They close at dusk. If you rush, you’ll make it. Most of the kids keep serving as long as customers show up. You sure did. Middle school is too young, but Coneland found a loophole. Paid you a few bucks an hour plus tips. A goldmine back then.
The scuffed Plexiglas is hard to see through, but you can’t resist shuttering your eyes like using a View-Master to peer inside and look at your past. Like the wheel-card of slides in the stereoscopic toy, the scenes don’t change. You could swear that red handled scoop stuck in a mint green puddle is the same one you left out, the one that almost got you fired.
Funny how shapes and colors click into place with the turn of the wheel, yet you can’t remember specific events. It’s a picture without a story. Where there ought to be a boss and a reprimand, maybe flippant apologies or sarcastic silence from middle school you, there’s nothing but placeholder space.
On the View-Master wheel, a hint of a glitch overlaps in the moment when the slides shift. All you can do is move on to the next image. Keep going forward. Here’s one where a grease board lists the specials. You know how it looks by heart before it comes into focus: the bubbly handwriting of a teenage girl, the layers of incomplete erasures behind the words. Ink in pink, yellow, and brown illustrates an ice cream cone that looks like an atomic bomb. Each visual detail slips into place precise and familiar, yet active memories of your boss, your family, your coworkers, and friends elude you.
Maybe it’s not so strange. After all, it was a long time ago. You’ve had more than your share of bosses since then, traveling as you have from town to town, job to job. None of them ever seem to stick. Another click of the dial turns the wheel and you move on to the next place.
You click the handle, turn the wheel, and check the next frame for evidence of your missing childhood. The View-Master focuses on the sign above the sliding window. It’s the yellow face of Banana Bill, the Coneland clown.
Multiple replications produce a doubling effect. How odd to see the banner above the window reflected from within the scuffed and blurred Plexiglas. You’d pull back from the dirty aperture and look away, walk away—the place is closed anyway—except toward the back of the shop you’re sure you see the clown face logo reflected from above and superimposed. It’s impossible. Your hands cup your temples and your forehead grinds into the grit on the glass. Something moves. Something inside the ice cream shop tilts back and forth, like a child playing but much larger. A grown man is riding a rocking horse.
You clasp the View-Master to your brow as though it’s a pair of binoculars. The imaginary toy feels real in your hands. Plastic openings match your eye sockets. You aim at the memory you want to unlock, click the handle to advance the slide, and freeze as it zooms into focus.
Banana Bill’s yellow face fills the frame. An unusual clown with monochromatic gold-flecked face paint, a bulbous bronze nose, and bald but for the symmetrical blond curly spirals winding out on each side above his ears like thick, matted horns. His capacious grin is white with three gold-capped teeth, accented comic-book style with one little gleaming cartoon star each.
No longer a reflection of the sign above the window, the face has become three-dimensional: a large puppet or an actor in heavy make-up. His lips quiver where the edges of his grin grow unstable. Gold-flecked skin sweats, accentuating the texture of his wide pores and blond razor stubble. Greasepaint cracks around the wrinkles in the corners of his eyes and clogs the creases of his strained cheeks. The flat cartoon-yellow irises you know so well from the illustration of Banana Bill come alive. They are wet amber gleams with vertical black slits for pupils. They follow you like a cat.
Maybe you’re shaking, or maybe the image in the View-Master is moving faster. The entire picture rocks back and forth without switching to the next slide. Banana Bill’s head stays in frame, moving rhythmically, shifting in small increments without your thumb trembling on the switch.
The leering golden-coated face and whether the man is in pain or some sort of unbearable manic pleasure instead, you really can’t tell; the painted face pulses forward and back, forward and back, pulling away from you incrementally with each violent thrust. His amber eyes stay locked on yours as his neck and shoulders come into view. For a white man, his skin is dark from tanning, and you can see the messy pink edges where his gold make-up flecks apart in the thick hair on his bare chest. His arms clench and relax, extended forward and down.
Your view seesaws in time as a dark wood rocking horse works its way into frame. The man’s not saddled. He grips the rocking horse from behind by the hips. Working back and forth, his relentless rhythm sends ripples through her voluptuous flesh. She’s propped on her elbows, trying to lick an ice cream cone while his repeated shoving slaps her body forward. The top scoop of her cone collides with her face and falls onto the sticky floor.
You realize you should have mopped better. The spaces where the slides overlap streak blurred glitch lines across your memory like flawed celluloid. You recall the grunting and sloppy aquatic sound when the boss finishes and pulls out.
Afterwards, the rocking horse is broken down under his gold brick fists. Predatory amber eyes hold your gaze to make sure you understand there is a lesson in this. The rocking horse stops responding. The golden man has destroyed it. The manic clown face corrupts with spit, blood, and sweat.
Lenses smeared, the View-Master clasps tight to your unblinking eyes. Your feet won’t move. Banana Bill opens up the rocking horse like cutting through an ice cream cake, but there is a chaos and stench inside that pours out like giant worms writhing across the floor. As his eyes roll back in his head, the golden man’s body grows rhythmic and pulsing again. Your hands shake. Your thumb’s made of rubber. You can barely flex it, but you have to escape this nightmare. You click away to the next slide.
Amber eyes like knives close up open wide and surge forward. Cat slit pupils cut through the View-Master’s apertures and distend, pressing into your eyeballs like cold trembling fingers. The salt of the golden man’s vitreous humor stings. Don’t move. Don’t blink. One more millimeter is all it will take to gouge out your tender orbs and make it all go black.
There’s nowhere else to go. The wheel only moves in one direction.
One more click.
Image: A child presses silly putty onto a newspaper and peels it up. The putty lifts an imprint of Banana Bill the clown. The child drapes it over their fist and pulls the edges outward to enlarge Banana Bill’s face. Tugging and stretching distorts his enormous grin and gleaming amber eyes. When the silly putty slab grows as pliable as heavy fabric and big enough to fit them as a mask, the child turns it over, lifts the slab with both hands, and presses it onto their face.
Image: Probably a local news show. Host wears a plaid polyester sport coat and has a thick moustache and heavy sideburns. He’s squinting at the camera from a sunny picnic area.
“Counting down over the next two years until our nation’s bicentennial, the American consumer grows more wary of shortages and high household spending every day. Last year’s long lines at the gas pumps and continuing inflation made many of us more loyal than ever to our nationally recognized brands and cheap, reliable factory foodstuffs. So what’s a small family farm to do when they need to make ends meet in the modern economy?”
Inserted stock footage of a small dairy farm: cows grazing, stables, pasteurization tanks.
“Meet Banana Bill, our new hometown hero. You’ll find him in your Sunday Funnies, blasting bad guys with his big banana guns and melting away evildoers to keep Coneland safe for the kiddies.”
Images follow in sequence: several frames clipped from a local newspaper’s comic strip depict a nuclear family of ice cream cone cartoon characters, two tall and two short. The four walk hand in hand under a bright golden sign that says, “Liberty and Dairy for All.” Baby Sue cone is the smallest. She wears a pink bow on her double cherry scoop head and lags behind the group. Little Tommy encourages her to keep up like a good big brother, his blue moon flavored head under a denim baseball cap with a red, white, and blue star at the apex. Daddy cone and mommy cone stride ahead, indistinguishable from one another except for the fedora atop daddy’s vanilla head and mommy’s pearl necklace that frames her two suggestively large frontal drips.
The next frame darkens. The video tape from the archive is corrupted. Fortunately, the sound is still good.
“Kids of all ages can meet Banana Bill out on Old Route 55 starting this spring in advance of the bicentennial. We’re told here at channel twelve that his schedule is top secret; you never know where or when he’ll appear! But I’m pleased to say this reporter has obtained inside information from a highly confidential source close to Banana Bill himself.”
The reporter’s ironic smile and theatrical wink cut between flashes of comic strip frames. The images are folded by color bands or obscured by static even when the tape is paused. Glimpses of Banana Bill’s yellow hair spirals and his three giant gold teeth burst from the top of the cartoon cell. Daddy cone may be prone, his fedora fallen off and vanilla head half melted, though it’s difficult to be certain. The center of the frame suggests something black and red that rips away mommy cone’s pearls, cracking the fragile edge of her crisp shell. Both baby cones appear to huddle under her shaking legs, pearls scattering around their feet and sticking in the pool of daddy’s disintegrating head.
Gnarled sound and obliterated video in the next sequence frustrate all efforts of the collector. This is the best quality copy they’ve been able to find after combing archives, local news stations, libraries, and finally by appealing to the retired actor whose garage was a rat’s nest of tangled Betamax memories. The collector rewinds the precious dub. The voice in the clip repeats: “Close to Banana Bill himself.”
Blackout and silence. The next comic strip cell convulses in primary colors glitching between the fighting clown’s star-spangled grin and his exploding banana guns. Blackened banana peels twist back after firing, curled like Bill’s leering lips. One hole exposes teeth, the other an extinguished void.
“This Sunday, get an early taste of Banana Bill’s special new flavor, Rocket’s Red Glare, created in honor of our nation’s upcoming birthday. Come by to meet Bill in person and be sure to bring the whole family: mom, dad, kiddies, cousins, and grandparents, too.”
A quick pan backwards ends the sequence. As the taping is about to stop an unintentional shot reveals the full four-cell comic strip. The out-of-focus swipe lasts for three clumsy unedited seconds. The collector pauses the tape with the third cell on-screen.
Daddy cone collapses. His head melts. Deep gashes of red cherry syrup slash his neck, evidence that the young upstart Rocket’s Red Glare has attacked. The marauding flavor is strewn about the frame in vivid red chunks, freshly frozen yet bitten apart. Remnants of the thick red sludge drip from Banana Bill’s garish smile. Red splashes down on the baby cones, sticks to the scattered pearls, and stains the father’s fallen hat. The melting red, white, and blue colors combine to implant a conglomerate purple bruise between mommy’s legs.
Banana Bill’s hairy chest swells behind the crime scene. His legs are poorly rendered, giving the impression of knees that bend the wrong way, drawn with outlines so rough they look like they have fur. Mommy cone’s previously cracked shell is now split wide open, exposing her internal odalisque of twisted vanilla cream. Banana Bill stares in her direction, one of the rare instances in the history of the comic when his predatory eyes are not aimed at the viewer.
Image: The child you see from behind has their hands raised to their face as if playing hide and seek. They have sleek hair, small shoulders, and age-appropriate clothes. The child lowers their hands. The silly putty stays put. The mask sticks.
As they turn around to face you, the distorted cartoon clown imprint bares Banana Bill’s warped teeth, his spiraled hair like horns of a markhor goat, and two holes allowing the child to breathe that stretch asymmetrically wide into a snout. The leering mouth sags lower to form a moaning hole.
The mud color of silly putty pulls the newsprint ink to the breaking point. The clown face is deconstructed by expansion like an overinflated balloon.
The child doesn’t like the mask, the chemical smell of silly putty, or the circling figures in conical hats. If the child survives this year’s summer festival, they will be fortunate to outlive their memory of the ordeal and merely become a collector, cursed to chase after the very knowledge their physiology and conditioning requires them to forget.
Image: There is no image. Your eyelids drop. Down, down, down they drop, too leaden to ever lift up again. You fight the darkness and use your fingertips to pry open your eyes.
No light. You press into the lack you already suspect, tentative, terrified of what your fingertips will find. Feeling nothing, you shove your fingers deep into the black gaps in your skull to meet only absence. No memory remains in the enucleated spaces your bloody sockets frame. No light. No eyes. Nothing but warm fluid and exposed nerves haunt your recessed hollows.
Together the sculptors craft their clay vignettes with meticulous precision days before the photographer will arrive. Like fraternal twins, they work in symbiotic silence sharing a tacit understanding of the desired mise en scene. White smocks cover their distinguished wool suits. The pair is often mistaken for men of science when they sprawl at the corner table reserved for them daily in the street-side café below their Parisian studio.
They don’t argue with the erroneous interpretation. Their philosophy is broadminded enough to hold forth that all art communicates truth, even when it is full of lies. Anatomical research, too, is as integral to their methodology as it is to any trained physician. Bones bear witness to the pace and purpose of their work. They craft the multitude of miniature clay skeletons and pose them for models of a medieval danse macabre.
Accessing their current tabletop diorama project with modelling tools, sponges, and clay shapers, they complete the diabolical scene by placing conical hats atop a half-circle of grinning skeletons. This expertly crafted moon-shaped grouping of miniature figures twists and gestures wildly with their bony legs and arms, skeletons animated by dance. Each links to the others in their semicircle, holding hands as the still dancers almost seem to spin. The attention to detail is astounding; tiny phalanges crafted to weave with other minute and perfectly detailed hands. As a backdrop, a rocky cavern surrounds the festive skeletons, illuminated from its depths by three sickly stars.
The photographer who shoots the scene will make two plates for the stereoscopic art card. To the naked eye, the scenes in the pictures will appear identical, but imperceptible differences in the angle of the camera will create an illusion of realistic depth when both eyes are forced to see the divergent pictures simultaneously through a stereoscopic device.
Mimicking natural depth perception, the scene will leap to life.
In the center of the skeleton’s celebration, a cow with swollen udders lies recently slain. Three half-human fauns wrestle to get at her teats to suckle, their pointed ears alert, their back legs gangly and hooved on the rocky mountainous ground. Hairy haunches arch toward the viewer. Although the sculptors have crafted the fauns to be anatomically correct, their curled tails hide their bestial nudity.
The slaughtered cow’s neck is split open. Its head remains attached. Waves of blood sculpted by a loop tool gush out and churn upon the rocks. The impression of movement is striking; even more so when viewed in a stereoscope that is held by shaky hands. The sculptors take human frailty into account when executing their craft: all hands shake slightly from the carnival’s excitements, from the titillation of the new, from one aperitif too many at the tent where the fruits of their labor will be shown. The tremors of popular addictions accentuate the vitality of their work.
The final detail, and by no means the least important, will be added just before the photographer arrives for tomorrow’s session. As the clay tide erupts from the fresh gash, a child will rise from the neck of the dead cow.
Historians argue certain points about the obscure stereoscopic cards. As an art form almost erased from history by neglect, no one can say whether the delicate French tissue transparency of the dancing skeletons became damaged with use or if the card deteriorated in careless storage conditions over time. Few would consider the possibility that sculptors with such finesse in constructing miniature three-dimensional effects had designed the child’s face to be a slab of melting clay, or that such skilled artists would have intentionally flattened it into an inhuman, moaning mask.
Despite the child’s stricken and distorted visage marring the visual desirability of the plain card, L’avaleuse des Meres Mortes is highly prized by certain collectors for the dramatic transformation revealed when light is shined on it from the back.
By switching the light source, the cavernous rocky background opens up to become a gaping, grinning mouth. The golden-yellowed sepia cliffs surrounding the scene transform into the leering face of a jester. The jagged edges of high rocks are his teeth. Three sallow stars glint between these gold-lighted geological anomalies, illuminating the central figure of the rising child. Thus lighted, the whole vignette of dance and slaughtered cow takes place engulfed by a clown’s monumental jaws.
The decaying mask on the child’s face is a consistent flaw on all of the few known examples of the card, yet it never appears quite the same on each one. Inequities of degeneration between the dual images produce visual artifacts that compete in the brain. Cursory viewing causes headaches and eye strain. Continued scrutiny leads to permanent damage to the optic nerve with significant changes in visual perception.
Prevention of the viewer’s decline is undermined by the collector’s fascination with the card and paranoid insistence that the image mutates more radically the longer it is observed. Continued gazing perpetuates the delusion. The afflicted collector soon reports elements of the card encroaching on daily life. Visual reality may blur and darken, replaced by skeletons dancing in conical hats, suckling fauns, and the surrounding landscape sprouting caves with rock formations in the shape of a jester’s glinting teeth.
The addict refuses to abstain, insisting a change will take place in the rising child as seen through the stereoscopic device. Unless forcefully restrained, they refuse to look away without beholding the final image in all its fullness. They claim a great mystery will be revealed in that very last gaze. Thus, having returned pathologically to the source of sickness for a cure, at the penultimate moment before the child’s expected transformation takes place, the hallucinating collector goes blind.
You’re too scared of Banana Bill to go up and claim your prize. You won the game of pin the tail on the donkey, although they don’t call the kid a donkey; they use a more insidious word that makes you sick to hear. Sicker when they make you say it out loud. Something about it makes the game feel like a test. You’re glad it’s over so you can forget how ashamed you feel for going along with everything. You did what you had to do. You passed.
One of the older kids weighs your prize in their hands and then tosses it to you over the picnic tables. They’d steal it if had any worth. View-Master toys are for little kids.
Banana Bill doesn’t look like a clown after coaching the rough game under the hot sun and showing the kids how to catch the donkey by his toe. Heat melts his gold face paint. He’s ditched the bulbous bronze nose to kiss a mom who said she didn’t want any ice cream because she’s watching her figure. Banana Bill grabbed her by the waist and said she deserved a treat. Everyone laughed.
His wig is askew. He’s undone the last button on his flowered shirt. It flaps open to show a hairy chest and gold chains. Untucked from his yellow bell-bottoms, it leaves him exposed down to the navel as he shares a cigarette with a circle of flirting moms.
You don’t care if your cup of Rocket’s Red Glare melts. Everyone else hurries to gulp theirs down in the liquefying sun, smearing red on their laughing mouths and clapping hands. Shirt fronts and skirts bloom with red spatter from dripping cones. Shoes slip in puddles of red overflowing from leaking cups. Bins fill with liquid and paper trash stained by the plentiful residue. Abandoning the hurried feast, you leave your red cup on the picnic table and investigate your new toy.
Inserting the wheel-card and placing your eyes in line with the square openings of the plastic viewer, the first scene is black and white. Except it’s not a scene; everything looks exactly the same as the festival around you. Your head snaps up. You check your surroundings. You check the card again and confirm. The same place, same people, same groupings and positions, except in the manufactured card viewer, today is black and white.
It’s disappointing. The card wheel is supposed to tell a story. You’ve already lived through today.
You think about throwing it away, but then you won’t find out what happens next. Will the card tell you who you’re going to be when you grow up?
Looking for differences in the scene before you advance to the next frame, you cringe with a self-conscious feeling you’re being watched. You wonder if this is what it’s like to get old. Peering at the card with a sickening sense of recognition, you realize that in black and white, the color red reads as black. There’s an excess of black in the image now that you peer closely. You don’t think Banana Bill served this much ice cream. The families slipping on black spills or playing what you thought were games of dodgeball and tag crumble and flee. Fallen bodies spattered with black stains pile up and lie motionless on the ground. Those who remain upright are poised in panic to run. The mouths you thought were laughing stretch wide with screams.
This is your prize for working hard and winning the game. No one made you call the donkey a disgusting name. This is your reward for accepting the sickness. You hate it, it feels terrible, and you don’t look away. There’s a lesson here, a story you remember from your future, when the 1992 Coneland Massacre changed everything.
You could drop the toy now and let time proceed at its normal pace. But the déjà vu is too strong now to loosen its grip.
In the next slide, more black-spattered bodies have fallen. Ineffective defensive gestures block an unseen threat originating from your direction as the viewer of the scene. Far away from you in the back, congregating by the sliding window, the circle of flirtatious moms put on party hats. They close in around Banana Bill to conceal his presence from you as you advance. You can’t see him, but you know he’s at the center.
You click to progress to the next slide. The crack of the lever is as loud as a rifle blast.
A body bursts apart into pieces a few feet away from you. The pieces shower down. You click the lever again and fire another round into the crowd.
The circle of moms holds hands and hums around Bill, swaying together and hiding him from your rifle site. Polyester tennis skirts and leisure slacks cling to their sweating amassed backs. Darkness hides their faces despite the bright sun. The inside of the circle is black. Their conical party hats meet in a peak.
Something tells you your weapons are useless against them. You shove through the circle to advance to the next slide.
Two distinct images appear, one in each eye. In your left-eye view, a gold-skinned satyr who is half-man and half-beast rears up with massive spiraled horns and heavy golden hooves. Fur of gleaming bronze sparkles down the muscle of his haunches. Human above the waist, his powerful arms are bent, fists resting on slender bestial hips. A leering grin enlivens his face as his animal groin shoots upward, spraying liquid in a high arc.
The slide in your right-eye view presents a kid your age in the clothes you have on today. You’re not sure if it’s you because the child wears a smudged, uncomfortable mask. No expression animates the pallid putty-colored face. The child stands up straight, heels flat on the ground, knees unbent, rigid arms immobile at their sides except for the right-hand palm that strays to steady the rifle propped on the ground. The gun metal is cool to the child’s touch. The weapon has yet to be fired.
Rather than advance to the final slide, you make a wish to click backwards and reverse the images. But that’s not how the device works.
The card wheel can only move forward, and the longer you stare at the incongruous figures framed by opposite eyes, the less distinct their meanings will become. What’s signified by each separate image is lost in a third eye of blackness in both, blackness in all. The sickness says you need to choose, even though you know it’s too late to choose, even though the past is the past. You are the blackness and the collector of blackness. When you view the last slide, you have the power to set things right.
You gaze into another bathroom mirror at another run-down ice cream stand in another Podunk town and paint your face gold for the twentieth time. There are gaps in your reflection from the mirror’s foxing, but that doesn’t interfere with donning your costume. Habit guides your hand. This is true in everything you do. By now the gaps don’t bother you.
Except every now and then, for instance right now, they do: gaps in memory, in time, in people you must have known.
This particular medicine chest in this particular bathroom has two sliding mirrored doors, and the asymmetrical slant of the tracks sagging out of square creates duplicitous angles that produce two images of you. Separated by several inches, one mimics you out of the corner of your eye as you focus on the other. When you stand back to look at both, the stereoscopic effect gives the impression of a three-dimensional man instead of the cardboard cutout clown you’re used to seeing and calling by your name. As you complete your disguise, slipping a wacky blonde wig with a bald-headed middle section over your crown, you glance away and back.
The doubles in the mirrors no longer match.
Numb with shock and the life-long practice of numbness, your mind doesn’t know how to reconcile the satyr and the masked child, images revived from the penultimate slide. From job to job, from town to town, you’ve aimed your rifle by habit. If once upon a time you knew why you did this, that’s a fairy tale for someone else to write. The blackness behind your eyes where memory dies is locked in place by the safety catch. Your thumb hovers above the switch.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between a weapon and a toy.
You try to make sense of what you see, but your eyes are closing, your head is tilting with the onset of amnesia, so you jam the View-Master into your face. The square plastic apertures for each eye wedge into your round sockets. They force your eyelids back.
This way you can’t chicken out. You can’t blink. You’re going to keep your eyes open when you click the switch and pull the trigger to the last slide.
As your vision adjusts to the obfuscation of tears and blood, you find yourself in the center of the festival circle of cloaked figures with conical hats. The last card in the series appears blank. Within the possibilities hidden in this darkness you glimpse skeletons beneath the heavy cloaks, skulls with red glowing eyes below hoods, the large livid mouth of a painted clown yelling. The butt of a rifle hits you for refusing your prize; the rocking horse, unwounded, stands upright, dressed for a picnic in a yellow-checked sundress. She is smiling. New to the neighborhood, she has brought her son.
Black and white images infuse with the glow of multiple colors cresting like waves from shades of grey. You recognize the other boy in the album of a reborn past.
This time, you don’t join the game of pin the tail on the donkey. Because of your stance, you lose most of your white friends. You’re the last pick for every game on the playground, sidelined by the coach at school. You never get the job at the ice cream stand because no one’s pulling strings for you this time around.
The Coneland Massacre doesn’t happen in 1992. You finish high school, maybe just barely, but your memories survive. Your mother’s alive, too. Fussing like she always does, nagging you to be careful, going through your old stuff and asking what you want to keep now that you’re all grown up and going off to college. What about this? Keep it or throw it out?
She hands you the plastic View-Master.
You can’t help it. You take one last look.
The final French tissue card in the infamous series appears blank. Historians agree, after many years and techniques employed in tests, lighting it from either front, back, or any angle from the sides will fail to improve or alter the effect. The final slide is considered a dud. Appraisers classify it as a placeholder intentionally bereft of content, and few examples of the legendary final card in the arcane series have survived. It takes a rare collector to recognize its immense and unique worth.
As a child again, you’ve grown wise enough to see the error is not in the card or the device used for its viewing, but in the source of illumination. This is the future. You can decide what you will become.
Your thumb hovers over the switch.
You turn on a light.
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Joe Koch writes literary horror and surrealist trash. Joe is a Shirley Jackson Award finalist and the author of The Wingspan of Severed Hands, The Couvade, and Convulsive. They’ve had over eighty short stories published in places like Vastarien, Year’s Best Hardcore Horror, and The Queer Book of Saints. Though happiest in abandoned forests, mountains, or beaches, he currently haunts an attic in crowded Minneapolis along with several companionable ghost cats. He/They.
Copyright ©2022 by Joe Koch.
Published by Shortwave Magazine. First print rights reserved.
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