writing

“Story” Revisited

This week I’ve been having (or am going to be having) a conversation with a beginning writer about just what, exactly, a story is. He is ardent and trying very hard to grasp the “artistic” side of the whole gig. I get the impression his background is in engineering/math and he doesn’t really comprehend the stunned faces when he asked the rest of the writing group to explain poetry to him.

It’s not like the Pythagorean Theorem; it can’t really be adequately explained in a single sentence. Or paragraph. Or essay. Entire books (footnoted and everything) have been written about the subject; entire careers have been dedicated to the study of poetry.

And they still haven’t completely explained it.

“Story” is similar, except that it hasn’t been studied for nearly as long.

Okay. What is a “story?” A story is a form (usually prose, but not always) in which a narrative is told centered around a character and his/her mission to achieve a certain goal. The goal cannot be too easy, or the mission lacks interest or “drama.” The mission is often made more difficult by a series of obstacles the character must overcome along the way. These obstacles can be placed by an opposing character, the environment, or even be the main character’s own personal flaws. The harder the obstacles, the harder the mission, the greater the reward when the goal is reached.

Without the obstacles, the story descends into something more like a vignette.

For instance: a young woman steps onto the elevator in an office building, presses the button for the fifth floor. When the elevator arrives, she steps out and enters her office.

Realistic. A slice of life, done well. But it isn’t really much of a story, is it? There is no conflict. It’s meaningless.

So we ramp up the conflict a bit. We still have the young woman step onto the elevator and push the button for the fifth floor, but this time a man is already on the elevator and she can see that he’s headed for the seventh floor, two floors above her. As the elevator begins to move, she can feel his eyes on her, mentally undressing her. As the door opens on the fifth floor, she does everything in her power to keep from running into her office.

Now we have the beginnings of a story. There is conflict (can she get to her office without being attacked), a goal (the safety of her office) somewhat in question, and the goal achieved in the end.

Now there are some variations, tropes and rules pertaining to different genres of story. Realism is always a plus, but there limitations. Absolute realism is boring, mundane. “Story” is the illusion of reality; it is enhanced reality.

Consider a familiar horror trope: the young family moves into an old, historic house. Soon, they begin to see glowing red eyes in the mirrors and the faucets spill blood. In reality, you or I would be grabbing the family and staying in a motel—or the mission—until we could find a new house. But that wouldn’t be much of a story, would it? For the sake of story, we need to suspend our disbelief for a while. We need to believe that someone would walk into certain death and still manage to not only survive, but to defeat the bad guy. We need to believe that someone would open the attic door in that haunted house, something we’d never do in reality.

We like “story” because it allows us to have a taste of lives and decisions we would never dare to make in reality.

It is supercharged reality.

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Ni’il: The Awakening: excerpt

This is a scene from my first novel “Ni’il: The Awakening.” I’ve adapted it a little so the context doesn’t need so much explanation. Hope everyone enjoys it.

Dan didn’t know how much time had passed. He did know his butt was sore from sitting on the log and that he was getting sleepy. One could only remain fully alert for so long. You haven’t really experienced darkness until you’ve been in the woods on an overcast night. He couldn’t see anything other than vague shapes; there was nothing to concentrate on. So his mind wandered.

The day before yesterday, an elderly woman named Alberta Collins had been killed while walking her dog along Eleventh Street. The dog had also been killed. Everyone around town assumed it had been the work of a rogue animal. In a rural town like Placerville, it was not unheard of for a bear or cougar to wander into town looking for an easy meal. But Dan had seen the woman’s body and he wasn’t so sure a rogue cougar or bear had been the culprit.

Off to the left, someone coughed. It was muffled, but as unnatural as a bugle call.

“Goddamn kids.” Alan muttered. “I might just shoot him myself.”

Dan smiled. When you had to cough, you had to cough. There wasn’t much you could do about it.

Too many things about Mrs. Collins’ death had been inconsistent with a wild animal attack. She hadn’t been mauled; there were no scratches, or defensive wounds on her arms or torso; the sole injury was a massive chunk of flesh taken from her throat. Her dog had basically been crushed and nothing had fed on either of them. It didn’t look like an animal attack, but it didn’t really look like a homicide either. He didn’t know what to think.

The mayor, however, had been sure. He’d ordered the Wrights be hired to track down and kill it; they would work a lot cheaper than paying overtime for a team of officers to track it down.

They also knew the woods as well–or better–than anyone in the county.

Dan had decided to come along just to see what they turned up.

Alan Sr.’s safety clicked off.

Dan sat up straight and switched off his own safety.

The lamb had stopped struggling. It was holding perfectly still.

“Down and to the right.” Alan whispered. “Something’s moving.”

Dan concentrated on listening. There had been noise the entire time they’d been waiting. Small animals scurried along the ground, scrounging dinner, birds rustled in their night roosts, owls hooted. What he was listening to now was silence. All activity had stopped. The lamb was not the only creature keeping still; the entire forest might have been holding its breath.

Then a branch snapped . . . and another . . .

“I hear it,” he whispered to the hunter.

“Let it take the bait.”

Dan nodded, though he doubted Alan could see the gesture in the darkness.

The animal moved slowly. Dan could follow it by sound. Each twig snap, each rustle of brush was like a map marker, plotting its course up and across the hill.

He wondered if the Wright boys had heard it also.

It stopped immediately below them.

Dan held his breath.

For a moment there was only silence.

The lamb screamed.

“Now!” Alan Sr. switched on his spotlight and shouldered his rifle.

Two other spots lit up on either side of them.

“What the–?” Alan said, then began to fire.

Dan saw an image centered in the combined light of the three spots. It was large and covered with long bronze hair, much like a bear. But its head was too large and strangely misshapen. The head and bloody front legs of the lamb hung from its mouth.

Alan continued to fire and now shots rang out on either side of them as Alan’s sons joined in. Dan could see the animal’s odd bronze hair twitching and jerking as bullet after bullet hit it.

Then it was gone.

The others stopped firing. Echoes of gunfire drifted away through the night.

“Did you see it go down?” Alan asked.

“No, I didn’t,” Dan shook his head. It was there. Then it wasn’t.”

Alan shoved cartridges into his rifle’s magazine. “I know I hit it. At least three times.”

“Dad!” Alan Jr. called over. “Can you see the bastard?”

“I hit it!” Tommy yelled from the other side. “A head shot! That fucker’s dead.”

Dan was keenly aware of how quiet the forest was around them.

“Boys, keep an eye peeled. Me and the Chief are going to have a look around.”

The younger men agreed to watch their backs.

Alan turned to Dan. “Ready?”

Dan took a deep breath and nodded. “But I think I’ll leave this behind.” He leaned the rifle against their former seat and pulled his Beretta from its holster and switched the safety off. “I’m better with a handgun.”

“Suit yourself.” Alan shrugged and led the way down the slope.

They went slowly. Even with the light from the three spots, the landscape was a patchwork of shadows and they had to check each carefully before entering or passing it. If the animal was now wounded, not dead. It would be extremely dangerous. They were counting on their senses, and the watchful eyes of the boys uphill, to prevent an ambush.

Dan felt like he was on a combat patrol.

“Here we go,” Alan said.

They stepped out onto the small, flat clearing they’d used to stake out the lamb. The metal pin was where they’d left it, still trailing a frayed length of rope. Nearby, they found a spattering of fresh blood. It could have been from the creature, or from the lamb; they couldn’t tell which.

There was nothing else.

Dan turned to look back up the hill. All he could see were the three spots of light burning holes in the darkness. And his night vision.

Alan pointed toward the tree line on the downhill side of the clear‑cut. “Cover me. I’m gonna look around.”

Dan nodded, swallowed hard, and took up a flexible stance facing the woods and started sweeping. He concentrated on spotting movement, rather than any specific object. In the darkness beyond the first row of trees, anything could be hiding and he wouldn’t have a chance of seeing it–until it moved.

Alan Sr. crouched to his right, checking the grass and brush for sign.

Dan licked his lips and kept scanning. He was very much aware that the forest around them was absolutely silent.

“Anything?” he asked.

“Not a damn thing. I don’t get it. I know we hit the damned thing.”

“What was that thing anyway?”

Alan glanced at him. “Looked like a bear to me.”

Dan had never seen a bear like that. He had never seen anything like that.

Alan sighed and stood up beside him. “Relax. It’s long gone. I don’t get it, but it’s not around here anymore.”

Someone screamed above them and a rifle went off, then again and a third time.

Dan hit the ground, rolled, and looked back up in time to see a second spotlight explode into a fountain of sparks.

Another strangled scream filled the night before being abruptly cut off.

“Tommy! Junior!” Alan’s voice edged toward panic. “Answer me, damn it! Tommy! Junior!”

No one answered. Two of the spotlights were gone.

“It must have circled around behind us,” Alan said.

Dan thought that seemed a reasonable guess.

The third light exploded.

They were in pitch darkness again. Until his eyes could adjust, Dan literally couldn’t see his hand in front of his face. He was effectively blind.

“Junior!” Alan called again. “Tommy!”

There was no answer.

Now that it had knocked out the lights, they were at its mercy. They had more firepower, but it had better senses and was working on its own turf. Their only chance lay in somehow getting back to the truck and out of here.

“Alan–”

“It killed my boys. My boys . . . Junior! Tommy!”

“Alan,” Dan insisted, “We’ve got to get out of here and we’ve got to move now.”

Something stirred in the darkness above them and to their left. It was circling back.

“Alan!”

Dan looked over toward the hunter. His night vision had recovered enough that Alan’s body was an irregular shape in the darkness. Dan assumed he was in shock over his sons’ deaths. But what to do about it? Time was running out.

The thing in the darkness made a sound–the first one Dan had heard it make–and it sent chills down his back.

It chuckled.

He pushed himself to his feet, scrambled over to Alan and jerked him up by the shoulder. “Are you coming, or am I going to have to carry you?”

“I’m coming.”

“Good.”

Dan started up the hill and Alan fell in behind him. It was too steep and too rough to run. In the darkness, running would invite a broken leg or a head‑on with a tree trunk. He went as fast as he safely could, pulling himself up on saplings and whatever else he could grab with his left hand. In his right, he still clutched his pistol.

He glanced back once to be sure Alan was still behind him. Satisfied, he concentrated on climbing.

He had no idea where the animal was; it could be anywhere. Yet it would know exactly where they were; they were making as much noise as a cattle stampede. Again, it had the advantage.

Dan emerged onto the road so suddenly he lost his balance. He went down hard, landing on his right elbow and shoulder. Searing pain ripped down the length of his right arm. He sucked air through clenched teeth, tried not to cry out, and cradled his injured shoulder with his good hand.

Alan stumbled onto the road behind him.

Dan had lost his pistol. In the dark, he couldn’t see where it had fallen.

“You all right?” Alan crouched down beside him. His breath came in great rasping gasps.

He stifled a moan. “I think I broke something.”

“Can you make it to the truck?”

Dan nodded. He could just make out the pickup parked less than a hundred feet to his left.

But he couldn’t leave without his pistol. He would be completely defenseless.

“My Beretta,” he said, “I dropped it when I fell.”

Something moved in the brush at the edge of the road.

Alan spun around and raised his rifle.

Dan frantically searched for his pistol. If that thing was coming after them, Alan would need all the additional firepower he could get. Even a few left‑handed shots would be better than nothing.

He managed to stand, despite the pain the effort caused, and quickly scanned the shadowy gray of the gravel road for his pistol. It couldn’t have gone far.

“Head for the truck,” Alan said, “I’ll cover you.”

The animal–whatever it was–was clearly toying with them. It remained in the woods, but continued to make so much noise it had to be on purpose. It seemed to be daring the two men to do something about it. Did bears taunt their prey?

Dan stepped on something near the far edge of the road. It was his Beretta. He managed to squat down and pick it up with his left hand. Near as he could tell, the fall had not damaged it. He straightened back up and had to take a step against sudden light-headedness.

“Did you hear me?” Alan asked.

“We’re going together. I’ve got my gun.”

Alan was about to argue when something stepped from the edge of the woods onto the road.

“Tommy?” Alan lowered his rifle.

Dan stared at the figure of the younger Wright. Something was wrong. He was having trouble focusing, like his vision was blurred. He would have assumed it was the effects of shock, but he wasn’t having any trouble focusing on the young man’s father.

The figure took a step toward Alan Sr.

“Tommy? You okay?”

“How’s it feel to be the hunted instead of the hunter?” The voice was wrong. It looked like Tommy, but it wasn’t him.

Alan knew it too. He started to raise his rifle.

The young man lifted a hand and, with a single blow, took Alan Sr.’s head off at the neck.

Dan could only watch in numb fascination as the body of the hunter teetered under a fountain of blood, then tipped and fell like a tree.

The thing that looked like Tommy tipped its head back and roared.

Dan backed away.

The truck was no longer an option. He could see it just a few yards down the road, but the creature stood between it and him. The pickup could have been on the moon for the good it did him. Even worse, his patrol car was parked another mile or so farther down the road.

The creature turned its attention to Dan. Its shape dissolved before his eyes, becoming less an object than a dense dark cloud, then solidified again. Now it looked like Alan Sr.

“You’re hurt,” it said.

Dan took a step back, away from it. He still held the Beretta in his left hand, but had no illusions about its effectiveness against this enemy. It was not designed for this.

The creature’s image dissolved again and reformed. Now it had assumed the form of his mother, but not as she’d looked when she’d died. It looked like his mother as he remembered her from his childhood, a beautiful, young woman.

“What are you going to do, Danny?” It took a step toward him. “Are you going to try and shoot me too?”

Dan did the only thing he could think of. He turned and ran for his life.

But he was injured and the jarring of running on the dark gravel road seemed to open something in his shoulder. It felt wet and burning hot.

Still, he ran.

Something came between him and the clouds, something big and dark and moving very fast. He sensed a great, burdening sorrow and a terrible rage.

Then he tripped and went down and the blackness swallowed him whole . . .

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short story

“In The Woods” A Short Story

This story is taken from my collection Menhir + Seven Stories. The collection is available on Amazon Kindle.

In The Woods

“We’re going to miss everything.”

“No,” he said and shifted up coming out of the curve. “We’re not.”

Jennifer wasn’t buying any of it. “Amy said they were going to start about 6:30.”

According to the display on the dashboard, it was now almost 7:30.

He shifted down again and braked as they approached another curve. “Honey, it’s not a job interview; it’s a bonfire and barbecue. It won’t really get going until it gets dark.”

She made an exasperated sound. “Whatever.”

“Can’t we have just one night without fighting?”

Jennifer crossed her arms under her breasts and turned to stare out the window at the passing forest.

It seemed like all they did anymore was fight. He was beginning to wonder whether it was worth the heartache anymore.

David could only take a deep, calming breath and try to concentrate on driving. The South Bank Road was always a challenge. It headed east from Gold Beach, snaking along with the river through the heavily forested canyons in a series of sharp, hairpin turns piled on top of each other and punctuated with steep hills and potholes.

The gravel road up to Agness had only been paved in the late sixties and he didn’t think anyone had bothered to repave it since. If the potholes had been repaired at all, they were merely patched. It was a rough ride that demanded his attention.

“What’s happened to us?” Jennifer asked, still staring out the passenger window. “We used to be so happy.”

He shook his head. “I don’t know.”

The sun was hidden behind the hills behind them, throwing the entire canyon into shadow. It was even darker on the South Bank Road. Here, the forest grew so lush and tall along the road the branches from each side seemed to join above into a single canopy. It was like driving through a dark green tunnel.

He didn’t see the rocks until it was too late.

He abruptly swerved, but the right front tire hit a rock the size of softball.

“Shit!”

Something exploded and the car tried to turn right into a rock embankment. David braked and fought to keep the car on the road. The wheels on the right side slipped onto the narrow shoulder, then moved back onto the pavement, just missing the rock wall.

Jennifer screamed.

The car really wanted to turn right and it took all his strength to keep it straight, on the road, and under control until he could slow down enough to safely pull onto the shoulder.

When they were finally stopped, he switched off the engine with shaking fingers and looked at Jennifer. “You okay?”

She nodded, but her face was pale. “What happened?”

“I think we blew a tire.”

“Wonderful.”

He ignored her remark, unlatched his seat belt, and climbed out of the car.

The first thing he noticed was the damp coolness. Under the tight canopy, he doubted the sun ever reached the ground. It was probably twenty degrees cooler than out in the open. Then there was the silence. Even in a small town like Gold Beach—barely over 2000 people—there was ambient noise: traffic, stereos, people.

Out here, there was nothing.

He walked around the front of the car to examine his right tire. It was flat, of course. It looked like the impact with the rock had broken the bead.

He had a tire to change.

The passenger door opened and Jennifer climbed out. “Is it flat?”

“As a pancake,” he said and returned to his side of the car to pop the trunk. “This is why we have a spare.”

She nodded.

He pulled the jack, spare tire, and lug wrench from the trunk and carried them over to the shoulder next to the damaged tire. It took two trips. Jennifer stood off to one side and watched.

“How long will this take?” She asked.

He slid the jack under the car. “I don’t know. Ten minutes, maybe.”

Jennifer had her cell phone out and was looking for a signal. He didn’t bother telling her that it would take an act of God to get a cell signal in the middle of all these ridges. No one built cell towers out here.

He started cranking up the jack.

“I can’t get a signal out here,” Jennifer said.

“The hills are blocking it,” he said as nicely as he could.

She snapped the phone shut, then abruptly looked into the woods. “What was that?”

“What was what?”

He picked up the lug wrench and moved to the damaged tire.

Jennifer was looking up into the forest beside them. “I heard something.”

He looked back where she seemed to be concentrating. The underbrush was so thick, he couldn’t see more than a foot or two off the road. And it was rapidly growing dark.

He couldn’t hear anything.

“It’s the woods, honey. You probably heard a deer.”

“You’re probably right.” She didn’t sound reassured.

He attached the lug wrench to the first of the five lug nuts and leaned on the handle to break it loose. The second one took two pops to break free. He moved to the third.

Jennifer moved over next to him to watch the progress. Or so he thought. When he glanced up, her eyes were squarely on the edge of the forest.

She looked spooked.

The third lug nut was being stubborn. He moved on to the fourth and fifth and loosened them before returning to the stubborn third lug nut.

“How much longer is it going to take?”

David leaned on the lug wrench. The nut refused to budge. “Forever if I can’t get this last lug nut loose.”

A branch snapped in the woods behind him. In the stillness, it sounded like a bone breaking.

“David…” Jennifer sounded on the edge of panic.

“A deer,” he told her. “It’s just a deer. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

Despite his own words, something about the sound had spooked him too. He returned to the lug nut with renewed energy. It finally relented and broke loose.

He moved to the jack and raised the car the final few inches to move the tire off the ground.

Behind him, another sizable branch snapped, followed by the rustle of foliage as something passed by. Something big.

Darkness was growing rapidly along the roadway. It was already dark enough he was having trouble distinguishing Jennifer’s features, just feet away. As he began to manually unscrew the lug nuts, he worried about dropping one and losing it in the dark.

“Jen,” he looked up at her. “Could you get the flashlight out of the glove box for me?”

She nodded and wordlessly went to get the light. He couldn’t see for certain, but he had the impression he eyes never strayed far from the forest.

It was making him a little nervous too. Again, the foliage behind him rustled as something moved through it.

Jennifer returned with the flashlight. At his request, she directed the light onto the side of the tire. Once again able to see, he finished removing the lug nuts, set them aside, and pulled the damage tire from the axle.

“God! What is that smell?”

A second later, he too caught a whiff of a very unpleasant smell. It reminded him of very bad body odor, like that of habitual homeless person, but ten times stronger. It almost made his eyes water. Jennifer covered her nose.

Jennifer also moved the beam of the flashlight from the tire to the edge of the forest.

“Jennifer. I can’t see what I’m doing.”

“There’s something there, David. Something’s watching us.”

He sighed. “Jen . . .”

“David! I’m not stupid! Deer don’t stink like that!” Her voice nearly cracked. “There’s something out there!”

As if on cue, something in the darkness behind them made a “chuff” sound. To David, it sounded like the alert sound a dog often makes when it’s suspicious of something, but not sure of the danger. A few yards away, something answered with another “chuff.”

“David?”

He pried the flashlight from her hands. “Get in the car and lock the door. I’ll get the tire on and we’ll get out of here.”

Jennifer searched his eyes, nodded, and hurried over to the car. She climbed in and slammed the door shut. A second later, the lock clicked into place.

David quickly propped the flashlight on the ground so its beam shone on the wheel well and grabbed the spare tire. Despite his show of brave calmness to Jennifer, he was spooked too, maybe as spooked as she was.

He needed to get the spare tire on quickly, so they could get the hell out of there.

Behind him, the strange vocalizations continued in the dark forest, becoming more frequent and more aggressive. Brush rustled as bodies moved around. Branches snapped. It was like they were working themselves up to something.

He lifted the spare tire, lined up the holes in the rim with the lug bolts, and slipped it onto the hub, then began twisting on the first lug nut. His fingers seemed to be working in slow motion.

Something whipped past his ear and slammed into the car’s fender. He jumped to the side and dropped the rest of the lug nuts into the gravel.

“Shit!” He scrambled to find the lug nuts.

Two more missiles slammed into the side of the car. Another hit his just arm just above the elbow, shooting burning pain down to his fingertips. He cried out and clutched his injured arm. Again, the lug nuts fell into the gravel.

Missiles were flying steadily now, smacking into him, bouncing off the sides and top of the car, the windows. Most seemed to be green pine cones, but there were a few rocks and branches mixed in.

The “chuffing” had grown into a rhythmic shouting match behind him. Inside the car, Jennifer was screaming.

Another blow landed squarely between David’s shoulder blades.

That was enough.

He scrambled to his feet and sought cover on the other side of the car. Pine cones pounded the car like a bizarre hailstorm and bounced over him onto the road. The creatures in the woods had worked themselves into a frenzy. They hooted and thrashed the underbrush and see med to cheer each other on.

It reminded David of the sideline at a football game—the winning sideline.

The driver’s door popped open and Jennifer tumbled out onto the roadway just as one of the car windows shattered behind her.

“Jennifer!”

She scrambled to her hands and knees and crawled over to huddle beside him.

“You okay?”

She nodded. Her entire body was trembling. “They’re going to kill us.”

“No, they’re not.”

“David! Have you seen them? They’re huge!”

He hadn’t, but the barrage of pine cones hadn’t slowed down; neither had the hooting and thrashing on the edge of the woods.

There was no way he was going to be able to finish changing the tire. Not under that kind of fire.

“What are we going to do?” Jennifer asked, her voice tight with fear. “I don’t want to die out here.”

As far as he could tell, they only had two options. They could stay put and hope someone in another car came driving by to either help them escape or scare their attackers off. But there wasn’t much traffic this far up the river after dark. They hadn’t seen another vehicle in an hour.
That seemed a long shot. Too long a shot.

“Listen,” he told her. “I’m going to attract their attention. When I do, I want you to sneak to the other side of the road and start running toward Agness.”

“I can’t leave you here.”

“Believe me.” He ducked as a pine cone bounced across the hood and over his head. “I’ll be right behind you. I just want to give you as much of a head start as I can. Okay?”

Jennifer nodded and reached down to pull off her flip-flops. “What if they’re faster than us?”

“Let’s hope they’re not.”

He gathered an armful of pine cones—maybe a half dozen—and moved past Jennifer to the tail end of the car.

He took a deep breath and stood. “Now, Jennifer! Run!”

She moved across the road in a crouch, then began to run. He stood up and chucked a pine cone into the darkness. “Hey!”

He couldn’t think of anything else to say. “Hey! Over here!”

He threw another pine cone as hard as he could blindly into the darkness.

For a second, he was met by silence. Maybe he’d startled them; maybe they weren’t expecting any resistance; maybe they’d fled. He threw another pine cone and risked a glance toward Jennifer.

The darkness had swallowed her, but he could hear her feet slapping the roadway.

“Hey!” He hurled two more pine cones into the darkness. “What’s the matter? Not so tough anymore?”

All hell broke loose. It sounded like there were a hundred of them, screaming and thrashing the underbrush.

David threw his last pine cone and ran.

Behind him, glass shattered to the ground and something slammed on metal. He didn’t look back and he didn’t slow down until he’d caught up with Jennifer.

Nothing seemed to follow them, but they didn’t slow down until they’d put a mile between them and the car.

It took them nearly two hours to get to Agness. By then, Jennifer’s feet were so badly cut and bruised she could hardly walk. David had tennis shoes, so he fared better, though his thighs and lungs burned. He wasn’t used to this kind of exertion.

But they made it safely to the party.

They didn’t hear or see any further sign of the things in the woods.

The End

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