Shortwave Magazine

Fiction / Short Stories

"Such a Doll"

a short story
by Lyz Mancini

November 30, 2022
5,196 Words
Genre(s): ,

I was born on a conveyor belt. I remember rough hands, rap music blasting, and being shoved into a box. It isn’t a memory so much as a story, told to me so many times it feels like my own. But I was too busy screaming inside, my brain too busy growing, to truly know what was going on. 

I knew almost nothing before Ron and Lisa happened.

My story started with the sensation of something squishy lodged in the back of my throat–packing peanuts that would have hindered my breathing if my body contained lungs. It wasn’t until I felt that box pop open and something rubbery, a finger, scoop the viscera out of me and push open my eyes that I was truly alive. I heard two sighs then: one higher pitched, one of a lower register, both of satisfaction. Bright swaths of light streamed through the window behind them so I couldn’t make out their physical structures yet.

How did I know what a window was? What light was? I didn’t know, but there the words were–ready to pluck from my brain like wildflowers.

“She’s perfect, Lisa,” the man said, his chiseled jaw leaning over to peer into my face. “This is gonna be worth the 7k easy, don’t you think?”

“Our missing piece,” the woman, Lisa, said, although her voice was flat like she didn’t mean it. “Ron, what if the neighbors see? What are we going to say?”

I saw them clasp hands in the sunlight. They wore matching rings but Lisa’s sparkled.

“There’s nothing wrong with spicing up a marriage,” Ron said, a swelling in his voice. “Starla is what we’ve needed all along. It’s a fresh start.”

Lisa wore a pastel matching workout set and her face was scrubbed clean. There were razor-thin lines around her eyes and mouth her nails were long with white half-moons on the end. She held a mug of tea. The teabag dangled back and forth like a clock.

Ron’s hair swirled like an ice cream cone and his teeth were as white as their walls. He held a protein bar, and its wrapper was split like a banana. A peanut sat lodged in one tooth. His T-shirt had letters scrawled across the chest. 

I was in a room with a couch, a few tasteful chairs, and an ostentatious television. What seemed even odder to me (although I didn’t know how I knew it was odd), was there were dolphins everywhere. Round little eyes on blue bottle-nose faces stared at me from shining statues on the bookshelves and on cork coasters. 

“Should we…now?” Ron asked, hope swelling like a balloon. Lisa wrinkled her forehead and shook her head. Her mermaid waves shook.  

“No. I need to clean up the kitchen,” she said. 

Ron seemed annoyed, his protein wrapper crinkled. But he nodded.

“Get Grandpa’s wheelchair from the basement,” Lisa said. Soon I was in one.

 Ron pushed me into a smaller room, one with a long skinny bed, an oblong window, and a vanity. Everything was white and smooth, as if no one had ever stayed here before. 

“Are you sure we couldn’t just keep her in the attic?” Lisa asked. The veins in her neck seemed to move. “This is silly, isn’t it? Like Ron…she isn’t real.”

Ron sighed and I felt embarrassed for Lisa. “We talked about this, baby,” he said and circled his arms around her. “This is so we get used to another woman living here with us. So you can get more comfortable with the idea. It’ll be good for you to have more help around the house.”

Lisa narrowed her eyes. “This doll can’t scrub the shower grout, Ron.” 

She pushed me over to the vanity. I could see in the oval mirror rimmed in lights that I looked more like Lisa than Ron. My hair also sat in waves down my shoulders, except the color was darker, deeper. Almost like the shadow under the bed. I also had more color on my face than Lisa–dark around my eyes and red on my mouth. My body was fuller–breasts pushed up like rolling hills and a collar bone that shone under the light. 

I stared into my face–could I blink my eyes? Could I move my mouth? I could not. 

“I don’t remember picking out this outfit,” Lisa asked, scrunching her nose and holding up the black lace that seemed to follow the curves of my body, to the black leather choker I wore around my neck. “A little obvious, don’t you think?”

Ron shrugged, letting his eyes move south into the gaps of the lingerie. “It’s good for a reason, right? Classic.”

“I guess. Do we what now, put her in the bed?”

Ron chuckled like Lisa was stupid.

“She’s not real.” 

Then they left me, shutting the door with a creak. I stared into the mirror. What did that mean, real? Was it because I couldn’t move like them? Talk like them? Was it because I came to them in a box? I stared into my own face for what seemed like forever, waiting for someone to come back and tell me what to do. Night became day. 

Lisa came back, this time with her hair slicked in a ponytail. She was wearing a form-fitting dress in a neon pink shade and I thought she looked pretty. She did not make eye contact with me, but she spoke. 

“I have people coming over and they cannot see you,” she muttered, staring into the mirror at herself and blotting glossed lips with her middle finger. “I don’t care what Ron says, I need to make my sales.”

She rolled me out into the living room, and stopped for a second, both of us taking in the aggressive underwater animal theme. She clicked her tongue. 

“Dolphins are mean animals, actually,” she said. “They rape people.”

I didn’t know what that meant. 

“I had this ring I got in Key West when I was fifteen,” she continued. “It was a dolphin. Ron just won’t stop giving them to me because of that damn ring. I don’t even wear it anymore.” She sighed and pushed me towards the closet. 

I could see into the main room through the slats. Lisa smoothed her skirt and bustled around nervously, stacking sticks of celery and carrots on fruit-themed platters. She then poured red liquid into pitchers, slicing oranges, limes, and cherries to plop inside. The doorbell rang and she paused. She bit her lip and tapped her foot as if wondering what would happen if she never answered.

Being alive meant boredom, I thought, on Hour Four of this strange party about pants. 

There were so many different ways you could wear pants, apparently, if you listened to the women with bright eyes and plastered mouths as they gulped their red juice and held different patterned fabrics up to the light. 

The women’s words blurred together. The conversation became loose. Stacked heels were slid off feet and lay forgotten under the coffee table. Their mouths were Juicy Fruit-stuck as they grabbed at stacks of fabric that had prints of food, flowers, animals, and swirly swirls all over them. Lisa glowed with each credit card swipe. 

“Dylan can’t get hard from the antidepressants,” one woman said. Thick gold circles were stuck through her ears. 

“I can’t bring myself to do it after having Baby Maeve,” the skinniest one said. “Just one look at his ass after he gets out of the shower and I want to vomit.”

“That’s what a sister wife is for, honey,” the first woman said. Her juice cup was empty and she had strings from an orange slice caught in her teeth. “Someone young, energetic….”

“Didn’t we let go of all that nonsense when we left the Mormon church?”  another woman asked. Her skin was stretched across her face like a trampoline. She raised her glass. 

Lisa frowned. Was that what I was? Was I “energetic?” A coat sleeve fell into my line of vision and I could no longer see. I listened to their ramblings for what felt like forever, until Lisa opened the closet and pulled me out into the room. 

She’d cleaned everything up but her mouth was still red and gems of sweat around her hairline caught the light. She flopped me on the couch and sat beside me. 

“Why is everyone so stupid?” 

I wished I could answer. I only vaguely understood the concept. I wanted to ask her if I was a sister wife. If I was there to do everything they wanted. 

Lisa seemed to gasp for breath suddenly then hit me–open palm, across the face. I didn’t feel it. I couldn’t grasp if what happened was nice or not, but her face was wild, her eyes like the dead dolphin statues everywhere. Maybe I had done something wrong.

Then a gentle metallic click echoed through the room and Ron was home. 

“My two best girls,” he called out merrily, half-moons darkening the underarms of his blue button-down. Abs rippled beneath it. He placed a gym bag by the door and in a few wide strides, bent to kiss first Lisa’s, then my cheek. 

“Her hair looks a little unbrushed,” he said, his eyebrows meeting in the middle. He surveyed the room then, maybe remembering Lisa’s plan for the party or feeling the remnants of human vibration in the air. 

“How’d the thing go?” he asked, staring down my shirt again. Lisa nodded enthusiastically. Her voice was wobbly from the juice. Written in cursive. She didn’t mention hitting me. 

“Should we eat?” he asked. He then threw me over his shoulder and headed towards the kitchen. 

“Really, Ron?” Lisa asked, quickening her pace. “The dinner table?”

The table was set with two plates piled high with pasta, salad with croutons, and breadsticks. 

“It’s our first date, the three of us,” he grinned and chopped the head off a breadstick with his mouth. Lisa sighed. 

“This Olive Garden?” he asked, staring at the plate quizzically. 

Lisa wiped the red from her mouth and glanced at me. 

“Nope, I made it.”

Ron made a gurgling noise in the back of his throat, then shrugged and kept eating. 

He mostly chattered on and on about vitamins, which it sounded like he sold, or made, or something. I watched as Lisa stabbed her breadstick into the leftover vinaigrette on her plate, the edges of her mouth still red. 

Ron pushed himself back from the table and patted his firm stomach.

“Don’t want to get too full,” he said with a sly smile. “Shall we, my love? We can leave the dishes for now.”

There was a tightness in the air coming from Lisa but she nodded and stood, smoothing her hair back and taking his hand. A few moments later I was pushed into their bedroom and placed carefully down on the bed. Lisa closed the blinds, the late afternoon sun still beaming. I could hear sprinklers and children and a ball bouncing up and down on asphalt. 

Ron took his clothes off. He looked both squishy and hard, sharp spikes of dark hair covered his chest and led downward to parts I somehow knew held thick purpose. Lisa disrobed as well, looking upwards at the ceiling. Her body was smooth and almost hairless and resembled my own in theory. Her body was gentle roads and winding streets, the soft down of a meadow and light air after a rain shower. Where she was subtle slopes, I was like their TV–exaggerated and impossible to ignore.

These images flashed through my brain and again (roads, meadows), I didn’t know how I knew this. Was it intentional, for me to see and think and feel this way? Or was it a fluke, something that had fallen in the rubber and heat in a vat somewhere? Something that happened from the conveyor belt to the packing peanuts that obstructed my airways? Had I been like them at some point, placed into Starla to experience the world a new way? 

My top was pushed down, my skirt pushed up, my hair pushed back. Their hands were clumsy and unsure, like they didn’t know what I was doing there either.

“My little blonde and voluptuous brunette,” Ron growled, his smile like a slash.

The next hour was both fuzzy and in technicolor. I felt nothing physically and was in awe of the sounds and gasps and moans that came from them as they touched each other and me. Ron gazed at Lisa with wide eyes and a slack jaw, me hardly ever. Things were shoved inside my open mouth, between my legs, my knees were bent and my face smushed into their silk pillowcases. 

There were squishes, and droplets of sweat like jewels that rolled down my stomach. I’d felt more when Lisa slapped me. 

The final moment seemed random, a splatter of something in my hair and what seemed cross my neck, throat, and possibly ear.

“That was incredible,” Ron sighed. What had transpired seemed to have been work really, like Lisa vacuuming or chopping carrots. 

Lisa had already turned away, was slipping on an over-sized T-shirt and yawning, scrolling through her phone. The sun through the slats of the window was gone now, the basketball still bouncing somewhere off in the distance. 

I was rolled back to my room, plopped face-down, still half-dressed onto the well-made bed, and was consumed in darkness. I waited again, for someone to do something with me.

A sliver of light creeped from under the door and Lisa appeared, legs bare and clasping a glass of iceless water. She held a silencing finger to her mouth.

Bleary-eyed like she’d tried to sleep, she carried me into the bathroom and gently took my clothes off. In the mirror I could see my tan skin, dried fluid stuck in my hair. I heard a rush of water, and Lisa held her hand under the gush of water in the bath. 

“Not too hot,” she whispered, pouring a cap of something under the water and soon the steam bloomed with bubbles. She grunted as she sat me in the tub, kneeling on a fluffy beige bath mat. She worked in silence with a matching beige wash cloth, softening the stiffness from my hair and washing my skin in soft circles. I stared into her face, something building in the back of my throat, a fullness. Her forehead didn’t move like mine, but her eyes had a depth that mine lacked. I wanted to know every thought she had like mine, what was inside her. The steam rose as her chest did. Lisa bit her bottom lip in concentration. 

Lastly, she drew a few small pots of cream from above the sink and washed my face. 

“You should never go to bed with your makeup on,” she said. “My mother taught me that.”

She wrapped me in a towel and tucked me into the bed, then left.

Lisa, Ron, and I fell into a routine. He would go to work–I’d hear doors opening and closing from my little bedroom, spoons in coffee mugs, milk poured into cereal. Muffled voices and sleepy sounds. Once Ron was gone, Lisa would wheel me out into the living room with her while she began her work, always in some tight, matching workout outfit and her hair in perfect waves. I would watch her fold leggings, print out shipping labels, sprinkle in a handful of confetti into each package then stack them like little towers at the door. 

One day, the way she spoke to me changed. It was a stream of words like pearls on a necklace now, smooth and shiny with a slight slant of my own reflection. Like she’d decided to like me.

“You have to give them a little something extra,” she explained, picking a small piece of pink confetti from her palm. “It’s what makes you stand out from everyone else. It’s what success is.” 

It was rhythmic, the way she smoothed, folded, packed, and sprinkled. The melt of colors and steam from her coffee lulled me into a sleepy relaxation that felt like the ladies looked when they smiled. Her voice was low and languid like honey butter.

She shared the story of how her and Ron met, set up through church when she was only eighteen. “The age gap was fine,” she explained. “But he was no Jonathan Taylor Thomas, if you know what I mean.” She chuckled. “Of course you don’t.”

Her voice became almost a whisper when she told me she’d been expected to get pregnant right away but it just never happened.

“They tell you from the time you’re twelve it could happen anywhere,” she said. “So the fear grows and grows. I used to think you could get pregnant on a toilet seat. Then one day, bam. It’s meant to happen. It just never did.”

They left the church–they said it was because they wanted wine with dinner but mostly it was the pressure and devoutness of children. Linda shrugged and stared out the window behind me into the street. I wasn’t sure what a child was. I didn’t think I’d ever seen one.

“Ron was embarrassed that I couldn’t,” she said. “What would I do with a baby anyway? She’d just be sitting where you are.”

I wished I could offer more than my presence. I would touch her shoulder, fold a pair of leggings, share a story of my own. Except my mouth was stuck open like a cave and the only stories I had were currently unfolding.

Almost every day became like this, except for weekends when they’d leave me in the house for golf of a barbeque or a birthday party. I’d watched from the crack in my bedroom door as they got ready, wishing I could smell Linda’s body lotion she smoothed onto her skin. They’d play with me at night sometimes. Not every night. Each time it was the same, grunts and groans and sunlight through blinds, Linda wordlessly washing bubbles from my eyes with a fluffy wash cloth after her husband began to snore.

I looked forward to Monday, when Ron would leave and we’d be alone. She would tell me stories that weren’t about Ron, that were about before. Stories about pigtails and how she used to run over crab apples in the summer with her purple glitter bicycle. How they’d pop open under the wheels and then you could write your name on the street with their juices. How she’d cut images from magazines and glue them to her closet door–collages of lipsticks and boys and models with milelong legs. How when she’d visit her childhood home now you could still make out the pages despite her mom scrubbing them off with nail polish remover.  She’d lean over with her phone and show me pictures of girls she went to high school with, which ones were uglier than her now. Which ones looked happier than her. She told me about the time her dad hit her–slapped her hard on the cheek for wearing a shirt with spaghetti straps. I remembered her own hand against my face and silently forgave her.

She told me my own story–how they’d ordered me as a trial wife before they brought in a sister wife. There was that phrase again. Lisa explained a lot of couples expanded their family this way and she suspected Ron just wanted to fill the hole of their childlessness. 

“But with sex, which…I agree is weird,” she said. “I was against it. I mean it’s…unconventional. You know we got to choose everything about you? From your eyelashes to your toenail polish…well, Ron did. It was a little shocking for me, to see him create a woman who’s my opposite. But now that you’re here, you’re obviously pretty. And so real-looking it’s creepy sometimes. We built you and ordered you and here you are.”

She paused. 

“I think he works out so much to avoid me,” she said. “If he spent more time with me he’d have to realize that some of my organs might not work.”

I lived for any story she deemed worthy to share, having more words and images in my head. My brain swelled with all she taught me–how the leggings she sold weren’t really about the leggings but about who she got to sell leggings for her. Like a pretty pyramid. The prizes she got, how one time she spoke at a conference in Dallas, Texas. She told me about the city that brimmed with bright lights, how she ordered French fries to the room and how ladies asked her questions about how they could be just like her.

“Ron didn’t even go so I got the huge bath tub all to myself,” she giggled. Occasionally she’d appear embarrassed, as if remembering I wasn’t real like her. If only I could blink, or sigh, or send her a message. That none of it was silly and that I liked it. I liked it all.

One night, Ron opened a bottle of something brown and poured it over ice in the kitchen. I watched at the table as they ate their rib-eyes and baked potatoes, the liquid in the bottle getting lower and lower and Ron getting sillier. An hour later in the bedroom, I saw a flash behind Ron’s eyes as he moved above me–his hands moved to my throat and he squeezed. Lisa screamed, her breasts swinging as she moved swiftly across the bed and shoved him away.

“You don’t know if she likes that!” she yelled. 

Ron’s shocked laughter boomed. It sounded mean and cutting, like the knife he used to saw through his steak. 

“You need to get out of the house more.”

Her mouth clapped shut and her eyes dripped like pools. They continued but her body was stiff now. Like mine.

Later, she cried so hard the tears became hiccups as she pretended to wash my makeup off. I imagined I felt the soapy nuisance of a bubble in my eye. I’d have to blink it away. 

After dressing me in silk pajamas I could only assume were hers, she crawled into bed with me this time, holding me against her. I wished so hard that I could feel her breath against my neck and wondered if it felt the way wind felt in the maple leaves outside. She stayed this way for a while, then smoothed my hair back from my face and kissed the tip of my nose like she’d planted a freckle there.

“I’m sorry,” she said, and left me there–back to Ron until morning.

A few nights later the squeak of the door surprised me. She was back again. Her eyes sparkled against the moon and she giggled like a child, setting an alarm on her phone so she’d awaken before Ron did. 

“He takes an Ambien, he won’t know the difference,” she whispered, burying her face into my neck and inhaling. I wondered what I smelled like, if it was rubber and chemical vanilla. Lisa would be the bright crystal bottles she kept on her dresser and spritzed herself with, laundry, and her morning granola. Daytime was for stories and for work. But night was for silence, secrets never spoken in the air. I felt a brimming in my body like a glass of champagne filled to the very top of a flute. Pins and needles and sparklers, maybe real.

Despite the sleeping pills, Ron began to suspect something. Dinners became tense and he narrowed his eyes as Lisa recounted her day. He’d demand to know if she drank a Diet Coke or a Coke Zero, and who exactly she ran into at Target. She’d rolled her eyes but I noticed the way her knee bounced up and down under the table. 

One morning I heard screaming. 

“Why would there be a lock on your phone all of a sudden?” Ron yelled. I heard a door slam, something metal fall to the tiles of the front hall. 

“There’s no reason, it was just a stupid update!” Lisa yelled back, an empowered waver in her voice. 

“I know something is going on, I can feel it,” he continued. Another door slammed. “Is there someone else, Lisa? What are you punishing me for? Is it Starla?”

I blanched at my name and a chill rolled over my skin. It felt almost real.

“You’re imagining things,” Lisa said softly. “Everything is fine. I’ll take the passcode off my phone for Christ’s sake. Go to work. There’s nothing.”

The smack of a kiss, then the house felt empty of Ron. 

I heard sobbing. I sat on my bed like a good girl, waiting for her to come get me but she never did. I watched the sun move across the back of the door, listened to her rip packaging tape and her soft pop music that came from her open laptop. Later I could hear Ron come home, the clatter of dishware then the blue light of the television through the crack on the floor. They went to bed. Intimate whispers then nothing.

Why didn’t Lisa come get me? A sharp prickle radiated from inside me, the seeping sadness of abandonment. It was as if I were back in the box again, dark and alone. I imagined tasting salt in the back of my throat. I wished I could sleep, so the feelings would go away. 

Days passed as I was ignored. It was as if the second bedroom didn’t even exist. I waited and waited, minute by excruciating minute. I longed for stories about crab apples and closet collages. I wanted hushed bubbles baths back, and missed the way Lisa would wink at me across the dinner table when Ron said something stupid. What had I done?

Then one night there she was again, a silhouette in the moonlight with her hand over her mouth. The skin around her eyes were puffy and red. She ran to me.

She slipped beneath the covers and wrapped her arms around my waist and I’d never felt so full of light. I swore I could taste the floral soapiness of her cold cream against my lips. She said nothing else, just clutched me and heaved dry tears into the starched linen of the sheets. I let her cry until her breath became a rhythm and sleep enveloped her.

A violent stream of light interrupted the silence. 

“What the ever-loving fuck is this?” Ron screamed. His voice was a wounded animal under a car tire. Lisa jolted awake, wiping beneath her eyes, her lips plump and ajar.

“Lisa?” he screamed, moving to her and yanking her by the wrist from the bed. “Are you…is this…oh, you’re really sick Lisa, you’re so much sicker than I thought.”

Lisa wrang her hands, avoided my stare. 

“It’s not what it looks like!” she said, adjusting the eyelet straps of her night gown. 

What did it look like? I wondered. 

“I wanted to do something nice for us, to revive us, and you go and pervert everything,” he yelled. His voice just kept getting louder. My ears didn’t like it. 

I pervert everything?” Lisa scream back. “I didn’t spend weeks building the fuckdoll of my dreams!”

“You know it was more than that,” he continued. His face and neck grew purple like the eggplants Lisa grew in the garden out back. “But she isn’t real, Lisa. She isn’t REAL! Do you get that she isn’t real?!?”

“She’s realer than this marriage,” Lisa said, and spat right on the ground between them. “I’ve never been real to you, I’ve always been just a step above Starla.”

I worried the veins on Ron’s neck would pop, and the air filled with something that gagged me like smoke, a tension so thick. He stormed out of the room and I heard doors slam. He was outside. He was in the shed. Now he was back again, with a rusted hatchet. It gleamed. Lisa screamed and lunged at him but he tossed her off him as if she were a whisper. 

I felt nothing as he hacked me to pieces–my arms and legs and neck. I could see strips of rubber flayed and spread open like the salmon Lisa baked, the cheap lace and rayon of my outfit mangled and hanging off me like shredded lettuce. In the vanity mirror behind him, my expression was the same as it always was–gape-mouthed, naughty, and ready for anything. Lisa lay on the floor with her eyes covered, unable to watch as he took me apart. 

The sun set in sherbet waves, thick ombre oranges. Eventually Ron locked himself in their bedroom. He blasted the laugh track of a played-out sitcom. Lisa didn’t move for quite some time. I wanted her to push her face into my neck. I wanted her to tell me a story. 

Deep into the night, she stood wavering on her feet. She picked up each of my arms and cradled them, softly kissing each of my fingers. Then she dug deep into the closet and pulled out a duffel bag and filled it with random bits of clothing from their winter storage. Hoodies, sweatpants, nothing that made sense in the heat of summer. Then she pulled out another bag, and that was where she gently placed most of me, leaving a little bit unzipped so I could breathe. She hitched both up onto her shoulders and strode right out the door. I noticed that she didn’t take a single dolphin. 

Lisa left the headlights on their slate gray SUV off as we rolled down the driveway, away from the cul-de-sac, and then flicked them on as she pulled onto the freeway. Her fingers shook as she lit a cigarette after she’d been driving an hour, the strap of her night gown falling every few minutes until she stopped pulling it back up. From the rearview mirror I could see her eyes rimmed in smudged black, her ponytail loose, her stare fierce. She’d glance at me once in a while, sweetly swaddled in a bundle of her leggings in the back seat. My arms to the left of me, feet to the right, my head resting in the middle. After two hours she turned on the radio and a song where a woman was saying hello from the other side. Lisa mouthed the words. Her voice cracked.

Hour three was when she looked back at me and smiled with her whole self.

Then I felt something that for the first time, and knew I hadn’t imagined it. 

The fleshy pillow of the roof of my mouth, ridges and valleys and bone.

A wet hole, an aching jaw.

The movement of my tongue, an organ young and alive.

The flicker of a finger next to cheap rayon, the plushness of skin like the underside of a peach.

A spark behind my eyes.

Things always break open in darkness.

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About the Author

Lyz Mancini is a writer living in Catskill, NY. She is a beauty copywriter for brands like Clinique, and has written personal essays and fiction for Catapult, Slate, HerSTRY, XOJane, Roi Faineant Press, Yuzu Press, and Huffington Post.

She is a Pitch Wars 2020 and Tin House Winter Workshop 2022 alum and is represented by Victoria Marini of Irene Goodman Literary Agency. She likes Diet Dr. Pepper, wandering in the woods, and ‘90s teen horror movies.

lyzmancini.com

Copyright ©2022 by Lyz Mancini.

Published by Shortwave Magazine. First print rights reserved.

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