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Brian’s Elephant

The elephant had stood in little Brian Shears’ living room for as long as he could remember. It looked ancient, with faded gray skin covered in wrinkles, gouges and dirt. It always stood in the same spot, swatting its butt with its ratty tail and stamping its feet every so often.

Brian’s brother Tony explained about the elephant when he was nine. Tony was three years older, and his idol.

“I want to pet the elephant today,“ Brian blurted out between bites of cereal at breakfast. Their mother was still asleep. Tony made a pained face. He took Brian to the end of the hall by the time out spot and spoke to him in a whisper.

“We’re not supposed to talk about it,” Tony said. “It knows...it can tell when people talk about it, and if someone doesn’t stay quiet, it comes into his room at night and gores him to death with those tusks it’s got.”

The tusks on the elephant were sharp and metallic. Some days the tusks even seemed to redden, like with rust—or blood.

“Why doesn’t it want us to talk about it?” Brian asked. “Why would it want to hurt us?”

“It’s the only way it can stay alive. If people start talking about it, it has to fight. If it loses, it might get kicked out. It knows people will let it stay around if they don’t talk about it.” Brian looked for the hidden smile in Tony’s face, and couldn’t find one. His brother wasn’t joking.

“I’m scared.” Brian didn’t know if he could stay silent about the beast down the hall for long. If he couldn’t stay silent, the elephant would kill him. It would find him; those long rusty tusks would find him and pierce him.

Tony laughed, a bold, happy thing that masked his obvious unease.

“There’s no need to be afraid. For now, all we need to do is be quiet about it. Say nothing and we’ll be all right. I love you, little brother. I’ll keep quiet if you will. Okay?”

Brian saw Tony struggling with the same temptation he was, the pull to talk. To tell someone. It scared him. If his older brother couldn’t stay quiet, what hope did he have? Still, he put his hand forward.

“I’ll be silent.” He hoped he could keep his promise. Tony spit into his hand and shook it hard.

That was the last time for a long time they said anything to each other about the elephant.

Weeks went by and when still the elephant hadn’t moved, Brian’s fear of Tony’s warning began to wane. The itch to tell faded. The animal was still there, but the boy found it easier and easier to ignore.

After about a year, it sank to another level in his mind. He could see it, but in a way he didn’t. There was no reason for him to take notice; his life was becoming more hectic by the week. In middle school he actually had to care about grades, actually had to do his homework. He was also thinking about what clubs he wanted to join. He thought he might like Biology. His brother was in the eighth grade, and on the wrestling team. He was thin, so he belonged in the lower weight class, but he was long, so he could use leverage to win against meatier opponents.

One night Tony was in a rage. He awakened Brian from a dream about a forest, where the boy had been learning to fly from a nest perch, pulling him out of bed and drilling his face into the carpet, breaking his nose. Brian heard the crunch of his cartilage, and his eyes filled with tears. It took him a minute to transfer from his dream to the reality of his pain.

“You told,” Tony said.

Brian watched his blood siphon onto the floor and Tony stood there idly wringing his hands until the spreading liquid reached his toes. He watched his brother go back into his room like nothing had happened. Brian lay fishlike on the floor, his mouth opening and closing in mixed disbelief and pain. Finally he was able to generate a choked, miserable sound and after a while, his mother came to the door. She wore her nightgown, a piece of fabric that was shrinking around her ever-expanding frame, and seemed groggily unaware of anything.

“Brian?” His mother turned on the light and saw the blood; saw the way the carpet seemed to glisten wetly with new color. Her eyes grew large and she snorted in horror, but didn’t move to help. Brian moaned, holding his nose and feeling the sticky warm fluid gush through his fingers. Finally she knelt and reached for him.

“My God, Brian, you’re bleeding!” She scooted closer, but still outside the radius of the saturated area. She pulled his hands away from his face. When she could see his nose she squealed, then ran away down the hall to the phone.

Brian had always wanted to ride in an ambulance. It was different than how he imagined it would be; in reality his mother didn’t ride along.

The hospital kept him long enough to clean him up and fit him with a nose cast, but fortunately the break wasn’t serious; once healed, there’d be no way to tell that it was broken in the first place. The emergency room nurses had asked him repeatedly how it happened. Brian told them he’d fallen out of bed. They were suspicious, but wrote down his answer.

His mother, who was able to drive to the hospital once she’d made a pot of coffee, saw the whole situation an inconvenience to her schedule, and wanted to know why she’d been rousted out of bed on a work night. Brian he told her a version of the same lie. He couldn’t tell the truth; couldn’t say it was Tony who introduced his nose to the floor. Tony would never forgive him if he told; brothers did not betray each other.

And they damn sure didn’t break oaths.

They got back from the hospital in time for sunrise, and Brian went to sleep on the couch while his mother hurriedly made herself ready for work and took swigs of wine and pills, some of which Brian was sure were out of the hydrocodone prescription they’d just gotten filled for his face. He heard what he thought must be his mother calling him in sick from school, and then the front door slammed and the place was silent again but for the ticking hallway clock and the swishing of the elephant’s tail. He walked past the elephant nonchalantly on the way to the kitchen, then was drawn back.

The elephant now had ruby tusks and was covered in intricate ink designs. For what may have been an hour for all he knew he stared, tracing the ridges in the elephant’s skin.

The designs were akin to a maze. They were angular, with corners and long paths that took sudden turns and folded into other ones. The designs were deeply embedded into the leather surface, and at the very bottom of them were shiny silver particles, like in the ocean at dawn. When the elephant moved, the designs shimmered. Brian found himself unable to look away and at the same time the bright grooves made him nauseous. The way it glowed made him think of radiation.

Brian shuddered. He didn’t want to look at it or think about it anymore. He got up and, although he wasn’t hungry, went to the kitchen to make a sandwich.

He made a turkey and mustard sandwich and inhaled it, thinking the whole time about the elephant. When he finished eating he pushed the crusts down the disposal, returned to the elephant and sat, back against the wall above the register, to watch. Three hours later, when Tony came home from school, he was still there. The front door slammed and Tony bounded up the steps of the landing. Brian hadn’t seen him since before the attack, before hands in the dark had smashed his face against the floor. Brian’s attention dropped from the elephant instantly and he scrambled to his feet. Tony powered by, not even glancing at Brian. The boy with the broken nose stood, heart thudding, and a different door slammed.

Brian tiptoed around the elephant, careful not to get too close to its head. When he got to Tony’s door, he put his ear to the white-painted wood. There was nothing. Brian knocked lightly with his knuckles.

“Tony?” Brian said. It was the first thing he’d said all day. His voice was scratchy and quiet, and had adopted a certain nasal twang. When Tony didn’t answer, Brian tried again. This time, there was an answer.

“GO AWAY!”

It was more of a howl than a command, and yet Brian took two steps away from the door. Gathering strength in his resolve, he stepped back and knocked again, harder this time.

“Tony, I need to ask you something! Open the door! I need to ask you why you think I told—why you think I told about the-”

Tony’s door opened so fast Brian didn’t see, his brother’s hand already rested on his lips. Tony’s head poked out, eyes aflame.

“I told you to never talk about it, remember? You can never talk about it. Now get in here.”

He was pulled into Tony’s room, a living space Brian had seldom seen in recent years. Tony had gotten older, and with his age he’d developed some teenage sensibilities, restricting access to his room. The door was plastered with signs suggesting it would be a bad idea to enter, and usually locked.

Once in a while, though, when his brother was feeling charitable, Brian was able to see inside the lair. On certain occasions, he was even permitted to step inside. The interior of Tony’s room had always looked a little barren, walls blank, bed made, desk in the corner unused.

The first time he’d been allowed in, Brian had been a little disappointed. All those hours of speculation about what Tony had in his room, wasted. He’d imagined walls covered in posters of women in their underwear, shelves lined with action figures and gadgets of all sorts scattered about on the floor. But no; his brother had always been kind of a neatnik, enjoyed cleaning the house and washing the cars. Never had Brian seen anything out of order in his brother’s locked room. Until now.

Tony’s room was completely torn apart. The shades were drawn, and the sunlight glowed a pale yellow through the fabric, highlighting the disarray. Books of every sort were mixed in with papers and clothes that provided a ground cover so complete that Brian had yet to see the carpet.

The walls were plastered with images and pages of writing, each held up by a solitary tack through the center. There were photographs of African savannahs, showing families of elephants traveling across the frame. There were hundreds of illustrations of elephants, all with one similarity: Tony had painted the elephant’s tusks a brilliant red in every one.

The color of blood.

Brian recognized it as the same elephant he studied every morning in the living room.

“Oh, wow.”

“You like them?”

“Yeah, Tony, you’re really talented.”

“That’s not the point. I do these elephant drawings for you.”

“For me? Why?”

“It’s strong. It’s so strong. I fight it, in here. With these drawings. It takes so much of my strength to do it, and it changes me, but it’s what I need to do to keep you safe.”

“But if you want to keep me safe, why did you hurt me?”

“All the fighting, all the keeping it at bay, it weakens me. I lash out when I shouldn’t.”

“Uh huh,” Brian said. “Okay, but none of that really makes sense. It seems more like you’re constantly paying attention to it, worshipping it. It looks like you have a shrine to the elephant. If fighting it is your purpose, isn’t it controlling you?”

Tony, dark bags under his eyes, shook his head. “That elephant is evil, Brian. It wants me dead. It wants you dead. I can’t let that happen. You can’t get in the way of what I’m doing here. That’s what I’m risking if you tell, that’s what we’re both risking.”

“Do you think it’s doing things to Mom too? She doesn’t even seem to like or care about us anymore. Not to mention she’s doing my pain pills.”

“It’s sad about Mom. We’ll try to help her if we can. For now, you just have to trust me.”

“Okay.”

“And stop going out to look at it in the morning. It makes what I have to do harder than it needs to be.”

“Okay, Tony.”

“I love you, Brian.”

When the neighborhood kids came around to play street hockey and wanted to know if Tony could lace up and come play goalie because he was the best at it out of all the neighborhood kids, Tony told them to take a hike and if they wanted someone to play with they should ask his little brother.

So David Molineux, a sixth grader who lived four houses down, let Brian play street hockey with them. He wasn’t great at it, but wasn’t the liability he’d expected himself to be. He only played goalie. He didn’t stop every goal but there were a few he sent flying back, a tennis ball into the myrtle or gnome garden on someone’s front lawn.

By the time the sun started going down he was starting to really get the hang of it. He was sweaty, and he was tired, but he felt like with some more practice he might really fit in with the rest of them. Even if they only wanted to play with Tony, and not him at all. Even if they acted more like babysitters than playmates, babysitters who called him names like The Great and Terrible Pee Boy.

Brian came back in through the garage when it was dark, sweaty and with an ache in his lower back. He tore off his elbow and knee pads and ran to tell Tony how he’d done. The door was locked. There was no light coming from underneath. Brian put his ear to the door and listened. He heard intermittent scratching and shallow breathing.

When his mother came home later with some leftovers from her job, she put them on the table and Brian quickly ate all of his portion. Meatloaf, with reheated gelatinous ketchup glazed over the top.

“Can I have Tony’s too?”

“No, he needs to eat that. Where is he?”

“Haven’t seen him,” Brian said. “I think he might be in his room.”

“Well, go get him,” his mom said. “Or I’ll be the one eating his leftovers.”

When Tony finally opened the door, Brian almost didn’t recognize him. He was covered almost head to toe in red paint and black ink. Brian thought it was blood at first, but the paint was thicker and brighter than blood, and it caked his brother’s eyelids and lashes and the ink swirled within.

“Out here.”

Brian rushed forward through the gap Tony held open for him then the door was slammed shut and locked.

“Don’t you mean in—”

It was dark in the room, or darker. Brian couldn’t tell where the walls met the ceiling, or where the floor met the walls. It felt more open, or deeper, or something. The drawings of the reeds that made up where we were standing…they moved like they were alive. That’s when he noticed they were alive.

Not drawings at all.

He wasn’t in his brother’s room. He was somewhere deep in a tall grassland, somewhere dark, hot and damp, and the ground was a thick smelly mud the color of red paint. The same color as the tusks of the elephant in his paintings, the same color Tony had painted himself with. Pooling amidst the red mud were wells of black ink, and it was this ink that Tony had used in vertical strokes on himself to give him the appearance of a swath of tall reeds.

“It’ll be able to see you,” Tony said to Brian. “You stick out here, you’ll be visible to it unless you make yourself like me.”

“What are we running from?”

“We aren’t running from it. We’re just trying to exist with it. Exist in a way it doesn’t notice us. When it notices us, that’s when there has to be punishment paid.”

“But what is it?”

Tony’s voice trembled as he whispered the next thing in the dark.

“It’s the elephant.”

“The one in the living room?”

Brian could sense Tony was nodding yes. He started to get real scared, because what if in Tony’s room the elephant was elephant sized, not…not the size of a coffee table, non-threateningly lit with high hum fluorescent bulbs?

He felt like he was altogether somewhere else. The air was thicker, burned his nose and tasted like tin cans. The ground was completely destroyed.

He could hear the sound of something like a soft sucking and a soft exhale, like breathing. It came from somewhere close, and far away places too. It was dark and the elephant was in the dark with him. When it found him it would gore him. All of it seemed extremely dangerous. Too dangerous to be dealt with on a whim one evening.

“We have to show Mom this room.”

“We can’t. Nobody who sees this can be allowed to tell her. Not even Dad.”

A knot dropped into Brian’s throat, being reminded. Their dad was dead.

“But we have to prepare for it. What are we going to do? If we find the elephant, if we look at it and it decides not to kill us, what then? We live with it, what then?”

“If we live with it, it will eventually let us free. We grow up with our chins held high and we get to look at everything with clear eyes. It’s worth it. We have to get close enough to it, get it to trust us. We’re what it wants, anyway, so if we appear to it and ingratiate ourselves, I think we can get its guard down.”

“Why do we want its guard down, Tony? Do you want to hurt it? Elephants are hurt and killed every day by poachers who then sell off the pieces to people who think it’s a fun thing to own. I don’t think we should hurt it?”

“I don’t want to hurt it, Brian. I want to confuse it. I want to make it make mistakes. I want it to get itself caught in its own tracks. I want to force it to starve itself. That’s what I want. It can only happen when we get close enough to infiltrate. Then we strike.”

“I don’t know, even starving it...you want to kill it?”

“There’s nothing more I’d like to do than drive a spike through this elephant’s skull. But I know that won’t solve the problem. We have to make it self-destruct. It’s the reason mom drinks, it’s the reason dad died.”

“The elephant is bad?”

“It’s evil. It’s the worst evil.”

“Why? It’s always been in the living room.”

“Don’t ask that, ask: It’s always been in the living room. Why?”

It was a good question—he’d never considered that the elephant didn’t need to exist, he’d just accepted its presence. It was what he knew, it was a comfort. Now, thinking about it, being alone with his brother in its habitat, it scared him. Why had it been there his whole life? Had it been watching him? What had it learned?

“Put the mud on you, Brian.”

“I don’t know if I want to do it.”

“You need to survive in this jungle with me. We have to sneak up on it, we have to trick it, get it to go into a death spiral. If you really want to help me, want to get justice for dad, you’ll help me track it down.”

Brian almost just gave in because he wanted his brother to like him, but something wasn’t right about the way he felt. He would have gladly covered himself in mud if he felt right, it wasn’t that he didn’t want to be dirty, of course he would if he thought it was right.

“I think, what if I just go talk to it? What if I try to talk to it? Convince it to leave us all alone? So you can leave and you and I and mom can all be safe.”

“What would you say to the elephant, Brian? How would you convince it?”

“I don’t know! I’ll say that I see it and that it doesn’t scare me. I’ll say that I can take it apart, I’ll get inside it, I don’t know!”

“It’ll corrupt you, use you or kill you. Don’t tell me you don’t remember Dad.”

“Dad can’t decide what I do, and neither can you. But I know he’d want me to trust how I felt. I can’t help you hunt it, Tony.”

Brian started into the dense foliage alone. Behind him, he heard his brother curse and spit. Then, faintly, from a distance: “What if I kick you out of my room?”

“Yeah, what if?” Brian said under his breath. The path was hard to navigate without a machete but soon he found where the elephant had tromped down the thick root plants and made for itself a path to and from pools of drinking water.

“This must be where it walks.”

He could go right or he could go left. He pulled off his shirt and tied it to a branch so he would know where he came out. Then he chose to go right. The trail was littered with bones and dust. He walked for a distance, feeling the little hairs on his arms prickling his skin from the way the air sat still and cold, the way it smelled like metal. Finally, the path started to fade and the forest became denser.

He turned around, putting his back to the dead end. In front of him, the trail wound around a bend, so it was hard to see how far it went. Odd, hadn’t he been walking in a straight line?

Then, from his left, out of the foliage charged the elephant. It moved mechanically, like an automaton, but preternaturally fast. Brian dove to the ground, which thumped like an eardrum beneath him as nearby the great pole legs of the elephant cracked the earth. He felt within himself a deep and sudden fear. He hadn’t considered it could be a machine, he didn’t know how to emote with or appeal to a machine.

Tony was right to fear it.

The thing’s breath was superheated air, and as it clomped toward Brian, he thought of dragons.

“I see you, and you don’t scare me,” he said. His voice cracked and came out weakly. If the elephant heard, it made no sign. It was about a car length from him now.

Brian got up and turned to run. It wouldn’t help, the elephant could outrun him or sniff him out wherever he was.

“Boy.” The elephant’s voice behind him. Its hot metal breath on the back of his neck. Brian’s legs wanted to go, pump into the dusty bone ground and tear off, but he felt like he was stuck there. Instead of running, he found himself turning back. The elephant was standing over him now, at least 15 feet tall.

“Boy, aged 5-11.”

Then its mouth opened up. Inside there were bright colors, luminescent greens and yellows and blues and oranges. It was beautiful. Brian became less and less aware of his jungle surroundings and saw with more and more detail the colorful world inside the elephant. In fact, he could barely see the elephant now. Was it still really there?

He saw children playing.

Children of all different ages, ethnicities, boys and girls all having fun together. He pictured himself in the group. All of them his friends.

He took a step forward.

They were playing street hockey, passing a tennis ball between them as they ran down the street. “I’m open!” one of the kids said, and another flicked the ball to him. He slapped it past a goalie, scoring. The goalie on his knees shook his head in defeat, then seemed to notice Brian.

“Hey, you want to play?”

Brian seemed to be standing on the lawn watching, and the other kids were noticing him now too. “Yeah, come play,“ one of them said. “It’s fun—if you score a goal we get to go for pizza.“

“Really?”

“Yeah,” another one of them said. “Pizza and a big overflowing glass of root beer.” Brian loved pizza and root beer. It was one of his favorite combinations of food. Something about it didn’t feel right, but one of the kids, the one who’d just scored, was running up to him with a stick.

“Here, you can use my stick. I don’t want to play anymore.” He held it out to Brian.

Brian took it in his hands. It was heavy, it was real.

“Oh...okay, I guess. I’m not that good at street hockey.”

“That’s fine! Nobody is good at anything when they start doing it, but the more they do it the better they get. You can play street hockey until you’re great at it.”

Brian nodded. There was something about the other boy’s face that was familiar. Where had he seen this kid before? Not at school, nothing like that. TV? Movies? How would that be? He looked at the kid’s face again and now there was nothing familiar about it. Just a normal looking sweaty kid.

“Go on, get out there and play! Show them what you got!” The boy smacked Brian on the back and he went sprawling into the street.

“Car!” the other kids yelled, and pushed their nets to the side of the road. A gray-green pickup truck rushed past. Brian dodged out of the way then tried to see who was driving but the window was tinted.

The back of the pickup was filled with straw, which billowed around and settled onto the street where the children were setting up their hockey nets again.

“Come on!” They motioned to him, and he tried to walk toward them, stick in hand. It was hard. Walking was like swimming in gelatin.

Then the ball was dropped and he was in the game. He was horrible. He could barely move, the ball flitted and swished all around him, filling nets and evoking cheers and groans from his teammates while he tried his very best, which meant he frantically was unable to do anything he tried to do. He was breathing hard, he couldn’t catch his breath. His chest was tight, and darkness spidered in from the corners of his vision.

I’m dying?

He was falling forward, looking at a ball that no longer seemed important, rolling to a stop just inches from his outstretched hand. He could try to swipe it toward the goal, but why? It wouldn’t work, and he didn’t know the score anyway. Then he felt his face hit the ground. It reminded him of when his brother had woken him up in the middle of the night, it reminded him—

He felt a hand grasp around his left ankle.

Then he was being yanked. Dragged across the pavement. It hurt, but he also found himself able to finally take a massive breath. His vision brightened. He wasn’t on the street in the middle of a street hockey game. He was beneath the rusty sharp tusks of the elephant. Tony had his ankle, Tony was yanking him back.

“Leave him alone you big fuck! He’s gonna be something!”

Brian saw the elephant rear up, saw one of its tusks flash. He saw his brother impaled, pierced through his ribs, then lifted up and shaken side to side. Brian couldn’t look away. Tony swung his head until he was looking at Brian.

“Run!”

Then the elephant launched Tony high into the air. Too high. When Brian heard his brother’s body land he was already running as fast as he could back into the foliage. He didn’t turn to see if it was chasing him. The corners of his eyes were wet with tears and his skin was raw from passing bush leaves as he sprinted, and finally he was in Tony’s room again, with the drawings and the walls covered in red scrawls.

The foliage receded. His brother was on the floor of his room, a hole in his chest. Gored by the elephant. He’d sacrificed himself to save Brian’s life. Blood pooled around him and Brian remembered the the time he rode in the ambulance.

He swung open the door. “Mom! Tony needs help!” He ran back to the dining room table, where his mother had laid her head near a half bottle of wine. He shook her to wake her up.

“Mom, Tony needs help!”

She didn’t wake up. He sprinted to the phone and dialed 911. He waited while on the other end of the line someone slowly picked up.

“911, describe your emergency.”

“I need an ambulance, my brother is dying, or he’s…he’s dying.”

“What is your address?”

“My address is…”

He was looking into the living room. The elephant was there. Facing him.

“I know it’s hard. What’s your address?”

On the elephant’s right tusk was blood. It was only a little harder to see than the rust that had been there. It dripped onto the living room floor as Brian watched. He walked toward it.

“I live at 631 Temple Terrace. By the CVS.”

“What’s wrong with your brother?”

“He’s bleeding a lot. He was stabbed in the chest. Send an ambulance now.” Brian almost hung up before the dispatcher could ask any more questions.

But he was staring at the elephant, and he was on the phone.

“There’s an elephant in my living room. That’s what got him. The elephant gored him with its tusks.”

The elephant in front of him flared his eyes and flicked his trunk at Brian, like it knew he told.

“Excuse me? Are you trying to tell me something, kid?”

“There’s an elephant and it doesn’t want me to tell anyone about it. It wants to hurt me.”

“Okay. Okay. I think I get it. Just hold on, we’ve got people coming to your location. We’ve got good police, guys I know personally, coming. I’ll give them a call and let them know what you told me, about, about the elephant.”

“Yeah. I hope they make it.” Then he hung up.

It was just him and the elephant now, in the living room. The elephant was smaller than it had been in the jungle, but could still kill him if it got him with a tusk with enough momentum.

“I told them about you. I told them you want me to stay quiet. Doesn’t that make you mad?”

The elephant didn’t flare up the way it had initially, it seemed to understand it had been sold up the river by the child it had coerced silence from until now. Brian had loved Tony, but he didn’t believe silence could be the answer. He didn’t believe trying to coexist with the elephant was any way to live.

Brian went to the fireplace and grabbed the fire iron. He thought about building a fire and heating it, but that’s what he would be expected to do.

What if he just—

He took up the iron and rushed the elephant, bringing it down as hard as he could in the thing’s face, bringing it down so hard it hurt his shoulders. The elephant screamed, the boy’s arms felt like they were shattered, then he was on the ground again, this time the tile floor of his living room. Tile, not bone. Bits of porcelain, which is what the elephant must have been. The elephant, which was now without tusks or a trunk.

Miraculously he landed on none of those pieces. The incredible noise it must have made woke his mother from her wine nap. She stood in the landing behind him, holding on to the banister railing leading to the front stairs.

“Brian? What did you do?”

“Nothing, mom. Here, let me help you get to bed.”

“I can go to bed myself, thank you. What is this? What did you do to the…” she didn’t say elephant, Brian didn’t think she could.

“It’s okay mom. Come on.”

“Yeah.”

Brian took her limp arm and led her past Tony’s room without letting her look in. He tucked her in bed. He waited until her breathing became shallow and she was asleep. He went to the kitchen and put the wine bottle in the trash can.

He glanced at the elephant, just for a second and noticed its tusks were already growing back.

“I’m coming for you for what you did,” Brian told the porcelain pachyderm. “You’ll see.”

Then he turned his back on it, sat on the stairs of the landing and watched the passing cars, waiting for the rest of his life to start.



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