Dead End Road

by Alice Woodrome


Serena Farley pinned a worn flannel shirt to the clothesline under a cloudless sky as a hen chased a grasshopper in the dry grass nearby. Her black hair lifted in the breeze as she turned toward the crunch of tires on gravel, wiping her palms on her apron. Few vehicles made it that far down into the valley on the dead-end road, and it was always an occasion for curiosity.

The past year it had been more than simple curiosity for Serena. It could be Darrell coming back for her.

"He ain't coming, girl," her pa kept telling her. "When you gonna face the truth? He's forgot you. Good news don't come down no dead-end road."

On the rare occasions when a vehicle did make it that far, it was usually a tourist who had strayed off the highway or a neighbor bringing bad news. Good news, when there was any, came by mail and had to be collected from the box up on the main road, a quarter-mile away.

That was where the school bus had stopped for Serena, until she was fourteen and had to quit school to help in the garden and cook for her pa when her ma got sick. People didn't come for social visits to the Farley place, not since Serena's ma died nearly three years ago. Coy was never a friendly man, but his wife's death left him bitter.

Hattie's grave was on a bluff overlooking the creek surrounded by pine trees and post oaks. The grave site was barely visible from the house between two tall trees. Serena often saw Coy's stout figure in the distance, standing by her grave with his hat in his hand and his dog, Jake, at his side. He never discussed his loss with Serena and she wondered if he talked to the redbone hound when he was up there. Serena, tall and slender with high cheek bones-the very picture of her ma-could only guess what was in his heart.

If it weren't for one memory she would think her pa's heart had died entirely along with her ma. A few months after her ma's funeral, she'd been to the grave up on the bluff and lost her footing, falling almost twenty feet down into Slaughter Creek, breaking her ankle and scraping herself badly on the brambles as she fell. Soaked to the skin, she was trying to walk home, using a stick as a cane, when Pa found her. Turned out he'd been looking for an hour. Serena saw a tear in his eye when he got to her. Then he spoiled the moment by getting mad and scolding her for being careless. But he couldn't take back the tear.

***

Coy Farley greeted everyone who drove down the road-be they loggers, hunters, game wardens, revenuers, or lost city folk-with the same suspicious stare. When they left, more often than not, the truth of those oft-repeated words was confirmed. "Good news don't come down no dead-end road."

Serena hadn't seen it that way. She'd been seventeen, lonely, and ready for life to change when Darrell Wilkerson pulled the old pickup off the road onto the bumpy drive to ask directions. It had been a sunny October a little over a year ago. Serena's pa was hunting in the woods along the creek. She had cleaned up after the noon meal, drew some water for the kitchen, and was in the garden at the side of the house pulling green tomatoes from flagging vines. Holding a basket in one hand, she shielded her eyes from the sun with the other as a tall lanky boy about her own age walked toward her. His hair gleamed gold when a gust of wind caught it.

"Hi there." Darrell smiled as he approached. "It appears I'm lost. Do you know where the Wilson farm is? I'm supposed to meet a man about a job there, and I'm already a half hour late."

Serena was mesmerized by his sky blue eyes, and took a moment to answer. "I never heard tell of the Wilson's. You sure they live 'round here?"

Darrell grinned. "I'm not sure of anything. Would you mind if I used your phone? I guess I better call the man."

"We ain't got no phone." Serena said.

"Ah well," Darrell shrugged his shoulders. "I doubt if he'd hire help that can't show up on time, and it was just gonna be temporary, anyway."

"Sorry." Serena frowned. "Most other folks who come down here are lost too."

Darrell stepped a bit closer and leaned in. "You wouldn't have a glass of water you could give me before I head back to Shikopa, would you? I didn't count on getting lost, and I didn't bring anything to drink."

"Sure, come on up on the porch and rest yourself. Let me put these tomatoes in the kitchen and I'll get it for you." Serena disappeared into the house as Darrell sat in one of the rusty lawn chairs on the small porch. She called through the screen door. "It's warmish for October, ain't it?"

She reappeared with two glasses of cool well water and handed one to Darrell. "Take your time," she said, sitting in the other chair.

If her pa had been there, he would have chased the boy off as soon as he had his drink. As it was, Darrell stayed around, sat on the porch and talked with Serena all afternoon. Captivated with his robust good looks and details of his visits to McAlester and Fort Smith, she hung on every word.

"You wouldn't hardly believe Fort Smith. My aunt's new husband's a conductor for the streetcar company, and when we went there for their wedding last summer, we rode all over town in the trolley car. They run on tracks in the road and got cables overhead. You should see all the fancy buildings and grand houses. My favorite part was the old fort with a cannon they used in the Civil War."

"What was the wedding like?" Serena asked. "I bet your aunt had a pretty dress, didn't she?"

"Yeah, I guess. It was white and puffy. The wedding was in a big fancy church-looked like a castle in a book. It was sure different than any place around here."

"I'd like to go to Fort Smith someday. I ain't never been out of the valley," she said. "I go to Shikopa sometimes with Pa to get a few groceries, but most times he don't want me tagging along."

"Where's your pa now?"

"He's hunting. Pa takes his dog and goes off most afternoons-fishing or hunting, or just checking on the livestock. He runs a few hogs and forty or so head of cattle."

"I bet it was one of your pa's cows I almost hit up on the road. She was laying down right in the middle like she owned it."

"Yeah, probably was. They know they got the right-a-way. They say some folks is trying to do away with open range. My pa gets riled up just thinking about it." She smiled.

He grinned and shook his head. "That cow sure taught me a lesson. My pa would be pretty upset if I wrecked his old truck." He laughed. "I guess the cow would be too. I'll be driving real slow around those curves now." He took another long drink of water and leaned back in the chair. "Do you drive yet?"

"No." She shrugged. "Ma never did either, and Pa says, since we only got the one truck, there ain't no reason. 'Bout the only place I go regular is church when Phoebe Tillman and her Mister come to pick me up-if the road is passable. They live through them woods most half a mile." She pointed through a stand of tall pines. "Pa used to take us when Ma was alive, but he don't cotton much to preaching."

"So I guess you're out of school already?" he said, leaning forward again, the sun glistening in his hair.

"I would of been a senior now." Serena shook her head, "but I ain't gone to school for a long time-not since Ma died. I got a few books Miss Phoebe lets me read, though, and the Bible, of course."

"Me, I never cared much for school, and was glad when I got out last year, but I been looking for work ever since." He gave her a crooked smile. "I do odd jobs around Shikopa to earn gas money, but I need to get some saved up to get out on my own-maybe go to McAlester-someplace where I can find steady work. I don't want to live with my folks forever, but there aren't many jobs in the hills."

"There ain't much of anything here but rocks and trees." Serena sighed.

Darrell finished his water and set the glass beside his chair. "I don't guess the men out here usually work at jobs, do they?"

"Some of 'em do. But I expect most live off the land like us. We always have a milk cow on the place and I grow a garden and keep chickens." Serena smiled. "We don't need much. Pa raises our meat-fishes and hunts too."

"If I'm still in the county, I'm going to hunt deer with my dad when the season starts next month."

"Pa don't worry about the season. If we need meat, he hunts." She chuckled. "He just calls venison goat meat if anyone asks."

"Your Pa sounds like an independent man, for sure," he said, laughing.

"Yeah, he is. When I was little he hired out to the forestry service to fight fires in the Spring, but my Ma told me he didn't much care for having a boss, and didn't like the men he worked with either-spending their hard earned money on drinking and other foolishness. If Pa needs extra money, he cuts firewood to take to town. And we got apple trees on the place that makes enough to sell too.

She looked at the glass Darrell had set down. "You want more water?"

"Sure," he said, handing her the glass.

She went into the kitchen as Darrell looked around at the fruit trees and beyond to the scrub oaks at the edge of the piny woods that surrounded the little farm.

She was back in a minute with another glass of water. "Here you go."

"Thanks." He smiled and took the glass. "I'd sure get awful lonely out here with no one to talk to."

"I take eggs over to Miss Phoebe and her Mister when I get some ahead; she don't keep chickens no more. I always stay and talk to them some. They're good folk. Miss Phoebe was friends with Ma." She looked at Darrell with a sad smile, "It ain't the same though, you know? Their kids is all growed up and gone, and the Tillmans are old." She took a deep breath. "I find stuff to do, though."

"Work, I bet. Do you have any fun out here at all?"

Her face brightened. "There's a mama cat that's got kittens in the Tillman's old barn. When I get my work done, I go over and play with them."

Darrell stuck his bottom lip out and rested his chin in his hand.

"Now don't you go feeling sorry for me," she protested. "There ain't nothing sweeter than little kittens. It ain't like that's all the fun I have, anyway." She tilted her head. "There's a social every three months or so over at the church. I go with the Tillmans. I most always take a pie. I like to cook; Ma taught me good."

"I bet, but cooking? And a social four times a year?"

She raised her eyebrows. "We got a radio. We listen to Louisiana Hayride on Saturday nights when we got a good battery." Serena paused. "But I don't need radio. I'd just as soon be doing something, and there's lots to do. I like taking care of the chickens and even the garden. It ain't so bad, really."

The afternoon slipped away as they talked. Before Darrell left he said, "I'd really love to see you again, Serena. Would you let me take you to town to see a movie tomorrow night?"

Serena's heart fluttered. "If Pa lets me, I'd like to go, but he can be contrary."

"I'll keep my fingers crossed then, and be around after supper, about six?" He grinned.

She knew her pa wouldn't like her agreeing to a date, but she just couldn't tell Darrell no. She could hardly believe she was going to see him again as she watched his truck drive away. Maybe if she prayed and prayed, her pa would let her go.

For supper, Serena fried catfish caught on her pa's trot line that morning. She served it with hush puppies and hot potato salad made with bacon the way he liked it. Her heart was pounding when they sat down to eat, but she waited until he was full to tell him.

"Pa, please don't be mad at me, but I met a boy this afternoon. His name is Darrell Wilkerson. He come by asking directions and we got to talking."

Her pa looked like he was fit to explode, but she raced to get the words out, hardly able to breathe. "We visited a long time. He's a real nice boy, and talked polite and respectful like. I got me a date with him tomorrow night. Please Pa, I like him and I want to go with him."

Her pa got up from the table so fast he kicked the leg, turning over the salt shaker. "Your ma wouldn't of let you talk with a strange boy like that. You knowed better," he shouted. "If you think I'm going to let you go off somewhere with a boy I ain't never even met, you got another think coming."

"But Papa," Serena begged. "You'll meet him when he comes tomorrow night. Darrell's a nice boy. You'll see. Please Pa, give'm a chance."

"I saw this day comin' the day your mama brought you into this world. But I thought she'd be here. Lord help me. You ain't got the sense God gave a goose!"

Serena hardly slept that night, and felt anxious the whole next day. With a prayer on her breath, she went about her work. She baked a pecan pie and made biscuits and gravy for her pa's supper, in hopes of sweetening his sour mood before Darrell came to pick her up.

As she rolled out the pie crust, her thoughts drifted to her ma. When Hattie got sick and knew she was going to die, she talked to Serena about her pa.

"He's had a hard life, child," her ma said, sitting in a rocking chair with a blanket pulled around her. "His own pa turned against him-because of me." She pressed her lips together, and looked away at a distant past. "The old man told him if he took up with an Indian, he'd never speak to him again. Chased him off when we got married, and told him the farm would go to his cousin. Your papa took it bad; he loved his pa."

Serena had never heard the story. "What did his pa have against Indians?"

"I don't know. Something that happened when he was a boy. Some people hang onto a wrong their whole life."

"We ain't never lived nowhere but here," Serena said, "Grandpa must have changed his mind?"

"No, we had to move to Shikopa and we nearly starved. Your pa tried to find regular work, but just got temporary jobs now and then. His whole family turned their backs on us, excepting his ma, but we never knew that until his pa died of lockjaw a couple years later. His ma let us come back, and fixed the papers so your pa wouldn't lose the farm."

"I think I remember Grandma," Serena told her ma. "She kind of looked like Pa."

"Your grandma tried to make it up to us, but the hurt in your pa festered so bad during those two years in Shikopa, he never got over it." She touched Serena's face and said, "You'll take care of your pa when I'm gone, won't you?"

"Yes, Mama, I promise I will." Serena was just fourteen and would have agreed to anything her dying ma asked.

The promise weighed heavy on her now, especially in the last few hours.

***

After supper, her pa sat out on the porch, leaned back in his chair chewing on a toothpick, and waited to hear a vehicle coming down the dead-end-road.

Coy Farley was born in the valley in the same house where he and Hattie came back to raise Serena after his pa died. When he was a boy the road, now too rough for most cars, had stretched across the valley. It was kept in good repair and was well enough traveled that his ma sold fresh eggs and produce from her garden to passing traffic. When Coy was eight or nine, the old wood bridge on Slaughter Creek washed away in a flash flood, and suddenly the best days of that part of the valley were in the past. The county commissioner, who no longer had kin living across the creek, did not replace the bridge and rarely ordered maintenance on the rocky road. It became deeply rutted and was nearly impassable when it rained.

Coy leaned forward in his chair when he heard a vehicle on the road, and stood when a pickup turned into the gravel driveway. Serena looked out the window and held her breath. She saw her pa walk toward the truck as Darrell got out. He wore a dark jacket over jeans and looked as handsome as any boy she'd ever seen. Darrell extended his hand and after a moment's hesitation, her pa took it and gave it a quick shake. They talked for a few minutes, but it was impossible to see how it was going.

She started breathing again only when both walked toward the house. When they reached the porch steps, Serena stood at the open door smiling, wearing her Sunday best.

"You ain't going nowhere, girl," Coy said, "You can sit on the porch and visit for a spell, but then the boy's got to go." He turned to Darrell frowning. "I'll be watching from inside. You best keep your hands to yourself-hear?"

"Yes, sir," Darrell said. "Thanks for letting me stay a bit."

Coy slammed the screen door behind him, while they sat on the porch in the dwindling light.

"I'm sorry," Serena whispered, "I know this ain't what you planned."

Darrell slid his chair close to Serena. "I'd rather talk with you than see a movie, anyway."

She blushed, and said softly, "I don't know if Pa will ever let me go on a proper date. He didn't used to be so peevish." She sighed. "Ever since Ma died, he don't take to nobody."

"It's okay. This is fine with me."

"You want a piece of pecan pie?" Serena asked "I could make a pot of coffee?"

Coy cleared his throat loudly, and said through the screen door. "The boy ain't hungry. And you don't need to be making coffee this late."

Serena cringed and flushed hot all over. She didn't know what to say. She mouthed, "Sorry."

"I just had supper an hour ago," Darrell said, "but I bet the pie is really good."

They spoke in hushed tones to keep from being overheard. At first Serena fidgeted in her chair. She felt awkward talking to Darrell with her pa so close, but after a while she almost forgot Coy was just inside the screen door. They talked about their lives, their dreams. Darrell wanted to travel to see how other people lived outside the mountains.

"My dad says there isn't any place better than these hills. He lived in several states when he was my age, but in the end, he came back." Shrugging his shoulders, he added, "I suppose I may want to settle down some day too, maybe even in Shikopa. But I want to see for myself what else is out there."

"I want to live somewhere there's other people to talk to," Serena told him. "Maybe a place with lots of books to read, so if I wonder about something, I can look it up." She sighed, adding softly, "but who would take care of Pa?"

Coy came out a couple times as they talked, once to check on the chickens, and once carrying his gun when Jake started barking. When he came back, he glared at Darrell as he walked past him and went back into the house.

When the sun sank behind the trees to the west, he lit a gas lantern inside that glimmered through the screen door, bathing the scene in a soft twinkling light. Serena looked at Darrell in the warm glow and wanted to hold that moment forever in her mind.

The hooting of a great horned owl came from the dark woods. Coy toed the door open and said, "It's getting late, you best be saying goodnight, boy, and be on your way."

Serena didn't want him to go, and caught her own hand reaching out to him as he stood.

"Yes, sir," Darrell said. "Would it be alright if I call again tomorrow?"

Serena held her breath, and her eyes widened.

"Tomorrow?" Coy frowned as he came out to the porch. "Serena's got work to do."

"Maybe I could help her?" Darrell looked expectantly at Coy.

"She won't be needin' no help."

"The next day, then?" Darrell suggested.

Coy glared at Darrell. "Don't push, boy."

Serena's heart sank. This couldn't be the end. "Can I walk him to the truck, Pa?"

"Okay, but you stay where I can see you. And I want you back up here straightaway."

As they walked to the pickup in the moonlight, Darrell said. "I don't think your pa likes me. Maybe I could come by in the afternoon again? You said he goes off most afternoons."

Her heart quickened at the idea, but she frowned. "Not always. Sometimes he got chores around the place. If you show up when he told you not to come, he'll chase you off with his rifle."

He moved as if to grab her hand but hesitated. "Is there somewhere else we could meet to talk, then? Someplace your pa wouldn't be around for sure?"

As lightning bugs twinkled in the darkness around them, Serena pondered it only a moment before her heart took control. Nothing in the world mattered more to her than seeing Darrell again.

"Maybe," she said. "There's Tillman's old barn through them woods-where the kittens are." Serena discreetly nodded with her head and looked in the direction of the woods behind the house, her heart pounding. "They don't use it 'cept to store junk. You take the next gravel road to the east off the main road."

He rubbed the back of his neck. "Won't they see my truck from their house?"

Serena shook her head. "No, if you see the drive to their house, you gone too far. You want the first drive-you'll see the old barn down next to the trees. It's my secret hiding place. Just takes me a few minutes through the woods. Pa always goes along the creek, so I don't think he'd ever come round the barn."

"Tomorrow?"

"I might could come over there after lunch, like 'round two? I can't say for true, but if Pa takes off in the afternoon, I'll be there. I got to be back to fix supper, for sure."

Darrell leaned in so close she felt his warmth. "Do you know how much I want to kiss you now?" he whispered. "I don't think your pa would approve though."

Serena blushed, and a warm shiver went through her. No boy had ever said anything like that to her in her whole life.

He smiled and climbed in his truck. After starting the engine, he leaned out of the window and spoke softly, "See you tomorrow, I hope. I'll stay there for a while after two. I miss you already."

Coy was sitting in one of the rusty chairs frowning when Serena climbed the rickety stairs back to the porch.

"That boy's bad news, and I don't want him round here no more."

"No, Pa. He's nice, and it was so good to talk to someone my own age for a change. I-"

"You heard me." Coy scowled at Serena. "That no-count boy won't bring nothin' but grief down our dead-end road."

"Please, don't say I can't never see him. I like him." She started to cry. "You had Ma for a long time. I ain't never had nobody."

Her pa looked disgusted as he stomped off into the house.

***

The next morning Serena woke with mixed feelings. She was excited at the prospect of meeting Darrell. They'd be in a place where they could talk away from the prying eyes and ears of her pa. Talking was one thing, but kissing was another. She'd never had a boyfriend before, and it was scary. Serena imagined what it would be like. Was it wrong to want him to kiss her when she only just met him two days ago? How should she act? What would she say?

Two things she knew for sure. If Pa found out, there would be hell to pay. And if she waited for him to approve, she'd spend the rest of her life keeping house for her pa, and never have a home or family of her own. Serena had tried to be content, but she wanted more, and there was no way her pa was going to change.

She once asked Miss Phoebe if she thought her pa would ever be different-would ever get over her ma's death.

"I don't expect he will, at least not much," the older woman had said. "Your pa was broken before you were born, well before your ma died, back when your grandpa disowned him. That was long before I knew him. He healed some with your mama's love, but the place that broke got hard and brittle. He can't bend no more."

As Serena drew water for the kitchen that morning, she set her jaw and shook her head slowly. She wasn't going to let her pa ruin her chance for happiness.

She stewed a rabbit and made dumplings for their noon meal, but she was too nervous to eat more than a few bites. As her pa ate a slice of pecan pie, she thought about Darrell, and how wonderful it had been to talk with him, recalling his fascinating blue eyes. She relived the moment over and over when he said he wanted to kiss her.

Afraid her pa might suspect she wanted him to be gone, Serena didn't ask what he was going to do afterwards. While she washed the dishes and watched her pa cut wood from the window, a knot grew tight in her stomach.

She put on beans that had soaked all night on the stove, and turned the fire on under them. She cut up some salt pork, added it to the beans, and turned the flame down to a low simmer. Her pa still hadn't left by nearly two. Serena pictured Darrell waiting for her, as she stood by the window, worried that he'd give up and leave.

Coy finally called Jake and took off with his gun. She knew she'd have at least two hours before he'd be back. Serena cut a wedge of pecan pie, feeling defiant, and wrapped it in a clean dish rag, then ran toward the trees.

The smell of pine surrounded her as she hurried through the cool woods toward the barn. Serena could hardly breathe, hoping Darrell would still be there. She was a jumble of emotions-excitement, fear and longing.

Darrell was at the barn waiting, looking for her through a large gap in the weathered boards. He stepped through the breach when he saw her, smiling as he held a gray striped kitten.

Serena ran the last few steps, breathless when she reached him. She stroked the kitten, touching Darrell's hand as she did. "I see you found them."

"Yeah, I've been here for twenty minutes or so, playing with them. I don't know where their ma went. She ran off soon as I came."

"Oh, she's watching you from somewhere. She's always been skittish, but you can be sure she's got her eyes on them babies."

"I've been on pins and needles wondering if you would come," Darrell said. "How long do you think we have?"

"At least an hour," she said, as they both squeezed through the gap into the dimly lit barn. The expanse was cluttered with broken down farm equipment, and other rusty machinery.

"Let's sit over there," Darrell said, pointing to an old flat bed trailer propped on a pile of rotting lumber.

He put the kitten on the ground and lifted Serena up, jumping up beside her with his feet barely touching the dirt floor.

"Here, I brought you a piece of the pecan pie," she said, handing him the pie wrapped in a rag. "You can save it for later if you want. It may be a really long time fore I make Pa another one."

Darrell chuckled and took it. "Thanks." He placed it beside him and turned to Serena. Her hand tingled when he took hold of it and said, "So, tell me what you did this morning. I love to hear you talk."

The hour flew by as they discussed inconsequential things, Serena's entire body came alive as they sat with their legs touching, and she wondered if he was going to kiss her the way he said he wanted to last night.

Time was getting away, though, and she finally said, "I got beans on the stove for supper tonight. I better go now." She jumped to her feet and dusted dirt from the seat of her jeans, "I best clean up a bit before he gets back too."

"Can we meet here again," Darrell asked, "Maybe the day after tomorrow?" They walked to the hole in the barn holding hands. "I've got a job interview in Shikopa tomorrow, but I've got to know I can see you again. Do you think you might come?"

Serena said, "Yes," feeling light-headed as she looked into his soft blue eyes. "Yes."

He enveloped her in an embrace. Nothing she'd experienced had ever felt quite so good-so right-as being wrapped in Darrell's arms. He kissed her, his lips soft and gentle. Her knees went weak and she felt a warm shiver all over as he held her close to his body. This was worth the risk of the dangerous game they were playing.

They kissed again, and gazed into each other's eyes. She wanted to stay forever-to kiss him again and again, to feel his warm body next to hers-his arms around her. It had been the most magical hour Serena had ever spent. But she finally said, "I gotta go. I got cornbread to make. I'll try to be here day after tomorrow."

And so began the month of sneaking to see each other in Tillman's abandoned barn three or four times a week.

The first three weeks, they mostly talked, got to know each other, and became closer than Serena thought possible. He told her about his mother, a gentle woman who raised prize-winning roses; his father, who worked for a lumber company; and his older brother, John, who was in the Army. Serena got close to tears when she told him about her ma, Hattie.

"You would have loved her. Everybody did. She was so kind, the best cook ever, and she did the most perfect beadwork you ever saw. She was going to teach me, but she got too sick. I might try to learn someday if I can get me a book that tells how. I seen one about embroidery at the school library, so maybe there's one on beadwork."

"I wish I could give you everything you want, Serena," Darrell said, holding her. "You are the best person I know, and all wrapped up in the most beautiful girl I've ever seen. I spend all the time we are apart wanting to be with you again. I want us to be together forever."

Darrell's kisses were blissful, and she relived the memories during the hours they were apart. The couple made plans for a life together. "Far away from the valley," Serena implored. "There's nothing here but rocky soil and living in the past since Ma died. Besides, Pa will be mad as damnation when I leave. He won't have no one to keep his house."

When their desires could no longer be contained, the young couple became lovers. Serena knew they were doing wrong, but was powerless to stop. When she was with Darrell, he had a way of making it feel right.

"Don't worry, Serena. We're in love, and we'll get married, I promise. Besides, in a way, we are already married. We've made our promises to each other. The rest is just a piece of paper.

One November afternoon when the young lovers were lying together in their secret meeting place, a shot rang out and echoed in the big barn. They looked up to see Coy standing a few feet away from them with a squirrel rifle and his dog beside him.

"I suspected as much," Coy said, nostrils flaring.

Serena's heart nearly stopped. She froze, unable to speak. Darrell zipped up his jeans and stumbled to his feet as Serena covered herself and reached toward him.

Coy motioned with his gun toward the half opened barn door, his eyes wild. "Get! And stay away from my girl, you hear?"

"I'll come back for you, Serena," Darrell said as he backed away, staring down the barrel of the rifle. The hound bared his teeth and growled as the boy added, "Soon as I find work, I'll come back."

Serena's pa cocked the gun and took aim. "I better not ever see your sorry ass around here again. Now get outa here! If I shoot a second time, I ain't gonna be missing." He sicced Jake on the shaken Darrell, who turned to run with the dog nipping at his heels.

She heard an engine roar, and tires skidding on gravel as he sped away, the hound barking after him.

"Get up the house now," he yelled at Serena. "You're lucky I didn't kill the both of you."

Serena ran back through the woods to the house, shaking uncontrollably. Darrell, her love and hope for a future, had been ripped away. Her pa had never been that mad before. She didn't know what to expect.

She almost wished he had beat her and been done with it. Instead he seethed in stony silence for days, speaking only a word or two through gritted teeth, his eyes as cold as winter. She could hardly eat or rest, and paced the floor like a caged animal.

After a week of unbearable silence, Serena couldn't take it any longer. "Please Papa, talk to me," she begged after finishing another meal without a word. "I know we done wrong but we love each other. Darrell is a nice boy. Really he is. You don't know him. We want to get married." She pressed a curled knuckle against her lip. "Please say something. I can't stand it no more."

He pounded his fist down on the table, "You ignorant whore! You think that boy would give you a second look if he wasn't screwing you? Your ma would be too ashamed to look at you, girl."

"That's not true. Darrell loves me," she said with tears streaming down her cheeks. "He's the only good thing that ever happened to me since Ma died."

Coy grabbed his rifle out of the corner of the kitchen, and stormed out of the door, walking off toward the woods with Jake following behind.

Serena cried for days, and would have left if she knew where to find Darrell, and had any way to get there.

She hoped he would write, but no letters came to her. If she had been allowed to go to the mailbox herself, she would know for sure, but the mail always came when she was cooking the noon meal, and Pa didn't trust her to go anywhere-not now.

Letters or not, nothing Coy said or did that autumn changed the way she felt about Darrell. It only deepened her anger at her pa for spoiling her chance for happiness.

Nothing could change, either, the fact that a life had begun to grow in Serena's belly. It was the new year, three months since she'd seen Darrell, when she suspected she might be pregnant after she missed her monthly flow twice. She remembered one of the older girls at school had said she knew she was going to have a baby because her periods stopped. She'd known nothing about such things, until her mother explained it. Serena was frightened, confused, and had never felt so alone.

Serena had trouble sleeping and at times she couldn't catch her breath. Certain she was being punished by God, she prayed and read her Bible several times a day.

January was wet and cold and the roads, bad; she didn't see the Tillmans until the first Sunday of February when they came to pick her up for church. She was too ashamed to go, and told them she was feeling sickly.

"Come over when you feel up to it, Serena," Miss Phoebe said before they left. "It's been way too long since we talked. I been missing you."

Serena promised she would but what she really wanted was her ma. She wanted her soft soothing voice. Her ma would know what she should do. She would hug Serena and tell her everything would be alright.

***

"What am I gonna do, Mama?" Serena cried on her mother's grave one cold afternoon. "Everybody is gonna know I done wrong. I don't know what Pa will do, but he won't never forgive me; I know that." She surrendered to sobs that shook her whole body, and lay on the mound long enough to melt the layer of snow beneath her. "I know I promised, but I can't stay and take care of pa. I love Darrell so much, Mama. I can't never be happy without him. I wanna go when he comes back for me. I just can't keep my promise."

The next week when Coy was off checking on his cattle, Serena walked through the snowy woods to take an apple pie over to Phoebe Tillman.

"Serena! I just been thinking about you." Miss Phoebe's face lit up and she hurried to open the back door. "Come in here, child."

"The chickens is just about done laying till spring." Serena said as she handed her the gift. "So I brought pie to you and the Mister instead of eggs. Thought I might as well make two since I was making one for Pa."

"Mmm, that smells so good." Miss Phoebe took the pie. "You know we both got a sweet tooth. Thank you." She tilted her head and added. "You look pale, Serena. You still feeling poorly?"

Serena started to cry, holding her hand over her mouth.

The older woman took her into her arms. "Oh, Sweetheart. What's wrong?"

Serena broke down and it all spilled out. "I don't know what to do. I think I'm going to have a baby. I feel so ashamed. I been praying and praying, but there ain't no way to make it right."

She told Miss Phoebe about Darrell, about Coy chasing him off with a gun and telling him never to come back. About how much she loved Darrell and how angry her pa was.

"What's done is done, child. God's not looking back." She sat holding Serena's hand at the kitchen table. "What happens now is what's important."

"Darrell is coming for me when he gets a job."

"I hope he finds one soon. Does he write you, Serena?"

"The letters don't get to me if he does," she said, "but Darrell loves me, and I know he's coming for me. "

"I hope he does, Serena. God knows you deserve some happiness in this life."

"He will. There just ain't no jobs around and it's taking a long time." She took a shuddering breath. "You know I promised Ma I would take care of Pa. I wanna do what Ma wanted but I love Darrell."

"Hattie loves you and wants what is best for you. She's watching you from somewhere, wanting you to be happy."

"But what if I can't be happy and keep my promise too? Do you think she won't blame me for going with Darrell?"

"Your ma would understand. Mamas can't be happy if their children ain't. It's just the way God made us. All good mamas do what's best for their children-and that is what you will do for your baby. No matter if it means leaving your pa someday." Miss Phoebe lowered her eyebrows. "Does your pa know yet?"

"No, but I can't keep it from him much longer. My belly is getting round."

"Do you want me to come with you when you tell him?"

"He'd be even madder at me that I told you."

"Well, I'm over here anytime you need me-to take you to town, or to talk-even take you in for a few days. Whatever you need. And I can be a grandma to your baby." She looked in Serena's eyes with a sad smile. "Until your young man comes."

Serena tried to gather the courage to tell her pa that night at supper. All afternoon, she had steeled herself for his reaction. Rehearsing what she could say, she mixed eggs and flour and rolled out noodles for a meal she hoped would put him in a good mood. As she dropped the noodles a few at a time into simmering broth and chicken, she said aloud to an empty kitchen, "Pa, I need to tell you something important." Yes, that would be the way to begin. He wouldn't take it well, but what would he do? Whatever it was, there was no way to avoid it for much longer.

She trembled as she put the chicken and noodles on the table along with green beans she'd canned in August and fresh bread. Her pa didn't notice her demeanor, but looked pleased at the meal when he sat down. There was even a hint of a smile as he breathed in the aroma of fresh baked bread.

Sitting down across from her pa, Serena said a silent prayer, handed the bowl of chicken and noodles to him, and said, "I thought we'd eat the meanest old hen first. Too tough to fry, but stewed up nice." She would wait before she told him. Her pa could be hot-tempered on an empty stomach.

He had almost finished his second helping of chicken and noodles when he noticed Serena had hardly touched her meal. "You not hungry?"

"Not really." It was time to tell him. She swallowed hard and said, "Pa-"

"What?"

She couldn't say the words-she just couldn't. "Would you pass the salt please." He was in a rare good mood. It would be a peaceful evening if she waited. She would tell him tomorrow.

But the time never seemed right. Eventually it was obvious to even Coy. Several days later as she was cleaning up the kitchen after supper, Coy eyed her bulging belly and said in a taut voice, "When was you going to tell me?"

Serena looked at him with fear in her eyes, her shoulders tight. "I'm sorry, Pa. I didn't know how to tell-"

Coy stood abruptly, banged his fist on the table. "I knowed it! I shoulda' shot that son-of-a-bitch the first time I laid eyes on him."

"Pa, I love Darrell, and he is coming back for me. We want to get married."

"You're a damned fool!" He shook his head in disgust, and stomped to the door, slamming it behind him.

Serena watched him from the window as he went to the wood pile and started chopping wood. He piled up a half cord of firewood before he stopped when the light failed.

By the time he came in, he'd worked off the worst of his anger. What was left was directed mostly to Darrell Wilkerson.

"I seen boys like that all my life," he said to Serena, "taking whatever they can get from any stupid girl willing to spread her legs. Now I'm gonna have his brat underfoot."

It was hard to tell what made him angrier-that Darrell had sullied his daughter, or that he would be the one responsible for supporting the child born of the boy's reckless seed. In the days that followed, he often implied that Darrell had run off rather than face his responsibilities. She knew it wasn't true, but it hurt more than any name he might have called her.

Miss Phoebe came by several times to check on Serena, and took her to town to visit the doctor when the baby got big. She arranged for a midwife who lived a couple farms to the north to attend when the time came, and coaxed a resentful promise from Coy to let her know when Serena went into labor.

If Serena's faith in Darrell wavered during the months of her pregnancy, they were momentary doubts. He would return for her-he had to. Darrell loved her and had promised they would be together, even though he didn't know about the child. He would marry her and then she wouldn't have to be ashamed. His last words echoed in her memory: "Soon as I find work, I'll come back."

It became harder to believe after the birth of their beautiful baby girl the following August. Darrell should have come already.

She found some solace from her heartbreak in the love she felt for their child. Serena swelled with wonder when she looked in the face of her baby girl. She named her little miracle Hattie Rose, after her ma-and the roses Darrell's ma loved. Serena held her at every opportunity, touching her, singing to her-telling her stories just for the joy of it. She never imagined the depth of the devotion she would feel. How she wished her ma was still alive-to hold, to love, their little Hattie Rose. Had her ma felt the same about her? It must have hurt her terribly to know she had to leave Serena behind.

Miss Phoebe went overboard in supplying things the baby would need. She brought over a large basket filled with diapers, baby blankets, several articles of clothing. Even a rattle.

"Oh, Miss Phoebe, you are so kind, so generous," Serena said, hugging her. "You knew I hated to ask pa for too much."

"It's my pleasure, dear. I want Hattie to have what she needs without upsetting your pa."

She stayed to hold the baby for more than an hour. "Really takes me back," she said with a smile. "It's been a good many years since I cuddled a little one."

Coy's attitude mellowed only slightly with the arrival of his granddaughter. One morning as the baby blew spit bubbles and kicked happily in the basket where she was lying, Serena saw her pa reach down and touch the baby's foot, calling her by name. When he saw Serena watching, he turned abruptly away. It was the only time she saw any tenderness from him toward the child.

The worst of his anger went underground, adding another layer of resentment to his perpetually sour mood. Serena was glad when her pa began to spend even more time along Slaughter Creek. At least for a few hours she could relax and pretend she was keeping house for Darrell.

When her pa returned, though, it was always the same. She was used to her pa's foul temper, but she couldn't bear his complaints that there would be another mouth to feed. Serena did everything she could to placate him. She cleaned the house meticulously, baked his favorite apple pies, gathered blackberries and put up preserves the way her ma did. She fried his meat the way he liked it and cooked all his favorite foods, but nothing she did to earn her and the baby's keep had any effect on Coy's disposition.

One evening after supper when Hattie Rose was six weeks old, Coy growled his disgust at the diapers and blankets crowding the small closet. The next afternoon while Coy was fishing at the creek, Serena decided to give the closet a good cleaning. As she stood on a stool to declutter the shelf at the top, she came across an old letter.

The letter, still sealed, was addressed to Silas Farley at the farm. He was the grandfather she never knew. The sender was Coy Farley with a return address someplace in Shikopa. Across the envelope was stamped in bold red ink return to sender.

Serena stared at the letter that had been returned unopened, wondering if she dared to look inside. The postmark date was before she was born. She hesitated, but curiosity got the best of her. She carefully unsealed the envelope, accidentally tearing the tip of the corner.

Drawing out the paper slowly, she sat on the stool and unfolded the letter. The message was written in his labored hand.

Pa, if you are heering this I no it is cause you let Ma read it to you. thanx fer that. You got to know how hard it is for me to rite this-but Pa-I got no one ells. I cant find reglar work here in Shikopa, and I'm desprat. Hattie is espectin a baby, and we got no monny for food. I knowed you was powerfull mad at me for maryin up with Hattie. But if you giver a chans you wood see shes a good persun. Shes a hard worker to. I love her, Pa, and Im beggin you. Please let me com back to the farm with Hattie. You always sed there aint nothin more importont than famly. Hattie is famly now, Pa, and the baby thats comin. Please Pa. Let us come home. Your son, Coy.

Serena was stunned. Did the young man who wrote those words still live inside her pa? Tears swelled in her eyes, realizing Pa had loved once-and been hurt badly. He gave up so much to be with Ma. He must have felt robbed and abandoned.

She folded the letter and carefully placed it back into the envelope, sealed it with flour paste, smoothing out the torn corner, and put it back where she found it.

As she went about her work the rest of the afternoon, she tried to make sense of it all. If those feelings were buried away inside her pa, he never let on. She remembered what her ma had said about her grandpa, how some people hang on to a wrong their whole life. She might just as well been talking about Pa.

Serena knew the truth now and cast sideways glances at her pa that evening, searching for the young man he once was. Was he still there? Might her pa someday change? Her heart ached as the reality of the situation slowly sank in. Her Pa wasn't going to soften because the one time he did, he was disowned. When her ma was gone, his reason for feeling was ripped away from him, leaving him calloused. The softness only taught him to be harder. He didn't know any other way to be now. Something inside him would break if he tried to bend. She strained to imagine him holding Hattie Rose, smiling, playing with her, enjoying it. The image would not be beckoned. She and the baby could never be happy under his roof. Promise or not, how could she raise their child in her pa's house?

***

Serena refused to give up the dream that Darrell would come. It was the thread that kept her hanging on through the harsh days of servitude to a master who was never appeased. She often felt like a prisoner. Her pa hadn't even let her collect the mail in the last year. She wanted more for Hattie Rose than the bitterness of a life on that dead-end road. She wanted more for herself. She wanted Darrell. She lay in bed at night and tried to conjure up an image of what life with Darrell would be like, living with a man who loved her and her baby, a man who did not resent their existence. It had been a year since he had made the promises, though, and his face was beginning to fade from her memory.

Still, Serena's heart quickened whenever she heard the crunch of gravel under tires on the road. Maybe this time it would be Darrell coming back like he promised.

Serena stood at the clothesline with a diaper in one hand and a clothespin in the other with her attention trained to the road. She squinted to see the figure in the strange vehicle as it slowed to a crawl and turned into the long driveway. The truck rolled to a stop closer to the road than the house, but the door remained closed for a time. When it finally opened, a man in uniform got out. Serena dropped the clothespin. It was Darrell Wilkerson, looking older and taller than she remembered.

Serena ran to him as he walked up the hill toward her. He stretched out his arms as she neared, and they held each other and kissed with all the passion of the day they parted.

"I was afraid you wouldn't want to see me again," he said holding her close to his chest. "When you didn't answer my letters, I didn't know what to think. I thought maybe your pa might have-"

"Letters?" Serena pulled back and looked into Darrell's eyes. "I didn't get no letters-not a one."

"I wrote almost every day for weeks," he said.

Tears filled Serena's eyes. "He told me you didn't love me, that you forgot all about me. He knew all along it wasn't true."

Darrell's face reddened. "I should have figured. In fact, it did cross my mind. I knew your pa hated me, but you have some rights." He took two long deep breaths, his jaw tightening. "And he let you spend all this time wondering about me. That's just-"

"It's okay. You're here now," she said holding onto him tight. "It don't matter anymore. Everything is going to be okay now that you're here."

Darrell wiped a tear from Serena's cheek, a pained look on his face. "I'm sorry I'm so late coming for you. When I couldn't find a job I finally joined the army. I wrote you about it. I just got out of boot camp in Fort Jackson, South Carolina; and I'm on leave for two weeks." He looked toward the house. "Your pa's gone, isn't he?"

"He's off hunting with Jake down at the creek," Serena said, smiling through tears that would not stop. "I don't expect he'll be back for a while." She kissed him again and said, "I just knew you'd come."

"I knew I was taking a big chance to show up like this-your pa chasing me off like he did. I doubt that it would make a difference to him that I got a job, but it's important to me. Now I feel like I got a right to take you with me. I felt better when I didn't see his dog around." His words came in a rush. "I'll be stationed in South Carolina for now. I won't earn much-but we can make it. I couldn't wait any longer."

He glanced toward the woods. "Do you think we can gather your things together and get away before he gets back?"

Before she could answer, Darrell froze in place when a sound came from behind him. He slowly looked over his shoulder.

Serena pointed to the large basket under the clothes line where their tiny daughter lay snuggled in a blanket. "Don't worry, that's not Pa."

The baby made another bubbling sound and then a louder "aah."

Darrell appeared confused. A moment or two passed before his expression turned to astonishment. He looked at Serena, wide eyed, stunned. "Do you mean?"

"Yes," Serena bit her bottom lip, waiting for a reaction.

Darrell slowly shook his head, and touched his throat. "Mine?"

"I know you didn't count on having no baby. She's a good baby, though. Don't hardly ever cry. You're gonna love her. You'll see."

Darrell walked over to the basket and knelt down beside it. When he reached to touch the infant's hand, she wrapped her fingers tightly around his thumb and gurgled. Darrell looked up at Serena and said, "She's beautiful. I love her already." His face brightened into a big grin.

"Her name is Hattie Rose, after Ma and your mama's roses."

Darrell looked up. "She's got my mom's eyes-my eyes. Oh, Serena," Darrell said, standing. He pulled Serena close to him. "I'm so sorry you had to go through that all alone. I had no idea."

"I didn't either, not for a while."

"What did your pa do when he found out?" He lowered his head, squeezing his eyes shut. "Oh, God. I should have been here."

"Pa was pretty mad at me, at you. At the world. But it was better after she was born-a little better."

"Oh, Serena, and you were all alone." His voice cracked.

"I wasn't completely alone. Miss Phoebe's been awful good to me, and she loves the baby."

"I'm glad you had somebody." He ran his fingers through her black hair, and said, "I missed you every day. You know, when I didn't hear from you for all those months, I wasn't sure if you wanted to see me again."

"That's all I wanted. I missed you every day too. I just been waiting."

Darrell put his hand on her cheek and caressed it. "I remember looking down the barrel of that gun-how frightened I was." He swallowed and hesitated. "What I mean is, I ran like a coward. I shook for two days, and I was ashamed of myself. I would have understood if you thought the same thing about me."

"Pa was so angry he might of killed you. I'm glad you ran; you had to."

"Well, I'm not running anymore. I've done a lot of growing up in the last few months, and I'm here to take you with me this time, whether your pa likes it or not." He laughed, "Who knew I'd be taking two girls back to Fort Jackson." Darrell rubbed the back of his neck. "I don't mean to rush you, but it sure would be easier, if we could go before your pa gets back."

Serena bit her lip, lowered her head, and said, "I can't leave like that, Darrell. Pa acts like he don't care 'bout us, but deep down, I think he does. Family means a lot to him, even if he can't show it. When I leave, he won't have nobody. I wouldn't want to leave without saying goodbye at least."

Darrell frowned, "but wouldn't it be better to-"

"I just got to say goodbye. Let me stay to cook one last meal for Pa." She raised her eyebrows. "I got some squirrel to fry up, and I already made a blackberry cobbler this morning. It's gonna be okay, you'll see."

"You sure it's not going to get ugly?"

"Pa won't shoot his granddaughter's pa." Serena hung the last three diapers on the line, and added, "Pa's got to know he done wrong to hide your letters. He's not gonna be pointing his gun at nobody this time. I know you don't have no way of knowin' that, but I do."

"I'm not running this time even if he points that rifle at me again."

Her face lit up. "I've got an idea. I really would like you to meet Miss Phoebe, and so's I have time to say a proper good-bye. Can we invite her and the Mister for supper? I never got to do that before. With good Christian people here, Pa won't try nothing for sure."

Serena gathered the baby up and they drove the five minutes over to the Tillman place.

"Let me guess," Miss Phoebe said when she met them as they walked up to the house. "This is our little Hattie's daddy?"

Her eyes teared up when Serena introduced Darrell, and she hugged them both. "I never been so happy and sad at the same time," she said. "I guess you come to say good-bye?"

"Well, yes, and no. Can you and the Mister come for supper? Pa ain't home yet, and I'm not sure how he is going to take me leaving. But he'll be civil with y'all there. I didn't never get to cook for you, and you been so good to me."

"We'll be over there just as soon as the Mister cleans up and puts on a proper shirt. He's been working in the garden. I'd love to share a meal with you. It will be like your Ma is there with us again."

When Darrell and Serena got back home, they packed her and the baby's things and had most of them waiting next to the door within fifteen minutes.

The table was set for five in her ma's best dishes, and Serena was frying a mess of squirrel and green tomatoes when Coy, holding his rifle, came walking up the hill from the woods with Jake. The Tillmans pulled to a stop in their pickup at the same time. They got out and watched silently.

Coy stopped walking, eyed them, frowning as the dog barked at his neighbors, running to within a few feet of them.

Darrell, who had been helping in the kitchen, walked out on the porch when he heard the commotion. He put his shaking hands in his pockets and waited.

The dog turned his attention to Darrell, bared his teeth, and growled long and deep. "Hush, Jake," Coy hollered to the dog. Jake put his tail between his legs, sulked a few feet away, and continued to stare at Darrell.

Coy nodded at the Tillmans and looked at Darrell on the porch. After a few moments he continued walking, and when he got to the porch, he said to Darrell, "I suppose you come for them?"

"Yes, sir," Darrell said, looking square into Coy's eyes. "We mean to leave after supper. Serena wanted to wait and say goodbye. We'll be married as soon as we can find a justice of the peace."

Coy grunted, he turned to look at the neighbors still standing by their truck as Serena opened the screen door and came out, wiping her hands on her apron. "Pa, I invited Miss Phoebe and her Mister for supper. They been so kind to me, and I wanted them to be here."

Mr. Tillman led the way, and extended his hand. "Good to see you, Coy. It's been a month of Sundays."

There were no threats and little conversation as the men went into the house. Serena looked at her pa's face when he came in and sat down in the small sitting room off the kitchen with Mister Tillman. She was relieved that there wasn't going to be a scene. It was all there in his pa's eyes-he knew it was over. Serena hurt for him; he was losing the last of his family-his world-and couldn't bring himself to show nothing of what he was feeling.

Serena served the squirrel and fried green tomatoes, barely looking at her pa. The conversation between the men was stilted and awkward during supper. Coy hardly said a word.

"You're just as good a cook as your mama was," Miss Phoebe said to Serena as they ate the cobbler. She took a deep breath. "I sure am going to miss you and that sweet baby."

"Thank you for being such a good friend to Serena while I was trying to find a job," Darrell said to Miss Phoebe. "I wish I had known your address. I might could have sent my letters to Serena through you, instead."

Everyone's eyes went to Coy. He didn't look up, but took another bite of the cobbler.

Miss Phoebe helped wash the dishes, and the two older men went outside on the porch and sat. Serena didn't hear them talk. They just picked their teeth, looking at the sun sink low in the sky.

Darrell stayed in the house and played with the baby as the women cleaned up the kitchen.

"We can stay the night with my parents in Shikopa before we drive back east, Serena. They are expecting us. Hattie Rose is going to be a surprise, of course, but knowing my mom, she will be tickled pink."

Coy came back into the kitchen and said to Serena, "If you can scare up a basket for your ma's dishes, you might as well take 'em with you. I ain't got no use for 'em now."

Serena stared at her pa. "Thank you, Papa. I'd love to have'em."

After her ma's dishes were packed in an apple basket, the two women gathered the dried diapers off the clothes line and a few last minute things, and stuffed them into a pillow slip.

The Tillmans said their good-byes, and Serena promised to write when she could. She waved as they got in their vehicle, and drove toward the road.

Serena picked up the baby. "I guess we'll be going now, Pa. Is there anything you want to say before we leave."

"I don't know what that would be." Coy frowned.

She looked at her pa, tears coming to her eyes. "You know I always loved you even when you treated me bad."

Coy grunted again. With a hard look that revealed nothing of what he was feeling, he helped Serena carry some of the last-minute things she had hurriedly packed to the porch.

"How could you keep his letters from me, Pa?" Serena said while Darrell was at the truck arranging things. "You knew he loved me. How could you?"

"Love don't keep trouble away," he said as if that settled the matter.

When Darrell came back for the last of her things, Coy met his eyes. "Where do you mean to take them?"

"Back east to Fort Jackson, sir," Darrell answered. "That's in South Carolina. I'll be good to them; I can promise you that. And we'll always let you know where we are."

Coy handed Darrell the final box and said, "I'll appreciate that."

Before the sun set through the pine trees to the west, Darrell was backing out of the driveway taking Serena and the baby out of the valley while Coy watched from the porch. They didn't hear him say to the redbone hound, "I knowed that boy was bad news from the get go. Ain't no good news ever come down that dead-end road."

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