All My Children

by Thea Zara and Deref

Chapter 12: I Will

"Jakey! Helen! Man - it's so good to see ya!"

Willy's teeth threatened to burst out of his mouth as he opened the car door for Helen and helped her out.

"It's only been a day, man," grinned Jake.

"Ain't the point, Jakey. I mean it's great to see here - at home!"

Helen hugged him and kissed him on the cheek. "It's wonderful to be here, Willy. I didn't really get a chance to congratulate you after the graduation."

Willy blushed though Helen was dressed modestly. "I still figure there was some kind'a mistake about that."

"Yeah, me too," said Jake. "I mean what with that business with Ellenbogen's shoes..."

Willy and Jake looked at each other and four years of shared experience released itself in a burst of laughter that fed off itself until it became a hysterical catharsis. They laughed until tears rolled down their cheeks, slapping each other on the back, pausing briefly, and starting again until they leaned, exhausted, against the car.

Helen watched, bemused, but half-understanding what was happening. "Yeah," she said dryly. "I can see that happening halfway through the ceremony."

"Oh man," gasped Willy. "I dunno what that was about, but it felt good."

Jake, clutching his sides, just looked up at him and nodded.

"But listen - this is important," said Willy, pulling himself together. "Ma's doin' all the cookin'. Now I'd be obliged if you'd help me out.. I didn't have the heart t' ask her not to, and I'm real worried. I mean no-one's gonna eat the food, and I dunno what to do - it'd break her heart, I'm sure."

Helen remembered the quiet dignity with which Willy's mother had responded to Ruth's rudeness "Willy," she said, "if I have to eat all your mother's food by myself, I'm going to see that there's nothing left."

Willy stared at Helen. "Uh, Jake's told y' about Ma's cooking, right?"

"Well, he mentioned it, sure. But it can't be all that bad."

"I won't lie to y', Helen," said Willy, "and I'm real grateful to y' for wantin' t' help, but I can't ask that of ya. I thought maybe we could work out some way of...y' know...disposin' of it real careful like, so Ma thinks that it all got et."

"We'll think of something, man," said Jake. "Now come on - let's get inside."

Willy led them from where the car was parked beside a classic red barn, around to the front of a rambling country farmhouse. A long central area was flanked on either side by porches that extended to the front and, between them, a country garden planted with hollyhocks, forget-me-nots, buttercups and snapdragons lay beneath two ancient and gnarled magnolias. A stone path, its gentle curve showing that whoever had laid it had well understood that curves are more interesting than straight lines, led up to the front porch with wicker chairs scattered about and an overhanging wisteria that shaded it from the southerly sun. Willy opened the screen door and looked back to see Jake and Helen walking slowly, taking it all in.

"Willy," Helen sighed as she climbed the steps, "it's gorgeous. You're so lucky."

Willy looked puzzled. "You think so? It's just home t' me - where I grew up. I dunno that I'm so lucky - maybe other folks are just unlucky."

He held the door open and Helen and Jake walked in. Slowly their eyes adjusted to the darkness of the old house and they found themselves in a high-ceilinged room where comfortable old-fashioned furniture was around a deep red and cream Axminster rug. Helen stopped and looked around, absorbing the sense of simple elegance.

"Ma, they're here!" Willy called, startling Helen out of her thoughts.

"Well bring 'em through, boy."

Willy led them through into a bright country kitchen where his mother stood at an enormous scrubbed pine table full of bowls, pans, chopping boards, knives, vegetables, and all the accoutrements of a small restaurant kitchen. Pots steamed on every burner of the gas stove behind her and, beside it, a fuel stove, probably part of the original kitchen and perfectly maintained, was pumping heat out into the room. She looked up and beamed at them, wiping the sweat from her brow with a forearm covered in flour. "Jake! Helen! Welcome! And look at me, I ain't in any fit state to welcome guests!" She wiped the flour off her hands and arms on her apron and strode over to Jake, enveloping him in a welcoming hug.

"It's great to be here, Mrs Johanssen," Jake said, returning the hug.

She turned and hugged Helen then stood back to look at her, smiling and holding her hands. "I swear you get prettier every time I see you, girl," she said.

"I love your house, Mrs Johanssen," Helen exclaimed, looking around at the kitchen.

"Well thank-you, sweetheart. Now, I reckon it's time we relaxed on the formalities. How about we drop the 'Mrs Johanssen'?"

"Uh, sure," said Jake. "So what...?"

"M' name's Mandy," she said, and turned to Willy. "Land sakes, boy, I swear I ain't taught you any manners at all. What's wrong with you? Offer our guests some tea and cake - they must be hungry and thirsty after their long drive."

"Yes'm," Willy smiled. "Maybe they'd prefer somethin' cool."

"Well," started Jake...

"Tea!" Helen said enthusiastically. "I'd love tea!"

"Yeah," Jake added, taking Helen's lead. "Tea'd be nice."

"Suit yerselves," said Willy, taking a large kettle down from a shelf and filling it with water.

"You youngsters won't mind if I keep workin' here will you?" Mandy asked. "It's just folks are always hungry after a wedding and I've still got a mess o' food t' make."

Jake winced inwardly. "Sure, Mrs...Mandy - don't mind us."

Helen looked round at the pies and pastries that were cooling on the bench, smelling rich and exotic, their golden crusts looking (Helen imagined) as if they'd come out of a French patisserie. "Can I help?" she asked.

"Thank you, sweetie" Mandy smiled as she cracked eggs into a bowl. "No, You have a cup of tea and somethin' t' eat, then get Willy to show you around. I expect Peter and Millie - that's my other son and his wife - 'll be here any time. Helen, I've got you and Hilda stayin' down the road with my sister, Patsy. I hope that's okay."

"Sure, that's great," Helen answered, relieved that a question that had been nagging her had been settled early and easily.

Willy took a cobalt-blue china teapot down off the shelf, poured some boiling water into it from the kettle, swirled it round and tipped out the water into the sink as Helen watched. He put the teapot down on the table and opened a printed tinplate canister. He took three teaspoons of black tea, and carefully emptied them into the teapot, which he took over to the stove where the kettle was boiling, carefully tipped the bubbling water into the pot, put the lid on, and turned the flame under the kettle off.

"Sure y' wouldn't like somethin' cold?" he asked, as he put the kettle, a milk jug, and three small plates, two teacups and two saucers, and a silver sugar bowl onto an ornate old wicker tray.

Helen pictured English teatimes she'd read about in P.G. Wodehouse stories that she'd found in the school library last summer. "No," she said quietly, watching entranced as Willy poured some milk into the jug and deftly sliced a lemon onto one of the plates.

"We'll take it into the parlour, Ma," said Willy, opening the refrigerator and helping himself to a Dr Pepper.

"Don't you make a mess, now," Mandy said. "Oh, Helen, take that teacake," she added, nodding a large pine dresser where at a pale golden cake lightly dusted with confectioner's sugar, crossed by undusted diagonal stripes which made diamond patterns of white, rested on a blue willow pattern plate.

Willy grimaced as Helen picked up the cake, and they walked back from the heat of the kitchen into the cool, dark room they'd passed through on their way in.

"You folks make y'selves at home," said Willy, putting the tray down on a low table as Helen and Jake sat down in the old couch, sinking into the soft cushions. He looked around toward the kitchen, and said quietly "I'm real sorry about this. Ma's got some strange ideas about stuff, but I'm real obliged to y' both for not makin' fun of her."

Helen glanced at Jake then turned back to watch Willy as he set out the plates and put the cups on the saucers. He turned the teapot round three times by its handle and looked up at Helen. "Milk or lemon?"

"Milk, please," she answered immediately, thinking about how Jeeves would have prepared it for Bertie Wooster.

Willy poured the tea into the teacup and added a splash of milk from the jug. "Jakey?" he asked.

"Uh, same...I guess," Jake replied, bemused at the formality of the ceremony. Ruth drank tea sometimes, but it was kept in little paper bags that she dangled in a cup and he'd always assumed that that was how tea was made. Watching Willy's easy familiarity with something so strangely exotic made Jake feel slightly odd, seeing a side of Willy that Buxton Ridge had never revealed.

Willy poured a cup for Jake and put one in front of each of them. "Help y'selves to sugar," he said, indicating the sugar bowl.

Under Jake's watchful gaze Helen picked up a pair of small silver tongs and gently lowered a cube of sugar into her cup, stirred, and passed the bowl to Jake who copied her. Willy, meanwhile, walked over to a dresser, opened a door, and took out a glass and a bottle opener. He settled back into an overstuffed armchair and looked back to the kitchen again. "Ma don't like me drinkin' out of the bottle," he said, pouring the drink out into the glass and taking a deep drink. "Never did understand what Ma saw in tea."

Helen picked up the cup, took a sip, and sighed. "Willy, this is delicious! Do you always make tea like this?"

"Ever since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. Like I said, Ma's got some strange ways, but Pa always said that we should respect the way she liked to do stuff. Folks think we're pretty strange I guess, but I don't mind as long as it makes Ma happy."

He put the glass down, picked up a knife, and cut three slices of cake which he put on the plates he'd brought from the kitchen..

"That looks wonderful," said Helen.

Willy looked up at her. "Yeah, it does, don't it? Pa always used t' say that if Ma's food ate like it looked we'd o' been livin' high on the hog. But there ya go." He sighed. "We got pretty darn good at makin' her believe that we liked it too," he said, nodding to the plates with crumbs and sugar on them as he picked up the slices of cake and wrapped them in a napkin. "We'll get rid o' these outside somewhere away from the chicken coop - wouldn't want 'em eatin' it."

"So listen, man," Jake said, "Where are you and Hilda going on your honeymoon?"

Willy grinned. "Up t' the back o' the field out back."

Helen chuckled at the image that conjured up.

"There's an old cottage up there that Ma's been fixin' up. It's small, but it's real pretty."

"You're not going away then?" Helen asked.

"Can't afford it, besides - we ain't really got time. I gotta be in Fort Benning fer basic trainin' in a week. I figure that we'll just save up an' have a real honeymoon when I get some leave. Hilda's gonna live in the cottage, Pete an' Millie'll live here with Ma. We won't have nothin' t' spend my pay on really, so we'll be able t' go somewhere real nice when I get m' first leave."

"But you only have a week..." Helen said. "That's such a shame."

"Yeah." Willy looked a little downcast. "Pa used 't say that it's easy t' be wise after the event." He looked sadly at Helen. "I was real keen 't get signed up, y' know - excited. I figured I'd have some time, I didn't expect it'd all happen so fast. Hilda was a might upset about it, but she understands. She's real good like that."

"Will you show us the cottage?" Jake asked.

"Yeah, sure. We'll walk up there later this afternoon."

They finished their tea and Willy took the things back to the kitchen. As he came back into the parlour the door opened and a taller, older version of Willy stepped into the room followed by a very pregnant woman.

"Pete! Millie!" Willy said, hurrying to the door as Jake and Helen stood up.

Willy hugged them both and turned to Jake. "Pete, this is Jake - you know, m' buddy from Buxton Ridge! Jake, this is my brother, Pete."

"Hi Jake," said Peter, putting a large suitcase down on the floor.

"And this is Pete's wife Millie."

"How d'you do, Jake," Millie smiled. "Willy's told us so much about you!" She turned to Helen. "And you must be Amanda!"

* * *

Jake shook his head violently from side to side, his mouth closed tightly.

Helen had laughed off Willy's embarrassed apology for the case of mistaken identity but Jake had looked very uncomfortable, so she'd taken him by the arm and said "Why don't you guys catch up? I'm sore from the trip - I'd like to take a stroll around outside," and without waiting for an answer she'd led him out the door as she heard Peter and Millie answer Mandy's welcoming shout from the kitchen, and they'd walked out into the bright summer afternoon.

Helen looked looked up at Jake as they walked slowly down the stone path to the gate and she linked her arm with his as they strolled around the house, not speaking. She waved and smiled at Mandy and Peter as they passed the kitchen window. "Oh, wow," she said, hoping to distract him from whatever was bothering him, "I've never been in a real barn! Come on, let's go look!" She'd let go and run towards the barn, stopping in the half-open doorway and looking back at Jake to see him standing, rooted to the spot, staring at the barn.

She walked back to him. 

"Jake? What's wrong?"

He shook his head again. "I don't want to go into the barn," he said quietly.

Helen looked from eye to eye, trying to work out what was going on, adding all the pieces together. So far she'd found two things that could affect Jake like this. "It's Amanda, isn't it?" she asked.

Jake kept staring at the barn. A warm breeze blew across the fields and ruffled his hair.

"You've never really told me about her," Helen said quietly.

Jake tore his gaze away from the barn and looked at Helen. She had the same look in her eyes that she'd had on the night of the prom and he understood that it hadn't been the dress or the hair that had made her look so beautiful. She took his hand and they walked aimlessly around the barn, stopping to sit on a bench in the shade on the side away from the house, staring out across the copper fields.

"They had these dances three times a year, with the Catholic girls' school across town," he said quietly, staring off into he distance. "They were a drag, always the same. But Willy kept saying that one day we'd get lucky..."

Helen listened in silence while Jake told her about the dance, Ellenbogen Junior and the spilled punch, the incident with the rope, the storm, how they'd sheltered in a barn just like this, about finding her letters and what they contained. Helen bit her lip when he told her how he'd left the ring on the hay bale.

Jake was breathing deeply when he finished. For the first time in years Helen felt self-conscious and uncertain of herself as she wondered how much damage had been done to Jake by Mad Dog, by Ellenbogen and by Buxton Ridge; and by Jake himself, by the depth of his belief, though it was so wrong, that he'd betrayed Amanda. And she understood a little of how important Willy, the one person he trusted and confided in, had been to him.

Looking past his eyes she did all she knew how to at that moment. As she kissed him softly and long, Jake felt some of the pain drift away.

Back in the house, Willy took another Dr Pepper from the fridge and turned to the sink to pick up the church key.

"I sure hope your friends weren't bothered by my mistake," Millie said as she sipped a cup of coffee.

Willy smiled as he looked out the window to see Jake and Helen walk slowly out from behind the barn, close together, hand in hand. "I don't reckon they mind at all."

* * *

"I'm gonna take Jake and Helen up t' see the cottage, Ma. We'll probably go into town and catch a movie, maybe get a burger or somethin'."

"Oh, I was hopin' we'd all have a nice dinner together..." Mandy said with a note of disappointment in her voice.

"'Sakes, Ma, you got enough t' do without havin' t' worry about us. We'll be back after dinner anyway." Willy said as he hustled Jake and Helen out the door. "I reckon the hardest part about all this is gonna be keepin' you folks and Ma's cookin' apart fer a whole two days."

"Willy I just can't believe your mother's cooking could be all that bad," Helen said as they walked round to the back of the house and along a path that led to a gate in the back fence.

Willy sighed. "I guess there's only one way you're gonna find out, but I ain't takin' no responsibility for the consequences."

Helen smiled nervously.

He led them up over a low rise behind the house and down again, across a footbridge over a small creek, flowing languidly in the summer heat through a cool grove of cottonwoods. The path started uphill again and, as it turned right, a small cottage came into view. It looked to be the same age as the main house. Fresh cream-coloured paint gave it an almost out of place feel, and the small garden in the front yard was starkly formal, divided into small plots by brick pathways, each plot with its own planting of herbs and vegetables. Below the cottage the ground sloped away down to the creek as it curved around the base of the hill, overhung by weeping willows.

They turned to hear Helen laughing gently. "Willy, you're amazing," she said.

"Must be why everyone calls me Amazin' Willy," he deadpanned, getting a chuckle out of Jake. "Yeah - I know, it's real pretty. When Pa was alive we used t' use it fer visitors an' such. We told Hilda's folks they could stay there, but they're real busy with their shop so they gotta get back tomorrow. Ma loves all them stinky plants in the garden an' Pa drew the line at havin' 'em out the back o' the house, so she comes up here every day t' tend 'em." They stopped and stood, taking in the scene. "I figure if Hilda an' me move out once I get a regular postin' Ma'll probably come and live here an' leave the house t' Pete an' Millie."

As they walked up to the house Helen bent down to get a closer look at Mandy's "stinky plants". She recognised some of them - parsley, several kinds of mint. She plucked a small leaf and crushed it between her fingers, smiling. Oregano - her mother grew it. Obviously this was Mandy's herb garden, but "stinky plants" was such a great description that she couldn't help but smile.

Willy opened the door to let them in and Helen turned to admire the view from the wooden porch across the herb garden, down the hill to the creek and across the roof of the main house to the road and hills beyond. She knew that as the sun set the herbs would release their fragrance. Sitting on the porch on a summer's evening would be romantic. Sniffing the fresh herbal smell on her fingers again, she envied Hilda.

"Stag party?"

"Of course, little brother - damn - y' gotta have a stag party the night before your wedding, right Jakey?"

"Uh, yeah, I guess so..." Jake replied nervously.

"It's traditional. Heck - I had one - everybody has one!" Pete slapped Willy on the back while Mandy, Millie and Helen looked on in wry amusement.

"They had to throw a bucket of cold water over him to get him up in time for the wedding," Millie whispered sotto voce to Helen and Hilda.

"Aw, honey, I was just tired is all," Pete said indignantly. "We didn't get back till nigh on sunup!"

"You know what, boys?" Millie said, "I think it's a great idea!"

Pete, Jake, Willy, Mandy and Helen turned to look at her.

"So good, in fact, that I think us girls need a party of our own. What d'you say, ladies?"

"Sure!" exclaimed Mandy! "We got all the fixin's we need here! We can have us a fine time celebratin' your last night of freedom, honey!"

"Damn right!" added Helen. "Who said the guys get all the fun?"

Hilda just laughed.

* * *

Jake stopped on the sidewalk and looked up at a sign proclaiming "Baker's Bar - Live Bands Saturday Night" in red neon. He glanced across at Willy to see that Willy was glancing at him, and they turned and followed Peter inside.

A long pine bar stretched away toward the back of the room, propped up by four customers sitting on pine stools with red vinyl padding, chatting or nursing beers. Along the wall opposite the bar small tables each with four chairs continued the theme. Peter led them to the back of the room where the bar ended and more tables and chairs were scattered in front of a small dance floor leading up to an even smaller stage where a stool and microphone stand waited patiently for someone to use them. A few people lazed around a pool table, the air hazy with cigarette smoke, and a dozen or so others sat at the tables, chatting or watching the pool players, occasionally exclaiming noisily at a particularly good or bad shot.

Peter pulled a chair out from under an empty table, guiding Willy to sit down. Jake followed suit. "Okay boys, so what's it to be?" he asked.

Willy and Jake exchanged glances again.

"Uh, beer I guess," said Willy uncertainly.

"Beer? And you, Jakey, the same?"

"Beer?" he asked, looking up at Peter.

"Here Jake. Have a beer with your old man!"

Jake looked down at the glass that his father was holding out to him, pale yellow, bubbles rising slowly to the frothy white foam on top. He knew that twelve year-olds weren't supposed to drink beer, but it couldn't be too different to soda - and besides, it was what 'men' drank - Mad Dog had told him so often enough. Slowly he reached out and took the glass, and raised it to his lips as Mad Dog grinned. The slightly bitter taste was a shock. It wasn't that it was disgusting, though Jake couldn't understand for the life of him why anyone would want to drink it, but it was so different...

"Bah," grunted Mad Dog. "That's no way to drink beer, boy. You drink like a girl! Down it!"

Jake looked down at his father's face. He could do this. If he didn't think too hard about it he could pretend it was Coke, and as long as he drank it fast...

"That's it boy! Maybe there's hope for you yet," Mad Dog grinned as Jake finished the glass. "Here," he said, taking the glass and refilling it, "Have another."

Jake managed to get the second glass down just as the effects of the first started to make themselves felt.

"I don't feel so good," he said, and turned to run to the bathroom, his father's grunt of disapproval echoing in his increasingly muddy mind.

"No, thanks," he said, vividly remembering the minutes he'd spent throwing up into the toilet.

"Okay - what then?" Pete asked. "Or would y' like me to choose for ya?"

"Uh, yeah, sure," Jake replied.

"This is great, huh, Jakey?" Willy asked uncertainly.

"Yeah. Great." Jake replied, equally uncertainly.

"Here ya go," Pete said, putting a tray down on the table.

Jake looked straight past the drinks on the tray and his stomach rumbled. "Oh boy! Peanuts!" he said, grabbing a handful of the salted morsels and devouring them greedily.

Pete put a beer down in front of Willy, a glass of Coke in front of Jake, and helped himself to the other beer. "Well, here's to your last night 'o freedom, little brother, and your first night o' wedded bliss!" He laughed and raised his glass. Willy and Jake smiled, touched their glasses together with Pete's, and the three of them drank.

"Hey, that's good!" Jake exclaimed. "Cherry Coke?"

"Close, Jakey. Sloe gin and Coke. Good eh?"

"Great," Jake replied, grabbing another handful of peanuts.

* * *

"If I know Peter, those boys'll be back by ten, unless there's something on at Baker's. He used to spend a lotta time down there before he married you, Millie, but he's never been a drinker. It was the music." Mandy put tray of glasses down on the table and looked around at the others. "So - what's it t' be, ladies? We have t' send you off well, Hilda!"

"Gin and tonic for me please, Mandy!" said Millie enthusiastically.

Helen and Hilda exchanged exactly the same nervous glance that Jake and Willy had exchanged, but Helen was more forthright.

"I've never really had anything alcoholic, Mandy," said Helen. "I mean Dad used to give me a sip of his whiskey, but I hated it."

"Oh - whiskey's not a good thing to start on. It's what they call an acquired taste." Mandy looked at Hilda. "How about I mix you two up one of my famous cocktails?"

"Sure," said Hilda.

"Okay then. You make yourselves comfortable. I'll be right back."

Mandy waltzed into the kitchen and, in a few seconds, the sounds of chopping, stirring, shaking and mixing floated out, mixed with cheerful humming.

"Mandy's full of surprises," said Millie,  as Mandy came back into the room carrying a tray with assorted bottles and glasses.

She handed Millie her gin and tonic, the faintest blue tinge reflecting off the floating ice cubes and droplets condensing on the glass and starting to run down the sides. "Now, let's see what we've got here," she said, picking up a jug full of pale orange/yellow liquid with crushed ice floating in it and pouring it into three wine goblets. Passing one each to Helen and Hilda, she took the third herself and raised it in toast. "Hilda, honey, you've made my son a happy boy - man, I should say. And that's made me a happy woman. Here's to many long years of that happiness to both of you."

The raised their glasses and Helen and Hilda took a tentative sip. Hilda's eyes widened. "Chocolate!" she exclaimed.

Mandy laughed. "Chocolate orange frappe. I thought it'd be appropriate, honey. I believe you have a likin' for it. I admit I'm partial m'self."

"It's delicious!" Helen added, taking another sip.

A faint bell sounded from the kitchen. "Ah - food's ready," Mandy said, going back into the kitchen and returning in a minute with a plateful of golden pastry shapes in squares, triangles and rolls. Three small china bowls held strange looking condiments, one thick and pale red with small chunks of red and green...things floating in it, one apparently black, and one thick and brown.

The nervous glance again passed between Helen and Hilda, but Helen had already made up her mind that, regardless of the consequences, she was going to find out what all the fuss was about. She tentatively reached out and chose a triangle, lifted it to her mouth, and took a bite.

* * *

"Ah, two Buds and a sloe gin and Coke, please. Do you sell food?"

"Nope," the bartender said as he pulled the beers. "Got chips, peanuts, n' jerky."

"Uh, well, gimme three packets of chips and three packets of peanuts too, please."

The bartender smiled at the thought of all the drinks it'd take to wash down all the salt. "Here y' go, son," he said, handing Jake a tray. "Hungry?"

"Yeah, I've hardly eaten for two days. It's a long story."

"Ah, well. Y' don't wanna drink on an empty stomach, young feller."

"Yeah, thanks," said Jake handing over a ten and taking the change. Passing out the drinks, Jake opened the chips and peanuts and ate hungrily. Talk and laughter flowed easily along with the obligatory ribald jokes about Willy's wedding night. Jake was feeling a pleasant sense of relaxed ease and he started happily on his second drink when a guitar chord from the stage behind him made him turn just in time to see a musician, wearing a tassled suede jacket, strike the second chord of song, and start to sing...

I pulled in to Nazareth, I was feelin' 'bout half-past dead

The sweetness of the sound was amazing to Jake who'd never heard a live performance of this kind of music. The closest he'd come was the school brass band. Jake was captivated.

I was lookin' for a place where I could lay my head.
Hey Mister can you tell me where a man might find a bed?
He just grinned and he shook my hand, and "no" is all he said.

Jake turned to see Willy and Peter grinning.

Take a load off Annie,
Take a load for free,
Take a load off Annie,

The singer held the note and Peter chimed in a third above, adding a luscious harmony. Jake looked back to see the singer grin at Peter.

You put the load right on me.

"What the...?" he whispered to Willy.

Willy just smiled and put his finger to his lips in the "shush" position.

I picked up my bag and I went lookin' for a place to hide,
When I saw Carmen and the Devil walkin' side by side.
I said "Hey Carmen, come on let's go downtown."
She said "I got to go, man, but my friend can stick around."

This time Peter joined in earlier in the chorus, singing high and clear over the melody. The pool players had stopped and were tapping their toes and smiling as the next verses started.

Go down Miss Moses, there's nothin' you can say.
It's just old Luke, an he's waitin' for the judgement day.
"Hey Luke, my friend, what about young Anna Lee?"
He said "Do me a favour, boy, stay and keep Anna Lee company."

Finally the song wound down to the last verse and, though the words didn't really make any sense, the melody was pretty and the sweetness of the delivery turned to honey as he sang quietly.

Get your cannonball now, to take me down the line,
My bag is sinkin' low and I do believe that it's time,
To get back to Miss Annie, don't you know she's the only one,
She sent me down here with her regards for everyone.

The chorus started quietly and repeated, building, the two voices blending perfectly. As the last chord rang out the drinkers clapped and cheered. Jake jumped to his feet, clapping louder than anyone, and sat down again as the applause died, staring at Peter with wide eyes.

"Thank you! Peter Johanssen, ladies and gentlemen!" the singer said, indicating Peter, who stood and smiled as the audience clapped and cheered again.

"Pete and Martin used to play in a band," Willy explained. "They played here just about every Saturday night. When Pete got married and went off, Martin went solo." He looked down at Jake's glass. "I'll get us another, huh, Jakey?"

"Yeah, yeah! Far out!" Jake enthused, draining his second sloe gin and Coke. He turned to Peter as Willy got up and Martin started his next number.

"Man - that was incrediblblb...incredidible! Willy never told me you were a musician!"

Peter smiled. "Thanks Jakey. I miss it real bad. It sorta gets inta your blood, y'know? Maybe now that Millie and me are movin' back in with Ma..." He looked wistfully at Martin, who'd started a rendition of Leonard Cohen's Suzanne, his fingers effortlessly drawing lush descending arpeggios out of the spotlight-gleaming bronze strings of the big Martin twelve-string guitar. Jake turned back to listen, transfixed, as Willy arrived with another round of drinks.

Suzanne takes you down
To a place near the river
You can hear the boats go by
You can spend the night beside her
And you know that she's half crazy
But that's why you want to be there
And she feeds you tea and oranges
That come all the way from China
And just when you mean to tell her
That you have no love to give her
Then she gets you on her wavelength
And lets the river answer
That you've always been her lover

The words writhed in the raw places of Jake's alcohol-dulled soul, and he felt tears welling in his eyes as Martin sang...

And you want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind
And you know that she will trust you
For you've touched her perfect body with your mind.

Through the haze, the words burned. And, though Willy was fast enough to distract him from descent into maudlin drunkenness, Jake would never hear that song again without touching Amanda's perfect body with his mind.

* * *

The next morning five of seven people woke up with headaches.

The previous night, before the boys arrived back home, Helen and Hilda had walked - unsteadily - the half mile to Willy's Aunt Patsy's house, where they'd been welcomed with open arms and wry amusement at their condition. She woke them early and gave them a hearty breakfast, before the three of them drove to pick up Hilda's parents and sister from the airport. Though they were friendly and welcoming to Willy and his family and friends, Helen got the impression that they'd be happy to get away after the wedding.

Jake was still hungry. His stomach rumbled loudly from time to time, and being surrounded by food just made it worse. He hoped that he'd be able to pick something up on the way to town to get the rented tuxedos, and his heart sank when Millie arrived with the clothes before heading off to Patsy's to join in the preparations for Hilda.

Mandy's house was a scene relative calm. Four years of Buxton Ridge had made Willy and Jake expert at ironing shirts and shining shoes so, though they'd given themselves an hour to get ready, it only took ten minutes to have them looking ready for a dress parade. Mandy puttered 'round in the kitchen, putting the finishing touches to the food. Willy's nervousness started showing when he'd given Jake the ring, a plain gold band, to put in his pocket ready to produce at the appropriate moment.

"Just check that y' got the ring, Jakey," he said every ten minutes, and Jake had to produce it on cue to convince him that it was safe.

A few minutes before they were due to leave Jake walked into the kitchen to get a glass of water. Mandy was standing at the sink, her back to Jake. As he approached, he noticed her shoulders shake gently, and he slowed, walking up nervously.

"Uh, Mandy...?" he said quietly. "Are you okay?"

She turned to him and smiled through the tears rolling down her cheeks. "I'm sorry, Jakey. I just wish Paul could o' been here today."

Jake thought back to the way that Willy had spoken about his father. "Willy told me a lot about him. I'm really sorry that I never got the chance to meet him."

Mandy sniffed, and stood back looking at Jake as he took a clean handkerchief out of his pocket and handed it to her. She accepted gratefully and dried her eyes. "He would have been so happy to see Willy getting married. O' course he saw Pete and Millie's wedding, but Lord, he loved Willy something fierce, Jake. He would have been happy that Willy had a friend like you."

"Well, perhaps he's, you know, perhaps he's looking down and seeing it all," Jake said, embarrassed again at how lame it sounded in his own ears as he took the handkerchief back and put it in his pocket.

"Perhaps he is," she smiled. "Now come on - don't let a silly old woman hold things up. We gotta get to the church before Hilda does or it'll be bad luck!"

Peter drove them the five miles to town where a dozen friends and relatives, dressed in their Sunday best, milled around outside a small white stone church. Jake remembered the hugs and the greetings, the good wishes and the general happiness, but none of the names of the people he was introduced to except for the pastor, The Reverend Walter Entwhistle.

The small group nearly filled the little church. Willy and Jake fidgeted while Reverend Entwhistle joked with them with practiced expertise in calming, or at least distracting, nervous grooms-to-be. Finally Helen and Patsy arrived and walked down the aisle to take their seats next to Mandy. Seconds later a breathless rendition of Mendelssohn's Wedding March threatened to overtax the church's wheezy old harmonium and the wheezy old harmonium player as Hilda, her arm linked in her father's, appeared in the door, framed by the bright light behind them. As they walked slowly down the aisle, Willy and Jake could see Hilda's broad smile behind the small veil that barely covered her face. Hilda's simple tea length white dress and matching pillbox hat lent her something that was almost elegance and Jake, glancing at the beatific expression on Willy's face, shared a little of his friend's joy.

Fate, meanwhile, conspired in an almost playful way to make its presence felt and, as Hilda and her father separated leaving Hilda and her sister Roslynn to stand together, Jake's empty stomach growled loudly, demonstrating a youthful vigour far beyond the powers of the old harmonium. Helen, Mandy and Hilda barely managed to stifle their laughter and Jake, poor Jake, prayed fervently for the ground to open up and swallow him. The rest of the congregation either didn't notice or was far too well-mannered to respond, and the incident passed without further comment. Or it would have if it hadn't continued to provide a running commentary for the rest of the wedding. Jake's prayers, even in the sanctified atmosphere of God's house, went unanswered.

The ceremony moved along without incident, the ring duly materialised from Jake's pocket at the appropriate time, and, as those final monumental words were spoken and Mr and Mrs Johanssen, their eyes full of love for each other, kissed, The Reverend Entwhistle whispered in Jake's ear "The Lord moves in mysterious ways, Jake. Perhaps your stomach is just emulating His example."

Jake took the comment in the spirit with which it was offered and relaxed a little until Hilda, the kiss over, reached deep into the recesses of her simple bouquet of white roses and baby's tears and drew forth, as if miraculously, a Three Musketeers bar which she handed to Jake, whispering
"Honey, you need this more than I do."

Only Helen's stifled laughter reached Jake's embarrassed ears before the sweet sound of an expertly played guitar diverted everyone's attention. Peter, who'd made his way with Millie to the front left hand side of the church, started playing the song that Willy and Hilda had asked for, and Millie sang in a clear contralto, as Willy and Hilda walked down the aisle together to the delight and congratulations of the congregation,

Who knows how long I've loved you
You know I love you still
Will I wait a lonely lifetime
If you want me to--I will.

For if I ever saw you
I didn't catch your name
But it never really mattered
I will always feel the same.

Love you forever and forever
Love you with all my heart
Love you whenever we're together
Love you when we're apart.

And when at last I find you
Your song will fill the air
Sing it loud so I can hear you
Make it easy to be near you
For the things you do endear you to me
Oh, You know I will
I will.

His embarrassment forgotten, Jake stared at Peter and Millie as Willy and Hilda walked down the aisle and out of the church to he last, sweet strains of the Beatles song and the handshakes and hugs of well-wishers..

Clutching a struggling Wind, whose diaper was threatening to desert him, under one arm Amanda reached into the back of the Willys to take the air mattress from Vincent. Carrying both loads and her expanding stomach over to the tent, she dropped the air mattress, pulled up Wind's diaper and put him back in his collapsible playpen where he sat happily dribbling and watching the activity as his mother and father set up camp.

"You know it's going to get harder to do this when you-know-who arrives," she said.

"Then we'd better enjoy it while we can," Vincent remarked, climbing backwards out of the car. "So go chop some wood and fix us up some vittles while I drink beer."

The rubber foot pump missed his head by a scant inch.

Amanda stood and watched him taking the rest of the gear out of the back of the car and putting it down in a neat pile. The warm afternoon sun was starting to dip below the trees and a stream burbled in the distance. A cardinal flapped noisily from one tree to another. A motel room, she thought, would be so much easier. Her back was starting to ache, but she breathed deeply, taking in the earthy smells, and smiled, that sad expression back momentarily, realising that it was going to be harder from now on. Harder to go where the road took them. Harder to say "hey - that looks nice," and to stop and pitch a tent for the night. Harder to take two children instead of one wherever they felt like going. Harder to say, simply, "New York," and go.

She was going to enjoy it while she could. It might be a long time between drinks. And in two days' time - unless they decided again to detour via somewhere that sounded interesting - they'd be in New York City. Nothing was going to spoil that.

Helen chuckled as Jake greedily tore open the Three Musketeers bar, broke it and handed half to her.

"It's okay - like Hilda said, you need it more than me," she said, smiling.

"So how come you're not hungry?" he asked, stuffing half the chocolate bar into his mouth and chewing enthusiastically as his stomach growled at the prospect of being fed.

Helen just smiled as they parked in front of the barn, got out, and joined the others from the church as they walked into Mandy's parlour.

"I'm going to help Mandy and Millie," she said as soon as they got in, leaving Jake to mingle. He walked around aimlessly, smiling and nodding as people he didn't know slapped him on the back and said things like "Great wedding, huh, Jake?", or "Doesn't Hilda look wonderful?" Smile. Nod. Watching Mandy, Helen and Millie carry in plates from the kitchen piled high. He poured himself a Coke and gin and sipped distractedly while Helen put a plate of hot pastry triangles down in front of him and turned to smile up at him as she left to go back to the kitchen for another load. Jake stood, staring at the triangles, the sounds of the room fading into the background as his attention focussed on the golden morsels. Suddenly he felt a presence by his side.

"Don't think about it Jakey."

Jake turned to see Willy looking at him with a worried expression.


Willy was whisked away by an elderly woman who wanted a photograph, and he turned back to the plate. Slowly the room came back into focus and Jake noticed something strange.

Helen reappeared at his side and slipped an arm through his. "Well," she said, smiling that odd smile. "Aren't you going to pour me a drink?"

"Uh, oh - yeah..." Jake said distractedly. "What would you like?"

"Oh, I don't know. What's that you've got?"

He looked down at the glass in his hand. "Joke. I mean Coke. Gin. And Coke."

"I'll try that then."

He walked across to the sideboard where Mandy had set out a selection of bottles and poured Helen a glass of the same, guessing the quantities, and adding a couple of ice cubes from a glass ice bucket, all the time glancing back over his shoulder to confirm what he'd noticed.

Helen took the drink and sipped. "Mmm. Not bad. Gin?"



"Oh - uh, yeah - sorry. Sloe gin."

"Why Jake," she said. "you seem distracted."


"I said you seem distracted."

Jake turned and stared at her. "The food..."



"They're what?" Helen reached down and picked up a pastry triangle, lifted it to her mouth, and chewed. She closed her eyes and said "Mmmm."

Jake stared.

"How long have you known Willy?" she asked.

"Uh, four years," Jake replied as his gaze flicked between Helen and the plate.

"Isn't it amazing how you can know a person for so long and still not have the faintest idea..."

Jake snatched a triangle from the plate and ate it. His eyes widened even more. "Goddamn!" he breathed, reaching down and picking up a handful while Helen tried, with strictly limited success, to control her laughter. "What the Hell?" he said, turning to her. "You knew? How?"

Helen smirked and took another bite of her own food before she replied. "Well, Willy made such a big deal out of it, I just had to know, you know? So last night I tried some. Good, isn't it?"

"Good? It's glmph..." He swallowed. "It's great! But why doesn't he like it? I mean most of this is nowhere near spicy, and he warned us, me off her cooking for, well, Hell, most of the time I've known him!" Jake eagerly thrust another triangle into his mouth and cast around to see what else was on offer.

"I was wondering that too. Millie saw how I looked when I ate it and she told me what Mandy had told her, after Peter did the same thing to her."

"Hold on," said Jake, stepping over to pick two crispy springs roll off a plate, then coming back and giving one to Helen. "So - what did...oh man..." he took a bite out of the spring roll and chewed, closing his eyes in ecstasy. "What did she say?"

Suddenly a voice piped up behind them. "She said that there were once two little boys who messed with their mother's cooking when they shouldn't have." Mandy grinned at Jake and Helen who'd both blushed guiltily. "Land sakes, its okay, relax. I know my boys won't touch my cooking. They're both real sweet about trying to not hurt my feelings about it though."

Helen laughed. "Go on, tell Jake, Mandy."

"Well," she sighed. "I guess the boys were maybe eight and five. I'd been making sushi..."

"What?" said Jake.

"Oh, it's raw fish on sticky rice - it's Japanese." She smiled at Jake's horrified expression. "Now don't you go makin' the same mistake again, Jake Morgendorffer," she said. "Y' gotta use fish so fresh it's still jumpin' around, but it's delicious. I'll make some for y' next time you visit if I can get some fresh salmon straight outa the river. Anyway, the boys spotted a bowl o' green stuff, an' they start darin' each other 't eat it - o' course this only came out later. Anyway, I guess they thought it was guacamole..." She looked at Jake's vacant expression again. "My, my - I can see that I'm gonna have t' educate your palates, you two. So what it was wasabi - Japanese horseradish. It's real hot, but just a tiny bit's Heavenly with good sushi." She smiled wistfully and shook her head. "Those two were always doin' silly things. I remember one time if Paul hadn't stopped Pete from climbin' up t' jump off the roof o' the barn...anyway, Willy stuck his finger in the wasabi and sucked on it. I guess it hadn't hit yet 'cause Pete did the same thing. Next thing they're wailin' at the top o' their little voices and runnin' round the room like all the demons o' Hell are after' em. We came runnin' in. Soon as we saw the finger-sized scoops out o' the wasabi and realised what had happened I ran in and got 'em glasses o' cold milk from the refrigerator."

"It sounds terrible," said Jake.

"It was worse than terrible, honey," Mandy added sadly. "Wasabi can bring tears to a grown-up's eyes, but the boys were just little and their mouths were tender. It hurts me somethin' dreadful to think of what it must o' felt like to them. And t' make it worse, they rubbed their eyes with their fingers, and, well - you can imagine."

Helen winced.

"Paul called the doctor, an' he said the best thing we could do was t' use lots o' runnin water to wash it outa their eyes. The milk helped too, but the poor little mites were in terrible pain, cryin' an wailin'. I felt worse then than I think I ever have in my life. I guess I overreacted. I wouldn't let 'em near anything spicier 'n a little salt for the next few years. Everything I cooked I made special for them without any kind o' seasoning at all. Lookin' back it was probably the worst thing I could o' done. Ruined their palates for anything at all with a little adventure in it. But the worst of it was they never trusted me again when it came t' food, an' Lord, that's somethin' I do love."

"They never grew out of it?" Jake asked.

Mandy shook her head, smiling sadly. "Paul saw the funny side of it you know, and he used t' love my cookin' - mind you it took a few years for me t' educate him - he didn't take to it at first, but he played along with the boys fer weeks afterwards. When we were eatin' he'd say 'Now boys, this here's nasty - I'll take your share.' It was all in fun o' course, but it hurt me"

Helen looked puzzled. "But Japanese food, gwocca - whatever it was - all...this..." she looked around at the food, noticing that Jake had filled a small plate with a selection of morsels which he was contentedly munching through, "where did you learn...?"

Mandy sighed again. "My Pa was a diplomat, Helen. He worked in American embassies and diplomatic missions all over the world. I was born in Germany."

Jake realised that he was staring, open mouthed, and for the first (though not the last) time he learned that appearances can make for dangerous assumptions.

"We lived in Paris, Rome, Singapore, Tokyo, all kinds of places, when I was little. I went to American international schools that the government set up for the children o' diplomats and expatriates, but Daddy always used to say that it was hard to hate someone after you spoke their language, listened to their music, and ate their food. So that's exactly what we did. He made sure that I learnt a little of the language wherever we are. French, Italian, Japanese, Vietnamese - not fluently of course, but enough to speak to people and to read a little. The embassies always had local cooks, and I used to love watching them cook."

Helen looked stunned. "But"

"How did I end up here?" She smiled again. "Daddy was born and raised hereabouts. He retired here when I was sixteen. At first I hated it. After all that, to come to rural America where puttin' American mustard on a hot dog was considered exotic? I thought I was gonna die for a while. So I made it m' hobby to learn how t' cook the kinda food we ate overseas. Daddy loved it, and I must say I got pretty good at it. O' course you couldn't get most o' the ingredients here - people in the stores used t' think I was crazy, askin for this an' that that they'd never heard of, but I made do. I sent away for seeds and grew a lot o' my own, and Daddy's friends'd come to visit sometimes and they'd always bring me little packets or jars o' things you just couldn't get in America. People in the service'd bring me back spices and pickles and things, and mail them to us. It got so that I loved it." Suddenly sadness replaced the happiness of reminiscence on her face. "Of course the war put an end to it...and Daddy, rest his soul, passed away before it ended. But then..."

"You met Paul?" Helen asked.

"And then I met Paul," she smiled again, and stared into the distance, then turned back to her rapt audience of two. "He was the finest man I ever met. He helped me to understand that the important thing isn't where you live, it's how you feel about it." She laughed. "It sounds silly, doesn't it? That this farm could be as exotic as the Champs Elysees? That's a beautiful park in Paris, Jake. But it is, you know. And when Peter an' Millie got married, what with Willy away at school, I started my cookin' again, and the best part was that the things I couldn't get were startin' to be available in the stores. These days I can get a few more, and what with m' herb garden, well, I think I love it more than ever."

"But Willy and Pete never changed." Jake said.

"No, they never did." she sighed. "Maybe when Willy and Hilda move out - maybe they'll get to travel too, with the Army - I'll be more than happy to live in the cottage with my herb garden, and see my days out here, because this is where my heart is."

Helen gave way to the overwhelming urge to hug Mandy, and Mandy hugged her back happily.

"Thank you, Honey," she said. "Will you both promise me that you'll come by and visit us some time? Willy's got his Pa's taste in friends, I must say."

"I promise," Helen said.

"Well, we'd better get on with it then," Mandy picked up a knife and tapped it against a glass.

Jake, still chewing enthusiastically, reached for a plate of small pies when the sound of Mandy's tapping attracted everyone's attention and they turned towards her, as Millie brought in a classic two-tiered wedding cake, white, the top section balanced on four Corinthian pillars, and put it on the table beside her. Perched right on top was a snowglobe with a bride and groom inside, standing in a snowy winter scene.

"Folks," she said, "I want to say how happy I am that you're all here to be with us to celebrate this day." There was a polite round of applause and murmurs of agreement and congratulations. "Now, I'm not one for formalities or makin' speeches. Willy and Hilda said that they didn't want anything like that, but I have to say a few words or it wouldn't be a wedding, would it?" Polite titters of amusement. "I was saying to Jake earlier that I wish Paul was here with us today." She paused. "But wishing won't make it so. I know he'd be as happy as I am, so I'll say no more about that. Hilda, honey, it's wonderful to have you as part of our family. Now come on you two and cut the cake."

Willy and Hilda walked hand in hand to the table and took the knife from Mandy. Hilda picked up the snowglobe and shook it, watching the 'snowflakes' fall on the smiling couple. "Hey," she said, "this is soooo great!"

Mandy laughed. "Well, it's not exactly right for a summer wedding, but I liked it too. Now come on and cut the cake."

They both held the knife handle and plunged it into the cake to the applause of the guests. Willy looked over at his mother. "Well, I ain't gonna say much but thank-you, Ma." He looked back at Hilda and put his arm round her. "I don't reckon there's a man on Earth so happy as I am today. What more could a man want? I got a beautiful wife, wonderful friends," a smile towards Jake, "a great brother an' sister in law, a fine job t' go to - even if it's a bit sooner than we'd want." Another round of laughter from the guests. "Wonderful friends and relatives an' neighbours, an'...well...the best mother a man could have I reckon. And yeah - the only thing I could want would be Pa, but like Ma says, that's somethin' we just have to live with. I wanna say a special thanks to m' buddy, Jake. Jake's been a real good pal these four years, and we've had some good times. And some bad ones. But Jake, I'm real pleased that you an' Helen could be here. Hilda an' me hope you'll come an' see us real often." He looked around at the faces of the people he'd known most if his life, seeing the inevitable rear or two, and he held Hilda closer and she turned to smile at him. "Thank y' all." His voice cracked just a little on that last, and he turned again to kiss Hilda while another round of applause and muttered good wishes rose around them.

Jake drifted back over to the table, selecting the tastiest morsels he could find and closing his eyes in the ecstacy of discovery of each new taste sensation, while Helen, nibbling on a curry puff, watched in amusement. Someone put a nondescript middle-of-the-road album on the record player, distracting her for a second or two, and when she looked back Jake was standing there looking as if he'd just eaten a wasabi sandwich. Helen hurried over to him.

"Jake? What's wrong?" she asked, taking his arm.

"I just realised...." he said, "...all this time..."


He turned to her. "Care packages. Every goddam month Mandy sent him care packages. Full of food."

"Oh God. And you..."

"Every last one. Do you have any idea how much incredible food I helped him toss into trash?"

It was too much. Helen tilted her head back and roared with laughter.

"There's nothing funny about it," Jake said despondently.

Helen tried valiantly to keep a straight face, then, loosing her battle, she broke into laughter and pulled him out onto the middle of the room where people were starting to dance.

After an hour of dancing, eating, and threatening to end Willy's marriage before it got started, the festivities were interrupted by the sound of tapping on another glass as he record player became silent.

"Willy, Hilda," Peter said from over by the door, "What's supposed t' happen now is that y' get into the limo an' drive off t' the cruise ship or the plane t' take y' t' some exotic place. I know that's what's s'posed t' happen 'cause I seen it on the TV." The guests laughed. "So if you two wanna come on outside, your limousine awaits!" He bowed low and swept his arm beneath him in the direction of the door.

Surprised looks followed Willy and Hilda outside, turning to laughter as they reached the porch. In front of the gate stood Aunt Patsy's old horse, Charlie, pulling an ancient grey wagon whose sides were emblazoned with 'Just Married' painted haphazardly on the sides in white paint, and a dozen tin cans tied by string to the back.

Hilda laughed so hard that Willy was afraid she'd tire herself out. They walked down the path to the cheers of the guests, and Willy bowed low to Hilda. "May I help you into your carriage, my dear?" he said, triggering another round of laughter. Hilda climbed up onto the seat and Willy sat beside her, holding Charlie's reins.

Mandy handed up a wicker basket lined with straw, holding a bottle of champagne and two glasses. "Just in case you get thirsty," she said, grinning.

Willy flicked the reins and said "Gya, Charlie." The old horse walked off slowly as Hilda leaned her head on his shoulder. People waved and tin cans clattered.

"Just turn old Charlie round and send him back when you get t' the cottage," Patsy called. "He knows the way home."

Jake and Helen watched Willy turn and wave. The warm afternoon sunshine painted the scene in shades of orange and crimson. Just then, a single cloud positioned itself in the precise spot to throw a shadow across Willy, leaving Hilda in sunshine. And Fate, standing at the back of the group, lifted an arm and waved.

Stay tuned for the next instalment of All My Children.

Disclaimer: All characters are copyright MTV except for Willy and his family who belong to us.

Special thanks: to all our beta readers: AhMyGoddess, Steven Galloway, Milderbeast, Martin J. Pollard, Mike Nassour, and RLobinske.

Quirks: Deref, who typed the words, is an Australian, so he's used Aussie English spellings and grammar conventions. He may also have inadvertently used some Aussie idioms though he's tried to keep in culture.

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