Virus Or No Virus, It Was One Tough Trip

I feel like a cloud of shit looms above me. In Virginia there is usually a dense enough tree canopy to avoid its falling precipitation.

Mississippi has some gorgeous trees that are capable of doing the same, unfortunately Laurel Mississippi is a bit sparse when it comes to vegetation above a shrub’s height.

There was an urgency to get my mom to New Orleans. We looked forward to this trip as a road trip to settle both of our minds as we have been through much in the few months prior.

My mom was to meet me at my house at 9 o’clock and we were to leave for New Orleans. My mom has the patience of a saint as I couldn’t even make it to my own house at 9 o’clock in the morning. I pulled in after a last minute store run for snacks and vittles. She was there waiting on me as were my kids and wife. After farewells to the kids and wife in uncertain times, we were off. I drove.

My mom was kind throughout the trip, putting up with my driving. I drive a touch fast and nothing peeks my interest more than anything but the road. We didn’t need a radio. Nor did we need a podcast. We just talk and listened. Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama…..

Have you ever driven on any of the interstates that intersect with Alabama? It’s a vast chunk of land, full of abandoned vehicles. Semi-trucks have to drive in the left-hand lane or else they just be constantly zigzagging making an absolute mess of things while trying to avoid parked vehicles. There were cars everywhere. Cars were strewn on the shoulder, crumpled in the median. We even saw one car and one truck amongst the trees.

I drifted close to a car on the shoulder all while expelling a yawn that would have won every bit of a five second count. It was at that point where my mom decided that we needed a radio or podcast or something to keep me going. I agreed as we had been on the road for most of the day and now part of the evening.

She retrieved my iPad out of my bag where I had a plethora of preloaded podcasts. The first few pages were dedicated to Taoism. She rolled her eyes and continued searching. Finally she came across a podcast about woodworking. Normally it’s a good podcast, but this episode was a pretty failed interview attempt. The podcast ended and so did our level of alertness so we decided to look for a hotel. I wanted something that was just on the outskirts of the city so we avoided Meridian and we weren’t going to try Hattiesburg. We chose Laurel, Mississippi as it looked like a good destination..after all, the virus was starting to break out.

We pulled up to a Best Western/Econo Lodge because it was easy to get to in a weird exchange of roads. After arriving in the parking lot, a more heavenly place was seen. We spotted a Hampton Inn in the back ground. We sneak through these parking lots right and left, zigging and zagging until we were finally able to get to the Hampton. Before I could put the vehicle in park, my mom sprinted inside and reserved the room. We had fought and raced each other all trip about who is going to pay… mainly at the gas pumps. I follow into the lobby shortly after.

After receiving our room cards, We asked the lady at the desk where we could get a bite to eat. You should have seen her eyes, they glowed as they grew exponentially. She got excited over the prospect, like she had the best restaurant that we’ve ever eaten at. She asked if we could give her a second to call her boss and ask if they were still open. Doubt set in. It was only seven in the evening…why wouldn’t they still be open? She gets off the phone with her boss and says that they are still open. She then proceeds to give us directions to Applebee’s.

Laughing, we took our luggage upstairs and dumped it (along with ourselves) on the beds for a minute’s rest. Our stomachs were too curious to wait any longer. Best restaurant in a city in which is populated by 18,000 people?

Upon arriving, the hostess was very tired (and maybe slightly new to her job). She said we wouldn’t be getting any menus and to order online. She then left promptly. We didn’t know whether to put curbside pick up slot number six (and in parentheses the two top next to the bar). But then we put it all together. We were just going to browse on our smart devices and then the waitress would come and take our order.

We ordered some alcohol so we could dip our silverware in it and then drink the remainder. The food took awhile to grace our table. I’m guessing that the kitchen staff had tucked tail and dissipated after receiving news of the virus.

While waiting for our food, I began telling a story about the last Applebee’s I ate at, some eighteen years ago:

It was supposed to be an overnight trip, so I packed minimal clothes. My girlfriend asked me to join her on a trip to Richmond to celebrate her adopted baby sister’s fourth birthday. Sounded innocent enough. I was game.

I feel I learned this cautionary note before the trip, but was in relationship paralysis and did not heed my own advice: If you ever find yourself dating or thinking about dating someone with biblical quotes on their body, take note where they are and who is supposed to read them. If the tattoos are because the individual needs a reminder about the religion, or they feel the desire to be a billboard about their religion, then chances are they wavier from from a very extreme viewpoint of the religion to the opposite end without a moments notice. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just know that after the barrage of waves, you will be left in a tidal pool, licking your wounds, wondering what in Jesus’s name just happened and where was Moses to save you. Of course there are exceptions to this rule but I’ve never been fortunate enough to encounter this holy exception.

I was on a trip, riding shotgun with my girlfriend and her dog..or maybe I was in the back and her dog was riding shotgun. I can’t quite remember that part. I do remember Applebee’s. I also remember I hadn’t eaten all day. We met up with her friends in the parking lot and entered Applebee’s for dinner.

I ordered Alfredo with chicken and sun-dried tomatoes over penne pasta. This was during the “Bowl” phase where all the chain restaurants caught onto someone’s gimmick that dinner was best served in a bowl, and you could make it your own by choosing the protein, sauce, pasta, etc. In hindsight, this decision for the bowl loosened all plans that followed for the weekend.

The meal went down without a hitch. We had good company and I learned a great deal about her/her childhood friends who accompanied us. After the meal I blamed a knot-tying stomach on the iced tea. but then quickly transitioned blame to the pasta. The thought is more prevalent now, but back then, little of our population knew that one could get as sick as a dog on cooked grains that have been left to expire. Or was the chicken the guilty party?

I put on a good act, wiped the rapidly growing sweat from my brow, and entered her mother’s house as we had arrived at this point.

There is never a more awkward scenario than when being introduced to your girlfriend’s mother, the mother shows you her bedroom that you are taking over for the night. I pleaded for the couch…or for the floor..but it was to no avail. This mother, who’s room I took over, had recently adopted a young girl. She slept in the toddler bed with the girl. I felt absolutely terrible.

Imagine this angelic room. From the sheets to the bed spread to the pillowcases to the duvet to the chair to the wall hangings to the shelf decorations. Everything was in favor of Jesus.

I got in bed uncomfortably, knowing that I was such an imposition. At this point my lower intestine sounded like a team of trombones. I was doing my best to hold them back, until I could drown the sound and smell with a shower rich of fragrance from shampoo and bar soap.

“God, why didn’t she put me on the couch?”

I looked up at the shelf adorned with crosses, which was above the dresser adorned with crosses. I asked him about the couch multiple times throughout the night before I finally fell asleep.

Fortunately morning finally arrived. My stomach was ready to erupt. Christie poked her head in the door and told me to grab a bowl of cereal because we were off to participate in corporate games.

I thought it was strange she didn’t say anything about the event prior to the morning’s announcement. I was guessing it was something small, maybe with some old co-workers of hers. I really didn’t care at this point, as long as there was a bathroom near by and everyone else would be distracted with games.

We got in the car and drove to Richmond‘s Corporate Research Center. The entire way I was shifting in my seat, trying to relieve the building pressure. We arrived and there was nothing but huge buildings, locked tight for the weekend. No chance of finding a bathroom with privacy. Instead, we park right outside a huge field, between the buildings. She must have been popular when she worked here, because her car was instantly swarmed with dozens of people waiting to hug her and be introduced to me. In the distance I could make out several beer trucks, but no porta-johns. Team tents lined either side of the massive field. There must have been over three dozen officiants. Most teams had matching spandex jerseys. This was serious, but no nearly as serious as my call to the throne. I finally found the porta-johns, located behind the beer trucks. There must have been fifty of them, all with long lines. I returned to our team tent after my scouting mission.

While I was gone, Christie had graciously signed me up for every obstacle course, every race, and every game that was to take place that day.

I ran the first race, my body clenched the entire way. I was concerned of nothing else other than trying not to mess myself as my stomach once again rumbled. I crossed the finish line and noticed no one else in a jersey was around me. I had smoked everyone. I ran from the finish line straight to the porta-johns. I couldn’t possibly hold it anymore. I ran past the lines and about knocked a person exiting over. It was too late. I entered the porta john and cleaned up my white board-shorts the best I could. During my rush, I didn’t hear a call for a warm-up for the next race. I finish my business and rushed to the starting line, using it as a platform to distance myself from people I knew. The race was much too short for my liking. It went well, but now there was a lull between races and I had to go back to the team tent.

My girlfriend’s family had arrived to cheer us on. I figured I could distance myself from the adults and still act like everything is swell by kicking the soccer ball with my girlfriend’s sister, who is hopefully too young to really notice or care.

My plan quickly backfires as she tells me she thinks I stepped in dog poop. I then think that this could work out brilliantly and try to coax her to say it louder so that my entire team can hear it and write off my mishap as dog poop. She takes the bait. She starts broadcasting.

I get called from the tent as it’s race time. At the starting line people distance themselves from me (from the dog poop smell, you know). The pistol fires. The race starts. I jump each hurdle like a horse in Kentucky, but each time I do so the smell of dog poop becomes more pronounced. I have control of my feet, I have no control of my midsection.

My prayer comes true. There’s an obstacle ahead that’s about 20 feet long, only 2 feet off the ground. It’ muddy in there. I go feet first full speed where others stop and crawl through. Somehow I managed to slide all the way through, completing two whole rotations as if it were a muddy rotisserie. My white board shorts are no longer a concern as I’m covered in mud. In the process, I managed to post the best time in my heat, and the best time the entire day. My fortunes continued like this. Mind you, I had no prior track experience. I had lots of soccer but no track. I was absolutely crushing it out there. nobody could stop me. Nobody could beat me. Or was it just the simple fact that nobody could stand the smell of my board shorts?

Then there was the race of shame. I still grimace, thinking back to it. A woman about ten years my elder was paired up with me. She didn’t look enthused about the matching. As we tied our legs together for the one legged race, I was quick to tell her about the dog poop I had stepped in earlier. Not everyone is able to tie a decent knot. I didn’t hold this against her as she might have been trying to turn her head and tie it blindly. When she was finished, I untied the jumble and tied us up some kind of proper. I don’t know if it was panic or disgust, but she did not look pleased with my series of professional knots. I told her not to worry, I’m a sailor, not a s&m’er. That helped little. Very, very little.

The pistol went off and immediately afterwards, so was our cadence. We fell to last place before getting off the start line. She was falling over, but I was able to pick her up before she hit the ground. I didn’t set her back down. I carried her much like someone were to carry a torpedo, or a battering ram. I didn’t think much of the style of carry, other than it was working and we were going to cross the finish line. I thought everyone was yelling and cheering us on. Unfortunately they were yelling and laughing in disbelief because I was carrying this woman in an inappropriate fashion with my hands fastened around her breasts and I did not even know.

We won. I thought it was a huge accomplishment to go from last to first, but my partner was none too impressed. As soon as I loosened all of the knots from our legs, she was gone and I never saw her again.

There was one more race to run and it was a baton relay. We were almost in dead last before the unsettling rocket in my stomach kicked in and brought us all the way to first, once again. It was amazing.

Our corporate team that I didn’t even know the name of, or what it represented, was part of a huge celebration with three foot tall trophies, champagne showers, and free beer. Free beer was the last thing my body wanted.

With time, the celebration finally ended. After all the perspiration and so-called “dog poop” we retired to her mothers place for a much needed shower. My plan of attack was to wash my clothes and act like nothing had ever happened and somehow turn brown fabric to white with a bar of Ivory in an inconspicuous ten minutes time. I had one more pair shorts with a whole weekend blooming and it wasn’t looking good.

I finished my shower and was able to mellow the brown held within the white fabric. The problem then arose of where was I going to dry these now tan shorts where nobody would notice in a household of six. There were three different generations in that house, including a rather nosy teenage brother. Luck would be mine as they were doing an addition onto their house for her grandparents.

Having helped build houses all my teenage life, I knew decent hiding places amongst the open web of framing. The trick was to remember to get them when they were dry. Could you imagine the fallout if I left a pair of stained shorts hanging in the rafters to be found by her teenage brother, or the construction workers?

This effort takes up most of the afternoon. I find myself back in the alter of a bedroom. My stomach is still fighting as I look down at my last pair of clean shorts. My plan of last resort is to try to find an isolated place if I feel a sick bowel movement and then discard my boxer briefs afterwards. I’m scared of this idea because once my briefs are gone, so are the means of containment.

Night fell upon us. I don’t know if I’ve ever been more scared of the night. We are amongst her friends, a new group. They choose Applebee’s to meet up for dinner. The Gods must be working feverously against me is the only thing I can think of. I was hoping my last supper was going to be a lavish feast, not a false claim to the culinary arts that would be the ultimate player in my passing. Applebees? But Why? for the reasoning behind the choosing. Her friends think it odd that I’m not ordering. Her one friend doesn’t believe the story that I’m not hungry and orders me a beer and an appetizer. Just gazing at the bubbles in the beer makes my stomach churn a pitchy tune. I try to mask it with grunts and throat clearing, but to no avail. I can see her friends starring at their food, acting like they can’t hear my stomach, but their eyes get larger and larger with every sound my body emits.

The meal finally ends, but purgatory has just begun. They all decide at this point that we should all go the movie theatre.

I excuse myself during the preview “to get a refill”. I sprint to the restroom. I start my mission there, but it’s much too loud. The restroom acts like an amphitheater with amazing acoustics. They can probably even hear me over the ground shaking Dolb B Digital Surround. I then take my business outside.

The Story ends there.

Believe me. Looking back, I do feel terrible as I had no idea they were going to excavate Short Pump and make it into what it is now, excavating what I had buried and turning it into an outdoor mall. Some things should never be dug back up. Yes, I did manage to get my shorts out of the rafters without being seen.

My mom’s steak finally came out. It looked great, but Applebee’s has a knack for making microwave food look appetizing.

My burger, on the other hand,…you can’t really microwave ground beef. That wasn’t the problem though. My burger wasn’t microwaved. It wasn’t grilled. It wasn’t baked. It wasn’t pan-fried. It tasted ok, if I didn’t let my mind meld over it for too long. The treatment it received was from a cooking vessel that I’ve never experienced before in my life. Maybe they had one of those new airless fryers or warrior style cooking pots that can cook anything mediocre, but nothing great. I didn’t pursue the cooking method any further. I didn’t know if this was going to be our last supper, (with everything that was going on) so I happily ate my burger.

Now put yourself in my mom’s shoes. We are battling this virus. We’re at an Applebee’s and she only has one glass of wine. Somehow, she is able to take in the story AND eat her meal with only that one glass of wine. She’s amazing, is she not?

We retired to our hotel room and shortly after retired for the night.

Twelve thirty I was awakened by a child crying. It was loud, but we were directly below the room in which the child was upset. It wasn’t an unsusual cry, but the duration seemed to be. 
 My mother taught special education for most of her adult life and my father was a clinical psychologist, so my sister and I have honorary doctorates in both disciplines since we all experienced their jobs together. 
 I noticed my mother turned over in her bed and was awake as well. We looked at each other and agreed that the poor child must have been aggravated and most likely on the spectrum. There was no yelling from anyone else, not even talking. That’s the part that didn’t quite jive. I remember looking at my phone to see if it was close enough to morning to wake up . It wasn’t. Still no talking or anything from anyone else above us. I wrote it off as the sound or frequency of soothing talk to calm the crying just wasn’t coming through the floor. Both my mother and I eventually fell back asleep.

It seemed like only minutes passed when we were stirred awake again by the noises above us. I looked at my phone again. It was a bit past four in the morning and there was furniture being rearranged above us. Screaming from what sounded like the same child. The screaming sounded like mad, manic screams..not of hurt…or to explain it more clearly, it sounded like the scream took place, then the screamer ended the scream by moving a piece of furniture across the room. I couldn’t sleep. Ceilings are thin, and I’m not used to living in such close proximity to neighbors. Neither is my mom. She still lives in the house where she raised us, up a mountain where her neighbors are the bear, the bobcat, and the plethora of wild turkey and deer.

I can’t sleep. I look at my phone again. I text my wife. She is awake (I probably woke her up). I tell her I can’t sleep because of kids screaming and furniture being rearranged. She tells me I should check on it. I don’t. I think with the virus among us, people may treat others checking in differently, and that if I have the virus, then give it to the hotel clerk and then in turn they give it to the police officer who gives it to his entire department and the family that he does a wellness check on, etc..

The movement of furniture stops. I then hear bath water. Then a thud in the bath tub. The bath water continues, I roll over and tell my mom that I’d be surprised if the water wasn’t pouring through our ceiling. It sounded like a water leak, the impact was that intense and that close. I believe my mother and I drifted back to sleep because I don’t remember anything else.

The sun rose, we got ready for the day, packed our bags, and my mom checked out as I packed our vehicle. I had half a mind to tell the clerk at the desk that the night was a bit unsettling, but I resisted. They had enough on their plate dealing with the virus outbreak and running a hotel. We started the car and headed onwards for New Orleans.

We arrived just south of St Charles Avenue. It was great to see my sister. It was my nephew’s birthday. I had gotten him the new but retro Oregon Trail handheld game. If you don’t have it yet, you should get it.

I spent the next couple of days helping them prepare for a citywide shutdown and playing as much as I could with my nephews.

A weird weather system was brewing that about spanned from Canada to Texas. On top of that, I was concerned that some states would begin sheltering so hard from the virus that interstate travel wouldn’t be allowed through. I have my wife back home, homeschooling not only the class she teaches (online) but also our two kids and puppy. I thought it better if I returned and gave my sister’s family some time to make a schedule of their own.

Usually I drive entirely too far past the point of exhaustion. I began thinking I could easily make it to Chattanooga, and then have a short drive the following day. After making that decision, the thought of staying in Laurel, Mississippi kept implanting itself in my head. It was getting late in the afternoon, and I’d much rather rest now then get caught driving in the storm, then be a sleeping duck at a hotel in the storm’s path. The hotel where my mom and I stayed was nice. I had no problem with it, other than the noise. I was quite certain that I’d be safe of the noise. No way could it replicate itself.

The hotel clerk asked me my room preference. Two queens or for two dollars more, a king suite. I paid the two dollars. She asked what floor and I thought about the noise from above a few nights ago at this same hotel, but thought that if the suites are all together, chances of noise from a king suite above will be much different. Storms were on the horizon and all around the town of Laurel were tall pines that had been toothpicked by recent weather events. I opted for a middle floor.

I must be honest about my choosing of Laurel for my night’s stay, and not trucking on to Chattanooga. You see, I knew not of what the future would yield for my mother and I’s journey. I packed three plastic containers of pimento cheese, three tomatoes, a loaf of bread, and some clementines in a cooler for the trip. We barely touched it on the way down to New Orleans. I took it upon myself to not waste what I had brought, so I ate Pimento Cheese Sandiwches for breakfast, lunch, and dinner with the intent that I would not harm or lessen my sister’s food supply for her family. What does all of this mean? Even though it was only two hours into a long trip, I chose Laurel because I had to take the most righteous of shits and thought I had better chance of the virus steering clear of me if I took my business to a hotel rather than a truck stop.

I’m sure the hotel clerk wondered about me because after she gave me the key, I was off like a shot to my room. No bags, no nothing, other than a large bottle of sanitizer in my back pocket. It was some time before I came back down for my bags. I thought when passing her to say something like “Yes! I didn’t miss my show”, but I don’t watch much tv and if she quizzed me on the show, I’d somehow end up leveling with her about a story that involves pimento cheese. I just hung my head and went out to the vehicle to gather my belongings.

Once back inside my room, I wished dearly for a bathroom fan. Why is it that most heinous motels have both a bathroom fan and a chicken light, but in most of the nicer establishments, they have neither? I set out my lap desk and iPad to get some work done, but then found out that they had no WiFi either. I spent the evening instead watching one of Nick Cannon’s tv shows and some awful blacksmith reality competition. No wonder I don’t watch much t.v.

I realized I left all six of my charging cords in the vehicle, so I went to put my boots on and go fetch. It was at that point where I learned of the leaking bar sink. Fortunately it didn’t flood the floor. Unfortunately, I learned that my boots are just as awesome at holding water in as they are at holding water out. My extra pair of shoes were in the vehicle. Now the lady behind the desk is really looking at me funny since its perfectly dry, both in the lobby and outside, and here I go squeaking by, leaving damp footprints as I do so.

I return back to the room, wishing desperately for the chicken light so I could dry a boot, soak up the mess of water around the bar, and call it a night. A few hours later I wake up. Nothing externally wakes me up this time, no screaming, no furniture moving. I just flat couldn’t sleep anymore. I opt to shave instead. The bath sink drips bad. This hotel room is a piece of work. It looks great. It’s clean, but it sure isn’t functional. I go to make a cup of tea and the teapot/coffee maker combo turns the water into steam instead of depositing it in the cup below. I can’t fix the dripping faucet in the bathroom, I can’t fix the broken teapot, but I did see a variety pack of washers in my bag that could fix the bar sink. I don’t have an Allen wrench to take the handle off, but I do have a folding utility knife. I snap the blade to an appropriate shape with the same pair of channel locks that opened my Negro Modelo the night before and success was had. I get everything tightened back up, packed up, and am sure to see the hotel clerk to get a paper copy of my receipt because I could have stayed in a campsite and had more functioning amenities.

Are you ever curious about the town you overnight in? I am a bit, but usually its a fleeing curiosity. On the way out of town, I stop my podcast and find a local station. I hear a story about a child who was murdered in a hotel room two days ago. I then do the math. My mom and I were in and out of the area before the time that the victim was found. I thought to myself, that would have been an eerie coincidence if we were in town when that happened. I drove on for a hundred miles or so before it hit me.

I remember I looked up at a hotel sign, the same hotel chain where I had spent the night and where my mother and I had stayed. I pulled off the road. I searched the online papers for the town in which I had stayed. As I read the stories, I realize that the I wasn’t just in the same town to the incident during roughly the same time. I was in the hotel.

They found the body of the boy in the bathroom of the hotel room he was sharing with his mom and two siblings. The article states that the officer didn’t want to comment, other than saying the room was an abosolute mess and it was a bad scene.

It took me about an hour to collect myself before I could even think about driving again. Why didn’t I call in a wellness check? Why didn’t I at least call the lady at the front desk? I tried to drive on, thinking that they boy was in a safe place now, where no one can harm him, but then every time I saw a sign for that hotel chain, thoughts would come rushing back. Unfortunately I was on the interstate and still had several major cities to drive through, so thoughts rushed back about every seventy five miles or so.

My speed averaged 80mph, so yes, about every hour or so was a reflective moment of that terrible fateful night for the boy. The news story went on to say that the mother took her other two children to New Orleans, where she was apprehended. I wonder, were some of the wounds self-inflicted, since I heard no other screaming? Or did I just hear wrong? Did the mother let the kids wrestle until the fateful end? Or were the other two kids too scared to make a sound? Did we pass this lady and her kids on our way to New Orleans? Did we stop at the same gas station? Were they looking out of the windows of their vehicle in fear and hope that someone would save them? I don’t mean to only touch on this and go. I just wanted to put this on paper so I could reflect.

Only in hindsight can you make a proper judgement. I wrote the noise off as a child with a condition that made him unhappy, or that was scared to sleep, or scared of a nightmare they just had, or their medication had worn off and they were reeling in mental anguish because of it. I wrote it off with much of the same quickness as I’m going to sign off from this story. I just want to conclude with this last thought. Sometimes I intrude on a person’s business and find I have no place on being there and that is their normal life, everything is fine. Other times, I have inserted myself into someone else’s activities and found it beneficial, although life threatening to self that I did so…I didn’t want to compromise my mom’s chance of getting to New Orleans, or my chance of loving on my sister’s family.

Damnit. I compromised something much greater than that trip.

I feel strange to have had that happen in such close proximity and then to go back to the same hotel and stay, and then have the desire to hear the town’s news in the days that follow. Why was I shown this trajectory of the recent past? Those poor children that witnessed it. That mother. Damn her for being.

I can’t stand the thought of a hotel now.

Next time I’m camping. I’ll bring my own working teapot to camp with. The art of setting up camp, starting a fire, settling in for the night, having breakfast with nature, the whole bit. Doesn’t every bit of that sound mind-settling? 
 But after encountering such an experience at a hotel, should I be banished to hotels for the rest of my life, waiting to step in when someone is in need? I feel like its a selfish act to only camp in a tent now.

I’m always camping. That it. I’ve made my mind up. If someone takes me to a hotel, I will drop them off then find a remote area to pitch my tent and start my fire. Maybe through the flames I will see that boy. Maybe I’ll have a chance to tell him how sorry I am. Maybe we’ll have a great relationship and we’ll look forward to conversations with each other every time the fire is lit.

Note: This trip took place in March 2020. I wrote (dictated text) this while driving on the interstate from Birmingham to Chattanooga, on my way home.

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