Mon Semblable

by Kris Bertin

Morris remembers the first time he saw his double, quite clearly.

It was, after all, completely unforgettable. The most remarkable day of his life. Not like seeing a ghost — which he claims to have seen once, as a child — but close, he said. Close enough that it was frightening, genuinely frightening, like when you’re near a ledge and get that about-to-fall-to-your-death feeling. These were his words. He also said that his balls sucked into his guts and he nearly vomited.

Of course, I thought that while it would be scary to see something like that, I took it for granted that this was just one of those funny things that could happen. After all, there were so many people and only so many different faces, only so many different ways a jaw or a nose might arrange itself in the womb. I didn’t say this to him, however. Back then, Morris was the kind of friend who only told me things that he was certain of and expected the same in return. He wasn’t the type who tried things out on you, or who said things out loud which were just bothersome thoughts that he wanted banished. When he said that he saw his exact double, he said it with outrage, like it was an affront to him. I suppose it was.

I can say for a fact that I was wrong, and that it wasn’t just some particular configuration of bones and skin and fat that he saw. I can say so because I did see it too, eventually, and it wasn’t just a collection of similarities. It was something else. It was an exact copy.

That came later, though.

When he first saw it, we were in Montreal, roommates in a one-bedroom tenement, him with a bedroom all to himself, me with the living room and the kitchen and a toilet behind a curtain. At first, after he saw it and I hadn’t, I had to spend my days with Morris listening to him as he tried to make sense of what exactly he had seen.

At the time, Morris — who wrote and directed theatre, who fooled around with expensive cameras and was always trying to make a movie or get a grant to make one — had been struggling to find someone who might serve him and his ideas. The week of his doppelganger sighting, in fact, the best actress among our little group of artists and writers and thespians, a very special young woman named Marcie, had turned him down. This had been remarkable. People wanted to be involved in his projects, but more often than not, they didn’t meet his standards.

Morris and Marcie were supposed to meet up, and then she called him and cancelled abruptly, irritated with him for some reason. When he had tried to set up another date, she had refused, and gave him no explanation. Up until the doppelganger, he had spent his time with me complaining about her, cycling back and forth between hatred and self-loathing, calling her the stupidest cunt then worrying about who he might get to help him instead (some fucking hack). As the only one of our group who had turned his art into his primary source of income, he assumed it was jealousy that had driven her away. His personality certainly would have, if anyone ever got to see the real thing besides me.

In public, Morris was reserved, stoic. He stood ramrod straight and never spoke in anything less than a full sentence, wore neat little outfits, a necktie, slacks, loafers. It was the early ’90s and this was not fashionable, but he didn’t seem to care. Because he was looked up to, I think he took it upon himself to live up to everyone else’s idea of him. A well-regarded man ought to be a well-dressed one, he said. But at home, with me, he could scream and curse, and say the most vile things.

He liked to tell me that only two years ago he had been a man who made his way in the world scooping popcorn into paper bags, wearing an equally papery hat at the movie theatre. When he was mad at our peers, he would say none of our friends remembered that he did what they hadn’t, that he spent every moment writing, writing, writing. After Marcie had rejected him, and he had assumed she was jealous, he said that it was this hard work that had alienated him from people like her. That while she sucked and fucked, he had worked, goddammit. That while she had learned how to take drugs and how to be clever and charming and all the things he didn’t know how to do, he had made something of himself.

This was really all I knew about him, too. I know that he was adopted, and that his childhood had been “bad”, the only description I had ever got out of him. We went through undergrad together, and we each had been the only person the other had liked. He never went home, never called anybody, never mentioned anyone from a life before. That I was the one constant in his new life meant a great deal to me.

This is why I listened while he yelled, and agreed, watching TV in between his bouts of indignation. Because I loved him. Like most of his fits, the worst of it was over after a mere hour, after he ate his only meal of the day — tomato soup with too many crackers — wearing a napkin like a bib to protect his one of two clean shirts. Then it would only be quiet mentions of her name, or just the shaking of his head while staring out the window, watching snow fall.

But once he saw himself, walking along in Little Portugal, wearing not the clothes that he owned, but the ones he wished he did, he was worse. Maybe worse than I’d ever seen him. After seeing his own head and hands sticking out of a beautiful camelhair coat, he was consumed.

“What the fuck was that?” he asked me, lying on the floor between the couch and the coffee table. “Was that me, except with money? Was that a successful version of me? Mocking me?”

“I don’t know, Morris,” I told him.

“I’m not joking, you know,” he said, “it was completely fucked. He even looked more straight than me.”

“Then it wasn’t you,” I said, deciding I could try to convince him otherwise.

That’s when he sat up and pointed at me.

“It was me, you stupid fuck, I know it was. If you had seen it, you would have shat your fat fucking pants.”

Then he laid himself back down on the floor and covered his face with a piece of mail from the coffee table. Under his breath, he called me a fat bag of shit. Hours later, I was a stupid idiot, and the next day, I was again a fat bag of shit again for not believing him. Go eat a couple of sandwiches, he said, clear your fucking head.

I could tolerate this because we were partners, of a sort. I had directed two of his plays, co-written a short film with him (which had won an award which seemed like everything at the time, but which meant nothing now), and, for all the venom he contained, it meant something that he shared it with me. That I was worthy of his real feelings on any matter — even the subject of myself — meant something. The man, at least at the time, was special. He was worthy of jealousy or at least respect, and I considered my saying nothing back to him as the highest form. After all, I would have trounced anyone else who said something even half as cruel.

I thought I had an answer about the ‘other Morris’. You hear all the time about brilliant people who are mentally disordered, and I slotted it in this category without trying to focus on what it meant for him and me. I told myself it was like Blake seeing God as a child, or Phillip K. Dick’s insane vision beamed into his head by a woman with a golden necklace. I didn’t think these things really happened either, but thought they were the by-product of the same kind of special creativity Morris possessed. After all, Morris was incredible. He didn’t really read anything besides the newspaper and sadistic pornography (AtomAge and old copies of Bizarre were everywhere in that apartment), but despite this he seemed to know everything about all the different ways a person could live and think and be. He wrote about research scientists in the jungle and their loneliness as easily as he wrote about a truck driver who was cruising along the Trans-Canada with a boner in his corduroys, trying to lure waitresses into his semi. He was a virtuoso. Maybe that came from this. Maybe his brain just worked this way. Maybe delusions were the debt owed for a brilliance like his.

Less than a week later, when I was rehearsing for Falstaff (the fattest of Shakespeare’s cast, Morris liked to remind me), I saw Marcie’s handler, Dennis.

Marcie, for all of her incredible talent, was wildly fragile. To her, every conversation happening nearby was about her, every missed opportunity was a slight, every glance was a stare, every touch was a blow. I believed that, just like Morris’s imagination made him slightly unhinged, so too did Marcie’s instability make her a talent. Morris had wanted her because she was the best, and I believed the same, mostly because tears and rage and barbaric joy were always nearby for her. Morris’s little film, about a woman who lost a six-month old child, would have required the kind of screaming that only she was capable of. He thought she might be the perfect choice to act out the destruction of her psyche, or at least the perfect choice to do it for $500 of his grant money.

Dennis was another one of our group, who dealt with all her meltdowns and freakouts and crack-ups. Though I was like this for Morris, Dennis was a unique breed, a kind I had never experienced before. He enabled and validated her, but also mocked her in private, something I would never do with Morris, because I valued him too much. This was one of the only things I could offer him: I kept his secrets.

Other times, Dennis was Marcie’s defender, and she was like a little sister to him. When he confronted me at the theatre during breaks, he was in this mode.

“What’s wrong with Morris?” he asked me. “I mean, I know there’s a lot wrong with him, but what’s his fucking problem, anyway?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” I said. “But you’d better watch your mouth.”

I was in costume, and felt extra powerful in my tunic and moustache. I think I even laid my forearm on my sword.

With that, Dennis switched from scold to gossip. Looking both ways, his face filled with glee, he confided in me that Marcie, the day she was supposed to meet with Morris, had seen him walking. It was hours before they were supposed to meet, but she waved, and he didn’t wave back. He had ignored her and walked right past her. At first, she thought this was a joke, and had played along, chasing after him, and turning him around by the shoulder (though I’m sure she was terrified or furious or devastated at the time).

“When she did,” Dennis covered his smile with his hand to cover his bad teeth, “Morris slapped her.”

“He slapped her?”

“Cuffed her across the face, then carried on into the crowd, while she stood, stunned.”

Dennis then looked at me, and I looked at him. There was no longer any Falstaff in or upon me. I was myself again.

“She called me in hysterics. I had to practically carry her home from Mile End.”

“That’s unbelievable,” I said.

“Does he ever hit you?” he asked. “I know it’s none of my business, but everyone is talking.”

“No,” I said, “never. It must have been someone else.”

“Must have,” Dennis said, and raised his eyebrows at me before skittering away.

I was thinking exactly what you are thinking.

I decided that I would have to tell Morris, that Dennis’s big mouth would tell the story of the slap, but also the story of confronting me, over and over, and that there was no keeping this to myself.

Then, when rehearsal was over, I was left to think about what Morris himself had seen, in the same neighbourhood, just a few days later. Maybe the same thing Marcie had seen. Maybe the same person who had struck her. I wasn’t thinking yet thinking that an impersonator was at work, or about the incredible folklore of the Irish fetch or about science fiction clones or evil twins then, but about the thing I had started with: the notion of similarity, maybe uncanny similarity, between one skull and another. A man who looked like Morris was grabbed, and he had reacted badly, that was all. This was my conclusion. This is what I would spend days trying to convince Morris of, and what he’d call me a bloated homo and a diabetic retard for believing.

But this, I have come to see, is the thing about doppelgangers. This is what Morris and I came to know. The damage they do isn’t to you, directly, but to people’s perception of you. If you have one, it’s out there, in the world, doing whatever it wants, and people will think it’s you. How many greetings would go ignored? And worse, how many heinous things could be done to a lone person in the dark, or in dim but public places where everyone could see? What had his creature done?

If you’ve got one, if someone is out there, wearing your reputation like a camel hair coat, how many sins could it accumulate in your name, and how fast could they add up? I admit now, after having seen the phenomenon, that I’m thinking about myself, and not the widely-admired Morris. That I am thinking that there is a general distaste for me, and always has been, no matter how kind or thoughtful I am, and it came with me into my future and career, too. Could there be another me, bringing down the very idea of who I am and what I do? These are the thoughts I grapple with in my middle-age, as I try to find an explanation for why I am tolerated, but not venerated. Liked, but never enjoyed.

The first incident finally left us after about a month, when Morris got busy enough, and cast someone else in his ‘screaming woman movie’ as I had come to call it. Every now and then he would bring it up, but as the year went on, and as he got involved writing another play, and then a book, and then when we wrote a small feature film for a burgeoning production company together, it became something he came to question.

“Did that even happen?” he’d ask me.

And I would have to decide if he was the Morris I could be myself around, or not. If I could, I’d say something like you sure seemed to think so at the time, and he could even laugh at it. When we were writing partners who were making a living together, and I cherished the bond we had forged, I could even really tease him about it. In the years that followed, it became a joke that was special, because it was an absurd thing to discuss, and because it was a secret so powerful that no one could possibly know what I meant when I pointed at a strangely handsome homeless man on the street and say:

“There you are, Morris.”

Or point out a particularly homely streetwalker wearing jean shorts and a vest in downtown Los Angeles, when we were pitching ideas to every single producer in town, and say:

“Look. It’s you.”

The joke was endless, but could only be deployed every now and then, as a surprise. It could even cheer him up, like when we were stranded in the Philadelphia airport and he was forlorn about the lack of accommodation for our overbooked flight, and I pointed at a very overweight man (heavier than even myself), mopping the floor, and said:

“Hey Morris. There’s mine.”

And, after coming through his own cloud of anger, I got to watch his face light up, his mouth open and his teeth show in — a word I only ever used with Morris, probably because of that unique cruelty of his — a violent guffaw.

This is where The Doppleganger stayed, for a few more years. It got to live inside of us, between us, as an acknowledgement of some past confusion. It was a beautiful thing, and I came to think of it this way, like a decoration on our friendship. This was the most thought I ever gave to it, and I liked to think Morris was the same, that he had moved past it, and forgotten about it.

He hadn’t.

We were big time when it came back.

We were living apart in New York, though we were together more than ever. We had written seven movies together, and five had been produced, and one of them had gotten our lead, Julie Christie, an Academy nomination and a SAG award. Morris had directed it and was annoyed that he hadn’t been nominated, but knew enough to see that our actress’s win had been ours. We had written two romances, a romantic comedy, a straight madcap comedy (which we were made to write, and which failed utterly), and then our big one, an “indie film”, called Bien Humor. It was celebrated by critics and lauded as brilliant, though we both knew it wasn’t.

A successful ‘indie screenplay’, as far as I can tell, just means that someone, at some point, says one thing that’s original, but the rest of the thing otherwise adheres to all the rules of How To Write a Screenplay in 21 days. We spent nights (and money) sitting in bars discussing this, shitting on our work and each other but feeling great that we had finally gotten somewhere. That we had money, and work, and could soon do whatever the fuck we wanted.

What Morris wanted, it turned out, was to be in love, and so he was, with an actress who he was serving in some way, who he had helped get cast in this and that, and who had moved in with him terribly fast. Her name was Louise, and sometimes she would be with us, but mostly she wasn’t. She was like him, I think, but not as much as he would have liked. Mostly, she was hidden from me. I had always assumed Morris was at least a little bit queer, though I had never seen him with anyone. And maybe he was, but I knew lots of men like us who decided that at some point it was time to “build a life”, which usually meant that those other desires were submerged for about a year or so, at which point they became dalliances (usually with someone like me). He was talking about getting engaged, and for the first time, spoke to me about it in the way others usually did; with that pleading hope of acceptance. I was disappointed and wanted to tell him not to, but I didn’t. I gave him what he needed.

When the creature came for us again, it came at us through her.

She was — as one would expect of a woman chosen for these purposes — younger than us both. This meant that she was doing what we had been up to before we got our start, and was going to plays, acting classes, and little book releases attended by a half-dozen people, most of whom were trying on being an artist. It was at one of these, a poetry reading, that she found him. The duplicate.

He came to me with what she had brought home to him as a funny curiosity: a poster for My Smallness: A New One Man Show by Orrin Fife.

“Doesn’t he look just like you?” she had asked him. “This isn’t you, right?”

I was at the Greek breakfast place which I treated as an office, drinking coffees and writing for several hours a day, eating this and that from the menu as I grew hungry.

He threw it down in front of me, right on my whole wheat toast and tomato slices.

“It’s him,” he said. “That fucking cunt fake.”

I turned it over and I saw that the thing really did have Morris’s face on it, pouty-lipped with a David Bowie gaze aimed straight at the photographer. He looked thinner, maybe even younger, though. He looked the way Morris had only just a few years ago, before gravity had pulled some part of his mouth downwards.

I have to admit that it was shocking to see it. I did admit it, actually.

“Oh my god,” I said. “That’s uncanny.”

“Not so funny now, is it, you big fucking oaf?” Morris struck the back of the thing where it was wet from my snack. “He’s even stealing my profession.”

By this time, our relationship had changed. I wasn’t the helpful lunk who smoothed things over, who defended him to outraged colleagues. I wasn’t a fucking oaf anymore. I was 50% of an enterprise. I reacted badly.

“It’s just someone who looks like you,” I said sternly. “And remember who it is you’re talking to here.”

It was the first time I had ever said something like this to him, and he looked hurt by it, despite the fact he had only moments before called me a name. I softened, and took the paper closer to myself, as if a kindness shown to his double was a kindness shown to him.

“A one-man show? Jesus, Morris. Please don’t tell me you’re jealous of this indulgent shit. Have you seen a one-man show?”

“You know I have,” he said, a little gentler now himself. “But this is who I saw. First he was in Montreal. Now he’s in the... Village or some shit.”

I looked closer at the picture, and then at him, back and forth. I wanted to isolate something. A difference. Bushy eyebrows. A mole. A scar. The best I had was that he had an earring like Billy Idol. I pointed it out.

“I always wondered about getting one of those,” he said.

“You did not.”

“I did,” he said sadly. He was sad, I saw. The emotion didn’t make any sense to me, but then neither did this obsession with a man who shared his likeness. I tried to see it from his point of view, but I was the rational one in our pair. I couldn’t imagine coming to any conclusion other than my own, that it was just a look-alike. I gave it back to him and he took care to get the bit of food off the back, wiping it with a napkin.

He didn’t need to tell me we were going, but he did. The show was on that night and the next five. I would have told him to take Louise, except I knew this was upsetting to him in a way he could barely express, let alone share with her.

“Will you come?” he asked quietly.

“I will,” I said. “I promise.”

Sometime later, maybe six or eight months or so, Louise asked to meet with me.

Louise never really spoke with me, so I knew right away something was wrong when I received a call from her. She came to my condo looking older than she was, looking like she was preparing for the role of a widow or a divorcee (though she was supposed to be getting ready to be a woman who fights giant spider or two in three weeks). Even though the Duplicate had been consuming my thoughts, I didn’t think that’s why she’d want to talk. Like always, I assumed the most human thing I could. I thought it was one of the age old he’s having an affair, isn’t he calls.

It wasn’t exactly. But it was close.

She told me that he hadn’t come home after the performance that we saw, and that he came back with a knot on his head, and that he claimed that he had fallen. She also said that he had been going out more than before, usually during the times that he and her would. Like all of these kinds of stories, I did what I was supposed to. I said he was probably just working on something — that he had been talking about writing something without me, and that’s likely what it was — and did my best to cover for him. Then she said what she was supposed to, that she knew it wasn’t true, that she had followed him, and had found him with someone else.

And there all the normalcy ended. The regular back-and-forth between trusted confidant and jilted lover disappeared.

She explained that he had been going to a house in Tremont. It was one of those transplanted houses, standing on stilts above a new foundation, an old building ready to become new, seated between an old garage and a four-story walk-up. That the house was a shingled saltbox, like you see on the East Coast, with peeling paint and all its windows papered over. Two long extension cords ran from the upstairs over to the auto shop next door, plugged into the side of the place.

When she went in through the exposed basement, just like he had, she found a house that was completely destroyed, with walls toppled over, a mildewed ceiling, and three men sitting in a living room — with a boy.

Two of the men were Morris, she said. And the third, it seemed, was Morris, but with a beard, and eyeglasses on a chain.

“But the little boy,” she said, “the little boy, he looked like Morris too.”

The first time, she just hid behind one of the half-wrecked walls.

The only light they had was from a single lamp, and they were listening to classical music. Ravel, she said.

“I think it was the actor I found, Orrin,” she said. “In fact, I know it was.”

Her question, the one she was building to, wasn’t about a woman, or a man, but about Morris’s family. If he had a family, she didn’t know anything about it. The most he ever told her, she said, was that his father — his real father, not his foster father — had been a horrible man. Louise said that Morris had described him as ‘the worst kind of person’.

“If him and this actor are brothers, twins, then who was this older one? Was it their father? And who is the boy? A cousin? Another son?”

I couldn’t tell her about what I thought it was, and I couldn’t tell her what I knew about his family, because I never knew anything about that, either. For a moment, I even allowed myself to inhabit the possibility that they were brothers, and that this was their father. But I knew better, and I knew better because of the performance we saw.

You’d think this news, about more Morrises, about the house, and the child might have been the strangest part, but it wasn’t. Nothing compared to the show, in my mind. Everything that happened after it made a kind of sense. The show, however, didn’t. Never have I sat through something so bizarre.

Nothing compares to it, actually. Not meeting the famous and infamous, not seeing Roman Polanski boarding a plane in the south of France, not even being in breathtaking places where I never dreamed I would be, like the Algonquin, sitting opposite Jack Nicholson over drinks, discussing a role. Nothing.

The theatre sat maybe 90 people, and while it was cramped and the Emergency Exit sign buzzed audibly, it was full. I sat with Morris, who was hidden from the crowd, wearing an honest-to-goodness disguise — a baseball cap, sunglasses and a scarf over his mouth like the Invisible Man — while we watched, and he took panicked breaths.

We watched as a person who not only looked like him, but who had his voice, his gait, his way of speaking, performed on stage. And what was stranger was the content: “Orrin Fife” wore a thin little necktie and slacks, just like Morris used to wear, and sat on a stage with a crude set that was built to be reminiscent of where Morris and I had once lived. The old green chair we had, with a lamp sitting on two milk crates, was there. So was the tall glass coffee table, and “Orrin” himself even got on the floor and laid between it and the couch. A blanket and pillow were strewn across it.

The pillow was red, like mine had been.

I might have said something about it, but if Morris wasn’t speaking, I wasn’t going to.

The show was an hourlong self-critique. About his unfairness to others, about everything that was wrong with him. The title, My Smallness, referred to these failings. An acknowledgement and an inventory of them. There were so many good lines, which I recognized as true not just for Morris, but for myself. The audience seemed to think so too. He said that he was kind in order to receive kindness. That he wounded others because he wanted them to understand that he didn’t want them to wound him further —because then they would understand the unfairness of his own actions. He said that ‘sharing in agony is the only kind of friendship I can understand’ and then, sitting on the couch, head in his hands, said the line that made me see that I was inside of this too:

“Friendship is an infection. Who can I hate more than myself? My friend, that’s who,” then he stood and turned the coffee table over with a thud, stood inside its legs, feet on its stomach. I had seen Morris do exactly this, once.

“We make others like us, so that we might hate them correctly, as we hate ourselves,” he said. “Then we can take on the world without fear of any betters.”

It was a little too on-the-nose, like Morris’s lines could sometimes be these days, but it was true, too. True in a way his weren’t anymore. I didn’t dare look over to Morris for confirmation, but I’m certain he was sobbing, taking little breaths beside me, into his scarf.

The show ended with “Orrin” stripping down to nothing and getting underneath the couch, then falling silent for a very long time, while the audience sat and waited. Other than a single cough, it was like that for maybe three minutes, and then the curtains closed, and there was thunderous applause.

People stood and cheered, but Morris and I sat like men struck dumb. Like we were in a tandem electric chair, staring straight ahead, bolted into place.

Louise told me, when she confronted me, that the strangest part of it all was the injury that Morris had on his head. It was shared by all of them, a rising welt on each of their foreheads, including the boy’s. She began to weep when she tried to explain what she had seen, which was that the older man drew the youngest close, and began to suck on it, like a nursing dog. And that ‘her’ Morris did the same to the other one, and that they stayed that way for so long that she had to look away. So long that she decided if she didn’t run off, she would lose her mind.

The wound, I should add, was something I never saw. The day or two after the performance, there was no sign of a bruise or a lump or anything. Morris was Morris.

I don’t know if this means Louise was lying, or if the act she witnessed was an act of healing. I don’t know if the blow itself was an injury that one received and all four developed, or if it was something even stranger. I thought of Marcie’s slap, all those years ago. Did that inclination towards violence result in this? I also thought about the boy, and about the goddess Athena, born whole out of Zeus’s forehead. Had that left a mark? I don’t know. I also don’t know if the old Morris was the one he saw all those years ago, or if it was another one, or if any of it happened at all. I don’t know anything.

Sometimes I would try to imagine what had happened after the performance, or come up with an elaborate explanation for it and the appearance of the old and new Morris, one that eschewed the regular rules of gametes and human development. But this exercise didn’t last, and for good reason. I had nothing to gain, lots to lose. I imagined, now and then, that the only thing that mattered — and the only thing I could verify and understand — was the play, which had told me everything I needed to know about this situation.

The night she came to see me, I ended up holding her for nearly an hour while she wept, and explained that I didn’t know anything, though she kept accusing me otherwise. When I insisted I didn’t, she begged me to go to see what she alternated between calling The Floating House and ‘their nest’.

I said I would not.

“It wouldn’t be right,” I said. And this, I think, was the only true thing I said to her about it.

Morris and I met to work on something new the next day, and there was nothing to say about it. I hadn’t said anything about the show, all those months ago, so why would I mention this? What could one even say about it? What could Morris? What could I? When I saw Louise next, she seemed perfectly adjusted to things, so I assume she had reached the same conclusion I had.

Morris sat opposite me at my kitchen table, where Louise had sat and cried only hours before, and we got to work. He seemed content like I had never seen him. We continued our writing for the next three weeks, and Morris would sometimes leave, unannounced, and return with new vigour, usually acting more pleasant, suddenly more fond of me than he had been only an hour before.

I wasn’t sure if it was my imagination or not, but it was almost as if he was sitting alongside the memory of an old friend, instead of the friend himself.

Kris Bertin is a writer of short stories, screenplays, and comics. His first book, Bad Things Happen, won The Writer’s Union of Canada’s Danuta Gleed Award, and the ReLit Award. He is the writer and co-creator of the critically-acclaimed series of graphic novels, Hobtown Mystery Stories, including The Case of The Missing Men and The Cursed Hermit.

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