. When I ask her questions about her trip, she answers carefully, and finally I stop.
Ky rides the same air train we do, and he and I walk together toward the Hill. I try to act friendly but reserved—the way we once were around each
other—even though I want to touch his hand again, to look in his eyes and ask him about the story. About what happened next.
It only takes a few seconds in the forest before I lose control and I have to ask him. I put my hand on his arm as we follow our path to the spot
where we last marked. When I touch him he smiles at me, and it warms my heart and makes it hard to take my hand away, to let go. I don’t know if I
can do this, despite wanting him to be safe even more than I want him.
“Ky. An Official contacted me yesterday. She knows about us. They know about us.”
Ky nods. “Of course they do.”
“Did they talk to you, too?”
For someone who has spent his entire life avoiding attention from the Officials, he seems remarkably composed about this. His eyes are deep
as ever but there is a calm there that I haven’t seen before.
“Aren’t you worried?”
Ky doesn’t answer. Instead, he reaches into the pocket of his shirt and pulls out a paper. He hands it to me. It’s different from the brown paper of
napkins and wrappings that he’s been using—whiter, smoother. The writing on it is not his own. It’s from some kind of port or scribe, but something
about it seems foreign.
“What is this?” I ask.
“A late birthday present for you. A poem.”
My jaw drops—a poem? How?—and Ky hurries to reassure me. “Don’t worry. We’ll destroy the paper soon so we don’t get in trouble. It won’t
take long to memorize.” His face is alight with happiness and I suddenly realize that Ky looks the slightest bit like Xander, with his face open and
joyful like this. I am reminded of the shifting faces on the portscreen the day after I got my Match, when I saw Xander, then Ky. But now, I see only Ky.
Only Ky and no one else.
A poem. “Did you write it?”
“No,” he says, “but it’s by the same man who wrote the other poem. Do not go gentle.”
“How?” I ask him. There were no other poems by Dylan Thomas in the port at school.
Ky shakes his head, evading my question. “It’s not the whole thing. I could only afford part of a stanza.” Before I can ask what he gave in exchange
for the poem, he clears his throat a little nervously and looks down at his hands. “I liked it because it mentions a birthday and because it reminds me
of you. How I felt when I saw you that first day, in the water at the pool.” He looks confused and I see a trace of sadness on his face. “Don’t you like
I hold the white paper, but my eyes are so blurred with tears that I can’t read it. “Here,” I say, thrusting the poem back at him. “Will you read it to
me?” I turn away and start walking through the trees, staggering almost, so blinded am I by the beauty of his surprise and so overwhelmed by
possibility and impossibility.
Behind me, I hear Ky’s voice. I stop and listen.
My birthday began with the water—
Birds and the birds of the winged trees flying my name
Above the farms and the white horses
And I rose
In rainy autumn
And walked abroad in a shower of all my days.
I begin walking again, not bothering with cairns or cloths or anything that might slow me down. I’m careless and I disturb a group of birds, which
flutters up and away from us into the sky. White on blue, like the colors of City Hall. Like the colors of angels.
“They’re flying your name,” Ky says from behind me.
I turn around and I see him standing in the forest, the white poem in his hand.
The birds’ cries fly away on the air with them. In the quiet that follows I don’t know who moves first, Ky or me, but soon there we are, standing
close but not touching, breathing in but not kissing.
Ky leans toward me, his eyes holding mine, near enough that I can hear the slight crackle of the poem as he moves.
I close my eyes as his lips touch warm on my cheek. I think of the cottonwood seeds brushing against me that day on the air train. Soft, light, full of
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