Those of you who missed it, here's what BEFORE YOU is all about, along with the first 4 chapters. Remember, there's a giveaway at the bottom! Today's (02/01/14) the last day to enter. Winners will be picked tonight!
BEFORE YOU by Amber Hart
Some say love is deadly. Some say love is beautiful. I say it is both.
Faith Watters spent her junior year traveling the world, studying in exquisite places, before returning to Oviedo High School. From the outside her life is picture-perfect. Captain of the dance team. Popular. Happy. Too bad it’s all a lie.
It will haunt me. It will claim me. It will shatter me. And I don't care.
Eighteen-year-old Diego Alvarez hates his new life in the States, but staying in Cuba is not an option. Covered in tattoos and scars, Diego doesn’t stand a chance of fitting in. Nor does he want to. His only concern is staying hidden from his past—a past, which if it were to surface, would cost him everything. Including his life.
At Oviedo High School, it seems that Faith Watters and Diego Alvarez do not belong together. But fate is as tricky as it is lovely. Freedom with no restraint is what they long for. What they get is something different entirely.
Love—it will ruin you and save you, both.
My closet is a place of secrets.
This is where I change into Her, the girl everybody knows as me. Searching through hanger after hanger of neatly pressed clothes, I find the outfit I’m looking for. A black knee-length pleated skirt, a loose-fitting white top, and two-inch wedge shoes. Looking good at school is a must. Not that I do it for me. It’s more for my dad’s reputation. I have to play the part.
I am stuffed into a borrowed frame. One that fits too tightly. One that couldn’t possibly capture the real me.
“Faith,” my stepmom calls. “Are you joining us for breakfast?”
There is no time. “No,” I reply, my voice carrying downstairs.
I quickly dress for school, catching my reflection in the closet door mirror. Waking sun shines off my hair, highlighting a few strands brighter than the rest. Everybody has a favorite body part. Mine is my hair, which is the fiery-brown of autumn leaves. My best friend, Melissa, swears my eyes are my best asset. Ivy-green, deep-set, haunting. Like they go on forever.
Speaking of Melissa, her horn blares outside. Beep, beep, pause, beep. That’s our code. I race downstairs, passing my dad, stepmom, and little sister on the way out.
“Wait,” Dad says.
I sigh. “Yes, Dad?”
He glances at my outfit, pausing at my shoes. If it were up to Dad, I would wear turtleneck shirts and dress pants with lace-up boots forever. The perfect ensemble, it seems. As it is, I dress conservatively to protect his image. I’m eighteen. You’d think he’d stop cringing every time he saw me in anything that showed the least bit of skin.
“Hug,” he says, waving me over.
I hug him. Place a kiss on my five-year-old sister’s jelly-covered cheek. Then, grab a napkin to wipe the sticky jelly from my lips.
“Bye, Gracie,” I say to her. “See you after school.”
She waves a small hand at me and smiles.
“Take this.” Susan, my stepmom, hands me a bagel even though I already declined breakfast. It’s poppy seed. I’m allergic to poppy seed.
As usual, I don’t put up a fight. My frame feels especially uncomfortable at the moment. It’s always the same thing. I learned early on that it’s easier to go with the flow than to be different. Different is bad. Standing out attracts attention, something I try to avoid at all costs. Unfortunately, being the dance captain makes that more difficult.
“Have to go,” I say, shoving the bagel in my bag.
The screen door swings shut behind me.
Melissa waits in my driveway. We live in a modest, yellow-paneled house in Oviedo, Florida. The majority of the people here are middle class. We fit in well.
“What’s up?” Melissa smiles. “Took you long enough.”
“Yeah, well, you try waking up late and still looking as good as I do,” I joke.
Melissa whips her blond hair into a ponytail and puts her red Camaro in reverse, careful not to hit my Jeep on the way out. I have my own car, but since Melissa lives three doors down, we have a deal where we alternate driving to school. She takes the first month; I take the second, and so on. Saves gas.
“You look smokin’,” Melissa says, lighting a cigarette.
I roll my eyes.
She’s always hated the way I dress.
Melissa laughs. “Okay, true, the clothes need to go. But your hair and makeup are flawless. And no matter what you wear, you still look beautiful.”
“Thanks, you too,” I say, eyeing her tight jeans and sequined top. Melissa is effortlessly beautiful with her sun-freckled face and athletic build.
“Prediction,” Melissa begins. This is something we have done since ninth grade: predict three things that will happen during the year. “Tracy Ram will try to overthrow you as dance captain, once again, but you’ll keep your spot, of course, ’cause you rock. You’ll quit dressing like an eighty-year-old and finally wear what you want to wear instead of what society dictates is appropriate for a pastor’s daughter. And you’ll come to your senses and dump Jason Magg for a hot new boy.”
Melissa always predicts that I’ll dump Jason, has done since Jason and I began dating freshman year. It’s not that she doesn’t like him. It’s just that she thinks my life is too bland, like the taste of celery. What’s the point, she figures.
“First of all, I do not dress like the elderly,” I say. “And second, I don’t know what you have against Jason. He treats me nicely. It’s not like he’s a jerk.”
“It’s not like he’s exciting, either,” Melissa says.
She’s right. What I have with Jason is comfortable, nice even, but excitement left a long time ago.
“Prediction,” I say, turning to Melissa. “You will not be able to quit bugging me about dumping Jason, even though last year you swore you would. Despite your doubts, you willpass senior calculus. And you’re going to win homecoming.”
Melissa shakes her head. “No way. Homecoming is all you, girl.”
I groan. “But I don’t want to win.”
Melissa laughs. “Tracy Ram would have a heart attack if she ever heard you say that.”
“Great,” I say. “Let her win homecoming.”
We grin. Melissa and I have been friends since kindergarten. Memories come to me suddenly. I’m in elementary school, and it’s sleepover night at Melissa’s. In my overnight bag, I carry a small stuffed bunny, my steadfast companion since forever. People would laugh if they knew, me carrying around a stuffed baby toy, but Melissa never tells. Fast forward to middle school. The braces on Melissa’s teeth are still so new that the silver catches the light from the fluorescent fixtures when she smiles. The headgear is huge, cumbersome, and no one lets her forget it. But I relentlessly defend my friend. She’s so beautiful, can’t they see? Sometimes I leave flowers stolen from a neighbor’s rose bush at her locker when no one is looking. That way people will know that she is loved. High school. Melissa and me, same as always.
“What do you want to bet?” Melissa asks.
Whoever gets the most predictions right wins.
“Hmm,” I say. “If I win, you have to quit smoking.”
Melissa almost chokes. “Pulling out the big guns, are we? Okay, then. If I win, you have to break up with Jason.”
“Deal,” I say, knowing that she won’t win. She never does.
Melissa purses her lips and gives me the stink eye. She knows I have a better chance.
“Faith, I will find a way to break you out of your mold,” she says.
I laugh, partially because of the determination in my friend’s eyes, but mostly because of the absurdity of her statement. Everybody knows that girls like me never break free.
I can’t help the frustrated sigh that escapes my lips, hurled at mi padre, my dad, like a gust of wind that threatens to flatten our house of cards. It’s my fault. I should have built something stronger with the cards I was dealt. But I didn’t. I didn’t know how.
“Go away,” I say. “Vete.”
I’m not planning to attend school today.
In fact, I didn’t plan to be in the States at all.
“Vamonos. Let’s go,” mi padre repeats in his heavily accented voice, yanking me off of the couch. “You will not miss senior year.”
He has this new thing where we have to speak English as much as possible now that we live in the States. I almost wish I weren’t fluent. Several trips to Florida, and I am.
With a grimace, I pass him, reluctantly moving toward my room. It feels like my feet are sinking, like I’m walking over sticky sand instead of thick, dirty carpet.
How did I get stuck in this place?
I open my dresser drawer and pull out faded jeans, a white T-shirt, and my Smith & Wesson.
“No,” mi padre says, grabbing the gun.
I take a step toward him, challenging. He does not back down.
“This is why we left,” he says.
Hypocrite. Under his bed is a similar gun, waiting. Just in case. But he’s also the one who taught me how to fight. I’m bigger than he is, but he has more experience. And the scars to prove it.
Not that I haven’t been in countless fights myself.
“Fine,” I say through clenched teeth, and turn toward the bathroom.
The hot water heater goes out after five minutes. The tiny two-bedroom apartment—this hole we now call home—is the only thing mi padre could afford. It’s not much, but it’s inexpensive. That’s all that matters. The plain white walls remind me of an asylum. Feels like I’m going crazy already.
Our jobs keep us afloat. They’re our life vests, our only chance of survival in a sea of ravenous sharks. Mi padre found a job with a lawn crew a couple weeks ago. Not many people would hire him with his scarred face and tattooed body. A restaurant offered me work part-time. Two shifts as a cook, one as a busboy. They promised a free meal every night that I worked. Couldn’t pass that up.
“Don’t be late for school or work,” mi padre says as I step out of the house.
School’s only ten minutes away. I walk, staring at the graffiti-covered sidewalk that stretches in front of me like a ribbed canvas. Latinos roam the block. It didn’t take moving to the States for me to know that’s how it is. The gringos, white people, live in nice houses and drive cars to school while the rest of the world waits for a piece of their leftovers. I’m trying not to think about how screwed up it all is when a Latina walks up to me.
“Hola,” she says. “¿Hablas inglés?”
“Yeah, I speak English,” I answer, though I’m not sure why she asks since both of us speak Spanish.
“I’m Lola.” She smiles, sexy brown eyes big and wide. She reminds me of a girl I knew back home. Just the thought, the image of home, makes my guts clench.
“What’s your name?” she purrs.
“Lola,” a Latino calls from across the street. She ignores him. He calls again. When she doesn’t come, he approaches us.
One look tells me he’s angry. He has a cocky stance and a shaved head.
“Am I interrupting something?” he snaps.
What’s this guy’s problem?
“Yep,” Lola says, turning her back on him. “My ex,” she explains, brushing a strand of curly hair out of her face.
Perfecto. Just what I need. I didn’t even do anything. Not that I’m going to explain.
“She’s mine,” the guy says, staring me down. “¿Entiendes, amigo?”
“I’m not your friend,” I say, gritting my teeth. “And you do not want to mess with me.”
Lola is smiling. I wonder if she enjoys the attention. Probably. I’ve met too many girls like her. She fits the type.
“You don’t know who you’re messing with,” he says, stepping closer.
A few guys come out of nowhere, closing in on me. Blue and white bandanas hang from their pockets like a bad-luck charm. I know what the colors signify. Mara Salvatrucha 13 Gang, or MS-13.
I turn to Lola. Watch her smile.
This is all part of the game. What I can’t figure out is if the guy really is her ex and she doesn’t care that she could be getting me killed, or if he sent her to see how tough I am, to help decide whether he wants to recruit me.
I turn to walk away, but someone blocks my path.
“Going somewhere?” another gang-banger asks.
This whole time I’ve wondered if I’d end up fighting at school. I hadn’t thought about the fact that I may never make it in the first place. I silently curse mi padre for hiding my gun. He wouldn’t get rid of it completely, though.
“What do you want?” I ask.
The original guy laughs, looks me up and down. The number 67 is tattooed behind his right ear in bold black numbers. It only takes me a second to figure out the meaning. Six plus seven equals thirteen.
“What are those markings?” he asks, eyeing my tattoos.
“Nothing,” I lie.
If they wanted to fight me, they would’ve done it already. This is a recruit.
“Where you from?” he asks.
I don’t answer. Members of MS-13 stretch around the globe like fingers. They can easily check my past. I’m not gonna give them a head start.
“Swallow your tongue?” one of the guys asks.
I’m trying to figure out if I can win a fight against the five guys who surround me. I look for weak spots, scars, old injuries. I look for bulges that might be weapons. I’m a good fighter. I think I can take them. But at the same time, fighting will guarantee me a follow-up visit from MS-13.
Just then, someone speaks behind us. “Is there a problem?” a police officer asks from the safety of his car.
Everyone backs away from me.
“Nope,” one of the gangbangers answers. “We were just leaving.”
“See you around,” 67 says, throwing an arm around Lola.
I turn my back and walk the last block to school. The police officer trails slowly behind, like a hungry dog sniffing for scraps. He leaves as I enter the double doors.
I think about what my dad said. Moving here will give you a brighter future.
His words sit heavily on my mind, like humidity on every pore of my skin. His intentions are good, but he’s wrong. So far, moving here has done nothing but remind me of my past.
“Hi, I’m Faith Watters.”
Those are the first words I speak to the new Cuban guy in the front office. He grimaces. He’ll be a tough one. I can handle it, though. He’s not the first.
I can’t help but notice that he looks a lot like a model from the neck up—eyes the color of oak, strong bone structure. Everywhere else, he looks a lot like a criminal. Chiseled, scarred body … I wonder for a second about the meaning behind the tattoos scratched into his arms.
One thing’s clear. He’s dangerous.
And he’s beautiful.
“I’ll show you to your classes,” I announce.
I’m one of the peer helpers at our school. It’s not my favorite thing to do, but it counts as a class. Basically I spend the first two days with new students, introducing them around and answering their questions. Some parents with kids new to the school voluntarily sign their students up, but it’s only mandatory for the international students, of which we have a lot. Mostly Latinos.
This Cuban guy towers over me. I’m five six. Not tall. Not short. Just average. Average is good.
This guy’s not average. Not even a little bit. He must be over six feet.
I glance up at him, kind of like I do when I’m searching for the moon in a sea of darkness.
“Looks like you have math first. I’ll walk you there,” I offer.
“No thanks, chica. I can handle it.”
“It’s no problem,” I say, leading the way.
He tries to snatch his schedule from my hands, but I move too fast.
“Why don’t we start with your name?” I suggest.
I already know his name. Plus some. Diego Alvarez. Eighteen years old. Moved from Cuba two weeks ago. Only child. No previous school records. I read it in his bio. I want to hear him say it.
“You got some kinda control issues or somethin’?” he asks harshly, voice slightly accented.
“You got some kind of social issues or somethin’?” I fire back, holding my stance. I won’t let him intimidate me, though I’ll admit, he’s hot. Too bad he has a nasty attitude.
The side of his lip twitches. “No. I just don’t mix with your type,” he answers.
“That’s what I said.”
“You don’t even know my type.” No one does. Well, except Melissa.
He chuckles humorlessly. “Sure I do. Head cheerleader? Date the football player? Daddy’s little girl who gets everything she wants?” He leans closer to whisper. “Probably a virgin.”
My cheeks burn hot. “I’m not a cheerleader,” I say through clamped teeth.
“Whatever,” he says. “Are you gonna give me my schedule or not?”
“Not,” I answer. “But you can feel free to follow me to your first class.”
He steps in front of me, intimately close. “Listen, chica, nobody tells me what to do.”
I shrug. “Fine, suit yourself. It’s your life. But if you want to attend this school, it’s mandatory for me to show you to your classes for two days.”
His eyes narrow. “Who says I want to attend this school?”
I take the last step toward him, closing the gap between us. When we were little, Melissa and I used to collect glass bottles. Whenever we accumulated twenty, we’d break them on the concrete. When the glass shattered, the slivered pieces made a breathtaking prism of light.
I cut myself on the glass by accident once. It was painful, but worth it. The beauty was worth it. It’s funny how the bottle was never as beautiful as when it was broken.
You will not shatter me, I silently tell Diego. Somebody already did.
“If you don’t want to be here, then don’t come back,” I say.
A taunting smile spreads across his face. My first thought is that he has nice teeth, but then I scold myself for thinking about him like that.
“My name is Diego,” he says, like he’s letting me in on some kind of secret.
“Well, Diego,” I say, “better hurry. Class starts in two minutes.” I step around him to lead the way.
While we walk to math, I feel Diego’s eyes on me. I don’t know what it is about him. All the other confident students had nothing on me, and I swear I’ve heard it all, but he seems different. He shines. In a dark way. When he looks at me, I get a tingly sensation, like I’m being zapped by electricity.
It doesn’t matter. He’s rude. And besides, I have a wonderful boyfriend. Jason. Think about Jason.
“Quit staring at me,” I say, glancing at him.
He laughs, and strands of black hair fall into his eyes. I imagine it’s a little like looking at the world through charred silk.
“Why? Does it make you uncomfortable?”
He’s messing with me to get under my skin, like a pesky little splinter.
“Yes,” I answer.
In his white shirt, Diego’s skin is dark. Perpetually tanned by heritage.
I keep Diego’s schedule out of his reach. He inches closer, no doubt to grab it and run. I try to concentrate on the newly painted beige walls and tiled floors. Every few feet hangs a plaque about achievement or school clubs or tutoring programs.
When we come to the door, Diego rests an arm on the wall and leans toward me.
“I have a proposition for you,” he says in a sultry voice.
It’s hard to seem unaffected.
“I don’t do propositions,” I say dismissively.
He grins, his mouth arching up like the curl of a wave.
“But you haven’t even heard me out,” he says.
“Don’t need to.”
He ignores my comment. “What do you say we forget about this thing where I follow you around like a little dog? And when the guidance counselor asks, I will say you were superlative.”
“Big word,” I mumble. This guy did not do well on his entry exams, but he says things like superlative? What’s with that?
He glares at me; I sigh.
“You know, it wouldn’t kill you to drop the tough-guy act for two days. You’ll be rid of me soon.”
I turn to leave but Diego grabs my arm gently. My breath catches.
“It’s not an act,” he says, jaw hard.
I wave him away nonchalantly, like his touch didn’t just do all kinds of crazy things to my body—things that make me want to forget about the warning blaring in my mind.
I need to stay away from him.
I need to forget him.
Will you touch me again please?
I walk away. He watches me go.
“By the way,” I say as I flick a look over my shoulder at his hardened face, “I see right through you.”
She sees right through me? What does that mean? I wonder for the twentieth time as I enter the cafeteria. I managed to avoid my peer helper after my first few classes, rushing out before she could meet me. Did she really think I couldn’t get another class schedule? Maybe next time she won’t underestimate me.
A sweet smell hits my nostrils as I pass the fruit section. It smells like my peer helper, and I’m reminded of my disgust for her. She thinks she knows me, but she knows nothing. She’s a snob, trying to prove something. They’re all the same.
Girls like her don’t know what it’s like to struggle, really struggle.
She’s probably never gone so hungry her stomach knots. Never roamed the streets wondering if she’ll have a safe place to sleep. With a face and body like hers, she’s probably never had to work for anything in her life. The people she represents, the life she lives, it’s all fake.
Javier, my cousin, warned me about her. She’s one of the Big Five, the ones who think they rule this school. Even with her perfect boyfriend and flawless life, she isn’t fooling me.
I hear Javier before I see him. “Diego, aquí.”
Through the crowd, I spot my cousin sitting with a group of Latinos. With his six-foot, two-hundred-pound frame, he’s hard to miss. I approach him. One of his friends mumbles something in Spanish about how tall I am.
“Hey, what can I say? They make ’em big in mi familia,” Javier says, laughing.
Truth backhands me. I realize now that I never actually thought I would see Javier again. After … after … no. I shove the thoughts away. Not here.
“What’s up, ’cuz?” Javier says.
“Nada.” I force a smile, though my relief is real. It’s good to see family.
“¡Siéntate!” Javier says.
I sit. Sitting is usually an indulgence for those who can afford to relax. I pretend for a moment that I’m one of them. My cousin takes a minute to introduce his friends.
“Diego, this is Ramon, Esteban, Juan, Rodolfo, and Luis.”
Ramon and Esteban, with their slight overbites and similar features, must be brothers. Juan has a large head for his small frame; he’s covered in tattoos. Rodolfo has a smile full of white teeth and a dimple on the left side of his cheek. What happened to the other dimple? It’s as though God had an asymmetrical look in mind when He created him. Next to my cousin, Luis is the biggest. He has lots of freckles, splattered on his face like paint, seeping into his skin.
“Welcome to los Estados Unidos,” Juan says, biting into his burger.
“Gracias,” I reply.
My stomach growls, an animal hungry to live. Javier notices.
“Come with me.” He motions for me to follow him through the crowd.
As we walk to the lunch line, I spot my peer helper at a table, surrounded by her friends. There’s one of her kind at every school. The girl everyone hates to love and loves to hate. She’s probably been stabbed in the back countless times. Not that she would know, since everyone acts fake to her face. Her friends remind me of worker bees, buzzing for the queen’s attention. I wonder if she knows that the workers eventually kill the queen.
“When you get to the front, show them your student ID,” Javier says.
The guidance counselor already explained that I get one free lunch a day because of our low income. As we pass the food selections, I cannot believe the prices.
“Are they for real?” I ask. “Six dollars for chicken and fries?”
I have an image of Faith Watters taking out her designer wallet and easily paying for one of the pretentious lunches.
“Yep. Gringos,” Javier says, eyes hardening. He remembers what it was like in Cuba, the struggle.
Just by looking at the lunchroom crowd, it’s clear who the haves and have-nots are. Surprisingly, though, there are more Latinos than I expected.
I grab a burger and make my way to the register. As I pull out my ID, football players in letterman jackets glance my way. Part of me wishes I had it easy like them: popular, at ease, able to pay for things.
I shouldn’t want to be like them.
I don’t want to be like them.
Yes, I do.
The bigger part of me knows that a life like that will never happen for someone like me. It’s just the way things are.
I grab a water bottle and head back to the table with Javier. Do people here know that most of the world doesn’t get water from a bottle, but from a stream or river or muddy ground?
“So, you fittin’ in well?” Javier asks.
“Yep.” For the most part. No one has singled me out for being new.
“Latinos blend around here. One of the good things about Florida,” he says.
We pass a beautiful girl on the way back to our seat. I take a moment to look. She smiles.
“That’s Isabella,” Javier explains. “Sexy, but taken.”
“Too bad,” I say.
I’m not looking for a girlfriend, but it would be nice to have a little fun. I’m almost at the table when someone steps in front of me.
“What’s your problem?” my peer helper asks, one of her friends in tow.
Momentarily shocked by her boldness, I quickly regain my hard stance. Just like earlier, she doesn’t seem fazed by me. She’s either tougher than I thought, or she puts on a great front.
“I don’t know what you mean,” I reply. I try to feign confusion, but a smile creeps through.
“Oh, you think this is funny?” she asks, hands on her hips. For a second, she looks kind of beautiful, eyes hard and old. Wisps of hair fall out of her ponytail and around her face like angel feathers.
“A little.” I grin.
She huffs. “You weren’t there to meet me after your classes this morning. If I report you, you could lose your chance to attend this school.”
Is she threatening me? “Like I said, I already have a mamá. I don’t answer to you.”
I hand my tray to Javier. He sets it on the table so I can deal with her.
“You’re being difficult,” she says.
“So are you.”
What is your weakness? is what I want to ask.
She doesn’t back down. “I’ll be there before the end of your next class. Don’t even think about ditching me again.”
I have to, don’t you see?
“I’m serious,” she says.
This girl is asking for it. I glance at her blond friend, who’s eyeing Javier, not paying us any attention. I wish my peer helper was as easily distracted.
Being tough does not scare Faith Watters. Time to change tactics. I relax and flash a grin.
“Mami, why don’t I help you loosen up a little?”
She blinks, but doesn’t show any outward evidence that my words have affected her. I move close, very close. When I look down at her, she doesn’t look away.
Her eyes remind me of stained glass, bright and cutting.
“We could have a good time, you and me,” I say, mischief punctuating my voice.
“I don’t think so,” she says coldly.
I will not let her upstage me. I give her a long, slow onceover. She dresses older than she is, like she doesn’t belong in high school. I wonder what makes her so uptight.
What are you hiding, chica?
I usually don’t have to try with girls. It’s one of the very few advantages life has thrown my way.
“Oh, come on. You might like Latino if you tried it,” I say, voice low. The guys behind me laugh, egging me on.
“When you’re done with him, I’m available, mamacita,” Juan says. “I don’t mind leftovers.”
She sneers. Good. That’s progress.
“Let me take you out,” I say.
I’m not really going to take her anywhere. I just want to make a crack in her icy shield.
Why do you have a shield, anyway?
“Why?” she asks suspiciously.
Because I know it annoys you when someone else has control. “Because it would be fun,” I say, bending close to her face. “And I can promise you one thing.”
She looks cautious.
It’s a look I know well.
“What?” she asks.
That one night with me will relax you.
Girls like her love bad boys, whether they admit it or not. I imagine it’s similar to visiting a haunted mansion. Exciting, at first. One foot slips through the door, then the next. Heart hammers. Blood races. It’s a rush. A fix. Never knowing what’s around the next corner, through the closed door, beyond the shadows. Trying to find a way out. Not really wanting to leave. Wondering how close a person can come to danger before something bad happens. Looking for the moonlight at the end of the tunnel, an exit.
Sometimes there is no light at the end of the tunnel.
I can show her excitement like she’ll never experience with that boyfriend of hers.
But I don’t say any of those things. Instead I let my lips brush her ear lobe as I answer.
“That you will leave satisfied.”
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