The academy introducti.., p.4
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       Introductions, p.4

           C. L. Stone
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Victor drove the half circle that was Sunnyvale Court and was out on the highway within a few minutes. He met up with the interstate a couple miles away, heading east into Charleston. I had no idea where this mall was. Two rules broken. I was with strangers and I was lost.

  In my excitement, I hadn’t paid attention to the conversation between Victor and Kota.

  “Is he answering?” Victor said, adjusting the rear view mirror as he sped down the road.

  “Hey, you ready?” Kota asked. I turned to see he had pulled out a cell phone; one palm was against his ear and the other pressing the phone to his head. “We’re almost there.”

  “Who are we getting?” I asked Victor.

  “An ax murderer.” He grinned, the fire in his eyes lighting up. He glanced over at me. “Will you please buckle in? It’s bad enough we kidnapped you.”

  I hid my smile from him, rather liking the idea that these cute guys kidnapped me. That meant they wanted me around, right? My heart was racing at this adventure. Not wanting to get too carried away, I reached for the seat belt and strapped myself in.

  Victor started playing with the radio, scanning through stations.

  “That’s good,” Kota said at a rock station. Victor ignored him and skipped to another one. “That one’s fine, too.” I didn’t know if Kota was interested in the music or more worried that Victor wasn’t really paying attention to his driving. He seemed nervous.

  Victor frowned, flipping away from the station. Soon he landed on one that was playing an orchestral piece. He stopped and turned up the volume, the violin tempo rapid. “Will this put you to sleep?” Victor asked me.

  “I love Vivaldi.”

  His mouth popped open, his hand temporarily letting go of the steering wheel. “What did you say?”

  My eyes went wide and I nodded to the wheel. He recovered and took it over again. “I said I like Vivaldi. Summer is okay,” I said, motioning to the radio that was playing the piece. “I like Winter best though.”

  Victor’s lips pursed but his eyes held that same fire. He glanced up at the mirror and I knew he was sharing another look with Kota. I was trying to figure out this secret language they shared. Did he think I was weird because I knew some classical music or even admitted that I liked it? Maybe this was a test. Would I ever be able to understand?

  We pulled off the interstate and took a short drive into an apartment complex. I was leaning against the window, feeling the sun on my face. There was an empty swimming pool near the front and tennis courts and a large pond in the middle with two fountains. The whole place looked more like a resort.

  “Will you stop being cute? Your nose is smudging the window. My god, you’re worse than a puppy,” Victor said, making a slow turn through the complex.

  I blushed and sat back. Victor glanced back at me, a playful smirk on his face. His request had me wondering if he was displeased but he didn’t appear to be. “Sorry,” I said.

  “She’s new,” Kota said. “She’s going to be interested in stuff.”

  “I got that, Sherlock, thank you,” Victor said, tilting his head slightly as he talked to his friend, glancing at him in the mirror. He pulled up to a row of cars at the last building of the complex and then yanked the stick to park his car. “Let’s go get Silas.”

  “Who’s Silas?” I asked, unbuckling, feeling goofy since I just put the thing on. I wasn’t even sure if he had been talking to me, but I didn’t want to wait in the car. My skin was tingling with being free. With friends. Out in their car. It was hard not to be so excited.

  “Goes to our school,” Kota said after he got out. He pointed toward the last door on the second floor. “Head on up.”

  When we got to the second floor, Victor tugged me by the arm. “Stand here,” he said, pointing to the spot just in front of Silas’s door. I moved where he told me to. He buzzed the doorbell and stepped back, pulling Kota with him against the wall.

  I just realized he was leaving me to face Silas alone, when the door opened. The guy was at least a head and a half taller than Kota. His hair was a deep black, shining with a light behind him reflecting on it. His eyes were a deep brown, almost black in the shadow of the overhang over the apartment. His jaw was firm, squared. His muscles under his black Red Sox t-shirt were prominent. Even his dark blue Levis looked bulky at the thighs. He was raw power.

  I was speechless. I wasn’t sure what to say or how to respond. Silas stared down at me, looking confused.

  “Do you have the wrong place?” he asked. His voice was deep, nearly reverberating through me.

  “What a pick up line,” Victor piped in.

  Silas twisted where he stood to see Victor leaning against the wall, his arms folded at his chest. Kota stood behind him, looking as if he wasn’t sure if he should be laughing and had the palm of his hand up against the back of his head, half shrugging.

  “Who’s she?” Silas demanded.

  “I’m Sang,” I said.

  Silas turned to me and raised a thick dark eyebrow. “Huh?” The way he peered down at me, I knew it wasn’t his fault, but he made me feel so small. “Say that again.” I picked up that he had an accent. It was very slight. I want to say European. His thick lips curled in a way when he talked that had me wanting to ask him to say more things, too.

  “My name is Sang,” I said.

  “She moved into a house down the road from mine,” Kota explained. “She’s coming along.”

  Silas’s forehead wrinkled and he blew out an impatient huff, but shrugged and waved me off. “Let me close the door.” As he stood in front of his door, I could see how broad his shoulders were. There was a slight gruff look to his face, as if he didn’t shave that morning. It made him look a lot more handsome, but it also made him look older. Since he was so tall, too, it was hard to imagine we were in the same grade.

  “We’ve got to work on your people skills,” Victor said as we headed back to his car. “You’re supposed to at least say hello when you answer the door.”

  “She looked lost,” Silas said. I kept taking peeks at his face. His features were striking. Soulful deep eyes and an olive complexion. He looked over at me and I blushed at getting caught staring. “I didn’t scare you, did I?” he asked.

  I shook my head, although a little too quickly. I wanted to say something convincing, but the truth was he did kind of scare me. I didn’t want to admit it, but being in a dark alley with him and not knowing who he was would have probably been enough to make me pee my pants.

  He only looked partially relieved, and I wasn’t quite sure if he believed me.

  Back at the car, Kota opened the passenger door, looking intently at me, waiting for me to get in.

  “Silas should take the front seat,” I said. “He’s got longer legs.”

  “I don’t mind,” Silas said.

  “Neither do I.” I didn’t mean to be so persistent, but if I was going to get them to like me, I had to do nice things. I didn’t need to be coddled because I was the girl. Also, I had no idea how far away this mall was. What if he was bottled up for an hour?

  He tilted his head from side to side, as if weighing out the situation. Something softened in his face.

  “Someone get in,” Victor called. He was already behind the wheel.

  Kota moved away from the door and when I didn’t budge, Silas got into the front seat. I was actually relieved. I would have felt terrible to see Silas have to get behind me and have to scrunch his knees.

  I sat next to Kota, this time remembering to plug in my seat belt. Kota did the same and we were off.

  Silas immediately reached for the radio to fiddle with it, but Victor slapped at his hand. “Hey, when you drive, you get to pick.”

  “Sang wouldn’t like this stuff,” he said.

  “She already said she did.”

  Silas raised an eyebrow and turned to me. “Is he shitting me?”

  I raised my fingers to my mouth, the tips playing with my lower lip. “I, uh...”

  “She likes it,” K
ota said for me.

  “But I like rock, too,” I said quickly. “And some other stuff. I like a lot of different types of music.”

  Silas shot Victor a cocky smile. “You’re outnumbered. Kota likes rock.”

  “Kota likes anything.”

  I gave a sideways glance to Kota. He slipped a conspiratorial grin and I smiled back, silently amused at the conversation.

  The two continued to argue about the radio, switching between stations at every other song. Victor groaned about squeaky guitars and Silas complained about being put to sleep by a piano. They were all so different. How in the world did they become friends?

  I was watching out the window at the trees and cars that we passed, trying to remember the direction Victor was taking. The palm trees were the most striking to me. Having lived up north for so long, it was strange to me. Everything was green and the sky appeared to be a slightly different shade of blue, lighter, crisp and full of promise.

  Soon the interstate had signs promising a mall and the car was pulling into the lot of a shopping center that looked bigger than any of the handful I’d ever seen.

  As soon as the car was parked, Silas jumped out and opened my door for me. I blushed, thanked him, and stepped away so he could shut it.

  We walked in through the closest department store together. Kota held open the first set of doors for all of us, Silas held open the second set. I smiled to myself about it. I wondered if it was normal, or if they were trying to be nice, since I was new.

  The mall wasn’t too crowded. The boys took only a moment to get oriented and then set off in a direction, walking past stores. They started talking and I fell behind them, unsure what to say, unsure who to walk with. I hadn’t even noticed I had done it. It just seemed like the natural thing to do. Bits of the conversation drifted to me, but they were moving quickly, I was just trying to make sure I was keeping up.

  I was peeking in at stores, checking out what was open, when Victor stopped short in front of me and I crashed into him. My chest hit his back, my hands met his hips, and my lips brushed at the back of his neck at the base, a little too hard as my lip tingled after. My breath caught and I backed off of him quickly, embarrassed.

  Victor’s face tinged red as he looked back at me. “Christ, you scared me. I was just wondering where you’d gone.” His hand went to the back of his neck and then his head tilted, his mouth opening in surprise. I supposed he realized what must have happened. I practically accidentally kissed his neck.

  “Sorry. I didn’t mean to be following you so closely.”

  “You shouldn’t be walking behind us,” Kota said.

  “Yeah. Come on. Walk up here with us,” Silas offered. He reached out, taking my hurt wrist, only I winced. He noticed and he pulled me close, turning my hand over and checking out the bandages. “Who did this to you?” His eyes widened at me, intent and almost harsh, expecting an answer.

  “It was Max,” Kota said. “He jumped on her and she didn’t expect it.”

  How many times would we have to tell this story?

  Silas seemed satisfied. “I’m sorry if I hurt you.”

  I shook my head. “I’m fine.” My voice was softer than I meant for it to be, but his show of concern had my heart pounding fast. I wanted to press a palm to my chest at the whirl of emotions I was feeling around them. Meeting one nice person like Kota was fine. Three in twenty-four hours? It amazed me again at how wrong my parents were about the outside world.

  Silas took my arm again, gentler this time, and guided me until I was walking next to him. Victor and Kota stood at his other side. Again we started to walk, and this time they moved slower so I could keep up.

  “Where are we going?” I asked. They seemed to pass by a lot of interesting shops without looking at any of them.

  “We’re going to get fitted for some new suits,” Victor said.

  I glanced at Silas and Kota. “All of you?”

  They nodded, looking as if this was as expected.

  “Are these school clothes?” I scratched absentmindedly at my wrist. It hadn’t occurred to me that the new school, even if it was a public one, might require uniforms or something. Would I need to wear something specific?

  The three exchanged glances. Silas slipped his hands into his pockets. Victor cleared his throat but said nothing. Kota spoke up. “Sort of. Just for the nicer events. We thought it’d be easier to get it done now instead of when all those formal dances start happening.”

  Was that normal? How strange. I would have never thought of that.

  We came up to a men’s clothing store and at the entryway, the three guys were greeted by a male attendant. Kota approached him quickly, leaning his head into him to talk.

  Silas stepped up to me, cutting off my view of Kota. His hands were in his pockets and he looked down at me. “Did you want to go look around somewhere else?”

  Was he trying to get rid of me? I wasn’t sure, but before I could answer, Victor piped in.

  “Have her stay,” he said. Silas turned to him but Victor looked at me. “There’s usually a couch or something around here.”

  “I don’t want her to get bored,” Silas said.

  “She won’t be bored.” Victor came closer to me, a gleam amid the fire in his eyes. “Do you have a phone on you?”

  I shook my head, blushing at revealing how out of touch I was. Who our age didn’t have a cell phone?

  He reached into his back pocket. “See, Silas? If she walked off, we would have had to hunt her down. I don’t want to lose her.” Victor passed me what looked like the latest iPhone. “Play some Angry Birds. Download whatever app you want. We won’t be long.”

  Kota and the attendant waited for Silas and Victor to join them. Silas passed me a look, not seeming too displeased that I was actually sticking around.

  I held Victor’s phone to my chest, still feeling the warmth of his body that had heated up the metal cover. I found a small sofa not far from the entrance and sat down. The leather of the seat was cool against my bare legs but also sticky. I folded my skirt down, smoothing out the material and then rechecked to make sure the shirt was fully covering the bruise on my back. The boys disappeared into the back of the store.

  I was too nervous to even look at Victor’s phone at first. What sort of things could I learn about him? How trusting was he that he simply handed his phone to me without a flinch of concern? I swore to myself I wouldn’t betray his trust.

  A couple of attendants materialized next to me and asked politely if there was something they could do for me. I declined each time, expressing that I was only waiting. As other customers started poking through racks of clothes nearby, I appeared to be really interested in the phone. I found the Angry Birds app and became engrossed with knocking over pigs.

  “Sang. What do you think?”

  I looked up and my breath simply disappeared from my lungs. I felt my jaw drop and the phone almost slipped from my hands. Kota appeared in front of me in a black suit with light charcoal pinstripes. I caught sight of a tag against the sleeve that said Armani. Wasn't that really expensive? He wore a black collared dress shirt underneath. The whole ensemble was fitted to frame his body, and it showed. The cut was very nice. “What do you think of the black shirt?” His finger caught the bridge of his glasses and he slid them a little higher on his nose. He turned to show me the side, smoothing out the material of the jacket.

  My heart was doing flip flops. He could have modeled for the catalog. He was asking my opinion? I leaned forward, feeling the words rushing from my mouth. “It’s gorgeous.” It was the most awkward thing to say and I regretted it the moment it slipped from my lips.

  He blushed, but I caught the corner of his mouth drifting up. “I mean do you think it’d be better in white? You know, something more traditional?”

  I shook my head. “It’d detract from the stripes. Though you’d probably want a tie. Maybe in red?” I had never been asked my opinion on fashion. I had a fledgling idea of what looked
good to me. When it came to my own clothes, I just tried to match what I saw on television and what the other students were wearing.

  He seemed to consider what I was saying. “Elegant,” he said softly. He smiled at me, seeming satisfied with my answer. “You’re not too bored, are you?”

  I lifted the phone in my hand to half show it to him. “Level fifteen of Angry Birds.”

  He beamed. “We’re just wrapping up.” He waved to me and disappeared back among the racks of jackets and pants.

  I was on level twenty when the guys came back. They were empty-handed. For some reason I had thought they would bring back those clothes in bags, but then I remembered this was a fitting. The attendants probably needed to make some alterations.

  “Hey, you,” Victor said when he spotted me. His hands were in his pockets and his cheeks were flushed. His expression confused me and I stood up quickly to greet them. I handed his phone back. He took it from me, checking the screen. “You’re quick. And all three stars.”

  My smile faltered a little. “I didn’t ruin your game, did I?”

  He looked up quickly. “No,” he said and he tucked his phone back into his pocket.

  “He’s just twitterpated,” Silas said. The shadow of a grin stretched from his face, as if he’d just been laughing and was about to start into another fit.

  Victor shot out a fist to punch at Silas’s arm. “Shut up or I’m leaving you here.”

  I looked to Kota. He shook his head and rolled his eyes. “Come on. Let’s do something else.”

  “Where do you want to go, Sang?” Silas asked.

  I thought about it. “Is it bad if I say can we just walk around? I’d like to see what’s here.”

  “A sensible request,” Kota said.

  We left the store. Again I was next to Silas at the end with Victor and Kota on the other side of him. This time, instead of talking to each other, they took the time to point out different shops they thought I’d be interested in -- mostly clothing and shoes. I hid my grin at their attempts to catch my eye and see if I was impressed. I wasn’t sure what they wanted me to say.

  We were circling an atrium where the mall split into different directions, when someone walking by bumped hard into me. I staggered backward, catching myself before I fell. My hand went back to my arm, protective of the wound.

  “Hey!” Silas spun around. He caught me by the shoulders and brought me close to him before turning his head at the guy that had bumped into me. “Watch where you’re going.” His voice was deeper now, almost a growl.

  My heart thundered in my chest. Silas’s hands felt so big as he held on to my shoulders, and he stood so close that I felt his body warmth. I think it made me more nervous than the confrontation.

  “Dude, she bumped into me.” The guy had dark hair, was thin, had a goatee and looked about our age. He had a couple of friends lingering behind him. Their pants hung low on their hips and they all wore oversized sport t-shirts. The guy who’d bumped into me gave me a look, tilted his head back and directed his chin at me. “Hey girl.”

  “I saw you lean into her,” barked Silas. He moved in front of me, shielding me. I gasped a little, stuttering. I wanted to say let’s get going, but I couldn’t mouth the words. He seemed so angry. He turned his head back toward me. “Just stay behind me,” he said.

  “Dude, fuck you. You don’t know shit.” The guy was slurring his words a little, making it difficult to understand him.

  “Come on, Silas,” Kota said. I glanced at Victor. His fists were clenched, his jaw was set as he glared at the guys, but he didn’t move. It was like he was waiting for something. I shot him a look and he caught my eyes. I gave a quick shake, my eyes wide, silently pleading with him just to back off. Let’s go, I urged wordlessly. I don’t want trouble.

  There was a silence that lingered on; my hands started to tremble. I reached up to Silas to touch his back, warming my palm against him.

  Suddenly Silas turned around and urged me forward. Kota and Victor followed. This time Silas put me on the other side, so I was walking between him and Victor.

  “Should I...” I started to say.

  “Just keep moving,” Silas ordered through clenched teeth.

  We turned into another part of the mall and passed a few stores before Silas pointed at a bookstore and we moved together into it. Victor grasped my good wrist, guiding me to the back. My heart was about to explode. It was close enough that he was almost holding my hand.

  Silas and Kota stayed near the front, glancing at the new novels on racks near the wide windows. They occasionally glanced at the door.

  At the back near the children’s books, Victor tugged me out of the aisle and pushed me until my back was against a wall of books, hiding me from view from the front. He checked around me, glancing toward the door. He pulled back to face me. His fire eyes held a glaze as he looked at me and he brushed back a lock of hair that had fallen into my eyes. “You okay?”

  I nodded and tried to speak but hadn’t realized my throat was dry. I swallowed and then started again. “It’s fine. Did they walk away?”

  “I think they followed us a little but lost interest. Just hanging out for a moment to make sure.”

  I wasn’t sure how to suggest it, but it was almost like it was rehearsed, the way they worked together. Without talking, they split up and knew exactly how to handle things. There was nothing for me to say. It wasn’t like it was possible or that they planned the situation. Like their silent communication, I supposed, was it just something they managed to do together? Do good friends get to know each other so well, it’s like they can simply work in a coordinated fashion?

  Kota poked his head around the bookshelf. It spooked me a little, but I caught myself. “You guys okay?”

  I nodded, smiling.

  “We’re good,” Victor said.

  “We’ll just hang around a few more minutes. Just look like you’re browsing.”

  “No problem,” I said. Now that the situation felt over, I was glancing at book titles, my eyes instantly attracted to some of the thicker volumes.

  “You like books?” Victor asked, catching my look.

  “Who doesn’t?”

  Kota almost gave a hoot in laughter. I didn’t catch what was so funny. Victor just smiled. “Have at it,” he said, ushering with a hand for me to lead the way.

  I felt like they were going to follow me. I hadn’t anticipated that. I lost myself in the shelves, checking for the fiction section and then noting the authors and cover styles of the novels.

  “I think it’s grouped by genre,” Kota said.

  I knelt, looking at a few titles I recognized. “It’s kind of mixed up. I think these are more horror but they’ve lumped them with general fiction.”

  He looked over my head to check out what I was pointing to. He put his hand on my shoulder. It seemed such a casual touch, again something I’d seen other people do or read about. He seemed to do it without thinking and yet my mind was filled for the moment with nothing but the warmth of his fingers. He was so close that I could smell the sweet spice of his cologne. I felt my body tingling. It felt so intimate to me. “Do you like horror?” he asked.

  “Not spooky. More psychologically scary. Something a little bit smarter than a guy with a knife hiding behind a wall.”

  “You like smart killers?”

  “I like figuring out the best way to handle bad situations,” I said, although after the words slipped from my mouth, I realized it sounded weird.

  When I looked back at him, a grin slipped away from his face. “What else do you like?”

  Victor had disappeared. Being alone with Kota now made my stomach twist, especially since he insisted on standing so close. I couldn’t back away unless I wanted to bump into the bookshelves. Was it normal for friends to stand so close to each other? I wished he’d stop looking at my eyes and face. I wanted to shield myself from it. “Depends on my mood, I guess. Mystery, fantasy...”

  His head tilted. “Clas

  “British, preferably. Sherlock Holmes or King Arthur. Although I did like Gone with the Wind.”

  Silas appeared from behind Kota. His brows were creased and he had his arms tucked into his body, as if trying not to touch anything. “I’m pretty sure they’re gone.”

  “Good,” Kota said, straightening up and giving me enough room to stand next to him now. “The last thing we need right now is an altercation.”

  Silas nodded in agreement, but glanced at me and then dodged his head around, his eyes scanning the store. “Where’d Vic go?”

  “We’ll get him,” Kota said. That gentle power from Kota’s voice became more prominent. Why did it feel like he was giving orders? “Meet you in the front.”

  Silas nodded and headed back.

  “He doesn’t care for bookstores,” Kota explained to me as we wound our way to the end of the aisle. “The lanes are narrow and he hates bumping into them.”

  I smiled to myself at the thought of Silas being so concerned, but I couldn’t imagine him clumsy. He seemed to be fully in control of his body.

  It turned out we didn’t need to hunt for Victor. He was up front making a purchase. The store attendant was just putting it into a plastic bag as we approached.

  “What’d you get?” I asked.

  He turned to me, smiling coolly. “Some sheet music.”

  “He plays piano,” Kota explained.

  Victor narrowed his eyes at him. “I was going to tell her.”

  Kota bowed his head, looking apologetic. “Sorry.”

  “It’s okay,” I said, trying to lighten the mood. “I’m jealous. It’d be really neat to learn to play.”

  “Why haven’t you?” Kota asked.

  I shrugged. “Never had a piano to fiddle with.” My father made enough money for a big house, but he always said he couldn't afford to keep up with the whims of his kids; he rarely allowed things that cost money. I wanted to try to explain it, but it felt too awkward, too soon.

  Again, looks were exchanged between Kota and Victor. That was going to drive me crazy. I vowed to myself to try to catch their looks and understand this language they had between them. Were they feeling sorry for me? Confused? Did they think I was pathetic? Were they going to laugh about the poor stupid girl later whose parents wouldn’t buy her a piano and walked alone in the rain at night?

  We left the bookstore and continued the tour. Walking between Silas and Victor was awkward. I was either brushing arms with one or the other and I kept trying to make my shoulders sink in, drawing my arms into my body. I was walking like an idiot, doing my best to not touch them. I wasn’t supposed to get so close so soon that I could just walk with my arm touching someone else’s, was I? Since I wasn’t sure what was appropriate, the best thing to do seemed to be to keep a distance.

  After a while, my shoulders were sore. It wasn’t necessary anyway; no matter how I walked, Silas eventually needed to lean into me to get out of the way of people walking by and Victor walked like a snake, swaying back and forth across his path. As soon as I relaxed, Silas’s forearm brushed against mine. I was sure people thought we were holding hands. Victor, on occasion, bumped into me, and smiled when it happened. Something told me he was doing it on purpose.

  I could smell the food court before we ever saw it. Silas’s hand went right to his abs. His stomach gurgled. I glanced up at him, trying not to laugh at his mortified expression. He gave me a half smile and nodded. “I think it’s time for some lunch.”

  “How about sushi?” Victor suggested. “Do you like fish, Sang?”

  “No fish,” Kota interjected before I could answer. “Not after last time.”

  “I wasn’t going to take her there,” he said.

  Silas shot him a look.

  Victor gave a frustrated sigh. “Sang, what do you want?”

  “I didn’t bring any money, guys,” I said, blushing. I didn’t want to add that I didn’t have any at all to bring. My father didn’t give allowances. “You all pick something you like. I’m still kind of full from breakfast anyway.” That wasn’t really true. I was actually kind of hungry now that I was smelling frying oil and sweets.

  “You’re getting something,” Silas commanded. “Besides, Victor’s paying.”

  My mouth popped open in an ‘o’ expression.

  Victor nodded with confidence. “It’s my turn, anyway.”

  It was a thing, I thought. They took turns buying each other lunch? I wondered when my turn would be. It would be really embarrassing when they discovered I couldn’t repay them like this.

  There was a small debate about where to eat, but Kota suggested a hamburger place. Victor got an Angus beef hamburger with Swiss and mushrooms, holding the condiments. Silas ordered three double cheeseburgers and a large fry. I mimicked Kota’s order, a chicken sandwich and medium fries.

  Victor removed a black credit card from his wallet and swiped it. His parents gave him a credit card? From what I’d read about in books, black credit cards were reserved for the really rich. Maybe the novels I’d read weren’t accurate, so I dismissed it. After the order was paid for, I whispered a quick thank you to him. He blinked at me, his face turning red, but he waved me off.

  Silas shooed us away to find a spot to sit while he waited on the order. We filled our drinks and then walked out into the middle of the sea of tables and chairs that surrounded a running carousel. I wanted to point to a spot close to the middle to see the paint on the horses, but Kota was the first one to suggest a spot, one close to the outer edge of the courtyard. The food court wasn’t crowded, but he picked the place furthest away from where other people were sitting.

  We got to the table and Victor quickly pulled a chair out, looking directly at me. I blinked, muttered a thank you, and allowed him to slide the chair in behind me as I sat. Victor sat next to me, across from Kota. Silas plopped down in front of me with the tray of food.

  “People are animals when they get hungry,” Silas said. “The guy behind me was demanding a taco.”

  I laughed and Silas’s dark eyes lit up. He passed the food around.

  Silence fell over the table as we ate. I finished my sandwich and was nibbling on my fries as the guys finished up and started talking again. I was half paying attention to what they were talking about. I focused on people who appeared to be friends. I watched how they walked together. Sometimes they touched. Sometimes they had hands stuffed into their pockets and they bumped the other one in the direction they wanted to go without talking.

  Normal. This is normal. My mind whirled, worrying this day would end too soon. Who knows when I would get another chance to just hang out like this? Would they even care to invite me again? It probably didn’t matter. After today, they’d get over being nice to the new girl. Either that, or my mom would find out the truth, eventually. I shoved those thoughts to the back of my mind. I was being paranoid and it annoyed me. I was being as self-destructive as my own mother, thinking like that.

  Motion across the walkway caught my attention. The guy with the goatee and his friends were leaning against the wall of a video game store. The guy with the goatee folded his arms over his chest and he made kissing faces my way. At first my eyes widened but I tried to adjust myself, attempting to look bored and disinterested. He laughed, but I slowly turned my eyes as if I hadn’t even noticed. I wasn’t sure if I was able to hide the blush I felt in my cheeks. I pulled myself back into the conversation, forcing myself to nibble at another fry, even though I was full.

  “You can’t be serious,” Victor was saying to Kota. “Not another physics class. You’ve already taken all of them.”

  “Not a particle physics one.”

  “Tell me they don’t even offer that class,” Victor rubbed a palm at his eye, looking pained. “It’s so pointless. It’s theoretical. You won’t use it.”

  Silas shook his head. He caught me looking at him and offered a grin. I shared one back, pointing the open end of my fries at him.

  “You don
t want any more?”

  “I’m stuffed,” I said.

  He reached for the carton, his fingers brushing mine. A spark started from my fingertips and then ignited in my belly. His fingers were a little coarse, but strong and warm.

  “Thanks,” he said. His voice was softer now. Had he felt the same thing I did? “What classes are you going to take?” he asked.

  I gave a small glance to Kota, who was so engrossed in trying to explain his desired classes, that he hadn’t heard Silas. Was I now used to Kota answering for me? “There are a few prerequisites, aren’t there? I was going to fill up on those.”

  “You should take something you like,” Silas said. “It can’t be all work. Unless you’re like Kota.” He jerked his head in Kota’s direction and then stuffed his mouth with some fries.

  I laughed, shrugging a little. “I don’t really know yet. I only glanced at the catalog; some of the more interesting things, I can’t take yet.”

  “Like what...”

  “Oh my god,” Victor said, his voice rising. The fire burned, his eyes narrowing. “Okay, I’m done. Sang, are you finished? I can’t talk to him.”

  Kota looked perplexed. “You were asking...”

  “I’m not asking anymore!” Victor raised his hands in the air, waving in defeat. “You win. We’re good. Let’s just do something else.”

  I shared another grin with Silas, even though I wasn’t totally sure I understood what was going on.

  “I’m headed to the bathroom real quick. I’ll be right back.” Victor stood, pushing his chair away. He grabbed his bag and started to walk off. He’d left his trash on the table.

  Kota collected his own wrappers and Victor’s and put it all on the tray. “I’ll be right back. Maybe I should go apologize.” He walked off after Victor.

  “Good luck,” Silas said. He stood up, grabbing the tray and took my empty wrapper to add to it. “I’ll get rid of this. Wait here.”

  I smiled, shaking my head. The boys were interesting. Silas looked around for a place to throw the trash. He walked around groups of people waiting in line for their kids at the carousel. He disappeared behind the swirling horses.

  “Hey, princess,” a voice behind me said. I turned around. The guy with the goatee sat in Silas’s seat. His oversized red shirt billowed around his lean frame. His lips curled like he was constantly kissing the air. “Your boys left you?”

  His pungent cologne mixed with menthol cigarette smoke drifted from across the table making my nose wrinkle. “They’ll be right back,” I said.

  He nodded with a sharp tilt. The way he did it made his chin angular and thin. “What’s your name, sweetie?”

  I just looked at him, not sure what to say. His friends were still across the hallway, watching the two of us. Why did he care? Why did I get the feeling I shouldn’t talk to him? I mean, I knew he bumped into me but should I judge a person for being careless?

  “I said, what’s your name?” he asked again.

  “I’m Sang.”

  “Sang? That’s just fucking weird. Do you sing?”

  I shook my head, blushing. My heart was pounding, but not in the same way it had been with Silas and the others. This was different. The bad feeling inside of me had my mind whirling, echoing the negativity my mother whispered to me about what happened to girls when they went out.

  “I’m Greg.” He patted a hand on his chest, and tilted his chin toward me. “We should go out. What’s your number?”

  “I’m sorry. I should go.” I stood up, pushing my chair in. My hand flew up to my chest, rubbing over my thudding heart. Silas was still missing. Where did they go?

  Greg stood and followed me. I sought out the restrooms. If the guys weren’t around, I was going to dart into the girl’s bathroom where he couldn’t follow.

  I broke away from him and walked around tables, heading toward the opening to the hallway where there were signs for restrooms. As I got to the hallway, Greg continued on my heels. “Hey, I was asking you out. Why are you walking off like that?”

  “I’m already out,” I said, my hands turning into fists reflexively, feeling cornered.

  “Who did that to your hand?” he said, pointing at my bandages. He leapt forward and closed the distance between us. “Those guys hurt you?” His voice was grating, varying in pitch and then there was the sharp way he ended his questions. Compared to Kota’s powerful, Victor’s smooth baritone and Silas’s deep voice, Greg’s made me shiver cold.

  I stepped away from him, forcing some distance between us. I met with a wall, smacking up against it. I gasped, trying to slip to the side to get out of his way. My heart was racing, feeling trapped.

  Greg drew closer, putting his forearm over my head against the wall above me and looking down at me. He wasn’t that much taller than me, maybe only a couple of inches. “You shouldn’t let those guys do things like that to you. Unless you like pain? Is that your kink?”

  My mouth dropped open. “Seriously, I’m not interested. I’m sorry.”

  His mouth went up a fraction at the corner, smirking. “Is it because you’re dating one of those guys? Which one?”

  I shook my head, not sure how to answer.

  “It’s the tall one, isn’t it? I could tell. You fuck him yet?”

  My mouth was dry and I choked out a no to respond. Why did I think I could get back here and escape him? Where was Kota?

  He laughed and leaned in to me. “Come on. How about this? Kiss me, and I’ll leave you alone. I bet you’ll leave that guy and walk out of here with me.” His mouth was close to mine and I nearly gagged as I could taste the stale menthol on his breath. My heart raced and I had my head backed up. I wanted to push him away, but I didn’t want to touch him.

  “Why are you moving away?” he demanded. His fingers wrapped around my chin, holding my face still. His fingers dug into my cheeks and I gasped because it hurt. His eyes fixed on my mouth and he lowered his head.

  A hand landed on Greg’s shoulder, yanking him back. Greg flew into the air. He toppled, falling. His body hit the far wall and he slid down until he was sitting on the floor, looking dazed.

  Kota stepped between us, his hands positioned in a stance I’d seen in karate movies. Holy crap, Kota knows Kung Fu.

  My mouth opened to say something but I couldn’t form the words. Victor materialized next to me. He took one look at Greg and then grabbed for my good hand. He wrapped his fingers around my palm and pulled me out of the hallway without a word. Kota remained behind. Would he get hurt when Greg recovered? Could Kota defend himself?

  Victor pulled me back out into the food court and we weaved our way around tables. My mind was everywhere: Greg’s bad breath lingering in my nose, the image of Kota flipping him over, Victor’s palm pressing into mine.

  Silas was leaning against our table. He took one look at Victor’s face and he stood up. “Where’s Kota?”

  “In the hallway. He’s got it. We’re leaving.”

  Silas’s eyes scanned the food court for the hallway. “I’m going to check. We’ll meet you at the car.”

  Victor held on to me as we nearly jogged out of the mall. His thumb brushed at the crevice between my thumb and forefinger. My palm started to sweat and I was embarrassed about it, but he didn’t seem fazed. The silence between us left room to worry about Kota and Silas, and I wished we could go back and check on them.

  Victor didn't let go of me until we got to his car, so he could take his keys out. Victor handed off his plastic bag to me as he unlocked the car.

  “Get in behind me,” he said. “I’m going to pull up to the curb so they can get in quickly.”

  What if they got hurt? I hadn’t seen Greg’s friends around, but they must have noticed he went in there and Silas going in after them. I held the plastic bag up to my chest, folding my arms over it and trying to breathe slowly. This was my fault. I should have stuck with Silas.

  Victor started the car and made a loop around the parking lot until he pulled up next to
the curb in front of the department store doors. We waited. My breath caught every time the doors opened and it wasn’t the guys.

  “Come on...” Victor urged under his breath, his hands twisting at the wheel.

  Two minutes later, Silas and Kota both appeared at the doors and stepped out. They tried to look casual but they were walking double time and went right for the car. Silas climbed in back with me and Kota took the front seat.

  I kept my eyes glued to the door of the mall as Victor pulled away. I turned, putting my knees in the seat and facing backwards to look out the rear window to watch for any sign of Greg or his friends.

  “Are they out there?” Victor asked.

  “I don’t see them,” I said.

  “I think we lost them,” Kota said, sounding breathless, leaning against the seat. “Only I got worried when we made a circle in one department store trying to shake them.”

  “Sang, it’s all right. You can sit,” Silas said. His finger jabbed me in my side. Unfortunately, it was the side that was bruised and, not expecting it, I winced and cried out an “Ouch,” before I could catch myself.

  Silas’s eyes widened. His large hand pushed me back up against the seat, holding me there. He lifted my blouse away from the top of my skirt. I could feel cool air on the bruise and I shivered.

  “Where did that come from?” he demanded.


  He let go of me, turning his body to face the door. His hand clutched the handle. “Turn the car around.”

  “Silas,” Kota started.

  His fists clenched and he spoke through his teeth. “I said turn it around.”

  “It wasn’t him,” I said quickly. I felt eyes fall on me again. I swallowed, feeling my stomach twisting. “That’s from yesterday. Greg never touched me.”

  The car fell into silence. I turned around, sliding into place and sitting back.

  “Was it from Max?” Kota asked in a quiet tone.

  I averted my eyes, focusing on the back of Victor’s seat. “Yes,” I said quietly. My lip quivered and I bit at it to stop it. How to ruin a friendship in less than a day? Lie about your injuries and get the guys into trouble over some stranger. I felt the anxiety clutching my chest. This was it. They’re going to get rid of me the first chance they got.

  “Let me see it again,” Kota said. The power disappeared from his voice, replaced with something assuring, gentle. “Sang, let me see.”

  I got up like I had been before. Silas assisted me with raising my shirt up a little. He tucked two fingers into the top hem of my skirt and pulled it down an inch to reveal the splotch of purple.

  Kota made a face. “Sang, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.”

  I shook my head at him. “No, it’s just a bruise. There’s nothing to do about it. Just wait for it to heal.” With my pale skin, I knew the bruise probably stood out more.

  He made sweeping looks at Victor and then at Silas. Silas was unreadable. Victor continued to twist the steering wheel as he drove. I quietly moved back into my seat, reaching for the belt to strap in.

  Silas reached for my hand holding the belt buckle, stilling it. “You don’t have to wear that if it hurts.”

  I shook my head. “It’s not that bad. Really. You just surprised me.”

  He let go, allowing me to buckle in. I noticed he didn’t strap himself in. I wondered if it was because he was so tall, it didn’t fit.

  “What I want to know is, how that guy got so close to you.” Victor’s baritone voice nearly rose an octave. “Wasn’t she with you, Silas?”

  “It’s not his fault,” I said. “He was taking care of the tray when Greg walked over.”

  “He had enough time to tell you his name and go with you down that hallway. What were you two doing in there?”

  I blushed, touching my lower lip with my finger trying to remember. “I... I was going for the restroom. I went looking for you all, but didn’t see you. I thought I’d slip into the bathroom where he couldn’t follow me.”

  “You’re probably lucky you didn’t make it,” Kota said. “If he was determined, he could have followed you in and if no one else was around...” He made a face and then he shook it off. “Next time just walk into the guy’s bathroom if we’re in there.”

  “No next time,” Victor said. “We’re not going to leave her by herself long enough to let ‘Gregs’ be a problem.”

  I wanted to cut in, but they sounded so angry with me. I wanted to bring my knees up and bury my head in them to hide the fact that I was blinking back tears. I forced myself to look out the window. The trees and buildings whizzed past and it was making me dizzy. There was no way I would let them see how upset I was. I was glad they were safe. I was unhappy that my first real adventure out turned into such a disaster.

  The car fell into silence as Victor pulled into traffic on the drive home. At some point, I dared to look at the others. Victor was still fuming but he seemed intent on staring straight ahead at the road. Kota appeared busy with his phone.

  Silas was glaring out the window. His jaw was set. His fist was clenched so tightly, he was crumpling the music book in the bag between us. I didn’t want him to ruin Victor’s music sheets. I reached over, placing a hand softly on his forearm.

  Silas blinked, turned his head slowly and gazed down at me. I brushed my fingers over his fist, taking a hold of the other side of the bag. When he realized what he was doing, he forced his fist open. I took it from him and in an effort to ease the tension, tried to smile.

  His eyes fell on my face. His lips parted until I could see his teeth and his cheeks flushed. He offered a return smile. It disappeared again. He turned back to the window.

  I managed to calm myself a little, but was still worried about what everyone was thinking. Ideas ran through my head. They were thinking how terrible it was to invite this girl along. They wondered about the best way to ditch me, possibly ignoring me the whole semester.

  I tried to quiet my thoughts but it was so upsetting to think I may have just lost the first friends I had ever come across. My parents wouldn’t have to learn about this day and I wouldn’t have to worry about telling them about anyone I’d met. No one would want to invite me over any more now. I wanted to say I was probably being paranoid this time, too. It wasn’t working. Who wanted to bring a girl around who would attract trouble and needed to be babysat? I should have been the one to know what to do against unwanted attention.

  While everyone was distracted, I smoothed out the slight crumple from Victor’s book. The bag opened a little and I took a peek at the title.

  Winter by Vivaldi.


  That night, I lay awake in my own bedroom on top of the covers on my bed, and staring at the ceiling light. I was probably burning out my eyes.

  The car ride home had been completely quiet. Silas barely looked at me as he left the car. Victor dropped me off at my house before going to Kota's. His car was still parked in Kota’s drive. I’d been at the window of my room a million times just to try to get a glimpse of them. There was a trail of ruffled mauve carpet between my window and my bed. I’d wondered if, at some point, I could take a walk outside, pass by Kota’s house, and see if they noticed, but it seemed like such a stupid move. Would I look pathetic and needy when they were trying to just quietly tell me to keep my distance? I’d cried a little when I got home. My eyes felt cold and I probably looked like a mess. I wouldn’t want them to see me like this.

  I turned onto my side. My bed was pressed up against the wall near the closet. There was a small bookshelf against another wall, only half filled with worn novels. A green trunk sat under the window. The only odd part about the room was that, against the wall near the window, there was a small half door that led to some attic space.

  The closet held only the small amount of clothes. My father usually bought clothes for us as my mother never went out. The selection that belonged to me was slight. I was smaller than my older sister, so we couldn’t swap clothes. Sometimes she
passed down a t-shirt or pair of jeans, but it was rare.

  There wasn’t a poster on the wall. No collection of photos. No decorations. The slightly faded pink flower wallpaper was a luxury compared to my last bedroom, which had stark white walls. I thought of Kota’s bedroom and how similarly we kept the large space in the middle. I wondered what he would think of my room, and then found the thought pointless. He could never come to my bedroom, and as it was now, I wasn’t sure if he would want to.

  Before yesterday, my room felt like the only safe spot. If I stayed inside it, my mother couldn’t complain and punish me. Now that I’d had a taste of freedom, of meeting people that were so nice to me, it felt more like a prison than ever. Despite the fight with Greg, thoughts ran through my head of the guys and how they made me feel. It was amazing. I wanted more.

  The phone rang downstairs. I turned the music up a little on the stereo box at the foot of my bed.

  “Sang!” My mother called out from downstairs. “Phone!”

  My eyes shot open. A phone call. Me?

  I dashed down the stairs, and thundered through the hallway into the kitchen. My mother stood barefoot on the tile, wearing a dingy mauve robe, her two-tone blond hair pulled back in a sloppy ponytail behind her head. She was shorter than I was, but broader shouldered and slouching. Her glassy blue eyes blazed at me. She started to hold the cordless phone to me but just before I touched it, she pulled it back, reconsidering her position.

  “Who’s calling you?” she asked me. Her voice was scratchy and sharp.

  I shrugged. I really had no idea. “Might be from the school?”

  She thought about it and slowly relinquished the cordless phone to me.

  I nervously took the receiver. Please just go back to your bedroom, I thought. Her eyes shot lightning in my direction. I knew what was coming.

  “Hello?” I said into the phone.

  “It’s Silas.”

  My heart fluttered so hard in my chest it was difficult to keep my feet on the ground. I tried to look unimpressed. My mother was still staring at me. “Hi,” I said.

  “I just wanted to make sure you got home safe.”

  The silence stretched between us. My head was rattling with what I could say to him that wouldn’t set my mother off in a barrage of questions. “How did you know my number?”

  “Kota had it.”

  Wouldn’t Kota have told him I was okay? It made me wonder if there was another reason why he called and he’d made up an excuse. “Oh.” I wanted to ask further but I didn’t know how to phrase the question. How did Kota manage to get the number when I didn’t even know it yet? My mother crossed her arms in front of her. Her scowl made creases at the corner of her mouth and around her eyes. Oh please, I thought, not while I’m on the phone. I don’t want Silas to hear.

  “He said I should wait to call. He said you were probably freaked out still from this afternoon and that we needed to give you a break.”

  Kota had told them to avoid me! “I... I’m fine.”

  “Who is it?” my mom said in a loud tone.

  “It’s the school,” I said, loud enough for Silas to hear. My mom looked at me as if she didn’t believe me, but stalked off back to her bedroom, or at least in that direction.

  “Not safe to talk?” he asked.

  “Uh huh,” I said, again trying to sound bored and unimpressed, in case my mother was still listening, hoping Silas would understand.

  “I won’t be around tomorrow,” he said. “I’ve got practice.”

  “That’s okay.” Was he thinking I would assume he would be around? Or would he have come over if he didn’t have practice? His true meaning whirled around in my head. What was practice? I wanted to run to my room with the phone and shut everyone out, but doing it would look so suspicious.

  “I’ll talk to you later?” he asked.

  There was a distinctive click and then the sound of breathing. My mother had picked up another phone and was listening in.

  “Yeah,” I said.

  “‘Bye,” Silas said and hung up.

  I held my breath, waiting and listening to the breathing on the line.

  “Hello?” my mother’s voice sounded like an echo in my ear because I could hear her from her bedroom as well as in the phone. “Who’s on the line?”

  I cringed and pulled it away from my face. I heard the line click again and then I switched off the phone.

  “Sang! Come here!”

  I shuddered where I stood, gently placing the receiver onto the cradle. I steeled myself, readying my lies.

  Keeping friends was harder than I’d thought.

  “Sang,” my mother spat as she leaned on the edge of her bed. The mattress sagged under her weight. When I was around nine, my mother went to the hospital with a sinus infection, stayed for a month, came back with a bottle of morphine and has kept to her bed ever since. My parents never told us what was wrong with her, but I overheard whispers in their late evening discussions about her liver and pancreas. Sometimes at night she cried out in pain and my father took her to the hospital. She held her bottle of pills in her hands now, twisting her palm over the cap as if trying to remember when she took the last one.

  “Yes?” I said in a near whisper. I stepped barefoot onto the cream carpet of her bedroom, doing my best to look bewildered. If I could only make her believe me this time.

  “Who called you?”

  “The school,” I said. My eyes flitted to the light brown and ivy green wallpaper along the walls and the whirling wicker fan above her bed. Her eyes were too intense for me. “It was a reminder about registration.”

  Her thin lips pursed. She put her bottle of pills down and smoothed her chubby fingers over the covers of her quilt blanket. “It looked like you were trying to hide something.”

  I sighed. “I’m not used to getting phone calls.”

  “Why was it a man? Why did he only ask for you?” Her eyes narrowed at me, picking the holes at my story. “Why didn’t he also ask about your sister?”

  “I don’t know,” I said, my fingers fluttered to the base of my throat. “Maybe he’ll call back for her in a minute. Or maybe it’s because I’m younger...”

  She chuffed. “No. You’re lying. I don’t think the school has our phone number.” She stood up and then pointed a finger at me. “Who did you give this number to?”

  My eyes widened and I took a step back, accidentally bumping into the wall. “No one! I don’t even know our phone number.”

  “It sounds like a lie.” She crossed the room toward me. “Why are men calling to talk to you?”

  “I don’t know!” I cried out, turning my face away from hers, pressing myself back against the wall. Please, no. Not now.

  She grabbed my arm and started wrenching me until I was on my knees. I cried out in pain. “Who called you?” she asked through her teeth.

  “The... school,” I sobbed. What would she do to me? There was no way I was going to tell her about Silas. She could do what she wanted to me.

  Her nose flared and I felt the sweat from her palms as she pulled me up to my feet. I cried as she yanked me in to the kitchen. My heart was pounding and my body was shaking. Why wouldn’t she just believe me this once? Why couldn’t I call people like other girls?

  “Get on your knees,” she said.

  I closed my eyes, wrapping my arms around myself and sunk to the floor. It wasn’t uncommon for her to punish us by having us kneel on the floor for hours at a time. I thought this was one of those cases. If it had been, I would have been grateful.

  She started moving around me, pulling vinegar from the shelf and lemon juice from the fridge. I didn’t understand, but I kowtowed to her on the floor, crying. I whispered to the floor, pleading, under my breath, that she would stop and just send me to my room.

  She created a concoction of half vinegar and half lemon juice in a glass and then handed it to me. “Drink all of this. You are never, ever to let a boy call here.”

  My lips trembl
ed. “Please don’t make me,” I begged. Tears slid down my cheeks, dripping from my chin.

  My mother reached for my hair, yanking it back until my face was up.

  “Okay!” I screamed, “I’ll do...”

  The glass was pushed to my lips so hard I tasted blood at first as my lip split, and then all I could taste was the heat of the acid mix between lemon and vinegar. I forced myself to swallow, unable to catch a breath. If I didn’t drink, I would drown.

  The liquid slipped past my throat and I felt it burning. Out of instinct, my hands sought out her arms, trying to push her away. She held me in place until I drained the glass. When I was finished, and her hands released me, I collapsed to the ground in a heap. I choked, holding my palm to my mouth, gasping and sobbing so hard that I couldn’t catch my breath. My lungs ached as I was trying to breathe and my throat was on fire. Every breath was painful to my throat.

  She threw the glass into the sink and it shattered against the metal. “Next time a boy calls, it’ll be bleach. Get up and go to your room. I don’t want to hear from you.” She stalked back to her bedroom and I heard her shaking her medicine bottle and opening the container.

  I felt my stomach lurch. I pushed my palm to my mouth until I could run up stairs to the bathroom. I knelt at the toilet, my head buried in the bowl and I heaved.

  When I was done, I fell on my back against the carpet of the bathroom. My body trembled and I tried breathing through my nose and mouth at different lengths but it was useless. Every little bit of air passing my throat made the pain sharply return. I forced myself to stop sobbing so it wouldn’t hurt so badly. I got up, nearly crawling on my knees to the sink, dipping my head under the faucet for water, but the water’s coolness sent me to my knees again as it splashed against my throat.

  I sensed someone watching. Marie stood in the doorway. Through the tears in my eyes, I shuttered under my sister. Her brown hair hung long past her shoulders and her dark eyes looked curious and fearful.

  “What was it this time?” she asked. I knew what she wanted. She wanted to make sure she never did what I had done.

  I parted my lips, “Ah...” I coughed. “A boy...” I whispered. My eyes popped open. I tried again to talk. Nothing. I closed my eyes, and fresh, hot tears slid down my cheeks.

  My mother had made sure I couldn’t answer the phone.


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