HEAVEN SARAH FRELIGH
Leslie Jill Patterson
Senior Managing Editor
The Long Story 2023
TIMILEHIN ALAKE, BROCK ALLEN, EMMA AYLOR, WILLIAM BROWN, DAVID BRUNSON, MCKENAN BUNDY, COLLIN CALLAHAN, JAY CULMONE, WILL DENNIS, TYLER FLESER, JO ANNA GAONA, MEGHAN GILES, GWYN HILL, VICTORIA HUDSON, AMELIE LANGLAND, LINDA MASI, LANDON MCGEE, BIBIANA OSSAI, REMY PINCUMBE, CATHERINE RAGSDALE, NICOLAS RIVERA, HANNAH RUSSELL, BRODY SHAPPELL, SIERRA SINOR, DUSTI K. SMITH, GRAYSON TREAT, AND BRIA WINFREE
Cover Art: Right Click Studios (photograph)
Copyright © 2023 Iron Horse Literary Review. All rights reserved. Iron Horse Literary Review is a national journal of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. IHLR publishes three print issues and three electronic issues per year, at Texas Tech University, through the support of the TTU President’s Office, Provost’s Office, Graduate College, College of Arts & Sciences, and English Department. For more information, visit www.ironhorsereview.com.
In the five minutes it takes for a stranger to shoot three of her co-workers and one customer at Burger Heaven before turning the gun on himself, Caitlyn Morrow slips past the mourners surrounding her aunt Fran’s casket and sneaks outside for a cigarette, an odd but fitting tribute to Fran, who’d been a two-pack-a-day smoker herself. In the midst of giving Ivy Michaelson her weekly rinse and set, Fran’s heart had suddenly quit on her, exactly as the doctor had warned.
In the twelve minutes it takes for the first responders to converge on Burger Heaven following the 911 call, Caitlyn smokes her cigarette down to the filter and crushes it out with the toe of her pump. It’s a cloudless night in February, still chilly, but far from the cold hand of January that wrings the air from your lungs. She can hear the sirens several streets over and would tweet out a quick whattup? had her mother not confiscated her cell phone and tucked it away in the coin pocket of her purse, where it presumably still is.
The cigarette smoking is new and clandestine, not yet a habit but something to do during her breaks at Burger Heaven. A few weeks ago, Donnie Jenkins had extended his pack of Newports to her without a word. She’d taken one and bent to the lit match he held between thumb and forefinger. Afterward, she shut herself in the bathroom and rested her cheek against the cool tile until the world quit spinning. The next day, she accepted another cigarette, and while this one made her dizzy, it was more of a thrilling, rollercoaster kind of high. Next shift, she had her own pack of Newports to offer Donnie, one of the eight Jenkins kids who live in the house with the peeling yellow paint and a father who hasn’t worked since the car accident four years ago that killed his wife and baby girl.
Donnie Jenkins, who police later determined was the first to be shot.SARAH FRELIGH
In the half-hour it takes Caitlyn and her mother to carry the dozen or so flower arrangements from the funeral home to the car, the police will locate the manager of Burger Heaven in the bar adjacent to the bowling alley where he participates in a co-ed league every Wednesday. “An incident,” is all the cop says, and the manager leaves behind his new wool jacket and the fresh martini he ordered and follows the cop to the restaurant. Once there, he climbs over the newly strung yellow police tape and tries to identify the dead from a quick glimpse of their faces hidden under sheets: the cooks, Donnie and Maurice; Paul Somebody, a customer from the halfway house up the street, who stopped in every night for a free cup of coffee. The manager hesitates over the last body: a girl— wearing tight jeans and a brown staff shirt piped in orange across the cuffs—flung like a ragdoll on the floor behind the counter. He checks the schedule that hangs on a clipboard over his desk and scribbles a name and address on the back of an RG&E envelope. He hands this to the detective, whose sorrowful job it is to break the news to survivors.
Police Detective Kevin Price rings the doorbell twice and waits a decent amount of time before knocking. Decent is maybe his favorite word. He tries to do decent work in a job where the boundaries between good and bad are blurred and constantly shifting. He tries to dress decently, pressing a freshly washed shirt each morning, even applying a squirt of spray starch to the collar and cuffs to give it that professionally laundered look, a luxury he can’t afford on a small-town cop’s salary. And yeah, he’d been a decent husband to Lenore for as long as the marriage lasted. Somewhere along the way, she’d given up on being the wife of a two-bit police detective once she realized he was happy enough in the job to stay there for life. He can’t exactly blame her. She wanted a house in one of the new subdivisions on the north side of town, a split-level with sliding doors that opened from the living room to a sunny patio and, beyond that, an in-ground swimming pool, while Kevin was happy enough staying put in the house his father had willed him in a fraying neighborhood on the east side. He’d moved his baseball trophies to the attic and taken down the tattered posters of jocks and rock stars from the walls of his bedroom, but otherwise, the house had stayed pretty much the same despite Lenore’s protestations. When she met a man at the bereavement group at the Church of the Holy Lamb and asked for a divorce after twelve years of marriage, he’d done the decent thing and didn’t contest anything her lawyer asked for. All he wanted was to keep the house. “Gladly,” she’d said, shaking her head at the obvious irony of it.
He rings the doorbell again, but from the looks of the house—the dark, unblinking windows fronting a row of shrubs—no one is home. He glances at the name again even though he’d committed it to memory at the crime scene: Caitlyn Morrow, a part-time employee at Burger Heaven, the local fast-food joint that employed a forgettable string of high school girls to work the cash register and shout food orders back to the high school boys who worked the grill. He stopped there for an occasional coffee on the way to the station, but couldn’t recall a girl by the name of
Caitlyn. Then again, the counter girls wore nametags pinned to the summit of their small chests, and it hardly seemed decent to so much as glance at young girls’ tits, however innocent his intent.
He glances again at the slip of paper in his hand. Morrow, yeah. The loan officer at his bank, the skinny woman behind the desk in the lobby, whose glasses are too big and round for her bony face. Olive Oyl, he’d thought and stared at her nameplate in an effort not to laugh. ROBIN MORROW, it announced in small sans serif—tidy and businesslike. She didn’t look like a Robin, a name he’d always associated with leggy, athletic girls who played field hockey and attended fraternity keggers. She’d been fluttery during their meeting, tap-tapping the keys of her big computer or fiddling with the knot on her flowered scarf. Had she been a suspect, he’d think she was hiding something. He wondered whether she worked because she wanted to or because she, like so many other women in town, was divorced. He decided on the latter. Still, she’d been nice, offering sympathetic clucks when he complained about all the forms he’d need to fill out, all the documentation it required to be considered for the loan he needed for upgrades to the house. Yes, she agreed, it was complicated and tedious, so much of it redundant. “But it’s for your protection,” she’d said. It occurs to him now that that was something a mother would say to her daughter about the length of a skirt or buttons undone on a blouse. What protection was there from a madman with a gun? In twenty-some years on the force, he hasn’t figured out the answer to that one, though it’s often the first thing the bereaved will ask him: Was there anything they could have done, should have done?
He isn’t much of a fan of I have some bad news. That’s how his mentor would always begin. Or if the family was standing, he’d say, Maybe you’d like to take a seat. Pete Postman, six-foot-five in the cowboy hat he insisted on wearing despite living in upstate New York his entire life. He’d whip off the hat and hold it over his heart while he proceeded from telling them about the bad news to actually delivering it. But Kevin had thought
it cruel, like breaking someone’s heart twice. He’d done it that way once and called out sick for the rest of the afternoon, during which he tied one on at Marge’s bar up by the lake. He was smart enough to let Marge call him a cab at the end of the night.
He pats his pocket for his cigarettes before he remembers that he quit again: three weeks, four days, and about twelve hours ago. The cravings are almost gone, the mad urges that spring up from someplace in his gut, travel to his brain, and explode in neon against a dark sky: CIGARETTE! He’s learning to measure his breathing, to still his heart until the urge to light up passes. Lenore used to complain it was like kissing a dirty ashtray and, when that didn’t work, sent him a YouTube commercial narrated by a guy who’d had his larynx removed and talked in a metallic voice about the difficulty of shaving with an artificial voice box. Toward the end, Kevin was tempted to ask her how many ashtrays, dirty or not, she’d actually kissed. If she caught his drift. By then, they were dealing in metaphors and the kind of chitchat reserved for acquaintances that you’d later complain about to your best friend.
When the car pulls into the driveway, high-beams blazing, he fishes his credentials from his jacket. He knows better than to approach a car out of the blue—hell, he has a buddy whose leg was shattered in two places when someone panicked and took a shot at him. A leaky boat for a house and lawn chairs for living room furniture, but there’s this: the shield he’d put in twenty years to earn.
In the moonlight, he can see two heads and what looks like a back seat full of flowers, a jungle of bouquets, which he catches a whiff of when the car doors open. Roses, he thinks, sweet and dizzying as the first hit of a cigarette in the morning.
He clears his throat. “Ma’am,” he says, and this is how Caitlyn Morrow, who is very much alive, learns that she’s dead.
Christie Nichols is twenty miles away when she gets the call from a rookie cop she flirted with at an accident scene a month ago. He’s texted her a few times since to ask her out, and so far, she’s managed to stall him by claiming other obligations, usually work. Which isn’t exactly a lie. She works Tuesday through Saturday, and on her days off, she goes to the mall or the gym, but even those are excuses to drive around and listen to the police scanner.
“Burger Heaven,” the cop says. “Something big.” She likes the sound of that since “big” is what she’ll need to get out of this market and into the next. It’s been two years of covering telethons and car accidents, and she’s getting itchy to move on up, ideally to a station that doesn’t require her to report, shoot, and edit her own stories.
By the time she gets there, the scene is already sealed in yellow police tape, and four cars—two city, two sheriffs—are parked, lights flashing, haphazardly around the building. Of course, there are people; the smaller the town, the more people at a crime scene, which—Christie has learned—can be a very good thing. Small-town cops can be notoriously close-mouthed when a homicide is involved; they’ll likely no comment her until she gives up and goes away. But people in a small town know things long before the cops reveal them; they know the identities of the dead; they know where they live and the names of their extended family— the husbands/wives/parents/siblings/children—and it’s the personal angle that Christie likes to pursue, rather than the gruesome details of who did what to whom. She’s convinced it’s those stories that will get her out of here and into the next place: Philadelphia, Chicago, even New York. But not network news. No one watches network news anymore. She’s a CNN girl. Or even MSNBC. And she will be “Christine,” not the diminutive cheerleader/pixie girl “Christie,” a silly pompom of a name, one she was tagged with because of the other, more senior Christine at WHYO.
She climbs over the tape and is immediately stopped by a city cop, young, freshly razored. She’s ready with her press credentials and a reporter’s notebook. No camera, not yet. Plenty of time for visuals—the crime scene isn’t going anyplace soon. There are so many flashing lights that Burger Heaven looks like it’s on fire. Through the plate glass windows, she can see a dozen or so people—all men, maybe the rookie cop who called her, but she can’t be sure—group and regroup, disappear and reappear.
She notices, too, that there are no news cars yet, no other cameras at the scene. Which gives her a little time, but not much. The something big is five dead: three employees, a customer, and the gunman, according to the young cop.
“Gunman?” she repeats, emphasis on man.
“No comment,” he says too quickly. Red, redder: he’s turned his cards over, given up information. So a man with a gun, identity unknown, shows up at a Burger Heaven between a used car lot and a thrift store on the raggedy edge of town. Who, where, when, why, she writes, and underlines it three times. She asks him a few more questions, but he’s shut down now, tight-lipped and serious.
The crowd has grown to about sixteen people on the other side of the yellow tape, and that’s where she heads. “Christie Nichols,” a man says. “Hey, Christie,” and she turns on her television smile, the one that moves the bottom of her face but doesn’t crinkle her eyes or forehead. Women with crinkled eyes and foreheads get inside jobs as producers, or else they’re “retired” from anchor chairs with a sheet cake and something cheap and sparkling poured into plastic cups. From there they head to PR positions at nonprofit agencies, from which they’ll barrage the station with faxes and email blasts, most of which will go immediately into the wastebasket or electronic trash can.
“Hello,” she says. Not a chirpy parade-hello, but a solemn one because there are dead people inside, people who could very well belong to some-SARAH FRELIGH
one on the sidewalk. An implicit Yes, terrible. She doesn’t ask questions but simply listens, because people will talk, will want to talk. They always do, and, in the talk, there will be speculation and some loony theories, but there will also be threads of what will turn out to be facts. She nods and writes everything down. When someone points out the manager leaving through the side door, the entrance closest to the drive-in, she says thank you and sets off as fast as her thin-heeled shoes will allow.
Larry Something. He mumbles the last name, but that’s okay. It’s the other names she’s really after. She writes them quickly, repeating them under her breath. Caitlyn is the one name she keeps coming back to, the only girl among the victims.
Morrow. Rhymes with sorrow. Easy to remember.
In gym class less than a month ago, Caitlyn’s teacher, Mrs. Hutchinson, instructed them to step a foot away from the brick wall of the gymnasium, then lean against it, touching it with only the crown of their heads. After two minutes, Mrs. Hutchinson said, “Now walk,” and Caitlyn felt an odd lightness in her body, as if a giant hook had fastened itself into her scalp and unkinked her spine and expanded her rib cage. She could breathe.
It’s like that now. More than an hour after Caitlyn set down the plants she was carrying and learned of the shooting at Burger Heaven, she can still feel their weight in her forearms. Instead of lightness, it’s as if a row of shelves has crashed onto her, crushing her lungs. She hasn’t been able to take a full breath since the detective walked out of the shadow to tell her she was dead, one of five people shot and killed earlier that night at Burger Heaven. “I’m sorry,” the detective said. “I’m so sorry,” as if she really had been killed and he was there to comfort her mother, who had dropped the plants she’d been carrying on the driveway and covered her eyes.
For extra credit in English last year, Caitlyn had read The Lovely Bones, in which the girl, Susie Salmon, is murdered by a neighbor and watches from her personal heaven as her family falls apart in the wake of her death. Silly and unbelievable, she’d written in her response paper, which received a C from the teacher, who cited her lack of textual evidence to support her ideas. But ever since the detective showed up with the news, it’s as if she, too, is in her own personal heaven observing the living: her mother watching television in her bedroom, alternately sobbing and talking too loudly on her phone. The Facebook page that Caitlyn had updated that morning with a quote from Selena Gomez is busy now with a string of recent posts saying what a great girl she’d been, what a great laugh, great smile, great everything. Even popular girls like Ashley French and Brittany Rogers had posted tributes—Brittany about the class they’d shared freshmen year (English) and how Caitlyn had helped her understand the poetry of Sylvia Plath, which never happened; in fact, Brittany
rarely said more than hi there as she slid into her desk chair, as if seeing Caitlyn for the first time each day. Ashley French posted that Caitlyn was always so nice and friendly, though Caitlyn can’t recall saying more than two words to her in the four years they’d gone to the same school.
It wasn’t me, she nearly types. Then it occurs to her that if not for her aunt’s funeral, it would indeed have been her and not Ruth Wright, who’d worked for her in exchange for two Saturday night shifts. “One,” Caitlyn had said. But Ruth had held firm at two, and Caitlyn had no choice but to agree. The switch had happened late enough that neither girl had bothered to clear it with the manager, not that any of them ever cleared anything with the manager or that he bothered to drop by, unless it was payday (the 15th of every month) or whenever the basement flooded, which it always did after more than two days of rain.
She learned from the TV lady that Donnie Jenkins had also been shot, along with Maurice, the new grill cook, who liked to crank up the radio and dance through the restaurant at closing. And Paul, the skinny guy from the halfway house, who always smelled cold and stale, like food that had been sitting too long on a refrigerator shelf. Christie Something-orOther was the TV lady’s name. And here she was, in Caitlyn’s living room, showing up with a camera on her shoulder just as Kevin Price was leaving. “Already?” the detective said, shaking his head. But he’d stopped to talk to her for a few minutes, and when he left, he held the door for her, waiting until her tripod cleared the door before backing away.
Christie Nichols had spent a few minutes instructing her on how she “saw the interview going down”—some personal insights on her dead coworkers and on Paul, the homeless regular, anything at all that Caitlyn wanted to share with the camera and the viewers who would watch this. Because her mother, sniffling, had hovered in the background the whole time, Caitlyn couldn’t very well talk about bumming cigarettes on break from Donnie or the hamburgers she and Ruth swore they’d get tattooed on their asses in case they ever got the urge in the future to drop out of
college. She talked instead about a customer who’d shown up sobbing and shoeless a couple of weeks back, a woman known only as Angela, who sat on a blanket outside the hardware store all day, begging for change, while her yellow lab mix slept next to her. Donnie had managed to calm her down, get her to drink some water and then some coffee (stiffened with a shot of bourbon he carried around, though Caitlyn omitted this part), and only then did they find out that some bad kids in a car had stolen her dog. A red car, with a stripe down the side that looked like lightning, and since only one person in town had a car like that, it wasn’t hard for Donnie to track him down in the parking lot of McDonald’s across town and seize the dog.
“That’s the kind of guy Donnie was,” Caitlyn said.
It is only when she’s watching it later on the eleven o’clock news that she realizes three things. First, she sounds like a Munchkin and looks enormous; second, she’s crying.
Third: Donnie no longer is, but was.
Twelve hours later, Kevin Price is filling in the last boxes on the last page of the incident report when his computer crashes and the phone rings. “Shit,” he says, realizing too late the phone is in his hand.
“I hope that wasn’t for me,” a voice says. Female. Not Lenore, lower and sweeter. Lenore’s voice has a vinegary quality to it, but that just might be his take on it. “Christie Nichols. WHYO news.”
“Oh,” he says.
“Then it was for me,” she says.
He waits her out. An old interview tactic he’d learned from Pete: Say nothing. People hate silences and will rush to fill them, the verbal equivalent of reaching for an open fly to zip it shut. Also, he’s all talked out.
She wants an interview, some standard, second-day stuff, a few loose ends to tie up. “What time is good for you?”
He finds himself admiring how she doesn’t waste time on idle chitchat, which was one of the things that drove him bonkers about Lenore. You’ll never guess who I saw downtown today, she’d say and, no, he never could guess though he spent years trying before he finally gave up. Get to the point, he wanted to say. Only there was no point. There never was.
“Are you there?” she says.
“Hang on,” he says, anchoring the phone between his cheek and shoulder while he looks for his Daytimer. He’s superstitious about putting his appointments on his phone. The day he moves away from paper is the day he’ll drop his phone in the river or on the concrete of the parking lot. He’s just superstitious enough to believe it.
He finally locates his schedule under some New Yorker s he’s been meaning to catch up on. It’s Lenore’s subscription, a two-year commitment that she signed up for when she took a creative writing class at the community college. She left a big stack of them in the office upstairs that had once been designated as a nursery, and Kevin has been working on reducing it. He likes to read the short stories, and the poetry is okay
some of the time, but what he really likes are the long pieces about stuff he’s never thought much about. Parking meters, for instance; he spent the better part of a night last week reading all about them, their history and other odd facts. If he was a cocktail party kind of guy, which he isn’t, he’d be storing up facts the way a squirrel tucks away nuts: By the way, he imagines saying, the world’s first parking meter is in Oklahoma City.
“How’s three?” he says finally.
“You asked me,” he says.
“I did, you’re right,” she says. “It’s just . . . well, I’d like to get the second-day stuff on the five o’clock. Three’s doable, but it’s pushing it, you know?”
He’s got a haircut scheduled for two, but if he calls now, he can probably change it. His hair can wait another week. Maybe. When he’d dropped off a casserole dish the other day to Lenore, she commented he was starting to look like a beach bum. Like the guys who hung around lake bars all summer, barefoot and thirsty.
Lenore used to think they were cute. She hated how short he’d cut his hair when they were first married and said so often.
“Fifteen minutes okay?” he says finally. “Here?”
“Great,” she says. Hangs up without a goodbye.
“Fine,” he says. To no one.
Caitlyn is in the hallway at school, going from second-hour Algebra to third-hour American History, when it occurs to her that the world is dangerous—the row of metal lockers and their jutting handles, the jocks with their swinging, clumsy elbows and stacks of books, the terrifying wave of people that sweeps her up and pushes her along. She steps into an alcove and waits until the rush is over with and the bell rings. She thinks about visiting the nurse’s office, where she can rest for a while on the cot in the dark room with the aquarium and the blackand-white fish that alternately darts and floats and peers out at the world.
Until the moment in the hallway, she’d floated like that fish through the first three hours of school. She’d no sooner gotten to her locker to swap out the history book she’d brought home (and never opened) for her algebra book when Brittany Rogers and Pam Postman swooped in from wherever the popular kids hung out and smothered her in a clumsy hug.
“Is it true you’re going to be on The Today Show?” said Pam.
“Oh, girlfriend,” Brittany said. “That could have been you.”
Caitlyn zipped her backpack and shouldered it. “It wasn’t.”
“I know that!” Brittany said, laughing.
Laughing, Caitlyn thinks now. She bends to drink from a water fountain as the second bell rings. She’s officially late for American History. If she walks in now, there will be a sudden hush as she makes her way to her seat. Mr. Harrison will pause what he’s doing, writing that day’s discussion questions on the blackboard, but only briefly in an effort to keep things “normal.” The grief counselors are already on duty in the teachers’ lounge, and there’s talk of an assembly to honor the memories of Donnie, Ruth, and Maurice. Caitlyn suspects that girls like Brittany and Pam and Ashley French will sit front and center and cry real tears, as if they give a shit about Donnie, Ruth, or Maurice, when in fact they passed them in the hallway daily and never saw them.
One day, you’re there, rotating in your boring orbit, and, then, you’re not.
Caitlyn is aware that she’s been holding the button of the fountain and not drinking. When she finally bends to sip, the water is so cold it hurts her teeth.
It feels good to feel.
She shoulders her backpack and walks down the stairs, opening the door just as the sun slides out from under a dingy rag of cloud.
Christie Nichols yanks the legs out of the tripod a little too impatiently and topples a stack of papers and stapler from Detective Kevin Price’s desk onto the floor. “Shit,” she says.
“Leave it,” he says.
His office itself is shit, bare floors and walls the color of what comes up from your stomach after you’ve tossed everything. The only light is from the ceiling, a wan circle of yellow. Luckily, she’d thrown lights in the back of her truck at the last minute, knowing how crappy small-town cop offices could be. As offices go, this is one of the crappiest. Surely, a detective rated a better view than a CVS parking lot and a liquor store— a clearer view, at least, through a window that isn’t filmed in grime.
He doesn’t try to make small talk the way so many men do, as if being alone in a small room with her is somehow less uncomfortable if the air is filled with conversation: about the weather, about how long she’d been on television, if she ever watched herself on the news, and did she like what she saw. If truth be told, she’d rather talk about TV than about the weather. As far as she can see, there are three seasons here in Western New York: hot and humid, cold and wet, and colder. It’s got something to do with how the area is positioned between two lakes, Erie and Ontario. She’d always envisioned the Great Lakes as little inland seas, blue and vast, and had been disappointed by the pebbly beach and the oily water on her first and last trip to Lake Ontario.
She fastens the camera to the tripod with a twist of a screw and sights through the lens. “Another second and we’re good,” she says.
Detective Kevin Price makes a noise that could be okay or hurry up, she’s not sure which. He turns down the page of the magazine spread out in front of him and shuts it. The New Yorker. Not something she’d expect a small-town cop to read. Anyone else, she’d say so, expect him to explain how he came to be a fan, tell her a little bit about what he was reading and why.
She knows he won’t.
Caitlyn takes the long way out of town so she doesn’t have to walk past Burger Heaven, but it’s evident, even from a distance, that something terrible has happened there. The parking lot is filled with cop cars, and the building itself is imprisoned in yellow tape so that those moving in and out have to duck under its sag or take a healthy step over. She wonders if the nice man who came over the night before is there. Detective Price and his sad eyes. Maybe it was a disguise he put on whenever he had to break the news of a death to their loved ones, but somehow she doesn’t think so. He looked sincerely sad, like it was a part of his job that he’d just as soon not have to do. At least he didn’t live in New York City like the detectives on Law and Order: SVU, who, in every episode, had to show up in someone’s living room to break the news about a relative who’d been raped or murdered or both. Sometimes they had to treat the loved ones as suspects themselves, which made it even more uncomfortable. Then again, they were just actors, reading lines, not real detectives who had to look at dead people as part of their job.
That reporter, Christie Nichols, said she didn’t know any particulars about the murders other than the names, but Caitlyn knew she was lying. Adults had a way of pausing or looking away before they lied. Caitlyn learned about lying when her parents were splitting up. Her father was held up at the office, according to her mother. Or away on business, only his suitcase was still in the closet and his toiletries—his toothbrush and shaving stuff—were right where they always were. Also, her mother fell into this fake voice whenever she was lying, higher and happier than her normal voice, as if acting like it wasn’t so terrible might make it not be. That lasted for months until the two of them finally sat Caitlyn down in the living room to tell her they were getting a divorce.
“That’s okay,” Caitlyn said. “I figured it out.”
It’s colder out on the highway with no buildings to block the wind. She pulls the hood of her sweatshirt up over her ears, the long sleeves over her hands. It wasn’t cold enough for mittens when she left for schoolSARAH FRELIGH
that morning, though maybe it was and she just couldn’t feel it. But she feels it now, the gusty February wind blowing grit into her eyes.
She stands by the traffic light and sticks out her thumb, the way Ruth showed her, low and almost nonchalant. It was bad to look too desperate, Ruth had said. Desperate attracts kooks, the guys who were cruising around looking for it.
“What do you mean it?” Caitlyn had asked.
“It,” Ruth had said, shooting her a sideways look. “You know.”
The third car out of the light pulls over, an older couple in a blue Chevrolet. Caitlyn climbs into the backseat. The man’s wrists are red and knobbed. He holds his hands high on the steering wheel and pulls out cautiously, head tucked like a turtle. The woman, meanwhile, turns to face Caitlyn and aims a fake smile her way.
“It’s not safe for a young girl to hitchhike,” she says.
The woman smells like she’s been rolling around in flowers. The man drives in such a jerky way, pumping the accelerator and then letting up, that Caitlyn feels sick to her stomach. She cracks the back window to get some fresh air.
“I missed my bus,” she says.
“Girls disappear without a trace,” the wife says. “I saw it on TV.”
“I have to get to work,” Caitlyn says. “Barry, my boss, will fire me if I don’t show up on time.”
It’s not lying as much as believing something that may or may not be true. Caitlyn imagines there’s a Barry somewhere, a guy with curly hair who runs a restaurant and checks the time cards to make sure she punches in for her shift. A diner kind of restaurant with a long counter fronted by stools that spin around at the touch of a finger, where waitresses shout orders to the cooks who shout back.
The kind of place her father used to take her to—for cleaning her room, getting an A in geography, for starring as the angel of the Lord in the fourth-grade Christmas pageant. He’d buy her a chocolate milkshake
made in a metal container with real ice cream. Or a banana split smothered in whipped cream. A waitress named Penny with the blonde hair of a fairy princess always waited on them, making sure that their waters were filled and Caitlyn always had enough napkins to wipe the sticky goo from her fingers when she was finished. Caitlyn believed it was because she’d been such a good girl, and when her father left her mother to move in with Penny the Waitress, she realized how stupid she’d been not to see that it was her father who was special to Penny, not her.
Last time she saw Penny, she was a redhead who was still trying to starve off the thirty pounds she’d gained after giving birth to a son. Your brother is what Caitlyn’s father calls him. Caitlyn thinks of him as The Larvae, blank and unformed.
“Three little neighbor girls,” the woman is saying. “Snatched right off our street. Broad daylight and no one seen a thing.”
“Mother,” the man says.
“It’s the truth and you know it,” says the woman.
The man makes a noise that could be a yes or a no. Or maybe it’s just a noise, the way men do when they can’t be bothered to answer, when they want only to sink into an armchair and hide behind a newspaper and sip the martini that’s been chilling in the freezer since four o’clock.
A man walked into Burger Heaven and shot three of my friends, Caitlyn wants to say. As if it’s a competition of sorts, an Olympics of grief where the most horrible story gets a high score. She doesn’t want to hand this over to the woman, who she suspects will make it her own. Who will make the dead her friends, her neighbors, whenever she tells the story to whomever will listen, the moral being whatever she wants it to be.
“Barry is going to kill me if I’m late again,” Caitlyn says.
Ruth had said this was the absolute best part of hitchhiking, the chance to be someone else. To create a parallel life and step sideways into it.
Caitlyn wonders if this is how heaven works. Like you’re still alive but not in this world anymore.
Three questions into the interview, Kevin realizes that Christie Somebody is no fluff. She’s done her homework, gone beyond the justthe-facts claptrap peddled by the chief during this morning’s press conference and taken the time to knock on doors and talk to the friends and relatives of several of the dead. Somehow she’s also gotten wind of what’s supposed to be privileged information and not for release: the number of gunshots (thirteen and counting), the gun itself (a .357 Magnum), the identity of the gunman (not yet known). He tap dances around those, giving her answers that aren’t denials nor confirmations. He’s good at this, too; he’s up for it.
It’s when she asks about a motive that he hesitates. He’s aware the tape is running, so he busies himself with his notes, flipping pages until he reaches a blank one that he pretends to study. There is so much he could say, most of which would result in another reprimand from the chief, who just last week sent out a memo to detectives reminding them that one of their duties was to deal in good faith with the media. It’s best not to say anything at all. But it bugs Kevin how tidily the media will package a crime once the motive is revealed. He’s read too many newspaper stories about men—always men—who lose their jobs in what some corporations call a rightsizing, men who show up a week or two or three later with automatic weapons and slaughter their co-workers, the people who gossiped with the shooters in the lunchroom or slipped them a homemade chocolate chip cookie from batches made the night before. One thing does not predict another, yet the stories would have you believe there is a straight line of causality from A to B: a man shows up to slaughter his co-workers because he lost his job.
He decides it’s best to no comment her, not an outright refusal but said apologetically, suggesting that if he had something to say, he would say it and she would be the first to know.
She’s not falling for it. “Come on, Detective,” she says.
He is saved from apologizing to her by his phone: a barely coherent Robin Morrow saying that Caitlyn, her daughter Caitlyn, has gone missing from school.SARAH FRELIGH
Caitlyn waits outside the restaurant door until she’s sure the couple has driven off, and only then does she start to walk. She’d been afraid that the woman would insist on waiting until she was safely inside, the way her mother did this morning when she dropped her off at school. Caitlyn was relieved when the woman tapped her husband’s knobby wrist to remind him they were late for whatever appointment had brought them to the city.
She walks a couple of blocks and realizes nothing is familiar, not the street names or the names of the businesses lettered on glass windows or the painted signs that hang creaking from poles thrusting from doorways: ACME BAIL, HORIzON TRAVEL, PRO PLAN INSURANCE. Her phone would tell her where she is and where to go, the shortest way to get there and how long it would take, but her phone is in her purse in her locker at school. It’s thrilling rather than scary to be able to slip away like this. To be lost.
She passes a cemetery and, beyond it, a small brick building that turns out to be a gardening store, its window displaying an array of brightly colored tools. The summer after her father moved out, her mother decided that she and Caitlyn would grow their own vegetables. “It will be fun,” her mother said. “And we’ll save a fortune on grocery bills.” They’d planted zucchini and tomatoes and a couple of different kinds of lettuces and were thrilled when the first green shoots pushed up through the soil. They hadn’t anticipated how much weeding their little plot would require, or how to keep the deer and the rabbits from sneaking in at night and devouring their produce. When the city declared a no unnecessary watering order following an extended drought, which killed off all but a few hardy zucchinis, Caitlyn was secretly relieved. That is, until she overheard her mother on the telephone one night talking to her best friend, Melinda: “Everything I touch dies.” Like she was proud of her ability to kill things. Plants. Marriages.
“I’m not dead,” Caitlyn had said last night to Detective Price after his speech: “I’m sorry to tell you, ma’am, but your daughter was killed in a shooting earlier this evening at the Burger Heaven.” Her mother had collapsed and had to be helped inside by the detective on one side and Caitlyn on the other. “I’m not dead,” she kept saying to her mother. “I’m here.” For the rest of the evening, her mother had sobbed and hovered even when the television lady, Christie, had politely asked her if she wouldn’t be more comfortable on the couch in the living room. Her mother had insisted on getting up early and driving her to school this morning, idling in the drop-off zone until Caitlyn was safely inside the building. Only then did she shift from park to drive and ease out into traffic.
Halfway across the Ford Street Bridge, Caitlyn stops to take in the view. The sun has set; the windows of the city skyline glow pink as if they’re on fire. Through the joints in the sidewalk, she can see the river below, shiny with ice. Traffic streams behind her, the occasional horn honk, a heybaby tossed from a window like a bag of garbage. She’s not afraid as much as she is annoyed: I’m not your baby, she’d say if they came around again, which they won’t. There’s too much traffic, no place to pull over and idle, open a door.
She’s safe out here in the open. Not trapped behind a counter with a gun shoved in her face. It will be all right. She needs to keep moving.
For the second time in less than twenty-four hours, Kevin Price turns into the small subdivision of streets with bird names: Eagle, Swallow, Pelican, and finally Bluebird, where Robin Morrow is waiting on the front stoop.
Price parks and gets out of the car, his own, not the work-issued black car that screams cop. Even from this distance, he can tell that Robin Morrow has been crying. Her eyes are swollen, and her face looks raw.
He doesn’t waste any time telling her what he knows, which isn’t much. The police had asked for and gotten permission from school officials to search Caitlyn’s locker, where they found her purse and her cell phone. Her wallet was missing, however—a hopeful sign. In his experience, people who are bent on hurting themselves generally leave everything behind. But the fact that Caitlyn took her wallet, presumably containing some money and identification, suggests otherwise.
Still, Robin Morrow looks doubtful. “If you say so,” she says. She offers coffee, and Price is surprised to find himself saying, “Sure.” The day is shot already, chopped into bits of non-accomplishment. He keeps an informal to-do list in his head, enjoys the mental crossing out of things as they’re done. Today, nothing. Coffee, might as well. The only thing he misses about Lenore is her coffee; she was generous enough to leave him the coffeemaker but refused to share with him her bag of coffee-making tricks. So far, his efforts have resulted in sludge one day, thick with grounds, and brown water the next day, so thin that he can see the pattern of flowers at the bottom of his mug. One day, he keeps telling himself. Practice makes perfect.
Robin Morrow’s coffee is something else, even better than Lenore’s. There’s an undertone of something spicy—cinnamon, maybe—that hits the back of his tongue. He usually takes cream in his coffee, or milk if there isn’t cream, but Robin Morrow doesn’t offer, and he’s reluctant to ask. There’s a bowl filled with packets of fake sugar, and he helps himself.
“Do you have kids, Detective?” she says.
He pours fake sugar into his coffee, stirs until it dissolves. “I’m divorced,” he says finally.
She nods as if she understands. “My husband wanted a boy,” she says.
It’s his turn to nod.
“I was in labor for three days. Caitlyn did not want to come into the world. Babies do that, the doctor said. Refuse. And when she was finally here, she cried all the time—wet, dry, hungry or full, she cried. We couldn’t sleep more than an hour without her waking us up. ‘Tell me what you want,’ I used to beg her. It was the world, the doctor told me, the one she didn’t want to come into. The light, the noise. Think about it. Six months of crying, and then it was over, just like that. She smiled and smiled, even when her teeth were cutting through her gums.”
Long ago, there had been the beginning of a baby, his and Lenore’s. They agreed to wait to tell the families until twelve weeks had passed. For three months, it was their secret, his and Lenore’s. “Little Bit,” he called the almost baby. “Little Shit,” said Lenore, sick every morning. One night, he popped awake out of a dead sleep just as she did. “Uh-oh,” she said. And that was that. They tried again and then again, always ending in uh-oh, a bloody little dishcloth wrung out of her. Pretty soon they quit trying. Whatever life raft they’d been to each other had leaked and sunk.
“I have this theory about tears,” Robin Morrow is saying. “We’re born with this many, and when we use them up, there are no more. Maybe Caitlyn used hers up when she was a baby.”
“Maybe,” he says. What he means is, maybe that’s true for him as well. He tries to recall the last time he cried, and then it comes to him: a fire in his neighborhood set by a jealous ex-husband. The family got out—the wife, her new boyfriend, and their two kids. The dog didn’t, a sweet mongrel that used to wander unleashed into his yard, hungry for attention and whatever snacks she could cadge. Then again, it was right after the almost-baby that he hadn’t cried for. He told himself that the dog was real
in a way the baby never was. You can’t see hope. You can’t hold it or burp it or read it a bedtime story or slip it a hot dog from the grill.
He thinks of Donny’s father, the way he nodded his head even as Price was telling him that his son had been gunned down at work, that the man who shot him was dead, too, and by the way, he was sorry, so, so sorry to be the one to have to tell him. When Price was finished, Ed Jenkins whispered, “Thanks,” and shut the door carefully behind him.
This is what Price could tell Robin Morrow: that the world is filled with evil and, if we’re lucky, we navigate our lives in such a way that we avoid it. Faith or fate. But once you encounter evil, it’s hard not to think of the world any other way; each bad act becomes a prophecy, an of course. Ed Jenkins knows this. Robin Morrow is only beginning to understand this. And Price, who has investigated a lifetime of crime from petty thievery to murder, is happy that he doesn’t have to explain this to a child of his.
“Maybe,” he says again just as his phone rings. It’s the deputy in charge of the crime scene telling him that they’d ID’d the shooter.
Caitlyn is on her third Coke when the bartender sets down a paper boat of French fries along with a napkin, a fork, and a squeeze bottle of ketchup. “On the house,” he says when she pushes a couple of crumpled dollar bills at him, all the money she has. She realizes she’s starving. At breakfast, she’d choked down a piece of toast that tasted like ashes and skipped lunch. The first fry is so hot it burns a blister on the tip of her tongue, but she’s too hungry to care.
Now and then, the bartender glances over at her, not in an icky way, but more like a dad. He reminds her of one of the football coaches at school, Coach Luke, who doubles as hall security. He wears a whistle around his thick neck but doesn’t use it. An all right, all right is enough to get kids moving along, into classes.
The bartender is watching the Winter Olympics, a cross-country ski race. The racers are packed into spandex suits in jewel colors, their faces covered as they pole their way up a hill, glide down in a pack. They make it look effortless. Only the steam of their breath gusting out in clouds gives them away, suggests how hard they’re working. She’d felt that cold when she walked past the bar, so cold she believed that if she held her hands up to the neon signs, they would release their own clouds of steam.
The bar that had been empty an hour ago is starting to fill up. Behind her, a table of college kids in sweatshirts sit at a table cluttered with mugs and pitchers of beer. Across from her, a man in a suit pokes at his cell, pausing to sip from a glass full of Scotch. A single malt. She’d heard him ordering, had watched the bartender pull a bottle from a small locked cupboard and measure a careful shot.
The night she’d gone to work with a sore throat and a cough that kept getting worse, Donny had pulled her aside during break and offered her a shot of Scotch from a pint bottle he’d filched from his father. “Not like he’s going to miss it or anything,” Donny said. She’d imagined that it would taste sweet, like butterscotch, coat her tongue and throat in the same delicious way, but it was bitter and then so fiery she had to choke itSARAH FRELIGH
back rather than spit it out. An hour later though, the lump in her throat had disappeared and her cough was looser.
“Hey,” someone says. One of the college guys, an empty pitcher in his hand. Someone at the table shouts something at him, something about her, she knows, and he answers with a quick middle finger.
“Hey,” she says. She sounds throaty, her voice rusty and unused.
“Okay if I sit?” He indicates the empty stool next to her. Before she can answer, he’s climbed onto the seat and parked his booted feet on the rungs. “Dennis.”
“Caitlyn,” she says.
“Caitlyn,” he says. “With a C or a K?” She thinks fast. “A K.”
The bartender glances up from the drinks he’s mixing, telegraphing an unspoken Everything okay? She nods and smiles.
“You go to U of R?” he says. She shakes her head.
“Fisher?” he says. He pulls back and studies her. “No, wait: Nazareth. Yeah. You look like a Naz girl.”
His eyes glance at her hair and face, move down her chest where they linger a second too long, then end at the rolled cuffs of her sweatshirt. Does she play lacrosse? She looks like she might be good with a stick. The bartender materializes and takes the empty pitcher from Dennis, fills it without turning his back, waits until Dennis pays and heads back to his table. Only then does he walk away, just as the television shifts to a shot of Christie Nichols in front of Burger Heaven. GUNMAN IN MASS SHOOTING ID’D is the caption next to a picture of a guy who looks like someone’s dad. Someone so forgettable that if she was asked to describe him, she wouldn’t be able to. Not someone who could upend the world, her world.
She motions to the bartender, asks him if there’s a phone she can use. She’s forgotten hers and needs to make a call.
After one wrong turn down a street that used to be two-way and no longer is, Detective Kevin Price finds the bar. It’s one he occasionally hung out in when he used to hang around bars. Back then, it was called Lucks, and he was a college kid who didn’t go to school. His classes were huge, and no one took attendance. He could have filled a seat and pretended to be listening, but that seemed disrespectful somehow. Not showing up at least seemed honest, a protest of sorts against conformity. He found Lucks one day when he wandered off campus and followed the river toward downtown. It wasn’t much then, a pockmarked concrete floor covered in peanut shells, a couple of picnic tables, and a Pac-Man machine. Genesee on tap, ten cents a shell at happy hour. He had a fake ID, but it wouldn’t have mattered. At Lucks, no one asked him anything, not even his name. It was that kind of place. He expected to flunk out at the end of his freshmen year, and he did, though he was surprised that he managed to pull down a C in English. He liked the reading, liked hearing the lady prof talk about things in the books that he’d never noticed. He’d met Lenore by then, and she was all over him about shaving off the scruff of beard he was trying to grow, cutting his hair, and taking the cop test. When he passed with a high mark, instead of being pleased, he figured it was because they were so hard up they’d take anyone.
It’s a different place now, tables with red-and-white checked cloths, hardwood floors made of something shiny and dark. Dozens of taps and a beer menu on a chalkboard, beers that Kevin knows are good and expensive, though there are still happy hour specials: $5 for 16 ounces. Inflation. College kids threw it on their credit cards and couldn’t figure out why they were thousands of dollars in the hole before they even took their first jobs. Next to motive, there’s nothing that makes Kevin crazier than easy credit, quite likely a holdover from his old man, a cheapskate if ever there was one. Then again, it was hard to be a spendthrift when there was nothing to spend.
The bartender makes him immediately. He motions to one of the waitresses—“Suzanne? Take over?”—and gestures to Price to follow him down a hallway, then up a steep flight of stairs. “I figured her for a runaway,” he says. “Was I right?”
Kevin grunts a reply, one that could be yes or no. He feels loyal to the kid somehow, God knows she’s been through enough. He knows that if he tells this guy the truth, he would do one of two things. He might keep it to himself, tuck it away and pull it out every now and then when he thought about fate. Or it would become a story he would tell at the bar, his role in the story growing bigger and more central the more time went by and memory faded.
The bartender—“Call me Jeff,” he says—pushes open a door, and there is Caitlyn, sitting in a chair watching an old episode of Friends.
“Your mother’s worried sick about you,” Price says.
When he asks her if she’s cold, she says not really, but he turns the heat up anyway. The way she’s bunched against the door, wearing only a thin gray hoodie, she looks cold. It’s twenty-five degrees outside according to the readout on his dashboard, with snow in the forecast. And no, she’s not hungry, but he turns into McDonald’s anyway, feels like he’s scored a small victory when she says she could probably eat a fish sandwich. Without asking, he adds a chocolate shake to her order.
He pays for the food and pulls over into an available space, explaining he prefers not to drive and eat at the same time, which is the truth. He prefers to sit down and eat, with a glass of wine and someone to talk to on the other side of the table. With a candle if the someone is female. The truth is he spends his days driving from here to there, catching meals on the fly, usually from fast food places, and consequently, he’ll forget not only what he ate but if he ate at all. Once a week, he’ll go through the back seat of his car and collect the fast food bags and paper wrappers that he’s tossed there, his way of pretending his life is settled and organized. After Lenore moved out, he vowed to do better the next week—buy groceries, eat a balanced diet. But each Wednesday, he’d backslide, fail miserably. Eventually, he gave up trying. He’s gotten so that all he buys at the grocery is beer and coffee, sometimes a loaf of bread for toast, but the last couple of times he had a slice of toast for breakfast, he ended up at the drive-thru window of Tim Horton’s, ordering a double sausage biscuit.
The car fills up with the smell of fish and onions, the sound of chewing. Caitlyn finishes her fish sandwich, wipes each of her fingertips, folds the empty wrapper, and looks around for someplace to put it.
“Just toss it in back,” he says. His voice sounds too loud, though it’s his usual voice. His inside voice.
“Really?” She sounds amused, but she wads up the folded wrapper and launches it over her shoulder. He imagines the interior of Robin Morrow’s car is immaculate, frequently vacuumed and dusted. She probablySARAH FRELIGH
hangs one of those room fresheners from her rearview mirror, a Christmas tree or a lemon.
“Okay?” he says. It could mean anything: Are you ready? Have you had enough to eat? Or even shorthand for Are you okay?
She nods as if she understands. “Is she mad at me? My mom?”
Kevin thinks a moment. “More worried, I think.”
Caitlyn wipes her fingers on a napkin and balls it up. “She’s always worried.”
“She’s a mom. She has to be,” he says.
He’s minutes into the drive when it starts to snow, big flakes that fly crazily at his windshield. Lake effect snow, judging from the direction: north and west. He spots the line of taillights ahead, enough time to pump the brakes gently, slowing from fifty-five to twenty without skidding. He remembers the crazy red horse he rode one summer at YMCA camp, how the horse always felt as if he was going to break loose of the docile line of ponies and bust out. His car feels like that in a snowstorm, ready to skitter out from under him at any time.
“Just when you thought it was spring,” he says. Stupid and clichéd, especially here on the North Coast, where spring is just a date on a calendar. In August, he’ll grit his teeth when the clerk at the liquor store or the cashier at Wegmans will say, Hot enough for you? No, he’ll want to say. Like 95 degrees with 100 percent humidity isn’t hot enough. Days like that, he prays for winter; yet, when the first lake effect storm hits in early November, he’ll curse as he scrapes ice from his windshield.
She makes a sound that could be a yeah or a laugh, a reward of sorts for his stupid humor.
“Can I ask you a question?” she says.
He slows as he passes a pickup truck on the shoulder, warning lights flashing. “Sure.”
She laughs nervously. “I mean, another question. Not that one.” She unrolls the cuff of her sweatshirt, rolls it back again. “Who was he? The guy?”
The guy. It takes him a minute.
“He was nobody,” he says.
He’d said the same thing to Ed Jenkins, who shut his eyes and shook his head. The guy who shot your son should be a somebody. It should be because of something, something explainable and understandable and above all deliverable in a sound bite. A love triangle. A firing. A score to even. Not a thirty-three-year-old nobody from one of the lake towns between here and Buffalo, a guy who’d gotten his hands on a gun on a bad day.
They hit an open stretch of road, a mile or so before the big curve and the Byrne Dairy on the corner. The snow is coming down heavy now, aiming straight at them, rising instead of falling, when Caitlyn clears her throat and asks him if he believes in heaven.
Within a year, Burger Heaven will be torn down and paved over to accommodate a used car lot strung with colored flags that snap in the wind. There will be a page in the school’s yearbook featuring pictures of Donnie and Ruth and Maurice, and poems about the good dying too young, all of it bordered in a coffin of black tape. Christine Nichols will get a job in Philadelphia, and Ed Jenkins will marry a widow he met in a grief support group. Kevin Price will be offered the job as assistant chief, but he’ll stay a deputy.
Caitlyn will go to college a continent away, in a city where it rarely rains and never snows. She’ll marry a man who has never seen snow, who doesn’t understand when she tries to explain how something cold can burn. She’ll forget the raw earth smell of spring when the snow thaws, but for the rest of her life, she will remember the car ride that night, the smell of fried fish and aftershave, the tick of tires on the wet pavement, and how Kevin Price had paused for a second when she asked him about heaven before he said, “Yes. Yes, I do.”
SARAH FRELIGH is the author of five books, including Sad Math, winner of the 2014 Moon City Press Poetry Prize and the 2015 Whirling Prize from the University of Indianapolis, and A Brief Natural History of Women, published in 2023 by Harbor Editions. Recent work has appeared in the Cincinnati Review miCRo series, SmokeLong Quarterly, the Wigleaf 50, and in the anthologies New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction (Norton 2018), Best Microfiction (2019-22), and Best Small Fiction 2022. Among her awards are poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Saltonstall Foundation.
About her story, “Heaven,” Sarah says that while she generally writes in whatever small slices of time her life offers up and usually drafts in notebooks, she wrote most of the this story’s first draft on her computer during a three-day DIY writer’s retreat in an old hotel in a Hudson River town: “The hotel was across the street from a town square bordered by railroad tracks where, every hour or so, the gates would ding down and a couple of train cars would chug through, my signal to take a break from writing. Watching those trains and the patient cars lined up on either side of the warning gates, it occurred to me that the story needed to be set in a small town much like that one, where an event like a mass shooting would affect everyone. I started revising the story during the long, quiet time in the early months of the pandemic and finally finished it in 2022, five years after I wrote the first sentence. And now that I have an idea for another long story, I’m thinking about going back to that old hotel for a few days to take some inspiration from those trains.
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