Umbrella Factory Magazine Issue 59, February 2023

Page 42

Contents Yuan Changming 6 “The Turner” Sarah Daly 14 “Second Light” “Girl” “The Fire of Your Being” Dylan Gilbert 18 “Nice to Meet You, Dave” Patrick Meeds ........................................................................ 26 “Good Advice” “Chapter and Verse” “This is the Taste of Medicine” Alan Swyer .............................................................................. 30 “Cousins” John Tustin 38 “Borrowing Me” “My Honesty” “Upaint You” Jozzie Velesig .......................................................................... 42 “Charlotte” Afterword from the editor 48
4 | Umbrella Factory Magazine Weareasmallpress determinedtoconnectwelldevelopedreaderstointelligentwritersandpoets throughvirtualmeans,printedjournals,andbooks.We believeinmakinganhonestlivingprovidingthebest writersandpoetsaforumfortheirwork.



Sized between 1,000 and 5,000 words. Any writer wishing to submit fiction in an excess of 5,000 words, please query first.

Please double space. We do not accept multiple submissions, please wait for a reply before submitting your next piece.

We consider ourselves at Umbrella Factory Magazine as a cooperative forum to connect readers to the best writing available.

All writers and poets retain all rights to their work.

Your work must be previously unpublished. We encourage you to submit your piece everywhere, but please withdraw your piece if gets published elsewhere.


We accept submissions of three (no more and no less) poems. Please submit only previously unpublished work.

We do not accept multiple submissions; please wait to hear back from us regarding your initial submission before sending another. Simultaneous submissions are accepted, but please withdraw your piece immediately if it is accepted elsewhere.


Accepting submissions for the next cover of Umbrella Factory Magazine. We would like to incorporate images with the theme of umbrellas, factories and/or workers. Feel free to use one or all of these concepts. Image size should be 980 x 700 pixels, .jpeg or .gif file format. Provide a place for the magazine title at the top and article links.

We also accept small portfolios of photography and digitally rendered artwork. We accept six pieces (no more and no less) along with an artist’s statement and a third person bio.

Your work must be previously unpublished. We encourage you to submit your piece everywhere, but please withdraw your piece if gets published elsewhere.

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Yuan Changming

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Yuan Changming edits Poetry Pacific with Allen Yuanin Vancouver, and has published 15 poetry collections in English. Early in2022, Yuan began to write fiction, with short stories appearing in Aloka (UK) and Bewildering Stories (Canada) or forthcoming in Lincoln Review (UK), Word For/Word (US), and StylusLit (Australia), among others. Currently, Yuan is working on his trilogy. Meet Yuan:

The Tuner

Facts can be more fascinating than fiction. Ming was acutely aware of that, but sometimes he wondered if he could tell one from the other without flights of fancy.

On October 2, 2019, during his visit to his mother in Jingzhou, Ming went out of his way to host a gathering in Songzi, his native town which he left permanently after finishing high school. Throughout the party, all the attending “comrades-in-arms” remained high-spirited, some singing the old songs aloud, some playing mahjong attentively, others eating the local snacks with terrible mannerisms while chatting boisterously about theirshared experiences in Mayuhe, a forest farm adjacent to the Yangtze River, where they all had “received the re-education from poor peasants” at the same youth station during the Cultural Revolution.

For Ming, this was not only the first time to see these old comrades after 42 years of separation without knowing their whereabouts, but more importantly, the only opportunity to pay off his last “emotional debt,” something he thought he was still owing to Hua, who had immigrated to Australia years before he retired from his main job as an independent tutor, translator and publisher in Vancouver.

When the party finally ended in the middle of the night, he managed to strike up a private conversation with her, though only for a couple minutes. “Hua, you know why I have come all the way from Canada to attend this gathering?” he asked.

“Like all of us, you want to see old friends while we still can move around, don’t you?”

“No! I have few friends in my entire life, nor do I really want to see anyone except you!”

“Why me?”

“There is one thing I have been wanting to say to you in person for almost half a century. Now that we are all lining up for our final exits from this world, I….”

“What is it you must say to me?”

“I loved you, while we were laboring together in Mayuhe, and…”

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“Really? Some comrades did mention this to me long ago, but I never believed them, because you yourself had said nothing like that.”

“That’s why I owe you a confession, long overdue….Still remember the tuner you gave to me in the summer of 1975?”

“What tuner?” Hua looked bewildered as they were joined helter-skelter by other comrades, who, all in their mid-sixties, well knew this to be the last occasion to goodbye one another face to face.

Before getting into a comrade’s car back to Jingzhou, Ming rushed to ask for Hua’s weixin number and said meaningfully to her, “Let’s stay in touch thru weixin, shall we?”

But once back to his home in Vancouver, he found it hard to communicate with Hua. For one thing, knowing she spent almost every waking minute together with her husband after retirement, Ming saw it as utterly imprudent to video- or even audio-chat with her. A polite seasonal greeting was certainly customary, but frequent conversations about their old days would be alarming, let alone any in-depth discussion about their long lost relationship. Textual messaging seemed to be a viable option, yet it too was overly restrictive and troublesome. With his fingers getting clumsier and eyes blurrier nowadays, he simply hated typing Chinese characters on a small screen. This being so, all he could do was to constantly forward to her whatever posts or moments he found interesting or relevant. In return, Hua would make casual and succinct comments on what she had actually viewed. Undoubtedly, this was not the way he hoped to remain in contact with her.

Shortly after the Chinese New Year’s day, Hua complained that she was stuck at her parents’ residence in Songzi as lockdowns became the order of the day in response to the new coronavirus outbreak in their native province of Hubei. To kill time and fulfill one of her fondest teenage dreams, she mentioned she was taking online lessons in color-lead painting. Hearing this, Ming realized there might be much more he could share with her than he had thought, so he became more enthusiastic about sending her beautiful photos of landscapes and visual artworks as well as inspiring stories about Chinese or western artists.

But what he most wanted to do was to get answers to two questions that had been bugging him recently: one was how come Hua remembered nothing about the tuner, something he had been hiding in the depth of his heart as the first token of love he got in his whole lifetime; the second was why he and Hua failed to become husband and wife despite his strong belief that they had been karmaed for each other in this world. Only by finding the truth would he emotionally “die with his eyes closed,” as the Chinese idiom goes.

On a weekend evening in early summer, well before he could find a chance to bring up the topic with Hua, his wife happened to notice the brief but flirting textual messages he had sent to Hua. “Something going on, eh? You two seem to contact each other too often!” she said in a suspicious and sarcastic tone.

“Nothing at all, just joking as we used to in Mayuhe,” he explained. Nonetheless, alerted by this incident, he began to resort to underground communication to avoid jeopardizing his marriage. After all, he could not afford to get himself into another emotional debt. Aged 64, he had gone through all the storms of life, now he wanted to make sure to see nothing but rainbows for the rest of his life, even when there was no sunlight.

But he was curious enough to search for the truth about his fated connections with Hua. Time after time, he would indulge himself in recollecting the details about how they worked together in Mayuhe between 1974 and 1977. As the leader of the youth group, he was neither tall nor really handsome, but he showed himself to be a highly ambitious youngster with a strong will power. Not surprisingly, he had several secret admirers who were actually very pretty, but he only had eyes for Hua; to him, she not only was the sexiest and most beautiful of all, but also had a good sense of humor in addition to a cheerful personality.

In fact, he had fallen in love with her at first sight when he happened to spot her during a meeting at high school one year before. Since they came to receive ‘reeducation’ in the country like millions of Mao Zedong’s red guards, he had developed a crush on her. Part of the reason why he tried so hard to outperform others in Mayuhe was to prove himself worthy of her attention. Each time they chanced to be shoulder-carrying trees together, he would love to tease or make fun of her,

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while she appeared to enjoy the clever way he joked with her. In the spring of 1975 when all the boys at the youth station started to learn to play the erhu or the flute, she gave him a tuner supposedly to help him set the tune, but she did so in such a private manner that he readily took it as a special gift, nothing less than a solid token of love, though never explicitly proclaimed as such on her part.

However, though he loved Hua tremendously and believed that she loved him as well, he hid this feeling even from himself, knowing his top priority was to win the opportunity to go to university, however slim it might be.

Once he achieved his first career objective, he would make the proposal, which he believed she would readily accept. Then, with the help of his family connections, they could go to the same city and get married in due course. But given the sociopolitical realities of the day, his plan for their joint future would have been thwarted if the political authorities had discovered his romantic relationship with her.

Alas, it was to his surprise as much as to his isappointment and humiliation that Hua asked him to return the tuner towards the end of the year. Thinking she might have a new sweetheart, he decided to focus on his career development. Though he had a hunch that Hua had given the tuner to his major rival named Pan, a much taller if not smarter or more handsome comrade, Ming said nothing about his suspicion, nor did he disclose his love for her to anyone; instead, he had kept his jealousy, pain, self-pity and shame to himself even until now.

After graduating from Shanghai Jiaotong University, he did have several intimate relationships, but he eventually married his wife because only she could ‘beat’ Hua in some sense or was as attractive to him as Hua. It was not until he began to thoroughly examine his life after his semi-retirement that he realized Hua as his lifetime model of love, that is, someone who embodied all female attractiveness to him. When he met her at the October party, he could not help falling in love with her again. To his amazement, he found her even more attractive than before. Already with two grandchildren, she looked as if still around forty, even sexier, more beautiful and definitely more graceful than when he saw her last time in Mayuhe. A true lady rather than

a Chinese dama, a stunner she really was, he said to himself.

But how come Hua had no memory of the tuner? Given the way this little gadget of hers had set for him the tune of love, if not of life, this was something simply unthinkable. Perhaps she remembered it too well to admit it; she felt the need to safeguard her happy married life; she had a strong sense of female dignity; or she hated to be “debunked” in an emotional sense. There could be many underlying reasons for her persistent denial, he thought.

The more Ming pondered over this tuner episode, the more he craved for the truth, and the more he started to miss her, especially as the Pandemic made it increasingly difficult for them to reunite in person anywhere or anytime soon. To alleviate his ever intensifying yearning for her, he conducted longer and more frequent texttalks via weixin until one day in August, she wrote, “If we were really karmaed for each other, I would wait for you in Mayuhe in our next life.”

While this remark might well be disregarded as a lip service by anyone else, he took it so seriously that he began to address her as his “dear future wife.” Every so often he would even request her to send him her photos taken in different years, because he wanted to “make up for the loss of [their] otherwise married life in this world” and to “become familiar enough to readily recognize her in their afterlives”; and with words and images, he invited her to co-build what they called ‘weixin home,’ a virtual residence where they could play with the idea of living together as a loving couple. He was clear that all such effort was just a masturbation on his part, but she apparently did enjoy this cyber relationship to some extent.

On the morning of December 27, he was doing stretching exercise when he hit upon the idea of resuming to write his book Love Letters from Vancouver, which he had initially intended to be his first (autobiographical) novel in Chinese, but later thrown into his garage after getting a sharp criticism from his first reader, one of his closest comrades-inarms in Mayuhe who had become a well-read software engineer in Silicon Valley.

On the same evening, Ming told Hua that the book, which was based on his quite dramatic life experiences

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up until 2000, was devoted to his first date; but now, he was all geared up to recount his life experiences from the millennium to the present. Since then, he would write three to four thousand Chinese characters every day and, exactly one month later, he finished this extremely challenging job. During the whole writing process, he was as excited as he was eager to share with Hua all his ups and downs on every front, though he had no idea about what impact it might have on her. To him, she was both his closest reader and his best or most informed critic.

On Valentine’s Day 2021, he wrote a love poem in Chinese and sent it to her as a gift, in which he articulated his long-cherished feeling for her since their separation, in which he told her he had loved her profoundly while in Mayuhe, and still did so now, though he loved his wife nonetheless. After typing the three Chinese characters and hitting the send key, he turned off the light, but felt too nervous to sleep because he had broken the language ban she had imposed on him, and concurrently too guilty because he had done something unfaithful to his wife. Perhaps, without bodily contact, such “spiritual derailment” or platonic love might be excusable, he told himself. No matter what, love was running wildly in his inner space as in the virtual world.

At the end of March, after much waiting and scheduling, he finally got his first chance to call her. It was an almost 5-hour long chat over the phone. During this passionate and informative conversation, he did not mention his first e. d. experience with his wife partly because of Hua just two nights before, but he and Hua talked a great deal about each other’s life experience, family situation and health condition. At one point, Hua told him frankly that after receiving his special Valentine gift, she spent almost two weeks struggling fiercely with her own sense of being a good traditional woman before deciding to resume communication with him. “I was waiting nervously for your response all that time,” Ming said. “If you had stopped responding to my love message at all, I would have never contacted you again, but fortunately you forwarded a meme to me later, though totally irrelevant to my confession.”

“Even now I am still hesitating if I should keep in touch with you,” Hua said. “I fear I might have fallen into some sort of trap.”

“Don’t worry! Since I am in the trap already, I would push you up to safety even at the costof my own life,” he assured her.

“But don’t say those three words again!”

“What if your ban makes me suffocate to death?”

“Don’t worry; I could readily call an ambulance for you,” Hua said, jokingly.

“There would be no time for that. You should perform a CPR on the spot,” Ming continued by changing the topic into a pun.

“Only if you were really dying!” Hua got his pun and extended it right away.

“The moment your lips touch mine, I would resurrect!”

As in Mayuhe, she enjoyed such allusive and lighthearted conversations with him, whereas he found it utterly unthinkable that Hua should have lost all her memories about the tuner. Her innocent response made him wonder if the whole matter was actually one of his own illusions or imagined events as she suggested. But on second thought, he was just as sure that Hua must have some unknown reasons to continue hiding the truth. With no hard or handy evidence to authenticate his story, he had to put aside her nonchalance about the whole matter, though it sometimes caused him to feel deplorably perplexed, hurt and even ashamed of the way he might have overestimated her feelings for him in the first place.

To remain faithful to his wife, he even thought of giving up his pursuit of the truth or terminating his contact with Hua. Being a respected grandpa now, he certainly would not want to become a laughingstock for anyone as a victim of “first love complex” that was typical of the young; nor had he had the slightest intention to develop an extramarital relationship with the same person after such a long lapse of time. But somehow he just could not help missing her more and more.

To soothe his lovesickness, he turned to poetry and, in a matter of mere several months, he wrote almost fifty love poems, all inspired by and thus devoted to Hua. For him, this was certainly some achievement: he had written and published all kinds of poetry in English

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(which he had begun to learn at age 19 as a college student in Shanghai), from what he called “mini-epic” to “bilinguacultural poems,” from “dark fantasy” to “dinggedicht,” in disparate forms and styles, yet he had never been able to compose a single love piece. The reason was he had never experienced any truly inspiring love, he believed. But now though he was still not really sure about Hua’s affection for him, he had drawn so many strong inspirations from her that he had not only completed writing (and self-published) his Chinese memoire Love Letters from Vancouver, but had more than a dozen love poems appearing or forthcoming in literary journals across the English speaking world.

On 26 April 2021, just one day before receiving his first shot of Pfizer against covid-19, he hastily self-published his collection of love poems under the title of Limerence, just in case he, with his heart condition worsening, could not survive the probable severe side effects of the vaccination. Of course, he never mentioned this book to Hua, because he planned to give it to her later in person as a happy surprise, something like her tuner, or as his intended token of love.

A few months later, Hua was diagnosed as having cancerous cells in her lungs during her annual physical checkup. While she suffered greatly, more psychologically than physically, he gave her his best support by teaching her how to build a stronger inner self to overcome her fear and defeat all misfortunes. Right before she was pushed into the operation room on the morning of August 12, he advised her to print the Chinese character for ‘love’ on her left hand, and his name on her right, promising that his love would be her most powerful guardian angel. And much as he had expected, she had a very successful operation.

By the time she was fully recovered, he had written several dozen more love pieces, many of which were soon to be published. When circumstances finally allowed them to video-chat with each other on weixin, they began to spend nearly two hours together online every day though living on the opposite sides of the world. Among all the topics they touched upon, they enjoyed talking about love, sex and art the most, though they both felt quite guilt and embarrassed at first.

From their daily communications, he learned almost everything about the development of their relationship. For example, Hua told him, to his great joy and comfort,

that she had been keen on reading every page of his Love Letters earlier in the year. Also, knowing what he had gone through in the past few decades, she had felt not merely happy for his achievements on every front, from family to finance, from work to poetry, but also sympathetic with his sufferings, including his health problems and psychological setbacks, especially the way he functioned like a money-making machine with no lubricant of love or care. In particular, she developed a strong emotional attachment to him though with an equally strong sense of guilt while in the hospital. She admitted longing to say “I love you, too” to him on receiving his Valentine message, but considering their relationship to be so “abnormal and immoral” (and “imbalanced” as he had often added), she had often thought of putting out their love sparkle before it became a sweeping fire.

“What eventually made you decide to continue our relationship?” he asked.

“I am not sure, but I felt I must follow my heart, mustn’t I?” Hua responded.

“Of course you must! So karmaed as we are for each other, we should follow our hearts together, be it a bliss or curse on us.”

“Sure, why not! After the operation, I may not have so many more years to live anyway.”

“An enlightened girl! So, you are really sure now? Isn’t it a happy thing to be your whole self rather than only part of it? -- I mean to live with our free will…”

“Sure thing! For the past sixty years, I have been living mainly for others, now it is time to live for myself.”

“That’s why you decided to lift your speech ban on me and allow me to say ‘I love you’ after receiving my Valentine message?”

“Yes, I do treasure your lifelong feeling for me, and I do want to let you know I love you too, only it’s too embarrassing even to talk about love as old grandparents.”

“No love is embarrassing, just as no love is wrong, ‘abnormal’ or ‘immoral,’ except perhaps it could be ‘imbalanced.’ Don’t you think we grandparents are as

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much entitled to love as the young?”

“Whatever you say, we are really too old to love like young people.”

“But our love is just as passionate. Physically we are no longer strong or energetic. Old as I am, I’ve become softened on both ways, so much so that I cannot satisfy you, an extraordinary woman with the physique of a forty-year old, but without enough sexual power, even without penetration at all, we can still make love in countless alternative ways. Just as we can talk dirty together on weixin, we can also make babies together in our bed of art and poetry. At least, our love can help each other maintain good health besides good looks.”

“Anyway, we must keep our relationship underground, however beautiful or helpful to ourselves, or people would find us ridiculous and disgusting.”

“Still care about how others might look at us?”

To protect each other’s spouse from getting hurt, Ming and Hua decided to tell all the white lies about their mutual love, and reached two basic agreements. 1) they would face all possible challenges to their relationship together until their last breaths; and 2) they would have part of their ashes mixed and buried together in Mayuhe after death.

Upon signing their love agreement at the outset of 2022, Ming was further inspired to write a long and hybrid book in English, into whose fabric he tried to weave all his ‘bests,’ including his most insightful findings about life as well as his worthiest life experiences. By adopting a highly innovative narrative framework and exploring his true relationship with Hua in terms of spiritual growth, he hoped to raise, and offer his answer to, this question: how can Adam and Eve live together happily as they grow really old? In a larger sense, how can the aged regain their lost pureness, beauty and nearness to the Supreme? Meanwhile, Hua embarked on a series of color-lead paintings, most of which he would use as illustrations for his book. In so doing, both of them felt as if being reborn into love and living in a paradise regained.

In the meantime, he had never really stopped trying to dig the truth about the tuner, the very starting point of

their relationship. But for all their efforts, she failed to retrieve her memory, if any at all. She did admit liking him a lot while still in Mayuhe, but she did not love him as he believed she had done; it was only after she received his valentine gift that she started to feel seriously for him.

“But how do you account for the tuner you gave to me back then?” he asked once again, thinking that she might be, unconsciously or unknowingly, playing the classic game of love with him. Indeed, love could be an emotional battle between a man and a woman: if one had admitted loving the other more than the other way around, one would lose at least part of one’s own attraction, if not the whole battle. Unsure about the depth of Hua’s feeling for him, he kept hoping she would one day break free of her reserve, the chain of moral restraints, or whatever else had been blocking her memory about the tuner.

“Sorry, Mingming,” Hua explained, “if the tuner thing were not an invention of yours, if I had given it to you as you remembered, and requested it back later to give it to Pan Lihao as you had suspected, I must have done all this just to help you guys learn to play the erhu.”

“You mean you gave it to me not as a token of love, but nothing more or less than a learning device?”

“Sure thing! If I had intended it to be a love token, how could I have asked you to return it to me and give it to Pan instead? What a childish and ridiculous thing to do…. that would be completely against my character!”

“In that case, our relationship was based on a misunderstanding, an emotional error to begin with?”

“You bet, but a very beautiful one, isn’t it?”

“Sure it is! Except that it makes me feel painfully embarrassed about how I have been flattering myself in our relationship all these years!”

“But my affection for you now is true!”

“Well, I think I must accept your explanation. It seems to be the only logical answer to my questions about the whole matter.”

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A few days after ‘resolving’ the tuner myth and finishing the first draft of his hybrid novel “Back to Eden,” Ming received a video call from his mother across the Pacific, who showed him a small package meant for him.

“Just open it, Mom, and see who has sent me what is inside!”

It turned out to be none other than the tuner! Dark red, one inch long, in the shape of a tube, about the thickness of a little finger, with a metal reed at one end getting somewhat rusty.

More intriguing was the short handwritten note that came along with it from Pan: “Long long time no see, old pal! The other day, I was browsing randomly online when I happened to find your Love Letters. From your memoir, I learned Hua had actually given the tuner to you first. If I had known this fact in Mayuhe, I would never have kept it as a special souvenir! Now that you two seem to have developed a real (extramarital?) relationship despite old age, I send my very best wishes as well as this little thing (I have no way to contact her). Keep it well, Pal, hope the tuner would not tune out your marriageas in my case!”

Author’s Note: This story is inspired by and thus devoted to Helena Qi Hong (祁红)

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Sarah Daly

Sarah Daly is an American writer whose work has appeared in As It Ought to Be Magazine, The Spotlong Review, Rejection Letters, Down in the Dirt, and elsewhere.

Cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves you fed me, too much chai and too many biscuits on a Sunday afternoon.

Of countless Sunday afternoons, which are too near to remember, where we murmured syllables of an ancient tongue, your clipped tones guiding my accent to pattern yours.

Ancient elegies of love and war, repeated until my pronunciation was seamless; gods, goddesses, and prayers, lengthening my stay minute by minute; two-thousand years compressed into a few mere lines, so carefully reworked and preserved.

The rains we liked best, a universal pause, an excuse to prolong our lessons, though by then, we had forgotten their purpose; the ease of domesticity lured us as we rinsed and dried your rose-patterned tea cups in the hours after.

So we split seeds and heated oil, chopped tomatoes and boiled rice until their aroma removed our disquiet and soothed our tired tongues; we wove narratives over candlelight,

Second Light

feeding our reciprocal hunger, substantiated by hopes and prayers.

Question after question chased time away, until we had shed any pretense of other cares; and all we lived for was Sundays, Sundays in each other’s arms, Chitra and Arjuna re-enacted.

But it was not natural, the language we spoke; the fluency of the tongue, the fluency of the heart, yes, but not of the mind. So, it is no surprise that you went away, and had forgotten to give me the most important lesson of all— how to forget.

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The cuckoo clock which bites you every hour and the garden gnome with its blank eyes is the stuff of your nightmares.

The shag orange carpet and the clouded mirrors make you nauseous and ill, but your babysitter does not care a whit for your discomfort.

You sit on the striped sofa cushion to inhale her fully (whiffs of nicotine and apple pie).

You hide in her closet, warming yourself with sweatpants and faux leather jackets.

Sometimes you depress the keys on her word processor, delighting in the blue screen and blinking cursor.

But, she never seems to see you.

Months pass and her house burns down to a cinder shell and you never return, beyond the once-by your mother took to rubberneck.

Years later, you finish your degree in anthropology, fail to get into grad school, and manage an indie bookshop.

Your hair is long and your eyes are clouded. You sit behind the counter and strike matches on a stone to light your endless cigarette.

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The Fire of Your Being

I pirouette for every miracle— your lips, the touchstone.

The incandescence bathes my skin anew— the longing, suffused.

Enter. Stage Right. Your slender nymphs, curved in sorrow’s wake:

your certain sympathy, your eager assistance, your vessels for grief.

But your smile is so easy, your stride so keen, you waltz towards me and

how our hands skim each other’s waists and how our legs intertwine as I pull you closer into the fire.

But you refuse to burn, refuse to succumb, prefer to find easy comfort on lesser stages, in lesser ways.

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Dylan Gilbert

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Dylan Gilbert’s stories have appeared in Slow Trains, Potomac Review, Sleet Magazine, and Kansas City Voices, among others, and he has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Meet Dylan:

Nice to Meet You, Dave

David McConkey clutched a bottle of Klonopin in his fist, which was jammed into his jacket pocket. He tried to take a breath to calm himself, but it seemed to lodge in his windpipe. He tried again, forcing the breath into his lungs, attempting to push the tightness in his shoulders and neck down to his belly. Keep it down or he would bolt.

He reached for the door handle of the Black Cat Cafe, a hip coffeehouse that served organic tea, homemade muffins, and veggie scrambles. His chest tight, he swung the door open a little too hard, causing a young mother with a toddler to glare at him. He gave an apologetic grin, then scanned the room—only one free table, which was pushed too close to an elderly couple sitting at the next table over. He thought to turn back or pop a pill. He could cup the bottle in his palm, twist the top off, sneak a Klonopin to his mouth, and swallow it with a glob of saliva. He had done it dozens of times in public.

“Can you close that door?” said the woman with the toddler.

“Sorry. Heh, yeah, sorry.” He closed it, beelined for the empty table, and wedged himself between it and the little two-top where the old couple sat. “Whoa, hey,” said the old guy as Dave squeezed past, “that’s a puffy jacket.”

“Oh, sorry.”

“You hush, Fred. Let’s scoot over and give him a little room,” the lady said, apparently to the whole coffeehouse.

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“Scoot over where?” asked Fred.

“It’s fine, really,” Dave said, feeling prickly on the back of his neck. He wrestled his jacket off in the crowded space, hung it neatly on the chair, and pulled out his phone. 11:48. There was time. He clicked on OKCupid and studied her profile again. Auburn hair and a sprinkling of freckles on her nose and cheeks. A broad smile with crinkles at the eyes, which were goodnatured but mischievous. While rereading her profile, he reviewed his talking points: pet dog, middle school teacher, wildly diverse taste in music: Eminem, Patsy Kline, Bach.

He scrolled through their old messages; at first, they had chatted about where they lived and what they did for work and fun, but then it got real—her life-changing experience in the Peace Corps, both of their interest in Transcendentalism. Then she hinted they should meet. They always do. He didn’t respond for three days. But then one night, overwhelmed by loneliness, as he planned yet another solo vacation to the Gulf Coast of Florida, he messaged her and suggested meeting for coffee. This time, unlike most of the others, he was determined to go through with it.

He had discovered that if he messaged women who lived far away, the meeting could be postponed for weeks, even months. This was the case with Veronica from Delaware, a woman he had “met” last year on They had begun to text so much that he had to take the app off his phone because he was getting distracted at work. But at five sharp, he would

rush home to get her messages. He loved being in the intimacy of his living room, her pics on his 32-inch monitor. But then she had told him she was coming to New York for business. They could finally meet in person. She had called him on the morning of her flight and kept asking, “Aren’t you excited?”

“Sure,” he said, and he was—of course he wanted to meet her. But he felt the tightness in his throat strangling his voice. He dug a pill out of the bottle in his pocket and swallowed it dry as they made plans…that he never showed up for.


He flinched, his recollection pushed out of his mind, and looked up. His date stood in front of him: wind-blown hair, a tentative smile, creases in her eyes, deeper than the picture, but lovely creases. She wore a green down jacket with a leaf stuck to the right shoulder.

“Hi, Charlotte?”

“Great to meet you,” she said. She bent over the little table to hug him. He froze a moment, then shot forward, with a bit too much force, his chest thumping into hers. Realizing his error, he jerked back, grinning timidly.

“Whoa, all these puffy jackets,” said Fred at the next table.

“Hush, Fred!” said the old lady.

Dave felt tight in his throat, spiky heat on the back of his neck. But Charlotte seemed not to have noticed the old guy’s comment. She smiled brightly,

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looking at him with such warmth that he willed himself to stay calm and in control. “So, you found the place okay?” he asked. A set first line he knew to use from terrifying pauses he had experienced in the past.

“Of course,” she said. “I only live right up the street.”

“Yes, yes, yes, of course. You come here to meet your niece to help her with her homework sometimes after school.”

“Good memory, Dave.”

“So,” he said, frantically searching for talking points, his mind racing, the blurbs of conversation and clinking silverware pressing in on his thought process. Dog, he remembered and blurted it out: “Dog!”


“Dog, how’s your dog?”

“Oh, Bilbo’s awesome. I was going to bring him, but I thought it was too cold to make him wait outside.”

“Oh, I wish you had,” said Dave. He liked dogs and loved the idea of a distraction.

“Another time,” she said.

He felt a prick of warmth in her words, “Another time,” and the tension in his neck melted just a hint.

“Thank you,” he said, much too earnestly, he realized.

“No biggie,” she said, giving him a crinkly-eyed smile.

For a moment, they both gazed at each other, but neither spoke. No Goddamn pauses, Dave thought.

What are my talking points? Dread crept up his spine like a line of ants.

“So, I’m going to grab something,” Charlotte said, starting to stand.

Mortified that he had forgotten, Dave jumped up, bumping the table. “No!”

“Whoa,” said Fred, the neighbor. Charlotte looked surprised.

“Sorry, I should have gotten you something. What can I get you?”

“It’s okay. I got it.”

“No, come on, I’ll take care of it.”

She eyed him curiously. “Okay. Cappuccino. Decaf.”

“Got it,” he said and squeezed through the two tables.

After ordering, Dave grabbed a napkin and wiped it across his wet forehead. He felt relieved to be at the counter with a task and began going over his talking points again. He felt a tap on his shoulder, turned, and saw Charlotte. His breath caught in his throat. “I’m just going to the bathroom,” she said in an overly calm voice as if she were a nurse on a pysch ward. She walked off and Dave tugged at the neck of his shirt as if that could help him get a full breath. He was blowing it…again, his jitters making her uncomfortable. He was appalled with himself.

Dave brought the cappuccino back to the table and waited for Charlotte to return. Fred, the old man at the next table, was looking at him, a gleam in his

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eye. “Can I ask you something?” His wife lowered her paper. “Is this a blind date?” he asked in a conspiratorial whisper.

“Oh Fred, for God sakes!”

Dave’s heart pounded in his neck. He pulled the bottle of Klonopin out of his pocket and began maneuvering the child-proof lid off under the table.

“I have an interest in this stuff,” Fred continued.

“I find it fascinating. You see, I’m an anthropology professor. The mating habits of our species are undergoing a revolutionary change. Did you meet through an online dating site?”

“Fred, leave the man alone.”

“ Tinder? Was it Tinder?” asked Fred.

“No, we’re friends from work,” Dave lied.

“You happy, nosy?” the wife said. “It’s not a Tinder date,” she exclaimed, her voice reverberating throughout the café. Dave was sure he saw the lady with the toddler and the bus boy look at him. His finger was in the bottle now, pulling out a pill, which was stuck to the side of the bottle and not budging. He yanked at it with his sweaty finger, knocking the bottle to the floor, a half dozen blue pills scattering across the tiles.

He lurched to the floor, banging his hip into Fred’s chair, snatching up the pills.

Fred, at near orgasmic excitement, whispered, “Is that Viagra?” which he pronounced Vee-agra.

“Leave the man alone, Fred! It’s not Viagra!” she blurted. Every set of eyes in the café zoomed in on

Dave. The bus boy sniggered, as did two teenage girls who were ordering at the counter. The woman with the toddler shook her head in disgust.

Dave snatched the pills off the floor, grabbed his jacket, and rushed out the door and into the cold air. He hurried to his car, his face and hair drenched in sweat, his breath sharp and quick. He wrestled the keys from his jeans and pushed the unlock button, so he thought, but instead the trunk popped open. “God damn it!” he snarled. He moved to the back of the sedan and slammed the trunk shut.

“Hey, what the hell?” he heard. He looked back and saw Charlotte.

He whipped around and approached her in front of the cafe. “I am so sorry.”

“What is this? I come out of the bathroom and see you heading out the door with your jacket? You just walk out on someone?”

“No, no, that’s not—”

“It would kill you to spend 20 minutes drinking a coffee with me?”

“No, of course not. It’s just those people made me uncomfortable.”

“What people?”



“Yeah, that old guy sitting next to us. And his wife. Them.”

“You know them? You bring people with you on a date? What, you thought I might try to kidnap you?”

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“No, they were just some random people who kept making ridiculous comments.” She stared at him, her nose crinkled, maybe more confused now than mad. He looked down, bit his lip, clutched the car keys in his sweaty hand. “Look, I like you. I’m sorry. I just got a little overwhelmed.”

She sighed. “It doesn’t feel like you like me. You just ran away when I went to the bathroom.”

“I know. It’s pathetic. I just really suck at this dating thing.”

“Well, we all suck at it. That’s why we’re on OKCupid. You still don’t just walk out on someone.”

The old couple came out. The lady turned up the road but Fred approached them. “You forgot something, my friend,” he said. Fred took Dave’s hand in his own, pressed a pill into his palm, then closed Dave’s fingers around it. “Have a beautiful day!’ he said, with a devilish grin.

“What is that?” Charlotte asked once Fred had made his way to his wife.

“I really hate that guy.”

“What did he give you?”

“Just something I dropped…some medicine.”

“Okay, this is weird. It was nice to meet you, I guess.”

“Wait, Charlotte, I’m really sorry.” She gave him a sad smile. “Could I just explain?”

She studied him. “What’s in your hand?”

He opened it. The little blue pill was stuck to his sweaty palm.

“Is that…?”

“No! It’s not that. It’s just a mild sedative. They used to make them yellow but now blue. I tried to take one while you were in the bathroom—I just get a little nervous on dates—and they spilled and those two were like, “Oh, it’s vee-agra, it’s vee-agra.”

Her mouth opened as if she would laugh, but she remained silent.

“And they were really freaking loud! The bus boy was snickering and everyone heard.”

She giggled, snorted. “Dave, that’s horrible.”

“I know. It was a perfect shit storm.” Her laughter kind of felt like a second chance. He liked this woman and wanted to know her. He scrunched his face and forced out words: “Look, you think maybe we could go for a walk? That place was too crowded anyway.”

“You know, you did just run out on me. And some random man just handed you a pill. Kind of sketchy, Dave.”

“I know it’s lame. The nerves just sneak up on me—but they go away.” And just putting it out there relaxed his shoulders a bit.

“On the other hand, you do seem like a decent guy. Like, I don’t think you’re a creeper...”

“Nooo, I’m not.”

“…or a player. Not even. I mean, how could you be?”


“I mean players are usually smooth, have all the lines.”

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“Well, I did have some talking point…But I kind of forgot them. And then that God-damn Fred guy…”

She laughed, and he did too, and the moment gave him more confidence.

“Let’s just go for a walk,” he said, taking a few steps toward her.

“Okay,” she nodded. “A short walk.”

“Great!” he said, starting toward the river. “Come on.”

She walked beside him, the sidewalk a bit steep, the dark Hudson River in view. “Hey, after a few blocks, I might be able to string a few coherent sentences together.”

“Well, you do have your talking points. Are they on flashcards?”

“No, but great idea. I’ll have to remember that for next time we see each other.”

“How do you know there will be a next time?

“Sorry, I’m saying if…”

They continued toward the river, Dave getting looser, the playful banter coming more freely. He felt giddy over the direction the catastrophic date had turned, the Titanic missing the iceberg.

The wind became crueler as they got close to the river and at one point when a gust struck, she grabbed his upper arm, and he felt a little high.

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Patrick Meeds

Patrick Meeds lives in Syracuse, NY and studies writing at the Syracuse YMCA’s Downtown Writer’s Center. He has been previously published in Stone Canoe literary journal, the New Ohio Review, Tupelo Quarterly, the Atticus Review, Whiskey Island, Guernica, The Main Street Rag, and Nine Mile Review among others.

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Good Advice

Mother always said to stand up straight. Father said you better learn to duck. That was about it. I guess the trick is knowing when to do which or what to do when. Not much help if you ask me. Raise your hand if you’ve ever gone to bed dumber than you woke up. At least I learned to invent a rich fantasy life and memorize the names of many diseases. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder. Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. Osteoarthritis. Temporomandibular Jaw Disorder. Two different kinds of cancer.

The brain has deep structures and music lies in one of them. Do you remember calling long distance?

It used to be such a big deal. Not now though. Now we have so many options.

You can study ballroom dancing or kickboxing. Either way you’re going to need special shoes and a partner. Either way there’s a chance you could get hurt. Nose flattened and bleeding. Big toe stomped on a broken. There’s no end to the pain we can cause each other. Just take my hand, you’ll see.

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Chapter and Verse

In some versions of this story you answer the phone instead of plugging your ears and letting it ring and ring. Then the cycle of thinking in what-ifs and instead-ofs never starts and all those days spent submerged in your bathtub practicing holding your breath and thinking of the mighty Niagara seem worth it. And if it means you had to spend some time suspended from a girder beneath a bridge in a straitjacket and chains, so be it. But let’s be honest. You can’t keep pulling these stunts and expecting to frighten away the ghosts that haunt you. The ones that reach out and touch your hand when you’re napping. Whose voices you hear from the other room when you’re alone. Whose names you know but refuse to say out loud.

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This Is the Taste Of Medicine

Today the doctor removed something from me that had gone bad. A few snips from his stainless steel scissors and he sent it off to be tested. Then I limped home to heal. Don’t worry, these little moments of fear can be good. They can force us to reinvent. Like the musician who only knows four chords and has to constantly find new ways to orchestrate them. You can watch, but please don’t laugh. This is the part that is not funny. This is the part about failure. This is the part where I ask forgiveness. Forgiveness for swallowing the whole ocean before you even had a chance to take a sip. For leaving muddy footprints on your clean white walls and ceiling. What should my punishment be? Leave it up to me and who knows what will happen. You know how I am. How’s this? From now on I’ll carry a pebble beneath my tongue. Maybe if I leave it there long enough, one day I’ll open my mouth and out will come a pearl.

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Alan Swyer

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Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, boxing, and singer Billy Vera. In the realm of music, among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs. His novel 'The Beard' was recently published by Harvard Square Editions. His newest film is called "When Houston Had The Blues."


Gazing out at the ocean on a Tuesday morning as he strolled along the beach near his Malibu home, Jeff Ross found himself searching for the appropriate word to describe his feelings. Was he surprised that his cousin Stanley wanted to fly out to see him? Pleased? Or possibly amused?

What seemed certain was that Stanley – never, ever Stan –was not simply searching for either a reunion with a favorite relative or a respite from hot and humid Washington, D.C.

Growing up in industrial New Jersey, Jeff had initially admired Stanley in the special way that young boys revere older cousins. But in that, he was far from alone. Even at an early age it was clear to Jeff that Stanley was viewed by virtually everyone as striking, precocious, and above all destined for greatness.

Though Jeff dreamed of being like his cousin, he quickly came to understand that he could never follow in the footsteps of someone so seemingly perfect. There was no way he would ever be as good-looking, athletic, or self-assured as Stanley. Nor, though it would be a decade or so before he became familiar with such words, could he ever possess his cousin’s magnetism, confidence, or charisma. If success was in store for one of them, it seemed all but certain it wouldn’t be Jeff.

Even worse, since Jeff belonged to what was deemed the poor side of the family, he could never even aspire to be as dapper or stylish as his dashing cousin. Instead of being taken to buy new clothes for school each September, Jeff’s wardrobe consisted primarily of hand-me-downs – shirts, pants, sweaters, and jackets outgrown or discarded by Stanley.

Worse still, since unlike his go-getter cousin, Jeff was a dreamer with minimal affection for school, and far more interest in watching sports than in participating, he was lectured incessantly about Stanley’s myriad accomplishments. The message, often implicit but far too often explicit, never failed to make him cringe: Why can’t you be like Stanley?

Had Stanley been four, or six, or maybe ten years older than Jeff, the shadow he cast would likely not have been so punishing. But because they were only roughly a year -- and one grade in school – apart, the differences between them increased with the passage of time.

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in-crowd, culminating with his being voted Most Likely To Succeed. By then, interactions between the two cousins varied according to the situation. At family gatherings:: perfunctory. At school: begrudging. After hours: almost nonexistent. Instead of being dismissive or condescending, Stanley seemed largely oblivious to his cousin’s existence. Then came the moment when, on his path to greatness, off went the local hero to Yale. With no such expectations, Jeff slogged through his own senior year. Not a candidate for a scholarship in either sports or academics, he continued what passed for an education at a commuter college, repeatedly using homework he didn’t intend to do as an excuse to skip family get-togethers, primarily so as not be subjected to tales of the wondrous Ivy Leaguer.

Three years later, after learning that Stanley, who was eyeing a career in politics, was headed to Harvard Law, Jeff was asked by an aunt about his own future plans.

“Good question,” Jeff responded evasively.

Armed with a college diploma, but still living under the same roof as his mother and an uncle known as Fred the Bachelor, Jeff stumbled through a series of what he termed McJobs – construction worker (three weeks), waiter (a month-and-a-half), substitute teacher (onagain-off-again) – before landing a position as a social worker.

With a weekly paycheck for the first time in his life, Jeff finally moved out of the house to share a dingy apartment above a liquor store with a college buddy. Seemingly consigned to a nondescript career and a dreary New Jersey life – sports on TV, a Thursday night poker game, short-lived relationships with women, plus occasional trips to the track or the Shore – Jeff was stunned when life – or more specifically, death – provided him with a second chance. When Uncle Fred the Bachelor dropped dead of a heart attack while playing handball at the local Y, Jeff inherited a sum of money he never expected, or even knew existed. Suddenly he had the impetus – and wherewithal – to take charge of his life.

Jeff’s newfound desire to follow his cousin into a prestige law school hit a wall when he was rejected not just by Harvard, Yale, Columbia, NYU, Rutgers, and Seton Hall, but also by places he’d never before heard of.

Not for the first time, Jeff’s path became a fun-house mirror version of his cousin’s. Whereas Stanley had been Most Like To Succeed while Jeff, figuratively, became Most Likely To Be Forgotten, instead of Harvard, he had to settle for an unaccredited law school.

During three years of classes in a small town in Delaware, Jeff tried to allay his fears of about his future. After graduating, he signed up for a prep course for the State Bar Exam, then surprised himself by outdoing most of his classmates and passing easily on his first try.

Buoyed by that success, Jeff decided to try his luck at something brand new in the world of law: the first offering of the Multi-State Bar Exam.

Jeff’s attempt to sign up for a prep course was thwarted by a discovery: no one had yet created a book, program, or lecture series to help prepare for the exam.

Though hardly entrepreneurial by nature, Jeff made an uncharacteristic leap into the unknown. Since no prep course existed, he would create one. To do so, he signed up to take the exam in three different venues over three successive weeks. Armed by his newly acquired familiarity with the exam’s questions, procedures, and quirks, he then made a leap into the unknown.

Proud of the resulting book that took him over four months to write rewrite, and edit, Jeff printed and bound several copies, then launched a campaign to find an appropriate buyer. Determined, he reached out to multiple publishing houses, plus every entity he could find that advertised prep courses for the SATs, LSATs, and other key exams.

The result was deafening silence. One week went by. Then a second. Then a third. Only midway through the fifth week did Jeff get a modest expression of interest from a New York publishing house. When a date was set for a meeting, he headed hopefully toward Manhattan, praying for a momentous day. The rendezvous went quite well until the editor, silver-haired Jon Schechter, handed Jeff a contract.

“Shouldn’t you have an attorney look at it?” Schechter asked when Jeff began to peruse the document.

“I am an attorney,” Jeff replied, frowning as he read on. “5 Percent?” he then asked. “5 percent is all I get?”

“Industry standard for new authors,” the editor

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“After break-even? That’s nuts.”

“What’s the alternative?” sneered Schechter, “driving cross country peddling copies out of your trunk?”

“If need be,” stated Jeff with no hesitation. If getting hundreds of copies of his new book, with cover art by a graphic artist, printed and bound was onerous and costly, it was nothing compared to Jeff’s first extended sales trip. For four weeks in late Fall the fledgling author/salesman slept in cheap motels and ate fast food while circumnavigating the Northeast, hawking his prep course at every bookstore that was affiliated with, or in close proximity to, a law school, no matter how tiny or unheralded.

Pleased that beyond surviving, he had learned a lot from his experiences, Jeff returned to New Jersey and promptly ordered more books, all the while planning his next extended trip, which would take him through the South.

Having found what seemed like a calling, Jeff went with his mother to a Thanksgiving dinner for the extended family, where more than ever Stanley, who was clerking for a Supreme Court Justice, was the center of attention. What disturbed Jeff was not so much the reverence his cousin received, or even his pomposity while pontificating endlessly about politics, capitalism, free speech, and even the weather. More distressing was the confrontation the two of them had at the dessert table.

“I heard about your little venture,” Stanley said.

“My little what?” replied Jeff, not masking his defensiveness.

“Your little foray. If it survives and starts to gather some steam, I might be willing to give an endorsement.”

Stunned by his cousin’s patronizing attitude, Jeff took a breath before speaking. “Must be my lucky day,” he uttered before walking away.

After the first of the year, Jeff made another extended sales trip, yielding his first encounter with Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana. The result, in addition to providing an introduction to catfish, grits, plus red beans & rice, was even more books sold

Convinced that competitors for an expanding market would likely soon emerge, Jeff the proceeds from his two journeys to hire a video crew. That meant a DVD –later to be updated into a video link – to accompany his book.

Then came another family get-together, where Jeff grew nauseous as he heard talk about his cousin Stanley’s wonderful idealism, making him a likely candidate to be the next JFK

Once the worst of winter was over, Jeff headed to the Midwest, where he wore out a set of tires while stopping at law schools and bookstores.

Decompressing in New Jersey, Jeff made a concerted effort to avoid family gatherings, which meant that the only references to a certain cousin came during conversations with his mother, which he ended as quickly as possible.

Finally it was time to plan a trip that Jeff had dreamed about since childhood : to California, which conveniently was home to myriad law schools, both accredited and unaccredited. Shipping cartons of books ahead of him, Jeff boarded a plane in Newark, then rented a car and made the first of several stops at the FedEx office near LAX.

Momentarily putting pleasure ahead business, Jeff drove to the beach town of Venice, where he strolled past the musicians and characters on Ocean Front Walk before romping through the sand to stare at the breakers and dip his feet into the water. There and then he made a vow: as soon as possible, he would make Southern California his home.

“I get the feeling,” Jeff’s mother, Myrna, commented as he was driving her home, “that you don’t appreciate your cousin Stanley.”

“You’ve got a keen eye for detail,” was Jeff’s response.

Thanks to ever-increasing success with his new venture, Jeff’s hope became a reality far faster than expected. That didn’t prevent his mother from being stunned when he broke the news. “Won’t you miss New Jersey?” Myrna Ross exclaimed.

“The snow? The humidity? The crummy air?”

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“What about family?”

“You mean Stanley, who’s going to be President and make the world a better place?”

“Actually,” his mother acknowledged, “Stanley’s leaving politics.”

“To end world hunger?”

“Always a comedian. According to your Aunt Paula, to make his fortune in real estate.”

“So much for idealism,” said Jeff/ “I guess he always had the makings of a slum lord.

“Jeffrey!” snapped his mother.

“I’m not allowed to make a joke?”

Myrna Ross frowned. “But if you move,” she moaned, “how will I ever see you again?”

“Somebody getting melodramatic?” Jeff teased. “I’ll be back every so often. And I’ll always be ready, willing, and able to buy you a ticket.”

“To see you? Or to go anywhere I want?”

“Who’s the comedian?” teased Jeff.

Thanks to his hard work, Jeff’s business continued to grow exponentially. No longer working out of his bedroom and the trunk of his car, he took a giant leap by leasing the first floor suite of offices in a small Santa Monica two-story building, then staffing it with sales people, assistants, an administrator, plus someone handling storage and shipments. Six months later, when the building owner mentioned that he was considering selling, Jeff threw caution to the wind and made an offer.

Still determined to stay ahead of the emerging competition, Jeff began teaching weekend seminars at hotels in major cities across the country.

But despite his success, a sinking feeling still came over him whenever his mother, or another family member, happened to mention that, thanks to his burgeoning real estate empire, Cousin Stanley had become part of a world of politicos and celebrities including, Jeff was led to believe, Beyonce, one of the Stones, and supposedly LeBron James.

Eager to shed the memories of hand-me-downs and being the poor relation, Jeff steeled himself for yet another huge reinvention. Together with a realtor he’d met at a funky non-Starbucks coffee shop, a search began for a house to rent in Malibu. Immediately, he and Madeleine, who went by Maddy in non-business situations, stumbled upon a cottage right on the water. Better yet, it had been owned by Sandy Koufax during his Dodger years.

Unable to sleep on his first night there, Jeff found himself listening to the surf and thinking. Instead of being consigned to an identity imposed by circumstance, he had reinvented himself with a career, a spectacular abode, and even a budding relationship with Madeleine, a woman who seemed to appreciate and enjoy his company. No longer simply existing, Jeff Ross was at long felt alive.

As days turned first to weeks, then to months, the slights, indignities, and insecurities of the past continued to recede, especially when Madeleine moved in with him. It was initially a relief, then a joy, to have the weight of the past – the sadness, anguish, and rage –diminish to the point where he could be himself without little fear that one day it prove to have been merely a dream.

Even references to his cousin Stanley’s increasingly vast real estate holdings seemed like vestiges of another time and place, minus the power to disrupt Jeff’s new found equanimity. That was equally true when his mother informed him that Stanley was set to marry a supermodel named Angelina.

The ensuing few years brought changes that would have astonished not merely Jeff’s childhood friends, but also the man he once was. Choosing to get married, he and Maddy decided on a small affair overlooking the Pacific. Despite pleas from his mother, only a handful of people from the East made it to the guest list, which omitted a certain cousin.

“Won’t Stanley’s feelings be hurt?” asked Jeff’s mother.

“Did he invite me to his?”

“Would you have flown to Majorca?”

“I wouldn’t have flown to Jersey City. As for his

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feelings? He’ll get over it.”

Jeff’s next serious announcement, first to his mother, then to the world, was that Maddy was pregnant. That was followed by news that the couple was buying a house a bit north on Pacific Coast Highway, also overlooking the beach.

A healthy baby named Sarah, named for Jeff’s paternal grandmother, was the subsequent newsflash. A yearand-a-half later, she was joined by another family member, a boy named for both of Jeff’s grandfathers, known familiarly as Jake.

Even more amazing for Jeff than the possibility that his two Southern California kids might one day grow up to be surfers were the updates that trickled in from time to time about his once high-achieving older cousin. Overextended at a time when his properties were being pounded with unprecedented vacancies and mounting interest rates, – and blindsided by a divorce from supermodel Angelina that would further deplete his holdings – Stanley’s kingdom appeared to be in grave peril.

Taking the high road, Jeff chose neither to comment nor gloat.

“I know we haven’t spoken on the phone in a while,” Stanley began when he reached Jeff by phone on a sunny Thursday morning.

“A while?” Jeff corrected him. “Try never.”

“Y-you sure about that?” wondered Stanley, who Jeff had never before heard stammer.

“I may not be as smart as you, but I’ve got a memory.”

Stanley took a deep breath. “Okay if I fly out there?”


“First, to get out of Dodge. But also to talk to you.”

“Want to give me a hint?” asked Jeff.

“How about if I get on a plane tomorrow?”

After picking Stanley up at the airport, then introducing him to Maddy and his kids, Jeff took the new arrival for a walk on the beach.

“Nice life you’ve got for yourself,” Stanley said with none

of his customary self-assurance.

“But we both know you didn’t come all this way to tell me that,” Jeff answered.

Stanley stopped, took a deep breath, then faced his cousin. “I’m in trouble,” he announced, explaining that in real estate terms his properties were underwater. Coupled with bills from lawyers and forensic accountants owing to his soon-to-be ex-, plus the looming settlement, his financial kingdom was crumbling.

“So what exactly do you need.?

“Bucks,” Stanley stated painfully, “A swing loan until some stuff coalesces.”

“Is it true you’ve been running with movers and shakers – celebs, power-brokers, star athletes?”

Stanley nodded.

“So why me?” asked Jeff.

Stanley looked out at the ocean before facing Jeff. “You’re family.”

“And wasn’t I family all the time we were growing up?”

Suddenly Stanley looked crestfallen. “I guess I’ve been kind of a shithead,” he mustered.

“Kind of?” asked Jeff.

“Rub it in, why don’t you?” mumbled Stanley, looking beaten. “I’m not asking. I’m begging.”

Jeff studied his cousin for an extended moment before responding. “And if you lose?”

Stanley sighed. “I become a nobody.”

“Welcome to the club,” said Jeff.

“W-what’s that mean?” stammered Stanley.

“What was I all those years in Jersey?”

“And then you got lucky.”

Jeff glared. “You think I got where I am through luck?”

Stanley forced himself to take three deep breaths. “I didn’t mean it that way.”

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“Then how did you mean it?”

Jeff watched Stanley struggle for an answer before speaking again. “So tell me, how much do you need? “

“Ideally a million,” Stanley admitted sheepishly. “But half that would be a start.”

Jeff winced. “Do you actually think I’d have that kind of cash sitting around in case a cousin I rarely see happens to ask?”

Stanley winced. “Maybe you could, umm, sell some stuff. Or maybe take a second mortgage.”

Jeff fought hard to control himself. “Haven’t you noticed I’ve got a wife and two kids?”

“But you and me,” pressed Stanley. “Aren’t we family?”

“No, Stan,” countered Jeff, deliberately using a frownedupon nickname. “They’re my family.”

Jeff found it ironic that not quite three months after turning his cousin down, two overtures from testing companies eager to acquire his company.

Those potential windfalls were never mentioned to Stanley, with whom Jeff had no interest in seeing, or talking to, ever again.

Yet on evenings when he, rather than Maddy, read to Sarah and Jake as their bedtime neared, Jeff never failed to get a special pleasure when reaching for a favorite Aesop’s fable, “The Tortoise And The Hare.”

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John Tustin

John Tustin’s poetry has appeared in many disparate literary journals since 2009. contains links to his published poetry online.

Borrowing Me

I didn’t know you were only borrowing me. I now know that everything is borrowed but I would have enjoyed the mirage of permanence.

An ocean of time exists between a first kiss and the forgiveness of betrayal. I am still swimming.

People only notice when either the first petal falls or the last and they close their eyes in between.

We are no more or less alive than the stars and we will be no more or less dead when it’s time.

Everything is borrowed. Everyone flickers out.

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My Honesty

She told me she had enough of me And my honesty that she called negativity.

Luckily for me I have integrity So it was surprisingly easy

For me to say goodbye to her And shut the door on the years

And all of the love mutually expressed Because my integrity is all that I have.

As the years progress My circle has become smaller and smaller.

It will get to the point There will be only room enough for me.

Smaller space, cheaper rent. Smaller space, easier to heat and clean.

She told me she had enough of me And my negativity I call honesty –

I think about that now and warm myself With the obstinance I refer to as my integrity.

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Unpaint You

As hard as I try I cannot unpaint you. No matter how clean are my rags, How many times I rinse my brushes (The water becoming a broth of bluish purples And sandy browns)

I cannot get the remnants Of our art

Removed from the cracks In my hands, From the knots in my mind, From the memories Fixed Inside my eyes. There you are On this, My final canvas. Inky lightning transfixed In our pose Yet also Disappeared.

issue 59 | February 2023 | 41

Jozzie Stuchell Velesig

42 | Umbrella Factory Magazine

Jozzie Stuchell Velesig is graduating from Harvard University Extension School with a Master’s in Creative Writing and Literature. Born and raised in Appalachia, she now resides in Charleston, SC. She squeezes writing between her son’s soccer practices, walking their dogs, and kicking one of the three cats off her laptop.

The smell of leather, sweat, and sex hangs in the air

Charlotte runs her finger under the seam of her government-issued shorts, where an angry red line has appeared on her skin. Just once, she thinks, the clothes could fit. Naomi flicks one of Charlotte’s long brunette curls and shoves a drink in her hand. “You better dance,” she says, nodding toward the moderator in the corner.

Charlotte shoots the dark liquid and wipes the cool glass against her forehead. As the warmth of the liquid spreads through her, she melts into the mass of gyrating bodies. Mentally, she starts counting down the minutes until the party ends.

Another 60 minutes. If she’s lucky, she can sneak out and get home alone. The parties are mandated by the decree of the Population Maintenance Department for everyone in their reproductive prime.

50 minutes. According to the posters, the population needs a twenty-five percent increase in pregnancies. These parties will continue until that number has been confirmed at the clinics.

40 minutes. A girl falls into her shoulder, sloshing the young blonde’s drink on her. Charlotte rights the laughing girl and shakes the remaining droplets from her shirt. Another woman grabs the blonde’s hand, and the two stagger off toward the middle of the floor. A woman with lines of fine white powder on her chest turns and offers them to the two girls. They giggle before taking turns lowering their faces to her chest.

30 minutes. Charlotte turns her face away and focuses on Naomi, who grabs her waist, pulling her to dance. A waiter in all black passes with a tray of drinks and pills. Charlotte slips away to down two more shots before giving herself over to the alcohol and music.

20 minutes. A man’s hand slides across her stomach. She steps forward toward Naomi, but he moves with her, bringing his hand up her body. 19 minutes. She squeezes Naomi’s hand and watches as Naomi’s blue eyes light quickly on the man’s hand before returning the squeeze and letting

issue 59 | February 2023 | 43

go. 18 minutes. His fingers pull on the skin of her thigh. She should welcome his touch, it’s the law, but her mouth is dry. 17 minutes. His hand winds in towards the inside of her thigh and slides inside the hem of her shorts. His breath is hot as his lips brush her ear, whispering something she can’t comprehend as her stomach rolls.

The next thing she knows, gritty black mud splashes up her legs as the rain soaks her hair. Rain is dripping from her eyelashes and rolling down her nose as she pounds through the dark streets. His footfalls are heavy behind her. Her shoes slide on the wet pavement. Her knees hit the ground and blood begins to seep through her high cotton socks. He yells at her as she pushes her palms into the pavement and propels herself forward. She spins a corner grabbing a rusted railing and tearing up the stairs. A sudden pull on her ankle brings her crashing to the concrete landing. Her world bursts with pain as warm blood rushes from her face. She frantically hits at him as he rips at the flimsy fabric of her shorts. Flipping her over, he pushes his knee into her back, pinning her as he grabs her wrists and pounds himself against her.

Later, she will wonder if she yelled. She will wonder if she could have fought harder. But in this moment, she stares at the bottom of her apartment door. Finally, he pushes her away, saying, “See you at work.” Her head snaps around to see her boss, Dr. Lear. She remains there on the concrete, allowing rain and mud to mix with her blood. Eventually, she pulls herself to her feet and stumbles the few steps to her apartment door. Her breath comes out as sobs, even if her eyes refuse to give up tears.

Water drips from her hair, the long strands soaking the fabric of her shirt. She pulls the stiff, knotted mess and wraps the strands around her fingers. She crawls to the kitchen, rakes through a drawer until she finds the kitchen shears, and raises them to her chin. The sound of metal slicing hair fills her ears. Long, wet

curls fall to the floor, their limp bodies mocking her defiance.

A soft knock and the sound of Naomi’s spare in the lock wakes Charlotte from her bed of hair on the kitchen floor.

“The fuck?” says Naomi as she slips in the door. She grabs the broom from the corner and begins to sweep up the evidence. “Shower. Now.”

The hot water should be stinging my cuts. Charlotte watches the swirl of blood, mud, hair, and water circle the drain. Naomi opens the door, pours shampoo into her palm, and begins to massage Charlotte’s scalp. Neither of them speaks until Charlotte is wrapped in a towel that Naomi had warmed in the dryer.

“Your hair,” Naomi says, “We have to do something about it.”

“I don’t care.”

“It’s been reported. And when they see this?” She gestures to the shaggy, uneven mess on Charlotte’s head.

“They know?”

“The whole club saw you run out. It’s all anyone’s been talking about.”

Charlotte pulls the towel tighter around her and studies the white fibers. Naomi slips her fingers through the jagged edges of Charlotte’s hair. “I think I’ve got an idea.” Charlotte barely recognizes the sound of snipping scissors and the heat of curlers as Naomi works her magic.

“Maybe the judge will like it enough not to care that you cut it without a permit,” Naomi says.

A knock ricochets off the wall of the apartment, making both of the women jump. “Here,” says Naomi tossing Charlotte a forest green lace dress, “at least it’s cute today.”

She pulls the green dress over her head, wiggling it over her curves, and turns her back towards Naomi.

“You ever wonder about who picked it?”

“Come on. You need to hurry.” She says as she zips the dress for her friend.

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Charlotte slides into a pair of strappy heels as she tries to imagine the man who picked the outfit she now wears. What was he thinking as he scrolled through the options on his laptop? Usually, she imagines a scruffy man resting his sticky laptop on his ballooned stomach. But she likes this outfit. Would she have liked the man who picked it?

Naomi pushes her hand into Charlotte’s back, steering her toward the door. The handle feels foreign in her hand as she opens the door to the police officers waiting outside.

The officers barely even looked at her as they lead her down the stairs to their car. She slides into the back seat, allowing them to lead her without protest or complaint. Once in the car, she can hear the officers discussing the mundane details of their upcoming rotation. She leans her head against the cool window glass and watches the city pass by her. The men move briskly, with outfits befitting of their professions and personal style. The women, however, stumble on unrealistically high heels and pull at hems that keep creeping up into the creases of their bodies. Charlotte tries guessing their professions. Is the woman in the leather mini skirt and corset a teacher? Or maybe a nurse? The girl in the knee-high socks and plunging sweater heading toward downtown must work in construction based on the hard hat in her hand.

The crumbling streets of Charlotte’s neighborhood give way to the gleaming buildings and manicured streets of the downtown district. The courthouse sits like a crown jewel at the city’s center, its golden dome reflecting the sun’s rays.

The police cruiser pulls up, and two officers come from inside to escort her. Her heel twists awkwardly as she crawls from the car and up the stairs. At the top of the stairs, the shorter officer grabs the handle of a door. The entrance erupts in light as gleaming tiles, bright lights, and golden accents assault Charlotte’s vision. Strange for hell to look so much like


The officers lead her to a crowded room with empty women lined up on long benches facing a judge at the front of the room.

“Emily Taylor” a booming voice announces. A young woman rises from a few spots ahead of Charlotte. Long red curls fall over the woman’s shoulders, caressing the top of ample breasts. The women’s knuckles are white as they grip the bench in front of her.

“Approach the bench.”

Emily moves forward, still holding onto the bench like it tethers her to the ground. She pauses at the end of the row before approaching a tiny wooden gate that separates the rows of women from the court itself.

“Enter.” Says the voice.

When Emily finally makes her way to face the judge, the voice begins to relay her charges.

“…failure to maintain an appropriate weight. Failure to meet predetermined parameters of sexual desirability…”

The voice drones on but Charlotte doesn’t listen. She doesn’t want to know the punishment for violating the appearance laws when purposely breaking those laws will be the smallest of her charges. She wipes her slick palms on the dress.

“Charlotte Kilgore”

The courtroom falls silent once more, pregnant with anticipation. The story of her attempted escape has already made the rounds through the city’s rumor mill. Charlotte finds her feet and her body robotically moves to the front of the court.

“Failure to meet predetermined appearance standard, intentional sabotage of predetermined appearance standard, unlawful cutting of property, failure to submit to impregnation, assault of impregnator, and treason against the role of the female.”

Her charges are read in the same flat monotone as the charges of others, but their weight squeezes the room until no oxygen remains. The women sit perfectly

issue 59 | February 2023 | 45

still on their benches, waiting to hear the gravity of the ruling against her.

A shriek shatters the silence in the room. The doors at the back of the courtroom fly open and armed guards rush in.

“Your Honor. There’s been a situation from your earlier decision. We need to take you into protective custody,” the guard says. His hands clutch an assault rifle to his chest.

The Judge bites his fingernail before turning from the guard to Charlotte.

“Young lady, these are some of the most serious charges I have seen. Do you understand the gravity of the charges?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Your Honor, you need to go,” the guard warns. His face is pale, and his eyes flash wide and white.

“Was the impregnator able to finish?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Do you have any previous charges?”

“No, Sir.”

The Judge bites his lip while looking at the guards ushering the women from their seats with motions from their assault rifles. “Your Honor, we need to hurry,” says the guard.

“Yes, yes,” he says, twisting the ring on his finger, “Your hair looks surprisingly good and has not hindered your sexual desirability; therefore, I issue you only the most severe of warnings. It is against the law to modify your appearance in any way, Ms. Kilgore, without the written approval of the court.”

‘Yes, Sir.”

“Your remaining charges are extremely serious, but due to possible impregnation, I do not want you to face any physical punishments. You will report to the clinic daily for monitoring. Failure to become pregnant will result in forced insemination following your next cycle.”

“Thank you, Sir”

“I am not finished,” the Judge says, “As you do

not seem to value your role as a female, you will not receive the benefits of it. Your year of rest following the birth will be waived. You will be placed back into the mandated reproduction pool as soon as you are deemed medically able.”

“Yes, Sir,” Charlotte chokes out.

“Also, this birth will not count toward your reproduction number. You will still be expected to hit your reproduction expectancy before applying for reproduction retirement.” At this, the Judge turns and follows the guard from the room, leaving Charlotte to stare at his empty seat. A guard grabs her by the elbow leading her toward the doors at the back of the courtroom.

“What happened?” She says.

Mistaking her disbelief about her situation for curiosity about the turmoil in the courthouse, he answers, “This lady’s got this tumor. Doctors say it will kill her if they don’t get it out, but Judge said the scar would be too large. She won’t be so desirable no more, so she can’t have that procedure.”

Charlotte rubs her eyes.

“Yeah, Judge said he thinks she can have one more birth before it kills her. So he sent her for forced insemination and for her entire pregnancy to take place at the clinic. Guess she went crazy and started smashing windows and stuff. Crazy, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, crazy.” Says Charlotte imagining the spray of glass fragments hitting her as she smashes windows. Naomi is waiting for her in the apartment when she returns from the courthouse. “They took all your alcohol. Even warned me that it’s against the law to give you any.”

Charlotte stares at her blankly before going to the bathroom cabinet and pulling out a suspiciously amber-colored mouthwash. She tips the bottle back before offering it to Naomi.

“It isn’t?”

“Definitely not whiskey. See, it’s ‘mouthwash. ’ Says so on the bottle.”

46 | Umbrella Factory Magazine

“Charlotte, you can’t be serious! You’re already in so much trouble.” Naomi says, pushing the bottle back to Charlotte, who shrugs before taking another long drink.

The beeping of the closet alarm wakes Charlotte the next morning. The clothes are comfortable and loose; no longer is she needed as an object of desire. She is surprised by the variety of food and new vitamins in the kitchen. Every woman takes the clunky prenatal vitamin as they are always “prenatal.” Still, after a successful “exchange,” the diet designed for sexual attractiveness is replaced by one designed for creating a good home for a fetus. Grateful for something other than another berry smoothie, Charlotte munches on the avocado toast and sips the fresh-squeezed orange juice. Thankfully, since she works at the clinic, the newly mandated check-ups won’t force her to change her schedule. She slips the apple, a paring knife, and almonds into her bag before heading out the door.

Naomi meets her on the sidewalk, and they walk silently to the clinic. Naomi kisses Charlotte on the cheek before taking the elevator to the diabetic ward where she works. Charlotte checks in at the front desk, pees in the little plastic cup, and settles in on the exam table to wait on her doctor. She likes her doctor. She has been seeing Dr. Bohicket since she had her first cycle. The door opens abruptly. Instead of her sweet, greying Dr. Bohicket, in walks Dr. Lear.

The sound of her heart is suddenly loud in her ears, and her throat collapses as she pushes her body up the small examination table. She presses her back against the wall and pulls her knees to her chest hugging them tight enough to leave finger marks on her skin. Dr. Lear lets out a booming laugh.

“I heard about your little day in court,” he says, “seems like they got you good for what you did to me.”

She stares at him blankly.

“Seems to be one problem though…They seem to think you’ll be good and pregnant soon.”

Vomit lingers in the back of her throat as she

reaches for the strap of her bag, dragging it toward her. “I’m just not sure I got you all that good. We need to make sure that you are nicely fertilized. I’d hate for you to be put in the forced insemination program,” he says, “Don’t want a cold machine doing what should be done by a man.” He begins to pull on the drawstrings of his scrubs with one hand while grabbing her ankle with the other. She lets herself be laid out on the table in front of him. She forces herself still, counting her breath as she slips her hand inside the bag. Her fingers search past the firm apple, a slick tube of lipstick, and finally, the ice-cold of steel. As he leans back with the pleasure of his thrust, she lunges forward, using the paring knife to separate the man from his manhood.

I’m baffled that we’ve come to issue 59. I’m also a little baffled that it is February 2023. Going back in Umbrella Factory Magazine history to February 2010, we were getting ready to launch our first issue. At the time, yet to even produce a product, some of the UFM staff had very lofty ideas of what the future would bring. There were others on staff that considered one issue a success. As for me, I think 59 issues is a massive feat, but I think we can do 59 issues more.

I enjoy the idea that something so simple as a small online lit mag can be a constant. It’s a constant in that we’ve quietly been procuring magazines in much the same way as we’ve always done, and many a magazine before us, as the world around us has changed. I don’t remember the ethos of 2010, much like I probably won’t remember the ethos of 2023 many years from now. But what I do know is that the things we write ultimately become the things we read, and the things we remember and accept as the fabric of our times.

I put forth the content of issue 59 for your consideration. New poetry from Sarah Daly, Patrick Meeds and John Tustin. The merits of each of our poets and of each of their poems would take more conversation than available to me here, but the work of Patrick Meeds resonates with me, especially “Good Advice.”

New prose in this issue from an old friend Yuan Chingming (editor of Pacific Poetry) and new friends Dylan Gilbert, Alan Swyer and Jozzie Velesig. When I think about fiction being the truth of what’s on a writer’s mind and perhaps on our cultural mind collectively, I think all four of these pieces define what’s going on right now. I found Jozzie Velesig’s “Charlotte” to be utterly disquieting and thrilling with the sense of impending doom. As far out as “Charlotte” is, I think it seems not far off from possibility. I have to wonder how much this issue of UFM defines the ethos of our times.

Thank you all for your support of this humble magazine. We’re grateful for all of our readers, our writers and those who stop by randomly. Read. Submit. Tell everyone you know.

Stay Dry, Anthony

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