When the Circus Lights Down

The circus landed in late October. It was a Tuesday night, near midnight, and I should have been asleep.  I had been asleep, actually, on the couch that served as my bed, but then the rain started. Not a gentle autumn rain like we’d been getting off and on for the last week. Sharp, slanted rain that would rip the last brilliant leaves from the sycamores lining the street; the kind that drenched the floor under the window before I was awake enough to register what was happening. I tripped over a roller skate in the dark. Groped in the hamper for a towel, but ended up grabbing a bunch of dirty clothes to dry the floor. I couldn’t afford to lose the security deposit if the apartment got damaged.

I saw the circus then. It was only beginning to fall.

“Annie, come quickly,” I called, without looking away. I should have gone to the other room to make sure Annie woke, so she could see, too, but I didn’t move. It was falling hard and quickly now; if I stepped away, I might miss the rest. The graceful big top, her skirts billowing, even in the rain.  Smaller tents like satellites, pinwheeling around the big top, intent on their own orbits. The small ones skittered when they hit the ground, vying for space. The big top landed solid and square, absorbing the impact through her walls. I felt the thump of it even all these blocks away and four stories up. It called to me, as it had every time before.

I started filling the tub, then rummaged in the linen closet for the flashlights. “That damned circus comes, people forget to do their jobs,” I remembered my mother saying as she turned on the taps for the bath the last time the circus arrived, when I was eighteen. “Better safe than sorry.”

I didn’t have a basement for keeping canned goods and water jugs the way my mother did, but I tried to keep my pantry stocked and my batteries fresh, just in case. It had been a long, long just in case. Almost nine years. The math was easy enough: Annie’s age plus nine months.

Annie wandered from the bedroom, rubbing sleep from her eyes. “Mom, what are you doing?”

“The circus is here. I’m getting ready, like we did in the big snowstorm last winter when we thought we might lose power.”

“The circus? The real one?” Annie had only ever been to the imitations, the cheap carnivals and sideshows that arrived by railcar or caravan and charged for everything as if to prove they had value.

“The real one, baby. Look out the window.”

I followed her over. She plowed straight into the wet laundry on the floor and took a step back into me. “Yuck. Why are there clothes all—oh.”

The tents were still huddling against the rain, but some were trying to light, sparking intermittently like fireflies.

“Can we go?”

Others had noticed, too. A steady stream of people already flowed down the hill toward the fairgrounds. None had umbrellas, despite the rain.

“Tomorrow, baby.  It won’t open til tomorrow, so let’s get some sleep.”

“Those people are going now.”

“Look at them, honey. Those people forgot to put their shoes on. I know it’s exciting—I’m excited too—but the circus came a long way. It’s tired, and there won’t be anything more to see tonight. I promise.”

I tucked Annie back in, though I doubted she’d sleep. Then I went back to the window. I probably wouldn’t get much sleep either.

I was only six the first time the circus came in my lifetime.

“Do I get to go with them?” I asked my mother. I had heard the stories.

“No. I need you here. And you’re too young,” Mom said. “I’d miss you.”

She was rolling dough for thumbprint cookies. She had flour in her hair from smoothing a flyaway back into place. Something was a little different about her than usual, besides the white streak. She was moving like she was underwater.

“I’d miss you too.”

I meant it, but it was frustrating having the only person who hated the circus for a mother.  Everyone else’s parents took them on the first day, and the second, and the third. They talked about it in school on the fourth day, when school reopened, and I had to pretend I had gone because nobody believed me when I said I hadn’t. I didn’t get to go until the school field trip in the second week. My mother didn’t even want to sign the permission slip then, but I didn’t throw a tantrum. I sat at the kitchen counter, silent tears leaking into my dinner, and my mother finally sighed and picked up the form.

“But don’t you dare stay,” she said.

The whole school went for the field trip, my first ever. We took school buses, which was fun since I lived too close to school to ride in one normally. There were no seatbelts, and you were supposed to sit in the seat properly, but the others must not have heard that instruction, because they were all laughing and standing and climbing over the seats. I wasn’t tall enough to see out while sitting, so I looked at the sky. Sky, sky, tree, sky, cloud, sky. Then we went under a gateway, a momentary darkening that interrupted the sky–tree–cloud pattern, and the bus stopped.

A teacher at the front said, “Okay, everybody, we’re here. Remember to follow all our instructions. The person sitting next to you right now will be your buddy for the rest of the trip. You do everything with them.”

I was sitting alone in a row, so I guessed that meant I didn’t have a buddy. The teacher had said, “follow all our instructions,” and hadn’t said to stop sitting yet, so I waited while the other students filed out with their buddies. I had played “Simon Says” and “Chase the Barker”; if you didn’t do it right the way they said, you lost the game. I waited for someone to release me, for someone to say it was okay, we’d be buddies, I could leave my seat, but nobody did. I waited. I listened to the bus driver eat his lunch, then snore.  The circus whispered to me, begged me to come, but I ignored it. I shifted in the seat and looked up at the sky and tried not to think about how badly I needed to pee. It was only when I couldn’t hold it anymore that I approached the bus driver: shamefully, guiltily, knowing that in standing up I was going against the instructions, losing the game.

I scared the bus driver.  I could tell because I made him swear.

“What the fuck?” he asked. Then “fuck,” when I explained. I had only heard that word once before, but I knew he wasn’t supposed to say it in front of me.

I waited to see if I was in trouble, but the driver and, a short while later, the teachers, were mostly concerned I not tell anybody what had happened. They loaded everyone back onto the bus, made a show of counting. Everybody else talked the whole way back about things they had seen:  a magician who pulled herself out of a hat while wearing it, a horse the size of an elephant, a tent that opened into a cave on Mars.

The school had to call my mother to come get me.

“How was the circus?” she asked as if she hadn’t forgotten to pick me up.

The teacher had said not to tell anybody, so I shrugged.

My mother smiled and kissed my head. “You’re such a good girl. It’s not worth the fuss.”

The morning after the circus’s arrival, I walked Annie to school. The rain had left the trees naked and the gutters clogged with leaves. Our neighborhood was mostly plain three– and four–story cement and brick apartment buildings like ours. They all looked like dogs that had been left out in the rain.

“But I want to go to the circus,” Annie said, leaping a puddle. “You promised.”

“After school, baby. School comes first, and I have to go to work.”

School didn’t come first. A sign on the door said, “Closed for electrical emergency.” I peered through the small window. The lights were on inside, but the halls were empty. No repair trucks outside. I sighed. This was how it started. There weren’t even any other families walking up, or school buses unloading. I was the only one who had made the effort.

I couldn’t be late for work. “What am I going to do with you?”

“You can leave me at the circus,” Annie said. “I’ll be good.”

“That’s not going to happen, kid.”

I tried calling Janine from work, to ask if Janine’s husband would watch Annie along with their own baby, but nobody answered.

Out of options, I called my mother. “Can you watch Annie? School is closed and I’ve got to get to work.”

“Why is school closed?” The voice on the other end was groggy, pushing through pills.

“The sign says ‘electrical emergency’ but the circus landed last night. There’s nobody here at all.”

“The circus? After all this time? Hang on.” Footsteps echoed in the hallway on the other end of the line, then the sound of water rushing through pipes.

“Mom? I’m in a hurry here.”

“Sorry, Haley. Sure, bring her over.”

I glanced at the time before I flipped the phone closed. Half an hour to get to work. My mother’s place was on the way, at least. Usually I walked, but Annie wouldn’t be able to keep my pace. I fished in my purse for change as we headed a block over to the bus stop.

The bus stop was packed with people, the first people we had seen all morning. Everyone was glancing at phones or watches, shifting from foot to foot.

“When’s the next one?” I asked an old woman on the bench.

“Two minutes according to the schedule, but I’ve been here over an hour. Can’t figure it out. You’d think the circus was here or something.”

A tall man with dreadlocks pulled an earbud from his ear. “Didn’t you see it land last night? I’d be there right now, but my boss is from out of town and doesn’t understand.”

The old woman’s eyes lit up. “You’re serious?”

“About my boss? Yeah. He’s only been here five years. Says ‘A circus is a circus’ but I expect he’ll change his tune soon enough. There are only three types of people: people who want to go to the circus, people who want to be in the circus, and people who haven’t made up their minds which they are yet.”

The woman used her walker to lever herself up off the bench. “The bus isn’t coming.” She turned in the opposite direction from that which the bus would have traveled. Toward the circus. She was probably right.

I glanced at the time again. “Annie, how fast do you think you can walk?”

Even at a race–walk pace, even with the intersections empty of cars, it took fifteen minutes. My mother’s small front yard was littered with leaves, the grass long. Piled newspapers suggested she hadn’t left the house in a few days. I didn’t have time to pick them up. I rang the bell, kissed Annie, and left her on the porch as the door opened. “Thanks, Mom. I’ll see you both later.”

I jogged now. Ten minutes left, uphill, another twenty blocks. Possible, but barely.  Made it in twelve minutes, drenched in sweat despite the chill in the air. The door was still locked, so I rang the bell.

“You’re late, Haley,” Mr. Standish said, by way of greeting.

“The school was closed and I had to take my daughter to my mother’s house and the buses weren’t running.  The circus…”

He waved a hand. “You know what I think about excuses. Third strike.”

My heart, still pounding from the run, picked up the pace.

Mr. Standish continued before I started begging. “Well, it would be the third strike, but you’re the only one who showed up today, so this one won’t count.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Don’t thank me. I don’t have any other choice. We need to open. Stock anything you can for the next forty minutes, concentrating on essentials. Toilet paper, bread, milk, eggs. Then you’re on register, obviously.”

I pushed myself hard to make sure Mr. Standish saw I was grateful for the extra chance. Nobody else showed up, not even Janine. By the time we opened, twenty or so people crowded by the door. They rushed through the store, grabbing everything I had shelved.

“Maybe I should have had you pile it all by the register,” Mr. Standish said from the bagging station. He was a jerk, but at least he pitched in when he was needed.

After the initial rush, the next few hours were slow. I restocked with whatever was left in the back. At two, Mr. Standish told me to go home.

“But I need the hours of my full shift,” I started to say. His look cut me off after “but.” He hadn’t fired me for being late. I couldn’t push him.

“What about tomorrow?” I asked instead.

“Keep your phone close. I’ll call and let you know.”

I nodded and left, not trusting myself to say anything else. I wished I had any margin for this kind of thing. As it was, if I didn’t get paid for even one full shift I had to start triaging bills.

Annie was happy enough to see me early. “Can we go to the circus now?”

“Everything okay?” My mother didn’t waste time on pleasantries either.

“Yeah. Got sent home early because nobody was coming in. So yes, we can go to the circus, if Grandma says you were good.”

“That wasn’t part of the deal,” Annie pointed out. “Technically, you said ‘after school,’ not ‘after school if I was good’.”

I crossed my arms, faking stern. “I said ‘after school,’ and technically you haven’t been to school.”

Annie threw me a look of such panic, I had to laugh. “I’m joking, baby. I’m sorry. You should be a lawyer.”

“Does the circus have lawyers? I want to be in the circus.”

I pulled her close. “Everybody has lawyers.”

“She was good, anyway,” my mother said to me, then looked down at Annie. “But don’t say that. About wanting to be in the circus. You can’t.”

“Mom! Don’t tell my daughter what she can’t do.” My tone was sharper than I liked it to be in front of Annie. I tried to soften it. “Do you want to come with us?”

“You know I don’t.” Mom frowned. “But say hi for me.”

Annie kept up a wall of chatter on the long walk to the fairgrounds. I answered some questions, but for most I simply answered, “Wait ‘til we get there. You can see for yourself.” There wasn’t anything to say that Annie hadn’t already heard, either as rumors from her friends or stories she had made up for herself.  The circus was alien. The circus was magic. The circus only visited our city. The circus was a whole world of its own that overlapped with ours only once every few years. The circus was just the circus. What did people tell stories about in places without a circus?

The streets were mostly deserted; everyone else was there already. I never understood how they all could drop everything. Weren’t there people relying on them? Did they not care that they might not have jobs when it was over? Sure, maybe some paid for circus insurance, but insurance only covered bills while the circus was in town, or damage to your home while you were away. It didn’t get you a new job, or cover the months after if you fell behind.

When we turned west to walk down the hill to the fairgrounds, Annie saw the tents for the first time in daylight and drew a sharp breath. Some of the tension I’d accumulated on the walk dissipated as I watched her.

“Oh,” Annie said. “Mama, it’s so beautiful.”

The tents quilted the fairgrounds in dozens of patterns and colors, shuffling themselves every few minutes according to whatever herd dynamics governed their movement. The giant ape who spun the observation wheel was sitting back on his heels, his mate picking fleas off his shoulders and eating them. The air smelled sweet, like funnel cake and caramel apples.

“Wait ‘til we get closer,” I said. “It’s even better up close.”

We walked under a turreted sand archway, crossing a sand moat as if we were entering a fairytale castle. Overnight it would sift and reform itself as the Great Wall of China or the Colossus or some other pre–circus wonder; even if you watched all night you’d never see the sands shifting. It would happen slowly, imperceptibly, and in the dawn light you would blink and wonder at the new gateway.

I had stayed up three nights as a teenager watching. I wanted to understand how it worked. On the third night, it had resolved into a dense forest, and I had finally said yes to Derek Lightfoot. He pressed me up against the firm–damp of a sand oak and kissed me with a mouth that tasted like spun sugar. I had somehow thought the circus protection enough, somehow thought the rules wouldn’t apply here because so few did, but nine months later, I had Annie. By then the circus was long gone. Derek, too.

On the other side of the arch, the midway beckoned. There were no ticket booths, thankfully, unlike at the imitation circuses that arrived in the off years.  Still, there were greater costs to things than money.

“Hold my hand, Annie. No running off alone.”

Annie reached up to grab hold. Excitement thrummed through her, and I clutched her hand as if anyone had ever been able to stop anyone else from leaving if that was what they were meant to do.

From the hill above it had looked like an ant farm, swarming with people, but from inside the midway was bustling rather than crowded.  I thought I caught a glimpse of Janine and her family in line for a ride. Annie watched with wide eyes, taking in everything.

“Haley! Haley’s Comet!”

I whirled to locate the voice.

They stood in the big top’s shadow, running a concession stand. I smiled. “Annie, want to meet your great–grandparents?”

They didn’t look like great–grandparents. They looked younger than my mother, more relaxed, like they rowed with time instead of against it. It suited them.

Grandpa wrapped his strong arms around me, repeating, “Haley’s Comet!” Then Grandma, equally strong, took her turn.

“This is Annie,” I said. Annie hung back, pressed into my legs, suddenly shy. Grandma reached into her concession stand and pulled out a balloon. She blew it up with one deep breath, a long green sausage, then twisted it into a dog. The dog wagged its tail and jumped off Grandma’s hand and into Annie’s.

“For me?” she asked.

“Yes,” said Grandpa, tying a ribbon around its neck and passing the end to Annie. “But don’t get too attached. They tend to bite at fleas and puncture themselves before too long.”

“Don’t go—” I started to say.

“—too far, I know,” said Annie. She dropped to the ground beside the balloon stand to play with the tiny dog. It rolled over with a rubbery squeak.

“How are you?” I asked.

“Great, great,” Grandma said, beaming, watching Annie.

“I’m good too, thanks for asking,” I said after a moment. I remembered this from the last time: circus people didn’t always remember to ask how you were. It was as if they didn’t think about the world outside once they had stepped away from it. Or maybe the life they lived was so bright everything else was glare around the edges. I knew it wasn’t their fault, but I continued anyway. “My mother—your daughter—could be better, though.”

“Is she still taking pills to drown all this out?” Grandpa’s ‘all this’ gesture encompassed the circus and the four of us. “That’s a choice she makes.”

I crossed my arms, defensive of her despite the fact I usually made the same argument. “I don’t think she remembers it’s a choice anymore. It’s just how she is.”

“She’s stubborn and scared and clinging to things she ought to let go of.” He blew into a blue balloon, then smoothed it into a perfect likeness of my mother. It shouldn’t have risen, but released, it floated upward, upward, then over toward the observation wheel, where the female ape swatted it away and I lost sight of it.

“Why did you leave?” I asked. “I still needed you.” Impulsive, stupid.

Grandma straightened and looked me in the eye. “Why did you stay? You wanted to leave with us. You’ve always heard the calling.”

“I was eighteen.”

“And your grandfather and I were sixty–six. How much longer did you want us to wait once we started hearing it?”

Then they were hugging me, and hugging Annie, and telling us to come back later and they’d give Annie balloons like chambered hearts or blooming flowers.

I looked around.  “Where to next?”

We walked the aisles. I tried to keep track of where we had been, but the tents shuffled themselves so constantly I gave up on it.  No way to be methodical. This was part of why people came back day after day. Nothing was ever the same. We passed games, passed the same games again a moment later with bigger and better prizes: tiny mechanical birds that beat their wings against tiny cage bars; live goldfish swimming in bags of light. Annie won a stuffed dragon that breathed cotton fire in a game where she had to blow a tiny boat across a water tank. We ate caramel pumpkins and soft pretzels that melted buttery against our tongues.

Around one corner, we caught a glimpse inside a mess hall full of circus people. Two clowns argued in whispers by the open tent flap, one gesturing with a piece of pizza he held in an oversized glove. I felt an odd relief at seeing them fight. The people here were still people. They ate and worked. My mother’s argument that the circus was nothing but an escape was just a product of her own anger.

Annie tugged me toward the observation wheel, easy to track over the tents. The wild smell of the giant apes intensified as we got closer. I would have preferred to stay on the ground and watch them, but Annie begged me to ride with her and I relented. We rode three times round. When the bar fastened over my lap, I panicked for a moment, then thrilled at the same feeling, the letting go of control. On the second go–round I opened my eyes and watched the ape spin us carefully around his finger, hooting and huffing. 

“Are you happy?” I asked him. “Is this the life you chose?” He didn’t hear me or he didn’t choose to answer.

Back on the ground, I saw others I knew: Annie’s principal, her teacher, Janine and her family again.  Janine gave a quick, guilty wave. Others still that I wouldn’t tell Annie I recognized.  I turned the other way when I saw Derek Lightfoot in an aerialist’s costume; maybe someday I’d be ready to introduce them, but not yet. And my own father, pulling quarters from behind the ears of other people’s children, his disappearing act long since perfected. A woman whose name I no longer remembered, a few years older than me, but who looked twenty at most; she had gone with the circus the year I never stepped off the bus. She rode a dappled gray draft horse through the dusty lanes between the tents, without bridle or saddle. She tossed mints for the children, then leaned over and fed them to her horse when he reached his great head round.

We followed the horsewoman into the big top, through a vent in its hide. I had never gotten this far before. At six, the bus. At eighteen: the amazing gateway, the rides, Derek in the sand forest. Always with my mother’s voice in my ear telling me to be good, to do what I was supposed to do.

I had gone to the other lesser circuses during the in–between years, had sat on metal bleachers and seen sky through torn canvas.  Now, as we entered, I reached out to the wall: felt the pulse of the big top, the velvet of its skin, the way it rippled like water at my touch.

These bleachers weren’t metal. They felt like the tent wall, like hide over muscle and bone. We watched. If there were words for the wonders of the show, I didn’t know them. All I could remember, watching Derek in the air, was lying with him in the forest when he whispered, “Let’s go with when the circus leaves. We can both learn to fly.”

“I can’t,” I had said. “My mother needs me.”

Watching him now, his body so lithe, the way he cut through the air, I imagined the way we might have both learned to fly together. He caught his partners and they caught him. They were reliable systems within this system. He hadn’t abandoned me; I knew that. I was supposed to have been here with him. He had never even known about Annie.

Annie tugged at my sleeve. I looked at my daughter: child of the circus, circus stirring in her. Annie didn’t take her eyes off the aerialists as she whispered, “How do they learn to fly?”

We could learn, I wanted to say. It’s not too late for me, either.

“I don’t know,” I said instead. “It’s time to go home.”

Annie insisted on checking through the window that the circus was still there. Before she brushed her teeth, again after.

She pressed her forehead to the window, her breath a low fog. “It won’t leave tonight, will it?”

“We never know how long it’ll stay,” I said. “Sometimes it’s weeks and weeks, sometimes a few days.”

“Then how do people know when to go with?”

“I don’t know, baby.” It seemed to me most people I knew who had left with the circus were already gone long before they actually left.

“How does it leave? I saw how it falls, but how does it go?”

“I don’t know that one, either, Annie. They’re good questions. I just don’t have answers. Come on, let’s get you in bed.”

“The man at the bus stop said there are three kinds of people. If I know I’m the type that wants to be in the circus, can I go with them?” Annie asked as I tucked her in. She clutched her stuffed dragon. Its magic dulled this far from the fairgrounds.

“Not yet,” I said, kissing her forehead. I felt the echo of my mother, couldn’t stop it, hated it even as it came out of my mouth. “I’d miss you.”

I locked the doors and the windows, checked on Annie twice in the night.  Looked down the hill at the circus. There was no telling how long it would stay, or whether Annie would still be here when it left.

Annie woke me in the morning; the electricity was off. I called the store, then Mr. Standish’s cell phone, but got no answer in either place.

I took Annie to my mother’s, to be on the safe side.

“Can I tell you about the circus?” Annie asked her as I left.

“No,” my mother said.

The store was closed. I leaned on the buzzer, then sat down in front of the locked door. If the store didn’t open, I didn’t get paid. If I didn’t get paid, we were screwed. At least the electric bill wouldn’t be high this month if the power didn’t come back on. If the power didn’t come back on, all the food in the fridge would spoil, and I wouldn’t have the money to buy more. I stifled a panicked laugh, then trudged back to my mother’s house.

“Circus time, girls!” I called as I entered.

“Again?” my mother asked from the couch. Her eyes were half shut. Annie sat at the kitchen counter, leaning on her elbows, surrounded by crayons. I didn’t have to look to know what she was drawing.

“Again. At least there I can feed her for free. Store’s closed.”

“You know you can stay here if you need to.”

“If it comes to it, we will,” I said, hoping it wouldn’t.

“The circus isn’t the answer. It only causes more problems. We’re twenty years behind the rest of the country and we don’t even care. You were supposed to go to college. You wanted to be a—”

“I had Annie. I did the best I could.”

She was silent for a moment. I thought she had fallen asleep, but then she spoke again. “I didn’t mean that. I love Annie. I just want what’s best for you both.”

“What’s best for me, or what’s best for us, or what’s best for you? What if what’s best for us is to move elsewhere? What if it’s the circus? Why is that never an option?”

Her words slurred a little. “That’s not a real life, Haley.”

“Everyone there seems pretty real,” I said.

She didn’t respond, and after a moment I realized this time she had dozed off.

Annie had the day planned already. She explained it on the walk over. First, the rides we had missed, then the fun house, then the horses, then the main tent again.

“Is there a school where they all learn those things?” Annie wanted to know. “The flying and the balloon tricks and everything?”

“I have no clue,” I admitted. People went away, then they came back with new skills, a new life. Was there an office where you signed up? Were there assignments or did you pick what you wanted to do?

“Can we find out?”

I started to say no. No, we’re supposed to stay here. Supposed to do as we’re told, to pretend we don’t hear the call, to work jobs we can’t quit until our knees and backs and hearts give out. But then we were approaching the gate, and the gateway was something new: two enormous sand birds, one on either side of the path, their wings outstretched to form the arch where they touched.

For the first time it struck me I’d been thinking about everything the wrong way around. My mother had called it a running away, a giving up. But was it any worse than the giving up she had done in order to stay? The circus people had family, too. My grandparents were happy. They had jobs they seemed to actually like. Maybe we could all be something more than we were born to, if we allowed ourselves the chance.

We walked under the wings. Up close, I saw the glass in the sand, the colors, the parts that made up the whole. It was sand, and birds, and also an entrance; tomorrow it would be something new. As a teenager, more than anything, I had wanted to understand how it shaped itself. I touched one of the birds, and the grains under my hand spilled to the ground, then flowed upward back to the place I had touched.

“Mom,” Annie said. “You still haven’t answered my question. Can we find out how people learn to do all the circus things?”

“I don’t know,” I said, reaching for my daughter’s hand. “But yes, we can try.”

(Editors’ Note: “When the Circus Lights Down” is read by C.S.E. Cooney and Sarah Pinsker is interviewed by Deborah Stanish in The Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 3B.)


Sarah Pinsker

Sarah Pinsker is the Hugo and Nebula winning author of A Song For A New Day, We Are Satellites, Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea, and over fifty works of short fiction. Her new collection, Lost Places, will be published by Small Beer Press in spring 2023. She is also a singer/songwriter and toured nationally behind three albums on various independent labels. A fourth, Something to Hold, came out in 2021. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland with her wife and two weird dogs.

6 Responses to “When the Circus Lights Down”

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